In Christ Alone: Is Reconciliation with God Possible Outside of the Christian Faith?

As a Presbyterian minister, I often find myself presented with opportunities to openly discuss questions of Christian faith and practice. While sometimes these opportunities take the form of simple statements concerning the doctrines passed down by tradition, other times, they lead to deeper, more illuminating discussion. Due to the habituality of my dialogue on these issues, it isn’t uncommon for me to say something in passing that later opens the door for one of these deeper discourses – but I am rarely able to anticipate which statements these will be or when the conversations will take place.

This last week is a case in point. In the midst of a discussion on conflict management, I made an off-hand reference to Jesus being “the only route to[wards reconciliation] with God.” Since this has been the perspective of the overwhelming majority of Christian traditions since the beginning of the faith, c.f., Acts 4:12, I thought nothing more about it.

The next morning, I was surprised to find that my passing declaration had become the source of sincere dialogue amongst the group – each member having understood it somewhat differently from the rest. Recognizing the important role that context (both theirs and mine) played in gaining a clear understanding of my personal beliefs, these co-laborers determined to send me a follow-up question. It was, in fact, such an excellent question that I have decided to share both the question and a full exposition of my answer with the rest of you:

Question: “Are persons of Jewish faith able to enter the kingdom of heaven?”

Answer: I believe that the only way to salvation is and always has been through the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This blood is freely applied to all who have a relationship with the one true and living God whether they freely subscribe to the Christian faith or not. (This is important not only for our Jewish neighbors, but also for those who have never had an opportunity to hear the Good News.) 

Here is how I believe this mechanism works: Scripture is clear that there is one and only one God (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 6:4; 34:39). Scripture also teaches that this God is triune, i.e., that God exists in community with God’s self as three persons revealed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:20). It is possible, therefore, for someone to have a genuine relationship with God the Father but be completely unaware of or unfamiliar with Jesus as the Messiah. That is, if you know the Father, you know the Son and vice versa because there is only one God (Matthew 11:27; John 14).

We see this principle demonstrated repeatedly throughout the Jewish Scriptures. (Some might wisely note that since the Apostles were all Jewish, all of the Christian Scriptures are, in fact of Jewish origin.) Perhaps the most prominent case, however, is that of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, who was saved through faith in God (Genesis 15:6), not through a knowledge of Jesus Christ as the mechanism through which that salvation would be made possible. (To claim otherwise, as some have, i.e., that God miraculously revealed this plan to Abraham so that he could believe, is to speculatively add to Scripture what is not already plainly contained therein – something which both the Jewish and Christian faiths steadfastly guard against.)

That said, two issues can complicate this understanding of Christ’s role in reconciling us to God when we begin thinking about Jews and Judaism in a modern context. The first is the question: “But don’t Jews now know about Jesus and yet choose to reject Him?”

The answer, in this case, is sometimes yes – they have met Jesus in His fullness as God and rejected both the Son and the Father. In most cases, however, I would argue that my Jewish friends have met someone named Jesus, but who is a false Messiah. They have rightly rejected this less than (and sometimes anti) divine variant as inconsistent with the True and Living God with whom they already have a relationship. This is, in fact, a prudent and wise decision!

A great example would be a decision to reject the Jesus who the Reich Church appealed to as the divine motivation for their actions during the Holocaust. I wholeheartedly reject this Jesus too! I don’t know who he is, but he certainly isn’t/wasn’t anything like the Son of God I’ve encountered in the Christian Scriptures! I applaud my Jewish friends for knowing their own Scriptures and the God who delivered them well enough to identify this impostor. (This is more than many of the Christians I know are capable of doing.)

The second question is: “How does this method of reconciliation apply to Jews who aren’t religious?” 

In this case, I would point out that identification with “the right people” is not the same as a relationship with “the right person.” Just as one’s racial or ethnic background is insufficient reason for an individual to be condemned, it is insufficient for Salvation. The color of our skin whether white, black, or olive; the church we attend whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; the place of our birth in America, Israel, or Afghanistan all have no bearing on our eternal destiny. It is our faith in the One True and Living God, our relationship with our Creator, that saves us – and this alone.

I can honestly say that I believe my eternal destiny and that of my closest Jewish friends (mostly Rabbis) is the same. They live lives that show ample evidence of the love of God and the fruit of the Spirit. They have rejected a false Jesus, but the blood of the real Jesus still has them covered. In this way, I continue to embrace Jesus as the sole avenue for humanity’s reconciliation with God yet leave room for God to work among those who do not share a traditional Christian understanding of Christ’s redemptive work.

God could, of course, be working more narrowly than my understanding permits or much more broadly than a more traditional understanding allows – but that is not up to me to decide. Instead, I continue to faithfully preach the Good News that God has “expressed… his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace [we] have been saved, through faith—and this is not from [our]selves, it is the gift of God— not by works [or by the obtainment of a complete and  accurate theological understanding], so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:7-9). 


Stewardship or Stinginess

October marks the beginning of the fourth quarter of the year and, as Summer turns to Fall, many of us find ourselves reflecting upon what we did and didn’t accomplish during the previous nine months. Perhaps we are pleased with how we spent our time, money, and effort and feel motivated to begin planning for the next season of our lives. We feel excited, hopeful, invigorated, ready for the next adventure and prepared to see what God has in store.

On the other hand, we may find ourselves reflecting on just how little we have done with God’s gifts. Perhaps we’ve taken care, but not enough. Winter is coming and we feel the overwhelming need to shore up our resources. While others may be thrilled about what comes next, we find ourselves frightened and doubtful, uncertain that our hard work has paid or will pay off. We plan anyway.

For churches, this reflective season becomes a time to focus on stewardship – it’s time to make our plan for next year – to think creatively about what we have and what we might do to continue the work of God in our communities. Not surprisingly, our collective thought processes often mirror the individual ones highlighted above. For some congregations, this season of stewardship is a joyous celebration of bounty, marked by gratitude and thanksgiving for the generosity God has shown through the acts of Christ’s followers. For other worshipping communities, however, stewardship season is a time of grief and anxiety as we take a hard look at budgetary shortfalls and the ways in which the ministries that we engaged this year (sometimes just barely) will have to be cut to match our projected financial status in the coming year. Such disparate responses make one thing clear: stewardship matters.

According to Wikipedia “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, cultural resources etc.” So when we speak of stewardship, it’s important not to just get hung up on the monetary definition (though this is definitely an important one). Stewardship in its truest form recognizes that our resources (in whatever form they take) are not our own, but a gift from God. And Scripture teaches that the more we have been given, the more is expected from us (Lk. 12:48).

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells His disciples a story about a wealthy businessman who, before leaving on a long journey, decided to commit portions of his fortune to his servants. To one, he gave five talents of gold, to another two, and to another one. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t distinguish between the servants. He doesn’t tell us what roles they held within the household or how hard they labored (or didn’t) on their master’s behalf. In fact, the only clear distinction between them is the amount of money that the master left in their care.

Upon his return, the master found that the first servant had doubled the value of his investment. The second servant, likewise, made a return on the rich man’s money. The third, however, took the path of extreme caution. Opting for a “low-risk investment,” he buried the gold and returned it to his master exactly what had been given. (Though, perhaps, a bit dustier than it had been initially.)

Jesus goes on to explain the master’s pleasure with both of the servants who, despite the disparity in what he had given them, gave him a good return on his investment. The third servant, however, didn’t fare quite so well. He had done as little as possible with the resources entrusted to his care and reaped the “reward” due a lazy steward.

The passage ends on a theme quite similar to that of Luke 12:48: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29) The moral? God’s gift to us doesn’t just consist of time, money, and energy, but of His trust that we will handle those gifts well and in ways that further the work of Christ’s Kingdom. If we break God’s trust, God will offer the gifts to someone else.

While this isn’t what is happening in every struggling congregation, it is certain that it is what is happening for many of us – oft times without our even realizing it. Part of the reason for this is our tendency to conflate stinginess with stewardship. TheFreeDictionary.com defines stinginess as “the unwillingness to part with money” (though we might freely add “time” and “energy” to the mix). We hold on to what we have with an iron grip believing that in doing so, we are engaged in “the responsible planning and management of resources.” We do our best to get the most work for the lowest price (without regard to the quality of the work being done or the well-being of the workers), avoid paying too much for a professional to handle the work or maintenance we believe (often wrongly) we can do just as well ourselves, and stash as much of what God has gifted us with in the ground as we possibly can. When the Master returns, we will be able to proudly show him the one dirty talent that we buried – our storehouse against potential future disasters.

True stewardship, on the other hand, is a call to courage. It’s not about getting everything at the lowest price, through the least amount of labor, or in the shortest period of time, but about using discernment as we seek ways to earn a return on what God has entrusted to us. It’s an invitation to invest our time, money, and energy in ways that bring glory to God.

In honesty, it’s often difficult to measure these “Kingdom returns.” We may rarely (if ever) recognize the impact that the time invested in speaking words of kindness had upon the supermarket cashier or the difference that one meal made in the life of a friend. But God does. And we are called to invest with faith.

So as the air cools and the leaves begin to fall, it’s a good time to ask ourselves about our own plans for the coming year. Will we cling to God’s gifts out of stinginess, or will we invest them wisely in the work of Christ’s Church?


What do Presbyterians Believe About the Bible?

“What do Presbyterians believe about the Bible?” Believe it or not, this is a question I get asked with some regularity. What is the Bible? Why do we use it? Is it really relevant to our lives today?
According to the Presbyterian Mission Agency:

“The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books that together tell the story of a group of people bound by a common faith in God. It is divided into two main sections: the Old Testament containing 39 books originally written primarily in Hebrew and the New Testament containing 27 books originally written primarily in Greek. For Presbyterians and others of the Reformed tradition the Bible is the means by which Christian believers come to understand how God has been present with humanity since the beginning of time and is present in our world today. By studying the scriptures we can begin to know of God’s faithfulness, constant love and eternal goodness.”

It is for this reason that reading the Bible in church and studying it at home is essential for those of us who seek to live as disciples of Christ. It is here that we learn about who God is, who we are, and how we are to relate to God and one another. In the pages of Scripture, we see God’s love and faithfulness unfold as His followers spread the message of peace and reconciliation. And it is here that we learn to live in ways that make peace and reconciliation possible.

The Book of Order tells us that as Presbyterians, we confess “the Scriptures to be the Word of God written, witnessing to God’s self-revelation. Where that Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the Living Word is present by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. For this reason the reading, hearing, preaching, and confessing of the Word are central to Christian worship” (Book of Order, W-2.2001). In other words, (from a Presbyterian perspective), Christian worship simply doesn’t exist without the Christian Scriptures.

The Book of Order states that “Leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be expected to affirm that “… the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments … [are] … by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to [them]” (W-4.4003b). This is more than passing agreement or mental ascent – it is a belief that governs our lives and actions, propelling us into a space where we are constantly open to the transforming power of God as we are made more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).

So what does this mean in a practical sense? To begin with, it means that we must give the Bible a central place in our lives. While there are a lot of good religious texts and self-help books on the market today, we affirm the belief that this one is the best. This means that when it comes to determining what we should believe, where we should focus our attention, or how we should act in a given situation, it is the God through the words of Holy Scripture, who has the final word. Not the government, our parents, our psychologist, our friends, or the latest best-selling author or hit public speaker.

Of course, for this to happen – for God to really have the final say – we must know what God has to say to begin with. And this doesn’t happen by osmosis. Simply spending time with the pastor or other believers doesn’t mean that you’ll get a good grasp on the contents of the Book or how they all fit together. In order for this to happen, you have to do some study. One of the ways we facilitate this is through weekly worship. Another is through Sunday School as we meet to discuss the Scriptures in community.

That said, there is no substitute for personal, daily study and reflection. If you aren’t a reader, this can be a challenge, so I invite you instead to consider joining me daily as I read through the Revised Common Lectionary on my YouTube channel. This is a great way to begin building familiarity with Scripture in around 10 minutes a day. I hope you’ll join me there!


“Helping Hands” or “Why I Became a Presbyterian”

“How did you become a Presbyterian?” It’s a question I’m asked with some regularity, often with the assumption that I fall into one of two categories: I was born a Presbyterian, or I became a Presbyterian because they’re the only ones who ordain women. (P.S. We aren’t. There are Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Baptists who also ordain women… just to name a few!) To correct these misconceptions, I’ve come up with a witty reply: “I became a Presbyterian because John Calvin converted me.”

Needless to say, this raises a few eyebrows. For most of us, Calvin is an antiquated Father of the Reformation era – an unsophisticated time when Black Death kept popping up throughout Europe and the only way Christians could think to respond was to isolate, wear masks, and do what they could to help those suffering. For me however, Calvin is a wise friend with a deep knowledge of Scripture and an opinion worth hearing even if I don’t always fully agree. A man of deep insight and even (dare I suggest) progressive ideals, he bucked the trend by suggesting that women were not just capable of serving in what for the Western Church were traditionally male-only roles, but actively ordained them to them! But I’m getting ahead of myself…

At the age of 2, I was baptized in a United Methodist Church that my parents had selected largely on the basis of that having been the denomination my father attended as a child. From there, my family moved on to a series of congregations rooted in the Baptist tradition. One of the things I appreciate most about these communities of faith was their outward focus. Though few in our town had what one might consider to be “ample” resources, there was a constant attitude that no matter how little you had, there was always someone who had less. The mission of Jesus was to find that person, get to know their need, and extend a helping hand.

At the time, my impression of “mainline” denominations like the Presbyterians was that they were largely disinterested in these forms of outreach – particularly if one actually mentioned the name of Jesus while offering food to the hungry or water to the thirsty (Mt. 10:42). This, combined with what I would later discover were some substantial misunderstandings of what John Calvin taught allowed me to conveniently place Presbyterians and Presbyterianism in the category of near-heresy. Then 9/11 happened.

Awash in usually reliable Christian sources all arguing with one another over whether Islam was or wasn’t a peaceful religion, I decided to begin seeking answers for myself. I read the Quran cover-to-cover – twice. I sought out information about different Islamic sects (including those responsible for the attacks and others far less well-known). I read the work of various Imams and eventually even ended up with a few Muslim friends – none of whom, I discovered, were even marginally inclined towards acts of terrorism. And I found myself asking how many of the perceptions I’d formed in my childhood – especially those based on “reliable” sources – were accurate.

With this in mind, I began reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. My goal was to prove that at least my diagnosis of Presbyterianism was correct. It wasn’t. In fact, the man I’d once viewed as a hateful misogynist turned out to be gentle in his approach and well-reasoned in his arguments. So well-reasoned that even having committed massive portions of Scripture to memory, I couldn’t find good arguments against much of what he had to say. It turned out that I already was a Presbyterian – I just needed someone to show me!

I began exploring the Presbyterian tradition in greater depth, reading other authors and learning about various confessions. Shortly thereafter, I joined a PC(USA) congregation and several years later (finally convinced that it was biblically acceptable for a woman to hold a position of leadership) and, at the encouragement of others who had identified my gifts, began seeking ordination.

The result is that when I say I’m a Presbyterian, I’m not talking about having been born into a denomination or simply having chosen one out of a hat. Instead, I’m speaking about the culmination of a long process of growth and exploration – of openness to the ideas of others and to the possibility that I, myself, might be wrong. I’ve found a home in this denomination not because I perfectly agree with every doctrinal statement we embrace (our own confessions disagree with one another in places), but because overall, I find the Presbyterian understanding of Christ’s teachings to be in line with those teachings as presented in Scripture. And that includes our understanding of what it means to reach out to our neighbors.

During the Black Death, John Calvin led the other ministers of Geneva (elders and deacons) in the visitation of the afflicted. He was a stalwart supporter of immigrants and refugees fleeing from persecution in other European countries. He set an example by taking personal risks in order to demonstrate Christ’s love to those most in need. And we should too. Though our modern plagues look a bit different (COVID, homelessness, etc.), an embrace of the Presbyterian tradition calls us to a deep compassion for those in need and begs us to follow in the steps of Christ who “while we were still sinners… died for us” (Ro. 5:8).


Redeeming the Day

This last Saturday, I had the honor of officiating my first wedding. It was an unusual event in that the bride and groom chose to declare their love for one another on the 20th Anniversary of September 11th. For them, this was just another date they’d memorized for grade school history exams, but for many of us gathered it still stung like an open wound. (I still remember every moment of the day in vivid detail.) The previous day had only deepened this painfully surreal sensation as the procession returning USMC Cpl. Page (one of the 13 U.S. servicemen and women killed during Kabul airport bombing) passed just blocks from the hotel in which we were staying.

In a private moment, the bride approached me to confess that she was beginning to feel a little guilty for choosing the date – as though she were being disrespectful by indulging such joy on a day that for many symbolized only pain. I suggested to her both then and again later in the ceremony that she was actually doing quite the opposite: she was redeeming the day.

In Ephesians 5:8-11, 15-16, the apostle Paul reminds his readers that “you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them… Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

Paul recognized that in a sinful world, there could be no escape from darkness – it penetrates us and surrounds us. That is, until we turn on the light. In marrying on a day so painfully burned into our collective memories, the bride and groom were doing just that – turning on the lights to remind us that even in the darkest moments of sorrow and suffering when the clouds seem most impenetrable, Christ is there: extending His nail-scarred hands to offer us a hope and a future.

This is a good reminder for us all, not just on September 11th but every day of the year. Throughout our lives, each of us experience events which scar us deeply – lost jobs, homes, children, or spouses. Broken promises. Shattered dreams. These events transform who we are and how we see the world. Yet on these days too, Christ is there for each of us, extending His hands through the darkness to offer us hope for a future – if only we are willing to accept it.

It would be nice if the charge ended there with Christ opening His arms to us in our darkest moments. But it doesn’t. In fact, for those of us who claim Jesus as the source of our hope, this is just the beginning. In John 15:2 (the Scripture passage chosen for the wedding ceremony), Jesus charged His disciples, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” In other words, His scarred hands should never be the only ones reaching through the darkness to offer hope to those who are suffering. Ours should be too.

This is no easy task. To live in true obedience requires perseverance in the midst of pain: a willingness not only to see the darkness, but like the many firefighters and EMS workers in 2001, to walk boldly into the midst of it. It requires us to place our lives and our livelihoods on the line as we extend our hands to our neighbors in a gesture of fellowship and support, as we shine the light of Christ amidst the darkness of the world. Only when we boldly embrace this charge will we too redeem the days.


Wishing and Hoping

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about the difference between “wishing” and “hoping.” At first blush, the two seem nearly synonymous: both involve a desire (sometimes a very strong desire) for something one has not yet achieved or acquired. If any immediate difference stands out, it’s likely in the fact that wishing can happen in reverse – “I wish that hadn’t happened that way…” You can’t hope in reverse. Hope is intrinsically always forward focused. But I would argue that wishing and hoping are different in another, less obvious way: namely the degree in which an individual is personally invested in seeing the desired events come to pass.

As a fake-it-till-you-make-it handywoman (this week, I fixed my own dishwasher) I experience this dichotomy frequently. There is a distinct difference between what I mean when I call my mother up and sigh, “I wish I had an (insert tool of the moment here)” and “I hope I can find an (insert same tool here).” In the first case, I am clearly indicating that I do not have said tool and that while it would be helpful, I do not expect to acquire said tool and will be making do with whatever I have on hand. In the second, I’m expressing that I am taking action to acquire the necessary tool – digging through my toolboxes and maintenance drawers, conducting a search online, or even going to a hardware store to make a purchase. I wish for what I am resigned to living without. I hope for what I believe I can acquire.

Viewed from this perspective, wishes are the thoughts of those resigned to the present circumstances as all there is or will be. Hopes are the actions of those who believe these circumstances can be changed. And this brings us to the church.

Sadly, for many Christians (especially those in declining congregations), wishing has become our default. We wish we were making a bigger impact upon our communities. We wish we had more diversity in our pews (or for many mainline congregations, any diversity in our pews). We wish we had more young families, youth, and small children. But we have looked at our budget, our membership numbers, the age of our congregants, and have resigned ourselves to the present moment as all there is or all there ever will be. If asked to create a vision for the congregation’s future, we produce this list of wishes – things we had (or believe we had) in the past, but which we hold no hope of recovering. While members may still embrace the vision, they are no longer willing to invest themselves in reaching it.

This brings us to another key difference between wishing and hoping – wishing can see the desired destination, but hope is the bridge that takes us there. In other words, once hope is gone, there is no way to get there (to that beautiful vision of impactful, diverse, thriving ministry) from where we are. This is why congregations die. This isn’t, of course, to deny that there aren’t other factors which contribute to the decline of congregations. But in the end it is the loss of hope that sounds the death knell.

Congregations that lose hope do so for a reason, not infrequently related to the belief that they have “tried everything and nothing works.” What is usually meant by this is that the strategies that helped churches grow 50 years ago are no longer effective today. Think about it: a lot has changed in our world since 1971! The ways in which “rebellious youth” sought (sometimes successfully) to change the world then are very different from the ways in which today’s “rebellious youth” seek transformation. And so are the ways in which those youth relate to the church. Which means that not only will the old strategies for outreach continue to fail, but so will any strategy that isn’t rooted in an understanding of the world in which the younger generation now lives – not from our perspective, but from theirs. Yes, this means that what Millennials think and believe, their preferred methods for developing relationships, their passions and dreams matter for the future of the church.

Congregations that survive do so because instead of resigning themselves to their circumstances when they recognized that the old strategies were failing (and doing so repeatedly), they dared to invest their time and effort in new ways of approaching the world. This isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s painful and exhausting. But in the end, it’s far less exhausting than using the wrong tool for the job, investing huge amounts of time and effort, and still failing in the end.

So do we have hope? To be honest, I don’t know. But my guess is that you do – that you can look at which projects, plans, and initiatives attract not only your attention but your elbow-grease. You know whether you continue to hold out the hope that leads to life and a future for our congregations or have resigned yourself to the wishful thinking that leads to death. This also means that you matter – that your action or inaction makes a difference in whether our congregations see their vision of ministry become a reality or watch it fade into the past. Success is not a matter of chance, but of choice. Will you choose hope?


Disappearing Churches

I’ve been thinking a lot about mask mandates this week. No surprise since the CDC (a few weeks later than WHO) has finally conceded that the vaccines while showing some protective effect against the Delta variant, are not adequate to the task of fully preventing an infection or reinfection with The Virus. In response to the resurgence of COVID-19 diagnoses, many communities in California (including Sacramento County) have reinstated the mask mandates that were lifted on June 15. For us, this means a return to covering our faces whenever we are in public locations – courthouses, grocery stores, churches.

            As I reflect on this, I am struck by the fact that the mask mandates both present and past were government orders. For now, I’ll set aside the fact that as Christians we are Scripturally charged with showing concern for one another’s’ well-being and focus solely on this factor. Because we tend to value obedience to the laws of the land in which we live, most courthouses, grocery stores, and churches have elected to abide by the mandates.

            There is no denying that this makes the situation difficult for many individuals. The truth is, if most of us wanted to be wearing masks, obscuring our faces, altering the way our bodies intake oxygen and exhale CO2, we’d have been doing it already. (Just ask anyone at the gym training for high altitude athletics.) Masks are uncomfortable; they itch and scratch and fall off our noses. They hinder communication because we can no longer see each other’s expressions. (Are you being genuine? Sarcastic? Insulting?) And it niggles those of us raised with an unusually broad range of freedoms (more than are available to most citizens in most parts of the world) to have to give any of them up – even if doing so might save our own lives or the lives of others. So in proper American tradition, many Americans protested and continue to protest… in church.

            I admit that I find this peculiar. If one is protesting a government order, it would seem that the first place to protest would be in… well, government spaces. Places where those responsible for creating the laws and with the capacity to lift them would have to confront the displeasure of those living under them. Yet I haven’t seen a great many disgruntled Christians protesting by refusing to wear masks when called for jury duty or standing in line to renew their drivers’ licenses. While there are a multitude of possible reasons for this lack of open confrontation, my guess is that for most protestors this is a bit too risky. They simply don’t want to pay a fine or sacrifice their freedom (or any more of it) for their violation of the new legal standards. So they may not like the law, but most choose to comply in government settings – at least most of those whom I and my clergy colleagues know to have protested in other ways and places.

            It also seems odd that in an economically driven country (one in which the government has a vested interest in ensuring that funds continually flow through the market place), those who protest often don’t do so by refusing to mask-up before walking into grocery stores or small businesses. Admittedly, the stay-at-home orders have already caused pretty significant economic damage, but many of those protesting the mask mandates aren’t willing to deepen this impact. Again, the decision not to protest in this way is, for some, likely tied to the level of risk involved. Most Americans have a limited ability to refrain from eating for any prolonged period of time. (Kudos to all of our ancestors who, prior to the industrial revolution, often did go without two or three small meals between lunch and dinner). Buying food requires compliance. Compliance means putting on a mask.

            And this leads us to the peculiar case of the churches. Admittedly, for much of last year churches were shut down. Some congregations protested by continuing to meet and the most prominent of these made the news as police officers barred their doors shut. Others small enough to fly under the radar sometimes did manage to sneak through – with disastrous consequences for some who did so without considering ways to mitigate the risk of viral spread among their congregants. Others (like our own) continued with worship online as they sought creative ways to follow the Biblical mandate not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25) while showing equal concern for making that “assembling” safe for those most at risk within our communities. And, sometimes, with a bit of interest in the fact that the government was mandating the type of caution that Christian churches have taken of their own accord without any mandate through outbreaks in the past – including Europe’s Black Death.

            Earlier this year, when it was again safe to reopen, many congregations (our own included) did so, but continued to observe what we (in our limited knowledge) considered reasonable health standards for the protection of our membership and visitors, and in compliance with the law. Fascinatingly, it is at this point that many Christians decided to protest – refusing to return to worship at all until the mandates are lifted. In other words, in response to a government order, many Christians have chosen not to deliver a message to the government by putting something they themselves value at risk, but to God and those whom God has called by putting something they don’t value at risk.

Because of this, it really isn’t surprising that in the early part of this year, many of the congregations who survived 2020 began to close their doors. Permanently. Without people in the pews or money in the coffers, these mostly small congregations simply couldn’t make ends-meet. The last statistics I heard suggest that 30% of churches closed permanently in the last year – they won’t reopen when the law changes or the economy improves. They are gone.

Remarkably, these closures aren’t due to COVID-19 or mask mandates. If anything, the events of 2020 and 2021 have merely served to amplify a truth that has undergirded Christian worship for the last 50 years: namely, that the majority of those attending Christian worship don’t value the privilege. Sunday morning service, corporate prayer, Bible study, the sacraments (all ancient hallmarks of the Christian faith) have become merely a few of our ever-increasing options for the investment of our time. If we’re honest, the fact that the things we offhandedly label as “sacred” often lose out to everything from time with family (which if I recall my childhood correctly can involve sitting together through a service and discussing the sermon afterward), going for a hike, or attending sports events, suggests that they simply aren’t things upon which most churchgoers place much value. And that leads to a hard truth: things we don’t value become easy to sacrifice. And the things that are easy to sacrifice… well, they disappear with or without a mask mandate.

            So, write your congressmen. Vote when you can. Then put on a mask and bring your family to church.


They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love

“God, I love you, but I can’t stand your people.” At the age of 18, the prayer seemed a fitting and final conclusion to life in formal congregational settings. I was growing in leaps and bounds – reading the Bible, memorizing whole passages, and praying regularly. I’d even picked up the odd habit of reading classic Christian theological texts (the big ones with complicated words that only seminarians understand) before bed at night. My relationship with God was strong and getting stronger – which was more than I could say for 99% of the other people I sat with on the average Sunday morning.

The best I could figure, these people were the duds: the ones who attended church because of habit or tradition or were hoping that at least if their butts were in the pews on Sunday mornings, they stood at least half a chance of being taken up by accident when the rapture occurred. Though I wouldn’t say it out loud (I was too humble for that), their faith was nothing by comparison – with a few exceptions, they were mostly hypocrites and pretenders. And the truth was, I’d grown tired of the toxicity which seemed to pervade every “Christian” setting I’d entered – the politics and infighting, gossip, slander, elitism – I’d simply had enough.

Over the course of my short life, I’d seen congregations split over issues ranging from the consumption of alcohol to what type of music should be played during Sunday service (“God forbid there should be drums!” “How can I possibly stay if there aren’t?!”). If these really were God’s people (and I had my doubts), they were the pettiest, most immature, and unloving examples I could imagine. They were hardly likely to become the sorts of believers I’d read about in Christian history (the ones I fancied myself most like) – Polycarp (the disciple of John) who about to be burned to death in a Roman stadium and given one more chance to recant his faith declared, “Fourscore and six years have I been serving him [Christ], and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” or Martin Luther who about to be excommunicated for his persistence in his charges against corrupt church leaders and given an opportunity to recant softly replied, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

 To make things worse, I’d been the victim of so much judgment and discrimination (how I dressed, the music I listened to, my personal interpretation of the Scriptures – which I at least had bothered to read – more than most of my classmates) that I didn’t think I could sit through another day in the same building with “God’s people.” I’d been taught that my relationship with God was personal (something I’d interpreted to mean “you can do it on your own without associating with any other human beings”) and it was clear that for my own spiritual growth and mental stability, it was best if I struck out on my own.

Over the next few years, I continued to grow sans “God’s people.” I met intermittently with other believers who I judged to be sincere to discuss Scripture and other issues related to faith (though much less frequently in actuality than I’d convinced myself I was doing) and continued to acquire as much knowledge about Scripture, theology, and Christian history as my brain could hold. I had become in my own opinion, a model Christian – and all without any need to engage with any of the irritations which accompanied formal worship or commitment to a worshipping community. The only problem? I wasn’t actually growing.

You see, I had erred in comparing growth in my knowledge of God to growth in my relationship with God – a relationship which from the very beginning demanded that those of us who consider ourselves part of God’s family actually interact with God’s family. In fact, it is these interactions which Christ told His disciples would serve as the primary factor which identified them as His disciples.

In John 13:34-35, having just finished washing eleven sets of feet (a final act of service prior to his trial and execution) Jesus declares, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

            If you’ve ever looked up the Scriptural definition of “love,” you’ve noticed that it’s actually pretty demanding. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 states:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

            The trick with living this kind of love? Well, to begin with, you can’t do it outside of a context in which you have the option not to. Patience doesn’t exist apart from circumstances which tempt us to impatience (think church committee meetings). One can’t be kind unless there is someone to be unkind to, or chose not to envy if there is no one to potentially compare one’s self to. And pride? I can tell you from experience that that one exists in greatest abundance not when I’m around other Christians who might knock me down a peg, but when I’m on my own removed from them because I’ve decided I’ve got things wired and they don’t.

            Now pay attention because that last one starts to highlight an important point that only grows stronger as we examine the rest of the things that “love is.” If I decide to separate from other believers, I dishonor them as members of Christ’s family – I have excommunicated them. If I avoid fellowship because it’s “better for my spiritual growth and mental stability,” I’ve become self-seeking. I’ve already demonstrated my ability to be angered. And my choice to separate from other believers was directly due to my keeping a record of wrongs.

            Have you picked up on the problem yet? In removing myself from regular fellowship with a congregation, I was making a very clear choice to disobey Jesus’ final and most important command to His disciples; I was choosing NOT to love.

            The Apostle Paul is clear, “If I speak in the tonguesof men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). In other words, every act of faith or discipleship is worthless in the absence of love. And we cannot love without the presence of one another.

            So what does this mean? For many of us, it means we need to swallow our pride, let go of our grudges, and start again; This time not as consumers of the Christian faith sitting in pews and hoping for a “personal” experience, but as lovers of the other pew sitters – genuinely concerned with the growth and well-being of those with whom we have little in common, who’s faith isn’t growing as fast as ours or in the same direction, and who’s perspectives and opinions often rub us the wrong way. We start again. But this time, we start with love.

Team Work, Workplace Skills

The Team Player: The Ideal vs. Reality

“I want to live what I believe.” It’s a sentiment to which most of us can relate. The phrase expresses our desire to be clearly identified as the person we think we are. And it makes evident our conviction that a person can genuinely believe one thing, but live in a manner contrary to that belief.

The Bible, however, paints a different picture. In Matthew 12:34,35 Jesus tell us that, “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.” And again, in Matthew 7:17,18, “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” It is what we actually believe, not what we hope we believe, that dictates how we behave.

For many of us, accepting this truth is a challenge. After all, I don’t know many people who want to think of themselves as liars, thieves, or hypocrites. It’s much easier to justify our regularly recurring faults as “innocent slips of the tongue” or a “momentary lapses of judgment”.

Instead, the Bible asks us to address such repetitive sins as what they are: outward symptoms of a corrupt pattern of thought. That doesn’t mean that no one ever just slips and behaves in a way contrary to their convictions. But it does mean that when those “slips” are a regular feature of our everyday lives, it may be a sign that we don’t really hold the beliefs we think we do. And few places are as well designed to expose the difference as the workplace concept of “the team”.

Ideally, “the team” is a group of individuals dedicated to the tireless pursuit of a single goal. But the ideal isn’t often the reality. Each of us have been assigned to teams which resemble petty, bickering groups of individuals rather than a well-honed machine. We have experience with the free-riders who contribute just enough to get by. We’ve lived with the frustration that arises when individuals are unwilling to consider the potential of any view other than their own. We’ve had our fill of the petty dictators who label others as “poor team players” simply because they refuse to be mindlessly obedient drones. On occasion, we may even have been guilty of being these things, ourselves.

If we’re honest, being a team player isn’t always easy, simply because there are as many definitions of the phrase as there are people in the workplace. Some view a team player as someone capable of carrying out detailed orders. Others argue that the best team members are creative thinkers, willing and able to execute grand visions. And still others would suggest that the best team players are capable of collaborative work in which everyone shares the load equally.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at how the Bible defines a “team player”. We’ll be examining the thought process behind these concepts as well as a few of the actions they lead to.

Meanwhile, feel free to share your own teamwork experiences or dilemmas in the comment box below!

Evangelism, Sharing Your Testimony, Technique, Telling Your God Story

Sharing Your Testimony: Three More Prepared Testimonies

Over the course of this series, we’ve discussed “What it Really Means” to give a testimony, taken a look at some Biblical models for both “One Liners” and “Deeper Dialogues”, addressed the fears which we face as we are “Getting the Ball Rolling”, and discussed the technique behind the preparation of a formal “Conversion Story”.  This week, we’ll be concluding with a look into three other types of prepared testimony and the role that they play in helping us to share the Gospel message!

If you’re anything like me, your conversion story is pretty dull.  I was saved at the grand age of six and there wasn’t some miraculous (by human standards) moment when God pulled me from darkness into light.  It was a regular Sunday morning service at a local Baptist church and I remember my father holding my hand as I walked down the aisle to the strains of “Just as I Am” and standing with me as I informed the giant teddy-bear of a pastor that, “I want to become a Christian.”  No chorus of angels, no blinding light, no life of reckless abandon to the desires of the flesh.  Just a simple profession of faith.

Unless you were converted on your death bed (in which case, you won’t be reading this article), your “God Story” didn’t end on the day you committed your life to Christ.  In fact, it was very probably just beginning… and that’s where the following three types of testimony come in to play.

How He changed your life.  Unlike the conversion story, the tale of how Christ changed your life applies to both those who accepted Christ after a lifetime of “other things” and those who were privileged to meet Him in their childhood.  (I use the word “privileged” intentionally.  Both of my parents came to Christ in adulthood and I have spent a lifetime watching them struggle with issues which, for me, have only been theoretical.  By God’s Grace I was spared the frustration of years wasted walking in another path.  I never cease to be grateful for this – and if you were saved at a young age, you shouldn’t either!)

While the conversion story places the emphasis on the events that led us to surrender to God, the story of how that encounter changed your life focuses on all that has happened since that event.  It centers upon the many ways in which God works (and is working) to make us more like Him and upon His faithful provision for us, even in the worst of circumstances.  This type of testimony doesn’t focus on the Salvation message, so don’t feel like you need to find some way to weave that in.  If it fits naturally, fine, but if it doesn’t… well, that’s O.K. too.  Use this testimony to tell those “big picture” stories that reflect God’s omniscience (His “all-knowingness”) and His omnipresence (He is everywhere at all times).

How He helps you today.  Unlike a conversion testimony or a “big picture” story about God’s involvement in our lives, this type of testimony takes a “little picture” view of events.  It focuses on the present – often emphasizing circumstances which are yet to be resolved.  Such testimonies are important, since many times the person we’re sharing with can actually watch the events as they unfold and verify the truth in our statements. This might be a testimony to the peace that God is giving you as your wife battles cancer, the guidance God is giving as you seek a new job, or how He’s giving you wisdom in a difficult situation at school.  With it comes an added bonus: in order to demonstrate God’s working, you also have to look for God’s working and, the more you see Him laboring in your life, the more pleasant that life will become!

Something exciting that God has done.  Somewhere between a “big picture” testimony and a “little picture” account, this is the frosting on the cake.  These are the accounts of blessings that God has given: the promotion, the pay raise, the unexpected opportunity.  This is your chance to tell about how God provided the funds to pay that excessively high medical bill, gave you that job you wanted but didn’t expect to get, or placed the right replacement vehicle for your gas-guzzling ’72 Lincoln Mark IV in your path at just the right time.  (I’ve been telling that last story for 13 years now – and given the condition of the aforementioned “replacement vehicle”, may be telling it for 13 more!)  Share the story of how, against all odds, you got picked for the school football team or how God provided someone from the church to fix the hole in your roof!  While there will always be someone who views such events as the natural consequences of natural actions, the luck of the draw, or the intervention of that faceless god “fate”, as we take the time to acknowledge that every good thing we have comes from Christ, others will begin to see the difference!

Most testimonies are not limited to just one of these categories and some of the best ones I’ve ever heard utilize elements from each.  Take some time to write down the key elements of your own “God Story”, then see how the Spirit leads.  You may find yourself recognizing the hand of God in some extraordinary places!

Some final advice?  Be honest.  Remember that a testimony should always point others to Christ.  Never forget to tell how God worked out your circumstance and, if He hasn’t yet, make certain that the story you’re telling ends with the expectation that He will.  Christianity is about the Hope Jesus gives and your “God Story” should reflect that!