Tag Archive: Faith


Sharing the eyes of God

I have always puzzled over Jesus’ high command to the lawyer in Luke 10.  Jesus instructs him,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”  What does it look like to love God with our heart?  How does the soul love?  With what strength – biceps and triceps(?) – are we to love God?  What happens in the mind when it loves?

Of course, part of  the significance of Jesus’ answer to the lawyer  is it’s capturing of the essence of the 10 Commandments, to love God and love neighbor.  Jesus is also quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, a command that would have been familiar to the lawyer and other Jews of the day.  (Isn’t it strange how we often think of Jesus as purely original, as if he was the first to say such profound, true, and meaningful things?)

I wonder if Jesus meant – in a frank, down-home, charming way – we’re to “love God with all we got?”  With whatever energy we can muster. With whatever sensibilities we can direct to God and neighbor.  With all the thoughts and passions we can cultivate in glory to God.  We’re to love God with any gift God has given, at any time we can, and in any place we can.

So…what about the gift of our body…or our senses…

Seeing as God sees

The story of Samuel’s search for a king is telling of God’s vision.  God has grown weary of Saul as king, and sends Samuel to Jesse’s house in search of a new king (1 Sam. 16:1-13).  As Jesse’s sons trot out before the search committee, Samuel is sure he will be able to spot the new king.  He assumes the new king will be tall, good-looking, and commanding.

But as the first son approaches, the words of the Lord come to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature.”  Several more sons pass before Samuel, but they are not chosen either.  The Lord’s instruction to Samuel remains steadfast: “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on outward appearances, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

“For the Lord sees not at man sees.”  How amazing.  How wonderful.  How much better is God’s vision than our vision.  While God’s eyes penetrate beyond the surface, our purview captures only fleeting glances of other persons.  Part of our vision problem is time.  We are hurried; we are busy.  We catch only a glimpse or snapshot of someone and believe we’ve seen the whole picture.  We fail to plumb the depths of persons’ hearts and convictions, joys and concerns.

God’s vision seems so grand compared to our pithy eyesight.  God’s scan of the world captures all, bringing all people into God’s line of sight.  When Jesus entered one synagogue he saw a woman who had been bent over for 18 years.  How long had she been coming to the synagogue seeking help, longing for someone to notice her?  While the others’ eyes passed over her (for what seems like quite a long time), Jesus noticed her, laid his hands on her, and sent her away standing upright.

Jesus has, how shall we say it, universal vision.  The eyes of God, of Jesus, see all.  Jesus’ vision captures those who go unnoticed, those on the margins.  Jesus sees the invisible people in a crowded world.

I remember several years ago my church celebrated a Hanging of the Greens service.  During the service, children processed into the sanctuary with chrismons, stars, ivy, and poinsettias.   Many children participated in the service, cutely prancing down the aisle to the front of the sanctuary.   Despite all the kids, however, I waited to see just one, my cousin.  I had eyes for her only.  While all the children beautifully participated in the service my eyes were locked in to see only one person.  I was concerned with laying my eyes upon my cousin, delighting in how precious and cute she was in her role.

We have, how shall we say it, selective vision.  We have tunnel vision.  Our eyes see those things that we choose to see, those persons that are convenient and attractive to us.  God’s vision is much grander, much more encompassing, much broader.  Unlike our eyes, the wide scope of God’s vision captures all, looking not upon outward appearances.

Those who have eyes let them see.

Fusing doctrine and theology

Scott Jones begins Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor the exact place the book’s title suggests.  He asks: “How do we love non-Christians well?  Evangelize them.  How do we evangelize non-Christians well?  Love them.”  Jones locates his cyclical argument amid a proliferation of definitions of evangelism.  But for Jones, love is the hinge of any definition of evangelism.

Jones suggests that any theology of evangelism flow from Christian scripture.  We should start with that which is most fundamental to the gospel, and allow those claims to shape all other theological constructs (30).  What does scripture tell us about anthropology?  Soteriology?  Sin?  God?  From these starting places, Jones argues, we may begin to lovingly interpret and meet human needs, which is core of Jones’s evangelism.

As Jones rightly points out, God’s evangelistic love of the world is the central message of scripture (33).  God’s love draws all of humanity into worship and relationship with God and one another.  Love for others demonstrated through actions, Jones says, is the crux of evangelism.  Such loving acts are evangelistic in two ways.  First, loving actions are good news (God is actively working to solve humanity’s problems).  Second, actions are invitational (God is working to invite and encourage persons to participate in the reign of God).

Jones’s emphasis on God’s love for humanity as the impetus for human love for one another is faithful to the canon.  All of Christian scripture directs us to see and live God’s compelling love for God’s creation.  Jones’s call for Christians to tie God’s love for us to our love for others is thoroughly Wesleyan.  (Think of John Wesley’s love for 1 John).

I greatly appreciated Jones’s ability to wed doctrine (what we believe about God) to theology (how we live our beliefs).  This link seems all too often missing in much evangelistic conversion.  Evangelism too often becomes something we do because well…we’re supposed to, right?  Jones shows that there is much more depth behind our convictions to evangelize.

I am reminded of St. Basil’s argument concerning the essence of God. Basil believes that while God’s essence is an unknowable mystery, “we can know God by His energies, or His activities.”  At the heart of God’s redemptive activity is love (John 3:16).  For Basil, what we believe about God is revealed to us in God’s actions in the world.

The same may be said of the Church today.  Perhaps the world will most know the essence of the Church by the Church’s actions.  The question then becomes, “Do our actions point to a loving, caring, generous essence?”  The words of the famous hymn come to mind… “And they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.”

This is the first review in an eight-part series looking at Scott Jones’s Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor

Is “Salvation by grace through faith” unique to Christianity?

In chapter six Tennent prompts a discussion a seminary student would love.  He enticingly asks, “Is the Christian emphasis on grace dramatically different from other religions’ doctrines?”  Is grace a universally understood and accepted idea?  Immediately, Calvin and Arminius or Presbyterians and Methodists come to mind.  Tennent, however, points to a similar debate happening within branches of Hinduism (Vadagalais and Tengalais).  Also, Tennent highlights the Japanese Jodu Shin Shu (True Pure Land); a stream of Mahayana Buddhism Karl Barth called “Japanese Protestantism” (137).

True Pure Land emerged in 13th century AD by the Buddhist reformer Shinran Shonin.  This “Japanese Protestantism,” Tennent claims, parallels the soteriological claims made by so many Western Christians.  Shinran recognizes the helplessness of the human condition and humanity’s desperate cry for grace.  However, while a doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith” does exist in Buddhism, it is an incomplete Christian understanding of the phrase according to Tennent.

Does this conclusion mean Christians have the market cornered on grace, faith, and salvation?  Tennent allows for the possibility that True Pure Land is in total error.  Perhaps the void of Christ and God’s redemptive acts in grace-filled non-Christian religions negates the whole of their existence.  Yet, in that case are we to shun all of it?  Could we not still acknowledge that the True Pure Land is an example of the truth that God “has not left himself without testimony?” (Acts 14.17).  Tennent concludes that the lesson we should learn from Shinran is to expect doctrines of grace in other religions, and not be surprised by them” (158).

Chapter six left me a little disappointed.  Tennent failed to offer many definitive or insightful statements.  Many questions remained unanswered.  What if we find grace in other religions?  Is that an avenue to talk about the grace of Christ?  Do we settle to know that “grace” is to be found apparent from the Christian witness?  What is the source of the other grace?  My hopes for chapter six were not met, and I finished the chapter with more confusion than clarity.

This is the sixth review in an eleven-part series looking at Timothy Tennent’s Theology in the context of World Christianity.

Sharing our wounds…

Arias begins chapter four with a question I (and he) asked earlier: If Jesus proclaimed the presence and imminence of the kingdom, why has the kingdom disappeared from evangelism and theology today?  Arias proposes that the loss is a result of a misunderstanding of language.  Today the biblical “kingdom” of God is conflated with the notion of a democratic or political kingdom and kingship.  The kingdom has been reduced to a static realm, territory, or space.  It is not longer viewed as a dynamic, active all-encompassing reality that envelops all creation.  For Arias, the dynamic vibrancy of the kingdom – the radical in-breaking – is grounds for Jesus’ confrontational evangelization.

What is confrontational about Jesus’ evangelism?  The kingdom Jesus came to announce is an in-breaking kingdom that draws dividing lines and demands an option.  Arias describes the kingdom as a disturber, challenger, and expose of human values and motivations.   The kingdom is the permanent subverter of human orders.  The appropriate response to the challenge of the kingdom is a change of mind, change of action, and change of relationships – a complete reorientation of life (47).

What are the implications of this for the evangelists of this kingdom?  The proclaimers of this kingdom should not expect any other treatment than the one reserved for the subversives in human history (think: Bonhoeffer, King).  The words of Jesus in Mark 8.34-35 come to mind: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Following Arias’s model of evangelism – do what Jesus did – today’s Christians can expect (and even seek, if Arias’s thought is pushed to its extreme) confrontation.  Arias quotes Jesus’ instructions to the disciples: “Listen!  I am sending you out just like a sheep to a pack of wolves” (Mt. 10.16, TEV).  Due to a commitment to a life of “radical discipleship,” total renunciation, and total subordination of all other values and loyalties to the demands of the in-breaking kingdom, the proclaimers of the kingdom should prepare to announce the kingdom in the midst of trouble and tribulation.  The grace, however, is that in a world of sin, the reign of God passes through rejection, suffering, and death (53).

This is one of the most insightful chapters of Arias’s work.  He paints a poignant picture of the life of an evangelist, or proclaimer of the kingdom.  Evangelism in this sense is difficult work.  Proclaiming the in-breaking kingdom disrupts not only the world order, but also the personal lives of those who proclaim it.  Confrontational evangelism results in wounds.  Yet, these are the wounds we show to the world to proclaim the kingdom and our conviction.  To the Thomases in the world who only wish to see the wounds of Christ, we offer our scrapes and scars for the kingdom.

The one caveat I might add to Arias’s discussion of confrontation evangelism is this:  We must be aware of any tendency to “go” where is conflict or confrontation and proclaim, “This is the in-breaking kingdom.”  We must prayerfully discern which conflicts are kingdom-building and which are antithetical to the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

This is the fourth review in a nine-part series looking at Mortimer Arias’s Announcing the Reign of God.

Faith because of us…Faith in spite of us…

Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism provides an interesting, helpful, and insightful angle for the study and practice of mission and evangelism.  From the start, Brueggemann identifies attitudes towards evangelism from both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum.  He claims that traditional conservative approaches to evangelism are nothing more than a reduction of biblical “news” that Christians “should/ought/must” proclaim.  On the other hand, liberals, he argues, have become so embarrassed by the word “evangelism” they cower in fear at the very utterance of the word and would rather talk about “social action.”  In his work Brueggemann holds together these concepts in his evangelistic model of “announcing good news” (conservative evangelism) and “appropriating the good news” (liberal social action).

Throughout Biblical Perspectives Brueggemann uses a copious amount of scripture.  His exegesis and interpretation of scripture is brilliant and enlightening.  He views the biblical text not as a handbook, but as an articulation of an imaginative model of reality into which we are invited to participate.  Specifically, Brueggemann’s ability to draw upon the Old Testament for evangelistic insights is wonderful.  His use of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, the Psalms, and the prophets broadens the scope of the biblical witness and model of evangelism.  His illumination of the OT pushes the reader to imagine and explore evangelism beyond Matthew 28.

However, Brueggemann does not neglect the New Testament.  In fact, he offers a beautiful reading of the importance of baptism.  He argues that baptism is a subversive act in which “the claims of the gospel of God’s hidden, decisive victory are fully voiced” (45).  Through baptism we are embraced and incorporated in to God’s story, putting away the former self (Eph. 4.22-24).  The putting away of other gods, other desires, and other selves, Brueggemann suggests, is to totally commit one’s self to God.  This commitment of self and a desire to hear other’s commitment is the drama of evangelism.

Brueggemann calls all Christians back to the canonical witness for evangelism.  He invites us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger, cosmic story, a story in which we are not fully in control.  Brueggemann’s invitation for all to participate in the urgent, on-going work of evangelism is accessible and practical.  It successfully moves our hope for the future of evangelism beyond our own schemes and strategies and into the heart of a God who has already done great things.  Brueggemann reminds us that when faith does arise, sometimes it is because of us and sometimes it is in spite of us.

This is the fifth review in a five-part series looking at Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism.

Keeping the conversations going…

After commenting on the outsiders and the forgetters, Brueggemann considers one additional group of candidates for evangelism: the children of believers who may or may not have grown up to become “consenting adults.”  Plainly speaking, he is talking about children, youth, and young adults who may be questioning or skeptical of their elders’ faith.  However, before jumping to a “how to evangelize youth” model, Brueggemann wonders if there is room for faith in today’s world.  As he sees it, the young have two options:  1) to be seduced into a comfortable modernism, or 2) participate with intentionality within a sustaining community of support.  Unfortunately, the first option leads to self-indulgent individualism while the second option often develops into a highly moralistic club.

How then do beloved children become belief-ful adults?  The process cannot be forced or hurried.  It cannot happen in isolation.  Growth comes through on-going conversation within a community, Brueggemann argues.  The conversation starters are the faithful adults in the community.

The conversations, however, are not haphazard or random.  Instead, they include several important components.  First, faith comes about through conversation that maintains unconditional advocacy.  The community must maintain receptivity to the context of the youth.  They must affirm the worth and value of youth, making an offering of free grace.  Second, conversations must offer a coherent construal.  The story of “adult” faith should provide a coherent construct of reality that engages the intellect.  Adult faith should demonstrate the connection between the little pieces of life to the cosmic reality.  Thirdly, conversations must be “counter-nurture.”  That is, the purpose of conversation is not to make a youth a “good American” or “moral,” but that the youth should be able to engage the world according to the radical vision of the gospel.

Scripturally, Brueggemann turns to various sign-acts in the OT that highlight intergenerational conversation.  He depicts situations in which parents’ engagement in liturgical acts provokes a child’s questioning.  Children become curious of the act and want in on the mystery.  A child’s question, Brueggemann suggests, is an open door for testimony.  Brueggemann highlights an incident in Joshua 4.  After the people cross the Jordan River, Joshua instructs them to place 12 stones “to serve as a sign among you” (liturgical act).  The children’s question then follows, “What do these stones mean?”  The parents respond, “The waters of the Jordan were cut off” (testimony).  This move from liturgical act to question to testimony represents the model of conversation Brueggemann believes is most effective in youth evangelism.

Brueggemann also highlights Deuteronomy 4:6-9 as a text of intergenerational witness and testimony.  Brueggemann views Moses’ call for a “sign” on the hand or an “emblem” on the forehead as a “pedagogy of saturation.”  Moses calls the people to a total, visible commitment to Yahweh.  Saturation intends for the whole of one’s life to be devoted in trust and fidelity to YHWH (104).

Overall, I greatly appreciate Brueggemann’s passion for the evangelization of children, youth, and young adults.  He writes, “The task of evangelizing our young is enormously urgent.  Much for the future depends upon it” (120).  Still, as much as our children are the future of our church, they also are the church now.  How might their voices contribute to the Church even during the infancy of their faith?  How might we, as adults, invite our children and youth to ask questions about worship, theology, or tradition (like those in the book of Joshua)?

I also share Brueggemann’s belief in the fruitfulness of on-going evangelistic conversations.  Evangelism is more than a moment in time.  Rather, it’s moments over time.  Helping to bring about faith in young people is more about developed relationships than solo “emotional” moments.   How do we foster such relationships?  It seems a variety of relationships are important: The relationship between the evangelizer and God…God and the person being evangelized…the two persons engaged in evangelistic conversation.  How might such an approach (relationship, not moment-in-time) inform how we as churches, districts, or Conferences (in the UMC) “do” youth events such as rallies, concerts, and gatherings?

This is the fourth review in a five-part series looking at Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism.

Event…Announcement…Appropriation

In the opening chapter of Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism he argues that acts of evangelism have a characteristic structure and recurring pattern.  He describes this pattern as a three-scene drama.  The three scenes include: 1) Event of mythic proportion, 2) Announcement of event verdict, and 3) Work of reordering life according to announcement of event.

Brueggemann describes the first event as the Theological Conflict.  The theological conflict is between powerful forces that compete for supremacy or loyalty.  Such conflicts include the archetypal good v. evil and life v. death, or the biblical YHWH v. Pharaoh and Jesus v. Satan.  Within scripture we also find the battle among gods in the OT and Paul’s on-going discussion of the “battle” between Law and Gospel.  In each retelling of the battle, or in its various stagings, we hear of the struggle turning in our favor.

The second scene of evangelism pertains to the Announcement of the Victory.  In this scene, witnesses give testimony and tell the outcome of the conflict he or she has observed.  The announcers are mediators of the outcome, attempting to make the outcome of the dispute available and credible to those who only hear but do not witness the conflict.  The announcers make the event ‘matter’ in all places and times.

Finally, the three-scene drama continues with an appropriate response, or Lived Appropriation.  This scene involves the reception of and response to the news.  The appropriation is often difficult, costly, and demanding.  Total appropriation involves ceding governance of life over to the new victor now announced (30).

How does this story play out in Scripture?  Brueggemann describes the three-scene drama of Easter: the conflict of Easter is that “God has done battle with the power of death” (24).  In the unseen struggle “everything has changed,” and all creation is free for life as God’s joyous creation.  The oldest announcement of the Easter narrative comes from 1 Cor. 15.4, “He was raised on the third day.”  Brueggemann suggests that the announcer is perhaps a primal voice, or that of the women at the tomb, or Peter.  Paul names other witnesses, or announcers, in 1 Cor. 15.5-7, upon whose account we must rely.  Finally, the appropriation of the Easter account pertains the hearers’ ethical lives.  The power of the announced Easter story generates new life, a life of generosity and compassion.  The Lord’s own work is to be done by the community that receives the news (36).

Brueggemann’s telling of the three-scene drama is both insightful and helpful for today’s evangelistic efforts.  He distills the main announcement, which he calls the “lean announcement,” to: In Jesus Christ, God has overcome the power, threat, and attraction of the power of death.  He also argues that this drama is not completed, and it must be re-enacted many times.  I agree that we must intentionally re-tell of the victory in a variety of ways.  God’s victory is large, great, and expansive.  We must not reduce God’s “victory” to only sin and death in the salvific sense.  God’s victory and Christ’s lordship extends over consumerist greed, military power, and attitudes of self-sufficiency (among other forms of the work of the power of death).  Admittedly, Brueggemann does write of the “victory’s” implications for socio-economic and political realities. 

Also, I would agree with Brueggemann that we do well to not collapse evangelism solely into the middle scene (announcing).  We must tell the whole drama.  We must be ready to both announce and appropriate the news into our lives.  If we only see ourselves (or evangelization) as announcers, do we miss part of the drama?  Can we fully enact scene two if we do not struggle to live scene three also?

This is the first review in a five-part series looking at Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  Genesis 1:2

As we journey through Lent it can feel like a season of despair or gloominess.  We begin on Ash Wednesday when we worship in a dimly lit sanctuary.  We place ashes on our forehead to remind us of our mortality.  Over the 40 days of Lent we practice more intimately prayer, fasting, and self-evaluation.  We give up something – not because it would be healthy or beneficial – but so that we might get closer to God.  Lent can feel like the dark days before the bright Easter morning.  And in many ways it is.

Genesis 1:2 reminds us of the primordial darkness, the darkness before the joy of God’s creation.  Yet, even then in the darkness the Spirit of God is present.  God hovers over the waters.  God is near the formless emptiness.  But out of that – out of nothing – God brings newness and creation.  God forms vibrant life out of the murkiness of the shadows.

During Lent allow God to hover over you.  Spend time in the darkness of self-reflection and self-denial.  God is there.  Ask God to bring life out of this season of darkness.  For on Easter morning, we will celebrate the Resurrection of the One who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

Prayer: O Eternal God, we find ourselves in the midst of a seemingly formless, empty, and dark season. Yet we know that you called all creation out of such an environment.  We glorify you for forming the formless, providing fulfillment for the empty, and revealing light to the darkness.  Heavenly God, remain present when we experience personal and communal emptiness or doubt.  As You hovered over the waters, we ask for your hovering love and grace in our lives.  We pray in Your name, Amen.

A Refreshing Advent

This past July I had the joy and pleasure of preaching each afternoon at Bethlehem UMC’s weeklong campmeeting.  Each day we gathered under the outdoor worship center for praying, singing, and proclaiming the Word.  I remember many wonderful moments from those five days.  The time a bee flew down my shirt causing me to dance during the sermon.  And the breeze that scattered my notes to the ground mid-sermon.  Or the intense heat that found its way into even the shadiest corners of the pavilion.

However, I also remember the young boys who brought popsicles to the crowd following each service.  The flavorful treat was exactly what we needed at the time.  We needed something refreshing, something cool, something seemingly heaven-sent.  After the first few days I began to look forward to that moment following the service when I knew a young boy (a friend by the end of the week) would hand me my favorite flavor, blue (he was a quick learner!).

Now, as we approach the Christmas season I suspect there will be times when we feel as though we’re waltzing (or maybe tangoing) from place to place.  Or instances when we’re swept away by all the things that simply must be done.  And other moments when the pressures of the season bring out our worst “good-will.”  Perhaps in those moments we need something refreshing, something uplifting.  Perhaps we need a moment with God.  This Advent season, take a moment, among all the hectic moments, to offer thanks and praise to God.  Take time to recall God’s coming into our world, and into our hearts.

But lest we think that we should only call upon God when we think we need God the most, let us make praise a regular part of Christmas preparation (a novel idea, isn’t it?).  Start an Advent devotion with the whole family.  Pray together at meals and get-togethers.  Spend time at church during the many wonderful Advent opportunities.  Send a card to a loved one.  Bake cookies for a neighbor.  Take a moment, even when you don’t think you have one to spare, to remember and share God’s love with others.

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