Herod or Amos

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

I’ve made no secret of my disgust over the current state of politics in the United States of America. A casual browse through social media will tell you all you need to know about that. I also haven’t tried to hide my growing distaste for the way Christians across the country are responding to the situation we find ourselves in. (A situation we made for ourselves, if we’re choosing to be honest today). Clearly we (very much in the general sense of the term) have chosen to prioritize fleeting political power over preaching the Gospel. What other conclusion can be made when pastors waste their breath defending sexual predators and some who should know far better compare the President to Jesus? Worse yet and outrageously, we have the gall to act surprised and upset when someone calls us on our blatant, transparent hunger for power and disregard for the morality we claim to live by.

We love to cluck our tongues and shake our heads when reading the Gospels. Those Sadducees, we think. All they wanted was money. And, oh, those Pharisees. They just wanted to control people. Jesus was so right to put them all in their places.

We shouldn’t be so smug.

And we’d do well to read the book of Amos.

The LORD roars from Zion,
And utters His voice from Jerusalem;
The pastures of the shepherds mourn,
And the top of Carmel withers.

– Amos 1:2 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. The Lord roars. He’s not happy. He’s not smiling. He’s not cute. He’s not something you can hold to the side.

The dominant message of the book of Amos is the proclamation of judgment upon Israel by Yahweh their God because of their oppression of the poor. The book of Amos accuses them of “sell[ing] the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6); of crushing the needy (4:1); of abusing the legal processes held in the town gate for the improper acquisition of large estates (5:10-11); and of indulging in merrymaking, all the while taking no responsibility while the community was breaking apart (6:1-7). …

Amos criticizes his hearers’ confidence that the sanctuaries and their sacrificial cult would gain them Yahweh’s approval. Amos uses the very language of the cult itself, but with satirical tone, to poke fun at his hearers’ reliance upon the sanctuaries, to show that Yahweh desires justice and righteousness more than sacrifice, and to proclaim the end of the cultic centers (see 4:4-5; 5:4-7, 21-24).

Asbury Bible Commentary, emphasis mine

Look at us, all fat and happy. Sitting up in our clean little church buildings, quite content with ourselves. Raising our voices neither in praise nor repentance, but in clamor, railing against the “liberals” or “conservatives” (whoever they are and whatever those terms mean) and how they are “destroying this country” and “we need to take it back.” We shake our fists to the rallying cry of “what about…?!” We turn blind eyes to sin and excuse failings of character because that politician might just give us whatever it is that we want in this moment.

…they sell the righteous for silver,
And the poor for a pair of sandals.
They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor,
And pervert the way of the humble.
A man and his father go in to the same girl,
To defile My holy name.
They lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge,
And drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god.

– Amos 2:6b-8 (NKJV)

We like to think that we’re so much better than the people we read about in the Bible.

We’re exactly the same.

With few exceptions, the prophets were sent to the people of God. To the people who knew better. Their messages, from the mouth of God Himself, were meant to slap them across the face. To shake them out of their self-indulgent stupor. To cause them to look up instead of down. To grab them by the hair so hard that they couldn’t help but notice the pain.

This is a side of God that we like to ignore. We like to focus on His gentleness and love. So we fail to realize that the hair-grabbing and face-slapping are acts of love. He is broken-hearted. He is justly angry. He wants His people to wake up, to get over themselves, to move beyond this whiny, annoying, petulant phase.

Because they have work to do. Because they are so much more.

Ancient Israel was meant to shine the light of God out into the dark world, just as the church is meant to do today. Just as they did, we have forgotten our purpose. We are so focused on achieving societal dominance through laws and slogans and slick marketing that we fail to tell people about Jesus. We fail in the one mission we have.

For behold,
He who forms mountains,
And creates the wind,
Who declares to man what his thought is,
And makes the morning darkness,
Who treads the high places of the earth—
The LORD God of hosts is His name.

– Amos 4:13 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. How is it that we can possibly be so small-minded as to believe that God, who spoke all there is into existence, won’t notice that we’ve gotten so far off course as to be in another country entirely?

In two weeks we celebrate Christmas. We pause and again reflect on the miracle of God Come to Earth. In our reflections, let us consider this commentary on Matthew 2:

The contrast between Herod and Jesus centers upon the question of kingship. Matthew introduces the theme of kingship at the outset of the chapter: The wise men ask Herod where the king of the Jews has been born (2:2), Jesus is indirectly identified as a ruler (v. 6), and Matthew repeatedly refers to Herod as the king (vv. 1, 39). Matthew thus directs our attention to two types of king and two types of kingdom: the kingship of Herod versus the kingship of Jesus.

The kingship of Herod is presented in harsh terms. His tyrannical rule is characterized by an all-consuming desire to preserve his own status and power. Herod will stop at nothing, including the murder of innocent children, to realize his self-serving goals.

The nature of Jesus’ kingship, on the other hand, is defined by the word from Micah quoted in 2:6: He will be “the shepherd of my people Israel.” He is the gentle and loving Ruler of his people, who, like a shepherd, saves his people from destruction. Specifically, Jesus reigns as King over his people by dying for them (27:11, 29, 37), thereby saving them from their sins (1:21; cf. 20:28). The contrast with Herod could not be more pronounced: Jesus gives his life for the sake of others; Herod takes the lives of others for his own sake.

This tension between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Jesus points to the conflict between the kingdom of this world (i.e., the desire for power and self-rule on the part of evil persons everywhere) and the kingdom of God. The passage challenges readers to reflect upon the character of their own lives in order to determine whether the spirit and attitude of Herod (an attitude of militant self-rule) is present to any degree in their hearts. Those readers who see a bit of Herod in themselves will soon encounter a word of challenge and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2; 4:17).

We get to choose: Herod or Amos? The kingdom of this world or the Kingdom of God?

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Photo Credit: Pawan Sharma
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Not a Troll (Perhaps a Hobbit)

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

We live in the age of trolls. The internet allows us to maintain a certain level of detachment, so we go for it. We noisily air our opinions and blast those who dare to disagree. Through the relative anonymity afforded by the keyboard, we say the words that may never actually vibrate in our vocal chords and exit through our lips. We demand, cajole, proclaim the things that we may never actually have the courage to say out loud.

Am I one of those trolls, those vaunted keyboard warriors?

Why do I write about politics? Theology? Mental and physical illness? Why do I write about the things that make you angry? Why do I fail to adopt a soothing, socially-acceptable voice? Why do I persist in making you uncomfortable?

Because I care.

A lot.

I may not cry often, but I am incredibly passionate. I am tenderhearted. If I write about something that makes you squirm, I don’t do so for the sake of making you squirm. I do it because I can’t stand what’s passing for Christian teaching and living throughout our country. Of course that’s generalized. Of course there are people who are doing their absolute best to love God and others. Still, the overall trends toward prioritizing temporal power over Gospel preaching and fluffy, gunky, crap “doctrine” over thoughtful doctrine and study…ugh! Blergh! Argh!

Cue Darth Vader:

For real. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out.

Sharon Hodde Miller says it best:

The pressure to be nice competes with the calling to be prophetic. … For every article about making money with your blog, or having a better marriage, we need leaders who are leveraging their authority with their particular audience to call people to rugged faithfulness. We need teachers who are targeting the idols of people-pleasing and politics and worldly success, and helping us to be the actual people of God. And we need pastors engaged in the kind of spiritual formation that resists cultural influence, and prepares believers for loving self-sacrifice.

Last year Brueggemann summarized our prophetic failing this way: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3).

…we are witnessing the fruit of inadequate spiritual formation. When our spiritual formation winks at, or embraces, cultural idols, we will produce individuals who are totally unable to resist the culture. That is why we are in dire need of prophetic leaders with the courage and clarity to name our adulterous loves. It’s hard work, and humble work (since ranting should not be confused with prophetic teaching), but we need it now as much as ever.

No, I’m not saying I’m a prophet (and neither is Miller). “Prophetic” here is used in a way that points to challenging the status quo because it needs to be challenged. It’s John the Baptist in his camel-hair dress shouting, “Repent!” in the wilderness. It’s Jesus quietly telling the woman at the well that He is indeed Messiah. It’s Ananias taking his life in his hands and approaching Paul, who’s just been knocked off his donkey and struck blind. It’s thousands of men and women around the world today who dare to praise God in cultures that would see them dead for it.

I love you, dear reader. I do. Again, perhaps not in a way that you would quickly recognize. If we were to meet, I probably wouldn’t give you a big hug. I might ask you some random, weird question about your favorite historical era because I’m awkward like that. But I want so much, so desperately much, for you to know Jesus. I want you to really follow Him, even if it costs you something – and it will. I want you to embrace the cost, knowing that this life is but a breath and far greater things are up ahead.

I’m not perfect. I don’t always get this right. I have, in no way, “arrived.” I’m right there in the middle of this thing with you, tugging your elbow, hoping you’ll tug mine when I get distracted by the shiny stuff. Because we all get distracted. And that’s why we need the gruff voices, the ones that don’t fit into neat boxes, to call us back and keep us moving forward.

There’s a time for gentleness and a time for bluntness. The one is not more loving than the other. James wrote some harsh things in his epistle, but he was not uncaring. He was not mean. He wrote them because he loved his readers. He wanted the very best for them.

If you are challenged by me (or others), if you find yourself clicking away from this site (or others) because you feel anger, pause for a moment. Take a step back. Getting your toes smashed is never fun (I’ve had mine stomped on plenty of times), but it’s often necessary. Let’s learn to accept that discomfort. Let’s learn to sit with things that challenge us. Let’s learn to listen to the hoarse voices.

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Ministry, Laptop Style

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2)

Gentle Reader,

There’s always this battle going on inside me. One part wants silence and simplicity, the unadorned and straightforward nature of Quaker, Amish and Mennonite worship services. The other wants full-on Anglicanism, liturgy and stained glass and choirs. My understanding of Scripture leads me to believe that these parts will not be fully fused and satisfied until Eternity, when, somehow, being with God will be simultaneously simple and full of awe-inspiring grandeur.

Because He’s cool like that.

I didn’t grow up in a denomination and the idea of joining one took some time for me to wrap my head around. That part of me that likes the simple doesn’t always understand the need for things like creeds and manuals and ordination processes. The Apostles didn’t need any of that to do the work Christ gave them. That other part, though, the formal side, is pretty into structure and order and sacred tradition.

The Church of the Nazarene (my denomination) requires men and women who want to serve in full-time ministry to go through a rigorous, years-long process. There’s schooling and licensure and meetings and mentoring. Some parts of it make sense, some parts of it make me roll my eyes. In the end I’d rather caution than foolishness; anyone who dares take on the mantle of leadership should know exactly what they’re getting into and take that very seriously. It’s no light thing to stand before a congregation and preach the Word of God.

When all the hoops are jumped through and all the tests passed, then the ordination ceremony. A solemn occasion. All the candidates stand in front of the church members gathered for district assembly (basically all the churches in a certain area get together for a several-days-long business meeting, but with worship and cool workshops). There’s a whole lot of prayer. No rushing through allowed. It’s pretty awesome to watch.

I have zero desire to be a pastor. Oh, preparing sermons each week would be super-fun, and I could probably muster up the courage to stand behind a pulpit and preach, but the other stuff…the having to listen to people complain about stupid things and keep from smacking them…yeah, I’m not so good at that. (Thank you to the men and women who are. Thank you for not smacking me when I complain about stupid things).

But I am in ministry.

Stupidly, I didn’t realize this until recently.

I’m not ordained.

I’m definitely not paid. (Starving artist status, for the win).

But every time I open my laptop and start typing, I am engaged in ministry. I am teaching. I am leading.

Yes, I have known for a long time that my spiritual gift is teaching. I can’t help but tell anyone who will listen (and some who won’t) about the things I’m learning. It just happens. I have known since I was a child that I have the ability to write. But ministry? That’s for the people “up there.” That’s not me.

I wonder how differently we might see ourselves and our work if we lived in the light of two words: holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).

What does it mean to be the elect of God? Quite simply, the elect of God identify with the vocation of Christ and are a holy people who manifest God’s glory in the world. As Christ bore the rejection of humanity, so will his followers. Yet as Christ fulfilled his calling as the Elect of God and was honored, so it will be for his followers. God’s elect people identify with God’s elect Son and assume his vocation in the world.

For this very reason, Peter concludes this section by ascribing to Christians the titles of honor enjoyed by Israel (2:9-10). Like the redeemed of old, those who have been redeemed through Christ are God’s chosen, holy people who make known the wonderful deeds of God in the world. As the elect people of God they are the unique people through whose Christlike conduct God reveals his mercy and power to the world.

Asbury Bible Commentary, emphasis mine

The purpose of ministry is to “make known the wonderful deeds of God in the world.” This can and should be done by those who have heeded the call of the Lord and given themselves over to this work in a formal, full-time way. This also can and should be done by those who have heeded the call of the Lord and given themselves over to this work in an informal, but no less full-time, way.

We’re all called. Anyone who belongs to Christ has been enabled to do whatever it is He has called her to do – from bringing truth and light to the corporate world, to patiently changing another diaper while singing “Jesus Loves Me,” to submitting to the process that results in a pastoral position. It’s all ministry.

And there it is, that blending of simplicity and formality. A glimpse into the mind of God, who brings the low and the high together in order to create something entirely unique, something that cannot be copied by mere human effort.

Minister wherever you are, however you can. Each day is filled with opportunities to make God known. There’s always someone who needs to hear His truth and feel His love. You and I are the vessels by and through which His presence and salvation are declared.

Let’s not forget or waste that knowledge. Let’s learn to see folding laundry and filing reports and sitting at bedsides and everything we do as holy work – chances to pray and speak and be the hands and feet of Christ. There is no sacred/secular split for us.

For if we are in Him, then this is all about Him.

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Elitist Jerkface

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

The mind of the intelligent seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feeds on folly.

– Proverbs 15:14 (NASB)

Kesiyl: fool, stupid fellow, dullard, simpleton, arrogant one

Biyn: to discern, understand, consider; to perceive; to understand, know; to observe, mark, give heed to, distinguish, consider; to have discernment, insight, understanding; intelligent

Which do you want to be?

No knee-jerk answers. Really think about it.

I spent 19 years of my life in a single-wide trailer. Just before I turned 22, I moved, with my new husband, into a 450-square foot apartment. (It came with bright orange counter tops and harvest gold appliances. Classy). Eleven years later, there are still times when we celebrate that we get to keep our house for one more month. My father’s roots run deep in the soil, in farming. My mother likes to joke that her family used to be “nothing but horse rustlers and cattle thieves.”

I also had the grades that would have gained me entrance into the Ivy League (had I wanted that much debt and not been completely terrified to live that far away from family). I have debated existentialism. I was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a national honor society. I’ve written three books. I read encyclopedias for fun.

So who am I?

A woman of the people?

Or an elitist jerkface?

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the believes in Ephesus, a city on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). In that letter he made this profound statement:

For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation…

– 2:14 (NKJV)

In its immediate context, this verse applied to the obliterating divisions between Jew and Gentile:

How could Gentiles ever forget that they stood outside the covenant made with Israel? Only on rare occasions could Gentiles participate in covenant observances. Had they wanted to join with Israel, the barriers were indeed great. In that condition, before the Gospel, they were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise. How desperate the Gentiles’ condition, according to the Jews. Gentiles were aliens, unable to apply for citizenship, excluded, and thus without spiritual rights. They were, therefore, without hope. Even worse, they were without God in the world, alone, bereft, drifting. Without access to the rituals of the Hebrew faith, what prospect for salvation did they have?

Surely the Gentiles needed a miracle if they were to be saved. Who could remove the obstacles to God for them? Who could offer them access to grace and salvation? Was there any possibility that they, too, might assume the throne, or were they always to be without hope?

In God’s plan and in God’s time, provision was made. Through the blood of Christ those who once were far away have been brought near. Access has been provided through Christ, the believer’s peace. The shalom of the ancient covenant finds its fulfillment in God’s designated Messiah, who has broken down the wall that separated them, a wall of hostility greater than the actual barrier in the Jerusalem temple that divided it into gentile and Jewish sections.

Asbury Bible Commentary 

Not only did Christ tear down the barrier between God and humanity (Matthew 27:51), He tore down the barrier between people. Everything about Jesus – His ministry, death and resurrection – was (and remains) centered on reconciliation. We couldn’t save ourselves. We pushed God away. We pushed each other away. And so He came to do the things that we couldn’t and enable us to live in peace with God and others.

Paul goes on:

…having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. 

– 2:15-18 (NKJV)

Every person who believes is part of His family, part of His Body.

If you’ve been in church for awhile, your eyes are probably glazed over. You’ve heard this before.

Why is it, then, if we’ve all heard it before, we persist in creating new barriers?

In doing the opposite of what Christ did?

I watch as churches dig in and become more stubbornly anti-intellectual. “Smart people” are just full of themselves. They’re the “elite.” They probably think that they’re better than everyone else. They’re intimidating. They don’t “get” the “regular people.”

Bizarrely, people who know more than we do, who might be smarter than we are, must be stupid, because they don’t quite fit the mold.

Sit with that for a second.

We would rather keisyl than biyn.

I’m all for blowing up the ivory towers and breaking down the complex words. Theology need not be the pursuit of a special class alone. Anyone and everyone ought to have access and be able to learn.

But to learn, you have to be willing to be taught. And to be taught, you must have a teacher.

We can’t shun the “smart people.” God has them scattered throughout our congregations for a reason. The spiritual gifts of knowledge and teaching are real and necessary to the proper functioning of the church. We have belittled these gifts in a age of sound bites and memes and feel-goodness. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t want to grow.

But we need to.

We need the “smart people” and the “smart people” need the “regular people.” Everyone needs everyone else. That’s how God designed it. We need the person who can explain the Greek words and we need the person who finds joy in vacuuming the carpet. Nobody is better than anyone else.

It’s time we stop assuming that intelligence and arrogance go hand-in-hand. Time we stop believing that experience is all we need and there’s no value in study. Time to remove the bricks that make the wall between the “them” that sits right next to “us” every Sunday. To be humble enough to ask the “them” to teach “us.”

Because:

Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer Christian faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith. …

At root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds. Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety.

5 Theses on Anti-Intellecualism

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For more, please read 8 Ways That Anti-Intellecualism is Harming the Church.