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This blog is meant to be an encouragement to you as you journey through your day. If you have a question about the life of faith, please feel free to email me. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Not Really Embracing the Cross

As we come down to the last few days before Resurrection Sunday, I come to my annual struggle with the violence of the cross. 

I embrace what Christ did for all of us. 


I embrace the empty tomb.
I embrace the victory over sin and death.

I struggle with the cross.

I know the cross really happened. I know that it mattered. 

I still struggle with the cross.

To me, the cross represents all that sin does. Sin dehumanizes. Sin injures. Sin kills. Sin destroys. Sin silences. And I do not celebrate that. I cry out in agony over that. 

I struggle with the cross.

Throughout human history, people have treated one another exactly the same way people treated Jesus on the cross. People who claim to be followers of Jesus do that - in the name of God. In the name of Jesus.

I truly believe the cross was never meant to be celebrated. It was meant to be a reminder - this is how bad we can treat one another when we forget the love of God. A horrible reminder.

On Palm/Passion Sunday, in our little church, we will take a wooden cross and place it front and center in the sanctuary. In front of the pulpit. It will be the center of attention. It will be a reminder of how bad sin can be, and how much we need Jesus. Because if we don't allow the holiness of God to transform us into people of love and grace, we will treat one another exactly the same way Jesus was treated on the cross.

These words from Bo Sanders help me to think about all this:

"When Jesus takes the bread and cup and forever changes their meaning he is saying 'what they will do to me – don’t you, as my followers, do to anyone else'. When Jesus says 'forgive them, they know not what they do', he is saying that they think they know what (and why) they are doing, but they are wrong. When Jesus says 'it is finished', he is proclaiming the end of this type of scapegoating and violence by those who think they are doing it on God’s behalf."

I recognize that my words here might make you a bit uncomfortable. I'm sorry about that. I just know that the cross is supposed to do just that - make us very, very uncomfortable

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Shake a Hand, Make a Friend

I've been thinking about our food and clothing ministry - The Bridge.

I'm not surprised by folks who don't understand why we spend so much time and effort making The Bridge work. I know there are people whose worldview does not have room for such things, or who think we should do it another way, or who have a problem with "those people." I get that. I even get how folks who put great effort into being followers of Jesus do not understand why we do what we do, even though I personally cannot be a follower of Jesus and not do what we do at The Bridge.

What surprises me is how many people who give to the ministry refuse to have any contact with the people who need the food and clothing we share at The Bridge. They bring clothes, they donate canned goods, but they never participate in the best part of what we do - build relationships.  I think it has something to do with keeping a distance, although I doubt if any of these good folks would recognize it as such. As long as I don't get to know needy people, I will never know how much alike we are. 

Most of us have an operational worldview, based upon our position of privilege, that suggests life is fair and everyone gets what they deserve (even if this idea directly contradicts our theology of grace). If I ever found out that the folks who need help feeding their kids are just as kind, just as nice, just as hard-working as I am - maybe even kinder, nicer and harder-working - I would have to face the reality that my worldview is really faulty. And I would also have to face the reality that I am not that much different from the folks who need some help making it every day. 

Like the wealthy Nicodemus in John 3 and the poor Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, unless I allow Jesus to change the way I view life and the world, and especially my place in it, the living water and eternal life Jesus offers will not only be just out of reach, but it also won't make much sense at all.

Grace and peace,
Mike

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Fifty Years Ago I Was 12

Fifty years ago, I was 12. It was 1968.

When I was 12 my grandparents talked about the Great Depression. To me it was ancient history. To our children, the 1960s are ancient history. And just like my grandparents tried to teach me the lessons of the Depression, I have tried to teach my children the lessons of our nation during my childhood - a time when hate and fear resulted in neighborhoods and cities burning, when even children cried out in venomous hate for those whom their parents identified as the despised “others,” and when defending “our way of life” was seen as a justification for acts of uncivilized evil.

I remember the April evening when we heard that Dr. King was assassinated. I remember watching some people cry inconsolably, and I remember watching my next door neighbors celebrate. I remember the morning two months later when we woke up to the news that Robert Kennedy had been killed. I remember watching the smoke rise above the city of Baltimore from the riots that summer. And I remember my parents telling us that the schools and streets of the city were no longer safe, and the next year we moved to the suburbs.

I remember seeing men like Bull Connor, George Wallace and Lester Maddox on television, spewing hate and venom and encouraging others to do the same. I remember scary pictures of people in white sheets, talking of hate in the name of the God of love. And I remember children mimicking their parents, doing the same. 

And that is when I began attempting to understand why people hate. 

I have spent my life studying theology, philosophy, and psychology, in order to understand. I have come to the conclusion that we hate because we are afraid, and we are afraid because we have not been completely transformed by the gospel. We hate because we are afraid, and we are afraid because we do not fully love. We do not accept the love that we have been given in Christ, and because we do not accept it for ourselves, we do not know how to share it with others. 

These days I am concerned about the language of hate that I hear, the words that describe our neighbor as our enemy, and the need to defend “our way of life.” I am concerned because I believe that, while our cities are not burning as they did in 1968, we have not learned all of the lessons. We still define people by how they look, and how they are different from us, and how they arouse our fears. And far too many of us live in fear, and practice hate. 

And we still need to allow God to not just save us, but change us.

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” -MLK Jr.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Thinking Theologically

It has been several years since the following was published in one of our denominational magazines. I thought it might be helpful to think on it again.

In Nazarene polity, tradition, and current practice, the local church pastor has many roles. One of the most important is “theologian-in-residence.” The pastor is called to frame the conversation of his or her parish, to clearly communicate how the community of faith thinks about God, the world, the Church, and persons, making sure the congregation’s lived-out practice fits with our theology.

This task not only involves what is said in sermons, but also in such details of congregational life as the choice of VBS curriculum, compassionate ministry, age-group programming, evangelism, and participation with other congregations. Our lived-out theology provides guidance in how we treat one another, how we deal with conflict and broken relationships, and how we lead others to Christ.

This pastoral task requires intensive training, and is the reason education for ordination includes significant coursework in biblical studies and theology. Our Wesleyan perspective calls us to a unique place in today’s faith conversations—we are neither fundamentalist nor liberal, and the tension inherent in this via media requires pastors who know and can clearly communicate what we believe as Nazarenes.

One of the most important ways the pastor serves as theologian-in-residence is through purposeful conversations. In my church, my friends have heard me say certain phrases so many times, that they repeat them as measures of whether a ministry or program fits with our theology.

“We believe God is working in everyone’s life, all the time.”

“We are here to make evident the kingdom of God in our community.”

“Creating an environment where God’s love can be experienced.”

“Showing people they belong before we can teach them what to believe or how to behave.”

“Holiness is demonstrated through loving relationships.”

“God does not waste a consecrated life.”

“We demonstrate Kingdom priorities in the way we treat people.”

“How we live Monday through Saturday is just as important as how we worship on Sunday.”

None of these are earth shattering in their creativity. They are just simple statements that help our congregation think and reflect theologically as we do life together as a community of faith.

Sometimes there is a temptation to do things simply because other churches are doing them, or because we have always done them, or because they elicit an emotional response, or because they seem to work.

While none of those reasons are necessarily wrong, they should not be the primary rationale for beginning or continuing a ministry. We should not organize our youth group solely to draw the most kids to our events, nor should we plan programs just to fill up a calendar. Our goal is Christlikeness, and busier people are not necessarily holier people (another one of our favorite phrases).

The pastor’s role as theologian is essential as the congregation reflects on the reasons why we do what we do and works together in creating an environment where what we believe and how we live as a community of faith are in harmony.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Epistle of James #16 - "This doesn't apply to me"

In the beginning of chapter 5, James returns to a topic he introduced in chapter 1 – the temptations and dangers of wealth. In 5:1-6, he offers a practical commentary on the many teachings of his brother Jesus on the topic:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

“According to John Wesley, wealth is dangerous because it can corrupt and lead to sin. Whatever our level of income, desiring more than is necessary is morally destructive. Riches lure us from sharing with those in need and toward exploiting and isolating the poor for selfish financial gain. The dangers of wealth also harm the rich by leading into a false sense of moral superiority, a distorted understanding of divine favor, and to the destruction and negligence of those in need. These traits are in absolute opposition to God’s character and God’s expectations of God’s people.” – Wesley Study Bible

A question comes immediately come to mind: How much is necessary – how much is “enough?” In a culture that exalts excess, that teaches consumerism as a form of patriotism, and makes coveting a positive attitude, how can we learn the difference between what we really need and what we want?

One of the challenges of this passage is that we are called to live in it, not just analyze it. If we think “I’m not rich, therefore this doesn’t apply to me,” we will set it aside and never learn what it has to say to us.  Instead, let’s live in it for awhile. Ask yourself this question – “What if this does apply to me? How can I live differently because of the truth found here?”

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Epistle of James #15 - "Godly Sorrow"

Greetings!

For the contemporary reader, the fourth chapter of James strikes us as odd, especially verses 8-9: "Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom." 

What is that all about? Aren't we supposed to be happy, full of joy and praise?

The answer is in verse 10: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up."

One of the growth areas of the deeper spiritual life is the realization that we have caused pain to God and others. Early on we focus on what others have done to us - and we take on the role of the victim. Then we celebrate the freedom we experience in Christ. But there comes a time when the reality of our sin, and the toll it has taken, must be faced. It is a stark reality. Yes, we have sinned, and what we have done should cause us great sorrow. Godly sorrow. The only answer is to humble ourselves before the Lord.


Grace and peace,
Mike

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Epistle of James #14 - More About Words, and Relationships

Greetings!

As we read James' letter, what becomes clear is that James sees the answer to persecution and life's difficulties in the way we treat each other. Our relationship with God, and our relationship with one another, are the best guard against being defeated by the stuggles of life.

This means that we really need each other - and how we treat one another really matters. At the end of chapter 4, (which we will be considering this Sunday), James continues his theme of humility. When we are tempted to believe that we should be in charge, that we are competent to run our own affairs, and that we know best - it is then that we are tempted to move God off the throne of our lives. Instead, pray, seek the discernment and wisdom of others, and read God's word.

One of the amazing things concerning this truth, is that when we make sure God is in control of our lives, we find ourselves in better relationships with God's people. Yes, there will still be disagreements, but we will treat one another appropriately when we are not so concerned with proving that we are the most competent, the smartest, or the one who should be in charge. After all - that position is already occupied.

Grace and peace,
Mike