Preaching in the Cultural Moment

How do pastors decide what to say about current events and social issues?

As the story goes, both Karl Barth and Billy Graham said something about reading the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Whether or not the quotes are apocryphal, the point remains: preaching is contextual. We must know the Bible in its own world and know our world well enough to let God speak His word to it.

But the question is, how? I am not presuming to tell anyone else how they should preach about current events or social issues. I am only pulling back the curtain— or, opening the door of my study, as it were— to let you know how I decide. I can’t speak for every pastor in the world, but I think most of my peers would say something similar to the thoughts I’ve scratched out below.

I want my sermon to be…

1. Rooted in Scripture

While we want to let the word of God speak today into our world, it is the Word of God that must speak. Not the slogans of the day. Not the talking points of journalists or experts. Not the values of a political party. I am deeply committed to reading the Bible in its world so that it can speak into ours. I want to understand the heart of God throughout the Bible; I want to look for the themes and patterns; I want to see how they come rushing together in Jesus. I want to know how the Word of God reveals the God’s character and our calling as the people of God.

So when I wanted to speak to our church about why we should give particular attention to the pain of African-Americans in this cultural moment, the reason was not, “Because we thought it was trendy” or “Because the media has convinced us to do so”. Rather, in the moment of profound and public pain, we search the Scriptures and find a God who always places Himself with the oppressed, the marginalized, and the outcast. Even when God declares Himself to be impartial, He follows up by saying who gets the tilt of His face and favor: the immigrant, the widow, the poor (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). This follows into the preaching of Jesus who, pulling the thread of the Torah and the Prophets, announces His own ministry as being to preach good news to the poor. Or when we wanted to call our church to turn their conviction to action, our text for the week– James 2 on faith and works– was the perfect way to bring a challenge and an invitation.

2. Directed to the Church

Who is the Word speaking to? The Gospel, as missionary theologian Leslie Newbigin said, is a public truth. The Good News is an announcement for all. And yet, the Church is not the World. To paraphrase the theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, the Church exists to remind the world that it is “the world”— that it exists in darkness, that it is attempting to organize itself apart from God and, indeed, against God. The Church is in the world to call the world into the Kingdom.

As such, the Church is its own community under its own King. It bears witness to an arriving Kingdom that is here now but not yet. How exactly this plays out has been a struggle throughout church history. Sometimes the Church has used the machinery of the State for its own ends. Other times it has surrendered to the State. Still other times it has rebelled against the State. Sorting out a “political theology” is not easy, though we can learn from the mistakes of the past. Public policy is also complicated. It is not my area of expertise, but I pray for those who serve in those ways.

But my goal is to speak to the Church; to call us to surrender to King Jesus; to allow the Holy Spirit to make us into a different kind of community that stands as a light within the world. As the African-American New Testament scholar, Esau McCaulley has written recently, “My work, as a minister of the gospel, is not to fix America, but to remind it of what it is not. It is not the kingdom of God, our great hope.”

3. Focused on Jesus

Policies need to be adjusted. Real work has to be done for righteousness and justice to be embodied and enacted in the world. The Church can serve as a prophetic witness to the systems of the world, calling it to bend itself toward the Lordship of Jesus. But we must never forget that we cannot and do not bring the Kingdom of God here. As New Testament theologian, N. T. Wright has said many times, we do not build the Kingdom; we build for the Kingdom. We live and work in a way that bears witness to it.

The heart of the Gospel is an announcement, a proclamation that Jesus is the Saving King. Only in Jesus are all things in heaven and on earth reconciled (Ephesians 1:10). Only in Jesus do the dividing walls of hostility between Jews and Gentiles come down (Ephesians 2:14-16). Only in Jesus will our work— our mission and activism— not be in vain (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:58).

Christian hope is not the belief in progress, even social progress. Christian hope is not optimism or wishful thinking. Christian hope is not a departure from “all of this”, the mess of earth. Christian hope is neither the confidence that we can make a better world, nor is it the desire to escape it. Christian hope is resurrection and new creation. When Jesus returns to reign in fullness will every tear be wiped away and death be swallowed up in victory. This is why when Christians confess the “mystery of faith”, we speak of Jesus: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Any preaching that fails to lift from the current cultural moment to a focus on Jesus the Saving King falls short of our calling as preachers.

So, may God help us all.

Amen.

When God Groans

What do we do with the pain of the world? We enter in it and groan. That is what the Son of God did. And that is what the Spirit of God does in and through the Church.


Nobody chooses to be broken this way. No one wants that as part of his or her story. But we break because the world is broken. Creation groans, as Paul wrote (Romans 8:22). Aching, longing, waiting for redemption. Imagine it: the whole world, the cosmos, all of creation once blessed by God, feels itself under chains. The world God called good is subject to slavery. It has become less than itself, unable to flourish. It has lost its shalom. It is no longer whole, and so it groans.

And when the fracturing of the world touches us, when the shifting plates of the ground beneath us split apart our soul within, the brokenness is no longer out there. It’s in here. It’s real.

It isn’t just creation that groans. It’s we who groan. The gasping, grasping, out-of-breath aching; the sad, sighing, sorrowful crying— When will it end? How long, O Lord? Will You forget us forever?

But God has not forgotten us. He has not forgotten the world He made and blessed. That which God blesses is never abandoned. Brokenness is not abandonment.

The Israelites never believed in a distant God. Unlike the cultures around them, they always knew their covenant God was attentive to them and responsive to them. Their relationship was dynamic, not static. It was not a one-way thing. What He said and did moved them, and what they said and did moved Him.

So it should not have been surprising when God came even nearer. He came nearer than anyone dared hope. The second Person of the Trinity became flesh and was born of a virgin.

In a messy, smelly place surrounded by animals, Jesus came. As a helpless, crying baby, Jesus came. Messy. Helpless. Crying. These are not the usual words we use to describe Jesus. Even our Christmas carols try to sanitize the scene: sweet little Jesus, “no crying He makes.” Those words may make a better song, but they rob us of the richness of what God did. God came into our mess, into this blessed and broken world. And He cried. Like a baby. Jesus is God groaning with us.

In John 11, after Lazarus has died, Jesus wept. But Jesus also groaned, right before and shortly after He wept (John 11:33, 38, NKJV). In fact, the word in these verses suggests a grunt, an inarticulate moaning or sighing, like the sound an animal might make. And even more striking is what caused Jesus to groan. It was the sight of people grieving. Think of it: when God sees us groaning under the weight of the brokenness of this world, He Himself enters the groaning of creation and groans with us.

I wonder if Jesus may have been thinking of his friends Mary and Martha when He later sat at a table with friends, took bread, and said, “This is my body which is broken for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24, NKJV). His very life was an offering, for the sinner and the sufferer. As that bread was broken, He knew it would sop up all our weeping, tears, and groans and would one day make all things whole again.

Maybe if Mary and Martha had been there at the Passover table, they would have understood more deeply Jesus’s words, “I am the resurrection and the life.” They would’ve glimpsed how Jesus would be broken for all of us. They may have had a foretaste of how Jesus not only walked in our broken world but also shouldered all our brokenness. Even in the brokenness of death, we are not alone. The psalmist prayed with hope, saying that God is “near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18). Jesus took that prayer and embodied it. In Jesus, God came near to all of us. No, more than that: in Jesus, God became the broken.

“This is my body which is broken for you.”

 


Adapted excerpt from “Blessed Broken Given”, Chapter 6: “Suffering and Pain”

White bread on dark boards, fresh pastry from above, wheat bread from a wood-burning stove in retro style, blank for labels, French cuisine, copy space

Guidelines for Gathering in Homes During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Written and compiled by Jason Jackson
March 14, 2020

Guidelines for Gatherings in Homes

UPDATE: The President of the United States, the CDC, and the Colorado Department of Health have issued guideline that there are to be no gatherings over 10 people. Please be sure to abide by what your local health officials are saying, and check for their updates daily.

In times like these, we clearly see the importance of our meal groups and small groups. The Church is a gathered people. Throughout history, the Church has met in large venues and in homes. When it is impossible due to persecution or imprudent for reasons such as public health to all meet together, our smaller gatherings become more critical. If you do not feel comfortable hosting people during this time, we fully understand. Keep in mind that guidelines may differ from region to region. Please follow the recommendations of local officials in your area. This is a rapidly developing situation. Your well-being and the well-being of those in your community is of utmost importance. Loving your neighbor well means being wise about exposing them to risks. Instead of gathering together, you may think of other creative ways to connect with your group. Use hi-tech (social media, email, phone calls, etc.) to be high touch! 

This is simply an invitation. As you consider meeting together in homes, here are a few recommendations: 

Encourage kindness! You or others in your group may be experiencing high levels of anxiety right now. You or others may think that people are over-reacting. You or others may be somewhere in the middle. This is a time to care for each other not to try to convince people to see things our way.

Be aware of your health. If you or anyone in your household is exhibiting any cold or flu symptoms, cancel your gathering.

Be aware of your household’s health. If anyone in your meal group or anyone in his/her household is exhibiting symptoms, kindly ask them to stay at home. 

Disinfect all common surfaces (counters, door handles, etc.) before and after people arrive and invite everyone to wash or sanitize their hands when they arrive.

Take extra precautions with meals or food. Avoid open, self serve containers. Utilize individually wrapped snacks or have one person serve the rest of the group.

Greet warmly and carefully. Encourage people to foot bump, forearm smash, air high-five, etc. instead of shaking hands. 

Most importantly, be the Church! Worship together. Listen to each other. Read the Scriptures and pray together. Look for creative ways to serve. Share that stockpile of toilet paper with the person who has actually run out of it. Organize ways to get groceries to those particularly vulnerable to this virus. 

    

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Receiving Communion 

From the earliest days of Christian worship, the Eucharist has been the central and culminating moment of our gatherings. At the Table we remember Jesus’s death, celebrate His resurrection, and anticipate His return. At the Table, we receive God’s grace for us. At the Table, we realize divine hospitality and Christian unity. 

In many churches, the Eucharist can only be served a priest. At many other churches, including New Life Church, we believe every follower of Jesus is given a priestly role in God’s Kingdom (1 Peter 2:5-9). 

In the coming weeks, as we are unable to all gather together for worship, we encourage you to continue to celebrate communion in your homes with your family, friends, meal group, or small group. At the same time, we urge you to be wise. Here are a few guidelines: 

Wash Everything. It is critical that everyone washes their hands thoroughly and frequently and that you wash whatever plates and cups you use before and after communion. 

Avoid Passing the Elements and Dipping or Drinking from a Common Cup. You can swing by your local Christian bookstore to see if there are any individually wrapped communion elements in stock. 

If pre-packaged elements are not available, then limit the number of people touching any of the items. The best practice is to divide the elements into individual portions before people arrive, and then after watching the online service, encourage people to grab their own plate and cup and lead them in a liturgy together. This practice will help you maintain the level of social distancing recommended by health care professionals. 

Another less preferable option is to have a single individual (who has thoroughly washed his/her hands and preferably is wearing food service gloves) take a piece of bread or a cracker, dip it into the cup, and drop it into the open hands of the recipient. 

We encourage everyone to use grape juice or non-alcoholic wine. Some may want to use wine because the alcohol content can reduce (not eliminate) the risk of disease surviving in the cup, but please be aware that others may have a negative association with alcohol or a history of alcohol abuse in their family.

A Simple Liturgy for Communion

Confession of Sin

ALL: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of Your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in Your will, and walk in Your ways, to the glory of Your Name. Amen.

Assurance of Forgiveness

LEADER: It is my joy to announce the gospel to you—words that are true not because I say them, but because of what Jesus has done. So, would you open up your hands and receive again the mercy of God?

Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners demonstrating God’s love toward us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. The peace of the Lord be with you!

ALL: And also with you!

LEADER: Now turn to one another and pass along the peace of Christ. (Encourage people to do this in creative ways to avoid or limit physical contact)

Corporate Prayer

LEADER: The Lord is here

ALL: His Spirit is with us.

LEADER: Lift up your hearts.

ALL: We lift them to the Lord.

LEADER: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

ALL: It is right to give Him thanks and praise

Words of Institution

LEADER:  [Hold up your bread plate] On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he blessed it, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

[Hold up your cup] After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

Mystery of Faith

LEADER: Let’s proclaim together the mystery of our faith. 

ALL: Christ Has Died. Christ Is Risen. Christ Will Come Again.

Epiclesis (Come Holy Spirit!) 

LEADER: Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine. May they be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may we be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. By your Spirit make us one with Christ,

one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.

Invitation

LEADER: These are the gifts of God, given for the people of God. Receive them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving. [Lead everyone in receiving the bread and cup]

 

 

*Liturgy words from the Book of Common Prayer and the UMC Book of Worship

“Blessed Broken Given”— Chapter Preview Videos and Discussion Questions

Over the past few months, friends have told me that they are reading “Blessed Broken Given” with their small group at church or with a group of friends. I recorded a few videos when the book released that give an introduction and overview to each chapter.  I had also written discussion questions for each chapter. These videos and discussion questions were only available to Christian retailers to use as they sold the book. Until now. Today, dear reader, I give you these videos and these discussion questions in the hopes that they are enrich your reading, whether that’s on your own or with a group of friends.


Here’s a bit about the book:

Blessed Broken Given is an invitation to find beauty and meaning in the ordinary and imperfect aspects of your life; not as a call to settle for less, but rather as a way to mysteriously participate in God’s power and purpose.

I want to empower you to find great joy, purpose, and passion in their daily living. While bread may be one of the most common items on our dinner tables, Jesus chose to take it at the Last Supper and invest deep, wonderful, and transcendent meaning in it. Like the bread that was blessed, broken, and given; readers will see how God uses ordinary experiences to cultivate their mission and their brokenness to bring healing to the world. The ordinary is not the enemy; it is the means by which God accomplishes the miraculous. Through clear biblical teaching and practical steps, the books leads the reader into a more purposeful, directed, hopeful future.


Here is a chapter by chapter overview of the book in this 10-minute video:

 


Here are discussion questions for each chapter to help small group discussion:

Blessed Broken Given Discussion Guide

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Finally, here are some nice things some of my friends have said about the book:

“Blessed Broken Given immerses us in the miraculous story of God, who uses broken and frail humans regardless of their past failures, present realities, or future struggles—all for His glory and our joy. There is nothing common or ordinary about life in Jesus. As you read this book, I pray you’d be able to see the seemingly mundane and ordinary things in your life with new eyes. It is in the common, the small, and the ordinary in which the creator of the universe is joyfully at work.”
—Matt Chandler, lead pastor of the Village Church

“Glenn Packiam is a rare gem—budding academic, songwriter, Anglican priest, charismatic pastor, and fantastic writer. To have Glenn’s mind and heart aimed at the Table, the locus of the church, is a gift to the church at large. This book is well worth your time.”
—John Mark Comer, pastor for teaching and vision at Bridgetown Church and author of The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

“In our world of technology and isolation, we long not just for truth about God but for His personal touch. Glenn has opened a window into our hearts and minds so that we might understand the beauty of life and the love of a Father who is so willing to pour out for us every day. A brilliant book!”
—Sally Clarkson, speaker and author of The Lifegiving Home, Own Your Life, and Different

“Meditate on this: ‘In the hands of Jesus, your life becomes broken in a new way. When you place the brokenness of your failure, frailty, and suffering in Jesus’s hands, you become open to the grace of God.’ My friend Glenn wrote these beautiful, life-giving words. This book is a treasure chest overflowing with life-transforming wisdom.”
—Dr. Derwin L. Gray, lead pastor of Transformation Church and author of Limitless Life

“Packiam’s triple emphasis—blessed, broken, given—is a combination of three beautiful terms, each explained with Scripture, dipped in theology, and illustrated with narrative. Blessed Broken Given is a book for study groups to read and pray over together to turn this meal into the glory God has given us.”
—Rev. Canon Dr. Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary

“This book was written out of years of learning and practice. My friend Glenn embodies everything on these pages and lives a life that demands our attention. You’ll find yourself more in love with Jesus as you embrace the timeless truths of this book.”
—Brady Boyd, senior pastor of New Life Church and author of Remarkable

“Blessed Broken Given is a brilliant, beautiful, thoughtful introduction to sacramental thought and practice for those hungering for a deeper, more tangible encounter with God and His world. It blends academic rigor with the imagination of a musician and the generous heart of a practicing pastor. I highly recommend it.”
—Pete Greig, cofounder of 24-7 Prayer International, senior pastor of Emmaus Rd, and author of Dirty Glory

“Packiam develops the powerful image of our lives as bread. Reflective yet practical, this is a super exploration of an important theme.”
—Andrew Wilson, teaching pastor at King’s Church London

“Glenn Packiam is one of the most insightful and compelling voices in North America. He offers us a powerful yet ordinary vision of what Jesus wants to do with our lives, if we would be bread in His hands. A good way of starting this journey of living blessed, broken, and given is to get this book in your hands!”
—Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship

“This book provides manna in the wilderness to countless Christians hungry for a deeper walk with God. Fresh and engaging, it offers a gracious invitation to place your life in the hands of Jesus so that you may be blessed, broken, and given for the life of the world.”
—Dr. Winfield Bevins, director of church planting at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of Ever Ancient, Ever New

What’s the Deal with Ash Wednesday?

What’s the deal with Ash Wednesday?
Let me say up front that you don’t have to mark this day. It’s a Christian tradition that goes back about 1200 years, but that means it was developed about 800 years after the first church. So, no, there’s nothing in this that binds you to keep it as a holy day.
Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent which follows this day, is an invitation. It is a spiritual practice, a habit that forms us by centering us on Christ and connecting us to the Body of Christ.
All spiritual habits are meant to help us become a habitation for the Holy Spirit and His work in and through us for God’s glory, for our good, and for the life of the world.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation  to humble ourselves.
The psalmist wrote that, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). The remembrance that we are dust comes in the context of God’s compassion for us. We are never scolded for being frail. It is God’s tenderness toward us that frees us to confess our need of him. Because our heavenly Father is gentle and patient, long-suffering and understanding, abounding in compassion, we humble ourselves, like little children. And it is here we realize that as little children, we are the ones to whom Jesus said the Kingdom belongs.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation to confess our sins.
Ashes in the Bible were a sign of sorrow and mourning (2 Sam. 13:19, Is. 61:3, Jer. 6:26, Ez. 27:30). Covering yourself or marking yourself with ashes was also an act of repentance and of turning toward God’s face. Daniel says that he “turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). Jesus uses ashes symbolically to speak of repentance (Matthew 11:21). So, on Ash Wednesday we remember not only our frailty, but also our failure. We come before the  God who is not only the Creator, but who is also the Redeemer.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation to remember God’s mercy and faithful love. 
Even before we knew how to call on HIs name, God was calling us. While we were still sinners, St. Paul wrote, Christ died for us. It is not our repentance that persuades God to be merciful to us; it is God’s mercy that leads us to repentance. What we find when we humble ourselves before the Lord, is that Jesus is already bending low, on the ground with us. And as He rises, He raises us up with Him.

This is the whole point of Lent: It is a re-enacting of the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. But this re-enactment is not simply so we remember it; it is so we can realize that as we journey with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb it is actually God who has come to keep company with us. God with us in our weakness and death; God with us for our victory and resurrection. 

 


 

fullsizeoutput_9a4aNew Life Downtown is hosting an Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday, February 26th, from 7pm-8:15pm at Palmer High School. All are welcome. 

Reflections on Love, Sacrifice, and the Gospel of “Frozen 2”

There are two ways of doing theological reflection on popular art like movies. One way is to try to uncover the “operating theology” in a culture by looking at how it depicts concepts like salvation and goal of existence. Such an approach can help a Christian to distinguish cultural narratives from the good news of Christ, and to identify points of engagement with the Gospel. The other way of doing theologic reflection on popular art is to look for ways the Gospel is actually hinted at in the art, even if unknowingly. This is like trying to find how God has hidden eternity in our hearts, so that even our aspirations and longings, encoded into our art, might be aimed at Christ. The first approach is one an apologist might take; the second, what a missiologist may use.

A friend and respected colleague of mine, Pastor Brett Davis, posted some thoughts recently on Frozen 2. It was insightful and thought-provoking. And it caught my attention because I had jotted down thoughts in quite an opposite direction. We decided that both perspectives may be helpful toward different ends. So, here they are. First, Brett’s beautiful thoughts.

The Gospel in Frozen 2 (and Frozen)

We see profound reflections of the gospel in both films. The self-giving love of God in Jesus echoes primarily through Anna in Frozen. We see Anna bear a wound from her sister trapped in self-obsession and then watch her lay down her own life for the sake of love. Anna’s unwavering love for Elsa mirrors God’s own unwavering love for the world. And it leads to eerily similar results: restored relationship, “resurrection,” a liberated cosmos. Anna’s willingness to self-sacrifice transforms Elsa, freeing her of her fearful existence in self-obsession and opening her up to the possibility of love. And then Elsa actively participates in liberating the world from its icy bondage (Rom 8.19-21).

The gospel reflections differ in the Frozen 2. These films stories are obviously not Christian allegory; rather they are two songs echoing the gospel melody in different ways. Second time around, Elsa explicitly embodies the “heaven-sent savior.” She gradually comes to recognize the necessity of her descending into the pit of darkness to reveal truth, atone for the sin of her family, and ultimately reign over every other power and authority (the elemental spirits). Anna, on the other hand, grants us a sobering and inspiring picture of the cost of discipleship. With her death, Elsa makes the truth known to Anna and Anna resolves to carry the cross through darkness (“the next right thing”) even through it will cost her everything (Arendelle). She loses her life and finds it.

The skeptic might consider these phantom melodies generated by a straining ear through the noise. Perhaps the skeptic is right. But it could also be that C.S. Lewis was right: the story of Jesus is the “true myth” to which all other human stories bear witness in fleeting fits and flashes. Our hearts ache for the gospel. And the beauty of the gospel takes our breath away even when a story unknowingly reflects it like mirror dimly. The Frozen films are perhaps a dim, distorted funhouse mirror, but gospel reflections are shimmering for those with eyes to see.


The Neo-Spiritualism of Frozen 2

I agree with Brett: there were many rich and good themes. For example, the permanence of love amidst the impermanence of life; the practical wisdom of doing the next right thing when the future is unknown; and resilience amidst depression, loneliness, and self-doubt. There is also the redemptive power of a willingness to suffer great loss in order to rectify an ancient wrong, the embrace of sacrifice in the service of reconciliation.

But there is also an expression of the neo-spiritualism of our day. Elsa is in search of the spirit that is the key to truth and freedom— in this case, the bridge between nature and humanity. In asking this higher power, divine force, to show itself, she discovers it’s…(SPOILER!) her. The god we are searching for is ourselves, fully realized. This is the quintessential spirituality of the secularized Western world today. There is no divine disclosure of a transcendent god— a creator or source, a redeemer or delivered; there is only the unveiling of the self as the true divine.

Elsa is in some ways set up to be a Christ-figure— a meditator who restores “shalom” to the world. And she does so by descending to the depths. But the “salvation” is not a victory over the powers or a deliverance, but a revealing of truth, not unlike the Gnosticism of the ancient times. Moreover, instead of being raised up by God (as Jesus was by the Father through the Spirit), Elsa is saved by her sister finding the courage to actualize her own potential. Not only is salvation knowledge, but the savior is you and me self-actualized.


Frozen 2 is great fun and very moving. And the music is killer. Regardless of which reflection resonates with you, we can echo the words of Olaf, “I just thought of one thing that’s permanent: love.”

How Jesus Re-shapes Power

Power comes in many forms. We can be in a position of power over others because of our job title, our relational network, our expertise, our wealth, our skill level, and more. Privilege is a form of power– the things we were born into, the gifts we have been given by our family history or heritage. We are getting better at naming various sources and kinds of power.

But we are are no better at knowing what to do with power. In today’s world, power itself is seen as the problem. We want to strip people of it, and deny the necessity of leadership. Surely power is an infectious disease, for as the adage goes: power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

So, what should we do with the power we have? For the Christian, power has to be re-shaped by Jesus. There is one who, though He was rich, yet for our sake He became poor. Jesus showed humanity what to do with power.

Here are three things we observe about Jesus and power:

1. Jesus inverted the power dynamic. In John 13, when Jesus knew that the Father had entrusted all things to His care, He took off His robe— possibly a symbol of status itself— and began to do what servants do and washed the disciples’ feet.

2. Jesus embraced weakness. Jesus said that no one took His life; He laid it down. He did not fight to preserve or protect His power. He did not consider equality with God “a thing to be grasped”. He willingly “emptied Himself” and became “obedient” even to “death on the cross”, as Philippians 2 says in the climactic point of the poem.

3. Jesus distributed power. At the end of Matthew’s gospel when He sent the disciples into all the world. Having been given all authority, He sent others. The mission had to be bigger than one man. It had to multiply.

The lessons here for us are obvious but worth stating. To be a Christian with power— any kind of power: privilege, position, wealth, talent, gifts, influence, networks, and more— is to do what Christ did with power.

We use our power in the service others. What resources do you have that can be used to benefit others? How can our strengths not add to our status but but summoned for service?

We sacrifice our power for the sake of others. How can you put yourself at a disadvantage in order to give others an advantage? How can you refrain from things you may have a right to in order to leave some for others?

We share our power with others. What would it look like to collaborate instead of command? How could you give others a chance to do something you could do just as well if not better?

I’m not sure there is a way to eliminate power. And I’m not sure that should be the goal. But what we can do is name the power we have and be held accountable to use it in ways that are Christlike. This is how Christians become trustworthy people.

The Enlightenment’s Lie About the Basis of Human Rights

It is all the rage to talk about how oppressive Christianity is and has always been. It’s even more troubling to see some Christians parroting similar lines. Don’t believe it. It is a myth perpetuated since the Enlightenment that Christianity’s contribution to the world is oppression and abuse. As a corollary, the myth also purports that human rights are self-evident. Some add that returning to the way of the Ancients— Greece and Rome— would set us on the path to peace and freedom. Religion in general and Christianity in particular, so the story goes, has led to nothing but wars, doctrinal squabbles, and power grabs.

The sins of the Church are indefensible— exploitation and conquest, abuse and compromise, manipulation and control and more. The critiques of the Christian justification of imperial exploitation are on-target and well-deserved. But those critiques are not original to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It was Christians who said them first. From Alcuin to Aquinas, from Bartholome de las Casas to Benjamin Lay, it was Christians who most fervently condemned conquest and slavery. But my point here is not to balance the scales of the appraisal of Christianity’s contribution nor even to go blow for blow about its good versus its ills. The point is simply this: Not only do Christians critique their own failures, they do so on the basis of Christian teaching.

Secular historian Tom Holland writes:

“The paradox that weakness that weakness might be a source of strength, that a victim might triumph over his torturers, treat suffering might constitute victory, lay at the heart of the Gospels…The standards by which [Voltaire] judged Christianity, and condemned it for its faults, were not universal. They were not shared by philosophers across the world. They were not common from Beijing to Cayenne. They were distinctively, peculiarly Christian.” (Dominion, p. 394)

In other words, power struggles and abuses were not unique to the Church or to Christendom. What was unique, however, was the basis for condemning it: a savior who died in order to save, a king who was killed in order to conquer sin and death.

But the French never had a Reformation, so their response to the abuses of the Church was to reject Christianity wholesale in the revolt of the philosophers which came to be called in a self-congratulatory way, the “Enlightenment”. Yet the idea that they could simply return to reason as a new kind of religion was itself a myth.

Take, for example, the notion that human rights are ancient. Well, as Holland points out, the Persians were renown for perfecting the art of torture, the Greeks for raping the women of a city they conquered, and the Romans for incorporating both and adding the practices of paedophilia and infanticide to the list. It was Christianity which made the above practices criminal.

Even the French philosopher Marquis de Sade who hated Christianity taught that the “doctrine of loving one’s neighbor is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature” (p. 407). Sade, following what the ancients took for granted, believed some men were born to be masters, and others slaves. The inferior class of human was only slightly above a chimpanzee. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies because of their declaration of human rights in the late 1700s, they were tempted to make exceptions and delay the implementation of abolition. It was the outcry of the British public— Evangelical English men and women— who put the pressure on British diplomacy. Eventually, it took the British navy to block French slave ships from continuing the trade in Africa in the early 1800s.

What about the universality of human rights? Aren’t they self-evident? The claim that the language of human rights “…existed naturally within the fabric of things, and had always done so, transcending time and space”. Holland counters:

Yet this, of course, was quite as fantastical a belief as anything to be found in the Bible. The evolution of the concept of human rights, mediated as it had been since the Reformation by Protestant jurists, and philosophes, had come to obscure its original authors. It derived, not from Ancient Greece or Rome, but from the period of history condemned by all right-thinking revolutionaries as a lost millennium, in which any hint of enlightenment had at once been snuffed out by monkish, book-burning fanatics. It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages” (Dominion, pp. 401-02).

The notion of a human right began modestly enough with canon lawyers in the 1200s. How were the Christians to square the rampant inequality between rich and poor with the insistence of numerous Church Fathers that “the use of all things should be common to all”?’ (p. 239). After the completion of the Decretum (a compilation of church canons and teaching), they arrived at a solution: “A starving pauper who stole from a rich man did so, according to a growing number of legal scholars, iure naturali— ‘in accordance with natural law’ ” (p. 239). Thus, they were not guilty of a crime. Holland sums it up this way:
“Charity, no longer voluntary, was being rendered a legal obligation…That the rich had a duty to give to the poor was, of course, a principle as old as Christianity itself. What no one had thought to argue before, though, was a matching principle: that the poor had an entitlement to the necessities of life. It was— in a formulation increasingly deployed by canon lawyers— a human “right”’ (Dominion, p. 239).

Then, when he visited the Spanish colonies in the Americas, the friar Bartholome de las Casas began to rebuke Christians on both sides of the Atlantic for thinking that they had not merely a right but a duty to conquer and ‘prosecute’ idol-worshipping peoples (pp. 346-7). Though such a view sat easily with Aristotle’s doctrine that ‘it was to the benefit of barbarians to be ruled by “civilized and virtuous princes” ’, the Christian belief that every human had been made equally by God and had been endowed with reason made the suggestion that natives were slightly higher than monkeys blasphemy by Christian standards (p. 347). Drawing on the teaching of Aquinas, las Casas taught that “ ‘Jesus Christ, the king of kings, was sent to win the world, not with armies, but with holy preachers, as sheep among wolves’ ” (p. 308). Thus it came to be that las Casas coined the phrase ‘Derechos humanos’— human rights.

This is why, by the time the British colonies in North America declared their independence, it was clearly Christianity that fueled their dream of a new community. It is most readily apparent that the roots of such thinking was not truly Enlightenment rationalism but Christian revelation. Holland again writes:

“That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. That most Americans believed they were owed less to philosophy than to the Bible: to the assurance given equally to Christians and Jews, to Protestants and Catholics, to Calvinists and Quakers, that every human being was created in God’s image. The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic— no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think— was the book of Genesis.” (Dominion, p. 400)

Christians have not always gotten it right. The Church has been notoriously wrong. But when it is, it is judged to be wrong on the basis of what Jesus and Paul taught. The abuses of Christendom are contradictions of Christian teaching, not confirmations of it; they are distortions not extensions of what the Scripture says; they came as a result of ignoring canon law and Church teaching not of illuminating it.

Exploitation and abuse is the sickness of sin at work in the world. The Church is not immune to such sickness. Nevertheless, it is the Gospel that provides both the diagnosis and the cure.

What I Read In 2019 (And Why)

2019 was a good year for reading. I managed to read about 30 books this year, which may be a personal high, but there were several shorter books in the mix!  I’ll give you the full list and my top five in a moment…but first, a bit about how I choose what to read.

I often choose reading along certain themes. Late last year, I decided I wanted to read about empires in 2019— not theological reflections or pontifications on Christianity and empire, but histories of empires themselves written by non-Christians.

In late 2018, I finished “Gandhi and Churchill”, which was a poignant parallel of two remarkable leaders whose respective nations would come to clash over ideology and power. The centuries-long presence of the British empire in India may be one of the most world-shaping realities of the modern era. Then, to kick off 2019, I went on to read about the way German church leaders were complicit with the rise of the Nazi regime as seen through the life of one particular pastor, Martin Niemoller, in the book “Then They Came for Me”. It was sobering. I followed that up by reading about the rise of the Roman Empire, from Augustus to its Nero, in Tom Holland’s epic work, “Dynasty”. It was fascinating to see the roots of many of our modern conceptions of power, nobility, and public virtue. But what I loved most was the being able to imagine the political backdrop of the New Testament as I read about the first five Caesars (the Julio-Claudians). Finally, I read Niall Ferguson’s “Empire” on the rise and fall of the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever known. The influence of Christianity as a moral restraint for the excesses of power and as a justifying reason for their assertion of superiority resulted in a complicated legacy.

I threw in a couple of fiction books to round off my reading on empire. “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster was thoroughly enjoyable, and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe was a slow but sobering reminder that what is a footnote for the empire is a lifetime of sorrow for one man; the machinations of “progress” must be slowed by attention to its impact on the particular.

The capstone— the book that brought many of the themes in these other books together— was “Dominion” by Tom Holland. I’m about two-thirds through, and it doesn’t seem that I’ll finish it in 2019, nevertheless, it is my Book of the Year. Holland, a secular historian, traces the improbable rise of Christianity, carefully showing how unprecedented its claims and teachings were in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. It’s persistence and resilience in the face of persecution and the development of theology through careful contextualization are further remarkable features of Christianity. Though Holland doesn’t shy away from the darker chapters in Christianity’s history, he is quick to show when certain actions were aberrations of Christianity teaching and when they were extensions of it. Contra many claims by atheists today, the worst actions of Christians in history were when they had deviated the most from the teachings of Jesus and Paul. In the end, Holland argues that much of the embedded and institutionalized virtues and values of Western society are fruit from Christian roots. Can the fruit remain if it is severed from the root? This is the great experiment of the march of secularization.

The next theme I turned to was how Christianity relates to a secularized age, a pluralistic world, and a humanistic empire. “Seriously Dangerous Religion” is a tour de force of comparative religions through a meta-frame. Provan identifies 10 major questions every major religion or system must grapple with. He then shows how the Old Testament addresses these questions in comparison to other ancient religions or post-modern composites of ancient religions (like the notion that all religions of the “Axial Age” were the same, or the generic spirituality of the New Age). He does show how Christianity (the New Testament) extends the vision that is sketched in the Old Testament and brings it to its fullest expression and completion in Jesus.

“Faith for Exiles” by Barna’s David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock summoned research to outline five practices of young Christians who developed a resilient faith in the the midst of a Babylonian world. It was practical and inspiring, not only as a pastor but as a father. The accessible yet richly theological, “Gospel Allegiance” outlines how fidelity to Jesus the King grounds Christians and gives shape to a robust Christianity no matter what empire we find ourselves living in. It reclaims words that have lost their original textual meaning– like faith, gospel, grace, and works– and shows how the fit together through the paradigm of Kingship and Kingdom. Finally, “Seculosity” demonstrated with observational insight and a sharp wit, how society in the west has channeled a moralistic impulse and appropriated religious fervor and ritual to facets of life like work, romance, parenting, eating, and more.

The rest of my reading can be filed under the categories of pastoral theology and personal enrichment. Here’s a quick bit about some of them. I was struck by the profound integration of social analysis and theological reflection in the collection of sermons from Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love”; I benefited from Preston Sprinkle’s short books, Grace/Truth 1.0″ and “Grace/Truth 2.0”on gender and sexuality; I found the collection of essays on identity, community, and authority in the digital age in “The HTML Of Cruciform Love” utterly fascinating; I loved my pastor’s book, “Remarkable”, on engaging culture in a Christlike way; I learned a lot from Lucy Peppiatt’s succinct summary and fresh perspective of the biblical vision of womanhood (which challenges the assumed patriarchy of many); I normally find reading Rowan Williams to be quite a laborious endeavor, but hist short series of books–  “Being Human”, “Being Christian”, and “Being Disciples” — were really excellent and not too dense; I appreciated Wesley Hill’s demonstration of Trinitarian theology at work in Paul’s letters; I found Haley Jacob’s exegesis and arguments in “Conformed to the Image of His Son” really compelling; I was moved and inspired by what I consider the best single book on prayer, Pete Greig’s “How to Pray”; and, I can see why some have called N. T. Wright’s “History and Eschatology” a capstone of his life’s work on the historical Jesus and Christian eschatology.

Alright, here are my top five, followed by the full list.


My Top Five 
1. “Dominion”– Tom Holland

2. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson

3. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan

4. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates

5. “Seculosity”– David Zahl


The Full List:
Theology/Biblical Studies
  1. “The Christological Hymns of the New Testament”– Matthew Gordley
  2. “Paul and the Trinity”– Wesley Hill
  3. “Conformed to the Image of His Son”– Haley Goranson Jacob
  4. “The 3D Gospel”– Jayson Georges
  5. “For all God’s Worth”– N. T. Wright
  6. “Blue Parakeet 2nd Edition”– Scot Mcknight (read 2/3rds)
  7. “Being Human”– Rowan Williams
  8. “Being Christian”– Rowan Williams
  9. “Being Disciples”– Rowan Williams
  10. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan
  11. “Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women”– Lucy Peppiat
  12. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates
  13. “History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology”– N. T. Wright
Histories/Biographies 
  1. “Then They Came For Me”– Matthew D. Hockenos
  2. “Dynasty”– Tom Holland
  3. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson
  4. “The Intellectual World of CS Lewis”– Alistair McGrath
  5. “Dominion”– Tom Holland (2/3rd done!)
Cultural Conversations 
  1. “Grace and Truth 1.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  2. “Grace and Truth 2.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  3. “The HTML of Cruciform Love”– Edited John Frederick and Eric Lewellen
  4. “Remarkable”– Brady Boyd
  5. “Talking to Strangers”– Malcom Gladwell
  6. “Faith for Exiles”– David Kinnaman
  7. “Seculosity”– David Zahl
Fiction 
  1. “Things Fall Apart”– Chinua Achebe
  2. “A Passage to India”– E. M. Forster
Devotional
  1. “How to Pray”– Pete Greig
  2. “Prayer: Our Deepest Longing”– Ronald Rolheiser
  3. “Strength to Love” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (2 chapters left!)
Leadership
  1. “Captain Class”– Sam Walker

The Table You Choose…

There are two tables set before us. Nowhere in the Gospels is the contrast between the banquets—the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world—more stark than in Mark’s gospel. Both Matthew and Mark set the story of John the Baptist’s beheading right before the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, but Mark makes the arrangement feel even more intentional by telling us that Herod “prepared a feast” (Mark 6:21, CEB). Looking at the two feasts side by side, one can’t help but notice the differences between the two kings and the kingdoms they represent.

For one, the people at the feasts were vastly different. Herod prepared a feast for “his high-ranking officials and military officers and Galilee’s leading residents” (verse 21, CEB). This was a party for the power players, for the “who’s who,” the movers and shakers. Herod was in control of the guest list and made sure there were only guests who could give him something. But Jesus found a crowd who had invited themselves. These were people from various cities in the area who arrived at the spot where they anticipated Jesus and His disciples would be. These people must have been desperate for something.

At Herod’s feast performance was everything—please the king and you just might get what you want. A girl’s dancing pleased him and got him in a request-granting mood. He told her to ask for whatever she wished, up to half his kingdom (see verse 23). At Jesus’s feast compassion was everything. Jesus saw the uninvited crowd and “had compassion on them” (verse 34, CEB). He taught the crowd “many things” (verse 34, CEB), and then He fed them. The people never asked for something to eat; Jesus knew that they were hungry. They didn’t have to perform for Him to notice them. He saw them from the beginning. And He loved them. So He fed them—with His words and with bread.

The climactic moment of Herod’s feast was someone’s death. The execution of John the Baptist was the real story of Herod’s birthday party. The conclusion of Jesus’s feast was abundance. There were twelve baskets filled with bread and fish, and everyone there had already eaten till they were full. At Herod’s party there was never enough—never enough power or pleasure or control. Someone had to lose for someone else to win. Someone had to die for others to live. But at Jesus’s banquet there was more than enough. There was enough for everyone to be filled, and then some more.

At the two feasts there are two different ways of becoming a guest, two different ways of making a request or getting a need met, and there are two different ways for the story to end. The first story is about power, performance, and ultimately death. The second story is about desperation, hunger, and ultimately life. Feast with Herod and you may feel powerful, but you will be bound to perform. The end is death. Feast with Jesus and you can come desperate and needy, tired and hungry, and you will be fed and nourished. The end is an abundance of life.

But this is not just a story about two feasts; this is about two kings and two kingdoms. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd, He had compassion on them for “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 34, ceb). This is not a throwaway line. The shepherd imagery in the Bible is not some sort of therapeutic image of care and nurture. A shepherd was the most comprehensive metaphor an agrarian society could come up with: it represented a protector, physician, provider, and guide.

It makes sense, then, that when the prophets and poets of Israel wrote about their king, they referred to him as a shepherd. One prophet, Ezekiel, had a particularly scathing review—offered on behalf of God—of the kings of Israel. He called them the shepherds of Israel but then accused them of having only “tended themselves” (Ezekiel 34:2, CEB). Instead of tending the sheep, they drank the milk, wore the wool, and slaughtered “the fat animals” (verse 3, CEB). They didn’t “strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost.” Instead, they used “force to rule them with injustice” (verse 4, ceb). In short, the shepherds of Israel had not lived up to the metaphor; they were not protectors, physicians, providers, or guides. They failed at the job description for a good king. The very next verse of Ezekiel’s divine tirade includes the lines that Mark would quote: “Without a shepherd, my flock was scattered; and when it was scattered, it became food for all the wild animals” (verse 5, CEB). Then the Lord declared through Ezekiel that He is “against the shepherds” (verse 10, CEB). And not only that, He will come to do the job Himself.

Now we see it: the feeding of the five thousand is not Jesus doing some sort of party trick. It was a sign that the kingdom of God was arriving and that Jesus Himself was the true King. Herod was not the real king, and his banquet was not the real feast. Jesus is the king who provides a bounty for the people.

So where are you feasting? Are you at Herod’s banquet, hoping to satisfy yourself on the kind of power and pleasure the world can offer? Are you chasing influence and significance the world’s way, by working harder or trying to get in with the right group? Are you obsessively posting on social media, trying to get your “likes” and “views” up, hoping to be seen? That feast won’t fill you. It will lead only to death. Or are you desperately following Jesus, clinging to every word, hungry and needy? Are you opening the Scriptures, sitting and listening, shaping your life by His cross-shaped love? It will be for your good, bringing you nourishment, healing, and health.

The table you choose reveals the king you serve.

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Adapted excerpt from Blessed Broken Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus. Available now wherever books are sold. Official Amazon link.