Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Compromises and Convictions

Daniel took a stand. When taken as a captive to Babylon, he received a new name, language, and education in Babylonian ways. But when the king offered meats and wines from his table, Daniel refused. His reasoning is not stated, but his conviction is clear: Daniel will not let culture shape him. Everyone who follows God must draw lines between cultural values and personal convictions. Daniel shows how personal convictions make public statements, earn favor, get tested, and have profound impact. God's people must not swallow everything the culture offers up, but let their understanding of God's word to form them.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Bible, Darrell Bock, and Evangelical Belief - Part 1 of 2

A year's worth of planning came to fruition last week, as I helped host the second annual "Let's Know the Bible Conference." Dr. Darrell Bock spoke to a crowd of 138, addressing the topic of Jesus and the Gospels.

Bock first encountered Jesus as a skeptic, but after years of inquiry, debate, and nurture from believing friends, he became a Christ-follower. "Since I spent so much time considering Jesus before becoming a follower, once I made a decision, I felt well informed," Bock explained to me on the ride to the airport. I cherished the opportunity to pick what was left of his brain after five sessions in three days.

We talked sports and theology, but avoided the theology of sports. "Someone suggested we discuss that on the [Table] podcast, but I refuse to. I'm afraid sports will be treated as an idol," Bock confessed. Then he returned his focus to the Houston Texans game, streamed live from his iPhone.

Bock's influence as a popular evangelical voice erupted after publishing his response to Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code. "I wrote [Cracking the DaVinci Code] in three days," he recalled. He hashed it out over Thanksgiving weekend, likely between football games and second helpings. When one reporter questioned his frustration over Brown's fictional portrait of Jesus, Bock did not stand down. It was one of five bad interviews he can remember. He shared the other four with me, as well.

Bock has well represented the Evangelical community in country, overseas, in print, and online. His winsome smile, Texas drawl, and quick wit temper his intellectual brilliance. But it is Bock's commitment to the real Jesus that propels him. "I want people to consider Jesus first. I want them to wrestle with his actions and claims. And when they see how Jesus handles the Scriptures, it will help them trust the Bible," he said in response to a question about inspiration.

I found Bock's apologetic refreshing. Session after session, he pointed people to the historically-rooted, culturally-cued activity of Jesus. He referenced Old Testament texts and Second Temple Literature to create a backdrop of Jesus' life. He established the certain events of his ministry -- baptism, temple clearing, forgiveness of sin, synagogue teaching, Sabbath practice, purity practices, crucifixion, and resurrection -- to validate the more phenomenal episodes -- exorcisms, healings, nature miracles, and long discourses.

Most importantly, Bock stressed Jesus' exaltation at the right hand of God. "The resurrection is not about us getting new bodies. It was God's vindication of Jesus. God got the last word: Jesus is who he said he was."

Too often Christians seek to prove the Bible reliable before pointing people to Jesus. We place our theology of the Scriptures above our understanding of Messiah. We assume more authority comes from evidential argument rather than personal encounter. We treat the biblical text more like an ethics manual or doctrinal statement than God's living word.

It's worth noting Jesus did not make this error. When helping his disciples with belief, he asked a personal question. "Who do you say that I am?"

Evangelical belief is fundamentally personal: it is centered on the person of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

God's Hand in Babylon

Daniel stands out as one of the greatest heros of Hebrew faith. His courage, wisdom, and resolve mark his legacy. Daniel's people needed such a hero, too, considering their faithlessness and idolatry finally led to Judah's demise (2 Kings 25; Jeremiah 25). In 605, the first year of King Nebuchadnezzar's reign, the king takes Daniel and companions to Babylon to begin an 18-year period of deportation. He also orders new names and a heavy dose of Babylonian doctrine for his captives. Loss of land and identity is a grave hardship. But Daniel can see God's hand in the hardship, and teaches us to do likewise.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Redundancy of Risk at #FlinchConference - Part 4 of 4

The theme of risk at the annual FGBC Vision Conference was a risky one.

Risk has no guarantees; it may upset our comfort and challenge the status quo. It assumes possible loss and disequilibrium. Risk defines what I am willing to face or brave in the face of a worthy goal. Thus, it is an attribute of healthy people and cultures.

But it took only a single day of speakers and stories about risk to realize it is an errant theme. While the Bible is rich with terms like faith, sacrifice, and surrender, the word risk is absent. Prescribing risk misdiagnoses the problem.

We are not simply too safe, we have missed the calling to a life of daily sacrifice. Risk is a humanistic term. We risk when a greater gain resides on the other side of a decision. We risk when a win lurks around the corner.

Sacrifice is a theologically rich term. We sacrifice when we realize all of ours is not ours at all. Our families and ministries, hours and minutes, health and happiness, securities and savings accounts belong to God. We are steward who serve with open hands. Whether our hands are empty or full, their openness suggests our surrender.

And people who live as a sacrifice, who make surrender a daily habit, know that “risky” decisions are not risky at all. They are obvious. They are inevitable. They are matters of faith undeterred by opposition. Abraham lifted the knife. Joseph fled the house. Moses parted the sea. Joshua circled the city. David slung the stone. Elijah called down fire. Peter walked on water. Paul arrived in Jerusalem. Jesus died on a cross.

The biblical story does not provide emotional details when its heroes face danger. We never see their ledger of gains versus losses. For in the mind of the faithful, loss is not an option. Faith is not a game of risk and rewards. It is a journey of sacrifices met with the aroma of God’s pleasure.

So why do we risk? We risk as a response to our calling and trust in our God. Risk is a means to a greater end. It serves mission, but it cannot be our mission. As many ways as we tried to pitch the theme -- risk of family comfort, risk of political favor, risk of financial security, risk of popular opinion -- it sounded redundant. Risk is a great battle cry and board game, but a terrible anthem.

Perhaps a theology of risk would have bolstered the theme. Rather than twelve rally cries to risk more for Jesus in church-planting, evangelism, and social justice, a thoughtful reflection on the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26, 28) -- God sharing power with His creation -- or Incarnation (John 1:14) -- God invading His creation -- could have fed our imaginations. 

Alas, no such theology of risk came. Instead we clanged the cymbal and pounded the drum. We rallied the troops and deflated the weary. We conflated mission with marker, Newark with New York, and retreated to the Margins until next year's conference... Margins: Ministry in a Post-Christian World, where I am offering (at a reduced price) to present my stunning "Theology of Margins" talk (for a limited time only).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Question & Answer Sunday

In the post-Christian era, Christ-followers must learn how to become critical thinkers without becoming critical. They must model simple faith without seeming simple-minded. One of the ways to the church can develop these virtues is to address difficult questions of the faith.

Following Paul's dialogical model of preaching in Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17), I invited questions from the congregation and gave five minutes to answering each two Sundays ago. People asked about the distinctiveness of Christianity, developing joy in singleness, what happens to aborted babies, what ministry roles women can assume in Ephesians 4:11, and other challenging topics.

Five minutes only scratches the surface. The intent of this time was not to settle every question, but to encourage thoughtful reflection. May it so encourage you.


God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Relentless Rush at #FlinchConference - Part 3 of 4

A month has passed since my time at Flinch Conference. The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) has moved on to other events. Focus Retreats and Committee meetings have overtaken the calendar. Time for reflection and experimentation remain fleeting. So it goes.

But I refuse to rush. I plod along, catching my breath and reviewing my notes.

Themes emerge from the various workshops and sessions I attended. For example, the importance and difficulty of partnerships in ministry. Scott Feather, pastor of Gateway Grace Community Church (PA), led an hour-long workshop on the topic. He stressed the need for clear communication among partners (including a written agreement) and win-win situations.

Adam Copenhaver, pastor of Mabton Grace Brethren Church (WA), dedicated two days to building a biblical theology for marriage. On the first day he worked through each book of the Bible and its contribution to a definition (and deviations) of marriage. The second day he entertained various case studies relating to sexual ethics within a church context. On the heels of the Supreme Court ruling for same-sex marriage, Copenhaver's workshop proved invaluable.

Greg Serafino, pastor of Oceola Grace (IN), and I shared the story of our leadership cohort in the Heartland District. In recent years a small group of pastors has met at various churches to provide insight and encouragement to our fellow pastors. Our friendship and commitment to and Equipping Model of ministry (see Ephesians 4:11-16) set the foundation for our cohort.

As I scanned through my notes, I realized most of them came from the workshops, not the main sessions. My personality lends itself to focused discussion better than the shotgun model of the main celebration, where we jump from song to video to game to announcement to speaker to video to speaker to speaker to song to announcement to dismissal. If my church services followed the same relentless pace, few people would depart feeling refreshed.

Fortunately for me, I had eight hours in the airport to regain my energy, review my notes, and consider the takeaways God had for me: the importance of risk (more on that next), the value of new (and old) connections, and the need for focused discussion on theology and praxis.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bedtime and Other #Flinch2015 Reflections - Part 2 of 4

Making new acquaintances is always one of the highlights of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches' (FGBC) National Conference. At Flinch this year I made several new connections. I shared a bedroom with Aaron, bus seat with Mark, pub bench with Brian, and city stroll with Thomas and Brittany.* With each individual or couple, I shared meaningful conversation about marriage, ministry, theology, hops, and following Jesus. Common bonds are not hard to find when you gather with people who share your sense of purpose.

Aaron and I had made contact via text. He was a friend of a friend who knew I had spare space in my hotel room. Aaron and I split the bill, but he took the bulk of the sleep. On the first night, just before I drifted off, I warned Aaron of my reputation for disruptive flatulence. (Who doesn't have this problem?) Aaron apologized in advance for his disruptive snoring. His claim proved truer than mine: I strained to sleep through the cacophony. Fortunately, while both of us were awake, Aaron and I enjoyed many conversations about theology, pastoral ministry to smaller churches, and partnering with others.

On Friday night Mark and I rode the bus into NYC. The "City Stroll" targeted younger leader, which apparently made room for 36-46 year old, bald men. Mark confided about his tough first year of pastoral ministry. Finding a rhythm and building relationships stretched him. Questions about calling and confidence surfaced. He had recently experienced a breakthrough, which included clarity and renewed energy. When I referred to him the book, Running on Empty, he was quick to jot down the title in his notebook. I always respect a man who travels with a pen and paper.

After disembarking from the bus, a group of seven "young adults" wandered to a pub called the Taproom. I sat across from Brian, who, at the ripe age of 21, was a legitimate "young" leader. Brian shared about his first year of marriage, unconventional Bible training, and expanding taste for IPAs. I devoured his energy while picking at a plate of chicken nachos.

Also at the table with our group was a young married couple. They drank water and ate nothing. So after we left the Taproom, their appetites flared. I accompanied Thomas and Brittany to Shake Shack, only to find it closed. Then we located a restaurant serving Philly Cheese Steaks after midnight. On our walk I learned about Thomas's sports career and call to ministry, Brittany's dysfunctional family and social work (hence the water), and the numerous people they develop in their church. I empathized with Brittany's background, knowing that sometimes the black sheep of the family is the only one that is white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

These divine encounters and newly formed friendships underscore the strength of my Fellowship and its National Conference. It is not a clever or quirky theme (e.g., Flinch (or not); Fellowshift)  that draws us together. Biblical relationships unite us. And if they're truly biblical, we make a point to welcome in new people, as well as reconnect with old allies. Sadly, too many of us do far more of the latter than the former. Newcomers sit on the margins... waiting for next years conference... Margins.

We must remember to welcome new people to our table, bus seat, or bedroom (read the context here). For every new acquaintance has a story. But be warned: some of them snore.

*Names have been altered to protect the innocent!