Fanning faith’s flame at Advent

Throughout the Christmas season there is a word I try to keep at the forefront of my mind to help keep my faith focused.

That word is Advent. It means coming, and historically the word has been used by some Christians to instill in the minds of the faithful a sense of anticipation of the coming of Christ.

Not just a celebratory commemoration of his birth in Bethlehem, but a hopeful expectancy of His second coming to gather unto Himself those who are His.

To help nurture in myself a sense of this Advent-anticipation, I’ve recently been spending a little time in the apostle John’s Revelation.

The Book of Revelation contains a lot of complex imagery, but one of the earliest and more clearer images is that of the sovereign Lord Jesus Christ who, while full of glory and splendor, is concerned about a group of churches in Asia Minor. Three things stand out about these churches.

One, each of these churches have been faithful at one time, and each have things they need to work on.

Second, with each word of encouragement and warning, Jesus repeatedly concludes each message to these churches with “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.

And third, each church is characterized as a lampstand whose existence burns in a dark world as a testimony to the Light of the world.

Each of these three items can apply to any church, ours included. We have had seasons of faithfulness. There are good adjustments that can be made if our spirits have the humility to listen to what God is saying in His Word. And that new lamppost the city just installed on our corner outside is both a figurative and physical reminder that as long as we existence, our witness exists.

So, as we take Communion this morning, may we receive into ourselves the Life of Jesus so that the light our congregation emits this Advent season may be a witness to the Light that has come and is coming so that Life and Light can be had by all.


A Rite of Corpse and Covenant

In Luke’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the text says in chapter 22:19-20: 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Within Jesus’ words here is something of a twofold structure for how we might understand the salvation God is setting into us; specifically that we are saved from something and saved for something.

In v19, Jesus took the loaf and said “This is my body, which is given for you”. Many times in the New Testament Scriptures, the word “body” is used to describe, yes, our physical bodies, but also the arena in which our struggle with our sinful nature is the most intense. So by instating the bread, Jesus establishes it is by the holy nature of his own body that the fallen nature of our bodies is being redeemed. Thus we who are allegiant to him share in the freedom from sin’s enslaving dominion.

Being liberated from slavery, however, does not yet mean we are empowered for the life of freedom.

So in v20, Jesus then takes the cup and says “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”. Israel’s failure to keep the old covenant revealed the dominion of sinful nature at work in our fallen flesh. With Christ’s body having liberated us from our fallen nature’s dominion, we are now prepared to enter into a new covenant reality designed to reveal Christ’s holy nature. The institution of the cup, therefore, certifies that in Jesus’ blood is the initiation of that new reality. His blood brings to life the covenant reality those allegiant to him shall display by embodying the harmony of holiness Jesus himself personified and proclaimed.

This twofold structure sets Christ’s redemptive rhythms into our lives. The Communion rite reminds us of who we are in Christ and reinvigorates us for life in Christ. In taking the bread, let us do so remembering his body has saved us from the dominion of sin in our own bodies. As we take the cup, let us do so as committing our allegiance to the holy way of living for which Jesus’ life saves us.

A song lyric of mine goes “From out of the dark, into his kingdom of light, we are made new by his resurrection might”. Communion is not about staying stuck in the patterns of our sin-riddled corpses of yesterday, but embracing God’s covenanted freedom today for the future Christ’s life empowers and propels his people toward.

An illustrative encouragement for God’s wonderful women

Several years ago I was a cabin dad at a week of youth camp at Rock Lake Christian Assembly. The theme that week was the “armor of God”, Paul’s illustration in Ephesians 6:10-17. Each day began with an assembly where the campers would be shown a movie clip that helped illustrate the particular armor piece being focused on that day. For example, a clip from Clint Eastwood’s “A Fistful of Dollars” was used to illustrate the “breastplate of righteousness” (bonus points if you know the scene). I remember the camp dean remarking later how it was difficult to find movie clips for certain armor pieces. In the years since, my mind occasionally recalls his remark and subsequently tries thinking of certain films that might help for future illustrations.

Last week, the superhero genre’s newest and brightest cinematic gem, “Wonder Woman”, was released to glowing reviews and reception. I saw it with both my mom and sister; not only one of the best superhero movies released in a while, it was one of the most encouraging and uplifting of any movie I’ve seen of late. I’m not going to talk about the movie, but just wanted to comment on something.

Wonder Woman’s outfit has become more than a comic-book costume; it has been remodeled after the armor of Greek warriors. A few days after watching the film, it occurred to me that most of the time in ministry settings when we’re attempting to illustrate the armor of God, the illustration is never that of an armor-clad woman. It makes me wonder if during all those times we were encouraging believers to “put on the full armor of God”, how often did the women and girls feel empowered by the message being preached at them. I’m not saying it wasn’t; just that illustrations must serve the message. “Wonder Woman” helps provide that message.

Knowing one’s value and significance is no small thing. We want God’s women and girls to know they are included in God’s call to arms. We don’t want them to fear, as Tolkien’s Eowyn did, “A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”

I want my mom and sister, the women of our churches, and my future wife and daughter to know they are free to fight the good fight with as much sacred fury as they can muster. That while the insignia upon their brow proclaims salvation and the eagle etched into their breastplate screams righteousness, their boots that were made for marchin’ will move them through desolations as they bring peace, their lasso will bind falsehoods, and by taking up shield and sword, they wield faith and fiery goodness.

Paul writes “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm.” God made his women to be strong and mighty. Their every courageous effort to press further into Christ pulls them deeper into that for which they were designed to demonstrate and we would do well to celebrate—God’s strength and wonder.

“With those who…”: A Post of Joy and Sorrow

A few weeks ago our congregation was able to participate in a joyous occasion. The Hmong ministry that holds their afternoon services in our building was having ten (!) baptisms, and they wanted to do it with us during our morning service. Both congregations watched, clapped, laughed, and rejoiced as one by one each new believer entered the water and was baptized into Jesus the Messiah, assisted by our minister, Pastor Charles Robinson, the Hmong minister, Pastor Don Vang, and myself. It was a wonderful time, full of joy and thankfulness.

Then this past Saturday afternoon the news came that Pastor Don Vang had suddenly passed away of an illness. We were all shocked and speechless, and saddened for his family. He leaves behind a delightful, hardworking wife, sons who are also ministers, and a very sweet and encouraging daughter in high school. Because of timing and clarity, his wife wanted the news broken to their congregation all at once at their service the next day. She asked my father, Pastor Robinson, if he would break the news and deliver a brief message to the group.

Running a church errand, I arrived minutes after the service had started. The scene was heavy. Pastor Vang’s teenage daughter has been acting as their ministry’s worship leader and there she was, leading the team and congregation in worship, barely a day after her father’s passing. She wept as she struggled to sing; my mother went up, stood behind her, and held her as they all continued to sing. Her mother was standing near me, also crying and singing; I hugged her and together everyone cried and sang.

After my Dad’s words, there was more crying and hugging; but there was also prayer and encouragement. Pastor Vang’s wife went around to everyone, embracing them and telling them “he loved you very much”. His daughter knelt down by the smaller children, explaining what was happening and that “we will see him again”. I got to speak and pray with a woman Pastor Vang baptized twenty years ago who said she wasn’t “ready to let go of him yet”.

These moments felt like a complete contrast to the joy and celebration of the baptisms weeks earlier; yet they also felt quite connected, as if the other side of the same coin. The Bible verse that kept running through my mind was one of Paul’s instructions he gave for how to be the Church Body: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans12:15).

Paul’s emphasis on this “with-ness” promotes a love that does for each other what Christ did in being “God with us”. The test of a congregation’s genuine love for each other is their willingness to dive with each other into the deep—the deep joy and the deep sorrow. Being willing to enter into someone else’s joy and sorrow demonstrates that the love we always talk about is genuinely there. When the darkness overwhelms, it’s another’s love that brings the light. There’s always someone in your Church community who needs it; I encourage you to be the one who brings it.

“You will know them by their fruits” | Matthew 7:15-20

Much of Jesus’ message in Matthew 5-7 is the establishing of God’s Kingdom ethics to guide how his disciples live. Within this “Sermon on the Mount” are designs for a form of discipleship that can easily be characterized as unique. This is important to consider for at least two reasons. One, if we are following a one-of-a-kind King, it stands to reason that our following be done in a one-of-a-kind way. But secondly, if our way of living begins to blend undistinguishably into the milieu of other ways of living, it may indicate a departure from that one-of-a-kind way has occurred.

Such a departure does not happen suddenly, but gradually. Sometimes it just happens due to a series of seasons and reasons. But other times, such departures can be induced or prompted by some form of influence.

Jesus had seen this happen amongst his own people. By his time, hypocrisy had grown prevalent amongst the teachers of the Jewish law; there was a tendency to teach one thing while doing another. This tendency essentially resulted in a culture that ran contrary to what God had already established in Scripture. Concerned this tendency also would occur within the community he was teaching his disciples to cultivate, Jesus issues them an alert: “Beware of the false prophets”.

A prophet’s role is to clarify the way of God and to embody that life in a manner that calls people to it. The false prophet completely undermines this effort. How so?

Jesus’s full statement in Matthew 7:15 is “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

The imagery here seems to be a bit of dark humor. Humorous because the image of a wolf adorning himself in sheep’s wool in order to get close to the flock seems quite cartoonish; yet dark, considering that beneath this cartoonish façade, deceitfulness, theft, and devouring are playing out. These are figures who intend to creep in amongst Christ’s followers, assume authority of Christ’s message for their own agenda, and modify it into an alternative version than what Jesus revealed. Thus Jesus characterizes the future false prophets who will attempt to infiltrate his kingdom community.

In our day of parachurch positions combined with self-promotion, the role of prophet sometimes takes on a somewhat official capacity. While we would not expect to see anyone wearing a name tag saying false prophet, it seems in such a day such a person would appear more obvious. But that’s Jesus’ point: such people will not be so easily recognizable. Therefore, adapting to a new metaphor, Jesus continues “You will know them by their fruits.”

To clarify, Jesus illustratively says Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.”

Everyone in this agrarian culture knew sweet and energizing fruit doesn’t come from dry prickly bushes. Nature only begets its own. What is produced is determined by its nature. Nature cannot mismatch or misproduce. Nature can produce nothing besides its own. Though Jesus’ disciples would identify false prophets by recognizing their fruit’s “bad” nature, doing so required they know what “good” fruit looks like.

Throughout his sermon, Jesus’ usage of good usually refers to the Father’s goodness as framed in his teachings. By keeping to and living out the sermon’s teachings, disciples embody and project the Father’s goodness. The Father’s goodness is the nature of which the disciples are now apart through their following of Jesus. To live a life that reflects a nature different from that of the Father, as framed in the sermon’s teachings, is to disassociate oneself from his nature and his goodness, disabling oneself from producing “good fruit”.

Being able to identify possible distorting hypocrisy and predatory deceitfulness at play amongst our congregations is necessary. Ultimately, however, it’s not about an incessant haphazard heresy hunt, but taking Jesus’ warning seriously by recognizing the reality it portends. That he has called us to a type of living whose root is the Father’s unique goodness and whose fruit is the way of his Son. Since it would not be love on Jesus’ part to validate types of living that would contradict the type of living he is establishing, his words call us to be transplanted out from every alternative type of living, however preferential they might be, and implanted into the Father’s uniqueness facilitated through the Son so what is cultivated will yield a nature sweetened with God’s goodness.

A post-election concern for the Church’s witness

As we come down to the end of what has been a very divisive election season, my concerns are focused primarily on the witness we as the Church are impressing upon the country and world around us.

As the field of candidates has gradually narrowed over the past year, many Christian believers have come to a “rock and a hard place” where it is supposed that desperate times call for desperate measures.  These desperate measures usually amount to what is resignedly referred to as “opting for the lesser of two evils”.

I understand the impulse within the rationale: “Do what you have to do”. “The ends will justify the means”. “It’s all for the greater good”.  Yet, after the impulse has passed, it still remains that we have aligned ourselves with a way that is contrary to the nature of the one to which we’ve been called.  The utilizing of this “lesser evil” logic makes little sense for a God-people who have been called to “be holy in all your behavior; because it is written ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1Pt1:15-16).

I understand that, in the minds of those who use such rationale, the assumed short-term consequences of the “lesser evil” pale in comparison to the assumed long term consequences of electing one who might be considered the “greater evil”.  Be that as it may, the logic seems quite comparable to that of the historical apostasy rationale to “convert now, repent later”.  The logic may seem practical, but it’s just not Christian.

My concern here is the long term impact of the corporate Church willfully falling short of God’s glory.  When that willful shortcoming is committed corporately on a national scale, that impact will be significant.

How so?

One period many Christians frequently forecast is the end times.  It’s an unavoidable, futuristic period during which, among other events, great persecution will break out against the Church.  It will be a time when the gospel is no longer tolerated and those who proclaim it will be met with retribution in the form of societal marginalization, imprisonments, and executions.  Most of the time these forecasts conclude with a rallying cry for Christians to not compromise the faith.

The problem is that choosing the lesser of two evils is just such a compromise.  Granted, it may seem a fairly small compromise; but isn’t that the nature of the “slippery slope” we have historically been so wary to avoid?  The great momentous compromise never just occurs; it is gradually predetermined by the compromising choices we make on the way to that moment.

It inevitably raises the question: Amidst these politically turbulent times, precisely what are we the Church pursuing?  Is it the holiness to which we are called to live out in witness to God’s Kingdom?  Or is it simply the favorable conditions that allow us to go on living comfortably while tending to our religious practices?

My concern is that if in order to retain such comfortable conditions we must compromise our holy character, even in the privacy of the voting booth, what exactly is so special about what we Christians proclaim in our witness?  How can we be seen as anything more than just another people-group with compromised morals?  How can the world hear the good news if we might have had a hand in creating evil news?  Why should they?

This is not a demand or insistence that Christians should not vote or be concerned with elections or civics, but a reminder that as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1Pt2:9), our devotion to Christ is not dictated by what the system and culture shaping elections and civics is demanding.  We need to be asking ourselves what the sum of our choices are saying about what it is and who it is we the Church are pursuing.  If the answer is anything or anyone that doesn’t look like Christ, we have positioned ourselves on that long slippery slope.

It’s a complex conundrum.  I do not expect or require that Christians can extricate themselves from this quandary cleanly.  I do, however, believe that choosing to “seek first the kingdom of heaven” in how we make our choices is a step in the direction that allows what is unique about Jesus and his Kingdom to marvelously emerge from among the mayhem.

The Eucharist’s witness to a fragmented world

The latest in a long series of violent incidents transpiring between African American individuals and police officers recently occurred in my home state of Wisconsin.  In the wake of these incidents, many details and factors are always repeatedly asserted and discussed.  While I believe discussion is always helpful, discussion must not come at the expense of resolution.  One question I’ve started asking more and more often as these incidents occur, and when other situations of human discord emerge, is “How might the Church’s mission to bear witness to Christ’s kingdom reality be carried out in such hostile or disunified settings?”

The answers will obviously vary, but I recently read a story whose themes echoed a mode of witness the modern Church has ceremoniously kept amongst themselves; a practice that, if extended beyond the meeting walls, could expand a reconciliatory spaciousness within the communities made minor through marginalization.

A few weeks ago in Wichita, Kansas, a group of the “Black Lives Matter” movement was planning on conducting a protest.  While meeting beforehand with the police department to establish an organized and peaceful march, an alternative was reached: instead of a peaceful march, the activists and local police officers decided to do a barbeque together.  They all came together to cook, hang out, eat some food, and to sit and discuss.  By the end of the day, many of them commented that their time together had allowed them to reach a deeper level of awareness and understanding.

The world possesses a diversity of races, classes, ages, and skillsets.  We have CEOs and maintenance staff, professors and students, bosses and employees, citizens and authorities, leaders and followers, friends and enemies.  But one commonality we all share is our need to eat.  No matter what one’s job or role is, at some point, everyone stops to eat food.  In this diverse world, our shared need to eat makes us equal.  Food brings us eye to eye.  In this equalizing sense, food has power.

Food has the power to slow the day down and facilitate calm.  Food pauses the pressure, invites us to relax, and look around the table.  The smells and flavors move our minds from an agenda to an aroma of brotherhood.  The shared stories of how Mom made it best unites our narratives.  Chewing forces us to listen and learn the value and beauty of the other.  Like a beverage washing it all down, the palate of our understanding is freshly cleansed.  As empty plates form contented smiles, a meal’s end greets a new beginning.  Food has the power to nurture reconciliation.

I don’t believe this is by chance.

Holy Scripture relates two significant moments that ripple through the timeline of world history with God’s salvation.  Those two moments are God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, and Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the world.  Both of these moments are memorialized with food.  We know them as the Passover Feast and the Lord’s Supper.  With the latter a fulfilling enrichment of the former, these meals are joint revelations of the goodness God is pouring into the world.  In fact, the apostle Paul referred to these celebrations, which the early church celebrated as Christ-centered “love feasts”, as moments of both remembrance and proclamation.  In other words, the Lord’s Supper activity is done both as an act of worship and witness to the redemptive work God is doing.

How does this relate to the hostilities being encountered within our communities?

If the Lord’s Supper is an activity of worship and witness, Christians might start considering all of their meals to be an extension of the Lord’s Supper, where God’s love and goodness can be carried over into all our dining.  If God’s salvation has been commemorated with food, than food in general contains within itself a specific sense of God’s saving goodness.  God’s choice to convey awareness of his salvation through something as universal as food demonstrates his desire to make salvation universally accessible.  That isn’t to say that salvation is universally experienced, but that food is, and where food is served, so is an opportunity to sample his salvation.  And one of the most distinctive flavors of this salvation is reconciliation.

The New Testament Scriptures already provide fluent examples of this.  When Jesus publicly told Zaccheus “today I must stay at your house”, later when Zaccheus’ repented, he was able to declare “Today salvation has come to this house.”

When the early church distributed food to Greek Jews overlooked in the community, they appointed wise and godly men full of the Spirit to serve it so the good news would season the food that would refresh the marginalized.

The above Wichita story is a modern example of what this could look like.  No doubt a Christian community that is willing to “seek the peace of the city” could provide many more reconciliatory examples.

This isn’t to say it’s the Church’s responsibility to fix the world but that congregations who embody Eucharistic living may find themselves demonstrating good news in a Christ-centered way that results in relieving some of the pressures that might otherwise explode into local hostilities.  Eucharistic living helps show that coming together, preparing food together, dining together, cleaning up together, being together, and growing together is not a mundane activity, but a majestic reflection of how God’s salvation is shaping humanity into family.

The Lord’s Supper is a ritual exercise, but one whose spiritual and physical properties have the power to shake the foundations of division and discord plaguing this world and reconcile us again to God and each other in harmony and holiness.