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Archive for the ‘Hard Questions’ Category

Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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As a child, I knew the answer to this question: NO! We should never lie.

Of course life isn’t simple. We can experience situations that complicate our morals.

We find such a scenario in the biblical book of Jeremiah. The prophet is going through a lot of hurt. His scroll gets chopped and burned in chapter 36, and he’s beaten and imprisoned in chapter 37. In chapter 38 some guys throw him into a muddy cistern. King Zedekiah mercifully orders Jeremiah’s freedom from the filthy pit. Then the king questions the prophet, who doesn’t want to answer but finally gives in. The king tells the prophet not to tell anyone about their conversation but to say they were talking about something else, and Jeremiah obeys.

I invite you to read Jeremiah 38. Then think prayerfully about these questions:

Is the prophet’s lying in obedience to the king right or wrong?

Are there situations in which lying is the best action to take?

Are there situations in which telling the truth is wrong?

(Day 234: Jeremiah 38-41)

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“Why does evil happen?”

“Why does God allow suffering?”

I hear questions like these frequently. We seek to understand God’s ways, but they avoid our comprehension. Our human intellects are limited. We cannot grasp the God who is bigger than our boxes.

Many of us don’t like that. We want to understand. We want God to fit into our minds.

Today’s reading tells about extreme suffering:

See, the storm of the LORD
will burst out in wrath,
a driving wind swirling down
on the heads of the wicked.
The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back
until he fully accomplishes
the purposes of his heart.

Surely this news troubles its ancient hearers. Why would God do this? How could it be? What good could come of it?

Jeremiah, apparently anticipating such questions, gives an answer — one that might not satisfy us, but one we need:

In days to come
you will understand this.

(Day 231: Jeremiah 30-31)

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Why do bad things happen? If we believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, this question can challenge our faith. I’ve heard some answers but haven’t found one that silences the question. Why does God allow evil and suffering?

One truth claim that I accept, however, is that God is always working through whatever happens. In good and bad times, in experiences of joy and pain, God works to bring about the coming reality of love, justice, and peace.

“The LORD works out everything to its proper end” (Prov 16:4).

If you want to read more about the God who works, I encourage you to enjoy God Work, a book by Randy Harris.

(Day 199: Proverbs 16-18)

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Born Again…Again

A few young adults have recently talked to me about re-baptism. Just last week, a college student told me she was thinking about getting baptized again and wondered if she sounded crazy. People have different perspectives on this subject, and even staff members ministering with the same congregation can disagree. This often happens with subjects the Bible does not clearly lay out for us. In case you’re curious about the topic of re-baptism, here is a slightly modified version of my response to the student last week. Some parts might be a little awkward, since you don’t have the student’s original Facebook message to me; but you’re probably smart enough to fill in enough gaps to make sense of my message.

__________________________________________________

First, let me say that you do NOT sound completely crazy. I appreciate your desire to express your love and devotion to our Lord. This feeling is admirable and should never be quenched. I also appreciate your awareness of the Spirit’s moving.

Second, I do NOT think any less of you because of your past actions or because you opened up to me about them, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and confession is a healthy and healing practice that we experience too seldom in the church today (James 5:16).

Theologically and biblically, it’s hard to make a clear judgment about whether Christians should be re-baptized. I seriously considered being re-baptized one time and did not do so. Last semester, another member of our college group felt he needed to be re-baptized, and he went through with it, with my support. Even one of our deacons was re-baptized not too long ago.

When someone is thinking about getting re-baptized, my questions are NOT about how much the person knew about what God was doing in the baptism (e.g., was it for the forgiveness of sins, was it for the gift of the Holy Spirit, etc). People never know everything about baptism when they are baptized; they continue learning and growing long after the baptism. Instead, my questions revolve around the individual’s commitment to the Lord at the time of baptism. Were you making a firm commitment to God when you were baptized? Did you fully intend that commitment to be life-long? Did you understand that you were dedicating you whole life to following the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ? Or were you going through a motion to gain people’s approval or superficially obeying a command simply to avoid hell?

But those are my thoughts. The Bible is silent on the matter of re-baptism (with the exception of Acts 19, where some people were re-baptized because they did not receive the Holy Spirit at their original baptisms). The experience of re-baptism has led many people into more passionate lives in Christ and closer relationships with God.

The choice is up to you. If you choose not to be re-baptized, I believe that God will continue the saving relationship started at your earlier baptism. If you choose TO be re-baptized, your spiritual growth could benefit from the renewal of commitment and devotion and love for God. The experience could serve sort of like a renewal of vows.

I will be fully supportive of whichever decision you make. I am glad that you are experiencing these thoughts and feelings, and I rejoice because of the growing intensity of your desire for God.

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This Sunday, one of our deacons emailed me a message that a college student had submitted on our church web site. The student was looking for a “church home” and wanted to know our beliefs regarding “a woman’s right to an abortion.” After much prayer and thought, I emailed this response to that student.

Thank you for letting us know about your search for a church home. Last summer, the Central Church of Christ began a campus ministry (called Campus Christian Community) that specifically focuses on reaching out to college students and providing opportunities for them to grow in relation to God and each other, while remaining connected to the rest of the church, the college campuses, and the surrounding communities. Thanks to God, we have many opportunities for college students: Bible classes, small groups for prayer and discussion, social activities, retreats, and service projects.

 The question you asked is somewhat complex because of the personal, emotional dynamics that can be involved. However, we believe that God does indeed have a couple of things to say about abortion, although we recognize that the Bible does not directly address this specific topic as we know it today. I will respond with two basic beliefs and a simple recognition of reality. The first and third points summarize a few insights from scripture but do not cite particular biblical passages. If you would like to study the subject in more detail, please let me know.

 First, we believe that God is the Creator and Sustainer of life in all its forms.

This includes babies who have not been born. We celebrate babies prior to their births, and we pray for them even while they are still in their mothers. Recognizing that life belongs to God, we wish to protect and treasure all life from the point of conception. In more common language, we could be called “pro-life.” In light of this, we believe that the willful and deliberate termination of life before birth is a sin.

 Second, we recognize that abortion sometimes seems necessary for the wellbeing of a mother.

Such a situation could involve various factors, such as physical and/or psychological complications. We are not in a position to pass judgment on such situations, for we value the health of both mothers and unborn children. When people are forced to choose between mother and child, we acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of that decision and pray for God to guide and comfort the people who must make it.

 Third, we believe that God is forgiving and redemptive.

Nothing is bad enough to keep us from God’s love and acceptance in Jesus Christ if we accept His grace. If someone has willfully and deliberately terminated a life before birth, that person is still welcomed in this family of Jesus-followers. We all are imperfect and have pain in our pasts (and even in our presents). That is part of being human. God accepts us as we are and desires to transform us more and more into His image. There are college students in the campus ministry here who have dealt with some serious hurt in their lives, and they are finding healing.

 In summary, we would never tell someone, “Yes, go ahead and abort your baby. No problem.” However, we would never let a willful and deliberate ending of life prevent us from accepting someone as God accepts that person, and of course we would not want to pass judgment on a complex and difficult decision that someone made as responsibly as possible.

 I hope this answers your question. Feel free to ask any follow-up questions. I would also be interested in knowing what you believe about this subject.

 Thank you again for contacting us. We hope to meet you soon.

 In the divine embrace,

steven

Now, after reading my response, what do you think?

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