April 2012


Statistics consistently show that US Christians behave the same as the general population. And yet my friend Lutherant rightly says that “true Christians display the works of Christ in their lives. No one who lives contentedly in a selfish life centered on their own needs and desires should think that they have faith (James 2:17).”

What gives? Why such strange Christian fruit?

Three weeks ago Lutherant and I simultaneously blogged about a video called “Three Lies of the Modern Church” where we tried, from our own faith persuasion, to wrestle with this issue. If you haven’t already, read Lutherant’s and my takes on these 3 lies:

  1. The Gospel Goes forth by Political Power.
  2. The Gospel of The Sinners Prayer
  3. Prosperity and Power Prove the Message

I love Lutherant, otherwise known as The Rev Charles St-Onge, a pastor friend from Memorial Drive Lutheran Church. He has a passion for Christ and people, is brilliant and an excellent blogger. He also at one point tells me flat out he thinks I’m wrong. You have to love that Christian brothers can disagree today in a healthy way without disengaging from relationship, or worse. In our faith tradition we highly value a document called Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love, that, without previous discussion, I experience coming from Lutherant.

His posts and reflections on these 3 lies were encouraging and corrective for me to flesh out my own thoughts. They also helped me to see one reason Christians don’t behave differently is lack of spiritual empowerment for Christian living. How am I going to live the life I feel called to live? And “Christian Living,” as I think about it, is tightly connected to these three lies. Paul talks in Romans 6 about Christ’s work, our living, and baptism. Saying in essence that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ, and so we should “consider ourselves dead to sin and able to live for the glory of God through Christ Jesus.” It’s this stunning work of grace that allows us to live as Christ.

Elsewhere in Philippians 2:12, Paul encourages us to “work out our own salvation,” which might sound hollow, as if it were missing the grace of regeneration, right? But Paul goes on to say why we should work. It’s not because we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. No! It’s because, “God is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13).”

Anabaptists agree that salvation is a gift of grace and cannot be earned. But we read in the New Testament that God’s gift of faith brings with it responsibility. Human beings need to do their part in response to God’s gift of faith. Menno Simons, namesake of our faith family, said, “The regenerating Word must first be heard and believed with a sincere heart before regeneration, the putting on of Christ, and the impulsion of the Holy Ghost can follow.”

Balthasar Hubmaier (another key 1st generation leader) was interrogated in a Lutheran court (oh the irony!) and responded:

Q: How many kinds of faith are there?
A: Two kinds, namely a dead one and a living one.
Q: What is a dead faith?
A: One that is unfruitful and without the works of love, James 2.
Q: What is a living faith?
A: One that produces the fruits of the Spirit and works through love, Galatians 5.

But a second reason we Christians don’t behave differently is our theology. When we come to know the gospel of God we are overwhelmed by “the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding,” and which spills out into every area of our lives. But if our theology places limits on the Gospel’s access to every area of our lives, of course we’re going to live like everyone else.

Yes, I believe deeply that God’s gospel is for all of life. No compartments, no distinctions. Faith matters at home, work, and play. That core belief distinguishes me from the health and wealth gospel addressed in the previous post. Our economic lives are to reflect a life of generosity and simplicity, understanding that there is no separation between faith and finances. 100% of our resources (not just 10% or less) belongs to God.

And this core belief distinguishes me from Lutherant on the other hand, who makes a clear distinction between The Kingdom of this World and The Kingdom of God, and allows for different behavior in each context. Perhaps I’m missing something key here, but it appears to me that a compartmentalizing life in this way suggests Christians shouldn’t be living differently than the rest of the world. Instead, I believe our political lives are to reflect the politics and kingdom of Jesus, understanding there is no separation between faith and politics. We are to be “the peculiar people” in all areas of life.

Lutherant, thanks for a great learning dialogue! Here are my Three Truths More Christians Need to Learn from Lutherant:

  1. God’s love is totally free, totally necessary, and overwhelmingly marvelous.
  2. God’s love will empower you to live a new, refreshing, and healthy life.
  3. God’s love opens doors of dialogue with people you disagree with, and gives you the humility to love them just the same.

Peace to you Charles. And to all our readers!

This first appeared Wednesday on ThePeacePastor (http://bit.ly/JGmyxG), where you can go to read comments. Follow Marty on twitter @thepeacepastor.

Here’s Lutherant’s Original Post
Here’s my
Original Post

The classic mental model of a ‘missionary’ is someone specially tasked with a special ministry for a special location. Missionaries are different than us, do different things, and do them out there somewhere, somewhere exotic and dangerous, a place of sacrifice.

That left those of us “normal” Christians at home to live “normal” lives and do “normal” things; like work, and play, and earn money to support the “special” missionaries. The definition of being a Christian in this mental model is to be a faithful church member.

What is a Church member mentality? Compartmentalized life: sacred over here, secular over here. 60 hours of work, plus a couple hours of “church” work. The church is a purveyor of religious goods and services, and if you aren’t on staff, you are a consumer of those goods. And we compete with other churches for the same “market share,” like barkers on the mall calling people to come play our game!

Somewhere along the way the church in the west stopped asking, “How do you make disciples of Jesus.” And we started asking, “How do you make a good church member.” Jim Herrington, the founder and leader of Mission Houston said, “I was a church member, and I was making church members.” A few select folks rise above and give their lives to “full time Christian ministry,” further serving to isolate “normal” Christians from ministry and discipleship.

But is that mental model faithful to Scripture? Is it faithful to Jesus’ call for us to be his followers in daily life? Is it Anabaptist in anyway shape of form?

John Bisagno , long time pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church (20,000 members) said upon his retirement, “For 20 years we have built a great church. But during that same time the city of Houston declined. Were we really doing what God wanted?” What if forming good church members isn’t the point of Christianity anyway?

What if Christ calls us to Actually impact the world in which we live. What if Christ considers us to be on mission right here in Houston, where we live, work, and play?

According to the most recent, faithful definition of what it means to be a Mennonite Christian, being and becoming misisonal disciples of Christ is precisely who we are called to be. In “The Purposeful Plan,” we are learning to say discipleship means ,“Joining in God’s activity in the world, we develop and nurture missional Mennonite congregations of many cultures.”

Where does this firm belief come from? The Purposeful Plan goes on to say, “We believe that our purpose as a church is derived from the very nature of the triune God. God the Father sent the Son—Jesus into the world. Together, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit. Now, the triune God sends the church into the world to reconcile and restore it in relationship to God’s good purposes. This is the basis for God’s call.”

In recent months your church leadership has been exploring more deeply the intersection of mission and identity for us as a congregation. We spent several months in late 2011 digging into The Purposeful Plan, which we invite you to read here: http://bit.ly/I4LChR On Monday 5 of your church leaders took a day of work off to dedicate to a Retreat with other congregations in Houston to explore how they as individuals and we as a congregation can be transformed. Judy Hoffhien shared her testimony to that retreat above. And you might also remember that, due to conversations surrounding Campus Development, we’ve heard loud and clear that we need to firmly embrace a shared and compelling identity and mission for ourselves.

Thus, on February 9th and 12th the CDT said the following, “We are aware of growing desire for a parallel discernment process regarding the Mission and Identity of Houston Mennonite Church. A conversation such as this gets at the core of who we are, and is directly related to our location and campus. Our location will shape our identity, and our identity needs to shape our location. Thus, should the proposal pass, it is our recommendation that we as a faith family catalyze energy into simultaneously discerning our location, as well as our mission and identity.”

We have been, are, and will continue to do just that! And we invite you to join us. There are several key links below we’d love for you to explore, a 2 minute video outlining the basic theology of being “missional”; The Purposeful Plan itself; and a link to a new Houston Initiative we are discerning participation in (with more info on the retreat 5 of us attended Monday). On May 19 our church council is taking an entire day for a retreat wrapped around this theme of identity and mission. And following that will be some significant entry points for you to enter the conversation with us.

However, you need not wait! You can pause and pray for this process right now. Seriously, you’re not that busy. Pause, and ask God to remind us all that “we are dead to sin and able to live for the glory of God (Romans 6:11).” Also, our worship services are designed each Sunday morning to commission you to be on mission in Houston. Other than the obvious places you might see “missional content” such as sermons, we also receive an offering each and every Sunday, which invites us to participate in what God is up to in the world. By all means, participate! Sharing time each week we are encouraged to share more than simply our medical maladies, but to share something that builds up the body of Christ or reflects on your own ministry. By all means, participate! And perhaps most significantly, we have drastically re-organized our worship services over the last year to “beef up” our sending section. We now commission you each and every week to be on mission where you live, work and play in 3 ways (watch for them Sunday): with a Sending Text of Scripture, a sending song, and a Commissioning for ministry where we lay hands on one another and commission each other to be on mission (exactly as we’ve done for missionaries for decades!).

Why do we do this? Because we are the sent ones of God! We are specially tasked for special ministry in a special location: Houston! We are on mission with God, continuing Jesus’ ministry in Houston. That’s what missional discipleship is all about. This is our faith. This is our hope.

Houston Mennonite Church, the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you! Consider yourselves dead to sin, free and able to live for the glory of God through Christ Jesus! Jesus Christ is risen! It’s up to you to decide, Now what?”

I love this picture from Marion Indiana. It’s perfect for understanding Good Friday and helpful in understanding how young people had “fun” in 1930. It’s a great scene of young people in love, laughing, and having a good time outdoors together. But I’ll come back to this in a second. First, a question:

“Can you use violence to show that violence is wrong?”

That was the question that came out of a radio interview I did last week about The Hunger Games with Joe Formicola. Since The Hunger Games is very violent, we were wondering if it serves any purpose, especially for young people. The alternative being all portrayals of violence further and enhance the cycle of violence, and are therefore morally suspect.

Today, on Good Friday, the answer for me is shockingly obvious. Nothing unmasks the depravity of violene like Jesus ruthless execution before the watching world.  Clearly something is wrong when God’s people (“the good guys”) are demonized, pursued, persecuted, called “foolish” and forced to pray “Do not let my enemies exult over me (Psalm 25)!” The Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles unmask a world who has “rejected the chief cornerstone (Psalm 118).” Paul calls this terribleness “the ruler of the power of air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:2).” As Holy Week unfolds, Jesus’ friends betray him, his friends try to protect him with violence, his friends utterly abandon him. Something has gone terribly wrong indeed!

Why is it important that Jesus’ Cross functions to expose violence? Because proper diagnosis is necessary and essential for 21st Century Christians. Walter Rauschenbusch (yes yes, that Walter Rauschenbusch!) accordingly speaks of six specific sins, “all of a public nature, which combined to kill Jesus…He bore them, not by sympathy but by direct experience.”[2] The 6 sins that caused Jesus’ death are said to be: religious bigotry; the combination of graft and political power; corruption of justice; mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt. It is not hard to assume these –or similar public sins – are precisely what Paul had in mind when discussing “a death like his.”

Jesus cross unmasks the darkness of violence and exposes the world as it really is.

James Cone has been unmasking the darkness for me this Lent. In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone says, “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with the “recrucified” black body hanging from the lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

Few have drawn this connection save black artists and novelists; I certainly have not. But Cone says, “black artists relentlessly exposed the political and religious hypocrisy of lynching in America.” According to Cone, they did this in 2 stark ways. First, “most have linked black victims with the crucified Christ as a way of finding meaning,” giving them spiritual agency and a proper diagnosis of social sin. Second, and more importantly, by envisioning Christ as black: “the clearest image of the Crucified Christ was the figure of an innocent black victim, dangling from a lynching tree.

Langston Hughes said, “I believe that anything which makes people think of existing conditions is worthwhile.” He said this in response to the controversy about his poem called “Nigger Christ,” which, as you can imagine, caused some controversy.

But Jesus does this in his teaching all the time: choosing examples that offend in order to reveal and expose, and ultimately teach. Something seeing his cross should do each and every time we see it; though of course it’s been watered down to a “harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks (Cone, pg xiv).”

It reminds me of Bull Conners dogs and water hoses; or the horrific scenes from Abu Ghraib torture, the Mai Lai massacre, all of which says nothing about the guilt of the victims and everything about the guilt of those who perpetrated the violence. It even reminds me of some of the symbolic actions of the Occupy Wallstreet, which, at its best, draws our attention to the extravagent greed we’re all lulled by.

But let’s get back to that opening picture. Here it is in large form: a picture from Lawrence Beitler of a lynching in 1930. Suddenly, their smiling white happy faces are a complete distortion set agains the backdrop of black death; a terribleness in joy. What does the violence of the scene say about those who enjoyed the event, even shared the photo with friends? It’s a complete sufficient indictment of this form of violence.

Today, as I mourn the death of Jesus my Lord and Savior, Ithink of this “blunt historicity,” as John Yoder called it; the “concrete social meaning of the cross.” For the cross of Christ is the sharpest, most truthful social commentary the world has ever seen. A necessary tool that shows the world to itself as it really is, and invites us to a better way. ‘If any want to be my followers let them deny themselves, pick up your own cross, and follow me.”

To this invitation, I again say yes.

You might also like:

Preached April 5, 2012 at Pleasant Hills Baptist Church

Mark 14:17-31,50

That the saints of history said “Yes” to God is not a story. Esther, Mary, Jesus, the Ethiopian eunuch, Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer are not unique because they answered the call. They are household names because of the context within which they said “Yes” to God. Their yes was spoken into the darkness of opposition, oppression and hatred. They are a voice crying out from the wilderness, the margins, outside dominant culture and accepted norms.

This is no easily whispered “yes.” For saying yes in conflict is different than clicking “like” on your facebook, safely from your couch.

This is exactly the setting in our gospel story and in our world. Jesus is in the darkness of opposition, oppression, and hatred. His world is coming for him. And Jesus invites us in, laying it on the line with, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” He apparently knows who it is, but he doesn’t let the disciples know. They’re left in their distress with the terrifying question,“Surely, not I?”

This is the moment, the moment of trial and temptation. This is the crucible of faith! This is what Paul referred to when he said we should boast in our suffering because it produces endurance, and character, and hope! (Romans 5:3-4).

But like the disciples we’re quick, anxious, hungry to get out of the crucible. And so we look for someone to pin it on. Surely Jesus means Judas, right? Whew! Then I’m off the hook. “Surely it’s those Mennonites from the suburbs who have turned their back on Christ. Right?” “It’s the Baptists, clearly! They don’t believe exactly like we do!” ‘Oh, those mega-church types have all fallen away” we say!

Surely, not I! Surely Lord, not us?

What, according to our story, would it look like to betray, deny, or be disloyal to Jesus? There are too many examples!

  • Pilate was swayed by the crowds. He didn’t want to kill Jesus, but he let the hype dictate his decisions, “Everyone’s doing it!”
  • The crowds are swayed by the religious leaders! Refusing to think for themselves, they parrot back what they hear, untested.
  • Religious leaders are swayed by the will to power. They don’t want to give up their power, and so they do everything they can to uphold the status quo. Conservative, they see nothing wrong with the world around them!
  • And Judas. Judas is swayed by money. Cold hard cash causes him to exchange the truth for a lie, eternal life for a meal and 401k. Which, apparently, doesn’t work out very well for him.

And all the disciples said they wouldn’t do it. Mark 14:31, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But each and every one does exactly that. Within 19 verses, and what, 3 hours, they go from proclamation/worship to complete denial and abandonment, swayed by fear, emotion, and self-interest.

Surely, not I?…. Surely, not I?

There remains one who does not turn his back on God. Through Jesus, our gospel story moves past an indictment to give us a picture of faithfulness. What would faithfulness, allegiance, loyalty, trust look like on this night in the crucible? What do I have to do to not deny Christ?

We must get our identity and mission from God, and nowhere else. No one, and no suffering, can cause us to set aside our values and respond out of hatred or fear. Our typical response is to treat people how they treat us. We allow ourselves to drop down to the lowest common ethic and give our enemies (of all people!) permission to dictate how we will act. But Jesus says we must be willing to be broken and poured out. 1 Peter 2:23 says, “When [Jesus] was abused he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.” Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” No matter what they do, I obey God.

We must do more than speak. All the disciples, including Judas, said the right thing! “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Where there is No justice, there is no worship. As Amos says in 5:21,24, “I hate, I despise your” worship… “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We must be with Jesus. Where Jesus is we are to be. We must fear God more than man. We must pledge primary allegiance to God alone. Not self, not our future, not our interests, nor our nation. We find Judas hanging out with the armed guards… not where he is supposed to be. Peter’s with the servants and guards in the courtyard… not where he’s supposed to be. The disciples are sleeping while Jesus prays… not where they are supposed to be.

It’s essential we cultivate a spirituality and life of prayer that binds us as one with Christ. Howard Thurman says in Jesus and the Disinherited, “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” Indeed. As Jesus himself said, if we act on Jesus commands, the rain will fall, the floods will come, the winds will blow and beat on our house, but it will not fall. Because it had been founded on the rock. (Matthew 7:25)

On this night, in this setting, will you say yes to Jesus invitation? Will you pledge your loyalty to Christ? Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.

Will you then deny Jesus and pledge your loyalty to something, or someone other than to Jesus Christ?

Will you then put down Jesus cross and pick up your own personal interests, safety, and support of the cycle of violence?

Will you choose to follow the crowds, or money, power or fame?

Surely, not I!

Preached April 5, 2012 at Pleasant Hills Baptist Church

Mark 14:17-31,50

That the saints of history said “Yes” to God is not a story. Esther, Mary, Jesus, the Ethiopian eunuch, Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer are not unique because they answered the call. They are household names because of the context within which they said “Yes” to God. Their yes was spoken into the darkness of opposition, oppression and hatred. They are a voice crying out from the wilderness, the margins, outside dominant culture and accepted norms.

This is no easily whispered “yes.” For saying yes in conflict is different than clicking “like” on your facebook, safely from your couch.

This is exactly the setting in our gospel story and in our world. Jesus is in the darkness of opposition, oppression, and hatred. His world is coming for him. And Jesus invites us in, laying it on the line with, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” He apparently knows who it is, but he doesn’t let the disciples know. They’re left in their distress with the terrifying question,“Surely, not I?”

This is the moment, the moment of trial and temptation. This is the crucible of faith! This is what Paul referred to when he said we should boast in our suffering because it produces endurance, and character, and hope! (Romans 5:3-4).

But like the disciples we’re quick, anxious, hungry to get out of the crucible. And so we look for someone to pin it on. Surely Jesus means Judas, right? Whew! Then I’m off the hook. “Surely it’s those Mennonites from the suburbs who have turned their back on Christ. Right?” “It’s the Baptists, clearly! They don’t believe exactly like we do!” ‘Oh, those mega-church types have all fallen away” we say!

Surely, not I! Surely Lord, not us?

What, according to our story, would it look like to betray, deny, or be disloyal to Jesus? There are too many examples!

  • Pilate was swayed by the crowds. He didn’t want to kill Jesus, but he let the hype dictate his decisions, “Everyone’s doing it!”
  • The crowds are swayed by the religious leaders! Refusing to think for themselves, they parrot back what they hear, untested.
  • Religious leaders are swayed by the will to power. They don’t want to give up their power, and so they do everything they can to uphold the status quo. Conservative, they see nothing wrong with the world around them!
  • And Judas. Judas is swayed by money. Cold hard cash causes him to exchange the truth for a lie, eternal life for a meal and 401k. Which, apparently, doesn’t work out very well for him.

And all the disciples said they wouldn’t do it. Mark 14:31, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But each and every one does exactly that. Within 19 verses, and what, 3 hours, they go from proclamation/worship to complete denial and abandonment, swayed by fear, emotion, and self-interest.

Surely, not I?…. Surely, not I?

There remains one who does not turn his back on God. Through Jesus, our gospel story moves past an indictment to give us a picture of faithfulness. What would faithfulness, allegiance, loyalty, trust look like on this night in the crucible? What do I have to do to not deny Christ?

We must get our identity and mission from God, and nowhere else. No one, and no suffering, can cause us to set aside our values and respond out of hatred or fear. Our typical response is to treat people how they treat us. We allow ourselves to drop down to the lowest common ethic and give our enemies (of all people!) permission to dictate how we will act. But Jesus says we must be willing to be broken and poured out. 1 Peter 2:23 says, “When [Jesus] was abused he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.” Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” No matter what they do, I obey God.

We must do more than speak. All the disciples, including Judas, said the right thing! “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Where there is No justice, there is no worship. As Amos says in 5:21,24, “I hate, I despise your” worship… “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We must be with Jesus. Where Jesus is we are to be. We must fear God more than man. We must pledge primary allegiance to God alone. Not self, not our future, not our interests, nor our nation. We find Judas hanging out with the armed guards… not where he is supposed to be. Peter’s with the servants and guards in the courtyard… not where he’s supposed to be. The disciples are sleeping while Jesus prays… not where they are supposed to be.

It’s essential we cultivate a spirituality and life of prayer that binds us as one with Christ. Howard Thurman says in Jesus and the Disinherited, “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” Indeed. As Jesus himself said, if we act on Jesus commands, the rain will fall, the floods will come, the winds will blow and beat on our house, but it will not fall. Because it had been founded on the rock. (Matthew 7:25)

On this night, in this setting, will you say yes to Jesus invitation? Will you pledge your loyalty to Christ? Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.

Will you then deny Jesus and pledge your loyalty to something, or someone other than to Jesus Christ?

Will you then put down Jesus cross and pick up your own personal interests, safety, and support of the cycle of violence?

Will you choose to follow the crowds, or money, power or fame?

Surely, not I!