the ideal church in the US in the present

First of all, right off from the top, there is no ideal church. Unless one is going to push their denomination or way of being church, there are a number of differences, which actually was the case even in the earliest days of the church, once it expanded beyond Jerusalem. And so I’m going to accept those differences which are many, today. As long as we’re united by the gospel, the good news about Jesus, we can live with those differences. I believe that’s the case between Catholic and Protestant; Calvinists, Pentecostals and Anabaptists, etc., etc. As long as the good news in Jesus is intact, the teaching of his incarnation, life and teaching, death and resurrection, ascension and promise of his return, even the details surrounding that we can see differently, provided that we accept salvation by grace through faith with works following. I am not one to quibble over justification with the Catholics, though I myself accept the solos which became theologically prominent through the Reformation. But now to the main point of this post.

We live in a nation which to a significant extent has been built off the backs of slaves. And even after their emancipation through the Civil War, you tell most any black or African-American that they are free, and they will qualify that. And we lived through one hundred years of segregation along with the Jim Crow era. There have been other prejudices, too, and all of that can fit into the point I’m going to make next, but given the history of this nation, and the current controversy over police and race relations, I will put a clear emphasis on blacks and whites and the church.

I believe that in order to be the witness the nation and the world needs from a church here, there needs to be a deliberate change and commitment to a racial reconciliation in which the African-Americans have just as much say and leadership in a given church as the white largely European Caucasians such as myself. In a small church, that might look like a black senior pastor, with a ethnically mixed board of elders and deacons (or deacons, if that’s the way your church runs). In a larger church, it might ideally somehow be two or more associate pastors who share the teaching and pastoral role, black and white, white and black, not in any particular order. But to be sure that the church is not still really run by whites, there ought to be an emphasis given to black leadership.

Of course there are many black churches and denominations. When I was young, blacks weren’t even allowed to step inside of Southern Baptist churches, and I’m sure they were marginalized in many places. But maybe black churches need to pray about their witness, as well. Maybe it’s time for them to purposefully integrate. But I can’t speak for them. If we’re to overcome what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most integrated hour of the week, Sunday morning, than your normal church, made up of whites with a few blacks and African-Americans here and there, must take the lead. We are the ones on the side of history of the oppressors. They are on the side of the oppressed.

To be color blind doesn’t mean we just remain comfortably in our place. It means we purposefully integrate, not from some law or order from government, but as part of the heart of the call of the gospel. To express by the Spirit the unity we all have through the good news in Jesus. Regardless of our ethnicity, background, political views, etc. But in the case of blacks and whites, this will require more.

Given our history, this unity is not just something we blithely put in place, even with some hard effort to accept and learn to appreciate our cultural differences. There must also be at the heart of all of this, reconciliation. And this reconciliation must include forgiveness on both sides: the blacks and African-Americans forgiving the whites for slavery in the first place, and all the mistreatment which followed. And the whites forgiving African-Americans and blacks for any and every sinful response that followed. And all of this, while it should be put into place in a church through the gospel, is a process in which we can’t imagine at a given point we’ve arrived. The wall of hostility is broken down through the gospel, through Jesus’s death, but the unity of the Spirit which follows requires every effort to maintain, and grow in. As we grow up together into the mature body of Christ that we’re called to become. A growth that is ongoing, and something we already are in Christ by the Spirit, but learning to live by and into the implications of all of that.

This is a great need in the church today. The way we do church just won’t do, I’m afraid, or at least it will be lacking, if this isn’t a priority well beyond just hoping others who are different might begin to trickle in. All of this in and through Jesus.

trying to make sense of it all

When it comes right down to it, often life both in the short-haul, and frankly in the long-haul has some head scratchers. It doesn’t take long, or much effort to observe that. We’re left with gaping holes, and no explanation for some things. In fact life itself can seem quite counterintuitive to our sense of how it should be. Maybe like in the Job story where Job himself is never told the full scoop, and in the end to simply trust a God too awesome for him to understand.

We like to read novels, or watch films with many unpredictable twists and turns, and with enigmas that leave us wondering, and turning the pages. Life is simply not like the nice, and even to some extent good Hallmark films. We’re sometimes, maybe even often left wondering.

Scripture in a true sense is story, yes true story, but story. Humankind is made as the crown of creation, and yet is not true to their Creator, and therefore the brokenness that follows. God calls Israel to a mission to redeem and restore humanity, essentially to bring in God’s reign to an earth which wants nothing of it. Jesus is the fulfillment of that calling, which today is known and witnessed to in the church.

We all have a story to tell. It may be quite broken and disheveled, but it has its harmony and beauty as well. Somehow in and through Jesus, our story is taken into God’s story. To wonder about that, we need to look no further than the pages of scripture. Somehow something good will come out of the trouble we face in this life.

For me, having lived as long as I have (now over sixty), and continuing to see what I see, I don’t worry much about trying to make sense of everything, or even anything. I try to stay focused as much as possible on the big story, God’s story in Jesus. I want God to deal with all the scattered, broken, or lost pieces of life, according to his will. And go on.

So the story I want to focus on, and tell people about is God’s story in Jesus. And yet sharing my own story, and how it fits into that larger story. By faith we tell others God’s story, and the good news in King Jesus which is at the heart of that. And we wait to tell our own story, if and when that seems appropriate. As a witness to the larger story, to God’s faithfulness and love in his redemptive reign in Jesus.

racism and the church

Yesterday there was a most interesting discussion on Joshua Johnson’s show, 1A – Speak Freely, entitled, Big Tent Revival: Southern Baptists Challenge A Racist History. Racism is not an easy topic to broach for me as a white American Christian who has roots and fellowship in the evangelical movement. No one is free of the demon (literally, or I mean here, figuratively) of racism, it seems to me. We can’t just wash our hands in innocence and go on as if nothing has happened, or is happening. We need instead to listen to our African-American sisters and brothers, their story, and what they experience to this day. And that includes Christians right where I live in a conservative Christian belt.

I am grateful to be part of a ministry which is working on diversity and integration in the work force. To say the church hasn’t been involved in racism over the years, even within my lifetime, is to have a profound ignorance of history and culture. Whether or not we think all the complaints of racism today are just, we need to consider that many blacks, including Christians, believe that is the case. And we need to understand just how blind we are to what has been called “white privilege.” This is a sociological term, made political, as nearly everything is nowadays. But there’s no question that more is stacked against African-Americans in this nation, than any other ethnicity.

The gospel in Jesus brings together, and even unites those who otherwise would be enemies. It breaks down and destroys barriers. But it isn’t automatic. The faith requires faith which includes repentance and hard work over time to overcome the prejudices so deeply embedded and ingrained in our psyches. We naturally like to be around people who think, act, and like the same things we do. And who don’t shake up the status quo. But the gospel opens us up to something different. The salvation in Jesus is as big as creation, not only about the individual person, but about all of life. Ultimately to fill all things when Jesus returns, but now to be present and at work in the church. In and through Jesus.

the promise of the restoration of the years the locusts have eaten

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm[f]
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,
    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

Joel 2:25-27

One needs to read the entire (short) book of Joel to really appreciate what is said here (above link includes entire book). God’s judgment had been on his people, there was a call to repent, and then God is moved to make this promise. After that there is the well known promise Peter echoed on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) of God’s outpouring of the Spirit. And then the final judgment to come when a good God roots out evil.

The promise of restoration and somehow being paid back for all that has been lost due to sin is certainly great. It is given not to an individual, but to the people of God as a whole. It certainly touches individual lives, but is corporate. We have to see that somehow we are part of the sin of our group, but upon repentance how we are part of God’s blessing given to his people, as well. We can be complicit in the sins of others, by ignoring or somehow even excusing it. Or we might participate to some extent in it ourselves perhaps without even realizing it.

We are in this together, and even the remnant which may have done better ends up suffering due to the unfaithfulness of the people. But I think we have to be careful lest we kid ourselves and think we are so far removed from the sin of our people. For most of us that probably won’t be a problem; we know all too well our sin, what we have done, or perhaps even what we’re doing. Even the faithful Daniel included himself in his petition to God of repentance in anticipation of Israel’s restoration to the promised land in keeping with Jeremiah’s prophecy (Daniel 9).

And then the promise. Overwhelming to be sure, but God wants his people, and really all of humankind to flourish. God is the God of blessing. Judgment is God’s “strange work,” but God’s goal and the end is always about blessing. And God blesses his people that they might be a blessing. Israel was to be a light to the nations, that being ultimately fulfilled by and now in Jesus himself.

And so even if it’s the eleventh hour for us, we need to take full stock, and in spite of everything find God’s blessing with his people in and through Jesus. To ask God to search us and know us so that come what may, together we might be led in the way everlasting.

 

a meditation on Psalm 51: our need of God’s grace

Psalm 51 is one of the great passages of the Bible. The NIV‘s translation of the superscription gives its alleged and at least possible setting. Scholars aren’t sure if the superscriptions were added later, or written when the psalms were. And even if added later, they could still be considered a part of scripture itself.

For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Many times people relegate the Old Covenant to the era of the Law, and fail to see that, while it is indeed preparatory for the fullness of grace (and truth) which came in Jesus, it was actually grace oriented itself. God’s grace, as in undeserved favor and sheer gift is foundational for all human relationships with God, certainly no less true for that time as it is today.

If there is one thing that we need to see when reading Psalm 51 above anything else, we have to see from this psalm the truth of David’s need, and our need today of this grace from God. Of course like the rest of scripture, we need every line, which contributes to the whole toward the understanding God wants to give. But unless we grasp this truth of our need of God’s grace, all the other truth won’t matter, and will be essentially lost, except to condemn us. If we read the psalm carefully and slowly, we will find this to be the case.

Theologians have a term for what I’m getting at here: prevenient grace. We need grace from God even to properly know and have understanding of our sin, and to properly be broken and grieved over it in repentance. The last thing we need to be doing over our sin is to beat ourselves up, and try to make some great sacrifice to God ourselves. Instead we need God’s grace, so that we can properly see and act in the faith which God in that grace gives us in and through Jesus.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

black history month, why it’s important, and what our witness ought to be

February in the United States and Canada is designated Black History Month (October in the United Kingdom). It is important to remember the history of African-Americans, whose recent ancestors were stolen, enslaved, and all too often killed. It is a great error to see this as being “politically correct.” We need to recognize the achievements of those in our family who are African in their origin, as well as the difficulties and evils they encountered, more or less front and center at one time, but now often much more hidden, yet just as real. An example of what is especially a hidden, subtle form of racism is the part of the story in the film Hidden Figures, which wasn’t told.

At the heart of the outcome of the gospel is the destruction of all divisions within humanity, while celebrating the differences through God’s creation (see the book of Revelation, in which every tribe and nation in all their diversity worship God together). The fact that the church seems to make either little or nothing of this at all seems to me to be a grave mistake which needs prayer and correction. The good news of God in Jesus and through his death means a completely open access to God, and also to each other in the sense of living out our oneness as one family in him. There is only one human race, and the difference in ethnicities among us enhance humanity. We need each other, every part of the whole of the one family of humanity.

This should be fulfilled in Jesus, in which through the new birth and new creation, we are all one in him, in all our differences. The best witness of a church in that regard is to include different ethnicities on the staff, particularly in positions of leadership, certainly including the pastoral. The world needs that witness, and we actually need this as well, to break down the sin of racism, which is the hidden elephant in still too many places. When we overlook the hidden, or not so hidden racism among those around us, we can inadvertently make a place for it in our hearts, while never wanting to. We excuse something for which there is no excuse, and which brings grave harm to humanity, and is an affront to God, and above all grieves the heart of God.

So let’s do something if we haven’t yet, before this month ends, to both remember and celebrate our black brothers and sisters. And let’s pray that this can somehow be worked into our lives on a practical level so that we can enter more fully into the salvation which is ours through the good news in Jesus our Lord.

a new (for me) thought on dealing with anxiety (worry)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4

As much as anything, and probably more, I’ve struggled with a low grade (sometimes high) anxiety most all of my life. If it’s the right kind minus obsessive compulsive tendencies, so as to take care of details on a job, that’s one thing. But when it amounts to thinking and acting as if life and its outcome depends on me rather than God, then that’s quite another, the latter not good at all.

I’ve had kind of inklings of this thought before, but not as plain as day like this: What if instead of first becoming anxious (or worrying; see NRSV in above link), I would immediately, as soon as something, or some thought occurs which will threaten my peace and result in anxiety, what if I would immediately bring that before God just as the passage quoted above says? After all, it doesn’t tell us not to be anxious after we have become anxious, and strictly speaking, it’s not about dealing with anxiety at all, although that’s the way I’ve used this passage in my life. It’s really about avoiding anxiety and worry in the first place.

Realistically, I say, it is hard to avoid anxiety in this life. It seems nearly like an automatic part of life for me. Of course there surely is a healthy anxiety which is different than the anxiety referred to here. That kind can comport with a faith in God, total dependency on him, and interdependency on others. But the anxiety we’re to avoid amounts to a lack of faith in God, somehow not believing God’s word, and thinking and acting as if all depends on us.

Of course we need to do exactly as this passage in Philippians 4 says. But the above link will make it clear that it’s in the context of rejoicing in the Lord always. And reading the entire book of Philippians will put it in the context of a life that is Christ, and is bent on moving toward the goal of conformity to him, and God’s calling in him. And beyond that, though the book of Philippians is definitely the place to start, we actually need the entire Bible to help us in providing needed context for not being anxious, or worrying by keeping the instructions here.

It is radical and abrupt, and surely not something we will simply step into unerringly, since we’re so used to being anxious and worrying in a way which at least weakens faith. We need to take it little by little, and learn a new way, so that over time, we can learn a new habit, and more and more avoid anxiety, yes completely in some measure in this life.

A new thought to me, one I look forward to working on in whatever days the Lord has left for me in this life.