Reflections on The Prophets

prophets1I just finished reading through the prophets in the Old Testament. What made an impression on me was the way in which God held whole nations accountable for their actions. He held them accountable for their violence, their greed, and how they treated their own people as well as other nations. Special care was directed at the people on the fringe: the alien, the stranger, the poor.

Reflecting on this, it scares me how God must view America right now. What we have done at the border separating families and abusing kids is reprehensible. Nationalism has risen it’s ugly head and become it’s own religion. The idea of “America First” flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching that the first will be last and the last will be first. The idea that we are a “Christian Nation” is really laughable. America needs prophetic voices to call out injustice and hypocrisy right now. Unfortunately over 70% of evangelical Christians approve of where we are politically. Then there are churches who do not connect the dots from Scripture to our modern day problems as a nation. Instead they preach a Gospel devoid of justice. To show any type of criticism toward our nation could alienate you from a percentage of your audience. But we need prophetic voices that call out the injustices that are happening right under our noses. A church that just preaches a feel-good message without ever calling for justice is the very thing that some of the false prophets throughout the Old Testament were called out for and were held accountable.

I worry about the American Church. It has become seduced with political power and has mixed religion with nationalism. This is just out-right idolatry. We are guilty of some of the very same sins that Israel was guilty of and were held accountable for throughout Scripture. And to think that there are those who believe that our religious freedoms are under attack. Once again, we need to look at all the examples throughout Scripture and history of those who were really persecuted and executed for their faith. That was real persecution. Yet story after story you see how God brings beauty out of the ugliness of Christian persecution. They were willing to suffer and be executed for their faith. Yet in our country we are told we can now say “Merry Christmas”. Really? Was that really a thing?

It is time for an Awakening. For a new generation of Christ-followers who love God and love people, but are also willing to call out injustice and seek ways to mobilize the church to be more prophetic. These are dark times we are living in yet either we are oblivious to it or we are complicit as we praise our national leaders, demand our rights, and demand that we are first. I honestly wrestle with what I am seeing with our nation as well as the contemporary church. It is ironic that we live in the information age yet the church is becoming more and more biblically illiterate. We want our own personal Jesus that makes us feel good about ourselves but we ignore the God who holds nations accountable for their sins. It time for the church to revisit the Prophets and realize that we have a responsibility to care for the alien, stranger, poor, outcast, the people on the fringes. We need to get back to reaching out instead of protecting the base. The church ought to be the consciousness of the nation, not a complicit partner with the nation.

There is a reason why so many people are walking away from the American Church and I believe that one of those reasons is that we have become irrelevant. We are not seeking justice, we are not offering mercy and we certainly are not acting humble. We have drifted a long way from what Scripture teaches us. May God have mercy on us and may his Spirit awaken us to the truth.

Do We Really Believe That God is Love?

SinnersDo we worship a schizophrenic God? A flat reading of the Bible seems to suggest that.

When we look at the God of the Old Testament He seems violent, vindictive, angry and wrathful. But then when you get to the New Testament we see God in Jesus forgiving sinners, loving the lost, and forgiving his murderers. Did God change? Traditional Christian theology claims that God is immutable. He does not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. If that is true then why is it that a flat reading of Scripture seems to suggest that God does change?

Brian Zahnd in his book “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News” lays out his interpretation of Scripture in that Jesus is the climax of the story of God and the full revelation of who God truly is. God is LOVE. Brian begins with this premise and then goes on to show how this fleshes out in his theology. He tackles such topics like: Did God kill Jesus? What is the significance of the cross? What is the Kingdom of God and how is it relevant to the present? What is hell and who goes there? How do we interpret Revelation?

I found this book to be incredibly refreshing. I have often struggled with how to understand the God of the Old Testament in relation to the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Any thinking Christian must wrestle with this. Brian offers up a well-thought out theology that sees Jesus as the full revelation of who God is: He is sacrificial love. And Brian does not just isolate one or two verses but he heads right into many of the questions and struggles people have with trying to understand the true nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. This would be a great book to study as a group and have a dialogue with friends as you read through it. You may not agree with everything he is saying but boy would it be a great discussion.

There were three times in my life where I came to a realization of who I thought God was and what He wanted me to do about it. The first time involved getting the crap scared out of me watching a 1970’s movie version of “Left Behind”. So fear was my first experience.

My second spiritual awakening was when I came to the realization that I was a sinner. This happened when I was in my early 20’s. It was a powerful experience and it set me in the direction of going into ministry.

But my third spiritual awakening was in my late 30’s when I attended a weekend retreat called the “Walk to Emmaus”. This was the most powerful of the three. I truly felt like no other time in my life that God really did love me. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. And it is with that experience that I really fell into what Brian Zahnd was writing about in this awesome book.

Being White in America

I recently read “White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white” which helped to bring much clarity to issues within our country related to race. Author Daniel Hill begins by telling his story on how he wanted to create a multi-ethnic church in Chicago. While he had good intentions, the results for diversity were abysmal. Much of his congregation was just as white as he was. In attempting to find out why he was unable to attract a multi-ethnic crowd he decided to visit with a hand full of local non-white clergy. In doing so, he was humbled to realize how little he knew about culture that impacted people of color. His mentors exposed the fact that almost every possible influence in Daniel’s life was from white culture. Daniel realized quickly that people of color have many different experiences as a minority culture in contrast to the dominate influence of white culture in America. What seems normal to most white people is not necessarily what people of color experience. All throughout our 200+ history people of color have been judged as “less than” in comparison to white culture. Daniel states that “When the journey begins to feel like any combination of scary, confusing, disorienting, or even painful, we have a privilege that people of color do not: we can walk away; we can go back to ‘normal,’ if we choose.” (p. 38)

The author then takes us on a journey to process the reality of white culture in contrast to the experiences and culture of people of color. Daniel Hill goes through the various steps of understanding as we go through encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening and active participation. As you go through these levels you become aware of the fact that what seems normal to white people is not the same as people of color in America. Daniel says “I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved. It turned into decades of racial hierarchy that was violently enforced . . . through acts of racial terror.” (p. 57). While the institution of slavery was defeated, the effects and ideology continues to live on throughout American history to the present. The author articulates the importance of seeing ourselves, as well as everyone else, as image bears of God. As children of God, we are of equal and extraordinary value and we are all apart of the kingdom of God.

But we must begin with denial and recognize all the ways in which white culture has harmed people of color. We all too often sugarcoat our history and do not face up to the reality of how people of color were negatively impacted by white culture. A recent example of that is in the fact that if a person of color commits a crime against Americans it is typically labeled as terrorism. But with all the white guys committing acts of gun violence rarely is it labeled as terrorism. Instead we learn about how troubled their past must have been to commit such a crime and that they must have suffered from mental illness. Daniel hammers away in saying that “our citizens do not share a common memory. People of white European ancestry remember a history of discovery, open lands, manifest destiny, endless opportunity, and American exceptionalism. Yet communities of color, especially those with African and indigenous roots, remember a history of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, boarding schools, segregation, cultural genocide, internment camps, and mass incarceration.” (p. 79)

I remember my first history classes at college. My professor prided himself in telling us that he was going to expose us to the history that our parents and schools hid from us. I took a class on the American Indians and another one about African American history. Needless to say I walked out of those classes feeling shame and anger for how people of color have been treated by the dominate white culture. But in “White Awake” the author doesn’t stop with just an awakening to the truth but he moves us to feel lament in solidarity with people of color. Daniel says, “Lament gives us resources to sit in the tension of suffering and pain without going to a place of shame or self-hate. Lament allows us to acknowledge the limitations of human strength and to look solely to the power of God instead.” (p. 112)

The author then goes on to caution the reader against feeling self-righteous towards those who are not at the same level of understanding as you might be. If we fall into this trap we are as guilty as the Pharisees. Instead we need to repent when we fall into the trap of categorizing people into us vs. them.

The final chapters explain the importance of seeing ourselves as kingdom people created in the image of God. It is the kingdom of God that is at war with the powers of this dark world (Eph. 6:12) and we need to fully realize this. The hierarchies of race and categories we put ourselves in to feel superior over others is wrong, demonic and not of God. We need to see how our present culture implements these to separate and divide us. And our response needs to be to live as kingdom people knowing that we are all created in the image of God. Through Jesus we can find redemption, forgiveness and unity as kingdom people.

I highly recommend this book. It’s time we awaken to the ways in which our history and culture has divided us from people of color. We need to step out of our white superiority and live into the kingdom of God with all people. We need to acknowledge how sin has divided us, and through repentance and reconciliation, we can find true restoration as kingdom people.

Mission Trips Summer 2018

I love mission trips. I believe it is a great way to help teens see that there is a bigger world out there that needs our love, compassion, grace and justice. It is so easy for middle class American teens (and adults) to not see beyond their little suburban bubble. Mission trips help to expand their focus and see their place in the world. Now understand that I did not say that mission trips are about “us” going out to help “them” who need us to swoop in and change their lives for the better. That is a poor way of looking at trips of this sort. We are not the “saviors” trying to save the “lost”. The more I do mission trips I have discovered that God is already working everywhere around the world AND He is still working on me and my teens. So the goal of a mission trip is to connect with what God is ALREADY doing in the life of a community and join in the experience. A good mission trip is a spiritual symbiotic relationship where we learn from each other as we serve together with the community.

For quite a while now I have based my model of missions on Jesus’ words quoted in Acts 1:8 –  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus was speaking these words as he was in Jerusalem. Our mission begins in our “Jerusalem”. That would be representative of our own communities, our schools, our places of work and our neighborhoods.

Next Jesus emphasizes Judea and Samaria. These represent communities outside of our primary location. Being that Jesus also threw in Samaria too would also suggest that we need to go into those places that may make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable.

Lastly, Jesus mentions the ends of the earth. This is a command for Christ-followers to have a global perspective. We begin in our community, branch out to other areas near and far within our own country and we expand to have an international focus when it comes to missions.

With that said, I believe that we had one of the best Summer’s when it comes to mission trips. We took the Junior High teens to a mission on the outskirts of Cleveland, OH called the Nehemiah Mission. This is the fourth time I have partnered with this organization. The Nehemiah Mission used to be a United Methodist Church that was dying. They decided to convert the church into a mission which now runs year-round mission opportunities for all types of groups. Our teens had a lot of different experiences as they came along side of people and ministries that needed volunteers. We were able to serve at a women’s shelter called Laura’s Home, we did some urban gardening helping a neighborhood that was in a food desert, we help a variety of residents who needed some assistance with their homes and we helped with a city park project. What I love about our Junior Higher’s is that they don’t just see these as projects that they need to accomplish but they see it also as an opportunity to develop a relationship with someone and be a blessing to them through work and communication.

The story that really impacted me was that on the first day of the mission project we were told that a group of us would be needed at the women’s shelter called “Laura’s Home”. This rang a bell in my head as this mission sounded familiar to me. I began to remember my early days in youth ministry at my first church we did a project for Cleveland’s City Mission where they asked us to go to this abandoned building and help gut it out. Through the process we learned that this building was going to be renovated to become a shelter for women and children in need. One of those teenagers that was in my first youth group is Jaime. Jaime was one of my favorite teens I ever had the privilege of being one of her pastor’s. If I remember correctly, she was a part of that group that helped to gut the building. As Jaime grew up and went off to college she eventually came back to the Cleveland area and became not only a youth pastor but also an employee of Laura’s Home. As these memories started flooding back to me I began to get excited. I wondered if possibly Jaime was still working there.

As I was connecting all these dots in my head I asked out loud to our Nehemiah Mission leaders who were getting ready to take us to our sites for the day if they knew if Jaime still worked at Laura’s Home. One of the leaders, Michael, seemed to perk up and responded excitedly that not only does Jaime still work there but she was his youth pastor who had a significant impact on his life. Well with that, I excitedly told him that I was Jaime’s youth pastor! Michael’s mind was blown as he looked at me and said, “That would make you my spiritual grandfather!” We embraced and had one of those goose-bump Holy Spirit moments where we realized how I had an indirect impact on this young mans’ life because of a teenager I had the honor of discipling back in the late ’90’s. This meant a lot to me in that I left that church in not the best circumstances. I have often struggled with why God had me go through those negative experiences and whether or not I even made an impact. This encounter at the Nehemiah Mission felt like God smiling down on me and letting me know that there was a lot of good that came from that time in my life.

I then texted Jaime to see if she would be at Laura’s Home at all during the week and unfortunately she was just about to head out of town. But we promised each other that we would definitely get our families together sometime this Summer. So I am looking forward to that.

Then there was the Senor High trip to Puerto Rico with Praying Pelican Missions. Originally we were supposed to go to Cuba, but then Hurricane Maria happened. As the politics in our country had a major shift, many parents were uneasy with sending their teens to Cuba anyhow. Whenever a natural disaster happens I believe that is an open call for the churches to respond. Besides, I was disgusted with how our government was responding to Puerto Rico after the hurricane and as a result I felt even more emboldened that we need to go and help however we can.

The thing that I really like about Praying Pelican Missions is that they tether us to a local church and then we do whatever we can to help that church and it’s surrounding community. We had the opportunity to help rebuild a roof over the patio of a neighbor who lost his roof to the hurricane. Some of our girls helped with a Lady’s Bible study at the church. We helped remove some trees that were down. We helped a coffee farmer who lost everything to the hurricane. He had a million dollar business with many employees all lost to the hurricane. He struggled with whether he should even attempt to rebuild. But then people from the community and the churches, including groups like us from mission organizations started to come out and help him rebuild. Much of what we did was to get into the destroyed greenhouses and tear them apart clearing out the land for future projects. Every day we were there the owner was in tears because we were there to help him. He gave many of the adults a tour around his farm as we were able to build a relationship with him. I went to the coffee farm on the last work day of the week. At the end of our time there the owner asked if we could pray for him. It was a great moment as we came along side of him and prayed for him, his family and his business.

Another big event happened as one of my teenager’s announced in a conversation that she has never been baptized. Now this is unusual in my church context in that most of the teens were baptized as babies and then confirmed their baptism by going through Confirmation when they were in 7th grade. But this particular teenager, Atalie, got involved in our youth group during her 8th grade year. She asked me if she could be baptized on the mission trip on the day that we would go to the ocean. I usually have strong reservations about baptizing teens apart form their families. I believe that this is a significant event in the live of a baby, teen or adult in which their biological family and church family should come along side of them and be witnesses to their commitment to be baptized into the church. So, I expressed this concern to Atalie and told her that in order to move forward with this we would need her parent’s blessing. Well with that, she immediately contacted her parents and they sent a video that expressed their blessing on this step in her spiritual life.  So on the day that we went to the beach, I had the honor of baptizing Atalie. What was unique about this was that my youth group is used to seeing babies baptized through sprinkling and making the sign of the cross on their forehead. This was an opportunity to explain baptism by immersion and the symbolism that comes with this sacred sacrament. I felt very blessed to be a part of this step in Atalie’s spiritual development. I suspect that this is only the beginning for Atalie as she continues to grow in her spiritual life.

With all that said, I can’t stop loving youth ministry and the teens that God has entrusted to me. As I get to serve them, they have no idea how much of an impact they have on me. There are may aspect of ministry that can be discouraging but serving teens has always energized me and help keep my faith alive and active. I am blessed to be their youth pastor. What a great Summer!

Are You Rapture Ready?

raptureexposedI remember my first experience praying to ask Jesus to come into my life. Unfortunately it was not because I was stricken by God’s love for me or impacted by the message of Jesus. Instead, I did it because I was scared shitless after watching an “end-times” movie called A Thief In The Night. This movie took a literal view of the book of Revelation interpreting it in its popular dispensational view that Jesus will rapture all the Christians out of the world and those “left behind” will have to fend for themselves as things go from bad to worse before Jesus decided to fully return to establish his kingdom and send all evil-doers to eternal punishment. I was overwhelmed with the terror and wrath of God and out of fear wanted to make sure I would go to heaven. Of course, growing up with the “left behind” type of theology there were moments of sheer terror when I walked into the house to find none of my family, thinking that God snatched them all up and I was not! But then all of a sudden a person emerged from another part of the house so I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the rapture didn’t happen.

It wasn’t until latter in life that I discovered that the popular dispensationalist view of interpreting Revelation is not even 200 years old. And on top of that, there are other ways of interpreting the apocalyptic passages of Revelation that have been around for thousands of years. Instead of being a negative view of doom and gloom, it was a message of hope to its original recipients. This was not some science-fiction book interpreting our distant future, but instead a letter that John wrote to a specific group of people which applied to their current situation. It was then that I realized that your eschatology can have a big impact on how you think the “end times” will take shape. Some believe that the world is going from bad to worse and Jesus needs to eventually snatch us out of here before things get really bad. Yet others believe that Satan was defeated at the cross and that we have been entrusted with the task of carrying out the Great Commission to advance the Kingdom of God before Jesus returns once and for all.

With all this said, Barbara R. Rossing has written The Rapture Exposed which helps to give some historical background to the various views of how to interpret the apocalyptic passages within the Bible. She exposes the fact that how we look at Revelation can have significant effects on how we look at God’s creation, non-believers, culture, politics and the current nation of Israel. The literalistic, dispensationalist view leads to some very negative consequences that simply do not line up with the rest of Scripture. Rossing calls it a theology of despair, and rightfully so. She also points out that the actual word “rapture” is not even in the whole Bible! She goes on to show the Biblical gymnastics that the dispensationalists need to accomplish to make their interpretation work for them. Instead of looking at the simple message of certain Scripture passages, they instead stretch it to say things that just aren’t there. In her own words, she states that “the hope of the book of Reveation is that God’s Lamb, Jesus, is already victorious and that God’s people will be faithful to the Bible’s vision of life. The hope is that we will follow the Lamb, renouncing all the seductions of imperial injustice and violence, so the threat of plagues will be averted. God loves the world. God does not desire earth’s destruction.” (p. 85).

If you have grown up with the “Left Behind” interpretation of Revelation I would highly recommend that you read this book and realize that that view has only been around for a while and the implications of that view lead to a tremendous amount of poor theology. Instead, understood in its context, Revelation is a wonderful message of hope for people who are being oppressed by Empire.

The only thing I would have liked is if this book had a followup chapter on our current day situation with politics and world events. But maybe it is too soon to comment on that. Either way, this is an important book to help understand apocalyptic literature in the Bible and how it should be interpreted. I highly recommend it.

Guns as Idolatry

gunsI have to admit, I grew up loving all types of guns. I was the typical full-blooded American boy. I could turn anything into a gun. Give me a stick, it’s a gun. Give me a pile of Lego’s and guess what I would always create . . . a gun! And then Star Wars came out and I wanted to be Han Solo with a laser gun strapped to my waist. Every young boy is fascinated with guns. But this is the realm of fantasy, whether it is imitating a cowboy, a sci-fi space pirate, a gangster or a cop. My teen years were even more influenced by the way of the gun to solve problems through the cinematic influences of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis. There are no aliens, terminators, Nazi’s, Russian’s, or bad guys that a good gun with an all-American superhero could not stop.

Unfortunately our country is in a moral quandary with the fact that we are seeing more and more actual gun violence playing out in real-life America. It is getting to the point where it seems like every week we are introduced to another news story of someone taking out their grievances by using guns on innocent victims. Whenever this happens it seems like a majority of Americans are broken by the cycle of violence that we seem to find ourselves in. And yet there seems to be a small but powerful segment of America that digs their heals in and praises the 2nd Amendment  despite all the gun violence we are experiencing as a nation. Now I have no problem if someone chooses to own a gun for the purposes of hunting or home protection. But what I am witnessing is that the gun has become a form of idolatry within our country. When the “right” to own certain types of weaponry trumps the lives of innocent victims, I have a problem with that, especially with those who claim to be apart of the community of Christians.

I will be straight up, I have never owned a weapon. I can’t justify it theologically, nor do I feel that I would want to bear the responsibility to own one. With kids in my home and working as a pastor, I see that owning a weapon would be hypocritical to what I believe. First of all, I am not a hunter. I have no problem with those who choose to do so, but this born-and-raised suburbanite could not find the will to kill any of God’s creation. I couldn’t do it. I will leave that task up to people who have a stomach for that type of thing.

Have I ever shot weapons for sport? Absolutely! I have been to gun ranges. I have shot clay pigeons. And I actually enjoy the sport of paintball in that you can actually play games against each other without death and carnage occurring. I grew up on video games with digital guns (especially Goldeneye!), and I loved movies with lots of guns, superheroes and villains.

But there is a difference between fantasy and reality. Our country has a huge obsession with weapons and we fail to see the benefit to having a conversation about how we can best protect the greater good of people and still respect responsible gun owners. We desperately need to have this conversation. Instead, we see the NRA, backed by some of its supporters, constantly raising the warning that the government is coming to take you guns away and destroy the 2nd amendment. This simply is fear-mongering at its worst. And what is the purpose of such fear mongering? To sell more weapons. The NRA played this card all throughout the Obama administration. Any suggestion to talk about gun violence and gun safety was always met with cries that they are coming for your guns! Now that our own kids who are victims of gun violence are speaking up they are being called out as terrorists and liberals.

I have heard tired and lazy arguments to blame everything else other than the easy access we have created within our culture to be able to get any type of weapon you want. It’s video games! It’s the entertainment industry! It’s medications! It’s mental health! It’s the breakdown of the family! It’s because we took God out of the schools (which actually is HORRIBLE theology of God’s omnipresence)! We want to blame everything else other than the fact that we have ridiculously easy access to weaponry that is designed to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time.

So, being that I have never gone through the process of actually owning any type of weapon, I propose the following if it is not already law:

  1. Buying a gun should have a process that is similar to getting a driver’s license. One should have to get a license to own a weapon. I understand that this is the case but there are still loopholes in which people can buy weapons without going through this process. Recently a news story showed an underage boy trying to buy cigarettes, alcohol and pornography at a local convenient store and got denied in all three instances. But then they took him down to a gun show where within minutes he walked away with a high-powered weapon. He was a 13 year old.
  2. Which brings me to my second point, the age of owning a gun needs to go up to 21. Now that we better understand the brain development of teens, and their ability to be impulsive without thinking thorough the consequences of their actions, we should not be providing them with weapons that kill. Give them time to develop and grow. They need to earn the responsibility to own a weapon.
  3. When a teenager causes a death that was influenced by being under the influence of alcohol the parents are held responsible if the alcohol came from their home. I am tired of mindless parents of school shooters having no clue that their kid was into said violence. This is not responsible gun ownership or parenting. They need to start bearing the responsibility for the actions of their child/teen. Having high-powered weaponry easily available to their kids is the height of irresponsibility. We hear a lot about “law-abiding” gun owners but let’s talk about RESPONSIBLE gun owners instead. If your kids uses your guns to shoot up a bunch of innocents then you lost your responsibility to own guns and you should be held accountable for the consequences.
  4. There needs to be a national gun registry. We need to be able to track where weapons have come from and hold those people responsible. The government already knows what vehicles I own and apparently anyone can pull up a CarFax to know the history of my cars. Why can’t this be done within the context of weapons?
  5. The CDC needs to be able to study gun violence. Why would we not want this? And the bigger question is why would the NRA prevent this from happening? The more we know, the better equipped we will be to tackle this plague of gun violence within our country.
  6. One should have to have a certain amount of recorded training in order to own a weapon. My teens have to go through 50 hours of driving experience with a licensed adult in order to qualify to take their driving test! Why can’t we require this type of training before one can own a gun?
  7. I am tired of our politicians being owned by special-interest lobbies, in this case, the NRA. The NRA bears some of the responsibility for where we have found ourselves because they stoke the flames of fear that people are trying to eradicate the 2nd Amendment and do all they can to prevent legitimate research that would help us know more about when, where and why gun violence is happening. We need to vote out politicians who accept money from the NRA and ignore the voices of those who voted them in. I have not found one quote in which someone wants to eradicate the 2nd amendment. I want gun owners to be responsible and not cave in to the constant fear-mongering of the NRA. Is it just me, or is it not so obvious that this constant fear-mongering helps to sell more guns which benefits the gun manufacturers? Someone is becoming ridiculously rich off all this fear mongering. Why do people cave into this so easily? Is it just plain ignorance, gullibility, or naivety? There is no doubt in my mind that we have experienced a “dumbing-down” in America. Have we just become that stupid that we do not see when we are being played?

And finally, the most disappointing thing I believe in all of this is that the church is not the leading voice in wanting to stop this carnage. We as Christians need to speak up louder against gun violence. This is a BIG pro-life issue! It is the height of hypocrisy to act so sanctimonious about life in the womb but ignore lives affected by gun violence. If you believe that there is a real devil who is out to destroy God’s creation then you have to see that he is celebrating our idolatry to weapons and reveling about each loss of life. The Bible teaches that he has come to kill, steal and destroy. If you are defending the current state that we find ourselves in you can not claim to be following the way of Jesus. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who told his followers to turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, and to bless those who curse you. He was the very one who took on all the violence directed at him on the cross and defeated all his enemies through love, self-sacrifice, non-violence and resurrection. We are encouraged to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”. We are supposed to be ushering in a new way of life as a community that is radically different from the status-quo, yet the modern-day American church has unfortunately become a mere reflection of our culture. We have allowed empire worship to trump Christ worship and we don’t see the difference between the two.

I have been a youth pastor all my life. I am grieved beyond words for the kind of country we have created for our kids. We have been in a perpetual war ever since 9/11, we are spending ridiculous amounts on our military while Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water and Puerto Rico doesn’t have full power. I honestly believe that we have become more of a reflection of the Biblical state of Babylon than the mythical “Christian nation” that some still believe. It is time we stop hunkering down to protect our “rights” and begin to break out of our selfishness and lust for power, and start thinking about what is best for the next generation of kids growing up. It is time to take our eyes off of the idols we have created and focus back on our kids who are dying. It is easy to read the Bible and be horrified that the Israelites got to the point where they were literally sacrificing their children to the god Molech. But I fail to see the difference between that and where we are at right now. We have more innocent Americans who have been murdered by gun violence within our country than service people in the line of duty! That’s just crazy and should be a big wake-up call for our entire country but especially the Church!

So if you are a Christian and a gun owner, I would encourage you to advocate for sensible gun laws and consider what is best for the greater good of humanity. Think about your own children, think about your local schools, think about your communities. Every mass shooting has the same response: “I never thought it would happen here!” Why do we have to defend our rights until the violence comes to our own communities? Let’s come together as the body of Christ and be the kingdom that we are called to be and shake off the dirt of the Empire that we are entangled in.

Lord have mercy on this nation.

Scott Russ

Stories of Homelessness throughout America

I just finished Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. This book details a journey that lead Mike to spend several months of his life living on the streets of major cities throughout the country. Mike states that according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the United States has more than 3.5 million homeless people at any given year.

Mike began his journey by first finding a traveling companion. Sam signed up for the challenge and off they went to their first big city, Denver. They spend about a month in each city they travel to. This gives them time to acclimate themselves, and figure out how to find basic resources for themselves. They go from Denver, to Washington DC, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, and San Diego. These two catalogue their journey as they panhandle for food, make friends with other homeless people, encounter danger, dehydration, hunger, and rejection from others. They both come to terms with the safety and security that we all try to strive for so that we would not normally ever have to come in contact with homelessness. Their experience helped to humanize those that we typically ignore or dehumanize.

Scripture became real to them as they were reminded that Jesus led by example in caring for the poor, the sick, the diseased and the sinner. They also realized the importance of taking care of peoples’ basic needs instead of just preaching at them. They understood that they needed to see the image of God through the homeless just as much as anyone else they would encounter.

Mike and Sam had quite the experiences with different types of churches and missions. Some where positive and some where not. It was hard to read some of the stories of churches behaving badly toward the homeless. But it was also a reminder that of all the places that a homeless person ought to find help it should be a church or mission that claims the name of Jesus.

The final chapter of the book details Mike and Sam’s assimilation back into their “normal” lives. They soon realized that their experience changed them forever. They quickly became uncomfortable with comfort. They began to see how many in the church have an easy time enjoying the blessings that they have but forget to share their resources with others. When you lack nothing and have just about everything you want, that in itself becomes a trap that can close ourselves off to the needs of the world and our ability to help. Also, they realized that on the streets they learned what it meant to really depend on God to help meet their basic needs. And finally, they discovered that if you truly understand how much God loves us while we were still sinners, we would be more intentional about sharing his love with others, even in the little things: a smile, a drink, some food, recognizing someone’s own humanity and dignity. We are not supposed to be about our own feel-good, warm-fuzzy religiousity but instead we are supposed to go out of our comfort zones and love others just as Christ has loved us.

Another great resource to help understand poverty is A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne.

Mike Erre and the VOX Podcast

I guess you could say that I am a Mike Erre fan when I admit that I have listened, to date, to all 119 episodes including his 9 part series on sex and marriage. Mike used to be a pastor of several churches in California up until he believed that he needed to come back to the great state of Ohio to care for his mom. He currently resides in Columbus. A bonus would be that he is a big Buckeye’s fan! In fact his 119th podcast I thought was morphing into a sports podcast, which, either way is fine with me.

I love Mike’s take on modern day Christianity and his willingness to ask questions, wrestle with topics and the way he gets you to consider other angles. He is never afraid to wade into touchy topics, nor is he not afraid to call out someone else’s poor theology and choices, but always in a gracious and kind way.

Now for the negative: 1) why do you hate on us coffee people, Mike? You are missing out on God’s beverage given to us with grace and love. 2) All you drink is Coors Lite? GROSS! That’s like preferring your water from the toilet. Expand your palette and try a hearty IPA or Lager! You would have so much more respect if you broadened your horizons with your morning and evening beverages!

Overall I love this podcast. My son learned about Mike at college and encouraged me to give his podcast a try. I did, and with the first few episodes I was hooked. I was especially excited when Mike turned out to be a keynote speaker, via Skype, at a conference I attended out in California this past Fall. When you are listening to Mike you can tell he knows his stuff and he isn’t afraid to challenge different views with wisdom and grace. I don’t necessarily agree with him on everything, especially beer and coffee, but he is enjoyable to listen to and he gets you to think and consider different ways of looking at topics that impact the Christian faith. The fact that he records his podcast in his house means that, every once in a while, you have the added bonus of family interruptions which are awesome.

The Very Worst Missionary

This was a fascinating memoir written by Jamie Wright who shares her life’s journey that led her to becoming a missionary. What is captivating about her story is how she deconstructs the idea of what it means to be a missionary and the reality of what is actually happening. Evangelical Christianity has a tendency to put those called to be missionaries on a very high pedestal. But through her own experiences and her honesty, Jamie recalls the dichotomy of what she could portray of herself on the internet as a missionary and the reality of what the experience was actually like. She is honest about her own experiences, her own shortcomings and mistakes, and what she observed about the missionary culture in Costa Rica. She pulls back the covers on the evangelical church’s culture and how it emulates missionaries. Jamie describes how she went with great expectations to change the world but instead found out that the reality of her experience did not match up. With brutal honesty she started a blog titled Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, where she doesn’t hold anything back but begins to critique herself and her experiences with missions. Anybody involved in any type of mission work needs to read this book but be ready for some hilarious stories, “salty” language and some harsh truths that critique our modern day concept of missions. If the rose-colored glasses of your Christian faith are smudged and cracked from your experiences with church or missions then this book helps us to be honest with ourselves and the reality of our brokenness, individually and as a church.

Still Christian

I just recently read a great book by David P. Gushee entitled “Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism”. It is a story that details the authors’ personal journey through modern day evangelicalism as a leading Christian ethicist. This book details the story of a educator who found his roots in the conservative church but over the course of time found himself on the outskirts of the evangelical world. The book details the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist denomination as well as the evangelical quest for political power through the election of Trump. Eventually the author comes to terms with supporting the LGBT community through his essays detailed in his book “Changing Our Minds”. Gushee also highlights the negative reactions he got from his tribe over this change of heart.

I really enjoyed reading this book because many of Gushee’s insights into modern day American evangelicalism resonated with me and the journey I have been on since I was a child. I would highly recommend “Still Christian” to anyone who has journeyed through conservative American evangelicalism and finds themselves asking questions, having doubts about what they are seeing from their church or denomination, and struggling to keep the faith. As a side, I would also highly recommend “Changing Our Mind” for anyone interested in following the steps that led one of the leading Christian ethicists of our time to have a better understanding about LGBT people and how the church should respond to them.