My Charge to the 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

We live in a world which if it were reduced to a jar with a label on it, that label would probably include the word impossible.  We live at a time when almost everything around us is framed by impossibilities…

●  Peace among Israelis and Palestinians…impossible
●  An America where the threat of terrorism is a distant memory…impossible
●  A congress where Democrats and Republicans engage in healthy, respectful dialogue and work collaboratively across the aisle for the good of America…. impossible
●  A world marked by cultural stability where it is safe to walk the streets at night and crime is low…impossible
●  A society where a man and a woman in their twenties with their whole lives in front of them, stand at the altar of a church and pledge their entire lives to one another – to be faithful until death separates them – and actually do it… I’m afraid too many people would say, nah, …impossible

Most people live in a world of impossibilities… As Thoreau put it we live “lives of quiet desperation.”  Hope is low…expectations are lower… suspicion reigns…cynicism is on the throne…and truth itself is on the scaffold.

Yet, here you are, graduates, poised on this day to go out into this very world framed by such impossibilities.  I charge you, therefore, class of 2012, to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what transforms the impossible into the possible.  Indeed, it is the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ which totally reframes the world and all of human history.  It is these two great singularities – incarnation and resurrection – which reframe a world of despair and cynicism into the larger frame of hope and promise.  This old creation is broken and wounded, but you know that the New Creation is already breaking in!  You are its heralds and ambassadors. You are capable of thinking thoughts that the world cannot think.  You are capable of sacrificial acts which the world cannot fathom.  You are capable of dreaming dreams in a world that only knows ever-maddening nightmares.  You can think about possibilities.

The whole ministry of Jesus was framed by impossibilities…incarnation and resurrection…a virgin birth and an empty tomb.  Someone once said, Jesus came into the world through a door marked “no entrance,” a virgin womb.  He left through a door marked “no exit”, a tomb of death.  Two great impossibilities made possible in Jesus Christ. Nobody had ever walked through those doors before.   In Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest impossibilities are made into possibilities.

Graduates, you would have under-heard the gospel if you believed that the incarnation and the resurrection are mere isolated historical events.  They are historical events, but they serve to re-frame and re-order the whole of human history even today.

You can go out into this world and in Jesus Christ see the impossible made possible.  You can work for peace, because the prince of peace is the Risen and Ascended Lord.  You can re-engage in government and live free of bitterness and cynicism, because the government rests on his shoulders.  You can wage holy war against crime, because God’s love for the world is always greater than Satan’s hate of it.  You can boldly rescue men, women, and children from human trafficking, and the downward spiral of drug addiction because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein.”  You can sit with husbands and wives who walk into your office and say “we have given up, our marriage has no hope.”  And you can say, without blinking, God still has the last word in your relationship.  You can preach the gospel to lost sinners and believe afresh in the power of God’s redemption because the cross is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.  I charge you to go forth as ambassadors of hope!  Do not get caught in the net of despair.  Do not get trapped in the web of cynicism.  Do not get swallowed up by all the impossibilities.  Instead, be in Christ, where all impossibilities can be reframed by the hope of Jesus Christ.

 

Robust Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

One of the great challenges facing this generation of Christians is the successful navigation to a more robust Christianity, finally set free from the domesticating influence of Christendom. Under the sway of “cultural Christianity” difficult theological questions rarely arise, and catechesis declines because people, broadly speaking, see themselves as being “good Christian folk.”  To be an American was to be a Christian.  The longer I live the more I have come to see that the biggest challenge of the church is not the initial evangelization of a culture, but rather remaining Christians once a culture has been evangelized.

From the vantage point of the early decades of the 21st century it is quite evident that the marriage of the Christian gospel to North American culture did not come without serious repercussions.  Christendom always finds ways to sand down all the rough edges of the gospel so its prophetic, radical proclamation gets gradually domesticated.  The result is that, over time, Christianity gets quite removed from the proclamation and experience of the New Testament.  Gradually, being a “Christian” gets domesticated to little more than “being nice to people.”  Sin moves from binding ourselves to the human rebellion against God to an “inconvenient slowing down of our moral development.”  The righteous judgment of a holy God is quietly dropped in favor of the proverbial “man upstairs” who is more like Santa Claus than the God of biblical revelation.  Preaching, over time, becomes bland moralizing and child-like admonitions.  Pastors become endlessly manipulated and coerced into the larger cultural project rather than remembering our prior calling to serve Jesus Christ and to help usher in the Kingdom through the witness of the Church.   Now that Christianity and North America are in divorce court, the underlying issues which were simmering for decades are now openly spewing forth.  It’s not a pretty sight. The signs of this are everywhere. (I will devote another blog to specific examples).

The latest surge of atheism and neo-paganism is not because after 2,000 years someone finally sniffed out the Achilles heel of the Christian message and now our “mask is off.”  Rather, atheism, and half of a dozen other competing world-views, are always prowling around ready to jump into any spiritual void which appears.  We have retreated so far from biblical Christianity you can almost hear the Christian oxygen being sucked out of the culture at every turn.  The church has become one of the most vacuous spaces of all.

The great project of our generation is to reclaim biblical Christianity as the Church.  (Please re-read the last sentence about three times before going on).  This will inevitably involve standing up and articulating with far more precision exactly what Christianity actually is.  It has become almost a trite statement in recent years that our culture has abandoned the Christian faith.  This actually is not my greatest concern.  My greatest concern is that those of us who are pastors and leaders have ourselves forgotten the gospel.  The early church didn’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the paganism of Rome.  They took it for granted and set about evangelizing it.  This cannot be done if we are angry (this is not the time to start burning Qur’ans).  This also cannot be done if we are too passive (this is not the time for silence and cultural acquiescence).  The greatest need for conversion today is not the unbelieving world, but the church itself.  After all, doesn’t Scripture teach us that judgment begins in the household of God?  (I Peter 4:17).  We cannot even begin to effectively respond to the godless drumbeat of this generation until we ourselves learn to listen to the gospel with better ears, better hearts, better feet, and a lot more good old fashioned courage.  There are few things more troubling than the quiet surrender of the gospel at every turn while, in the same breath, we blather on endlessly about the importance of making the church more “culturally relevant.”

Christianity in North America has taken quite a few wrong turns.  I am more familiar with the “wrong turns” of mainline and evangelical Protestantism, but my Roman Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal friends assure me that those movements have wandered off the reservation, too.  There is no point in pressing ahead with all of our so called “plans” if we have taken the wrong turn in the road.  We’ve got to go back and get it right.  Progress doesn’t always mean pressing ahead, it means moving closer towards the goal.  In fact, the greatest progress usually starts with repentance.  Repentance means to turn and go a different direction.  I, for one, have quite a bit of repenting to do.  How about you?

The Black Man in Our Sacred Dreams

It has become almost a stock image, especially in missionary circles:  During a fitful night trying to sleep, an African man has a dream of a white man coming to him telling him that a message of salvation or healing is on the way.  The missionary then arrives, the gospel is preached, people gladly receive the good news and the church is born anew.  You don’t have to go far to find such a story.  In fact, the most recent issue of Christianity Today (May 2012) tells the story of an Islamic farmer in Mozambique named Feliz Talibo who had this very dream a few years ago and is now a devoted Christian, freed from sickness and demonic oppression.

I rejoice over this story and the dozens like it I have read over the years.  It reminds us that God is the greatest evangelist of all.  We see God showing up in the dreams and visions of Joseph  (Matt. 1:20; 2:19), the magi (Matt. 2:12), Pilate’s wife (Matt. 27:19), Ananias (Acts 9:10), Peter (Acts 10:10), Cornelius (Acts 10:3), and Paul (Acts 16:9, 18:9), among others.  Nevertheless, I see a day dawning when the “man in the dreams” will be an African, and the man or woman who has the dream will be white.  Paul once had a vision of a Macedonian Man and, in obedience to God, crossed the sea and found Lydia.  We need the message of Christ, of salvation, of healing, of demonic deliverance and of hope here in the West too, especially as North America is emerging as the fastest growing mission field in the world.  I am praying that God would start sending Africans into the dreams of white men and women.

This prayer may have already been partially answered in the 2012 General Conference of the UMC.  In the midst of leadership failures, stunning disconnects between the mission of the church and the work of the Conference, and attempts by protesters to hijack the Conference, the African delegation kept showing up.  Not only did the Africans bravely remind us that the church is the most diverse movement in the history of the world, but that great inclusiveness must be found in Jesus Christ.   The Africans showed up in our dreams to boldly remind us of the imperative of the gospel to preach good news, to heal the sick and to share the love of Christ.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to gently remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to lovingly remind us that the Scriptures are the Word of God to us.  There were many in this delegation who remembered General Conference 2008 when some wanted to silence their voices and take away their vote.  Today, no one can silence the African church.

It is easy to cite disappointments in the recent General Conference.  But, looking back a decade from now, this conference will be remembered as the time when the African delegation really found their authentic voice to speak prophetically to the church they love so dearly. They showed up in our dreams.  They spoke to us.  If we listen, we just might hear the voice of the Lord calling us to a better day.