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Re-post: Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 18, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan. 

Re-post: What?!? You Don’t Want To Take Responsibility for Centuries of Christian Oppression, Pogroms, and Genocide? I Can’t Imagine Why Not!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 24, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jarrett McLaughlin

The church where I serve is currently reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road together in small groups. After getting about two weeks in, our Director of Spiritual Growth met with the group facilitators to get some feedback – the leaders reported a discomfort among several participants that echoed what I heard around my table at McLaren’s lecture at George Mason University earlier this month.

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

In Chapter 9 – “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus” – McLaren relates the experiences of going to college where his course work invited him to swap out the childhood tale of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two for first-hand accounts of the enslavement, rape, and torture of the local Taino population. The point is that the way we remember and tell and shape young minds in the patterns of our history…all of that matters. If history is truly prologue to the present, then we need to tell the truth about our prologue – and the Christian Church needs this as much as any one else if we are to cultivate a “strong-benevolent” Christian identity.

It seems, however, that more than a few people experience some discomfort with this idea – and perhaps I have a simplistic view of the objections, but I believe it mostly boils down to a sense that “that was then and this is now – why should I take responsibility for the crimes committed by people who lived hundreds of years ago?” Some responses to that question:

  • “Because Jesus Does It All The Time” – A Doctrinal Response From Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation and penned some incredible words (pardon my selective editing, I have a word limit) – “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously huge this is. God made Jesus to take on sin that was not his own and only by doing so was there ever going to be a chance at reconciliation. Without getting into the mechanics of exactly how this all works, the general sense is that Jesus is sinless and yet Jesus takes on the sins of others in order to create an environment where peace might be possible and where reconciliation becomes a reality. If we are following Jesus to the other side of the road, then surely we must follow in these footsteps as well.

  • “What Does it Hurt?” – A Practical Response From Scripture

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is filled with many beautiful and memorable passages – about the body and its members, about the greatest of these being love; but the part that gets very little air time is chapter 8 in which Paul addresses the seemingly anachronistic topic of whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. At the end of the day, Paul says idols are not real gods and so, of course, eating that meat doesn’t hurt you in the least.

If, however, somebody else who is less certain in their faith sees you eating that meat, will it cause that person to stumble and give up the Gospel because of your example? If the answer to that is yes – as it must have been in the Corinthian community – then maybe one small sacrifice you can make for the greater good would be to give up eating meat offered to an idol. It will not hurt YOU, but it might hurt somebody else – and that is reason enough to temper that particular liberty.

In the same way I would ask what it really hurts to acknowledge to somebody of another faith – “You know, the Church has not always been the most faithful in its witness to the Gospel…I wish it had been in that time and place and I hope that it will be different in this time and in this place.” I can’t help but wonder how a confessional posture might open the conversation in a way that a defensive or even a distancing posture might now allow.

  • “Because Christians Do This All The Time” – A Liturgical Response

The posture of confession may be a practical way to engage in more healthy and productive interfaith engagement, and the good news is that it’s not really as difficult as it might seem – Christian worship has given us great practice at assuming the sins of another. Every week, many churches offer a prayer of confession – and the common critique is not so different from the discomfort here – “I don’t do those things, why should I have to read this prayer that indicts me for things I did not do?”

When we confess our sin together in corporate prayer, we’re not necessarily confessing our individual sins but rather the sinfulness that is always a part of us. One way or another, we take responsibility for the actions of others all the time. It’s in our worship; it’s in our theology; and thanks to Jesus Christ, it’s in our genes, too…thanks be to God.


Jarrett McLaughlin Jarrett McLaughlin and wife Meg Peery McLaughlin are co-Pastors at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.  

What Isn’t Helpful Anymore?

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Blair Monie reflects on idolatry in the church: when a means to an end becomes the end. Can you think of things in your own context that were healing and helpful at one time but are no longer so? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

Taking the Step – A sermon

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog post. 

 

By Pen Peery, preached at First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC on September 14, 2014

 

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about Moses hearing God’s call from the burning bush. God told Moses to return to the land of Egypt, where Moses’ people were serving as slaves to Pharaoh, and to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free.

Our scripture for today picks up after Moses has followed God’s directions. As you may know, it took a little convincing for Pharaoh to comply with Moses’ demand. There were plagues – 10 in all. Flies, gnats, frogs, boils, locusts, and finally the Passover – where God struck down the first-born of every house and field in Egypt, save for the Israelite children. After that, Pharaoh decided he had had enough – and he let Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt so that they could enter into the land that God had promised them.

I am reading from the 14th chapter of Exodus, beginning at verse 5. Listen for the word of God.

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When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.’

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Let’s be clear about what is going on in this passage.

Moses answers God’s impossible sounding call from a burning bush with a “yes.”

He finds the courage to stand up to Pharaoh and make his demands.

He stays the course through 10 plagues.

He rallies the Israelite people to follow him out of Egypt.

And then, with the taste of victory still sweet on his tongue, Pharaoh has a change of heart and decides to send – not just a militia – but the entire Egyptian army…every chariot, every horse, every officer…after this rag-tag group of Israelites who are trudging toward the Promised Land.

As he tries to flee the Egyptian army, Moses marches his people straight onto a peninsula. The word Pi-hahiroth literally means “mouth of the waters.” On three sides of the Israelites is the Red Sea. On their fourth side is the Egyptian army with Pharaoh perched on his chariot.

Faced with this scenario Moses’ people do what people always do – they complain.

Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?

But you can understand the complaint, right?

When the future that lies ahead seems unclear, at best, it is natural for people to long for what is familiar…even if what is familiar isn’t all that great.

“What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”?

Poor Moses.

At least he can count on God to be helpful and supportive.

Except when God is the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart (you noticed that, I hope…the scripture says that Pharaoh didn’t really change his own mind and start chasing the Israelites. The scripture says that God changed Pharaoh’s mind so that he would start chasing after the Israelites).

At least Moses can count on God to be helpful and supportive.

Except when Moses is standing with his back to the strongest army on the face of the earth and his front to the shores of the Red Sea when God says to him, “why are you calling out to me? Just tell the people to walk forward.”

And if I’m Moses, I’m thinking: Really? Thanks.

Of course, we have the benefit of knowing what happens next.

We know that the Israelites do walk forward.

We know that the Red Sea parts so that the Israelites can cross safely to the other side.

We know that God’s plan all along – the reason for God’s curious behavior in hardening Pharaoh’s heart – was to get Pharaoh and his army in a place where there would be no denying the fact that the Lord – and not the Pharaoh – was a sovereign power not to be trifled with.

step forwardBut what I want you to imagine this morning is what it would have been like to be standing on that peninsula if you did not know the future.

“Just tell the people to go forward.”

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I think Ruby Bridges and her parents know what that must have felt like.

Ruby Bridges turned 60 years old this week. Most of you know her story – but if you don’t…

In 1960, when Ruby was a six year old with pigtails, she became the first person of color to integrate the New Orleans public schools.

She was the only black student assigned to William Frantz Elementary School. On Ruby’s first day, the school erupted in protest. There were threats. White parents pulled their children out of school. Ruby spent that first day in the principal’s office because the administration thought it was the safest place for her to be.

The second of day school was different. Ruby actually went to class. The only teacher who would teach Ruby was a woman named Barbara Henry. So for more than a year, that is what Mrs. Henry did. She taught a classroom that was empty except for one desk – where Ruby Bridges sat.

Because of the threats against her life and the protests that raged across the city, Ruby spent her first few months being escorted by Federal Marshalls from her mother’s car to the front door of the school. Every day, she would walk past throngs of people who would scream and taunt and gesture.

One morning in class, Mrs. Henry told Ruby that she had noticed that Ruby’s lips were moving while she made that terrifying walk. “What were you saying to those people?” Mrs. Henry asked. “I wasn’t talking to them,” Ruby answered, “I was praying for them.”

Usually, Ruby said, she prayed on her car ride to school but that morning she had forgotten, so she prayed on her walk. “Please be with me, God,” she would pray, “and be with these people, too. Forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”[1]

The Lord said: “Just tell the people to go forward…”

It’s a hard thing when you can’t see the future.

But that is what the people of God have been doing since the beginning.

Moving forward into a future that they cannot see – only one that they can trust.

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Some of you know that Lindsey and I had the opportunity to go to Scotland last month. We were there for a conference – it was a conversation, really, in which 12 Presbyterian pastors with Charlotte connections met up with 12 Church of Scotland pastors in a town a little north of Edinburgh.

The conference was the second iteration of an event that First Presbyterian helped to host in 2006. That year, 144 Scottish Presbyterians came to Charlotte for a week of worship, workshops, relationship building, and – yes – a little golf. Many of you may have hosted a Scot or two in your homes.

The focus of our time together this year was less about our common heritage and more about a shared challenge – namely, how is the church called to respond in grace and truth to a culture that says that they are “spiritual but not religious.”

If you have been to Scotland, and you have been to church, you know that our sisters and brothers there face a stark reality. By numerous estimates, only about 3-4% of Scots attend a worship service…of any kind…during the week.

I had a chance to preach while we were there – at St. Columba’s Church in Glenrothes…again, a town a little north of Edinburgh. St. Columba’s is a delightful parish with an energetic pastor named Alan Kimmett. The church is faithfully teaching and preaching the word, they are reaching out to the community, they are nurturing one another – and the church is struggling.

My sense, when I looked out at the faithful remnant of St. Columba’s Church that Sunday morning is that they are a people who don’t quite know what happened – or what changed.

And, to be honest, that experience of preaching at a church in Scotland gave me a sense of urgency. Not panic – but urgency. I couldn’t wait to come home to you – my congregation – and tell you that what we have in front of us…as a healthy, growing, vibrant, congregation, in the center of a growing and thriving city…is such an opportunity to share the truth about Jesus Christ and the joy of authentic Christian community and the power and possibility of a group of believers committed to Christ’s mission and justice with a people who are hungry for it!

But how we do that is going to require for us to walk forward – to trust our steps into a future that we cannot yet see – because the people who are going to be a part of our church, those whom God will gather into this community – are going to be different.

They are going to look differently.

They are going to dress differently.

They may not come with much language of faith.

Their questions may not be our questions.

Their understandings of what it means to be church or belong to the church or participate in the church are going to be different.

But they are curious.

And they do want to be in a relationship with God.

And – as our preacher Rodger Nishioka said last week – they want to give their lives over for a purpose…to something that matters. And that makes being a church in the middle of a city a pretty exciting place to be.

During the conference our conversation was led by two scholars – an American named Diana Butler Bass and a Scot named Doug Gay. Diana is a Sociologist of Religion and Doug is a theology professor at the University of Glasgow. I learned a lot from Diana and Doug – more than I can summarize in a sermon – but there are two points that they made that are worth sharing this morning.

Diana – who is a student of history – believes that what is happening to the religious landscape in our country has all the signs of what we have – in the past – called “A Great Awakening.” It’s an audacious claim, but she makes a good case for it. When you look at previous Great Awakenings you notice that there always comes a point when the people of God have to make a choice – to walk into the new thing that God is doing, or to escape to their familiar ways of being.

It’s a choice – not one that takes place in an instant – but over a generation or two of decisions. Diana thinks the church in America is in this moment.

The other point I want to share with you about my time in Scotland — where I got to think and pray about the church — was made by Doug Gay. In the midst of our group of pastors wringing our hands over all the talk about trends and “adaptive challenges” that demand new dimensions for our leadership, Doug huddled us together, looked us straight in the eye and challenged our group to consider what it was that we say we believe about God’s promises.

And what we say is that God is faithful.

And that God has established the Church of Jesus Christ to be his instrument in the world until the kingdom comes.

This is our challenge – when it feels like the people of God who are the Church are standing on the shoreline and facing a sea of change – perhaps we should do what we have always done: step forward, trusting that we are not alone.

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In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

Amen.

[1] As found on Ruby Bridges’ website: http://www.rubybridges.com/story.htm

 

Pen_websitePen Peery is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC.