For those unaware, the house of House of Representatives is voting on the Equality Act, which would expand the 1964 Civil Rights Act to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. For those with a conservative bent, both politically and religiously, the concern is not only about the role of sexuality in modern discourse but the fact that, according to Rabbi Avi Shafran, “it would override the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration act, which gives people a way to challenge government requirements that they feel impinge on their religious rights.” Many conservative Christians have been weary of encroaching sexual ethics because of their religious and spiritual convictions, and the Equality Act is one more nail in the coffin.Continue Reading…
Deconstruction is all around us, not merely with physical buildings, but with cultural, philosophical, and theological worldviews. It seems that every month, another piece of cultural heritage or identity is torn down or deconstructed due to the perceived offense or insensibility to a particular bent. But what happens when a culture is fueled by deconstruction yet lacks contractors to sufficiently rebuild what they are destroying?
For those unaware, what exactly is deconstructionism? Deconstructionism is not a new concept but rather, one that has risen to a prominent spot in the cultural West. Those who adhere (and even those who unaware that they adhere to its tenets) believe that we have a responsibility to critique, challenge, and if necessary, remove (or deconstruct) any form of philosophical system, hierarchy, physical memorabilia, or quite frankly, anything at all, particularly those things that are offensive, insensitive, or out-of-touch with modern society.Continue Reading…
Serving as a pastor is one of the most rewarding and difficult tasks that I have ever been faced with. On the one hand, I am one of you – I am a fellow disciple learning to love God in a broken world. I am a sinner in desperate need of the grace of God alongside every one of you. I am a sheep. On the other hand, I am your leader, your shepherd. I stand above you— not in a prideful or arrogant sense—but in a sense of leadership. I must watch fervently where we are headed, to observe the roadblocks and dangers coming our way. I must bear the load of our collective safety as we navigate a world full of spiritual enemies. This, of course, is done under the guidance of the one True Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Due to my humanity, God has uniquely created me to shepherd in a way that suits my gifts and desires. For many pastors, relational conversations are the medium they want to utilize to shepherd their people; for others, it is primarily the pulpit. Personally, I discovered early on, that I need to lead primarily through preaching and writing. Like Eugene Peterson, I will not and cannot drive a wedge between being a pastor and a writer – they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, in order for me to pastor well, I must write.
My hope is that you may invest the time to read, not because I need an audience, but because I hope writing will be one of the main ways that I pastor you. Personally, I can communicate complex truths in a more helpful manner via writing than speaking. My hope is that as we journey together as sheep, God may use my writing to equip you to do the work of the ministry, here in Las Cruces and to the ends of the earth. Soli deo Gloria.
A Secular World
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word secular? For many—particularly for those from a Christian background—think in terms of secular versus religious. For example, there are secular schools and religious schools. Perhaps others consider anything outside the religious system. For many, secular conveys that which is wrong or evil with the world. Yet, we should not abandon the word or simply use it in a negative context. This is where Charles Taylor is incredibly helpful, the most prominent modern philosopher.
Charles Taylor is a trained philosopher by trade, a Roman Catholic by profession, and the author of one of the best philosophical works in recent generations entitled A Secular Age. Many have attempted to slay Taylor’s magnum opus but have failed. Not only is Taylor’s work long, it is philosophically dense. Thankfully, men such as James K.A. Smith have undertaken the task to translate and modernize Taylor so that the average person can understand the meat of his arguments. In 2014, James K.A. Smith published How (Not) To be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, which gives a philosophical primer to those looking to dip their toes in waters of Charles Taylor.Continue Reading…
Everyone is a philosopher. The common American may not often think deeply about works of philosophical reflection but everyone functionally lives a philosophy of life every single day. In other words, every single human is pursuing their version of “the good life” (for more reference to this subject, please see James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love). We make plans, set goals, pursue hobbies, and conform our life around a particular vision of what will bring us satisfaction and delight. Perhaps one of the most prominent philosophical systems that most Americans orient their life around is expressive individualism, yet few would actually use the proper term. So what is expressive individualism? A survey of popular slogans illustrates just exactly the ethos of this way of life:
- You do you.
- Be true to yourself.
- Follow your heart.
- Find yourself.
These slogans reveal what Westerners chiefly value: individual freedom to decide what is best for oneself. Our highest good is to be true to our selves and thus, if we were to deny ourselves certain impulses, desires, or loves, we would be denying that which is ultimately good. As Americans, we are hard-wired culturally to see ourselves as individuals who “isolate themselves from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends” (Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart). What does it mean that as individuals we must express ourselves? Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic is helpful:
That term suggests not only a desire to pursue one’s own path but also a yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. It is a drive both to be more like whatever you already are and also to live in society by fully asserting who you are. The capacity of individuals to define the terms of their own existence by defining their personal identities is increasingly equated with liberty and with the meaning of some of our basic rights, and it is given pride of place in our self-understanding.
A culture that values expressive individualism is a culture dominated by people yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. Your identity does not come from any external factors, rather, it is a call to bend yourself inward, to discover what is most true about yourself. But then, you are not only called to find your identity inwardly, but you must express it to the rest of the world. To hide your true identity or values denies your right to self-understanding.
Therefore, any culture, religion, or ethical system that imposes rules, regulations, identities, or expectations on an individual is seen as threatening and oppressive. If I am my own authority and if my identity is found by finding “the true me” internally—a community of faith, a government, or a hobby group that asks me to conform to their way of life not only infringes upon my rights to self-understanding but also places me under bondage so that I may not experience my true identity.
20th century Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor calls this Western phenomena the “age of authenticity.” For Taylor, authenticity is less tied to integrity and honesty but rather is set against conformity. In this way, your purpose of life to find your deepest self and then express it to the world. You are to forego what those around you say, you must pursue what feels right to you. In respect to our current age of authenticity, Taylor notes:
I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.
The Silent Killer of Community
In this ideology, my highest good is finding my identity in myself and therefore, outside authority is a challenge to my vision of flourishing. But, the Bible paints a vastly different picture to this view. In the beginning, before there was any sin, humans were designed to submit to God’s authority while at the same time flourish, in the deepest sense of the word. Even now, we believe that the best life is not found in isolation from authority but in conformity to God’s authority. Therefore, the highest good that I can pursue is to find my identity outside of myself—to find it in God himself. While it may seem counter-intuitive or even flat-out wrong to find good in submission to authority, that is only because our lenses have been colored by expressive individualism and we are unable to see authority and submission without our presuppositional and cultural baggage.
If the average American believes that the fullest life is found by turning inward, shedding of cultural, religious, and political expectations, then unfortunately, the church will be seen more as an enemy than as a friend. But is the problem with the church/Bible or with the cultural presupposition? How then will Christians interact with one another if our primary philosophical presupposition is one of expressive individualism? How will we handle conflict? Disagreements? Put bluntly, expressive individualism left unchecked will be the silent killer in the church in the West. Because of the work of Jesus, we can now turn outward to those in need, giving our time, money, talents, and lives for the good of others. Our lives no longer revolve around ourselves but for they revolve around the good of others.
If the expressive individualist says that the highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression, what happens when that expression goes against what the Bible says or leads to the harm of another person in the community? How can serve one another in love, humility, and service when our highest pursuit is ourselves? How do I consider others more significant than myself, if I believe the most significant thing in life is my own happiness (Phil 2:3)?
Much like the old adage of the frog slowly boiling to death, if expressive individualism is left unchecked, it will silently kill the health of a church. After all, as Americans, expressive individualism is the air we breath. Therefore, let us be vigilant in our analysis of our church culture, so that what we are reflecting is Christ and not a cultural phenomenon. Let us look to Christ, who did not bend himself inward but rather, extended himself outward on the Cross for you and I, so that our selfish hearts may in turn bend towards the needs of others.
In the last few months, several members of Coram Deo (the church I pastor) have asked me about what they should do regarding this upcoming political election. For some, this is the most important political election they have ever witnessed; for others, they are discouraged and weary of the political division. Given that election day is three weeks away, I hope to write a series of articles that are primarily directed at the members of Coram Deo, while also applying to the broader Christian circle in which I am a part of.
A quick disclaimer: my approach to politics comes primarily from the perspective of Reformed Christianity, particularly in the realm of Kuyperianism in relation to culture. For those unaware, Kuyper was a 19th century theologian, politician, journalist, and a prolific writer of how the church should engage not only in the area of biblical theology but of culture and politics. I am aware that some of you may disagree with my perspectives, which is totally in your right to do so. My plea to you as you read and engage with other people in this season: extend the same grace that has been given to you in Christ.
Around this time of the year, I yearn for election season to be over, primarily so that the endless number of billboards and commercials will cease. Every four years, there seems to be endless promises, half-told stories of particular candidates, and the potential for doom if one candidate looses (particularly, the candidate that is NOT your candidate). Yet, something feels different this year. There is more angst, more animosity, more fear, and the Christian camp is not immune to this. Fear and anxiety have gripped the people of God concerning who will get elected in a few weeks.
While I do believe that Christians should be actively involved in the cultural and political moments of their time, I would caution us to remember that fixing our hopes and identity upon a political party or candidate will always lead to disappoint and angst, whereas fixing our eyes on Jesus, the True King, will always lead to rest and security. In other words, in this election season, church, remember Whose you are. Remember the first question of the New City Catechism: what is your only hope in life and death? That you are not your own but belong to God.
This means that regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, your eternal security and present comfort is found in God’s covenantal love for you in Christ and God’s preserving of the church for the ages to come. Rather than being a cheesy, cliche statement that Christians hold on to, you seriously need to remember that through all things, Jesus is still King. As King, Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. Nothing can thwart God’s agenda in this world—and yes, not even your worst political nightmare.
EVERY SQUARE INCH
Even though Abraham Kuyper was Prime Minister of the Netherlands, he nevertheless retained his theological bent, believing that the state is a necessary good, while at the same time believing that the Kingship of Jesus reigns as supreme over all things. Make no mistake: the state is absolutely a necessary good in a world governed by corruption, but the state is limited. Government has been instituted by God (Romans 13:1) and have been instituted to restrain evil in society (Romans 13:3). In the throes of governing and politics, Kuyper never abandoned his chief concern in life:
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’Abraham Kuyper – Sphere Sovereignty
Kuyper believed, and we believe in his stead, that Christ, not the state, is the rightful ruler and king over all creation. There is nothing outside of his jurisdiction or control. There is never a moment of stress or angst in God’s heart as he governs and sustains the world right now. And the good news? God will never be dethroned. Your political candidate may win or loose in a few weeks but Jesus the King will remain King forever. Lest we get tunnel vision in our political vision, let us remember the end of history: all of the nations gathered together, bowing before Christ the Lamb, celebrating the victory of Jesus over all kings and rulers (Revelation 7:9).
So, Christian, go to the ballot box on November 3 with complete assurance and confidence, not in your political party or candidate, but in the fact that Jesus is the reigning and ruling King over all creation. Go in confidence to vote remembering that God has sustained his church through far more wicked governments. Go in hope to the ballot box, not in the promises of Trump or Biden, but in the promises of God found in the Scriptures.
Everyone wants some form of change in their life. They would like to be more fit, more generous, more patient, less angry, and the list goes on and on. How is that change accomplished? Outside of discipline and pure grit, how does one become more generous? More kind? In some ways, changing externals is easy (losing weight, budgeting, etc); changing internals is extremely difficult. There is not a single person on the planet that doesn’t want to change at least one thing—how is it done?
The majority of us think that the way to accomplish change is to learn more. Growing up in Western cultures, many of us believe that we are primarily thinking creatures. In other words, the problem lies in a lack of knowledge. This is because we are creatures of the Enlightenment, where rationality, knowledge, and logic are king. But what if there were more factors in play when we consider how to change?
YOU ARE WHAT YOU ______
Finish the sentence and the primary drive for motivation will be revealed. For some, it’s our thoughts; for others, it’s our actions. Following in the school of James K.A. Smith, I would argue that you are fundamentally what you love. Speaking of education (and this sense, change), Smith says, “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but what we love?” When you want to change something, do not primarily assume that what you need to do is learn more information or content. You may need to go a layer deeper and examine what you love, or perhaps easier for us to understand, what you desire.
But then we have to ask, how do we change our loves and desires? It seems that we are still stuck in the same spot. This is where James K.A. Smith’s work is so helpful (particularly his three-part cultural liturgies series or You Are What You Love) because he helps name how to change your loves and desires: liturgical rhythms. What does that even mean?
Smith would argue that everything in life is playing a role in our formation, from the shopping mall to Sunday morning church services. Every magazine, shopping advertisement, cultural story is an invitation to discover the “good life,” a life full of flourishing. In other words, nothing is irreligious because everything is fundamentally about worship (essentially, love and desire are synonyms for worship). Most people are completely unaware of what is shaping and forming them into a type of person. If we want to change, we must look at what is forming our loves.
This is what Smith means by liturgical rhythms or simply put, liturgies. Liturgies are formative habits that we encounter daily, most of the time without even thinking about them. Western culture is constantly shaping us around the values of individualism and consumerism. What if God was inviting us to discover the sham of the Western liturgies and discover a better picture of the “good life,” found within the biblical storyline?
WE ALL WANT FLOURISHING
Every single human wants a life full of flourishing and abundance—rich relationships, a satisfying career, purpose, children, food, etc. Everyone wants to be happy; you love and desire that which you think will make you happy. To be human means to long for flourishing. Yet, many of us find it entirely elusive.
The Bible is actually telling a story of human flourishing, now corrupted through darkness and despair, and able to make right through the True Flourishing One. You see, all of us were originally created to have fullness of joy and life, found in both this world and in God. Because of sin, all of us experience a gap between what we desire and what we experience. God though does not hate this world or the things of this world, rather, he redeems it. He has sent his Son to restore and renew a new community that are now formed around a new set of liturgies that paint a picture of the good life.
So, do you want change? Examine what you love and desire. How do you do that? Examine what daily habits you engage in that are forming you into a certain type of person. Do you want to find flourishing, satisfaction, and ultimate love? Look in the Bible until you come face to face with the representative of a new flourishing humanity—Jesus Christ himself.
If you were to describe the current cultural climate of the United States right now, what words would you use? For some, our country embodies hope, creativity, and exploration. For many, though, our country, at least right now, embodies an air of hostility, division, and a general spirit of unkindness towards one another. Perhaps this has been amplified by the rise of digital technology, allowing men and women to express what has always been inside their hearts, now with little to no consequences. If I were to select a few words to describe the current cultural climate, it would be hostility and division.
Perhaps in no other time in America history (outside possibly the Civil War era) has our nation been so divided. Before us is constantly a binary choice, forcing us to choose sides, dig our heels in, and vilify our opponents. Rather than approaching one another with dignity and respect, we assume the worst of one another, painting each other in negative lights, and use derogatory language about one another. A prime example of this is our current President, who should be the representative of a nation (perhaps, he is, after all), continuously mocking his political opponent with the nickname “Corrupt Joe Biden.” We can do better than this.
DISAGREEMENTS ARE HEALTHY
Contrary to what most people assume, disagreement and conflict are actually incredibly healthy for individuals, teams, and marriages. The ability to resolve conflict demonstrates a healthy system, rather than a family or team that never fights. A system devoid of conflict is not healthy, quite the opposite. The same is true for cultural systems and countries—our ability to resolve or not resolve conflict and disagreement is a barometer of our health. Ecclesiastes 7:5 notes, “It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.” In some arena of life, there are those that are smarter and wiser, and thus, it would be wise for us to heed the rebuke rather than pick a fight.
What is required to be able to resolve conflict in a healthy way? Both parties must possess charity, kindness, and grace for one another while at the same time possessing incredible self-awareness.
Beginning with the latter, understanding our true selves as we approach a conflict is very important. What biases do I bring to the table? What presuppositions am I assuming (all Republicans value ____, all Southerners are ____)? How has my story shaped my beliefs? How can that be driving my desires at the present moment? In the former, leading with charity, kindness, and grace can entirely change the tone of the conversation. If there is a heated disagreement, we should first seek to listen and understand before we lecture.
This sort of demeanor is present not primarily in words but in our attitudes towards one another. Do I really see the person on the opposing side as someone made in the image of God, worthy of my dignity and respect, even if they disagree with me on fundamental issues? Do I believe that regardless of what a person believes, they are not worthy of my berating comments? Do I seek to follow the golden rule, of speaking to others as I would like to be spoken to? Words of kindness and charity flow from a heart that is full of kindness and charity for others; a lack of such words reveals that our heart is perhaps far darker than we dare even realize.
THE CHURCH AS AN EMBODIED KINGDOM ETHIC
Sadly, in the last few years, I have noticed that the broader American church has not followed the way of Christ in servanthood, kindness, and grace, but instead, has taken up the cultural vernacular of unkindness, bashing, and shaming. Rather than understand and show compassion to those we disagree with, we vilify and demoralize our opponents. What if the church embodied a Kingdom ethic, that was demonstrated in the character of God that is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness?
What if, as a church, we realized that every hill is not worth dying on, and that perhaps our kindness speaks more than our ability to argue? What if the world was drawn into our community by our affection, love, and kindness rather than our division and incivility? Dear Christian, remember, this world is not your home, you belong to the King and to the Kingdom. Rather than making every argument high stakes, remember that the Bible calls us to live at peace with all people (Romans 12:18).
Will you then, live counter-culturally, not by abdicating from certain immoral behaviors, but by embodying a speech ethic that is shaped by the Kingdom? Will you lay down your weapons, pull up a chair, and invite conservation that is charitable and profitable? Will you seek to serve your enemies rather than slay them with your words? Church, God is inviting us into a live of civility and kindness for the sake of a watching world.
The mingling of politicians and religion is always a recipe for impure motives and unclear intent. Is a man or woman (in this case, a politician) simply using religion (or elements of religion, such as the Bible, churches, etc) to garnish their political reputation or to gain a favor with a particular stream of voters. While it is always dangerous to speculate on motives, President Trump’s posturing before St. John’s Church with Bible in hand is an egregious use of the Bible and the God of the Bible. Lest we forget, God is after his own glory, rather than the aggrandizing of our faux-glory.
Rather than yielding the Bible as the word of life (Phil 2:16), Trump decided to pose for a photo-op right after dispersing innocent protestors with tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets. The irony, the ugly irony, is right before our face. As we come face-to-face with the Word himself, we discover that in this political stunt, our current President was not following alongside the path of Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, humbled himself. In a moment where the President could have spoken words of hope, encouragement, and courage to a nation suffering and aching with racial tension, he chose to further drive a wedge between our nation with the very thing that can bring us together: the peace and love of God found in the Scriptures. Make no mistake, God or the Bible cannot and will not be used as a prop for man’s ambition and glory—it always has and and always will be about the supremacy of God over all things.
Sadly, again, because politics and religion have become enmeshed in our country, Christians in our current era are enamored by a President who holds the Bible but sadly, in many cases, does not love the Bible or walk in accordance with the Bible. Growing up in conservative, evangelical churches the majority of my life, I have seen over time the real implications of John’s exhortation, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The danger before us is to wholeheartedly defend a political candidate as spiritually competent because they support our ethical and moral convictions. The threat is ever before us: will our allegiance belong to America or to Yahweh himself? This is not to say that we must pound Trump with our words, or to wish ill upon him, but it should make us speculate whether or not we have fallen into idolatry. We should love our country, pray for our leaders, and serve our nation with honor, but lest we forget who the true King is, we may easily find that America becomes our house of worship, not the temple of the Lord.
The Bible that Trump holds in his hand will not be used as a prop; it contains the story of the Triune God who rules and reigns over all things. Thankfully, in Christ, all who belong to God are now joint-heirs to the kingdom that is coming. As we celebrate and worship the slaughtered, risen, and victorious Lamb of God, may we remember that “one day America and all its presidents will be a footnote in history, but God’s kingdom will never end.”
Growing up in southern New Mexico for the majority of my life, I did not have a concept of racism incarnated in my hometown. For the most part, Hispanics and Anglos mix well in the Southwest. With such a small African-American population, racism was something that existed in textbooks. It wasn’t until I moved to St. Louis, MO in 2015 that I experienced the overwhelming experience of racism between whites and blacks. My eyes were opened to the current oppression that happens in our country. The amount of injustice surrounding me daily was staggering. Yet, for the majority of evangelical pastors around me, the subject was “not central to the Gospel,” or “too political.”
A dramatic shift happened in 2019 when I read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise—I suddenly became aware of the systematic, overt, and ongoing oppression of African-Americans, not simply from whites, but from white Christians and pastors. The Bible that I love and preach from was used as an instrument of torture for those whose skin color was darker than mine. The God of light could not love the darks, I guess. After I read Tisby’s work, I was angry—righteously angry.
The same feelings resurfaced this past week in the horrific killing of George Floyd, a man created in the image of God. Any unjust death is lamentable, but this one was different; this caused anger, sorrow, and disgust. Sadly, the broader white church has since focused on the chaotic rioting (resulting in further injustice) than on the death of another African-American man (again, this is not to say that the chaotic rioting is correct, rather, it is to say that many of my conservative, white evangelical friends simply focus on that). For those of you who continue to downplay the racial tension present in our country, maybe you need to watch the murder of Floyd until you are uncomfortable, and then keep watching.
When we look at the end of history, we see a vision of heaven coming to earth where every tribe, tongue, and language will sing the glory and goodness of God. It will be a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic celebration of the Triune God. The church should be a picture of what that this celebration should look like. How long then will our churches herald, even if unintentionally, a covertly racist Christianity that furthers the oppression of African-Americans in our community. What if God was calling us not to cliche responses, nor to identity with a particular political party, but to champion the King from the Middle East who looks nothing like the predominant culture of Anglo-Evangelicals.
How then shall we live, if this is the case? First, we repent of our overt or covert racism that exists in our churches and in our hearts. Repentance may look upward and horizontal, meaning that we will confess to God that we have treated his image bearers with judgment and scorn, and that we will seek to repair relationships that have suffered because of our judgmental attitudes. But repentance does not end with an apology, it continues with action. We repent by taking action and fighting for justice, equality, and peace for our African-American brothers and sisters. A church that simply acknowledges wrong but does nothing to change is not repenting but simply is sorry they were caught. Something must change.
Second, we pray and plan for justice to roll down like a river, like Amos says (who, by the, way is not a lone-wolf in the call for justice in the world). We pray that God might come return to restore and renew all things, including, but not limited to, the racial issues that are prevalent throughout our world. But furthermore, we must plan to take action, to champion the marginalized and oppressed in our communities, and use our voice as a witness for those who have long been trampled over. In other words, we need to pray and plan in such a way that leads to restorative and uncomfortable progress in the area of racial reconciliation in our world.
The good news of the Gospel says that in Christ, all those who are enemies can become reconciled, for Christ, who is our peace, has broken down the walls of hostility (Ephesians 4:12). The sacrifice and resurrection of Christ enables you to find peace with God and therefore, peace with your fellow brothers and sisters in the world. Christian, in your attempts to herald this good news of Jesus, do not covertly erect a barrier that hinders your fellow image bearers from seeing, savoring, and delighting in the God of peace.