Monday, December 17, 2012

There Is No Peace On Earth

With the pain of grief from Newtown, Connecticut still fresh among us, I have little that I can write that will quickly sooth or speed up the healing process.

I must simply quote from the pen of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow through a poem written in 1863 during the bloody chaos of the American Civil War. In the mingled despair and hope of his day, he writes:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!   

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

To give a more cultural context to Longfellow's torn demeanor, I included all of his original work. The fourth and fifth verses are often omitted in the hymn that is sung to a tune given to the poem by John Baptiste Calkin in 1872, and the third stanza is usually shifted down to the final verse.

Longfellow's pain, with what is occuring in his world, is very real and drives the composition of this work. But his trust in what the Christmas message heralds, gives him the hope that Jesus himself embodies and provides.

The familiar Christmas narrative in Luke 2 has a theme that puts “Peace on earth, Good will to men” in a hopeful light as the Messiah makes his human entrance. But the radical Jesus later informed us, through the disciples, that the earth cannot fully contain this virtue. He gave us a “heads-up” in John 16:33, when he said:

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

May Jesus, God's Messiah, mend our broken hearts with his love and peace in this troubled world.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Corrective Lenses

I just read this insightful article from the Leadership link in "Christianity Today." It's called "Going to Hell with Ted Haggard." He has clearly taken over the whipping boy from Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

The ecclesiastical hang-up indicated in the article persists and becomes an obstacle to the advancement of Jesus' purpose in the world.

Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem, but he really emerged at the Jordan River with some radical concepts of God's intention on earth.

Jesus made some very bold claims while he walked on this earth and taught the earliest followers about what God’s reign looks like. Many in his time fully expected some kind of theocratic culmination – where every political oppressor would be eliminated. They desired to be a part of a political atmosphere where godlessness was absent. Many today desire a similar dominance where God’s ways are fully established.

In John, chapter 14, the disciples characterize this kind of mind-set. The conversation begins with a request by Philip in verse 8 and is followed immediately by Jesus’ answer.

“Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

“Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father’?”

Jesus provides some corrective lenses for Philip and all who hear and read. Who do we see when we look at Jesus? According to him, we see God. Whatever we observe in Jesus is indicative of who God is.

Paul asserts in Colossians 2:9: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”

This truth creates some modern challenges with strongly held notions, much as it did with those who first heard Jesus teach.

 Michael Hardin, in his 2010 book “Jesus Driven Life” states:

“There is a substantive difference between the way ‘God’ acted in the Old Testament and the way God acted in Jesus. No amount of interpretive gymnastics can hide this; it was a key question wrestled with in the early church. Christians are saying something essential when they assert that God has been revealed in the figure of Jesus. God is known, no longer unknown, no longer hidden, no longer mysterious. God is fully present in Jesus, not partially present, but fully, completely present…”

God is often presented today as a “sheriff” rather than a “shepherd.” The enforcement of righteous behavior becomes the paramount mandate of those who claim to follow. It becomes duty to coerce godly obedience in all. But is that what Jesus presented?

A very close and honest look reveals something much more rigorous for those who desire to follow. The mandate becomes the principle of self-examination and not the behavioral enforcement of others.

Jesus implies that in Matthew 18 with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the temple. The principle is created by a turnabout that dispels the conventional thinking of that time – especially with the characters used.

It is the very person who apparently needs the behavioral adjustments, in the parable that Jesus proclaims “goes home justified and not the other.” Why? Because he was humbly aware of his condition and shortfall from that which was pleasing to God.

Jesus’ purpose in coming to this earth was to transform each and every person through death to self and new life in him. He gave every follower a heads-up when he said “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

It is only his power that can do that and not ours. So why do we direct our attention to changes others? It is only Jesus’ property to transform first and judge later. We have the power to do neither for ourselves or anyone else.

Let’s put on our corrective lenses and look only at Jesus – who will enable us to die to ourselves and be raised to new life in him. This is his purpose in coming to this earth.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


"What would Jesus Say?" - is a much better question to ask than the "do" application. Most of Mesheach's purpose was to teach about God's supremacy, reign and purpose through us (Kingdom).

At times, he was stern with those who followed him. At times he was compassionate and loving. There were also times when he was aggressive in providing correction to errant practices. The latter was most often directed to those who deemed themselves as spiritual directors and teachers.

The problem seemed to stem from a downward progression of extrapolation and redaction of God's revealed truths. In short "This is what was said...this is what it means....and this is how it applies."

So Jesus often is heard stating: "You have heard..... but I say to you....." - thus turning what was learned and handed down completely on its head.  And I don't think he's finished doing that.

He prefaced his promise of sending the Holy Spirit to us by this qualification in John 16:12-15:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
The problem persists today. It is a product of pride and the lack of humility that Paul alluded to when he stated "...Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know" and that we all "know in part." There is "much more" to learn as God's pure truth progresses through the illumination of God's Spirit present through the diversity of his Body on earth - the Universal Church in its entirety.

So let's not open our mouths and pontificate as if we have our fecal matter completely consolidated.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Plush Grass and Polished Granite

Fresh out of seminary, I was "trained" to be the "pastor" of a "church." I was now in "professional ministry." This was my first "charge."

I must admit that it was cool for me to see my name at the bottom of the marquee (curious theater term). There it was: "Jeffrey A. Stewart" with "Pastor" in smaller letters below. I even took a picture of it.

I went in like every other newbie out of seminary does. 8 years of schooling and now I'm ready to ascend the ecclesiastical ladder so that I may end up as the Senior Pastor at one of the denominational biggies.

First things first. This little church will grow, under my capable leadership. I don't care that the average age is 71.78. I will overcome the fact that this little blue-collar town has no major industry left in it. We will flourish and the denomination will take note of it.

Within one month, I would begin to excel in an area I really wasn't ready for. It began with a phone call after I got into my "study" not long after the sun arose, on a warm autumn day.

"Pastor Stewart? This is ___________ of _________ Funeral Home in ________, FL. I suppose you've been informed of the death of ________ _______-son, yesterday afternoon?"

"No. I haven't been informed. Who is ________ _______-son?"

"He was long-time member of your church and former church chairman. He and his wife moved down here about 23 years ago."


"His body is being flown to Pittsburgh today and will be taken to (local funeral home). The family wants you to do the service, which will be this Saturday. They'll probably be calling you today. I thought they already had."

"Okay. Thank you for calling."

"It should be a well attended service. He was pretty well known in that whole area."

"Okay. Thank you for calling."

"Again, the family will probably be calling you pretty soon."

"Okay. I'll expect to hear from them - er ah, anticipate hearing from them. Thanks for letting me know."

"You're welcome. That's it. Thanks."

"Thank you. Bye."

"Good bye."

I swiveled my office chair in my tiny confines to the bookshelf behind me. I quickly found my seminary graduation gift, official denominational book of worship, with my name embossed on the front and denominational president's greeting bookplate on the front inside cover.

I flipped through it for the funeral section. The pages were crisp and new - but that would change over the course of 40 months until the book would fall open to this section.

This was the very first funeral I had in my "career." The Florida funeral director was accurate in his notion, as the service filled the venerable church building.

In 3.5 years, I had 17 funerals (all church members). I actually buried 4 married couples before I married 4 couples. To this day, I have the words of committal at the grave site memorized.

This serves as a backdrop to what I learned and became confronted with, as a young, energetic spiritual leader.

At one of the several committals I had over the next months, an elderly congregant looked around the grassy premises and remarked: "Many, many friends up here, Pastor." All I saw was another cemetery - a beautifully manicured lawn with hundreds of shiny name-engraved head stones.

Now I am at the age where more of my friends have died, slapping me with the open hand of mortality - and a majority of them from "natural causes." My face has lingering finger welts on it.

This life is a vapor full of varying types of splendor.

1 Corinthians 15
37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Referendum One and Transformation

It was ere - - - election day yesterday in NC. But it was just another Tuesday to me.

The <ehem> big issue on the ballot was a referendum defining marriage. 10 years ago I would have set a destination of my local voting precinct and exercised my right to have my opinion on issues and candidates tallied.

On Facebook, there were many intense conversations about "Amendment One." Some of the most vicious tones were modulated by those who supported it.

Okay - Here's where I trip up. A few revelatory paraphrased principles pop in my head like "blah...blah... let your light shine in such a way that others may see what you do and bypass you and give glory to God in heaven...." and uh - "that hope you have in you? - be ready to share it..... but do so with gentleness and esteem.. blah, blah...." The demeanor by most in support was far from lining up within these productive parameters. 

Let there be NO misunderstanding. I haven't moved anywhere on a horizontal spectrum that would pigeon hole me as an advocate that behavior clearly outside of what has been designed by a Creator and by functional common sense - - - is simply a matter of "preference." But I have not placed any expression that results purely from self-interest on a hierarchical totem pole.

My problem with this referendum is an issue of "convenience" and IMO laziness.

I found myself in Matthew 23 reading the concentration of Jesus emphasis on, what I correlate to legislative parameters. It seems like some view pulling a little lever in the state of North Carolina as an act of righteous obedience. I think it equals "do everything they tell you" (εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν τηρεῖν) and is lazy.

There is far more investment in engaging the culture and sharing God's global concern with the mingling of grace and truth. Paul's distress in Acts 17 is toned down when he meets with idolaters. Jesus' authenticity with the woman at the well provides a sense of newness freedom where she proclaims her discovery of God's mesheach to her community.

Vitriolic campaigning and a checked box are poor substitutes to yeast spreading among the batch.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What is "Compromise?"

Dictionary dot com defines the word first as "a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands." It is not until the 4th definition that there is a negative connotation.

I’m reading about a category that David Kinnaman refers to as “Exiles” in the book You Lost Me (Barna Books 2011). Exiles are those who connect with the Institutional Church minimally, but want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world they live in. They like the term “missional.”

The understanding mother of a budding movie producer has to contend with believing friends who question how her son can justify his occupation with making films that have language and other content that appear to be contrary to “Christian upbringing.”

She states: “I wish the church-at-large would understand that our children are called to mission fields that aren’t located on a globe but may be more culturally impacting than mission fields we currently recognize.” And may I editorially add: “…and conveniently write checks for.”

Her son observes: “ ‘A film isn’t Christian just because it has inserted the gospel message in there somehow. A film can point to Christ when it honestly portrays our human condition and invites us to experience something about redemption that each of us needs.’ ”

DK interviewed a musician who attended a meeting convened by Charlie Peacock at the Art House in Nashville.

He shares: “…One of them told me that she had been pressured by people in her church not to license her music to a secular television show because ‘the message would get lost.’ She said, ‘That just seems backwards. I mean, isn’t the message more likely to get “found” if people actually have a chance to hear it?’ “

DK also had many of them tell him that they don’t call themselves a “Christian band” as they desire to be heard as artists with a very important message to all who will consider what they have to share. (I have my own hang-up with companies that market “Christian clothing.”)

Are these the potential new “Billy Grahams” who have no hesitation of incorporating slang and mannerisms characteristic with the current culture? How far does the Mars Hill principle stretch? We often hear and have used the term “compromise.” Is compromise wrong? I’ve usually heard it used despairingly.

Doesn't Peter wrestle with what he thinks is a "compromise" prior to meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10? Doesn't Paul sense cultural tension in his distress prior to meeting with antagonistic philosophers at the Aeropagus in Acts 17? Does not the church owe its existence to these risky compromises?

My questions linger: "Why is it different today? Why are we still expecting the culture to come to where we gather?" It seems like a "cake and eat it" situation. We do benefit from gathering - no doubt. But we maintain an expectation that the culture is only successfully reached when they are present at our special place on the special day at the special time.

Monday, January 2, 2012

In Such a Way....

Matthew 6 contains Jesus' teaching about righteousness and how to personify it. He provides yet another mystic turn-about.

Verse 1 sets the tone: "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."

I have been critical of Tim Tebow because of how he publicly displays his spirituality. And I have been chastised by many (and there are *many*) who feel that he represents a positive image of one who follows Christ.

We are informed that we are the "light of the world" and we are commanded to let our light shine. But Jesus qualifies it in the same sermon before he conveys this secretive demeanor in chapter 6.

In Matthew 5 we hear/read these words (vv 14-16): "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

The original language suggests that the shining of light has a purpose. By what we do, we actually deflect the source of the light from us to the one who initiates all light and life. Others are enlightened by our service and obedience and look straight to God and give honor and glory.

I believe that Tim Tebow is truly a Follower of Christ. I also believe that my good friend, Ssengooba Samuel Mugabi is also a genuine Follower of Christ. Samuel (Americans call him) is a pastor in Uganda who cares for children, in his country, who have lost their parents due to AIDS and civil unrest. You probably have not ever heard of him, which I think is very valid.

His ministry is called "Children Saved By Jesus Ministry."

I see Ssengooba Samuel Mugabi's good works and I glorify God in heaven. He enlightens me with his humility and obedience to Christ. His service provides perspective and encouragement to me when I am challenged with the so called rigor of ministry in America.

Although I may be unfair to my other brother, I can't say that I do the same watching an iron-pumped athlete genuflecting in front of Betacams and 70,000 Orange and Blue-clad worshippers. Please forgive me if this is troubling to you.

Footnote: Pastor Samuel does not have a website, but you can find him on Facebook by searching his full name of the name of his ministry.