What Are Community Groups? Part 4

One of the ways Heights Pres. seeks to accomplish its vision of “Loving Each Other” is through our weekly Community Groups. Through gathering on a regular basis with others from the church, we hope to create an environment that displays the love of God for one another, for the sake of encouraging one another in the gospel as well as demonstrating the gospel for anyone wanting to get connected to Heights Pres. This four-part blog series serves to outline Why, For What Purpose, and How Community Groups exist at Heights Pres. Visit our Community Group page to find out when our next group is meeting.

 

Byproduct of Heights Pres. Community Groups:

At Heights Pres. we are a city on a hill for the city in which we live, shining the light of Jesus for the glory of God. We meet formally together regularly on Sundays for corporate worship, and throughout the week at community groups. Our hope is that as friendships grow from these two gatherings, informal gatherings begin to take place outside of “church” events (Sunday service and Community Groups, among other events). Our prayer is that by coming together over a meal, having discussions about our lives, getting into the scriptures, and praying with one another, we would develop a culture of gospel intentionality in our ordinary lives.

Gospel intentionality is expressed as we grow in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is expressed as our words for one another are encouraging, uplifting, and saturated with Scripture. Gospel intentionality occurs when we as a loving family in Christ choose to be vulnerable with each other, and at the same time choose to extend grace, mercy, forgiveness back to each other. As we grow in relationships with one another through Community Groups, our dream is that we learn how to be present in each other’s ordinary rhythms of life, speaking the truth in love. As visitors encounter such gospel intentionality, they will experience the love that God has for them. Gospel intentionality will be the bedrock of the gospel ministry we are all called to be a part of as the people of God.

Major events have a role to play in church life, but the bedrock of gospel ministry is low- key, ordinary, day-to-day work that often goes unseen. Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality. – Tim Chester, Total Church

 

 

 

What Are Community Groups? Part 3

One of the ways Heights Pres. seeks to accomplish its vision of “Loving Each Other” is through our weekly Community Groups. Through gathering on a regular basis with others from the church, we hope to create an environment that displays the love of God for one another, for the sake of encouraging one another in the gospel as well as demonstrating the gospel for anyone wanting to get connected to Heights Pres. This four-part blog series serves to outline Why, For What Purpose, and How Community Groups exist at Heights Pres. Visit our Community Group page to find out when our next group is meeting.

 

How Will We Implement These Values In Community Groups?

Heights Pres. intends on accomplishing the above stated purposes by having community groups that are primarily focused on fostering community and fellowship. We will not neglect time for study and prayer, but the primary focus will be on relationship building. In order to create a space which fosters relationship building, we encourage the leaders of each group to incorporate food and drink into each week’s gathering. This could look like serving a full dinner meal, or providing snacks/appetizers. It could also look like asking other members of the group to rotate food/drink responsibility. Its up to each group what this looks like, but we want to emphasize eating and drinking together as a family. The gospel writers frequently use the phrase, “The Son of Man came...” followed up some objective Jesus accomplished in his earthly ministry and work on the cross (“not to be served, but to serve..., etc.). In Luke 7:34 he writes that the Son of Man came eating and drinking. Apparently food was a widely known part of Jesus’ ministry.

Hospitality involves welcoming, creating space, listening, paying attention, and providing. Meals slow things down. Some of us don’t like that. We like to get things done. But meals force you to be people oriented instead of task oriented. Sharing a meal is not the only way to build relationships, but it is number one on the list. – Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus

In addition to gathering together, eating together, and praying together, the early church also devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching. At Heights Pres. we value God’s word as the means by which we know God, ourselves, our need for salvation, and the grace of God through Christ. At our community groups, we will dedicate time to studying the Bible in community. We will accomplish this in a number of ways; reflecting on the previous week’s sermon, a DVD Bible study series, or an independent curriculum, or some other creative way of learning. Our desire is for a passion for the Word to spread amongst members of Heights Pres.

Each week, we will also have dedicated time for expressing prayer requests amongst the group. The leader will then lead the group in prayer (whether that is one person or many people praying is up to each group). Prayer will be a part of each week’s meeting because we believe that God hears us when we call on Him. Prayer is essential for Community Groups because prayer is going before our loving Father, creator of the heavens and earth, with a confidence that our desires will be heard, and that He will ultimately work for our good and His glory.

 

 

 

 

What Are Community Groups? Part 2

One of the ways Heights Pres. seeks to accomplish its vision of “Loving Each Other” is through our weekly Community Groups. Through gathering on a regular basis with others from the church, we hope to create an environment that displays the love of God for one another, for the sake of encouraging one another in the gospel as well as demonstrating the gospel for anyone wanting to get connected to Heights Pres. This four-part blog series serves to outline Why, For What Purpose, and How Community Groups exist at Heights Pres. Visit our Community Group page to find out when our next group is meeting.

 

For What Purpose Do We Have Community Groups?

 

Because we have been saved into a community, we also believe that personal transformation – discipleship – takes place in community. We have Community Groups so that we can follow Jesus as his disciples more fully. This takes place as we let people into our lives, being transparent and honest. Listening to others challenge and encourage us with the Word is one of the ways we will grow. As these communities grow closer to each other, we want those relationships to be the context for confessing sin to one another and asking for prayer.

We want community groups at Heights Pres. to be one of the main ways we are encouraged by the gospel. We are daily in need of hearing the words of God’s grace toward us sinners. We regularly need the loving support of our church family to pick us up when we are down. We don’t have to wait for Sunday morning to be reminded again that God looks upon as righteous in His Son. Community Groups exist so that we can do this for each other. This will require us to open the scriptures together through bible studies and reflection upon previous sermons at Heights Pres. By having open dialogue and conversations, we also want to take a posture of humility, allowing our brothers and sisters to speak a word of encouragement into our lives. As relationships develop over time, this objective becomes more natural.

1 John 4:12 teaches us that when we are gathered together in loving community, we display God to a watching world. A final purpose for community groups is that they would be for evangelism. “Our love for one another, to the extent that it imitates and conforms to the cross-love of Jesus for us, is evangelistic.”(Tim Chester, Total Church) We are all called, as disciples of Jesus, to make other disciples of Jesus. But that doesn’t mean we all do that same kind of work. It is a corporate call upon the people of God. The beautiful thing about doing evangelism through community groups is that it allows every person in the group to participate. Some [in the group] will build relationships with visitors, some will share the message of the gospel through the discussion time, and some will invite new visitors into the group. There is a role for each of us to play in making our community groups evangelistic.

 

What Are Community Groups? Part 1

One of the ways Heights Pres. seeks to accomplish its vision of “Loving Each Other” is through our weekly Community Groups. Through gathering on a regular basis with others from the church, we hope to create an environment that displays the love of God for one another, for the sake of encouraging one another in the gospel as well as demonstrating the gospel for anyone wanting to get connected to Heights Pres. This four-part blog series serves to outline Why, For What Purpose, and How Community Groups exist at Heights Pres. Visit our Community Group page to find out when our next group is meeting.

Why Do We Have Community Groups?

We want to follow biblical examples of discipleship at Heights Pres. The Scripture models for us the pattern of the early church regularly meeting together in their homes, devoting themselves to doctrine, fellowship, meals together, and prayer (Acts 2:42). In addition to our Sunday worship service, Community Groups provide an opportunity for members of Heights Pres. to grow in their faith alongside one another.

Having Community Groups provides stability for the church. When members are committed to a group, having formed relationships with one another outside of Sunday morning, they become committed to something outside of themselves. That commitment to others helps create a sense of stability at Heights Pres. through seasons of blessing as well as difficulty. Further, as new visitors check out our church, inviting them into a community group is one of the most tangible demonstrations of Christian life within our church.

We believe that we have been adopted into the family of God by our faith in Jesus. This new family is experienced in the local church body. One of our central beliefs is that we have been saved into a people of God; individual Christianity is a foreign concept to the Bible. Community Groups is one of the practical ways in which members can experience the “family” of believers we have been welcomed in to. In 1 Thess. 2:8 Paul expresses that his love for the saints in Thessalonica was such that he not only shared the gospel with them but his own life. We have Community Groups in order to provide a space for sharing our lives with one another, knowing that we belong to one another, as brothers and sisters, in the family of God. Just as a nuclear family gathers regularly for meals and events, so to will our church family gather regularly to share life with each other.

We also believe that the Christian life is not one that is lived independent of others, but is lived out in the context of a community. 1 Peter 2:9-10 reminds us that we have been saved into a people of God. Therefore, community is the context of gospel transformation. Community Groups facilitate discipleship because it is, by definition, a community. Heights Pres. is not a bunch of individuals, but a local gathering of the people of God. Our identity is in that community. Community Groups exist because we are brought into relationship with one another. We are to care for one another, encourage one another, and speak the truth to each other in love. Through our relationships in community, we will achieve the goal of presenting each other mature in Christ.

 

Part III - What We Do.

We are a city on a hill for the city in which we live,

Shining the light of Jesus for the glory of God

At The Heights Presbyterian Church, we recently spent some time praying and developing an updated Mission and Vision statement. We thought it would be important to craft such a statement in order to bring more unity and focus to our church. We hope that this statement and the accompanying explanation in this three-part blog post helps shed light on who we are and what we do in our community. If you are interested in hearing more, join us for worship at 10:00 AM in Shaker Square, or contact us at Office@HeightsPres.org.

Because we have been transformed by the gospel of Christ Jesus, we have been gathered into the people of God, which is the church. The Heights Presbyterian Church will seek to primarily do these three things:

What We Do.

Love God.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16

We were created for worship. At Heights Pres. we consider worship together as the people of God to be a crucial aspect of who we are. Our worship service is centered around the Word of God. We sing praises to him, pray to the Lord, confess our sins, participate in the sacraments, and hear instruction from God’s Word. We are a dynamic group of worshipers, drawing on various traditions and styles to express our worship. We expect those who worship with us to be both edified and challenged by gospel truth.

Worship is not confined to the four walls of our gathering space on Sunday. We want to see our people worship the Lord throughout their lives, through fellowship with one another, through studying the Bible in their homes, and through serving their neighbor in His name.

We value our children greatly at Heights Pres. – children of school age are invited to go into their own time of worship during the sermon, and are invited to participate in the main worship for the rest of the service, with age-appropriate bulletins that help them engage with the service.

 

Love Each Other.

“There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-6

We don’t have to go it alone. In fact, we are commanded to do this together. The letters to the churches in the New Testament, are just that – letters to churches, the collective body of Christ. Individual Christianity is a foreign concept to the Bible, and we take that truth seriously. We are to care for one another, to encourage one another, and to speak the truth to each other in love. We, through our relationships within the church, will achieve the goal of presenting each other mature in Christ (Col. 1:28).

As is true in any family, there are hills and valleys on our journey together. But we are united to one another in Christ, and we consider being part of the family of God to be a great honor, carrying with it the call to love each other as Christ has first loved us (1 John 3:16). We cultivate these relationships through community groups, regular gatherings of men’s and women’s groups, and pub nights. Our involvement in the greater Shaker Heights/ Cleveland Heights community displays Christ’s love as we invite those who don’t yet believe into our community so that they might experience the gospel in their own lives.

 

Love This City.

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7

The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t something we just take for ourselves and keep it hidden. But instead we’re to be a shining light of God’s grace, showing the world his love through our message and through our lives. This starts right here in our city, in our community.

God’s people have always been called to invite others to follow Jesus through loving the poor, welcoming the stranger, and loving their neighbor. Through our actions and our words, we tell the good news of Jesus Christ. This will look different from person to person in our church – but make no mistake, all Christians are called to join the mission of God.

At Heights Pres., we encourage everyone to find ways to join God’s mission in their everyday lives-- among their neighbors, colleagues, friends, and families. In addition, members of our church contribute their specific passions as they minister to international students, seek reconciliation and justice among vulnerable populations in our city, and love their neighbors through hospitality. You may be called to serve in one of these areas, or in something different. All we ask is that you go and be the light of Christ in our community. 

Part II - Who Are We?

WE ARE A CITY ON A HILL FOR THE CITY IN WHICH WE LIVE,

SHINING THE LIGHT OF JESUS FOR THE GLORY OF GOD

At The Heights Presbyterian Church, we recently spent some time praying and developing an updated Mission and Vision statement. We thought it would be important to craft such a statement in order to bring more unity and focus to our church. We hope that this statement and the accompanying explanation in this three-part blog post helps shed light on who we are and what we do in our community. If you are interested in hearing more, join us for worship at 10:00 AM in Shaker Square, or contact us at Office@HeightsPres.org.

WHO ARE WE?

SHINING THE LIGHT OF JESUS FOR THE GLORY OF GOD

At Heights Presbyterian Church we shine the light of Jesus into the darkness that surrounds us. We believe that apart from the work of Jesus, we would ourselves be left to stumble in the darkness of our own sin. Sin is like a stain that cannot be washed away, a disease which has no cure, a darkness that swallows everything up. But the Light of Life entered the world in the person of Jesus, and the darkness cannot overcome the Light.(John 1:5) By the sacrificial life and death of Jesus on the cross, and by his powerful resurrection from the dead, Jesus gives us his own life, the Light of the world, to guide our path to the Father for eternity. Because we have been given such an undeserved gift of love, we will generously share that love with all who are around us. Through speaking the message of God’s love in the gospel, and through our actions which tangibly demonstrate the love of God, we want the world to see our good works, our gospel works, and give glory to God.(Matthew 5:16)

 Jesus promises that He will build His church(Matthew 16:18), and so we rely upon Him and the Spirit in all that we do. We are a church with various gifts and passions that God has given us so that we can do the work of ministry He has laid before us.(Ephesians 4:11-12) We labor in all of these ways for the purpose of bringing praise and glory to God, from whom we have received everything. He is our creator who gives us life and breath. He is our Savior who gives us forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. He is our Sustainer who strengthens us to fight the good fight of faith each and every day. At Heights Presbyterian Church, we are devoted to God in all that we do. Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be GLORY, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.(Jude 1:24-25) 

Part I - Who Are We?

We are a city on a hill for the city in which we live,

Shining the light of Jesus for the glory of God

At The Heights Presbyterian Church, we recently spent some time praying and developing an updated Mission and Vision statement. We thought it would be important to craft such a statement in order to bring more unity and focus to our church. We hope that this statement and the accompanying explanation in this three-part blog post helps shed light on who we are and what we do in our community. If you are interested in hearing more, join us for worship at 10:00 AM in Shaker Square, or contact us at Office@HeightsPres.org.

Who Are We?

We are a city on a hill for the city in which we live.

In Matthew 5, Jesus uses the illustration of a city set on a hill, which casts light out into the darkness for others to see and guide their journey. Jesus is teaching his disciples, both then and now, that God has shone the Light of Life into our lives, bringing salvation to us,(2 Cor. 4:6) and that we are to shine that light into the darkness of the fallen world around us. At Heights Presbyterian Church, we are a people of God set apart by the forgiveness of our sins by the blood of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which transforms us from the inside out. Therefore, we will worship God, read and teach His Word, and practice a deep reliance upon the Spirit moving within us. We are just one local manifestation of God’s people, united together throughout time and space in Christ. We long for the day when His Church will inhabit the New Jerusalem, the city on a hill that is lit by the light of the Lamb of God who was slain.(Rev. 21:22-23)

Just as the exiled Israelites were encouraged by the prophet Jeremiah to seek the welfare of Babylon while awaiting the restoration of God’s people(Jer. 29:7), so too Heights Presbyterian Church will seek the welfare of our city, while awaiting God’s great renewal of all things. We believe that God is at work in Cleveland bringing lost sons and daughters back to himself, as well as bringing restoration to culture, community, and creation. We are committed to loving our neighbor, whomever that may be, and however that might look. We love Cleveland, and want to see the people here flourish. We know that eternal and abundant life, life that is flourishing, is found in the person of Jesus(John 14:6) and therefore we will grow in our pursuit of Jesus as well as invite others to follow Him with us. 

The Reformation: Thursday - Solus Christus

Each of the Solas of the Reformation depends on the others, and as we think about Solus Christus, the sufficient, finished work of Christ on the cross, we cannot do so without first acknowledging that God's plan of dispensing grace (alone) through faith (alone) leads us to the person of Christ (alone). God's plan to save the world through the work of a Redeemer is not Plan B. There is a hint of this plan as far back as Genesis 3:15, just after the fall of man. 

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.

A Messiah would be prophesied, and would come in fulfillment of those prophecies for those waiting for the true "consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25). Christ's purpose in coming was to fulfill his role as Savior, Redeemer, and Lord. Jesus came to earth to die. Each of the gospels takes this as its central theme - his ministry leading us to who he is and his sufficiency as our substitute when he goes to die. The gospel of Mark is divided into two halves. The first half, three years of ministry. Second half, one week of his passion to the cross.

There is no other way to be saved than through Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). Sin has separated us from God, and the only way to be reconciled is to be redeemed, to be "bought back." Only one man could die in the place of sinners that would give them eternal life. He had to be both man (to die in place of man, to really spill his blood) and God (to live a life free from sin, whose righteousness is now given to his followers in God's eyes). He was the perfect, spotless lamb, and offered himself as the once-for-all sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10) to appease our God of justice (who does not take sin lightly) and demonstrate the amazing grace of our God. 

As John Stott reminds us, when you look up at the cross, you should say, "That should have been me." But you look again and say, "That will never be me." We owe nothing for our sin; Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died in our place. He is the ultimate substitute, and all we need to be redeemed. 

In our modern world (and frankly, in the ancient world, as well) people search for ways to earn their way to God. We think things like "I'm a pretty good person, therefore, God will accept me." But think of the sin of Adam and Eve, who ate a piece of fruit they weren't supposed to. Their sin in rejecting God's care for them got them kicked out of the garden (a place of perfect peace) and caused death to enter the world. God deals with sin, and he does not consider our sin to be just an interesting foible that makes up our interesting character. It is against our very nature as God's good creation to sin at all. We've made a mess of ourselves, and there is no way out except through Christ. As we reflect on this doctrine, let us not forget that the claims of the Christian faith are matters of life and death. Let us, no matter our tradition, center ourselves on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. 

The Reformation: Wednesday - Sola Gratia

Yesterday, Jeremy posted on Sola Fide - by faith alone. Today we introduce a similar doctrine, Sola Gratia - by grace alone. The subject of the doctrine of faith alone is the believer, he or she is the one who has faith from which comes justification, whereas the subject of the doctrine of grace alone is God. God is the one who extends his grace to our dead souls. These two doctrines work with one another, but it's good to separate them in understanding that the mighty of grace of God propels us, as a gift from God, into a life of responding faith. Romans 3:23-25a is one place where this key doctrine of grace is discussed: 

"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith."

Grace saturates every page of Scripture, but one particular place to turn is the book of Ephesians.  Some of my favorites verses of the Bible are Ephesians 2:8-10, though that entire chapter and largely the whole letter confirms that human beings are dead in their sins. It doesn't say that we are kind of "losers," or we are "dropping the ball" when it comes to the moral life, but rather, that we are dead men. This indictment is heavy, but accurate, and elevates God's grace because it is such a radical, unmerited gift. Romans 3 tells us: 

None is righteous, no, not one;
    no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”

Our connection to Adam (Romans 5) secures this truth: that all people are mired in sin. Have you ever met a perfect person? I have not, and even our worldly suspicion that all people are "basically good" is just a weak comparison to ourselves, and we are correct - compared to our sinful hearts that we know quite intimately, others are doing okay. But the measuring stick according to God is quite literally Jesus himself. And now we are poor beggars of goodness only - we are dead in our sins. And there is nothing we can do about meriting salvation for ourselves outside of the amazing grace of God. And we are to understand his grace, so that no man should boast (Eph. 2:9); we can no longer think ourselves as superior to other people based on our moral performance - we have not earned that at all. With them we live on the same plane - it is only because of God's grace that we can ever receive any other outcome, and that should spurn us into rejoicing, but also into humility.  Augustine reminds us wisely:

"If you are to receive your due, you must be punished. What then is done? God has not rendered you due punishment, but bestows upon you unmerited grace. If you wish to be an alien from grace, boast your merits." 

It is good for us to note, as we're writing in light of the anniversary of the Reformation, that the Roman Catholic Church also believes that we are saved by God's grace. It is the "sola" however, that has been their objection. We claim that Scripture teaches that we are saved by grace alone, while the Roman church would claim that we are saved by God's grace and our works. The complicated doctrine of penance, limbo, or any intermediary by which you have to "work out your salvation" discredits the finished work of Christ on the cross. He is not still up there suffering for me, and neither will I, the believer, have to suffer for my sins. Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe; sin had left a crimson stain, he has washed it white as snow. 

As the final verse of Ephesians 2:8-10 reminds us, now we are to go on to good works, works that God has provided for us. We live in response to this salvation that is a free gift of God: a life of works, changed hearts, and faith. 

The Reformation: Tuesday - Sola Fide

By Jeremy King - Director of Discipleship and Community Engagement at Heights Pres.

At a young age, Luther was beset with an anxiety and lack of peace with and assurance of his eternal state. Was God pleased with him? Would God accept him into His presence? This fear was not without attempts to rectify his condition. Luther joined an Augustinian monastery. He observed all the rules of his order as best as possible. He would go to confession daily. He would eagerly participate in the sacraments. He desired to assure his place in God’s kingdom through piety, theology, and devotion. And yet, the depths of his own sin felt like a cavernous well from which he could not escape.

Martin Luther came to the end of himself. After striving for years to achieve a sense of peace with God, there was no peace. After disciplining his body and mind to reach a state of righteousness, he still found himself short of God’s holiness. Following the Law had not given him life but death. How, Luther asked, can anyone be right with God? How is it possible, after years of striving to no end, can anyone be able to stand in the presence of God? He uttered with the words of St. Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death!” (Romans 7:24).

And so it was at the end of himself, with nothing left in his hands to offer before the Lord as means for his salvation, that Luther read Romans 1:17 and had the eyes of his heart opened.

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For years, Luther’s life was consumed by the unceasing determination to muster a righteousness from within himself. And yet Paul speaks here of a righteousness that is outside of oneself, a righteousness that comes from God.  Elsewhere, Paul states again,

“… and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ – the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”[1]

And that righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For where Luther, and you and I, failed to follow the law perfectly, Jesus fulfilled faithfully. Jesus was the faithful son of Israel while we all have fallen short. And the righteousness we so desperately need to stand before our Creator, Jesus lived out from manger to cross. What Martin Luther learned was that the righteousness he needed was offered to him in Jesus and could be his by faith alone, not through any meritorious work of piety.

Again, Paul states this elsewhere, writing,

Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”[2]

Luther says that upon seeing this grace of God toward him in receiving the righteousness of God by faith, it was like the gates of paradise opening up before him through which he could finally enter.

It is not as though the requirement of obedience to the law is now negated by a new rule of faith. Rather, by faith, the obedience of Jesus is reckoned as if it were our own obedience.  Luther and the other great Reformers began to speak of this doctrine as an “as if” doctrine. Jesus is treated as if He were a sinner on the cross, and the believing sinner is treated as if the sinless life of Jesus were his own.[3] Calvin writes,

“For if righteousness consists in the observance of the law, who will deny that Christ merited favor for us when, by taking that burden upon Himself, He reconciled us to God as if all had kept the law.”[4]

So how can a person be right with God? How can we overcome the anxiety and fear that the depths of our sin boil up within us? Sola Fide reminds us that we are justified by faith alone, and not by our own righteousness. We are made right with God by receiving His righteousness by faith alone.

This ought to lead us to cry out with praises to our God who has graciously provided all we need to stand before Him and enjoy Him forever. This ought to humble us as we remember that it was not because of any righteousness of our own that we have been welcomed into the family of God but on the basis of the righteousness of Christ. This ought to motivate us to share the gospel because in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. The truths of the Reformation continue to strengthen God's Church today. It would serve us well to remind ourselves of these Solas continuously. 

 

[1] Philippians 3:9

[2] Galatians 2:16

[3] Armstrong, John H. “Sola Fide: Does it really matter?” Reformation & Revival (Fall 1997): 16

[4] Calvin, Institutes. Bk. 3, Ch. 17, sec. 5.

 

The Reformation: Monday - Sola Scriptura

As we approach the 500 year anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, it's an opportune time to think through the doctrines that brought the Reformation to begin with, eternal truths that we still protect today. They can be summarized in the 5 Solas: Latin terms for the 5 most definitive Christian defenses leading to this momentous event in church history. 

Today we tackle Sola Scriptura. This is the doctrine that claims that God's Word alone is sufficient in giving us the truth necessary for salvation. The Bible takes itself this seriously within the Bible itself. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16-17) Jesus considered sacred the revealed word of God to the prophets and the revealed law of God to Moses. Peter, in his letters, considers already the letters of Paul to be Scripture, the Word of God to be revered and protected (2 Peter 3:14-16).  When the Incarnate Lord came down, it is fitting that he is described as The Word come down, dwelling amongst us. The second person of the Trinity brings with him the message of God's truth in his words, life, and actions, and he gives that same authority to the revealed Word as it had unfolded through redemptive history. 

It is right then for us to defend the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation. It is not a tool that we use to guide people to truth, it is the guide itself. We point to it, not the other way around. No other institution, tradition, pastor, or ritual can teach you about salvation through Jesus Christ like the Word of God. It is true that at points in church history the church itself is elevated to a status of authority that befits it not, where its word coming down into the lives of people carries equal weight with the Word of God. It is never right for the church to take on this kind of authority. Instead the church is to take its authority from the Word of God, leading in spiritual guidance, Scriptural teaching, administering sacraments, and exercising discipline only as governed by God's Word. 

There is a strong theme of the conscience that runs throughout the New Testament. Our thoughts and instincts are to be tested against God's Word, but in matters where the decision is not just clear from the Bible, the conscience is to guide - a conscience governed by study of The Word. But the church is not to be a substitute where God's Word is silent - the church is not to bind one's conscience by deciding on behalf of the whole. 

I used to describe Scriptural authority this way to children: if you were lost in a forest and met three people, who would you follow: the first man says he's as lost as you are, no idea how he got there; the second person said he's been there before, has some familiarity with these trails, so he thinks he can get you home; the third person says, "I invented these trails. I made this forest - follow me." You would follow person #3. And the Lord of the universe has given us a guidebook, and in it is the gift of life. Devour it for all that it is and rest in its completeness. 

In Defense of Localism in the Church -or- Why You Should Attend Church Where You Live

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” – Titus 1:5           

             Let’s first address what I’m not trying to say. Defenses of localism in the church can sound like a critique of large churches, but that is not a critique I am offering here. In fact, large churches can be local churches; large churches can with integrity practice all the marks of a faithful church; they can be meaningful, sacramental, and very personal. I was part of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City in the early 2000s, when it had achieved great size; but the church leaders in wisdom made sure that the church was broken into manageable and personal cells for the benefit of every member. Ironically, as a new Christian, I wanted virtually nothing of this “being known” by church leadership or "serving" as an instrument in the body of Christ. I stayed at Redeemer for all the consumer-minded reasons most people stay at churches: it was fulfilling my needs. I had yet to understand that as a member of the body of Christ, (that great mystical union tethering me to all true believers and to Christ himself), I was missing out on the true purpose of the church and how my own gifts could be put to use for the benefit of that church and the watching world. I should also make clear that it’s not a sin to go to a church outside your community. This is more an issue of what is best for the church universally in the place you call home, and a challenge to look beyond personal preferences and do what is best for the church as a whole. And there are reasons for traveling to church: perhaps there is not a biblically solid church near you, or perhaps a strong theological conviction would lead you to worship in a specific denomination that doesn’t exist where you are. However, my proposal is this: with few exceptions, you should go to church directly in your community.

          This proposal cannot be entirely selfish, as I watch the dozens of believers leave our community on Sunday mornings to go to the more-established work in the suburbs, because it means that we will lose people too, recommending that they attend the faithful church in their own neck of the woods. It is true that in my city the strongest churches exist outside of the city, and will draw believers out of their own neighborhoods into a kind of “evangelical drainage,” leaving the city in a drought, empty of churches and its life-changing power. And this proposal is far deeper than just saying we churches should each have an even “share of the pie.” Instead, localism allows for the church to thrive in doing those things she is called to do. My defense of this idea is grounded in four areas, though there are more reasons than can be enumerated here. The four areas are: service, evangelism, local influence, and the sacraments.

         When I speak of service, I mean more than just finding opportunities to get involved. If the believer is renewed by the Holy Spirit and given gifts to be employed in the church (1 Cor. 12), then each individual plays an integral part in the local church. If we are just looking to be edified ourselves, or to attend church where our children can benefit the most, we are missing out on the very purpose to which we are called as members of the body of Christ in the first place. We are always called into the church in order to be sent out into service. We are recipients of God’s grace, that we might now shower his grace within the church and onto the world. If you go to church close to you, you are most available for these gifts to be used. The ones in need are near you, and you are close enough to be available to the rest of the church regularly. We’re available for them for service, as we’re called to serve each other (Gal. 6:10), but also to be able to speak the truth in love. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Eph. 4:25).

            When we attend church further away, we are creating a barrier that makes it easy to dismiss both the needs of the church and your potential to be useful, which can be a helpful escape for one who wants to go to church for the purpose of gaining only insight and personal inspiration. If we do foster Christian community, it can then be with just those whom we enjoy, instead of carrying the burdens of neighbors in need despite their social status or likability. We too often want to leave ministry to “the professionals.” But, we share in the ministry of the church with all believers in Christ: one is a foot and another a hand, but no one is to be the observer watching the event from the stands. Be part of the dynamic, multi-gifted, organic body of Christ where you matter dramatically. It’s a hard challenge; we in our own American mindsets want to consume; we want to be fulfilled but we neglect the important call to go and be the church in our community.

            The second reason to stay local is evangelistic. It would be rare that a neighbor would go with you to church 30 minutes away. They might wonder, “Why do they go to church out here, when there are churches right down the street?” Worshiping locally shows that the body of Christ extends into local communities, and showing your neighbor that there are those who love the Lord who live right here is an important part of showing them what God is doing in the world. If God is making all things new (and he is!), then he seeks renewal in my heart and yours, in that distant suburb and in the city where we live. When we can show that neighbor that God not only cares deeply about their heart and restoration but also for the hurting and oppressed in our neighborhood, then we show them their own desires for revitalization of the neighborhood are not foreign to God and to Christians, but are at the very heart of where the church aims to be. You are far more able to plug someone into the mission of God when we do that locally. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).

            Thirdly, churches gain reputations in communities, and those reputations carry influence in neighborhoods. The Catholic church in my community has by far the greatest influence, and it is not because it’s doing something extraordinary in the community – simply, all its members live in this community under the parish model. It becomes in that way a neighborly institution – because it is recognized through the abundance of local attendees, it is seen as a place where residents can find help and find answers to their questions. When the bulk of church attendees come from outside the neighborhood, that church has a hard time having any local influence. Neighbors don’t trust that church because they don’t know the people who go there. It is possible to have a bit of a “reverse drainage” where Christians from outside a community flood a church in an urban neighborhood; there are purposes for this, but these churches rightly desire to grow believers locally, and to raise up local leaders for the renewal of that community.

             Lastly, the sacraments, and a sacramental understanding of Christ’s church. A sacrament is a signpost of God's grace, and we see them in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are the special, Christ-commanded ordinances by which we are to in a special way, allow the Spirit to work in our hearts, strengthening our faith and reminding us of his gracious love for us. But it’s true that when we take Christ’s presence among us in worship seriously, amongst his body, those with whom he is united, then his presence enhances every aspect of our worship. Participation in the sacraments is really step one in acknowledging this reality. While baptism is a sign of initiation, the communion meal is one of active participation. We should be taking the Lord’s Supper together as a church regularly; because, as one local pastor put it, “If it does what we say it does, why wouldn’t we do it every week?” Either this meal has sacramental power, meaning Christ ordained it to have real significance when we partake, or it does not. If it is just a reminder, then surely, you might find other ways to be reminded. In John 6, Jesus speaks vividly about himself as The Bread of Life. While his words are figurative, about his fleshly body and blood, his Spirit that is given to us truly vivifies the soul, and in the Lord’s Supper we participate in union with Christ, his Spirit in us, reminding us of his sacrifice, but illuminating the reality of our eternal connection to him. We should participate regularly and with the other members of Christ’s body, his church. It’s to be consistent and yet local, with your brothers and sisters. We don’t administer the sacraments individually, but as the corporate body, because that participation is meant to be active and not forgotten when you step out the door. Be engaged in the sacraments, know Christ’s presence is with you as you gather in worship sacramentally, and don’t let that be your Sunday fix – but carry that participation with the body into your local community.

            These are just a few reasons, but I think important ones to ponder. We believe that Christ will build his church – yet we are hands and feet, thinkers, teachers, and ambassadors of compassion – in order that the city might know the risen Lord and be healed. 

Cultivation and the General Contractor

The following is a final paper written by New City Cleveland director Justin Ross. Enjoy! :

 

The general contractor is a vocation that permeates all of our cultural life. As you sit, reading this paper, you are directly benefiting from a multitude of contractors whom you've never met or seen. This building, the building where your clothes were made, where you bought your coffee this morning, all where the direct fruit of the cultivate work of general contractors. Such a massive vocation needs to be reduced to a more manageable job or set of jobs for the purpose of the paper. Indeed, the very language of "contractor" has nothing to do with the vocation itself but indicates the way in which the work is acquired. Someone has need of building and creates a contract with a builder, and voila a general contractor is made.

            I will narrow the scope of the vocation to primarily references to interior remodeling construction. Some refer to this as "finish carpentry" but a true general contractor is a jack of many trades including plumbing, flooring, framing, electrical, HVAC. The contracting industry is tending to move in the direction of increased specialization, however, general contractors remain as the primary manager of the overall project. My own role in this vocation is varied. Starting in the summer of 2014, I worked for a general contractor for 9 months and learned much of the various trades involved. We worked together on kitchen and bathroom remodels around the region. I was blessed to work with both a true master of his craft as well as a devout and vocal Christian. At the end of 2014, I transferred to a more administrative role coordinating contractors for a retail based kitchen and bath design company Signature Kitchen and Bath. As such, I am not a general contractor, but I manage, coordinate, administrate and pay them. My role gives me a unique view of the entire remodeling process from design to sales to construction. While my particular focus is on one type of general contracting the principles are meant to be widely applicable to any renovation or construction vocation.

General Contracting: Designed for Good

            You may not know it, but there is a renovation boom going on in the United States right now. After the housing crash of 2007-2008, the industry imploded but has been slowing rebounding. As the NPR article title states, "There's a home renovation boom, but good luck finding a contractor."[1] After the crash, 2 million construction workers left the industry to never return. They switched careers, went back to school, or left the country and now there aren't enough skilled workers for all the work. It's kind of a good problem to have, but it reveals something huge, we love to build. We love to build new things, but we also love to change and make better what is already there.

            This insatiable human need to create, build, and make beauty is apparent even in the type of construction people value. Why do people always remodel the kitchen? It's the place in the home where creation is built into the very building. The kitchen is where food is created. We all place incredible value on the place where we create the food in our lives. People will spend years dreaming of a kitchen, months designing, weeks with their homes torn to pieces and tens of thousands of dollars to replace their kitchen. Why? One reason among others is the insatiable desire to create beauty in the place people value, in the heart of their home.

            This creative and re-creative impulse is connected intangibly to our being made in the image of God. Andy Crouch writes, "After contemplation, the artist and the gardener both adopt a posture of purposeful work. They are acting in the image of One who spoke a world into being and stooped down to form creatures from the dust. They are creaturely creators, tending and shaping the world that the original Creator made."[2] The work or remodeling is especially powerful in demonstrating the creative and redemptive impulse of God, as it is a re-working of that which has decayed or that which has been broken or corrupted. Remodeling involves a phase of destruction and removal for the purpose of creating, restoring, and repairing. When I did the physical work of remodeling, I began to let each job remind me of the cycle of restoration that the whole creation engages in under the Kingship of Jesus.

General Contracting: Damaged by Evil

            The problems of construction and remodeling lie not in the vocation itself, for we've seen that the creative impulse is from God and cannot be removed from the image of God. The ways in which damage has occurred is through the evil embraced by those in the industry. This embracing of evil creates complex systems of sin that create channels of injustice and erode the very foundation of God's creative impulse expressed through the vocation.

            The first area of damage is in the realm of money. With the fall from Eden, all work was cursed and threatened with lack and insufficient provision. Being a remodeling general contractor is a tricky position, financially. The contractor is highly dependent on the designer/sales person to set the price of the job fairly. Not only this, but a contractors schedule of payment is typically 50% of the job price at the start and 50% at the completion of the job, however, it is a regular occurrence in my job to see the final payment delayed due to a design problem. Most remodeling contractors aren't massive organizations like other commercial construction firms. Much of the time the situation is a 1-2 man contracting crew working for a larger design and sales firm. Interestingly, my current role is being in between the two and has allowed me to advocate for fairness in the payment process. For example, when a design error delays payment from the customer, I issue the contractor a 40% draw. A delay in payment can be very damaging to a contractor, however, for a larger company like Signature, its toll is far less. This is one way that I've been able to advocate for fairness and equity in my workplace.

            Another area of damage is what I will call "the damage of consumption". Much of the work that is done in kitchen and bath remodeling is simply unnecessary. My first few weeks on the job were amazing to go into a bathroom and destroy a diagonally laid marble tub deck and replace it with an Onyx shower. Why would anyone ever do this? Because cultured marble is becoming "dated". Here we see a problem of balance. Artistic improvement is good, but too much becomes damaging. Updating cabinets is a fine thing to do. But should you spend $50,000 on cabinets alone? Is that excess? This creates a blurring of the creational good of contracting. Is it good to tear out a perfectly functioning kitchen and replace it with a different style of kitchen? What exactly is being restored? It is good to build something beautiful, but is it good to destroy something functional?

            The final area of damage is corruption. This is a fairly broad category, but I am using it here as the process when the boundaries, limits, and guidelines of an industry begin to break down. Another way of describing this could be "cutting corners". Some real life examples would be: rearranging the pricing structure of a job to give a customer the impression you are giving them a deal while increasing the price in another area or violating lead paint health regulations to reduce the cost and meet marketing goals. These are all areas where the boundaries, limits, or guidelines of the industry were violated. These forms of damage make contracting part of the fallen creation and exploit those who serve in the vocation. I have seen people leave the industryas well as become disillusioned over these kinds of evil.

A Redemptive Ministry-Business Model: New City Restoration and Repair

            How is one to move forward in showing the essential goodness of contracting as well as redeeming both the industry and the world around contracting? A practical plan for spreading the good of contracting starts with a powerful vision of the earthly reality of the Kingdom of God. In many ways, the good news of the gospel is a place to be built, more than just a message to be told (though it is certainly that!). A contracting business would serve three vital and redeeming roles in a community: 1) meeting needs, 2) creating jobs, and 3) restoring dignity.

            Meeting Needs. Every community has needs. The needs of the buildings and developments of a community are called infrastructure. These infrastructure needs can be overwhelming in a community of economic poverty. However, these needs exist in any community. The "need" for new kitchen cabinets creates the job opportunity for a general contractor. Needs and jobs in God's kingdom are meant to supply and feed one another in a sustainable pattern. However, in our fallen world we have an exhausting amount of needs along with men and women without jobs. One of the key roles of general contracting's redemptive kingdom work is to restore the balance between need and job. How can contractors work to actually connect true infrastructure needs with true job needs? This is the redemptive ecosystem of grace that we have been placed here to enact. It is a redemptive ministry-business model.

            The concept of meeting infrastructure needs in an economically poor area is complicated. Meetings needs requires materials and trained workers, both of which require financial resources.  The solution may be in the redemption of the "consumer" culture referred to earlier. Could overhead and profit from "high-end" jobs be used to balance out the "sliding scale" reduced price jobs in an economically poor area? A sustainable general contracting business would need to have business with both the rich and the poor. The role of the church in giving sacrificially and supporting the business in helping the poor and disenfranchised could also play a critical role. Truly meeting needs in the most Kingdom oriented way would be in pulling all these different relationships together in the work of the gospel of the Kingdom.

            Creating Jobs. The next challenge for the general contracting business is to create jobs for people in the community. We've already discussed how meeting needs is a way of creating jobs, but meeting needs is not so simple. General contracting is a particular skill, that means this would require skills training. Who in the church community has these skills? Connecting the assets of skilled workers to those needing jobs is another redemption step in the redemptive ministry-business model. What if I told you, you could make the money of a lawyer and not require a college degree? With the right skills training, this is possible in general contracting. A big part of a redemptive ministry-business model would be connecting those needing jobs with skilled craftsmen through apprenticeships. Why would a skilled contractor do this? Two reasons, 1) easy assistance on the job, 2) a skilled worker at the conclusion of the training. These apprenticeships could be subsidized by the church or other organizations during its low production training time.

            Restoring Dignity. This final, critical role of the redemptive contracting business is the restoration of human dignity. The customer who over consumes on their own desires is in need of restoration. There is more to life than granite counter tops. The unemployed teen dabbling in drug trafficking is in need of restoration. There is more to life than survival. The contractor trapped in the endless rat race of an industry that worships the bottom line is in need of restoration. There is more to life than the grind. What if all these people could restore one another's dignity? What if the meeting of needs and the creating of jobs in a redemptive ecosystem actually restored both party's true dignity as the image of God? This restoration of humanness is the "goal beneath the goal" of meeting physical needs or creating jobs. The redemptive ministry-business is the reconciliation of that which been estranged and in so doing we discover one another as complete humans.

            Non-Profit vs. For-Profit. One of the main challenges in regard to general contracting as a redemptive ministry-business is the cultural notion of profit. Profit defined is, "a financial benefit that is realized when the amount of revenue gained from a business activity exceeds the expenses, costs and taxes needed to sustain the activity. Any profit that is gained goes to the business's owners, who may or may not decide to spend it on the business."[3] Here we see a great deal of freedom for business owners in what revenue gained from services is utilized towards. In my own work, I have agreed to a particular wage for my job. Any profit beyond that wage may or may not find its way into my hands. This depends almost entirely upon the will of the company owner. Indeed, revenue that is mandated to be recycled back into the sustainability of the business causes that business to be defined as "non-profit".  

            This all plays around the question, is redemptive general contracting a "non-profit" or "for profit" endeavor? As we have seen, profit (being the amount of revenue that exceeds expenses) is required to have a successful business. However, non-profit in the vocabulary of our culture is typically taken as "charity" which is not the redemptive ministry-business model being proposed. Non-profit has less to do with the actual revenue of an organization and more to do with its mission. "For-profit companies are generally founded to generate income for entrepreneurs and their employees, while nonprofits are generally founded to serve a humanitarian or environmental need."[4] Here in this definition, we see the damning division of meeting needs and creating jobs. For profit companies exist to create employees, while non-profits exist to meet humanitarian needs. The redemptive ministry-business model is one that meets needs while creating jobs and together these restore the dignity of both parties.

            Throughout this essay, we've examined the nature of general contracting both good and bad. It is a valuable vocation rooted in the very nature of the image of God. God is a creator who both builds and cultivates. Yet, this creative impulse has been deeply corrupted by our own selfish desires which draw us away from the sustainable balance of God's creative intent. This sustainable balance is restored and redeemed in the redemptive ministry-business model. A proposal of an example ministry-business in general contracting. The specifics of such a model need more fleshing out, but such a balanced model of meeting needs, creating jobs, and restoring dignity is one desperately needed in a world searching for meaning and ultimately restoration.

 

WorkDay, C.L.E.

"Meeting Needs, Creating Jobs, Restoring Dignity."

"Workday CLE equips, encourages, and engages individuals in practical vocational training, meeting the needs of vulnerable community members, and learning how to walk with one another in peace and compassion. We form teams of volunteers regularly for work projects and provide extended vocational training for committed community members."

 

[1] http://www.npr.org/2016/08/11/489472679/theres-a-home-renovation-boom-but-good-luck-finding-a-contractor

[2] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovery Our Creative Calling, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 97

[3] http://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/profit.asp#ixzz4RYWE8cAX

[4] http://smallbusiness.chron.com/non-profit-organization-vs-profit-organization-4150.html

An Extraordinary Worship Experience

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit another church in our community. When I walked into the room, I was greeted with many familiar sights: a woman raised her hands in praise while singing with the congregation while less-than-interested kids scribbled on notepads at their feet. Right in front of me a teenager stood with a couple of his peers, a Star Wars ball cap turned backwards adorning his head. 

The worship leader sang loudly and led boldly, while the 100-plus crowd worshipped the Lord. The service contained song, prayer, the passing of the plate, and the preaching of the Word. The only difference? I didn't understand any of it. This church is made up almost entirely of Nepalese refugees. The service is conducted in Nepalese with a sew songs in Hindi. What a joy it was to see these people worshiping the Lord in truth, in their own language and in their own way.

I met one of their pastors recently for a coffee and he told me a bit of his story. His family fled Bhutan when he was just one year old and he then lived in a refugee camp for 18 years in Nepal. They rationed the vegetables and rice they would receive once every two weeks, surviving that little food and water from a cistern. It was there in the camp he met his wife, his high school sweetheart. It was there that the Lord entered his heart. A missionary came to the camp, he came to faith in Christ, and a few years later, made his way through refugee services to the United States. Now he proclaims the Word of the Lord; and this church has grown tremendously, with both east side and west side services. Our God is big! He loves to save sinners, and loves his name being praised in all tongues and all people. 

This Hip Hop Moment

Chance the Rapper won three Grammys the other night - for Best New Artist, Rap Album, and Rap Performance. Chance the Rapper is 23, and a worshiper of Jesus. His latest album, "Coloring Book," features a rendition of Chris Tomlin's "How Great is our God." We've entered into a new era of hip-hop. I admittedly am not a traditional fan of the genre, but I recognize creativity and excellence in music, and this is excellent stuff. This hip-hop moment is full of spiritual exploration, where we see rappers like Chance and Kendrick Lamar wrestling with real spiritual questions, and overtly Christian rappers like Lecrae and Trip Lee are gaining popularity in the mainstream. Hearing the stories of those believers and those who wrestle with their faith are instructive; we must listen and learn. 

I grew up in the tail end of politically-driven hip-hop with groups like Run DMC, but was more attracted due to my age and naivete to Snoop and Dre, because they offered something far more understandable but far more destructive to a young and impressionable mind. Most of 90's hip hop seemed to be geared towards a kind of carefree enjoyment of things, both virtues and vices. In this same decade also came the explosion of MTV, MTV Beach House, The Internet, and before our young eyes were things created for our consumption but not for our edification. I grieve this time, knowing what worlds it would open for young men especially. One of my favorite groups from this era was Naughty by Nature, and while they have a theologically accurate name, they proved mostly unhelpful in how I understood the world. 

But now the hip-hop world seems to have taken a welcome turn; artists like Kendrick & Chance talk about things that matter, do so with splendid creativity, and invite us to watch with them a world with many questions. Some may worry about the use of language and sometimes intense subject matter, but by comparison Christians love Sufjan Stevens, an emotionally raw artist who speaks frankly about his own struggles with sin, in words that can make one squeamish. Sufjan gets a pass because he's white and sings folk music. For some reason, we become more suspicious with rap, and it shouldn't be so. While we can be cautious about who listens and how it could be misconstrued, to walk in wisdom means to be discerning but an active listener to voices around us that articulate hurt, sorrow, and hopefulness for reconciliation. 

Use of poetic device is common in the Bible, with alliteration, acrostics, word play, and parallelism are just a few of the ways biblical writers communicate with creativity and power. Language is something unique to those made in the image of God, and as we are then called into creative service for the life of the world, poetry can be a huge part of that creative service. Whether it be strong spoken word, rap, or traditional poetry, what a beautiful time that we live in. Chance the Rapper also seems to be quite intentional about collaboration with artists across demographics - take for example his video for "Sunday Candy" with Donnie Trumpet; it's a feast for the eyes full of wonderful dancing, but featuring individuals from numerous ethnic backgrounds. When he performed "Finish Line/Drown" bravely on Saturday Night Live just before Christmas, adding the words "Jesus it's your birthday" repeatedly, did anyone else notice his background gospel choir was mostly white? As one who knows what it's like to be part of dominant white culture my whole life, I find this type of inclusivity both refreshing and challenging. In my church, in my life, and in love of neighbor, I must follow suit and want my own creative expressions of service to be this inclusive.  

After seeing Chance the Rapper's performance on SNL, and after watching him perform "Sunday Candy" at the White House online, my four-year-old daughter wants to be a rapper. Well, she wants to be a nurse and a rapper, but I think that is doable and it makes sense. She wants to bring healing to people, and now is her Chance. 

Winter Sends You Its Bleak "Hello"

This week I received via email the lamest holiday card ever produced: it was a government-issued, obligatory holiday card designed to not offend in the slightest way any of the residents of this community. The card features this picture - 

Nothing says "joy" like this lonely picture of a snow-covered bench. 

Nothing says "joy" like this lonely picture of a snow-covered bench. 

... and a generic Season's Greetings in green-colored Comic Sans. And that's it. Carefully absent in this picture is anything religious: no menorah, no Christmas tree, no egg nog or light-up sweaters.  

Now, I want to be clear: I'm not one who advocates for forcing businesses to say "Merry Christmas." In fact, I'm against it - read more about that here. I am no fan of farming out our evangelical witness to Wal-Mart. It is the job of the church to worship Christ at Christmas and to tell our neighbors about him in love. And in light of that, if you have a neighbor who does not celebrate Christmas, it might in fact be quite unloving to open with "Merry Christmas." 

But I am also not a fan of efforts to avoid offending so much that we end up with this holiday card: a drab, uncommitted expression of merriment that says "I know we should say something, people are buzzing about for some reason... so let's acknowledge that there are things going on here without making any judgment or comment on them." But what we're left with is a lifeless lack of love and fear that we cannot get on together because we disagree. 

And to be fair, this isn't an indictment on the ones who sent the card: it's just indicative of a fuller observation that is quite broad. Our neighbors (no matter who they are) have deeply held commitments, even if they are "non-religious" in nature. We do best to give dignity to those beliefs with listening ears and compassionate hearts, knowing as Christians do, that these are matters of life-and-death, not just commercialized preferences. We acknowledge that all people both reflect the image of God and the brokenness of the world in our very beings. And that's a messy reality but it's one that finds in comfort in the light of Christmas. And even when we engage with those who don't believe there is love to be found in the risk that it is to put yourself in their shoes, to listen to their stories, to share life and to share our homes. They know that kind of risk, too. We all take those kinds of risks all the time, putting our trust in others and giving of ourselves to loved ones. Faith is risky: but everyone around you is living out faith commitments that are deeply rooted, (even if by faith I have concluded that there is no God, or that there is no way to know anything about God, should he be there). Why not have those discussions with others in tremendous love and respect? Who knows what we might find?!

The whole Christmas story is rooted in the idea that God entered into this messiness. He sought not just to offend, but to bring the truth in love. That is offensive, of course, as it requires a response - either a big embrace or a big rejection - but he does so in love. He does so in embodied love, the kind of love that says, to quote Sufjan Stevens - 

When you wear your clothes/ I wear them too/ I wear your shoes/ and your jacket, too. 

Love came down at Christmas to take on a life - a hard life, just like your life. He now knows us, our temptations, our pains, and was willing despite his moral perfection, to suffer the penalty for sins on our behalf, so that we can be forgiven and so we could have life eternal, experiencing what we were made for all along: peace on earth & joy everlasting. 

 

A Reason to Sing: The Hymns of Christmas

Advent and Christmas hymns are some of the best songs in the history of the church. This is why many of the same ones are used year after year, because they are not only exciting musically, but contain some of the richest lyrical expressions of the Christian faith. There is much to distract us during the holidays, but these hymns serve as a reminder to the beautiful other-worldliness of Christmas. Hymns at Christmas can be sung by young and old, and the wonder of Christmas can be articulated musically by children and by adults.  The “Little Drummer Boy” shows us that we are worthy to sing to him, no matter our age or status. I have no gifts to bring, but I can go pa-rumpa-pumpum. At Christmas, we get to sing words like these:

 

Silent night, Holy night

Son of God, love's pure light

Radiant beams from thy holy face

With the dawn of redeeming grace,

Jesus, Lord at thy birth

Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

 

And is there anything more powerfully than the juxtaposition of your voice lifted high with power while singing the refrain “Fall on your knees!”? This illustrates our position so well as those who are at his feet in worship and yet we know his appearance means we will be exalted in glory. For -

 

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

'til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.  

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and

Glorious morn.

 

The rescuer has come, and so we sing –

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

Sing loud this Christmas; go caroling, sit around a fireplace and belt until you can’t anymore: sing in worship and know that the light has truly come into the world. 

When We Pull Stuff Out of the Ground

It was my first semester of seminary, and I found myself on a group tour of the small museum of archaeology on campus. I stood there amongst my peers holding a bowl that was 3,000 years old. This was a generous and trusting museum, allowing me to hold the bowl with my own hands. In that moment wasn't what I would call "a revelation" but certainly an "oh, so there were people there - actual people. They ate food out of this, and talked politics while they ate, and got annoyed when their kid was being picky." I was holding a bowl that had been discovered in a tell (which is a small parcel of land in which you are allowed to dig) owned by the seminary in modern-day Syria. 

Archaeology fascinates me. We find ourselves connected to ancient worlds because they left their stuff around too. Archaeology is a field that grows because technology improves and methods for discovering artifacts have greatly improved. Finding one thing leads to another, and before you know it, a city is found - a city that lived in existence in an ancient time, and only in the present on paper. We should not be surprised when we pull stuff out of the ground that corroborates the biblical account of a place and what that place was like. If we believe in the reliability of the Scriptures, it is expected. We believe what God's Word tells us because it is God's Word - but it is not a witness to truth that retreats from historical inquiry - in fact, God's Word invites it. 

Have you noticed how in the Bible at the beginning of a book of prophecy, or in the Gospels, references are made to who was in power at the time and what events run parallel to the time of authorship? Have you noticed how frequently genealogies are used, that give us both a historical and instructional account of how a person came to be? This use of historical figures in and outside of God's people is much like other books of history, that too, invited historical inquiry. The events of the Bible, whether it be a massive flood or the death of our Savior, were not just witnessed in a dream. They happened in front of real people in real places, and so we should expect a real agreement between Word and historical record. Notice that I am not claiming agreement between historical event and naturalistic explanation, because that is not what the Bible claims at all. The Bible and Christ-followers believe that God has intervened in the world, acted supernaturally in a historical time and place. The plagues of Egypt happened because God made them happen, and they happened in Egypt under the rule of an oppressive pharaoh who used the Hebrews as slave labor in that place. 

Just last year the gate of the city of Gath was found, a gate that is referenced in 1 Samuel 21. It has been discovered over the years, (it's been a dig site since 1899) that Gath was perhaps the largest city of the Philistines. Archaeologists have found a Philistine temple, pottery, outdoor hearths for feasting, and a large iron developing area just behind the city gate. Gath is the home of Goliath, the great Philistine champion, who was killed by David. The story adds up, and not just because of artifacts, but because both the method of fighting one-on-one champion vs. champion was common in the ancient world, but so was the practice of stone-slinging as a method of war. God fought on David's behalf, and behalf of his people Israel, making the victory possible, but it isn't done outside of this world, but in a context that makes sense, making use of contemporary weapons of war and the special Spirit-backed equipping of individuals. 

When the apostle Paul was questioned about the life and resurrection of Jesus before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26, he declares famously, "That these things have not escaped your notice, because they did not happen in a corner." If you deny the historical account of Jesus in the Bible, you must come up with a historically defensible for the rise of the Christian church following Paul and the other apostles. The artifacts from the time of Christ and the time of David have footprints, and they walk us all the way to where we are, and that is a globe where followers of Jesus reside in every part of the world. And we did not end up that way speculatively or by believing in the independent, unverifiable revelations of another. We believe in it is true because the account of God's story from Adam to the return of Christ is a reliable story, given to us by the Holy Spirit in real places by real people who tell the tale of a God become man, a baby born in a real town - a real town called Bethlehem. 

What The Olympics Can Teach Us

My two daughters enjoyed watching The Olympics immensely this summer, particularly the events of gymnastics and swimming. When they were completed, my six-year-old asked, 'Can we watch them again next year?' Sadly, the summer games are every four years, I explained, but that does make them pretty special. The somewhat-less-exciting winter Olympics will happen in another 18 months, but does not offer quite the same excitement of sport, in my opinion. 

It is frequently argued that the Olympic Games offers us something more than just the world's best athletes competing at the highest level. This truth in itself makes it appealing, to be sure, but there is a far more important window that is opened for us. When we watch The Olympics, we are hopeful that we will see Peace on Earth. 

When the American swimmer had some disparaging things to say about that Russian swimmer who had formerly been caught doping, we kind of hated it. We love justice, want there to be fairness, so we balk at either cheating (by the Russian), or hatred (by the American); what we want is their love and justice. What we want to see is people of all tribe, tongue, and nation walking into a giant stadium loving each other, celebrating their common humanity displayed in fantastic feats of athleticism. And then we want to watch their common humanity displayed in peaceful acts of courage, sportsmanship, and love. We loved that Michael Phelps won more gold medals than there are lanes in the pool, but when he sat on that rope and waved his hands toward himself, inviting applause at his awesomeness, we said, no, don't do that. Pride is ugly, and humility is cherished. Just win the race, give credit to others who have made you who you are, and move on. We want to celebrate with you because humans are capable of remarkable things. And you have done something remarkable. 

When Simone Manuel made Olympic history by becoming the first African-American swimmer to win an individual swimming medal, we cheered with her, because of the horrific (recent) history the United States has with African-Americans and swimming pools. We rally behind her because oppression is sick and makes us less human; her victory is a victory for all of us, because in it we see ignorance exposed and peace exalted. 

There are many other stories that come from the Olympics which show our clear desire for peace and celebration of culture and people, but we know too, that it is just a faux kind of peace. The Olympics shows us what could be, but is not. There is still a civil war in Syria that takes the lives of innocent civilians daily; hatred and violence plagues our world; distrust and fear are everywhere. 

All approaches to find this peace that we see for a few weeks every four summers have proved to be unsuccessful from a worldly standpoint. Despite our wisdom and clear desire for peace, we can't do it. Sin gets in the way. There is a story that makes sense of both this desire and our inability to achieve it in any earthly way: the Christian story. Only in this story do we recognize man's sinfulness and the possibility of peace on earth, including people of all tribes and tongues. No philosophy or public policy will ever set the captives free in the way that we all want: if we could, it would have been done by now. And yet, it is a reality that exists for those who trust in Christ - peace on earth, a reverse of the curse, only found in Jesus.