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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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Bread and wineMy wife and I like our son to eat food that’s nutritious and good for his development. We allow ice cream once in a while, but we know that giving our child a steady diet of junk food would be parental malpractice. He needs vegetables, vitamins, fruit, protein, complex carbs, and a reasonable dose of fat.

When he gets bored at mealtime and doesn’t want to eat the rest of his green beans, we encourage him to finish eating. We tell him that eating his food will help him to be big and strong like his daddy.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat.” That doesn’t mean that you become green beans if you eat green beans. It means that eating healthful food empowers you to have a healthy body and a healthy life, while eating too much junk food empowers you to have a junky body with a junky life. This observation reminds me of another saying: “Input equals output.”

My congregation’s sermon this weekend comes from Romans 8, and in verses 1-11 we find a similar inside-outside connection.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (ESV)

What goes into us shapes how we live. “You are what you eat.”

When the Holy Spirit lives in us, God transforms our lives. “Input equals output.”

The Spirit enters us in various ways.

We “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” when we believe the good news of Jesus and when we are baptized (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13).

The Holy Spirit enters people through the laying on of hands (Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 19:6).

The Holy Spirit can enter people who are around others in whom the Spirit is working (1 Samuel 19:18-24).

The Holy Spirit fills followers of Jesus when they speak (Acts 2:4; 4:8; 13:9) and when they are persecuted (13:50-52).

God gives the Holy Spirit to people who ask (Luke 11:13).

The Holy Spirit can even enter people before birth (Luke 1:15).

Beyond these ways, the Holy Spirit can operate in ways that are unexpected and unexplainable (John 3:8). As the hymnist William Cowper penned in the 18th century, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

I look forward to listening to tomorrow’s sermon on Romans 8. Before that sermon, I get to say a few comments to prepare the church for communion. As I get ready for that privilege, my meditation on verses 1-11 leads me to see communion as one way in which the Holy Spirits enters us and empowers us for life in God’s mission.

A long-held belief in Christianity is that Christ is somehow present with his followers in communion (also called the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper). Although great thinkers in the history of the church have disagreed about exactly how this presence operates, many Christians have believed that in some way Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present when gathered communities of Christian faith consume the bread and cup, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrating the hope of his return.

Through this process of remembering and celebrating, the Holy Spirit continually fills the body of Christ (the church) and empowers that community of Jesus-followers to carry out God’s mission of blessing the world.

When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we do more than eat crackers and drink wine or grape juice.

When we participate in this event, the Holy Spirit enters us yet again and strengthens us to live for God.

As a child, I experienced amazement when the bread and cup were served. When I looked at the people around me, I could tell that this practice was something special, something mystical. I didn’t understand what was happening, but the holiness of the moment drew me in.

I have not always experienced that amazement at communion. The Lord’s Supper has not always seemed special. I have not always noticed the mystery of the Eucharist.

So I pray for the ability to see the mysterious transformation that God is working through the Holy Spirit when followers of Jesus take the bread and cup together. Through the Spirit, the bread and cup become more than a snack and more than an ancient practice the meaning of which we’ve forgotten. They become a meaningful meal that fuels us for life.

When we eat the body of Christ together, the Spirit empowers us to be that body.

We are what we eat.

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God calls us to participate in God’s mission, and we should respond in worship and obedience. However, we can get distracted by concerns that hinder our right responses to God.

In Jonah 1:1-16, God comissions Jonah to carry a message to a city called Nineveh. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he doesn’t want to preach to people he doesn’t like. God responds, and people on the ship respond, but Jonah ignores. The people on the ship cast lots and question Jonah, who admits his identity and responsibility and tells them to throw him into the sea. They try to avoid that by taking other actions. After praying to God, they reluctantly toss him. Then they fear, worship, and vow to God. (Note that the sailors are not members of Jonah’s religious community.)

God wants us to worship. When we lose focus on God and worship our own desires instead, God is not without worship. Others can worship God. Our preferences for our own groups and our prejudices against other groups can blind us to that beautiful truth, which calls us to embrace diverse people who worship God.

Instead of focusing on our own desires or worrying about who is or is not worthy to worship God, let’s just worship and obey God! Worship and obedience lead us to recognize and live out God’s love for all people groups in the spirit of Jesus, who died for the whole world.

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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.

Sources:

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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Hurting with GodGlenn Pemberton was one of my professors at at Abilene Christian University and has been a preacher for decades. He recently wrote a book called Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms. It is informed and relevant, and it arises from the author’s personal experiences with pain and loss.

Dr. Pemberton points out the church’s lack of lament, and the reasons vary: “the wishful optimism of our culture, discomfort with ambiguity, impatient need for quick solutions, and… well-intended but misguided theology.” Some researchers have studied the lament psalms; others have written on the use of lament psalms in preaching, prayer, and public life. In the midst of this literary expansion, however, “the practical translation of this work has yet to take much hold in our churches.” Pemberton’s goals, therefore, are “to make a complete and persuasive case for the restoration of the language of lament in the life of the church and in the lives of believers” and “to teach the language of lament by careful examination of the lament psalms.” He hopes that “this volume brings further attention to the loss of lament in our churches, exposes what this loss is costing us, and stirs our minds to imagine what might happen if we spoke and prayed the full spectrum of the biblical faith languages,” whether used “for personal reading,” “in church Bible classes and small groups,” or as an academic textbook.

The first chapter establishes that humans share a story of “unpredictable, unstable, and life-threatening seas and storms… chaotic forces that stand against human life and well-being.” The author anchors this claim in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job, which provides “good news… that the sea/chaos does not have free reign in this world” and “bad news… that the sea still exists and works chaos in our world.” Such observation leads to the following questions: “How do we live with and relate to God when the waters pound and choke us? What do we say to the God who has the power to restrain the storm but chooses instead to let it pour?” Instead of seeking an explanation for the storm, the author proceeds in an attempt to find a way “to swim” when “this storm is flooding my life.”

Chapter Two teaches about biblical lament language, highlighting the diverse forms’ “commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain.” The Book of Psalms contains more lament psalms than any other kind, but the church has largely lost this language of lament. The author documents this loss through the research of his student, T. Austin Holt IV, who analyzes three contemporary hymnals that heavily voice thanksgiving and praise to the neglect of lament.

The third chapter establishes lament as a practice of Jesus and the early church. Chapter Four explores the details and dynamics of lament language. The next seven chapters investigate the problems that give rise to such language: sin, discouragement, health, opponents, and God. The twelfth chapter shows the relationship between lament and thanksgiving, and Chapter Thirteen suggests practical ways to restore lament language in the life of the church. There Pemberton wisely prescribes incremental changes instead of pendulum swings, and he encourages us to practice lament in a “healthy balance of faith languages modeled for us by the Psalms.”

The primary strength of Pemberton’s work arises from his background in both academics and ministry, combined with his personal experience of loss and pain. His scholarly competence provides intellectual substance that more devotional works avoid. His pastoral heart leads to suggestions for ministerial improvement that more academic texts miss. His experience of lament gives his writing a tone of authenticity that compels readers to finish the book and to find points of connection with their own lives. The textual analysis and ministerial suggestions cooperate to “help us regain the wholeness of expression to our God and include the hurting more fully in our worship” (Lowe), and the relevance to everyday life gives readers a reason to recommend the book to a broad and diverse readership. (I gave a copy to my mother when she visited me last week.)

This strength can be a weakness, too. Scholars may prefer more academic texts; Pemberton minimizes his references to scholarly literature. Church leaders may prefer less academic books; the author connects his study to ministry but largely provides textual and theological insights. The blending of approaches, however, exemplifies ministry-related scholarship that empowers theologically informed worship.

Pemberton’s approach from a “low church” experience can be a weakness for readers in more liturgical traditions. Some large portions of Christianity still maintain a substantial place for lament psalms in worship (Wagner-Wassen). While those churches might benefit more from books with other approaches, this one speaks meaningfully to the author’s own and similar heritages; it “provides refreshing corrective for churches inundated with a thin, borrowed and Evangelical liturgy” (Fleer).

Especially helpful is the author’s application of his study to issues of justice, most notably in Chapter Nine. Churches in cultural contexts of affluence and power, even when they fail to recognize their privileges, need this call to speak for and with the oppressed and hurting. We in worship leadership must ask what the lament psalms say to us, to people experiencing lives drastically different from our own, and to our responsibilities as God’s people in and for the world.

I highly recommend Dr. Pemberton’s book to anyone seeking to swim life’s stormy seas, needing permission and place to voice raw emotions to God, or simply wishing to learn more about the Bible, specifically its lament psalms. In the words of Mike Cope on the back cover, “For its biblical insight, this book will sit proudly on my shelf next to Brueggemann’s works on the Psalms; for its pastoral care, I’ll be handing it out to many friends… and church leaders.” The work’s integration of scholarship, ministry, and personal struggle makes it well worth the sticker price and reading time.

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This review is modified from one I wrote for a course at Harding School of Theology.

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The book of Revelation has a bunch of strange stuff. Scholars disagree about the details’ meanings, and other readers are even more confused. Frequently, however, the book returns us to a major theme we can grasp. We find one in chapter 19: “Hallelujah!” Praise God.

Revelation shows an ancient vision of an ancient understanding of an eternal reality beyond/behind the one we most tangibly experience. Small glimpses of it may bring fright or faith, and worship is always a proper response.

(Day 362: Revelation 17-19)

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When the collection plate comes to me on Sunday morning, how much money should I put in it? By putting something in, I contribute to God’s work through the local church and say thanks to the God who gave me what I have. But how much should I give?

Long before the New Testament, people knew to give ten percent to God’s work through the faith community. Some churches today encourage members to continue that good practice of tithing.

Others prefer members to give whatever they choose to give. That also is a viable option, as we see in today’s reading: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).

Whichever option your church practices, I encourage you to give generously, thankfully, and cheerfully.

(Day 338: Second Corinthians 5-9)

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