Posts Tagged ‘Harding School of Theology’

Kid holding little World Globe on her HandsI grew up near the Texas-Mexico border. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I played with Mexican American friends and didn’t notice any differences between us.

Then in college and grad school I studied missions and intercultural communication and was blessed with several international mission trips, so those kinds of cultural differences haven’t been big problems for me.

But in college I had a roommate who was a member of a group that my culture had taught me to despise. Because of where I had grown up, that was my Nineveh experience.

That was when I had to choose to participate in the reconciliation that God is working out in the world. I had to get over myself, my own assumptions and preferences and comforts, and embrace a person who was noticeably different from me and was a child of God, created in the divine image.

Intergroup conflicts plague humanity – conflicts along lines of ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic distinctions.

These conflicts have challenged the universal reconciling work of God.

We see that sad truth in our own day. Maybe you see it where you live. I see it here in Memphis.

We see it in church history, and we see it in the Bible.

One place where we see it in the Bible is the book of Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go minister to the Ninevites, a group of people that Jonah despises. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he can’t stand the idea of preaching in Nineveh.

God sends a great storm. The sailors do what they know to do to save a ship in such a storm, but nothing works.

Jonah sleeps, careless about what happens. The sailors cry out to their gods, and the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to call on his god.

The sailors cast lots, and the lot falls to Jonah. The sailors question Jonah, who toss him overboard. The storm is targeting him.

They don’t want to throw Jonah into the sea. They try other options to no avail. They pray to God and toss Jonah. The storm calms, and the sailors worship God.

God send a big fish to swallow Jonah, who is in the fish for three days and three nights. There Jonah prays, and at God’s command the fish vomits Jonah onto land.

Jonah receives his mission from God again and goes to Nineveh, announcing coming calamity. The people of Nineveh fast and repent, and God relents.

Jonah gets mad. He says that he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (ESV). That was why Jonah had resists the call to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them to suffer God’s wrath.

God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah want to die. (He says so three times!)

In great disgust, Jonah goes outside the city, sets up a shade tent, sits under it, and waits to watch the city’s destruction.

God provides a shade plant for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah gets a sunburn and feels sorry for himself.

God wants to redeem a group of people that Jonah despises, and Jonah lets his prejudice limit his involvement in God’s mission. Jonah gets so upset that he wants to die!

Place yourself in the Jonah story.

See yourself in the character of Jonah. God tells you to go minister to ______; and you think, “No way! Those people are evil. They’re disgusting. They probably won’t even listen to God’s message. And even if they do listen, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. And if I minister to them, my people will despise me for it.”

Now ask yourself, “Who’s in the blank? Who are the people I can’t stand? Who are the ones I’m so uncomfortable with that I would rather die than share God’s mercy with them?” When you answer that, when you fill in the blank, you can get a sense of what Jonah experiences when God tells him to preach to the Ninevites. He chooses to go in the opposite direction. And when God extends mercy to Nineveh, Jonah is angry.

A major turn happens near the end of the story. In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about his anger, and we see that God is right in extending mercy to a people group that Jonah despises.

This story of intergroup conflict reminds us that God is working out a mission of reconciliation.

As we see in the New Testament, God is bringing all people groups together under Christ. When we live in that mission of reconciliation, we participate in the life of Jesus, who crossed cultural boundaries. He talked with people despised by his own group. He even empowered a Samaritan woman to be a missionary. In Christ we find and live out peace, unity, reconciliation, and love that transcend and transform cultural differences.

In that mission we can rejoice instead of being angry.

The “new creation” is coming. God is working it out in the world. One day all cultural conflicts will be transformed into a beautiful peace in which diverse people groups live and worship together in Christ. In the meantime we get to participate in that reconciliation that God is producing.

This can be hard for us, but I see a glimpse of hope when I watch children, still innocent of the hatred that pervades our world. My white son plays with black children and Jewish children without even knowing that they come from different cultures. That day is coming for all, and God calls us to participate here and now in its coming.


What’s your Nineveh experience?


Who’s in your blank?


Whatever our answers, God wants to empower us to reach diverse groups of people, even people we’re uncomfortable around, especially people we’re uncomfortable around. God calls us to join the mission of universal reconciliation in Christ. How will you participate?

God of mercy, God of reconciliation, we praise you for your love that reaches far beyond our own groups. We thank you for giving us opportunities to proclaim your mercy and to participate in your reconciliation. We pray for strength. We pray for boldness. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Amen.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a chapel sermon I preached at Harding School of Theology on Monday, June 16, 2014.



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Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

This week I learned about goal setting from Dr. Ed Gray, Professor of Counseling at Harding School of Theology. His lecture used a “MAPS” model to teach that goals should be measurable, attainable, positive, and specific. The whole time I was thinking, “This can apply to church leadership!”

Leaders in each church need to ask, “What has God gifted this specific congregation to do in this specific community? Where can this church’s resources, skills, and passions meet the opportunities in the community?” Exploring those questions can result in goals that are measurable, attainable, positive, and specific.

Malaysia Football 2007 cropped


Churches can struggle to set measurable goals. We don’t want to force the Holy Spirit into any box of our own understandings and ambitions, nor do we want to become so numbers-focused that we measure success by buildings, budgets, or baptisms. We can, however, set measurable goals. They might include increasing church members’ involvement in small groups, better integrating the various components of the church’s education ministry, or equipping more Christians to serve in the surrounding community. Even if we never establish numerical expectations, we can look back after a few months to see if we’ve made progress.


We need goals that are challenging yet attainable. Changing our city into a utopia might be a bit unattainable and lead us to discouragement and maybe even burnout. Partnering with a local school’s tutoring program might be more attainable. Implementing conflict management processes can be attainable. Equipping people for intergenerational relationships and missional service is attainable, as is offering teachings about prayer.


Church goals need to rise above “Don’t do ______.” Positive goals are about what we plan to do. Maybe we want to preach more from the Old Testament while not neglecting the New Testament. Maybe we want to become more holistic in our support of missionaries. We might want to plant a church. Maybe we want to build friendships with residents of a nearby apartment community.


Churches can benefit from general goals like “lead people to Jesus” or “bless the world.” But we need to complement general goals with specific ones. We need to ask, “Based on who we are and where we are, what specific ways might God want to use us here? Whom do we want to lead to Jesus? How do we plan to do that? What are specific ways that we can bless the community around us?”

Collaborative Leadership

Dr. Gray said, “When clients have clear goals, they make better progress.” This is true not just in counseling but also in church leadership.

For that progress to happen in a healthy way, leaders need patience and sensitivity. We need to avoid any temptation to barge into church decision-making and push our own agendas, no matter how right or important we think our own convictions are. Faithful church leadership requires intentional practice of the other-centeredness we find in Jesus. Effective leaders empower other people to join the process of setting goals. Instead of immediately taking action or quickly offering solutions, we need to guide people to determine church goals.

Only then can we practice the “body of Christ” approach to ministry that the Apostle Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 12).

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This is a modified version of a message I presented today at the chapel of Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee.

How we worship is important. God cares about it. We care about it. When we gather to worship God, how we pray and sing and preach and give and take communion matter.

That’s why Amos 5:21-23 seems strange to me. There we find these words from the Lord:

I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,

I will not look upon them.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps I will not listen. (ESV)

Why would God hate a worship assembly? It was God who commanded those acts of worship, so what’s the problem? Aren’t the feasts and assemblies done well? Aren’t the offerings good enough? Aren’t the people singing the right songs? Why the anger? Why isn’t the Lord happy that the people are doing their “acts of worship?”

We find the answer in the next verse:

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Righteousness and justice are common themes in the Old Testament prophets. Righteousness happens when people fulfill relational responsibilities that others expect of them. Justice is the maintenance or a proper order in social relationships; it involves protecting people in need. Justice can be different things in different contexts, but it always has something to do with social relationships. Justice is the opposite of injustice; and injustice happens when people mistreat other people, often influenced by prosperity and power.

We find this kind of abuse in Amos. The rich oppress the poor, cheat the poor, get drunk at the expense of the poor, sexually abuse the poor, sell the poor. They rest secure in their mansions and vacation houses and gourmet meals and exotic furniture and lavish entertainment. When they’re so enamored by these luxuries, the rich don’t have to notice the poor. The powerful can ignore the powerless.

And they come to worship and do the right actions and say the right words and give the right amounts of money, and they brag about their offerings. They pretend that nothing is wrong. They act like they don’t know that people are dying under their feet. Maybe they really don’t know because they’re too caught up in themselves. Even when they come to worship God, they’re eyes are closed to the reality around them.

Sound familiar?

On my last Sunday in South Carolina, church leaders laid hands on me and prayed over me. One of them announced to the congregation that my family was moving to Memphis, “the third most religious city in the nation.” I leaned over and whispered to him, “It’s the third poorest too.” Our numbers might have been a little off, but they were close. The Huffington Post reported about a year ago that Memphis was the fourth most religious city in the country. And the latest U.S. census discovered that Memphis is the poorest metropolitan area in the nation, with one in five people living in poverty. That’s one in five in the metro area. According to the 2012 Poverty Fact Sheet published by the University of Memphis, about one in four people live in poverty in the city itself.

Have you seen how many churches are around here?

Have you seen how many homeless are around here?

Have you seen the shacks that some families call houses?

Have you seen the beggars on the corners?

Have you seen the teenage mothers?

Have you seen the absent fathers?

Have you seen the children destined to continue cycles of violence and neglect?

If we ignore the social problems around us, God doesn’t want our chapel worship, doesn’t want our songs, doesn’t want our prayers, doesn’t want this sermon.

So let’s take our eyes off the books once in a while and leave the campus and see the city, see the poverty, see the pain. Let’s work for justice, wholeness, healing, rightness… one little step at a time, with whatever God has given us.

I’m not asking us to change the city all by ourselves, but we can play small roles in the bigger work that God is doing. And there are several ways to get involved. The webpages of local organizations like Agape and HopeWorks provide opportunities to serve. Local congregations, like the one on Park Avenue that I represent, can give you ways to serve the community.

But before we act, we have to open our eyes. The first step is simply to see, to see the injustice around us.

Let justice roll down like waters,

righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Righteousness is a stream. Wherever it is, there’s water – flowing water, nourishing water, life.

Justice is an ocean. And if you look at the city around you and the ocean of justice seems rather dead, jump in anyway. Because God is making some waves, and even bigger waves are coming.

We see that hope in Amos – at the end, chapter 9. Restoration is coming. Reconciliation is coming. Better days are coming – for ancient Israel, for the world, for Memphis. And we get to experience the journey, at least part of it.

So let’s ride the waves of justice!

Let’s open our eyes to see the brokenness.

And let’s praise God for the hope of healing.


Barooah, Jahnabi. “Most and Least Religious Cities in America.” The Huffington Post. May 18, 2012.

Charlier, Tom. “Census Calls Memphis Poorest in Nation.” The Commercial Appeal, September 23, 2011.

Delavega, Elena. 2012 Poverty Fact Sheet. Department of Sociology. School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. University of Memphis.

du Preez, Jannie. “’Let Justice Roll On Like…’: Some Explanatory Notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 109 (March 2001): 95-98.

Hartman, Anna Marie. “Census Data: Memphis Ranks as Poorest City in United States.” AMCTV. September 23, 2011 (Updated September 24, 2011).

Mays, James L. “Justice: Perspectives from the Prophetic Tradition.” Interpretation 37 (1983): 5-17.

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