03 December 2015

are we making plowshares yet?

The Advent seasons is an appropriate time to think about the great promises of healing and restoration that God intends for his creation. Great are the words of Isaiah:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Is 2:4)

There are many people who hold tightly to this promise because they have seen enough war and bloodshed. Our modern celebration of Advent is a reminder of the story of the Messiah coming into the world to bring hope, peace, joy and love. So, what sort of promise is this? Why has the world not been renewed according to the promise?

Perhaps we should have stopped to consider that there is a distinction between a world that has been made new and a world that is being made new. Past and present tense seem to matter on something like this. For us to say that Christ has come so the world has been renewed doesn't jibe with the world that sees school shootings, city bombings, racial riots, or religious terrorism. Not only is the Advent-Christmas season threatened with this morality, but the entire Christian message of a Creator God redeeming his world seems to be misplaced. But only if we think that Jesus has already renewed the world and that there is nothing left to the story.

And so we are often caught off guard when evil happens, and we sit in shock at how such things can still occur in our world. But, the truth of the matter is that our world really hasn't changed, even with the coming and conquering of the Messiah. Let me repeat that: our world really hasn't changed, even though we have a newfound hope in the work of Jesus the Messiah. There is nothing new under the sun, especially the broken morality that exists among cracked image-bearers.

What has changed is the new life that comes through the gospel – a breaking-in of God's kingdom to this present darkness, which has not yet surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah. So, those who are part of this new kingdom have been changed even while the world remains the same. Here we might have discussion about how much the believer is changed – whether pacifism is the logical conclusion to this commitment – but there is a necessity of participating in this kingdom while still living presently in a world that has not been changed. This, of course, has been true since the kingdom of God was first being described by Jesus himself, and all of church history can testify to the ongoing struggle.

We all know that we live in a broken world, which is why we continue to lock doors, avoid dark alleys, and keep children away from offenders. This world is a dark place, and it will continue to grow in its darkness until the final consummation of the kingdom that has announced its presence through the gospel of Christ. So, why do we continue to struggle with the reality of evil when it acts out its rage in our culture? Further, why do we join in the chorus of voices that search for answers in places where we know they won't be found?

The promise of Isaiah (and Micah 4:3) is that God will one day bring his world to redemption in such a way that the weapons of war will no longer be needed, and that they may be refashioned into the tools of a humanity tending to the earth, as in Creation's first days. It is Joel 3:10 that reverses this course, where God tells his people to beat their farming equipment into the weapons of war. Simply understood, this world has not yet fully embraced the restoration of its Creator – it still fights against him. If humanity can be redeemed then we can live in peace; where humanity is not redeemed, there is evil and war. It is a matter of the heart.

Our culture jumps on the bandwagon to think that this is a gun problem, so we have to endure all of the debates about gun control ad nauseum. The mainstream discussions about gun control are so out-of-touch that they quickly become ridiculous and inconsistent, and I am not going to rehash them here (the issue has been covered well-enough elsewhere). Let me simply say this: it is not a gun issue, it is not a bomb issue, it is not a knife issue, it is not a government issue.

Our world has a moral problem that originates from human brokenness from its Creator.

I will not entertain any other discussions about policy until this reality has been thoroughly recognized as part of our discussion. The world playfully asks, Where is God? when these tragedies happen – mocking faithfulness on the front end while dismissing God as ridiculous on the other end. But these are not serious inquiries. What is troubling is when believers also get caught up in this confusion, also asking where is God? But the violence of the world does not negate the presence or activity of God. Our unwillingness to work for the transformation of heart and mind is what keeps the presence of God working in our world.

Christ has come, Christ will come again. We presently live on that comma, between promise and fulfillment, hope and certainty. We can regulate everything that we want, but all we will accomplish is the decrease of freedom, not the increase of morality. Advent ought to remind us of this as well, for even Matthew was quick to point out that Christ's coming – this good news – was met with the slaughter of innocent children, an echo of Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted even in our world today, even as the light pierces into the darkness.

Let our words be few with the humbling weight of the truth of the gospel.

23 November 2015

I wish you would leave your doors unlocked tonight

I wish you would leave your doors unlocked tonight. It is my hope that you would stop thinking ill about your neighbors who have never once broken into your home and did any damage. I want you to stop thinking maliciously about those who live in your vicinity, thinking that they are evil people when in fact they are just trying to do the best for their own families. I wish you would demonstrate love through your unlocked doors, and use this symbolic act as a means of opening your hearts to your neighbor.

And if you choose not to leave your house unlocked, may I question your commitment to Christ?

Those of you that know me well will clearly hear my tone in this, and probably can anticipate the point that I am making. Of course, I speak about the Syrian refuge situation that has happened in the last few weeks. Actually, to be more specific, I wish to speak about the discussion surrounding that issue, for I believe there is a much deeper problem.

Over the past few weeks I, along with every other American who is not in a coma, have been inundated with the political situation of Syrian refugees. We didn't ask to be bombarded by this topic, but that is part and parcel of our culture, especially if we are going to be plugged into any sort of news outlet. It is unfortunate and unnerving that such 'reporting' has been riddled with inaccuracies, skewing the reaction of various groups one way or another. There is very little rational thought going on, which is why it has seemingly taken over Facebook and Twitter – bastions of unreflective thought and win-the-moment catchphrase memes.

The shocking moment, for me, was when those who want to see a political solution of accepting everyone who claims to be a Syrian refuge without question began to connect this to matters of commitment to Christ. Yes, I started to see articles and posts online that unabashedly asserted: If you don't accept refugees then you can't claim to follow Christ, and the like. Seriously?!?! So it appears that certain wings of the church have surrendered their unity of the Holy Spirit to political ideology. This is using an overly-generalized approach to what is, in reality, a complex geo-political situation is now the basis for judging the commitment of another believer, and this is disturbingly wrong.

While I appreciate the desire to love the least of these in the name of Jesus, should we be so quick to condemn the faith of our brothers and sisters, especially in such a public way? Firstly, wide-sweeping public condemnations like this do not reflect well on the unity of the church, and that is fairly obvious as witness to the world. But, secondly, wide-sweeping public condemnations like this do not take into account the perspective of your brothers and sisters in the faith, especially those with whom you have never dialogue about this issue. Is it Christ-like to criticize the church community for the sake of reaching out to the unchurched? Is that what Jesus meant by the world knowing that we are his followers by our love for one another?

What is more, the culture in which we live makes me stop and take pause for writing a post that criticizes an opinion that is popular in the mainstream, which means that many will simply ignore these words and, again, place political ideology above the unity of the gospel. We have come once again to a sad moment in the history of the church. Our is not the first generation to arrive at this point, and we will watch the gospel's increasing ineffectiveness so long as we surrender its power to the socio-political positions of our day. Somewhere along the way we took the freedoms of speech and religion as a means to become shrill and shallow in our public faith, rather than use them for their intention of cultivating a lifestyle worthy of the gospel.

When the church behaves this way, we surrender the battle.

So, why aren't you leaving your doors unlocked tonight? I know some of you live in less-than-desirable neighborhoods, but many of us are in relatively crime-free zones. In fact, in all my life I have been blessed with never having a home invasion – not even an attempted one – just like many of you. What is more, I pray each night that God would watch over our home and keep us safe from all harm. And then, on my way to bed I make my last round of checking locks and doors, and then pull up the covers on three little children who are well on their way to a good night's rest.

I lock the doors because, even though I believe in the power of prayer and trust in God's protection, I live in a real world with real dangers and threats to my family. They have never once tried to enter my home, but I know that they are there and that such a possibility exists in my world. I do not think ill toward my neighbor, and I am not in fear in my community. But there are realities in my world that remind me to be diligent in watching over my family – the same as every family in the history of the world. And I would never think someone was being un-Christian for locking their doors even more tightly than mine – for that home exists in the real world, one that might even be more real than mine.

Let me simply say that there are good reasons for being thoughtful and cautious when dealing with a large group of people – too many for our bureaucracy to handle at one time – who come from a region of the world that constantly threatens, both verbally and in terrorist action, the very way of life that characterizes my family and faith. This does not mean that I hate these people or that I have no concern for their well-being – that is another false accusation that is both mean-spirited and shallow. In reality, my concern is not simply for these refugees, but also for the thousands of Christians who are being beaten, persecuted, crucified and worse while our mainstream media and government choose to look the other way. I guess they don't have as good of a PR department, even among Christians who are too busy condemning other Christians for ignoring the plight of the refugee.

So, there you have it. My one-paragraph response to the Syrian refugee situation, and I didn't even commit to one particular plan-of-action or ideological approach. I didn't want to leave you without closing the loop on that one. But I doubt if there is anything there that should call my faith into question, even though a thousand Facebook memes speak in protest. I guess I will just have to learn to accept that the world of Twitter will not embrace my faith as it stands. (......aaaand done.)

As I stated above, my primary concern is that we can speak the truth in love, just as scripture has instructed us to do. We might wonder if what our brothers and sisters are saying is indeed truth, but that should never override the fact that we can speak in love.

23 October 2015

the pastor as public theologian

Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. The Pastor as Public Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

One of the challenges facing modern American evangelicalism is finding the right relationship between theological thought and ecclesial practice, what has been referred to as the balance between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. It has become commonplace for congregations to look at the academy with suspicion, while many in modern scholarship regard the local church as a place where thinking about faith is no longer welcome. As a result, pastors can often feel as though they are caught in the middle – wanting to be serious about the study of scripture, but often afraid to present too great of a challenge to the average churchgoer. What is needed is a way forward, placing the work of theology within the context of the church, and putting the pastor at the center of such work.

To this end, Vanhoozer and Strachan assert, “Theological minds belong in ecclesial bodies” (xi), and provide a thoughtful book aimed at restoring the vocation of pastor as a theological undertaking to three publics: the academy, the church, and the broader society (4). This is a book that is intended to invoke change, and one which pastors, churches, and those who work in the academy ought to hear. The text is structured around four main chapters (two by Strachan, two by Vanhoozer, who also writes the Introduction and Conclusion), with two or three “Pastoral Perspectives” following each chapter. These perspectives come from various local church pastors who offer a brief response, and often illustration, of how these principles are being lived out.

The heart of the problem, suggests Vanhoozer, is that the vocation of pastor as public theologian has become a lost vision. While much of biblical and theological scholarship has become more technical and increasingly detached from daily congregational life, the common understanding of pastor has become quite varied and confused (6–9). The heart of this book is to restore the pastor as a public theologian – one who is “the organic intellectual of the body of Christ, a person with evangelical intelligence who is ‘wise unto salvation’” (23).

Chapter One (Strachan) provides a biblical survey of pastoral work, beginning with the embodied theological voices of the priest, the prophet, and the king (40–48). These figures stood at the center of the divine-human relationship, each bringing the faith of Israel into daily life. One of the marks of these offices was that each worked from within the context of the community, without “the luxury of cognitive dissonance” (46). From this the author compares the work of the New Testament pastor to these three offices, as being set-apart, and ministering wisdom and truth (53–58). The foundation of this is finding the nature of pastoral work as, “helping the word of God to dwell richly in the people of God (and vice versa)” (58).

Chapter Two (Strachan) then surveys the role of pastor in a brief history of the church. The author seeks to provide encouragement to the modern pastor who often faces major pressure “to be relentless inventors and creative visionaries” (70). Thus, this survey dwells on the best theological voices of the church coming from the pastorate. The early church understood the pastorate as an “office” to which on entered, more than a particular task or trade (75). By and large, this perspective remains constant in each era of the church, though with various developments to the specific understanding of the pastorate. One of the defining characteristics of the pastorate is that it has consistently been viewed as a call to engage theology in the life of the local church (82). What happened to the pastorate in American Christianity is linked to a radical shift somewhere in the twentieth century, as being theologically sound in the pulpit gave way to the art of dynamic public communication (88f.). Along with this, theology became a specialist’s discipline rather than the work of the local pastor (89). The author believes that there is a modern movement to recover the pastor-theologian, and is hopeful that this book will help foster such change.

In the third chapter (Vanhoozer) the process of rebuilding the role of pastor-theologian is given discussion. The purpose of the pastor-theologian is given the short answer, “for cultivating life and for coping with death” (104). In more detail, the work of the pastor-theologian is to “embody the evangelical mood” by bringing the reality of the resurrection into the fallen world in which pastoring occurs (107). Vanhoozer thus suggests that the pastor-theologian is a “minister of reality” – bringing to life what God has done in Christ, the pastor-theologian introduces this reality into every aspect of life to men and women in the local context (109). Thus, the pastor-theologian is “to indicate what is in Christ” in the lives of the community of faith (110, emphasis original). This work is realized in introducing this new reality into the lives of the faith community, and also in the teaching of the Word, and in working to create an atmosphere within the local faith community which embodies the new life that has come in Christ. In the end, Vanhoozer contends that the role of the pastor-theologian is “confessing, comprehending, celebrating, communicating, commending, and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ” (125).

At the end of Chapter Three there is a specific challenge given to the work of the seminary. Certainly, with the many questions and challenges that exist within the relationship between the academy and the local church, the task of the seminary has become increasingly difficult. Often, the seminary experience places great pressure on the student, who is often found caught in between these two worlds. Vanhoozers comments on this are also encouraging and good, summarized: “The point of seminary curricular integration should therefore be pastoral wisdom, which demands literacy, competency, and excellence alike (128).

Chapter Four (Vanhoozer) is the longest of the book, and focuses on the many practices that are taken up by the pastor-theologian in the daily course of work. He refers to them as “Artisans in the House of God,” for they will bring these theological practices into the local church as various ways of “communicating what is in Christ” (141, emphasis original). The pastor-theologian takes on this role in various ways, and here the author gives five broad areas that encompass the ministry work within the local congregation. The pastor-theologian is called to as 1) Disciple-Maker, 2) Evangelist, 3) Catechist, 4) Liturgist, and 5) Apologist. Within these broad areas is found the specific work of making the faith alive in the community, bringing theological truth into ecclesial life. Vanhoozer is correct in reminding us, “There is no single formula or shortcut for making disciples, though there is a template: Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd” (144).

The work of making disciples is indeed a long process, and the modern evangelical culture seldom celebrates the qualities that make for strong discipleship. What is more, much of what is given to those who are working as pastors do not reflect the qualities that help foster an atmosphere of discipleship. Hence, this chapter is good in that it provides the would-be pastor-theologian with a reflection on the various areas of ministry that this office holds. Though it is not possible to review all of them here, it is good that the author allows us to consider the work of counsel and visitation, along with teaching and praying, and living a life that demonstrates the gospel as vital pieces of being a pastor-theologian. He also here emphasizes the sermon, an area that is often challenged on its effectiveness, as part of the high calling – demanding both courage and faith (156). What is central to these aspects of pastoral work is the edification of the body, a work that is accomplished by God through the office of the pastor theologian (168f.). The work of the pastor-theologian is public, and it finds its rightful place in the shared community of faith.

The Conclusion (Vanhoozer) is a summary message of the book, presented in fifty-five theses on the pastor as a public theologian. These are good statements, but their content will find more impact for the reader when read in the fuller discussion of the book’s chapters. This is a well-written and thoughtful study that both challenges and encourages pastors and local congregations to embrace the idea of a pastor as public-theologian for the good of the church, the body of Christ Jesus. It is my hope that this movement to strengthening the core leadership of the local church may allow God to move his kingdom in new and powerful ways, on a firm foundation that is focused on him.

02 October 2015

hate and american christianity

Every now and then you end up saying something which you feel deeply compelled to share, only to find that there are many who will disagree with you – either silently or loudly. This is one of those times, and there will be no shortage of people who will want to tell me that I shouldn't share my thoughts on this. Such is the life of a preacher, especially when you stand in the midst of a hostile culture (sometimes even within the walls of the church).

This most recent shooting has grabbed our national attention. Most of these shootings do, even though our national conscience has no problem sleeping at night with much more horrific violence happening across our country every day. (To say this, of course, I can not limit myself to gun violence because it is not the majority violence according to the actual crime statistics, not the barrage of wanna-be-stats regurgitated by certain media outlets.) What perpetuates this imbalance of outrage and response to social violence is when our national leaders make these moments into opportunities to further their own agenda, even before we have time to hurt and heal. But, then again, we can only act this way around the "big events" rather than the disease of hate that is filling our streets this very hour.

Within moments of this news breaking the president said openly that he wants to "politicize" these tragedies. Since this is what has been happening for some time, at least he has been able to state his intentions openly. But if you wish to drag this into the national political discussion, then you ought to be prepared to do so fully. This means that we must talk about the raging violence that happens every day and night in our nation. And, especially for a man who feels that our country should submit to the world order, let us also think about the violence of hate that is happening around the world.

And this brings me to the point I wish to make quite loudly . . .

We have a problem with hate running rampant in the streets, without the challenging presence of love to stop it.

Our nation simply can not rely on our national government to make any progress on this matter, for every branch (and both parties) have shown a willingness to act on their own behalf, and not on the good of our Republic. And we can not rely on the media to help the national conversation, for these organizations have proven themselves to be more in search of high ratings and one-upmanship to be more shocking that what you will find elsewhere – when they are not simply producing out of the back pocket of the rich, powerful and political.

I find damning evidence in the fact that the loud voices are calling Christians out as hate-filled bigots, when the truth is precisely the opposite. It appears to be Open Season on Christians in our culture, for nothing will be said about the victims of Umpqua being targeted for their Christian faith, or that Charleston was a church (more than it was historic and black). Further, we are given very little information about the atrocities that are being committed by ISIS, targeting Christians, using brutal and inhuman methods of wiping out a people for their belief. But, if a single believer claims that moral conscience will not allow her to validate another person's lifestyle choices ... If a pizza company expresses their concerns about morality ... Well, then, damn these Christian haters to their own fiery hell!

Some will immediately claim that violence has been done by people who are Christians. In other words, my point must be softened by some asterisk that proves that every group has their issues. But, I'm not making an exclusive claim here, so I do not feel compelled to concede a point in order to make someone feel less of the challenge that the Christian faith is under fire in our culture (and in the world). If you are angry at this perspective, then read something else. (Or, choose to reply to me with angry words that will undoubtedly "prove" your point that I am hateful and you are not.)

Since there is no national leadership that can be deemed trustworthy or responsible on this issue, we need to stop thinking that our leaders in Washington will have the right answers. I am tired of people in the church trying to debate the Second Amendment issue, when there is so much hate and violence that we are ignoring in our own neighborhoods. I do not wish to say that mass violence is unimportant, but only that it gets more attention because there are those who will turn these situations in to opportunities to serve themselves. And this is not the church. We are called to serve others, and to bring love into the world through the transformational power of the gospel.

If our culture has turned against the presence of the church – and it has – then we must not abandon our call to share the love of Christ, but be mindful about how we will do so. As of now, we still have a voice in this nation, which allows me to say these words so publicly. But this will not last if our present course is not diverted. You may think of me as an extremist on this position, in which case I will hope you are right. But while I am hoping for you to be right, perhaps you should be preparing in case I am right. For as long as their has been a Christian message, the world have responded violently to it. We have often assumed our national borders have been protecting us from this harsh reality, even when we should have been trusting in God for our security. Now that we see an increase in what is being done to people of faith – in everything from calculated legislation to senseless murder – we must respond ... with love.

This post isn't about guns and politics. Not really. It is about love being stronger than hate, and it includes yet another call for the church to wake up and be the church – to bring the power of the gospel into a world that has grown so dark. For we can still move, even these mountains.

21 September 2015

hearing Qohelet

It starts with a man who is clearly frustrated. He is disillusioned and nearing the end of his rope. He has grown tired of the daily routines. He is over it – done. He would like to find comfort in some sort of deeper meaning to life, but he has come to think that perhaps there isn't one.

This man has given consideration to all that has been commended to him, and he finds it lacking. What others think of as superlative, he finds hallow and empty. He had once believed in the brighter and better world of tomorrow, but seems trapped in an endless cycle of promises unkept. New leaders and new technology and new directions did not produce their promised peace and prosperity, so he is disenchanted with the guarantees.

He held a rather unique vantage point on the world, sitting in the royal court and speaking regularly with the wisest king of all. Even from that place his search for insight comes up empty, which only drives his consideration of the whole of life that much harder. Among the council of the wise he was known for assembling together those who would listen and ponder. There he would offer his thoughts and vented his frustrations, searching and having great difficulty in finding.

And so it should come as no surprise to us that his collected thoughts begins with a rather harsh (and perhaps disparaging) statement: "Everything is meaningless!" This idea alone has pushed the limits of language, as this Teacher regards it all as worthless ... rubbish ... enigma ... emptiness. We do not have to be perfect in our translation to hear his breaking point being reached. His world has fallen into a comatose state, even though there was plenty of noise being made.

Elsa Tamez says of this Teacher that his future has become bleak; the horizons have closed*.

The Teacher is not afraid to push back against life, and sometimes his readers are taken back by what they see. He declares that everything is meaningless, but he continues to struggle with the meaninglessness of it all. And that is why we ought to hear him again. He doesn't abandon wisdom's quest, and he doesn't give up on life. But everything "under the sun" needs to be called to account, for that is the only way we can make it through the mess.

The big issue the Teacher has with the world is that it has become twisted. Oppression, wickedness, and injustice have taken over his world. Even in his unique perspective over the nation, he can not see that things are getting better. Yes, the horizons have closed because it all has become darker and increasingly corrupt. It is the twisted morality that allows evil to go on unanswered – passed over by the powers put in place to watch over the people.

The Teacher wants more than what he is getting out of this life. Casual readers of Ecclesiastes will think of him as nothing more than a dour pessimist sharing his rants about the world. But this reading can not account for about half of the message. The Teacher believes that God is in control of this world, and that He has created a life that is to be enjoyed to the fullest. But the Teacher remains unsatisfied with that which so often gets passed off as delight. In short, he refuses to accept cheap joy** in this life – desiring much more than worldly pleasure. His utopia is the kingdom which God alone can establish on this earth, where peace and justice and righteousness are established.

In a culture where morality is twisted to the point of the willing dismemberment of unborn children for financial gain can be too-easily dismissed by many consciences, and where the weak and elderly are increasingly ignored for their so-called burden to society, there is no genuine opportunity for genuine joy in this life. The reason, says the Teacher, is that we have become desensitized to life itself, and therefore are unable to go any further than the cheap thrills of momentary and self-centered pleasures.

In such a world, how can eternal life ever be opened to us?

The Teacher, who is deeply dissatisfied with this life, desires much more. He looks for an eternal life, which must originate beyond this present world. He will remind us that God is God and humans are human. As such, we are unable to save ourselves from the peril of lifelessness. The answer must come from outside of the system – outside of our humanity. The Teacher will not witness this in his own lifetime, as the true life from heaven invades the brokenness of earth. Without this assured hope, all is truly meaningless.

*Elsa Tamez, When the Horizons Close (Wipf & Stock, 2006)
**Craig Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker, 2014)