24 August 2016

peace and war

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Matthew 5:9

Jesus once spoke a blessing upon those who would work to bring about peace in this world. This was no starry-eyed platitude, expressing the niceties of a beauty pageant or second-rate political campaign. It was rather a declaration set within the context of God's kingdom making its way into our present experience. The notion of peace was central to the Jewish concept(s) of the messianic kingdom that was to be established on the earth (Isaiah 9:5–6; Zechariah 9:9–10). And so, Jesus is commending those whose lives will demonstrate the reality of God's rule by working to bring about peace.

We should remember that Jesus also commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt. 5:5), and so would envision the peace of God's reign to come in the context of justice in our world. So, again, this peace cannot be taken on the level of throwing pennies in a wishing-well, but rather the demonstrable outworking of the ethics of God's kingdom in a way that establishes peace and righteousness as a reality for the poor and oppressed among us.

It is interesting that Jesus would give to his followers the task of establishing a righteous peace in the world, for he lived in a world that was saturated with systems and images of worldwide peace. The empire that ruled the day would idealize a Pax Romana (Roman peace), an achievement that was believed to validate the Roman's right to rule, so given by the gods who had blessed their expansion and influence. In many ways Pax Romana was indeed a great accomplishment, especially in a world that had never been without constant tribal wars and conflict among regional leaders. And to bring about such peace not only gave demonstration to the superiority of Roman culture, it also demonstrated the legitimacy of Roman power.

The Romans believed that peace was established when their empire was able to conquer a region and put down any rebellion that opposed their rule. Perhaps this was the first example of the peace-through-strength model of governance (though that phrase has taken some variation throughout history). The idea of Pax Romana was not pursued as some utopian desire for worldwide friendship, but rather for the unashamed benefit of Rome itself, especially those in positions of power and leadership within the empire.

When Jesus calls his disciples to be peacemakers, he is making a summons to do so in contrast with the powers that be in the world – those who would so narrowly-define peace as 'we win, you lose' and use their might to get their own way. And Jesus does not teach us this in the context of running empires or influencing the masses. Instead, his words are spoken to the few that will follow the demands of discipleship and will work in their interpersonal relationships to transform individuals with the presence of his kingdom of righteous peace. He knows that this will not bring an immediate change to the culture – empires are not toppled overnight – but he also knows that politically-enacted change will not endure.

In the current political climate of American evangelicalism, the notion of being a peacemaker has taken a back seat to a gospel driven by influence and cultural significance. We have been convinced that we are in the throws of a crisis, and that the only way forward is to get as much control as we can as quickly as possible. Obtaining this sort of power is how we can save ourselves, keep the world from disaster, and establish our peace.

When we examine the current state of our presidential political campaign, there are many within the church who are choosing to find the one person who will secure this sort of strength within our government to establish the nation we think is best for ourselves. Never mind the moral failures, disregard the dishonesty, and look past the plans that isolate us from one another, our behavior appears to say that there are more pressing matters today than whether or not we will live for the gospel. Perhaps once we have secured our own liberty and peace, then we can consider Jesus' teachings of love for one another. It is much easier to join movements that fight for power and control of a nation than to be a people who carry the transformative change of the gospel to individuals who are hurting, poor and oppressed.

It seems that everyone wants to speak about where we go from here, and how we are going to make this work (or which of these is the lesser-of-two-evils). But nobody is interested in examining how we arrived at this point in the first place – our willing dismissal of the gospel is not a recent development, but rather a pattern of disregard that has been building to this moment of national moral crisis. This is why a church can be looking for conquering leaders and militant solutions, despite the fact that our Lord told us to speak and act in a radically different way.

The church needs to lay down the world's weapons of war, and become people who work for God's rule to take its place, one life at a time. Peace and life are found in this kingdom, not in the poor copies we have tried to make for ourselves. The Romans did not have a monopoly on running empires of military might, and we still must make the choice of which kingdom we will choose to be a part of, even if we self-identify as Christians. Our nation will not return from this brink until the people of God can return to the message of the gospel.

17 August 2016

the Lion has roared

The Lion has roared —
who will not fear?
Amos 3:8

It has become a foil in the game of modern politics to suddenly ask a self-proclaimed Christian candidate about their 'favorite' verse of scripture. These answers are then replayed, combed over, and analyzed to find every pause or discrepancy imaginable. Incredibly, this approach works a good percentage of the time, even though everyone in the room knew that such a question was coming. And, after all, how hard is it to keep something like John 3:16 at the ready — actually, probably something slightly more nuanced to demonstrate intimacy with the text, but basic enough to have wide-appeal and to not become confused over the actual ignorance of the text. Nevertheless, this practice goes on, mostly because Americans have allowed the Christian faith to become a rather benign political tool, aimed more at scoring points at the ballot box than transforming lives for the kingdom of God.

In my lifetime alone there has been such a ridiculous handling of religious beliefs in the realm of politics: some candidates run as committed believers and are ridiculed for wanting to govern out of their core convictions; other candidates score points for going to church but never appearing strange-enough as to pray or believe scripture. In some cases, we want to expose the oddities of those who stand in nuanced religious tradition; for others, it is all about hiding the radicalism of their beliefs. There is no pattern here that does not reek of double-standards. And it continues forward because there is a public that still falls for it – every time.

By allowing faith to become a weapon of political warfare the American church has diminished the effectiveness of the gospel. When we draped the flag over the Bible we obscured its message; we have allowed our culture to become darkened by covering up the message of light.

And we are still playing games with scripture and belief. The same foils are being played out in an effort to determine who is can win "Most Christian Candidate" in this race. Those who work so hard to defend whether or not their chosen runner is able to speak intelligently about scripture do so while ignoring behavioral-patterns that are so wrong, Christian belief isn't even necessary to identify such as evil. (Now, based upon that description, you cannot presently tell if I am speaking of him or her. And that should speak volumes on its own!)

So, with all of this in the air I notice that political candidates don't take the opportunity to share their scriptural beliefs from certain areas of the Bible. The prophetic literature from Israel, for example, is widely ignored by those seeking office. This is somewhat calculated, no doubt (as is the whole campaign), for there would be questions about whether this person actually accepts prophetic speech as possible. And then there is the language of morality that pervades the message, though I am not entirely certain why it is easier to dismiss Jesus' teachings than the prophets, though it happens. But perhaps the biggest reason is that the prophetic literature is straightforward in reminding all the nations of the world who the real Sovereign is. And I think that most of those seeking political power in our nation today simply do not want to hear that.

But again, it is the people who enable such behavior in a culture such as ours. And we continue to play games with our faith, so long as it requires little cost or commitment from us. We want to do whatever we want to do, and find the quickest and easiest path to our own comfortable lifestyles. So, we choose the candidate that is best at destroying the opposition, believe that they are a Christian because they say so (that other candidate says so, but is lying!), and wait for the blessings of government to fall upon us. Repeat this every two–four years.

It is not working.

Our ongoing dismissal of God's Word, even among most American evangelical churches, has brought our culture to the brink of ruin. There are many who will agree that there are widespread problems that we face as a nation, though the majority of these will still look to the corrupt powers of today to find the solution to those corrupt powers. Until we look to the Creator of heaven and earth we will not find the peace and salvation and life that we need. But this must be a commitment with the whole of our lives – walking away from the powers of this world and embrace the power of God's love.

The prophet Amos is a confrontation brought about by Almighty God, for his people had abandoned his ways and had decided that they knew what was best for themselves. However, what they saw as being good God sees as being evil, and he was on the move. Amos 3:4 asks, "Does a lion roar in the thicket when it has no prey? Does it growl in its den when it has caught nothing?" The answer to this comes in 3:8: The lion has roared — who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken — who can but prophesy?

In the same way I believe that Almighty God looks down upon our feeble attempts to govern ourselves, and our despicable behavior that turns his eternal Word into an impotent political instrument. And I believe he is done with the game. What we are witnessing in our culture — a society that is quickly losing its ability to tell its right hand from its left — is the coming to fruition of our choices to walk without God. The houses and the high places, the luxury and the liturgy, is all crashing down because we lost sight of him who stands at the center of it all (Amos 3:14–15).

It wasn't about whether the people of God could create impressive worship and sacrifice, just like it isn't about how good we can make ourselves appear to be devoted disciples. It is all about the work we carry out as we demonstrate our commitment. Unfortunately, the church will continue to be overtaken by these games, so long as we focus on winning the political battles (by any means necessary, no doubt) over the message of the gospel. God's word through Amos demonstrates that what he deems as good for his people "is of little significance within the national set of values (3:10)" (Carroll R., 190). The same remains true for us.

So, if the Lion has roared, will we be terrified?

Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:23–24

09 August 2016


A few years ago I sat listening to Charles Colson as he spoke about the challenge of Christian living in our world. The most memorable moment in the talk was when he spoke about the fall of the Berlin Wall: "In the summer of 1989 nobody expected that the Berlin Wall would be coming down, and by November it was being dismantled."

His main point in saying this was to encourage the faithful work of the church in the world, even when it appears that such work is not making a difference.

This is quite an important lesson for American evangelicals, who often become desperate for certain victory that they are willing to do all sorts of things in order to win the short battle. This behavior arises out of the frustration of making no apparent headway into the cultural wars that confront the church. When we feel as though our efforts to live our faith are not changing the world, so often we decide to change our course of action and consider alternative means. This ought to raise the question: To whom is the church listening?

If we come to think that our faithfulness to the gospel is in vain, then we are being influenced by voices that do not align with God's Word. Within scripture the single evaluation of the church's effectiveness is faithfulness to Christ Jesus. It is when the church begins to listen to the world that we forget to focus on what really matters. It is no secret that the vast majority of media is engaged in a full-on assault on traditional Christian values. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, many in the church still give credence to the reports of the church's diminishing that are published by this overly-biased media.

But even if we were to take a look at the many negative trends in our modern culture, regardless of the media's biases, it is clear that the church's voice in our nation suffers a lack of influence. There are so many struggles within our culture that it can be discouraging to think about all that must be confronted. And, once again, this is when believers can be most susceptible to winning the world by speaking and acting as a moralized version of the world's ideals. We must resist this desire and remember that our calling is to be faithful to the gospel in all things, regardless of whether we win or lose in the public square.

At any given point leading up to November 1989 the leadership of our nation, who were strongly opposed to the Soviet regime and the Berlin Wall, could have used military might to break down the wall by force. However, this would have caused much more damage and destruction, and such conflict never broke out. Instead, the pinging of the rock-hammer against that wall continued until it cracked and crumbled.

The work of the church so often feels as though trying to break through a seemingly indestructible wall with nothing more than a rock-hammer – too small of an impact to make the difference. And yet, we do not know what lies just beyond the horizon of our present gaze — that which God is going to accomplish in his time, by his power, through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus at work among his people. And this understanding, seen throughout the course of history, ought to quiet the worldly desires among the believers that we might place our confidence in Almighty God alone.

If we are focused on our faithfulness to the gospel, then we will not be overcome by the victories and defeats that we will experience in our work. For God will give us enough for today, whether that be in the provision of daily bread or in the coming of his kingdom to the earth.

When Moses stood before the people of Israel, who were preparing to enter into the promised land, he encouraged them to be faithful to the covenant, and promised them the presence of God that would go before them: Do not be terrified by them, for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God. The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. But the LORD your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed (Deuteronomy 7:21–23).

God's kingdom will be established in his time, not according to our political schedules. The work of the kingdom does not operate on four-year cycles, nor does the gospel's effectiveness depend upon legislative action, executive order, or judicial decree. And it is beyond time that the American evangelical movement be reminded of this, lest we surrender the demands of discipleship to the temporary fame and power of immoral men and women who seek to take advantage of the church's frustration and impatience. Whether or not the church wins politically is no longer relevant when we have lost the heart of the gospel in seeking such victory.

And we too will not win this nation in one sweeping movement, but little by little — through the work of transformed lives, in which a more lasting and significant change will occur. This is known as making disciples, which can have a powerful effect when taken seriously. (In the last twenty years the abortion rate has consistently fallen, not because of judicial reform, but through the efforts to strengthen the message of life in our country, though much work still lies before us.) The work of the Holy Spirit does not need government intervention to enact change, but it does call for the faithful partnership of the church to reach into the world.

Rather than giving in to the fastest paths to power — those things that are touted by our culture as significant, but which scripture so often holds in contempt — it is time for the church to return its focus on the transforming work of discipleship, that we may see changed hearts and renewed minds. Though it may appear to some as an insignificant step, in the eyes of faith it will be the pinging hammer that will, one day not far from now, be that which God uses to reduce the mighty walls of this world to a rubble.

08 August 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 5

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

In this final review of Bergler's book we examine the fifth and final chapter, the stated purpose of which is "... to explain a process that congregations can follow to move from where they are to spiritual maturity" (113). Hence, this last piece seeks to set down a foundation for the work of creating an atmosphere in the local church culture where spiritual growth and maturity might take place. The process can be summarized in simple steps: assess, create, implement, monitor. Of course, these are worked out in the chapter itself, but I will not review them in detail here.

One specific area of interest is Bergler's discussion on Maturity on Sunday Morning (120–123). The culture that is created in those things said and done, along with those things not said and done, is crucial to the work of creating an atmosphere of spiritual maturity and growth. This is counter-cultural to many of the trends of modern evangelicalism, which tend to be concerned with entertainment-based appeals to the crowds rather than spiritual discipline. "Although it is probably impossible to eliminate all negative or unintended messages in a congregational culture, it can be valuable to honestly assess what the dominant messages seem to be" (121).

This particular discussion revolves around three central roles that the church's weekly worship gathering has in promoting spiritual maturity (all of these are found on page 122):

"First, the teaching and preaching should regularly mention spiritual maturity."

"Second, the way we teach about worship and the metaphors we use to describe it should promote spiritual maturity."

"Third, the music and the leaders should promote maturity."

In each of these areas Bergler provides good challenge to thinking through the messages we communicate (whether it is our intention or not) during our week worship gathering. At the heart of this challenge is the question to church leaders: Is a steady diet of our church's Sunday morning worship likely to produce a spiritually mature Christian? (123).

So much of what happens in the modern evangelical worship service is individualistic, emotionally-driven, flimsy theology. In many ways the benchmark for Sunday success is set by feelings rather than by the Spirit. And this is why so many people feel as though they need to be "charged" or "refreshed" by their Sunday morning experience, in essence creating an idol from that experience than from the presence of Almighty God. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers the believer, renewing their strength as they wait upon the Lord. No matter how emotional or impressive, there is no experience on earth – church or otherwise – that can replace the deepening relationship of discipleship found in Christ Jesus.

Bergler is good to quote on this point: "Both social-science research and my own observations of Christians immersed in romantic spirituality urge me to conclude that slow-dance worship songs are drawing on American cultural scripts about romantic relationships from their emotional impact ... Too many slow dances with Jesus may reinforce immature forms of the Christian life" (132, bold is mine).

There are ways forward, but they will require a frank and honest look at ourselves, coupled with the determination to make serious change, in the face of those who will kick and scream against such efforts. But if we believe that the major problem is a lack of maturity, then we should not be surprised to be met with adolescent behavior when trying to challenge congregations to grow in their faith. There will probably always be part of us that will long for the days of our youth, but that does not mean it is right for us to hold on to our youthful behavior and ignore the demands of our faith in the present. Parents that do not grow up create children that have no concept of adulthood, and the same is true in our faith: disastrous results will come when we do not make serious disciples of one another in this life – indeed, disastrous results have already taken up residence in our culture.

One of the final challenges that Bergler provides is the (increasingly large) task of reaching into such a broken culture for the sake of the gospel. This will require effort on its own part, for we cannot simply wish these changes into existence. There will be resistance, but not all of it for bad reason. Immature people do not understand the process of growth, and so this can be a daunting and overwhelming path to face. Those who are going to help bring about this type of discipleship will need to work in building these bridges. Bringing people into the faith will require that they find their place in their world, as well as in the church community: "They will need to learn to be bilingual – to speak the language of their own culture, but also the language of Christian faith" (140).

If each person in the local congregation were to take seriously the call of making disciples – the specific work that Jesus gave to his followers – and took the opportunity to play their part in walking alongside one another, then we would see a dramatic impact in the life of the church, and a radical shift in how Christians can impact their world. Discipleship is no quick-fix or relational trend. Discipleship is, as Eugene Peterson would remind us, a long obedience in the same direction.

04 August 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 4

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

In this next chapter (Chapter Four), Thomas Bergler turns the focus of maturity in the local church to the ministry of younger generations. Youth groups and youth cultures have had an enormous impact on the current state of American evangelicalism, as he has thoroughly reviewed in the first-step in this overarching discussion: The Juvenilization of American Christianity.

At the outset of the discussion the author states the rather vital premise to understanding the dynamics of youth church culture: "No model of youth ministry or set of practices can substitute for a congregation-wide commitment to young people" (82). This is it; here we find the center of the issue of the modern state of the church in regards to it lack of spiritual maturity. For a few generations it has become commonplace for the local congregation to segment off various groups away from the primary work of the body of believers. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with the youth culture.

(However, as this practice has taken root, and time has accompanied the generations of churchgoers to become more comfortable with this, there are now segments of the congregation for every age and stage of life. Conceivably, in a large enough local church, one could go cradle-to-grave without ever making a serious connection with believers who are significantly older, younger, (or in some cases) of a different economic level.)

Not only has this sort of segmentation hurt the unity of believers within the local church, but such an approach has been a primary factor in the lack of maturity among Christians in our culture. Hence, the challenge for the local congregation is to live as one body of faith, working together as a community that is united by the Spirit. From the discussion in Bergler's book it has become apparent that youth can be devoted to their faith without necessarily being found on the path to spiritual maturity (82f.). One wonders if this is a devotion to their particular segment of the local church (the youth group), while never being a significant part of the overall church life – in which case the devotion runs its course as their journey through youth group ends, leaving the average emerging adult without a sense of connection to the ministry of the church.

Yet, the research upon which Bergler draws, "... reveals that American teenagers can become spiritual mature while they are still teenagers" (85, emphasis in original). Those congregations that are engaging their youth into the larger body of believers are the places where one is most likely to find a greater degree of spiritual maturity. It is the integration of youth into the life of the church that helps them bear the marks of spiritual growth and development. The reasons for this should be somewhat self-evident, as the benefit of learning from those who have godly wisdom helps to guide the younger generations into the work and ministry of the local church. Too often this type of wisdom culture is haphazardly shoved to the side in favor of the excitement of a ministry that more readily appeals to the lingering youthful desires in emerging adults.

And yet, feeding these immature desires has just as much of a damaging effect on the individual (and community) as any other behavior or desire. While there is a certain happiness and self-satisfaction derived from a worship experience that is filled with entertainment, in the end it accomplishes little in preparing individuals for the challenges and difficulties of adult life. In other words, a constant youth-emphasis may be fun, but cannot begin to have an impact in a world filled with adult-sized problems.

So, "... because youth are integrated into the congregation, they come to see the church as their church. Young people become active contributors to the church's intergenerational culture of spiritual maturity" (90).

There are many fears that may arise against those who wish to move toward this type of community life. The general fear of losing control over the way things have always been typically arises – and there are endless examples of the next generation of church leadership making radical changes with little-to-no regard for the traditions of this local community. Yet, I wonder if this would not be the case if there was in fact a connection between the generations, where the emerging leaders would already have a knowledge and respect for those things that are truly important to this community. This is not to say that there will never be a need for change (even big change), but rather that the dynamics of such will be tempered by a community that encompasses all believers.

A different type of fear may be that the lack of excitement will lead to a lack of attendance in worship, since this is the music and this is the style that 'reaches young people.' There is little weight that can be given to such an argument, not least of which is that the worship of Almighty God does not need to be dressed up in flashy attire, and all of our attempts to do so look quite pathetic in light of his dynamic presence. Additionally, if the entire discussion about the younger (emerging) generations of American evangelicalism is severely lacking in maturity and belief, then it is somewhat absurd to hold fast to the very system that has facilitated our current dilemma. As the axiom goes, Your current system is perfect for achieving your current result.

There are other fears that we could mention, but they all will fall into the same boat – namely, that there is no room for fear in the ministry of Christ's church. This community ought to be driven by his love, over and against our fearfulness (cf. 1 John 4:18).

Bergler completes this chapter with a focus on the need for serious theological discussion and exploration throughout the church community, specifically for the following two reasons:

1. "... theology provides the basic truths and principles of discernment that every mature Christian must embrace." (112)

2. "... theological reflection can help church leaders identify the barriers to spiritual maturity in their congregation." (112)

Ultimately, this is a discussion about discipleship, which is the work of every believer to engage with every other follower of Christ. If we take this seriously in the working out of our faith, then we will see a significant change in the spiritual growth and maturity of all who participate in our communities of faith. This, I believe, will require a change of direction among individual believers and our interactions with one another, as well as institutional change that better facilitates these aims through the overall structure and mission of the church.