culture Posts

On Reformation Day- Trick or Treat?

So today is Halloween. It’s a great day to trick others with unexpected grace and treat them with surprising love.

To track the etymology of the word is to understand it’s meaning: “Halloween” comes from a contraction of the German/Dutch, “All Hallowed Saints Eve” to “All Hallows’ (Saints’) Evening” – “All Hallows’ Eve” – Hallowe’en. It’s a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian (Catholic) feast of All Hallows’ Day. The day is dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all faithful departed believers.

More importantly for protestant believers, today marks the day commemorating Martin Luther’s posting of his ninety-five theses, grievances against the Catholic Church at the entrance to the Castle Church in the town of Wittenberg, Germany. Luther, an Augustinian monk, doctor of theology, and resident of Wittenberg, posted his objections on October 31st in AD 1517. He did so knowing that the next day, All Saints Day, many would come to the church and be able to read it. Luther’s theses sparked a rediscovery of the core beliefs of the Christian faith and primal teachings of Jesus. His protest (thus the term, “protestant”) or confrontation within the Church would eventually lead to the movement known as the Protestant Reformation.
The historical, theological trends that brought about the Reformation began centuries before its actual occurrence. The root cause of the Reformation was a departure from several foundational teachings of Jesus, including the believer’s relationship with God and relationship with the Church. At the heart of the protest, however, was the issue of salvation and namely a departure from grace.

Through the years the Church had gone the way of the default mode of the human heart: the way of the law. The formation of a self-salvation project is always the default mode of the human heart. The Church had veered so far off the track of grace that a radical course correction was necessary. The reaction of the Church against Luther and a constant refusal to discuss his theses prompted an internal schism that eventually became the Reformation movement. By 1530, the lines were clearly drawn and an official statement of faith, known as the Augsburg Confession, began the first Protestant Church.

ALL OF THIS BEGS THE CRITICAL QUESTION: How have we veered off track and moved away from the teachings of Jesus in our day? Without constant self-correction (Spirit-led correction) we will always run to the way of the law. Law puts us in control. It allows us to check the box, to add to, and measure our contribution. And as a result, the law always leads to guilt and shame or pride and a judgmental spirit. The law has no power within it to transform us. It only condemns us and (hopefully) points us to the better way of God’s free grace in Christ. If we do not constantly re-calibrate everything back to the Person and Mission of Jesus, we will always go back to the law. If Luther were alive today, what would he be nailing on the doors of our churches? Better yet, what if Jesus were to come to our churches? What would He see? What would He say?

I believe we’ve veered off the course of the Church Jesus intended us to be. The need for a radical reformation in our day stems from two primary problems or re-discoveries:

  1. We need to rediscover of the Gospel of God’s rescuing grace.
  2. We need to rediscover the Mission of Jesus- to make disciple-makers.

The first challenge today is not that we don’t believe that God saves us by His grace. Our problem is that we don’t believe that He saves us by grace ALONE. We come to Christ by grace through faith and then we think it’s time for us to get busy, adding our good works to the mix. We are saved by grace and then we strap on the law. As Paul noted, we want Moses to finish what Christ has begun. We move from Jesus as Savior to Jesus as Example. Jesus as Savior is liberating news. Jesus as Example is crushing news. We’ve forgotten that, just as central to our salvation as Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for our sin, is the fact that He lived the perfect life for us- so that we wouldn’t have to. I am free from condemnation because Christ fulfilled all of the crushing demands of the Law. There is nothing new inside of me, only the law. The Gospel (as News) comes from completely outside of me. I bring nothing to the table.

The second challenge of our day is a determination to join Christ on His core mission: to make disciples. We need to move from programs to disciple-making. Church leaders need to ruthlessly assess all programs, events, and gatherings in light of the singular mission of Jesus- to make disciples. The great sin of the Church in our day is not unlike that of Luther’s day: lots of church activities that form for us our own self-salvation project. We have so many options we can put together our own track, one that best suits our needs. Instead, we must bring all of our energies to making disciples. We must realize that being a disciple if not learning a body of knowledge but instead, mastering a skill set. And that skill set (in the context of loving, accountable relationships) is learning how to hear from the Spirit of God through His Word, obeying His Word, and telling someone else about it. Only through obedience will we see the power of God unleashed in our lives and only then will we see the reformation that will save the Western Church in our day. Lord, may it happen!

Let the reformation begin today with simple, unexpected acts of grace and surprising love without condition.

Happy Halloween.

Jesus the God-Man

Jesus raised questions as soon as He appeared on the public stage. Since the first century the questions have continued: Who is He? Where does He come from? How can He speak with such authority? Believers, skeptics, the curious, and opponents continue to debate the answers. 2,000 yrs. later, Jesus remains the central figure of history and still the dominant influencer of our culture. A recent updated TIME magazine lists Jesus as one of the “100 People Who Changed the World”. He’s on the cover with the Beatles, Mother Teresa, Hitler, and others.

I remember, years ago, at the turn of the century, the millenium, TIME ran it’s normal “Person of the Year” cover story and then added, the “Person of the Millennium”. Guess who? You got it: Jesus Christ. I remember thinking, “Yes, and the millennium before that, and the one before that, and the millennium to come, and the one after that one…” Jesus is the central figure of all of human history.

1083829-gfSo, “Who is Jesus?” remains the key question. Many Christians don’t realize that Jesus made His identity the focus of His teaching. Think about it: the central focus of His teaching was not a certain principle or truth, (in fact He said that He is “the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life”). He personified Truth. Who He claimed to be was the central focus of His teaching and ultimately, their reasons for crucifying Him. This is why His question from Matthew 16:15,  “Who do you say I am?” echoes through time & space into our hearts today. This is the big question. And it’s a very personal question He’s asking: Who do you say He is?

Through the years it seems that we have drifted away from the biblical Jesus and preferred a safe, ethereal, sanitized Savior. It seems this left the world with no choice but to conclude that the stories about Him were myths and legends. He didn’t seem real or “now”.

This is not a new thing. Rudolf Bultmann, an influential German theologian and New Testament scholar- a prominent liberal voice- is best known for his concept of demythology -which was actually not what it sounds (a divesting or a “getting rid of”) the so-called mythological approach to the historical Jesus. Instead Bultmann advocated that theologians need to interpret, what he called, the mythological elements in the New Testament existentially. Meaning, he contended that faith in the kerygma- or “teaching” and proclamation of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus. Or to say: You don’t need the historical Jesus to have faith.

But without the historic Jesus, He’s just a fairy tale. N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop and today’s leading New Testament scholar, said, “It’s been said often enough, but it bears repeating: w/out the real human (historical) Jesus of Nazareth, we are at the mercy of anybody who tells us that “Christ” is this, or that.” So through the eyes of the historical Jesus we see God for who He is- the sent and sending God. He is the God who is on mission, “up close & personal” in our world, throughout history, & is at work today. We say Jesus was the God-man. Perhaps the more accurate expression is that Jesus was “THE God, in man”.

And indeed, a man with flesh and bone and blood running through His veins, given the name JESUS. Non-Christian historian sources reveal the historicity of Jesus. The First Century Roman historian, Tacitus, others like Suetonius, wrote about Christus (Christ) and His crucifixion. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian writes of Jesus, as does Thallus and other government officials like Pliny the Younger, the Emperor Trajan, the historian Hadrian, and more Gentile and Jewish sources all wrote about Jesus and the emergence of the early church. In fact, without the historical Jesus and His crucifixion there is no way to explain the birth of the Church in the First Century. There is no explanation for it.

Without the historical Jesus, we tend to sanitize and tame Him by encasing Him in abstract theology. The idea is this: Let’s get our Christology right and then determine to put everything at its service. In other words, let’s make sure that we understand who Jesus really is and then recalibrate who we are and all we do according to His character, His Person, and His life in us. In fact, let’s get our Christology right and then dare to place our deeply held desires for how to do church at its service. Not vice versa. Are we fundamentally aligned with Jesus’ purposes and His will for His community on earth? Let’s recover the absolute centrality of the Person of Jesus in defining who we are as well as what we do.

If we do not recognize Jesus in His humanity we will see Him as distant, almost fictional, a kind of super hero or mythical character whom we may worship but we will NOT follow. Some of us do not approach the Gospel in order to emulate Jesus but only to read stories about Him. A good place to start with a proper Christology is found in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11

Transformed by His love, may we live just like Him.

The Power of a Father’s Presence (or Absence)

There are two ways to measure power. One is to see it at work (a weightlifter breaking a world record, a rocket launching into space, an Indy race car speeding down the final stretch). Another way to measure power is to observe it’s absence.  Some studies reveal that 1/3 of all children in the U.S.A. are being raised in a home where there is NO father.

“Young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families…those boys whose fathers were absent from the household had double the odds of being incarcerated- even when other factors such as race, income, parent education and urban residence were held constant.” (Cynthia Harper of the University of Pennsylvania and Sara S. McLanahan of Princeton University cited in “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14 (Sept. 2004).

Fatherless homes:

75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes- 10 times the average.

63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (U.S. Dept. Of Health/Census)- 5 times the average.

90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes- 32 times the average.

85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes- 20 times the average (Center for Disease Control).

80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes- 14 times the average (Justice & Behavior, Vol. 14, p. 403-26).

71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes- 9 times the average (National Principals Association Report).

The Father Factor in Education:

Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school.

Children with fathers who are involved are:

  • 40% less likely to repeat a grade.
  • 70% less likely to drop out of school.
  • more likely to get A’s in school.
  • more likely to enjoy school and engage in extracurricular activities.
  • High School Dropouts. 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes (Source: What Can the Federal Government Do To Decrease Crime and Revitalize Communities?)
  • Educational Attainment. Kids living in single-parent homes or in step-families report lower educational expectations on the part of their parents, less parental monitoring of school work, and less overall social supervision than children from intact families. (N.M. Astore and S. McLanahan, American Sociological Review, No. 56.

Suicide: 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (Source: What Can the Federal Government Do To Decrease Crime and Revitalize Communities?)

Behavioral Disorders: 85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes (Source: What Can the Federal Government Do To Decrease Crime and Revitalize Communities? )

Juvenile Detention Rates: 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes (Source: What Can the Federal Government Do To Decrease Crime and Revitalize Communities?)

Confused Identities: Boys who grow up in father-absent homes are more likely that those in father-present homes to have trouble establishing appropriate sex roles and gender identity.(P.L. Adams, J.R. Milner, and N.A. Schrepf, Fatherless Children, New York, Wiley Press).

Aggression: In a longitudinal study of 1,197 fourth-grade students, researchers observed “greater levels of aggression in boys from mother-only households than from boys in mother-father households.” (N. Vaden-Kierman, N. Ialongo, J. Pearson, and S. Kellam, “Household Family Structure and Children’s Aggressive Behavior: A Longitudinal Study of Urban Elementary School Children,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 23, no. 5).

Achievement: Children from low-income, two-parent families outperform students from high-income, single-parent homes. Almost twice as many high achievers come from two-parent homes as one-parent homes. (One-Parent Families and Their Children, Charles F. Kettering Foundation).

Delinquency: Only 13 percent of juvenile delinquents come from families in which the biological mother and father are married to each other. By contract, 33 percent have parents who are either divorced or separated and 44 percent have parents who were never married. (Wisconsin Dept. of Health and Social Services).

Criminal Activity: The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father and triples if he lives in a neighborhood with a high concentration of single-parent families. Source: A. Anne Hill, June O’Neill, Underclass Behaviors in the United States, CUNY, Baruch College.

A unique Swiss government study (presented in 2000) revealed:

If the mother & father attend church regularly:

33% of their children will end up attending church regularly

25% of their children will end up not attending at all

If mother attends church regularly & the father does not attend church at all:

2% of their children will end up attending church regularly

60% of their children will end up not attending at all

If the father attends church regularly & mother does not attend church at all:

44% of their children will end up attending church regularly

34% of their children will end up not attending at all. (NOTE: higher than if the mother and father both attend!)

Now look at the numbers from the survey released by the Baptist Press:

If the mother is the first to become a Christian in a household, there is a 17% probability that everyone in the household will follow.

If the father is the first to become a Christian in a household, there is a 93% probability that everyone in the household will follow!

God has given great power and influence to fathers. Dads, don’t squander it!

 

I Have a Dream.

On January 15, 1929, Michael Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia.  His name was later changed to Martin, the son and grandson of Baptist pastors.  He himself served as co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta while he became the central figure in the civil rights movement in the United States.  On August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech that would shake a nation and the world (and I can tell you, by the way, as a pastor/preacher- one who traffics constantly in words- this is one of the finest speeches/sermons ever preached).  Dr. King was so articulated, so clear, so picturesque in his words, but what drove his message home was his passion- and even more so, I believe a divine anointing upon his life.  Consider the fact that he was only 34 years old.  Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and it was a dream aligned with God’s dream for a better world.  Let his words resonate in your heart again:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

“…One day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today.  I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

In March of 1968, Dr. King, went to Memphis, TN in support of mistreated black sanitation workers.  On March 4th he stood with a friend outside his hotel room on the second floor balcony.  A shot rang out and an assassin’s bullet hit Dr. King and the civil rights leader was dead at the age of 39.

To get deeper into the heart of this man we need only listen to his final words preached the night before he died. Listen, in light of what would happen the next day: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen.) But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.  And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Martin Luther King had a life mission.  His one life made a difference.  Let me ask you, do you think that only certain people have a mission in life?  That maybe there are only a few people who really have a God-given dream?  Or could it be that every single one of us has been given a dream- by God- to serve His eternal Kingdom purposes while we’re here on this earth?

Throughout this month let’s allow the life and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (and even more so, the words of our Lord Jesus) to inspire us to dream as well.  Each of us has a God-given dream that He’s calling us to live.  And our God-given dream has the potential to change our world.  Your dream may or may not find its way on the national or international stage (it may!) but your God-given dream is unique to you and given to you to fulfill your life’s purpose.

So, let me ask you: What do you dream about?

Questions to Ponder this Month:

  • What is your dream for life?
  • What is the vision/calling (or God-given picture) of your life?
  • If you had unlimited resources (of time, money, energy, people) what would you want to accomplish with the rest of your life?
  • What do you love to do more than anything else?  What makes you feel fully alive?  Why?
  • What do hate the most?  What makes you angry?  Why?
  • What do you do best?  What are your best gifts?  (You’ve heard others tell you this).
  • What is God’s unique mission for your life?
  • How will you fulfill this mission- starting today?

What is your dream? LIVE IT.

 

Christ and Culture

There is a great need in these days for followers of Christ to think more deeply about how to effectively engage culture as we join God in the renewal of all things. Richard Neibhur was arguably the most important Christian theological-ethicist in the 20th Century. For several decades he taught at Yale Divinity School and in 1951 he wrote his classic work, “Christ and Culture”- which is still used today to help frame the Christian’s cultural engagement.

Neibhur’s five typologies (or categories) offer a helpful framework as we consider how followers of Christ relate to culture at large. Below is a (far too simplified, but perhaps helpful) explanation of how Neibhur’s categories allow us think more deeply about our role in culture. One way to understand and apply his categories is to think of a more widely known principle: Christians are to be “in the world but not of the world” (actually based on Jesus’ words in the High Priestly Prayer of John 17).  Each of the five approaches is essentially a variation on the application of that often-referenced phrase. Here they are:

  • Christ against Culture – This is the “exclusive Christian” who sees history as the story of a rising church up against a dying pagan civilization. This approach, ultimately leads to an “us against them” approach- it’s the Church against the world.
  • Christ of Culture – This is the “cultural Christian” who sees history as the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature and culture. Taken too far this could be described as “in the world and of the world” where there is no real distinction between the believer and the non-believer.
  • Christ above Culture – This approach might lead some to think we are to be in the world and over the world. That is, us over culture. This approach would say,  “We better get our man in the White House or we’re doomed (God is not going to know what to do) and the Gospel will cease to advance.” History proves otherwise.
  • Christ and Culture in Paradox – This is “the dualist” approach in which history is a struggle between church and culture and the constant tension that will only be lifted when Christ comes again. Taken to extremes this approach can lead to disinterest and apathy regarding cultural renewal, believing that God will make all things right in the end. The tendency is to disengage- to not be in the world.
  • Christ Transforming Culture – This is “the conversionist” who says, history is the story of God’s work in the world and humanity’s response to Him. Conversionists live more in the divine “now” than the followers listed above. This approach focuses more on the presence of God in time and would say it is Christ in us- in the world but not of the world. Christ brings about the transformation of culture through us, as we live as a “faithful presence” in our particular sphere of influence. This is the belief that there is a divine possibility of a present renewal, while at the same time, we prepare for what will take place in a final redemption and restoration of all creation.

Niebuhr doesn’t “land” on any one approach- as his work is more descriptive than prescriptive. I believe that Scripture (and experience) points us to the last one: Christ transforming culture through His followers as we live incarnational lives in every domain of culture. Is this God’s plan to change the world? If so, are you allowing his Spirit to live in and through you in your particular domain or sphere of influence? Are you practicing the faithful presence of Jesus in your life?  What do you think?