Tag Archive: God


Yesterday, we asked…What would it look like to love God with one of the most precious gifts God has given – our body.   Is this one way to embody Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind?  Yesterday we said something about our eyes; today we turn to our ears…

Those who have ear let them hear

In the book of Revelation John provides an interesting image of God’s voice.  For John, God’s voice is something to be heard and seen.  John hears God’s voice “like a trumpet,” but then he turns to also “see” God’s voice speaking to him.  What must it have been like to hear the voice of God?  To see God’s voice?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we are often skeptical of God’s voice.  How and why would God speak to us?  We’ve never heard, much less seen, God’s voice.  At the very least, we relegate God’s voice to ages past.  God speaking was something that happened long ago.  God spoke to Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  God called out to Mary and Paul.  But God’s voice – whether seen or heard – was for some other people in some other place at some other time.

But has God really stopped speaking?  Has the voice of God gone silent?  Has God’s voice, both it’s sound and it’s beauty, really been lost for our day?  Surely not.  Perhaps it’s not God’s voice that has grown quiet.  Maybe it’s our ears that have failed.  Could it be that our ears are directed elsewhere?  Are our ears too full of the noise that surrounds us?  Are our ears too busy?

If you’re like me, everywhere you go noise is being pumped into your ears.  The radio in the car blasts music and ranting talk show hosts.  The television in the living room drones with noise.  The cell phone (or bluetooth headset) is held tightly to our ears and mouth.  The iPod earbud wires dangle from our ears.  We are “plugged in” people.  We are people with busy ears.

Could it be, we are so “in touch” (with one another) that we are not “in touch” (with God).  We are so plugged in to our social and professional networks that we are not plugged and tuned in to God.

God wishes to speak to us.  God calls us, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly.  At times God’s voice comes as a loud trumpet, echoing in our ears and springing us into action.  Other times God’s call is subtler, gentler.  It is as that favorite hymn proclaims, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.”  God desires to reach us; to let us know God is thinking of us; to let us know God loves us.  God is our calling shepherd, and we are God’s listening flock.

Those who have ears let them hear.

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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.

Ever since the first church put a coffee shop in its lobby the debate has brewed on and on (and on).  Should the church entrance, narthex, lobby (or whatever you call it) be a place that hands out bulletins or cups o’ joe?  Is the lobby for merely passing through on one’s way to the sanctuary?  Or is it a place for gathering and sitting together around a tall table and a plate of breakfast goodies?  Is the narthex for ushers ushering or congregants congregating?

I still remember the first time I saw a coffee shop in a church lobby. It’s presence seemed odd and misplaced, yet fresh and intriguing.  You mean I can worship and drink coffee at the same time?  I can sit with friends around a table, seeing their faces worship, instead of looking at the back of the head in front of me in the pew?

Coffee shops in church?  Maybe.

I recently finished Onward, a book by Starbucks ceo (Starbucks company’s spelling and capitalization, or lack thereof) Howard Shultz detailing the company’s journey through recent ups and downs.

In Onward, Schultz speaks of culture’s “places.”  Places, for him, are those locations where people connect with others in a variety of ways.  Shultz’s suggests that home is the “first place” and work is the “second place” of connection.  The coffee shop, he proposes, is a person’s “third place.”  Shultz’s describes the coffee shop (or in his case, Starbucks locations) as “a social yet personal environment between one’s house and job, where people can connect with others and reconnect with themselves.”

He writes: “The next time you walk by a coffee shop, peer inside.  Take in the variety of people in line or seated.  Men and women in business attire.  Parents with strollers.  College students studying.  High school kids joking.  Couples deep in conversation.  Retired folks reading newspaper and talking politics.  Maybe they’re falling in love with the person next to them.  Or making a friend.”

Cultural places.  Home.  Work.  Coffee shops.

What about the Church?  Or the local church?  What is it’s “place” in society?

Now, I don’t mean to say Shultz is wrong to neglect the “place” of the church.  That’s not his focus as ceo or author.  Nor do I want to suggest that the church exists, or should transform to be, like a coffee shop.  But you can’t help (as a pastor or Christian, I suppose), to read Shultz’s words of “places of connection” and not think of the church.

Shouldn’t the church be a place of connection?

A place where people come together to connect with others through worship, study, and fellowship.  A place of reconnecting with ourselves – both the selves we enjoy and the ones we’d rather not spend any quality time examining – through meditation and spiritual disciplines.  In fact, the Church is the place of ultimate connection, a connection with God.  When we come into the sacred pause that is our Sunday morning we come into the full presence of God, hoping, expecting, longing for God’s spirit to and move and inspire.  In fact, it’s God’s grace through the spirit that does the heavy lifting of connecting and reconnecting God’s people.

We might profitably ask of the church the question Shultz asks of coffee shops: What do people see when they peer inside a church?  A sanctuary?  A few coffee tables?  People connecting?

Marketers and advertisers frustrate me.    They are brilliant in their jobs.  Over and over they convince me to want (and buy) something I never knew I wanted.

We’re consumers.

Or maybe…

We’re being consumed.  We’re consumed by television commericals and newspapers ads.  We’re consumed by a culture that tells us we need and want the next, latest, greatest thing.  We’re consumed by a desire to keep pace in the house/car/toys race with neighbors.

But…

What would it be to be consumed by God?  By a love for God?  By a love for God’s people, our neighbors?

In chapter eight, the authors argued that particular missional communities are the crux of God’s mission in the world.  Such communities, however, cannot operate in isolation from one another.  “Particularity is not exclusivity” (248).  Rather, the people of God are a universal community of communities (248).  Individual communities flow from the particular of their contexts into the wholeness of the catholic church.  However, this oneness is not limited to institutional unity or good public relations.  Rather, particular missional communities existing in more concrete, practical, and fruitful ways to give a unified witness to the one Lord.

How did the early church do this? (As you can by now, “Let’s get back to the early church” is a prominent theme in Missional Church).  The early church, the writers argue, demonstrated its connectedness through the canonization of scripture and formation of doctrine and confessions.  However, the early church’s strong connectedness eventually succumbed to institutionalization.  David Bosch argues that the failure of the early church was that it ceased to be a movement and turned into an institution (252).  As an institution, the structures of the church in the first centuries (as well as today) may be susceptible to cultural compromise.  For Christians today this susceptibility may mean adopting the latest corporate marketing strategies or hiring processes over and against the biblical witness of fair, faithful, and just business practices.

The authors also explore the four Nicean “marks of the Church” (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), and their implications for today.  An apostolic church is based on the teaching and preaching of the apostles, carrying forward their legacy.  In the same way the apostles gave witness in their lives and work to the good news of Jesus Christ, so too the Church follows in their footsteps.  The Church’s catholicity is demonstrated in all the ways that the Church witnesses to the one gospel that draws all people unto Christ (257).  Particular communities live out this catholicity when they serve Christ in their own context, yet understand that is it not the only way to be a Christian community.  A community of holiness is expressed in the ways a particular community functions as one set apart for God’s mission. Holiness becomes evident in communal practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, righteousness, and justice.  Finally, the oneness of the Church – unity – is the result of the Church’s faithfulness to apostolicity, holiness, and catholicity.  In the midst of a world of competitiveness, wastefulness, and contention, the Church exists to offer a different way, a united way.

The authors conclude their discussion of the connected nature of the missional church by arguing that the four marks of the church are essential for a connected, missional church.  Such “marks,” when faithfully and honestly lived, represent the missional unity that “transcends all human boundaries and cultural distinctions” (265).  This unity, or connectedness, is the future of the faithful church embodying God’s reign.  Accountability and cooperation, not classic congregationalism, is the way forward for connected missional communities.

While I greatly appreciate the vision the authors present for the church of the 21st century, I remain fuzzy on the details.  The idea of a “community of communities” sounds absolutely faithful, fruitful, and scriptural.  However, I’m unclear what this “looks like.”  It does not seem as if the authors are arguing for institutional unity or uniform organizational polity.  A national “connected” church that exists as collaboration among the thousands of already existing churches does not appear to be the goal.  What then does this “community” look like?  There is no doubt that a conversion of existing church structures is needed if the Church is to be more “unified, holy, apostolic, and catholic,” but how do we discern the next move?

This is the ninth review in a ten-part series looking at Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder.

From sending to being sent

The authors of Mission Church begin their exploration of mission and evangelism by stating what has become all too obvious to many Christians around the world.  While Christianity has exploded and grown in many parts of the world, Christianity in North America has experienced a loss of power and influence.  The Church in North America has grown increasingly marginalized.  The authors further point out that North American Christian’s solutions to this problem are too bland.  Often, the typical response to “fix” the Church begins with workshops, seminars, and books.  The writers of Mission Church believe our strategy of analyzing Church problems and searching for solutions misses the crux of the situation.  The answer to the crisis is not the production and enactment of a new method or strategy.  The problems are spiritual and theological; they have more to do with who we are and what we are for as Christians (3).

The opening chapter of Missional Church charts the history of Christian mission throughout the 20th century.  The writers argue that most early theologies of mission that originated in the West we ecclesiocentric.  Western missionaries sought to make churches in other parts of the world in the images of Western Christianity.  Mission as disciple-making was not part of the discussion.

During these times, the assumption was that “mission” was just another program of the church to reach out to pagans.  For many local parishes, mission was often defined as member recruitment.  Many church leaders viewed “mission” as synonymous with church institutional maintenance.  Unfortunately, this attitude persists in many places still today.

However, the writers point to Lesslie Newbigin (writing in the latter part of the 20th century) as one whose contributions to the field of mission shifted the debate.  Newbigin was one of the first to introduce the idea of the missio Dei (“mission of God”).  For Newbigin, the missio Dei was theocentric.  Mission is not merely an activity of the church.  Mission is the result of God’s purpose of healing and restoring all creation.  God is a missionary God and we are a missionary (sent) people. (John 20.21).  The missio Dei is God’s mission of calling and sending the church to be a missionary church in whichever context the church finds itself.

The authors offer the working definition of the Church as “God’s instrument for God’s mission” (9).  More specifically, they argue that a missional ecclesiology is biblical, historical, contextual, eschatological, and practical. I hear the echoes of Lesslie Newbigin’s definition of the Church: “The church is to be “a sign, instrument and foretaste” of the reign of God” (Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble, p. 103).

Finally, the authors touch upon the visibility of the church.  Is the church visible or invisible?  Is the Church a tangible object or an ideal?  The writers conclude that the Church is a real and tangible human community marked and made to be much more than appears on the surface.  It is not just a human institution.  It has been created by the Spirit (13).

When one looks at the nature of the Church one sees a resemblance of the Incarnation.  The Church is divine in purpose and earthy and organic in composition.  The Church exists in and is shaped by a context and culture.  This divine-human-incarnational relationship is the framework for all missions in this dramatic and decisive time for the Church in North America.

I am greatly looking forward to this book.  From the outset, it seems as if it will provide real substance to the study and practice of mission.  Perhaps most importantly, that substance will be thoroughly scriptural and theological.  Specifically, the authors’ location of the substance of mission and evangelism in the Incarnation is magnificent.  If we are called to participate in the greatest mission in history, it only makes sense to found that mission on the greatest moment in history, the moment when God became man!

This is the first review in a ten-part series looking at Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder.

Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?

Tennent begins chapter two with the question: Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?  He argues that 20 years ago this question may never have been asked outside of universities or seminaries.  However, September 11th changed the world and many began asking, “Do Christians and Muslims follow the same God?”  Tennent interprets this large question in two ways: Are the terms “God” and “Allah” interchangeable?  Are God and Allah ontologically equal?

While never fully putting his finger on the answer to the terminology question, Tennent explores the etymology of “Allah.”  He concludes that the term “Allah” was in use before the time of Muhammad, and was likely used by monotheistic Arabs, Jews, and Christians.

Tennent deals with the ontologically question more fully.  He argues that no monotheist can hold that more than one Supreme Being exists.  So, how can we say we serve different gods?  We must examine how we respond to the array of predicates attached to the single God/Allah.  Here represents the differences between God, the Father of Jesus, and Allah, the God of Muhammad.

First, Tennent asks if both Muslims and Christians can say, “Allah/God is one.”  He concludes that Christians and Muslims cannot apply the predicate of “one” to God/Allah in the same way.  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity (one God in three persons) is incompatible with the Islamic belief in the indivisible nature of God (40).

Next, Tennent explores whether or not Muslims and Christians can agree, “Allah/God is powerful.”  Again, he concludes that Muslims and Christians understand the predicates of power and strength differently.  For the Christian, God’s power is most revealed in God’s weakness, a belief Tennent posits is unique to the Christian understanding of God.

Tennent ends his chapter with a definitive answer to his opening question: Those who follow the “God of Muhammad” and those who follow the “Father of Jesus” are in a state of profound discontinuity (48).  “It would fragment our very identity as Christians to accept the statement that the Father of Jesus is the God of Muhammad” (48).  He puts it bluntly, Muslims still need to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ (44).  Despite the uncompromising claims, Tennent praises Muhammad as one who prophetically pointed the Arab people to their rejection of idolatry and acceptance of monotheism.

While chapter two tackles a difficult question (and leaves many loose ends) it brings to light issues we cannot ignore.  Increasingly we (Western Christians) face questions about Islamic beliefs.  Tennent provides a foundational basis to begin thinking through such difficult questions.  As he argues, we spend years studying deceased German theologians whose followers are few, but no time engaging the more than one billion living, breathing Muslims.

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

“Look to the Rock from which you were cut…”

In the previous chapter Brueggemann explored how outsiders to the faith become insiders.  In chapter three, he examines how insiders to the faith who have grown “careless, weary, jaded, and cynical” are in need of evangelizing (71).  Brueggemann narrates the story of the revitalization of insiders through Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezra-Nehemiah.

In Deuteronomy 8.1-20, Moses’ sermon tells of God’s gifts and also serves as a warning to God’s people.  Initially, Moses celebrates all that God has given – streams, springs, wheat, barely – to bless (Deut. 8.7-10).  However, Moses later warns the Israelites of the perils of forgetting the acts of God: “Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God…Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God” (Deut. 20.11-14).

Brueggemann then turns to Jeremiah, where Israel’s “forgetfulness” becomes fully manifested.  Jeremiah speaks the word of God: “When you entered, you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination” (Jer. 2.7).  Israel’s forgetting has caused the “well to run dry” (Jer. 2.9-13).  Later, Isaiah urges the people to recover their memory of God’s act, a memory that holds their identity.  Isaiah pleads, “look to the rock from which you were hewn” (Isa. 51.1-3).

In Nehemiah 8, Ezra makes the ultimate move and attempts to call Israel back into a proper relationship with God.  Ezra invites the “community already pledged to faith, back to a serious embrace and practice of that pledged faith.” (74)

Why did the people of Israel forget their identity and story?  Why is their forgetfulness important for today’s churches?  Brueggemann captures the essence of the answer to both questions: prosperity causes amnesia.  “The reason is that when one can no longer remember a lesser, more precarious time, all present benefits appear to be not only absolute, but also self-generated, making gratitude unnecessary, impossible, even silly” (77).

Just as Israel forget their dependence upon the provision of God, so too do church “insiders” rely upon self-sufficient strategies, programs, and schemes.  As Brueggemann puts its, Israel’s crisis parallels the U.S. Church.  “Abundance and affluence have caused church members to be distanced in self-sufficiency from the power and cruciality of the memory so that the church suffers from profound amnesia, even among those of us who vigorously go through the motions (72).  It is for this reason, Brueggemann argues, that church insiders are becoming “forgetters” in need of remembering God’s acts of love, mercy, and grace.

On one point, I fully agree with Brueggemann, the reality of amnesia is massive among us.  Amnesia causes the church to lack in any serious missional energy (90).  Oftentimes, we summons our inner Bob Dylan and cry out, “The times are a-changin!  How will we meet the new needs of new people out there?”  We fail to remember, celebrate, and draw strength upon what God has already done in our midst.

I also wonder, is it only our wealth, abundance, and security that causes us to forget?  Is our [U.S. Church] memory of God’s act short-circuited solely by our general prosperity?  Perhaps our wealth is not the problem.  Perhaps amnesia is not the only hindrance.  What if, at times, we remember all too well?  What if we suffer not from amnesia, but nostalgia?  What if church “insiders” get caught up in the way it used to be?  What if we are unable to move beyond past practices of liturgy, programs, outreach that worked long ago, but no longer connect with the world around us?  Is there a danger if the Church becomes too nostalgic?  Whether amnesia or nostalgia inflicts the Church, Brueggemann is correct: the evangelization of insiders may be our primary agenda in evangelism.

This is the third 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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