Tombstones, Ashes, and Optimism

Image: Ash WednesdayThis week was a collision of macabre activities and metaphors. Today is Ash Wednesday and I am looking at emails from a small rural Kansas funeral home with sample photos of tombstones with my Grandmother’s name on them.  Some time ago, I had taken on the task of replacing a tombstone in this rural, northeastern Kansas cemetery where she was buried over 50 years ago.

Though I have many fond memories of my Grandma Todd, the photos did not ‘choke me up,’ because it was something I had been pursuing on behalf of my family for some time and it was over fifty years ago when she died. My siblings and I had some comical banter in texts between us as I shared the tombstone options with them in order to get a consensus before ordering it.

But tonight, I will participate in our church’s Ash Wednesday service as one of the pastors up in the front marking the congregants’ foreheads, making the sign of the cross with the ashes on the hundreds of people who come forward.

I reflected on how strange today is – picking out the tombstone and then wiping ashes on people’s heads reminding them, ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return.” What a downer! This is hardly a Norman Vincent Peale moment in my ministry.

Statues of dead people

I have traveled extensively throughout Europe and seen countless churches and cathedrals, most surrounded by graveyards, with tombs in the floor and granite carvings of dead people in the alcoves and smaller altars. While a bit gruesome, this custom wasn’t an expression of a morbid fascination with death, actually it was for the opposite purpose. It was to put the certainty of death in a person’s path on a regular basis so as to remind them to live for God and not fear death.

Our American western approach to death has become ‘celebrations of life,’ which certainly have value, but in one sense, increasingly shield us from the mechanics and sacramental realities of death.

The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews tells the readers, “Only in this way could he (Jesus) set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.” Heb. 2:15, NLT

The Lenten Season on the Christian Calendar invites us walk on a journey to Christ’s passion and ultimately to the cross in order to celebrate the resurrection. Reminiscent of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon, “It’s Friday but Sunday’s Coming,” we face the mortality in order to experience the immortal and hope filled truth of ‘the life of the world to come.’

So whether or not you are able to attend a service tonight and have someone smudge black soot on your forehead, consider walking through the journey of Lent in our sojourn to Good Friday and Easter Sunday!

When Redemption isn’t Fair

Liberia Appears Calm Before Landmark Presidential ElectionsI was mildly excited to land again in Monrovia, Liberia – the brutally hot, humid, and poor West African city where I have been five times before. My efforts in Liberia were abruptly halted by the Ebola crises that erupted just as I was preparing to go in the spring of 2014. It took a couple years, but I made it back.

My good friend, colleague, and thrice-Liberian-travel-partner, Dr. Mark Glenn and I met our friend, Pastor Peter Flomo at the always-chaotic Monrovia airport and were whisked away for a bumpy 45 minute drive to our hotel, which I confess, is one of the ‘nicer’ places to stay in Monrovia. After 42 trips to Africa, including 11 years of traveling to Congolese Refugee Camps, I now insist on staying somewhere that is:

• Safe
• Clean
• Has A/C (what can I say?!!?)
• Has WiFi for communicating

We arrived late on a Sunday night so after about 30 hours of travel we got settled into our rooms and slept. That next morning, Pastor Peter had two meetings arranged for us. As Peter told us about the meetings, Mark became animated because he had actually done a bit of research on these men as a part of his doctoral studies.

img_8501Our first stop was at the residence of Liberian Senator “Prince” Johnson, who, as it turns out, was the Army General who infamously tortured and executed the former President while sipping a Budweiser beer back in 1990. This event was video-recorded and thus viewable (warning, it is horrific and I would advise against viewing it, but it is a matter of historical fact). General Johnson fled to Nigeria where he eventually experienced a very dramatic conversion to Christ and eventually returned to Liberia where he now actually serves in government and also pastors a congregation.

We had arrived the week after our Presidential elections and Johnson was understandably very eager to discuss US politics, though neither Mark nor I really wanted to delve into the chaos of our 2016 elections! As our conversation did eventually navigate to the condition of the Church in Liberia, Johnson noticeably perked up and shared his frustration with the lack of any real training that most pastors and church leaders actually have and the apparent inability of the Church to really do anything in the area of community and cultural transformation.

If this would have been our only meeting that day, we would have felt like we did have a historic opportunity, but the day was just beginning.

Off the main (pavedimg_20161115_144446408_hdr) road, we found ourselves hopelessly stuck in a wet, muddy, and impassible dirt road where a large truck’s tires were partially
buried in the red, wet clay that looked like it belonged on a potter’s wheel. We got out and walked around the growing collection of stuck vehicles and soon saw a small ‘compound’ with razor wire greeting us.

“This is the home of General Butt Naked” our friend announced. (Again a warning – even the simplest ‘Google’ search will be horrific, yet it is a historical fact!) The homeowner, Joshua Blahyi, was the ‘General’ of the militia responsible for recruiting hundreds of ‘child soldiers’ during Liberia’s civil war and committing tens of thousands of unspeakable horrors – not only vicious murders, but cannibalism to ‘satisfy’ the gods of their tribal religion.

After the war, Joshua had a radical conversion to Christ, but was forced in exile to neighboring Ghana.   Eventually he was able to move back to Liberia, though there were many death threats against him. Today Joshua actively searches for the ‘child soldiers’ he once led – young men, mostly drug addicts now, and attempts to lead them into relationship with Jesus, teaches them a trade – construction of houses, and actually helps them get gainful employment. He has helped hundreds thus far, and the homes he builds – he gives to the families of the victims whom he has killed.

As Joshua shared his story with us on his porch, he had tears – as did I. At the end of his incomprehensible story, I closed us in prayer and then asked him if he would pray. What can I say, I ‘lost it’ emotionally as I heard a truly repentant and humble sinner pray for himself, his nation, and for me! I’ve read the many articles and accounts online that question Joshua’s conversion and suggest it was motivated by something other than ‘religion.’ All I can tell you is that I know when I meet a brother in Christ, and I did meet one that day!

img_8532In the weeks since I’ve been back I have told some friends about this story and one friend asked me, “where is the redemption for the thousands of innocent people he killed?” I can only answer, “in the same place where redemption for Joshua exists – in the loving arms of a God who redeems the unredeemable.

I was reminded of the biblical story of Jonah – as he was angry at God’s forgiveness of a people he felt were ‘beyond’ redemption. Yet that is the story of the Gospel – God redeeming people who don’t deserve it! Or, in the words of songwriter Jonathan David Helser, “Grace is the collision on the way back home, in the arms of a Father who won’t let go.”

Amazing Grace indeed!

Peace, Goodwill to all Men?

crowd DIGITAL CAMERA linda centerThoughts from an honorary refugee

One of the [few] advantages of my season in life after more than three decades of vocational ministry is that just by ‘waking up’ and ‘showing up,’ my resume looks impressive – at least on the surface. But one of the most meaningful ‘honors’ I’ve received actually doesn’t appear in my CV. A few years ago I was made an ‘honorary refugee’ inside the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in central Africa on World Refugee Day. I have no identification card or certificate for the honor, but I received it nonetheless.

I spent eleven summers traveling to this remote part of the world and had the privilege of teaching, encouraging, and helping thousands of refugee pastors and church leaders. I brought my wife, Linda a number of times and she was able to help establish a vocational school for women refugees inside the massive camp.

The thousands of photos I have taken inside these refugee camps over the years capture so many emotions and memories; I can’t even recall them all.

So, when my fellow Americans, including some running for president, hurl vitriolic and hateful epitaphs about refugees with such certainty and moral authority, I have silently cursed and called them names. That hasn’t helped either.

Some of my friends have posted or shared blogs and articles discussing the Old Testament passages about how to treat the alien and foreigner, or how Mary & Joseph, when taking Jesus to Egypt were “middle eastern refugees,” while others immediately post their responses with titles like, “Why the Bible does NOT tell us to accept refugees,” or “how liberals are twisting the Scripture to make us feel guilty!” (Both views often show a theologically simplistic perspective that those Scriptures probably aren’t addressing specifically, though don’t even get me started on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s absurd comments recently!)

So, as an ‘honorary refugee’ myself, and (forgive my bragging) also as a guy with a doctorate in missiology / cultural anthropology and more actual time in refugee camps than anyone else I know (other than the refugees) I finally decided to share my own thoughts and convictions. This isn’t a policy or political blog – I don’t have a ‘dog in that fight,’ but this is addressed to my fellow Evangelical Christians. My thoughts:

  1.  The last place they want to be is in a refugee camp!

These people exhausted every other option. When left with the choices of seeing their families killed or starve, they head out with others hoping for something, anything and end up in these camps. Whether in crudely made mud huts or canvas tents, it provides shelter and little else. There is no sense of dignity, privacy, or (in most cases) little protection against sexual abuse. Meager daily UN rations are supplemented by whatever the refugees can grow, barter, or gather on their own. Health care is sparse, though the UNHCR is certainly doing the best they can.

2.   More than anything else, they want safety, stability, and a future for their families.

I count numerous refugee families as my friends. I’ve sat in their huts and had tea with them. They love their children. They celebrate births, they mourn the dead, and I have stood next to the graves of their children and wept with them. All of them talk about the day when they will go back to their country of origin and live a normal life again (even though in most cases, they’ll never return again).

  1. Many of them truly admire the US – they know that we are a generous and mighty nation and that we have helped people all over the globe!

I’ve been given crudely made American flags and even been given letters for me to deliver to the US President (whom they are pretty sure I know personally). It is always odd to see how far reaching American culture is and how much they want to be like us. Even Muslim refugees have told me how they love America.

  1. The Bible does actually tell (command) us to be kind to people in these sorts of circumstances!

From the story of the Good Samaritan to the stinging imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount, being kind to others, even our ‘enemies’ is certainly what Jesus had in mind for us. To come to any other conclusion is to simply ignore the clear text of Scripture. 

  1. The Bible also makes it clear that our allegiance is to God over our allegiance to our country.

John Piper (with whom I disagree almost as much as I agree) notes in a recent article that we are the people, “whom the Bible calls ‘refugees and exiles’ on earth, namely Christians!” Of course I care about our country’s security, but I am a follower of Christ before anything else and that must inform and direct my opinions on all things.

Our Better Selves?

I have heard some political leaders chastise other politicians for hateful comments toward refugees. They usually say something like “We are better than that,” meaning that inherently, Americans are morally good, kind, and accepting. I actually take exception to that noble, but inaccurate view of humankind. No, “We” aren’t better than that… we are exactly that way, as is every son and daughter of Adam.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

It is only because of Jesus and through Him we can receive the grace to actually love our enemies and be truly kind to the stranger, receiving him / her as we would Christ Himself.

So, let’s rise above who we are ‘naturally’ and be whom Christ has called us – ambassadors of His reconciling love to a world in need. And, just to be clear, let’s make sure that includes refugees!

Bells, Smells, Foot Washing, and God’s Presence.

ColoradoSpri.Grace&StStep.1928WelteMigno.20121124.175156I took some of my college students from a NT / Christology course I’m teaching on a field trip last night. We went to the Maundy Thursday / Foot washing service at Grace & St. Stephens Episcopal Church in downtown Colorado Springs. The building is arguably the most beautiful structure in our city. It was built a century ago and is in the gothic English style. But it was more than architectural beauty that assaulted these young men and women; it was the surprising realization that God was present there. In the midst of [literally] ‘smells and bells,’ and high church vestments and choral singing in Latin (or Greek, I couldn’t really make it out, though it was absolutely enveloping!), they encountered a deep piety, more Scripture being read than the average Evangelical church would read aloud in a year, and the most vulnerable, intimate expression of worship we could imagine – foot washing.

Ok, I admit I am one of the many evangelical theologians who has been ‘charmed’ by the Canterbury Trail in recent years. Our church is a parish of both a non-denominational ‘mega church’ and the Rwandan Anglican Diocese, and our pastor is actually an [Evangelical] Anglican priest. (It was a surreal moment for me a couple months ago, when being prepped for my spinal surgery, and I told the nurse, “my priest is going to be here in a few minutes.”)

Back to the field trip: Early in the semester, our class began to talk about early Christian worship, which inevitably led to conversations about the ‘traditional church.’ Call it inspiration or just novelty; I mentioned in class that perhaps around “Holy Week” we should go visit one of ‘those churches.’ They all agreed and I started my research.

(I am not unaware of the challenges and circumstances surrounding the Episcopal denomination and other Anglican groups.)

Grace & St. Stephens Church (the long name a result of a merger of two parishes in 1893) is a gorgeous church building. I had the privilege of officiating a wedding there probably twenty five years ago that I still fondly remember. The current congregation recently went through a terrible schism between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ factions and they are recovering as an interim ‘rector’ (an Episcopalian ‘senior pastor) is guiding them through these tough times.

We all met at “Grace” a few minutes before the service began. The students all dressed a bit ‘smarter’ than their usual ‘hipster’ look and we found a long wooden pew in the middle of the nave that would fit all of us. The silence in the building was deafening. People trickled in, bowed slightly toward the altar, and kneeled in silent prayer in their pew. I peeked at my students; they were just looking around.

One of the robed assistants went to the side and proceeded to ring the church bells for the ‘call to worship’ (three sets of three rings, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come’).

The next ninety minutes went wonderfully slow. Lots and lots of Scripture were read, as the lectionary brought us from the Old Testament account of the Passover, through David’s Psalm of penitence, St. Paul’s description of the Last Supper, to the Gospel accounts of that night Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Choral renditions of these same Scriptures were interwoven, then a painfully short, yet powerful 10-minute sermon by the associate priest on the incredible vulnerability of Jesus’ final act before the cross – washing the disciple’s feet and we were suddenly faced with an awkward, yet holy moment. We were removing our shoes and socks, standing in line in the center aisle and not only having someone we don’t know wash our feet, but then taking their place and washing the next stranger’s feet.

The elderly lady who so gently washed my feet looked at me and said, “When I give you a hug after I’m finished, you’ll need to help me get up!” I was in tears.

Back in the pew, all of us were on the kneeler and quietly praying / contemplating what we had just experienced.

In no hurry, they finished and the Rector began to lead us into the celebration of the Eucharist. This time, we got in that same center aisle, but now made our way up to the ‘high altar,’ and as we stood in between the two sides of the choir, we could hear them singing ‘at us’ looking at the stained glass, hearing the echo of their voices, and the priest would put the wafer in our outstretched hands, keeping his finger pressing on it and saying, “the body of Christ, broken for you!”

When it was all done, and we silently left the church in almost darkness, we migrated over to one of the ‘Bohemian / hipster’ coffee places that are springing up all over our downtown area. My first question to my young friends was, “so, what were your impressions?” The answers ranged from “reverence,” to “I loved the silence!” Then I asked, “Are these people Christians?” One young lady, who had never attended this type of service before, almost immediately spoke up, “Yes!” She then confided that she had been taught that most of these ‘mainline’ type churches weren’t even “saved.”

We had a great conversation about faith, worship, and who should be the ‘star’ of our gatherings (the pastor, the band, the ‘event?’).   All in all, a pretty good evening!

Neurosurgery and Sub-continent Indian Poverty


I had spinal / back surIndia008gery a few weeks ago. I didn’t post about this on social media because, well, because I also don’t post what I’m having for lunch or my beverage selections at Starbucks… guess I’m still a bit ‘old school’ about my personal life.

I’m doing great – the original pain is gone and my recovery is at or ahead of my surgeon’s predictions!

The hardest part was the recovery: I was ‘ordered by my surgeon (who is only a few years older than my oldest son!) to take two full weeks to rest and recuperate, and I was prohibited from driving…which really sucked!

I would be lying if I said that during those two weeks I had powerful and reflective times of meditation, thoughtful reading, and soul-searching. In truth, while on pain medication, I mostly tried to find comfortable positions while lamenting the terrible choices of daytime television and, eventually, made my daily ‘trek’ around the side of our property to the mailbox.

During my prolonged R&R period I did shuffle around our house enough times to look at some photos in my study and be reminded of some of my many trips abroad and I began to reflect on one of them in particular – our first trip to India over 20 years ago.

As background, I started out in full-time ministry very young – at 22 years old. All I had ever known was adolescence, high school, college and… being a pastor. At the old age of 37, I was already feeling a bit ‘burned out’ serving as an associate pastor at two ‘mega-churches,’ and having planted and pastoring a congregation in Colorado Springs.

Then, in 1993, through a remarkable series of circumstances, Linda and I found ourselves in a remote part of east-central India ministering to over 20,000 people. During one afternoon, while we were there, we were being driven by an Indian pastor who spoke no English, but who decided to stop in a very rural village, presumably where he had grown up, and we were greeted by dozens of (very small) people standing around their humble grass covered mud huts eager to meet the American [white] “holy man” and his wife.

Nobody spoke English, which made our brief visit not much more than perfunctory smiles and nods. But just as we thought our time there was done, from somewhere in the small crowd that had assembled, a little girl was shoved in front of us. She was probably 9 or 10 years old. Unlike other little Indian girls, with their beautiful jet-black hair that was exquisitely braided by their mothers, this little girl’s hair was cut short. She was disabled, walking on all fours, like an animal. We realized that somebody wanted us to pray for this little girl, or heal her!

Linda and I dropped to our knees on the dirt, stroking her little head, crying and praying. Then, perhaps motivated by God’s Spirit, I found myself lying on the dirt, looking into this little girl’s eyes. Suddenly, beyond the blank stare, I found myself looking at a deep love, as if I was looking into the eyes of Jesus.

I have never forgotten this moment…it has been one of the defining events of my spiritual journey. I don’t know if I was actually looking into the eyes of Jesus or not (Matthew 25 might imply that I was). But I do know that at that moment, I was seeing with a clarity I had never seen before – or since.

Since that time I have made 41 trips to Africa, working among some of the poorest people on the planet. My politics have changed (nope, you’ll have to talk with me personally to find out how). My theology has evolved, but one thing remains…God’s grace is not only amazing, it is far more generous than we imagined!

The only regret I have is that it took hydrocodone and surgery to remind me!

If I had a hammer: Happy Reformation Day

Standing at the Wittenberg Door

As I have mentioned in other blogs, I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran. For those not familiar with the Lutheran landscape in America, we were the “true” Lutherans, originally from German immigrants who settled in the midwest in the 19th century (though my own ethnic pedigree is more of an English / Irish / Dutch hybrid).  Our brand of Lutheranism was all encompassing:  Our social, theological, and gastronomical lives were Lutheran, i.e., we acted like Lutherans, believed like Lutherans, and, at our wonderful church potlucks, we ate like Lutherans!

I attended Lutheran parochial school, was baptized, confirmed and married in the same Lutheran sanctuary.  Martin Luther was our namesake and would have been our patron saint, except that, as Lutherans, we didn’t have patron saints, and we were darn proud of it!

Many decades of following Christ have led me from those liturgical roots through the Jesus Movement, pastoring in both the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard churches, a couple of advanced seminary degrees and now attending and active in a non-denominational church pastored by a young, ordained Anglican priest that has embraced a liturgical form with weekly celebration of the Eucharist.  (almost forty years after being a “Jesus Freak,” I often find myself, along with my wife, serving as Eucharist ministers,  holding the chalice and repeating those familiar words, “The blood of Christ, shed for you” as fellow believers take the cup.)

Through all my church and theological pendulum swings, one thing never changed – my image of Martin Luther as a “take-that-Pope-Leo-in-your-face” sort of guy, especially when, on the morning of October 31, 1517, he grabbed a hammer and nailed the 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a small town in eastern Germany where he was pastoring and teaching.

A couple years ago, we were able to visit Wittenberg and other ‘Reformation’ sites in Germany for the first time.  One of my ‘bucket list’ photo opps was being allowed inside the “Lutherstube,” the room in the Wartburg Castle where Martin hid out from the Pope and translated the Scriptures into German.  (A personal note – my wife is half German and her great-grandfather, Bernard Hartung, was the head guard of the Wartburg castle around 1900, and we were treated like royalty when we told them this little known fact).

Nail it to the door!

My sojourn through the non-denominational, evangelical, charismatic-lite universe has always had a strong anti-Catholic, as well as anti-mainline church fervor.  Anytime we found our personal convictions or opinions confronted, we were ready to come alongside Martin and nail our grievances to the Wittenberg Door.

This Door has become iconic – even a satirical evangelical magazine used the phrase as their name.  Whenever and wherever Protestants of any persuasion disagree with, well, almost anything, we find ourselves lining up behind Martin and ready to pound those objections into the splintered door of the established church.

The sentiment is not without warrant.  Pope Leo had acquiesced to an elaborate ‘ponzi scheme’ whereby penitent medieval churchgoers were coerced into buying indulgences and thus funding the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.  Luther’s initial list of grievances gave birth to a more developed ‘protestant’ theology of the three solas: sola scriptura, sola gracia, sola fide (Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone).   But is it fair to piggyback every complaint against any church ‘system’ to Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on that October morning in Wittenberg?

Martin had no intention of dividing the Church, but rather, reforming and revitalizing it.  His heart was clearly for the institution of the Church, and he was not nailing a manifesto against organized religion in favor of a ‘make-it-up-as-you-go’ personal religious experience.  But, the unintended consequences of that crisp, late October morning are still with us today.  Do we really want to identify primarily with Martin’s desperate act that morning?

Consequences of that hammer

  • Violence and bloodshed. We can spin it any way we wish, but an immediate and direct result of Martin’s actions was a series of clashes and ‘class-warfare’ battles that killed over one hundred thousand people.
  •  Splintering the Church. From The Church (ok, technically the ‘Church’ already split once in 1054 between the Roman and Eastern branches) we now have over 40,000 different ‘branches’ of Christianity in the world.
  • Elevation of human ‘will’ and choice. The democratization of the Church began.  No longer was it an attempted ‘Theocracy,’ with God working through His leadership, but with the priesthood of believers came an onslaught of personal agendas in ecclesiastical matters.

Before you think I have crossed the Tiber River and returned to home sweet Rome, I must clearly state that the positive consequences of that October morning are monumental.  Every child of God has access to Scripture and we understand that we are saved by grace, through faith, and we know that we can go directly to God without the necessity of a mediator.

Standing in front of Luther’s desk where he translated the Bible (the bare wall on the right is where he threw the inkwell at the demon harassing him. Over the centuries, visitors took portions of the wall until all that was left was stone)

As we acknowledge the role that our forefathers in the faith, including Dr. Martin Luther, had in delivering the saving message of God’s grace to us, let us remember that our goal should continue to be that of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that we might be one and that, as a result of that unity, the world might know that God has sent Jesus into the world to save the world!

Happy Reformation Day!


Why I went to Cemetery / Seminary

Officiating a wedding in my ‘robe’ a few years ago. Something I never imagined as a “Jesus Freak!”

“Dude, you’re not going to cemetery, I mean ‘seminary,’ are you?”

I was a part of the “Jesus Movement” of Southern California in the 1970’s. We saw remarkable and historic events – we literally baptized thousands of new converts in the Pacific Ocean at Pirates Cove in Newport Beach, started churches with thousands of members in storefronts and strip malls all across the Los Angeles and Orange County landscape, and on a personal note, I was privileged to serve as an associate pastor at one of the largest “Jesus People” churches in the Los Angeles basin even hosting members of Bob Dylan’s band to our church on one occasion.

Academia, and in particular, formal theological training seemed, well, unnecessary to those of us who had found Jesus, not as a religion, but in a relationship. I recall one afternoon when my “Jesus freak” senior pastor confronted me about my university studies. “Jesus will probably return before you even graduate, so why are you wasting your time studying?” I replied that, at least to the best of my abilities, I was following God’s direction in my life by completing my university studies. (He eventually hired me after I graduated, but probably never did understand why I had wasted four years of my life studying ‘man’s wisdom.’)

So, fast-forwarding 30 years, I was a bit taken back by the retired Air Force Colonel’s question after church a few weeks ago. “Why did you, a “Jesus Movement” guy eventually go to seminary?”

Almost without hesitation, which bothered me a little (had I anticipated this question?), I replied, “two reasons – the poor ways in which we handled the Scriptures and the lack of humility we had toward Church history.”

Handling Scripture

German theologians, about 100 years ago, developed a rather benign German phrase into a theological pillar. Sitz im Leben means literally, ‘setting in life.’ But beyond that, what it implies is, if you don’t know what a particular portion of Scripture meant to the audience to whom it was originally written, then you really don’t have a ‘right’ to assume you know what its meaning is for us today.

Back ‘in the day’ during the Jesus Movement, we looked at the local and world news as opportunities to figure out just when the Lord would return ‘with a shout and the trumpet of God’ and rapture the Church up to heaven, leaving everyone else to sort things out while the world went to hell in a hand basket. Of course one of our real gems was to discover that the USSR, the Soviet Union was indeed, the Gog and Magog of Old Testament prophecy, just waiting for its opportunity to swoop down and destroy Israel. Henry Kissinger just might be the anti-Christ, though we pretty much knew it would probably be Spain’s prince Juan Carlos. We had it all figured out.

Years later, after the Soviets’ collapse and Kissinger’s apparent inability to rise to the position of anti-Christ, I realized that, just perhaps, these assumptions weren’t using the best hermeneutical tools and possibly did not reflect what the original readers of the Scripture might have envisioned.

That desire – to handle the Word of God with integrity, thus interpreting and applying it with honesty and sobriety – led me to pursue cemetery, I mean seminary studies.

In today’s post-modern world, followers of Christ aren’t as infatuated with eschatology, but I still see the make-it-up-as-you-go approach to interpreting Scripture. One of my stuffy theologian-type professors once wrote on the board, “Scripture cannot mean to us what it could never have meant to the original hearers.” Those words have stayed with me through fads, pendulums of popular theology, and current affairs.

Learning how to discover, at least in part, the original context, or sitz im leben of a passage is one of the reasons I pursued theology.

Humility and Church History

I was a Vineyard pastor. We had discovered how the ‘signs and wonders’ recorded in the New Testament were also active today and how the Church could begin to ‘move’ in the supernatural realm. My first overseas trip was to England in 1988. We were presenting a conference on ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’ at an Anglican church just outside Cambridge England.

The afternoon before our conference began, I took a walk by myself through the historic Cambridge University district, trying to clear the jet lag from my brain. I wandered past an unremarkable, but quaint Anglican Church with a sign in front, “Open Communion Service for all Baptized Christians – 1:30 p.m.” It was 1:25 p.m., so I decided, ‘what the heck?’ and went inside.

I was ushered through the stately gothic sanctuary into a smaller nave, which I soon learned was part of the original structure – a Norman church structure built in the 700’s. There were about 20 of us for the service. The robed priest began using a short-form for the Eucharist that we all found in our prayer books. Within a few minutes after reciting some Psalms, a confessional prayer, hearing the Gospel reading and a prayer from the Old Testament, I found myself at the communion rail, kneeling and receiving the bread and the cup of wine and suddenly encountering a powerful sense of God’s presence.

It hit me – followers of Christ had knelt here for thirteen hundred years, humbly receiving grace and forgiveness through the wine and the bread – and I had just shown up to the party. While I wasn’t ready to reject the powerful move of the Holy Spirit I had seen in recent years, I also realized that our ‘movement’ had hardly been the first to experience the presence of God and, just maybe, I had a bit of arrogance mixed in with my genuine passion and enthusiasm.

That’s the second reason I decided to pursue theology.

When I graduated with my first seminary degree, my wife threw a small dinner party for me with several pastor friends and their wives. I’ll never forget the card that one dear friend, a Baptist pastor in our city, gave to me that night. In it he wrote, “it is by no means necessary that every one in ministry be a theologian – but it is necessary that a few of us are!”

Blade Runners, Juicers, and real Heroes

The garden bench just outside the Rwandan Genocide Museum and Memorial sits in a well-manicured lawn overlooking this striking central African city. But the large concrete pads still loom just beyond the attractive flower gardens. Buried underneath them are the remains of over 250,000 men, women, and children who were massacred during the one hundred days of terror back in 1994 when almost 1 million people were murdered. Our guide told us that next month the remains of another 30,000 people will be buried here alongside the others.

While sitting on the bench, waiting for others in our group to exit the memorial, I was talking with my South African friend and within a few minutes the topic of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee ‘blade runner’ Olympian came up. We reflected how quick society is to use the term ‘hero’ when describing people with exceptional physical ability and how disappointed we all are when they are caught lying about using illegal steroids, or arrested for one thing or another.

Then, there are real heroes.

Pastor Ernest Ruyenzi is one of my heroes. As a denominational leader in Rwanda, he is well respected throughout his country and has access and influence into the highest levels of their government. But, in spite of his notoriety, and his large frame, he is a soft-spoken, gentle man who has, quite literally, been to hell and back and never lost his faith.

During the Genocide in Rwanda, Ernest was sought out by the killing squads for hiding Tutsi parishoners and for refusing to expose their whereabouts. (Ernest truly is a modern-day Corrie Ten Boom) On three separate occasions, he was moments from being executed when seemingly supernatural events prevented his attackers from killing him.

They ended up inside the Hotel des Mille Colline, the infamous “Hotel Rwanda,” and eventually outside troops came and stopped the bloodshed. The aftermath was equally gruesome. How do you remove almost 1 million decomposing bodies in a small country and not be emotionally crippled for life? Even as life returned to a new normal in Rwanda, hatred, fear, bitterness, and understandable mistrust filled everyone’s heart.

AFMIN came to Rwanda just a few years after the genocide. For the first time, pastors from ‘opposing’ tribes came together in a way that other organizations seemed unable to facilitate. It was in one of those meetings I met Pastor Ernest and his dear wife, Martha.

After a week of teaching 350 Rwandan pastors, Ernest invited me to a meal at their house the evening before my flight home. I remember it well – the rain was pounding down on the poorly paved streets and the inside windows of our car were almost completely fogged up. I had thought it was a private meal, but was surprised when I came inside and found about 25 of the pastors I had met throughout the week during our training.

Through an interpreter, Pastor Ernest explained that he had felt compelled to reach out to these other leaders – all from different ‘warring’ tribes and groups, and have a night of reconciliation. One by one they shared unbelievable stories of horror and heartache, yet each ended with stories of redemption and grace. One Congolese pastor remarked, “after seeing what [a particular tribal militia] had done to my family, I never thought I would be in a home with people from those tribes.” Tears flowed and I was asked to make closing remarks and prayer.

That evening was over 10 years ago and it remains to this day one of the most remarkable moments in my life. Linda and I were blessed to have Ernest and Martha at our home a couple years ago to meet some of our friends. I was blessed yesterday to greet my dear friends in their country again. There is peace in Rwanda, but at times you can sense that it is both shallow and vulnerable. But when I look into my friend’s eyes and see the peace of God abiding in him, I am reminded of what true heroes look like.

Jesus is my boyfriend?

The author called it the  “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre of worship music.  I almost choked as I read this in the blog of a respected pastor and theologian.  Beyond the obvious shock factor, his point was, well, to the point.  Over the past couple decades, our move toward songs celebrating the ‘intimacy’ of worship has resulted in a whole category of songs that could have been written for Brittney Spears or other pop icons, substituting “Jesus” for ‘baby!’

I would add another ‘genre,’ the “Jesus is my therapist” version of the same, focusing on God’s immediate intervention into my emotional angst and ‘issues.’

For the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach a college level course on the book of Psalms at our church to the students of the New Life School of Worship, a residential, one-year intern / training program that has equipped several hundred worship leaders, many of whom have actually been hired as worship pastors at churches around the country.

The first two-thirds of the course focuses on the structure, poetry, and theological themes in the Psalms and the last third takes a sweeping look at how the Psalms have shaped and influenced Christian worship over the past two thousand years.  After reading and studying scores of Psalms, we are still amazed at the power in the words of the Psalter.

Today our class had a lively discussion on how the early Church Fathers were hesitant to allow folks to write songs for Christian worship, preferring to use only Scripture, and particularly the book of Psalms (exclusive Psalmody).  The danger was that well-intentioned songwriters would, well, write bad songs – songs with bad theology or worse; songs that actually do more harm than good.

A few ‘YouTube’ sites later and our class had gone completely off the rails.  We had seen and heard some outrageous examples of songs that not only don’t reflect Scripture, they promote seemingly human romantic relationships that involve our Lord, all the while, focusing on ‘me’ rather than on God.  My students are all remarkably talented young men and women, some of whom have already recorded CDs and are indeed worship leaders.  They were struck with the challenge – going back to the Scripture as our source for worship rather appealing to the lowest common denominator – ourselves.

There are wonderful new worship songs out there but nothing we do is in a vacuum.  Our modern ‘CCM’ generation did not invent Christian worship and, it could be argued, we haven’t really improved it much either.

It was the Psalms that inspired Martin Luther to construct the liturgy into four basic movements.  Beginning with praise (the “praise” Psalms) we then move to the sermon (the “Wisdom” Psalms) followed by public confession and absolution (the “Penitent” Psalms) and culminating in the celebration of the Eucharist, the ‘giving of thanks’ for the work of Christ which can be seen in the Thanksgiving and Sacrifice Psalms.  What a novel idea, begin with praise and worship, followed by instruction, public confession and ending in the celebration of the Eucharist.  If it sounds boring, then the problem is with us and not with the Scriptures.

Beggars and Bell Ringers

Salvation Army bell ringers are hardly thought of as ‘beggars,’ but a recent city council resolution in my city aimed at aggressive panhandlers in our downtown area has also limited how this worthy charity can ask for money.  Begging, it seems, is going to be regulated, at least in my town.

On my journey back to the US last week, I was in the airport in Brussels waiting for a shuttle bus to take me to another terminal when I found myself overhearing an animated conversation between a young ‘missionary family’ from the US, on their way back to Africa and an American couple on a vacation in Europe for the holidays.  Without being overtly rude, I listened with interest as the young missionary (presumably from an evangelical background) began to generalize the US as not caring about the world’s poorest people since we have the wealth to ignore them.

This is hardly a new argument, and in fact, the “my country sucks because we’re wealthy and the rest of the world is poor” mentality is almost viral when young, idealistic American kids go to the developing world for the first time.

After 38 trips to the African continent (and I actually lost count of all my overseas trips, including India several times, the Middle East, and elsewhere) I just can’t “hate” my country when I return home.

In fact, last year, according to the Charity Aid Foundation in the UK, the US became the most generous country in the world (rising from 5th place the previous year).  We gave over $200 billion to help the rest of the world last year.  That’s a lot of money coming from evil, consumer-driven capitalists!

At the same time, however, the challenge for us is to begin to give smarter!  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to write a book review for a national Christian magazine.  The book was titled, “When helping hurts,” which tackles the tough issues of unintentional dependency that results from well-intentioned, but non-strategic giving.

Generally, I don’t give to street beggars while in Africa – this might sound terrible, but the reality is, if I did, I would still be on the same street in Liberia because the line of beggars would still be there!  I give – both of my own money and my time and energy (as well as other people’s money since I work with a non-profit that asks all of you for money!) in ways that can help these folks develop a sustainable future beyond begging.

Think about your giving – is it ‘feel-good-motivated,’ or is it strategic?

And, throw in a few extra bucks into the Salvation Army kettle – they can use it!