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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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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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Experienced Christians should build relationships with young adults. That was the focus of my previous post.

On my Facebook timeline, I added a link to that blog post. A friend commented, “In ages past, the emerging adults looked to the elder adults for wisdom. Now many emerging adults disregard the elder adults… Somehow we have to change our attitudes to ‘sharing and learning’ rather than ‘taking and demanding.’”

Overcoming the communication gap between generations requires work on both sides. To turn the intergenerational nature of the church into a blessing instead of a blockade, older and younger adults need to build relationships with each other, listen to each other, learn about each other, and cooperate in unity, letting God work through their similarities and differences.

Saturday’s post addressed elder adults about emerging adults, so now let me address emerging adults about elder adults. More specifically, I want to offer seven reasons that emerging adults should build relationships with elder adults.

STG with LKF Malaysia 2006

1. A relationship is two-way. Don’t expect elder adults to take all the initiative. Get out of your “comfort zone” and do something.

2. Elder Christians can give you wisdom that they’ve collected over the years through personal experiences and through learning from others. Listening from wise people is a common theme in the biblical book of Proverbs. For a passage about younger people paying attention to older people, check out Proverbs 4:1-4.

3. Elder Christians can teach you about spiritual disciplines, including ones you’re passionate about and ones you don’t know about or prefer to avoid. (Spiritual disciplines are practices like prayer, study, meditation, fasting, celebration, and service that open us to God’s transforming work in our lives.)

4. Elder Christians can provide relational support. In those times when you get a bad grade or land on the dean’s list, when you get a date or get dumped, when you find a job or lose one or don’t know how to look for one or don’t know that you need one, you need a friend to welcome you into a home and maybe a hug.

5. Elder Christians can tell you about successes and failures that have shaped their lives. Those stories can shape you and empower you to perceive situations from more informed perspectives.

6. You can be a blessing to elder adults. Greet them. Listen to them. Ask questions. Learn. Look at pictures with them. Sit and reflect. Your presence will bless your more experienced friends as their presence blesses you.

7. You set an example for other emerging adults when you befriend elder adults. Be part of social change.

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C-JR-Zoo 2013-11-18Forgiveness is a process that can be short in childhood and long in adulthood.

The Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26, NIV).

But forgiveness is a process that sometimes, oftentimes, lasts much longer than one day. It happens in phases that stretch beyond literal sunsets. Lewis B. Smedes’ book Forgive and Forget delineates those phases: hurt, hate, healing, and coming together. After the hurt naturally comes hatred, or at least dislike. When we move beyond hatred, we can find inner healing with strength from God. Then we can have power to attempt reconciliation with the wrongdoer.

Sometimes we skip phases. Sometimes the phases change order. But the phases exist. Forgiveness is a process.

When we’re little children, that process might happen in a minute. “Ouch, you hit me!” A few seconds later: “You’re not my friend any more!” And then the children are playing together again.

In adulthood the process might take years. One day is not long enough to hold all four phases.

Plutarch en.wikipedia.orgWhat then do we do with Ephesians 4:26? Maybe we should see it as a hyperbolic statement designed to guide us in right living. That kind of statement was common when Ephesians was written. Plutarch (ca. 45-120 CE) in his Moralia wrote about “the Pythagoreans, who, though related not at all by birth, yet sharing a common discipline, if ever they were led by anger into recrimination, never let the sun go down before they joined right hands, embraced each other, and were reconciled.”

I doubt that a group of people would actually live by that principle. If a group were to do it, however, I suppose a group of philosophers like the Pythagoreans might be the most likely to do so. Most of us are not philosophers, at least not professional ones. On our best days, we might think before we act, but not that much.

Despite the idealism of Ephesians, Plutarch, and the Pythagoreans, they can teach us the importance of being intentional and active in the forgiveness process. We should not passively wait for forgiveness to happen by itself. We should not assume that forgiveness is unnecessary. We need to remember that forgiveness is a process. We need to give that process time to happen. But we need to stay moving through the process. Don’t neglect it. Don’t give up.

No matter how long your sunset takes, become a forgiver.

_________________________

Thanks to Haley Chrisman of the Park Avenue Church of Christ young adult class for the observation about the shortness of the forgiveness process in childhood. Thanks to commentator Andrew T. Lincoln for drawing my attention to Plutarch.

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It was my first month serving with Park Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis. As a new staff member and a new member of the neighborhood ministry committee, I sat at a table with several good people whose faces were still new to me.

One new friend suggested that we have a Friends Day in the coming year. The congregation had done a similar event annually but had stopped about a decade ago. After some discussion, the proposer solicited my opinion. I replied with something like this: “I think it’s a great idea. Since I’m new, I prefer not to be the organizer or the public voice for the event.” The committee penciled the Friends Day into the church calendar for April 21.

You guessed it. For several weeks leading up to Friends Day, I was praying, brainstorming, planning, organizing, and in other ways juggling previously unexplored chaos. What should Friends Day be? What should it do? What tasks need to be done? Who should do them? These and other questions claimed much of my attention and had numerous possible answers.

Friends Day for us became a day to focus on our calling as Jesus-followers to love the world. On Friends Day, the emphasis of that calling narrowed to our immediate surroundings, giving us opportunities to extend love to our friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. We welcomed all guests and especially encouraged Park people to invite friends not already plugged into any faith communities.

Friends came. They came to the Bible classes. They came to the reception. They came to the worship gathering. They came to the lunch. We glorified God, and we reminded each other of the love God shows us and calls us to live out in our relationships across every line our society assumes.

The planning process intimidated me, but friends joined me as teammates, and our collaboration brought diverse people together in the name of Christ. Every aspect of the special day, from the sermon to the pasta, involved God-and-neighbor-loving teamwork (Mark 12:28-34).

Park, I’m blessed to serve with you!

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Caleb in PACC nursery by Wendi Sisson on FBReal love is more than flowers, candies, and cards; more than smiles, hugs, and kisses. It’s more than fleeting feelings, more than blingy gifts, more than self-centered sensuality.

Real love is sacrificial. It’s other-centered.

Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, a kingdom of good breaking down a kingdom of bad (Mark 3:20-35). That kingdom is a way of life that involves changes of thought and behavior (Mark 1:14-15), a way of life shaped by love for God and people (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus demonstrated that love, so much so that he died for the world he loved.

I’ve been talking a lot about this other-centeredness recently. It’s at the core of the message of the cross, and it even shows up in the textbook I use for the University of Memphis. Yesterday, however, I almost forgot the call to put others before self.

Tamara asked me to start changing Caleb’s diaper and told me she would take over soon (because I was sick, not because I can’t complete a diaper change). As I removed his clothes, I caught a whiff that tempted me to stall. I held my son in my arms, and he laid his head on my chest, and I hoped he would stay content long enough for his mom to relieve me before the opening of the diaper.

Then I remembered my lecturing and preaching. The virtue of other-centeredness filled my mind. Guilt pinched me. I reclined Caleb onto the changing pad, unsnapped the diaper cover, and stayed through the task’s completion.

The story of Jesus calls me to real love, sacrificial love, other-centered love. That’s easy to forget. Sometimes I feel like avoiding it, not thinking of it. Sometimes, however, it grabs me and refuses to let me go and surprises my life with fullness.

[Photo by Wendi Sisson]

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Alan TaylorJesus is in a crowded house when a noise comes from the roof, a hole appears, and a stretcher lowers. Friends have brought a person suffering from some sort of paralyzing disease. Jesus looks at the friends’ faith and forgives the man (Mark 2:1-12).

Jesus forgives the man neither because of anything the man does nor because of what he believes. The forgiveness is not a response to the man’s faith; it’s a response to his friends’ faith. The man has faithful friends, friends who believe that something powerful and life-changing is happening in Jesus, friends who have so much faith that they bring their friend to Jesus. They bring their friend whom everyone else wants to avoid. They bring their friends who’s an outcast. They bring their friend who cannot help himself. And they have faith that Jesus can help him. That’s what real friends do.

That’s pretty much part of what I said to my congregation this Sunday morning, and today I found Alan Taylor’s blog post that speaks more fully to relationships among Jesus, his followers, and “those on the fringes.”

When we interact with people while maintaining a sanitized circle we may be doing good and meeting needs, but we are not imitating Jesus, and we still have much to learn about the fullest dimensions of living a cruciform life in the model of Jesus. I’m convinced that the call of Jesus demands that we not only love and meet the needs of those on the fringes, but that we allow ourselves to be counted as one and the same. Isn’t that the heart of the incarnation?

For more on this, read Alan’s entire post by clicking here.

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