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The Greatest Defense for Christianity (Part 2 or 4)

The Greatest Defense for Christianity (Part 2 or 4)

On the night of his arrest, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to talk intimately in prayer with his Father, and Luke even wrote that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” as he prayed (Luke 22:44).

John’s gospel gives us a detailed recount of his prayer, which includes what Francis Schaeffer calls the “final apologetic.”

The final apologetic or greatest defense of Christianity that Jesus proposed is probably not what you think.

It is not a philosophical argument, precise theology, or convincing evangelism.

In fact, the disciples’ teachings of truth ignited hatred, according to Jesus (John 17:14).

So what did Jesus pray would be the greatest defense of Christianity to the watching world?

It would be their unity.

“’I do not ask for these [disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them as you have loved me.” –John 17:20-23

Jesus prayed on the eve of his crucifixion—on the eve of enacting humanity’s reconciliation with God—that the church’s reconciliation would point the world to him more so than any intellectual or emotional persuasion.

Francis Shaeffer wrote, “This [John 17:20] is the final apologetic… We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians.”

Unity. It sounds so simple. So attainable. So beautiful.

It sounds like Heaven where “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stand as one before the throne of God in awe and worship (Revelation 7:9).

As I wrote last week, unity amidst God’s image bearers gives a fuller picture of God’s image. But racial unity is not so easily reached in our broken world because of generational, systemic, and individual sin.

The Enemy of the church can even convince us that we are unified because our bodies are next to one another on Sunday mornings when, in reality, our hearts are far from one another.

There is no formula for unity. Christian unity amongst the high rises of Manhattan look different than unity in the flat farmland of the Mississippi Delta.

However, I think Scripture is clear about what Christian unity is not in the church. 

Christian unity does not mean proximity.

Proximity is a deceitful mirage of unity. Proximity convinces me that I am living in unity because I have a black friend, attend a multi-ethnic church, or live in a diverse city.

But proximity is not community.

We are called to community—not proximity—as a church. Proximity only asks that your body show up, but community asks that your heart show up, too.

A community is like a family.

The New Testament is full of evidence for community rather than proximity. Paul even dares to say that we fulfill Christ’s law to love God and neighbor by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).

But I can’t bear a brother or sister’s burdens if I don’t know their burdens.

I can’t bear with my black sister if I don’t know why she’s grieved over the shooting of another black teenager close in age to her son.

I can’t bear with my Latino brother if I don’t know why he’s afraid to travel to Mexico right now because of the President’s rhetoric surrounding the border.

Likewise, my brothers and sisters cannot bear mine if we are only in proximity on Sunday mornings, and I live amongst people like me on Monday through Saturday.

Pastor Ed Rene Kivitz of Brazil said, “It’s possible that we’re all together and each one of us is isolated within him- or herself raising up [our] hands to God and not paying attention to who’s by [our] side.”

This is the difference between proximity and community.

Christian unity does not mean uniformity.

God was silent for 400 years between events in the old and new testaments. During that time, religious leaders added extra-biblical “rules” and present them as necessary practice.

But Jesus called out religious leaders who demanded conformity to what was unbiblical:

“’[The scribes and Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger… But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” –Matthew 23:4, 13-15

These are serious accusations from Jesus, and I regretfully believe Jesus’ teachings describe much of the white evangelical church in America.

Church planter Dhati Lewis wrote in a blog, “Rather than becoming students of our context, we develop our organization and try to force our neighbors to fit into it.”

Like modern-day Pharisees, we proselytize normative white culture, perspectives, worship expressions, and so on, often presenting them as “biblical” truths, behaviors, and teaching.

This is the definition of “white supremacy.” Dr. Jarvis Williams of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary defines white supremacy as “the prioritizing of white people, white culture(s), and white perspectives.”

This is so ingrained in our American context that we oftentimes don’t realize, as Jesus said, when we’re “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear.”

Scripture is the supreme and final Word of God for the church, but Christian leaders and teachers must ask God to expose our tendencies toward demanding unbiblical uniformity.

Scripture celebrates the diversity of God’s church. (Did you notice that Scripture even says we will speak in our our native tongues in Heaven?)

Unique cultural norms, worship expressions, personality differences, and spiritual gifts give glory and praise to God.

The church does itself a disservice when it demands uniformity.

Finally, Christian unity does not mean peacekeeping.

In the American church, I think we oftentimes mistake conflict for disunity and even sin. (I know I have been guilty of this many times.) We think that rocking the boat is not Christ-like, but that is far from the truth. We follow a Savior who turned tables because of his righteous anger at injustice (Matthew 21:12).

Conflict is not inherently bad or sinful, and this is especially evident in Paul’s letters.

Paul was passionate about unity. He even authored the verse on racial reconciliation: “From now on, therefore, we are regard no one according to the flesh… All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:16, 19).

But Paul did not avoid conflict in order to promote unity. Sharon Hodde Miller broke this down on Twitter:

“Here’s the strange thing about Paul: he disagreed with others using intense language & feeling. But he did the same when discussing unity. The call of Christians is to do both well: debate the things that matter, while holding onto each other with all our might. I tend to think most of us choose one of these options—truth at all costs, or unity at all costs. But we have other choices.”

We don’t have to choose one or the other: debating things that matter or holding onto each other. We can choose both.

This is the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking.

Peacekeepers provide temporary Band-Aids to deep infections such as racism or biases that need surgery.

For the sake of true unity, peacemakers within the church are willing to perform this painful surgery. They are willing to walk through momentary disunity with other brothers and sisters in Christ as they speak in both truth and love.

The unity that results gives evidence to the watching world of the healing and unifying power of the Healer named Jesus.

“Why do you care so much about race?”

Someone recently asked me this question in reference to the increase in my social media posts and in-person conversations regarding race in our churches, communities, and nation.

I realized when she asked that I’d admittedly assumed people were just tracking with me.

So I’ve decided to address this fundamental and important question in a four-part blog series this summer. I cannot speak as a voice of authority on people of color’s experiences. But I can testify to my own experience. Please leave comments or questions, and let’s learn together.

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Why We Must Question ‘The Way Things Are’ (Part 1 of 4)

Why We Must Question ‘The Way Things Are’ (Part 1 of 4)

I grew up in a white community.

My neighbors were white. My friends were white. My church was white. My public school was (very) predominately white.

My small world was white.

This is far from an attack on the people who surrounded me in my corner of Northeast Mississippi. Many of my neighbors, friends, church family, and classmates had an unforgettable impact on my spiritual and personal formation.

This is just the way things were, and no one really questioned why.

You’ve likely heard this statement. In fact, I bet it conjures images of the way things are in some of your communities:

People of color overwhelmingly live in your city’s limits. Black students sit on one side of the cafeteria, and white students sit on the other side. On Sunday morning, black churches and white churches worship separately on the same county road. The way things are—the racial divide—looks different in different places.

When I was sixteen years old, God uprooted me from my Mississippi hometown and popped my homogenous bubble. In 2008, I packed up my bedroom plus some peanut butter and moved to Mississippi’s only public boarding school for mathematics and science.

I lived down the hall from other Anglo American, African American, and Asian American students. I had lunch with peers who vaguely remember their early childhood in China. I edited and wrote pieces for our student newspaper alongside one of my best friends who was Egyptian American. In the classroom, I sat beside classmates whose families were from the Middle East.

I wish I could say that I fully leaned into this multi-cultural space and learned from others’ stories and experiences that were very different from mine. I was heavily invested in my schoolwork and traveled home most weekends. During those two years, my deepest friendships were admittedly those with people who shared my culture and color.

That’s just the way things were.

In 2010, I began college at the University of Mississippi: a university plagued by its complicated history and continuation of racial division. Despite its shortcomings, the campus’ honest dialogue and racialized atmosphere forces its students to confront their hearts’ own prejudices and biases.

In essence, God unsettled me during my time at Ole Miss about the way things are.

Some of us involved in campus ministry asked Ole Miss students, “What do you think promotes or hinders racial unity?”

I began to learn about the doctrine of the imago Dei: a staple of the Christian faith that all people are made in the image (imago) of God (Dei).

This was not news to me. I grew up in the church and had heard many times Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Until college, I never contemplated the weight and implications of the imago Dei: this doctrine that every human being is an image bearer of God.

Reader, can we pause and sit in that truth about the way things are?

EVERY human being is an image bearer of God.

Every HUMAN BEING is an image bearer of God.

Every human being is an IMAGE BEARER of God.

Every human being is an image bearer of GOD.

In seminary, God has continued to challenge whether I truly grasp the weight of this doctrine.

Do I live like this is true that every human being is an image bearer of God? Do I give others the same respect and dignity that I demand? Is my pro-life stance simply a political statement about abortion or a spiritual statement about people? Do I seek how best to “love my neighbor” from the womb to the tomb?

These are not easy or comfortable questions to face because the answer is often a call to die to self, as Jesus commanded of his followers.

As Walter R. Strickland wrote, “[W]e are self-interested creatures. Said differently, people (white and nonwhite alike) are interested in issues that are most pressing to them and are not as likely to contemplate deeply the circumstances of others.”

Left to our own sinful natures, we are indeed self-interested creatures. We are attracted to our likeness in people. We are quick to “other-ize,” stigmatize, and ostracize those who are not like us.

This self-interest is the most basic answer to the way things are.

The question then becomes, “Am I fully experiencing God’s image, or am I simply worshipping my own?”

In college, this question made me rethink the way things are:

Just because things are the way things are doesn’t mean things are the way things are supposed to be.

 I realized why I hadn’t seized every opportunity in high school and college to experience a fuller picture of Almighty God beyond those of a white Jesus (a brown-skinned Nazarene Jew) in nativity scenes and stained glass windows.

To see a fuller picture of your God is to love your neighbor as your self.

I think on this as I read Romans 1 in which Paul describes sinful men and women who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (verse 25).

This chapter includes a list of sins, but the theme binding them together is self-interest: worshipping and serving the creature (and the creature is me!) rather than the Creator.

One of those ways that I worship and serve myself is by denying—intentionally or unintentionally—the truth that those different from me equally bear God’s image.

Furthermore, I actually miss out on beholding the beauty and fullness of the imago Dei when I do not live in community with the “other.”

Christ is constantly calling on his church to question the way things are. Jesus certainly questioned the way things were during his life.

I get it. Swimming against the current of the way things are is not easy, especially in a hometown like mine where we must intentionally seek heterogeneous spaces.

Racialization is woven into the fabric of our nation. You will easily find this information with a bit of research.

But reconciliation is woven into the fabric of Christ’s church.

My friend has this tweet pinned to the top of her Twitter page: “I am made in God’s image. He is not made in mine.”

This is why God’s children must refuse the way things are in pursuit of the way things are supposed to be: every tribe, tongue, and nation representing the imago Dei in its fullness.

 

“Why do you care so much about race?”

Someone recently asked me this question in reference to the increase in my social media posts and in-person conversations regarding race in our churches, communities, and nation.

I realized when she asked that I’d admittedly assumed people were just tracking with me.

So I’ve decided to address this fundamental and important question in a four-part blog series this summer. I cannot speak as a voice of authority on people of color’s experiences. But I can testify to my own experience. Please leave comments or questions, and let’s learn together.

Please follow and like us:
“This Is Us” and Why Laughter Takes Us by Surprise

“This Is Us” and Why Laughter Takes Us by Surprise

If you’ve followed the new NBC television show, “This Is Us,” then you know how powerfully it speaks of what it means to be human.

Recently, the show exposed Randall’s longstanding battle with anxiety.  Randall was adopted, but his father reconnected with him as a grown man.  While on a road trip together to Memphis, Randall’s father asked about Jack, his deceased father who adopted him.  To Randall, Jack’s shining trait was his laugh: “He had this really great laugh.  It’s like… When he laughed, it was like it almost surprised him, you know.  Like it surprised him that he could laugh so freely.”

On a date one evening during Christmas break, I remember Will taking notice of my laugh.  He said I’d laughed all evening and that he wished I’d do it more.  My laughter took both of us by surprise.

I know this sounds like a downer, but I write this for those of you whose laughter surprises you, too, as if it’s a stranger when it makes its appearance alone or in good company.  I write this so you know you’re not alone.

Laughter – the kind that is free and loud and long – feels hard for me right now.  It feels hard because I am a Randall.

In the car, Randall admitted to his father his lifelong fight against false hopes of perfectionism and control that results in debilitating anxiety.  Running, showering, working late: his anxiety never waits for convenience to break him down.

Anxiety might surface in the forms of heavy breathing, a breakdown, a panic attack or something else, but its roots run much deeper, digging their way into the stuff of the soul.

Your soul stuff buried deep might be this desire for perfection in your performance – the same as Randall’s.  After all, mirages of perfection and control surround us.  “100’s” written in red ink on returned assignments, workout demonstrations in magazine pages with Photoshopped bodies, Instagram filters, and “Pinter-esque” parties tell us perfection is within reach.

If I really dare to dig, I know that my recent struggle with anxiety is rooted in fear.  This is the stuff that’s forced its way into my soul.

My husband and I are in a place of transition.  I shared on social media last week that I am leaving my job in May, and, while we know some details about what’s ahead, there are so many unknowns.

The recovering perfectionist in me doesn’t handle unknowns well.  When fear of anything – whether it’s fear of unknowns and transitions or something else – finds a hole in my soul to settle and grow its roots, it can choke out my laughter.  It can feel as if laughter is an irresponsible answer to the persistent questions at hand.

In fact, I begin to believe that the opposite is true, that the responsible answer is worry, and debilitating anxiety inevitably follows.

But God is reminding me that a soul reclaimed by Christ is not remade for this stuff.  Proverbs 31:25 says that a soul reclaimed by Christ can “laugh without fear of the future.”  Jesus himself said, “Abide in me, and I in you… These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:4,11).

I read these words and realize that this fearlessness of laughter and fullness of joy require active participation from me.  They say that this soul stuff called joy is mine to claim, but it requires replanting my roots of fear in the abiding love of Christ every moment of every day.

But this is honestly where I am right now.  On ordinary days when small panic attacks interrupt workouts or tear-stains soak my textbook or Bible pages, laughter and joy seem inaccessible.

But this is what the Enemy of our souls would like you and me to believe.  I know this, so I preach this gospel of loud laughter and full joy to myself:

God, this is not what you have for me.
You have so much more for me.
God, this is not what you have for me.
You have SO MUCH MORE for me.

A soul abiding in Christ is such an easy thought yet a difficult discipline.  But I believe God wants the souls of His children so tethered to Him that they are Jack’s: their free and loud and long laughter surprises them, too.  Even if I’m not yet in that place where I’m so trusting of God that I am able to laugh at my fears, it does not negate this truth that God wants that for me.  

The God of the Universe wants fullness of joy for you and me.

There is a scene in the movie where young Randall (he’s probably seven or eight years old) is gasping for breath as tears rolls down his cheeks.  Jack simply presses both hands against his cheeks and says, “Breeaathe, son.  Breathe.  Breathe.” They take deep breaths together as young Randall fixes his eyes on his father as his breathing slows.

In moments when our fears silence what we know of our faith, I believe that, in a sense, our loving Father presses his hands on our cheeks wet with tears and says, “Breeaathe.”  He knows we have access to laughter and joy in Him right now, but He is patient with us as we learn what it means to abide in Him throughout this lifetime.

I am offering no glib answers today.  I am not yet in this Promise Land of loud laughter and ceaseless joy.  But I know that this is what God wants for me.

“Worry is the facade of taking action when prayer really is,” Ann Voskamp writes in her book One Thousand Gifts, so I would like to share a prayer with you that I am praying when I feel myself moving towards fear instead of laughter:

God, this angst and worry and anxiousness?  This shame and guilt and sadness? This is not what you have in mind for your children.  You have so much more for me.  You have in mind my laughter – free and loud and long laughter – at my fears of the future.  This laughter is not the goal.  No, it’s just the outward evidence of an inward posture: a soul abiding and trusting in You.  Although there are flickers of deep trust in this soul of mine, I am human: capable of quickly forgetting the progress you and I have made together and replanting my roots in old patterns.  But you are a good Father, patiently grabbing my cheeks and telling me to breeaathe.  You speak words of love and bravery and joy and trust over me.  You remind me that You, too, know what it feels to plead for “this cup of suffering to be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39).  I do not travel this journey alone, and, even if my feelings take longer to catch up to your truth, I will not surrender to the Enemy’s tactics against my soul.  I will choose to abide.  I will choose to trust.  I will choose to laugh.  With your help.  In your strength.  Amen.    

I want to give a disclaimer to my readers.  Anxiety can be very debilitating, and my intention is not to undermine this or offer glib answers in my post.  Sometimes miracles look like asking for help, taking medication or seeking a counselor.  Anxiety is very complex and manifests itself differently in everybody, but I am certain that God wants fullness of joy for his children.  This blog is simply a picture of what it looks like for me in this season of my life.

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When Theology Feels Inadequate on Valentine’s Day

When Theology Feels Inadequate on Valentine’s Day

I’ve had conversations recently with Christian friends who are single, and I sense in their voices the frustrations: the glib apologetics to view singleness as a gift; extended family members’ not-so-subtle prompts to ‘settle down;’ and feelings of being overlooked or undervalued in their local churches.

If this is you, my guess is that you know the “right” answers today and every day. You’ve likely wrestled with what you believe and feel you have your theology worked out as it relates to seasons of singleness and marriage.

But some of my close friends have been honest with me that this knowledge can fall short when friends have dinner reservations with significant others or roommates have waiting for them on your doorstep a vase with several red roses and a small stuffed puppy with a heart sown to its lips.

Last week, I came across 1 Corinthians 7 in which Paul (the writer of 1 Corinthians) promotes singleness.   Paul’s letter to the Corinthians made me ask, “How do his words inform both my season of marriage and my friends’ season of singleness?”

If you are single and still reading, I am certain of this: you and I share the same Valentine today and every day. Because in every season—married or single—our greatest Valentine as followers of Jesus is always Jesus.

As I read Paul’s words about singleness, I was convinced they are just as much for me as they are for you. The goal of our lives in Christ is never all-out devotion to singleness or marriage but to the Valentine of our souls:

“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord… the unmarried woman is anxious about the things of the Lord… I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint on you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” -1 Corinthians 7:32-35

The soul that wholly loves its Maker—the One who loves it most—is “free from anxieties” and “undivided” in its devotion.

Yes, dating and marriage distract from and compete for the soul’s affections, and this is what Paul seems to be driving home. But single or married, the soul’s purpose is unchanging.

I think through this as I read: singleness or marriage must not be the gift itself. No, the gift must be more. Maybe the gift is ultimately this freedom from anxiety. Maybe it’s this fixed devotion to our Maker in this weary world with all of its expiration dates:

“This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy has though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” -1 Corinthians 7:29-31

The gift is the “get-to”—to experience and participate in God’s kingdom here and now and to know that you and I are living for something beyond Valentine’s Days. Dozens of roses droop as February fades into March. Half-eaten boxes of chocolates go to waste, melting in kitchen trashcans or backseats of vehicles. Spouses disappoint when workdays are too demanding. Texts fade out with realizations of incompatibility. Husbands and wives are taken too soon. Disappointment stirs and stews as well-meaning extended family tells you your biological clock is ticking. Companions fall short when they don’t fully know or understand you.

But there is a Valentine who is a sure and steadfast anchor for both the single and married soul (Hebrews 6:19). There is a God capable of fully knowing yet fully loving you and me. This is the identity of the single and married souls in Christ on Valentine’s Day and every day.

And still, theology takes time to travel from the head to the heart.

But this is what I know:

Your season—single or married—is no holding place for future fairytales or children or ministry opportunities. It is a giving space for God’s present love and promises and purpose for your life.

Your spiritual stature is not defined by your relationship status with some one but by your relationship with the One who spoke the stars and galaxies into existence yet speaks into your soul today.

Yeah, theology takes time to travel from the head to the heart. This is why Paul recognizes both the mourning and rejoicing that we will inevitably face, even if we know what we see isn’t all that is.

One of my favorite gifts is a beautiful bouquet, and I am an all-out celebrator of Valentine’s Day. But isn’t it ironic that we honor a saint by the name of “Valentine”—martyred in his pursuit of following Jesus—with cheap chocolates and stuffed animals that oftentimes find their way in our cardboard boxes with “Goodwill” written on their sides.

Singleness is not the gift, and marriage is not the goal. A soul undivided in its affections for the One who unfailingly loves it back? This is the gift. And it’s the sweetest gift, even when theology feels inadequate on Valentine’s Day.

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