Category Archives: The Church

True Religion

This past week I ventured over to North Philadelphia to meet with two pastors (a married couple) who have led and personally underwritten a compassionate ministry for many years.  Their ministry has focused primarily on feeding the hungry, often people on the streets who frequently have no permanent residence.  This couple has a small congregation consisting mostly of the people who volunteer with them and some folks whom they help.  They have no budget to speak of, their office space is small and cramped, and most of their records are kept in spiral notebooks and on scraps of paper. They pray fervently, they network like crazy, and they lean heavily on GOD.

Last week, my friends fed 2200 people…not snacks or sandwiches but full meals.  This has been the pattern since the pandemic hit Philadelphia.  This is what they are doing each week. Whereas before, the numbers were in the hundreds, the degree of food insecurity in the area has caused those in need to grow by 10s…and the supply has kept pace.  GOD has been moving people and organizations to supply this ministry with food…every day, every week.  It just keeps coming, and they just keep giving it away to people who need it.

I met with them to discuss their plans for reopening their church to in-person meetings and their annual celebration event planned for September.  Two delivery trucks came while I was there: a van and a cargo truck with eight pallets of boxed food stacked nearly to the ceiling of the truck.  With four of us working, it only took minutes to unload the van, but even with two pallet jacks, it took more than an hour to unload and restack the contents in the cargo truck.  It was a hot day, and the sweat was pouring.

There was well over a ton of food sitting in the hallway by the time we were done.  The delivery truck driver asked one of the pastors how long it would take to distribute it all.  Her answer was, “It’ll all be gone by the end of the day.”  He and his 15-year old helper prayed with us before they left.

Weeks ago, I heard someone’s comment regarding the lack of trust they had in someone else (not surprising in these days): “I don’t believe what you say because I watch what you do.”

I think for anyone who spends time around my friends, who are both very clear and vocal in their proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, if you watch what they do, day-in and day-out, year after year, you can have confidence in what they say.  They are for real.  By the way, both of them would be considered elderly by today’s standards, and like the energizer bunny, they just keep going and going and going doing the work of GOD’s kingdom for His sake.  I think this is a big piece of what the Bible calls “true religion.”

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content.

Love’s In Need of Love

I don’t normally repost things, but this is never more timely.

 

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. – Lao Tzu

Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving.  It is loyalty through good and bad times.  It settles for less than perfection and makes allowance for human weaknesses. – Ann Landers

They do not love who do not show their love. – William Shakespeare

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. – Dalia Lama

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:29-31

Several years ago, I facilitated a group discussion on Living Biblically in Contemporary Society.  My intent was to create opportunities for dialog among a diverse group of Christians in our church on issues common in society then, and just as much today: immigration, gun control, sexual identity, climate change, race, and other topics on the societal radar.  Our discussions were lively, and by no means did everyone agree on everything, which I expected.  The underlying consideration was wrestling with how we could demonstrate a Christ-like ethos at every turn, not on reaching agreement about the rightness or wrongness of any given position.

 The core of that ethos, as I see it, is found in John 3:16, one of the most referenced passages in the Bible: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  This one statement leads me to this conclusion: Those who place their faith in GOD through Jesus Christ are to love what He loved and still loves, irrespective of whether we agree with the moral appropriateness of a social position, political stance, or behavior that is an outgrowth of an issue.  Love does not equate to condoning everything that happens around us.  If it did, any and all moral stances rooted in a desire to obey the GOD of the Bible would be meaningless.                                 

I suspect that it would take the Library of Congress (or perhaps more) to house all of the quotes from notable people about our need for giving and receiving giving love. The kind of love the Apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 comes immediately to my mind because of John 3:16, but not to the exclusion of romantic love or love of family members and friends.  Paul’s description is special because it is all-encompassing and without condition, which makes it also rare.  I view it as a key mile marker in “the race to win the prize for which GOD has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” that Paul speaks of Philippians 3:14.

 To recap, here’s what Paul says this kind of love does and doesn’t do:

  • It has a lot of patience and puts up with an awful lot
  • It is kind
  • It is not driven by ego
  • It doesn’t act out
  • It is not self-seeking
  • It is hard to provoke
  • It thinks the best of others, not the worst
  • It takes no joy in wrongdoing
  • It finds the truth to be a source of joy
  • In the face of problems caused by others, it is never cynical
  • It is always hopeful even when confronted with difficulty

 Whenever I read the passage, I’m reminded that this is the love that GOD has for me, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. I’m also reminded that I’m called to have the same goal as the Apostle Paul, including loving GOD and my neighbor in this way, which is only possible through the ministry of GOD’s Holy Spirit working in me.  If you’re unclear as to whom your neighbor is, review Luke 10:25-37 (Hint: GOD’s definition is pretty broad).

Because I live in the 21st century rather than the 1st, my natural tendency is to think that the possibility of loving like this is a distinctly and ridiculously naïve notion, i.e. it is impossible to give or to receive love this way because of the climate of competition between tribes, boundary protection (personal and group), the hoarding of resources for the sake of having a sense of security, and the gaining of power and influence (or, at least, aligning ourselves to the powerful and influential).

A friend once said our social climate today is really no different than what we see in street gang behavior, with each gang having its membership requirements, territories, identifiers, code words and signs. Although it seems to be increasingly amplified today, I think human history, since Adam’s sin in Eden, reveals that it has been this way since Cain’s jealousy of and subsequent destruction of Abel.  If humanity has always been this way and continues to be this way, then the Lord’s admonition to love is the only counter force that can demonstrate another way…you might say The Way.  Ironically, this is what Christianity was called before it was called Christianity.

This issue has been percolating in me for several months, prompted by a fresh hearing of Stevie Wonder’s, “Love’s In Need of Love Today.”  Recorded in 1974 as one entry on his masterful Songs in the Key of Life double album, it speaks in a soul touching way, of the very serious, negative impacts on all of life occurring because of serious deficits of love.  Stevie asks us to consider that love itself feels unloved, the very thing that some of the greatest thinkers in history, including the Greatest, say is essential to our being.  Love feels unloved! How messed-up is that?

To choose not to love is downward devolution from what humanity is supposed to be. To choose not to love is to deny the need for godliness. To reject love by not loving is to reject GOD Himself, for He is love (1 John 4:8).  This is not Hallmark sentimentality; this is the Word of GOD in all of its weight and glory.

If, as Stevie Wonder sings, love is need of love today, perhaps we who carry the name “Christian” need to submit ourselves to the examination light of GOD’s Word and Spirit, and the example of His only begotten Son.  We need to make sure that we are not in the way of what He wants to accomplish in us and through us, but in The Way.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2018. All rights reserved for textual content.

 

If you’ve never heard Stevie’s song before, here’s a clip:

https://www.google.com/search?q=love%27s+in+need+of+love+today&source=lnms&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiY1ZaB5qTcAhWmiOAKHYWlDYMQ_AUICSgA&biw=1051&bih=461&dpr=1.3

 

Reconciliation

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18) 

On the same day this is posted, I’m sharing a related, though much briefer devotional reading with folks in my denominational context based on this passage from 2 Corinthians.  Some of that devotional will be included here, but I want to use this platform to expand on my thoughts in light of conversations I’ve been a part of over the last two weeks, in particular, but also from time to time over the course of my adult life.

The term “reconciliation” denotes the existence of something broken.  Though I know there are some who are still in denial, it’s hard to deny with any integrity that the broad existence of racism, ethnocentrism (belief in the superiority of one’s ethnic group), and xenophobia (fear, hatred and/or distrust of that which is foreign) in our world indicates a fundamental brokenness in the ability of human beings to be in healthy relationship outside of one’s preferred group.  Even within groups, culturally rooted sexism, which so often undercuts women’s legally equal status, points to real brokenness and explains the discouragement many women experience regardless of their economic status.

From the very first post on this blog, I’ve been clear about my beliefs and my commitment to what I believe is the objective voice of GOD as expressed in His word, what we commonly call the Bible.  I start here because of things that I have heard and have had said to me from some, including a few who claim the same faith as I.

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:26-27). 

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22: 37-40; see also Leviticus 19:18)

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21).

We cannot square manifestations of relational brokenness with “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28; see also Colossians 3:11).

The marginalization and minimalization of any created being, whether an individual or a member of a nation, tribe or tongue is irreconcilable to the purposes and will of GOD for humanity.  And yet, here we are!

One of the reasons for our being here, at least for those in the USA I believe, is the attitude of “I didn’t do it so I’m not responsible.”  This alone is an explicit rejection of biblical oneness. Our Senate Majority Leader used this argument recently when asked about an issue related to slavery and its continuing impact on American civil life, “None of us currently living are responsible.”1

Personal and collective responsibility to earnestly attempt to right wrongs is rejected.  The hyper-individualism built into the fabric of this nation enables people to effectively push back on pleas to do something.  We see this, unfortunately, in much of evangelicalism where righteousness and justice have been separated as twin principles of goodness and replaced by a heavy emphasis on personal piety as the sole standard bearer of what is good.  This combined with the refusal of responsibility easily leads to a “not my problem” attitude.  The net result is a state of national sin (We may have a problem…) and its legacy which no one wants to own (but it’s not my problem).

This is understandable, again in light of the highly influential American ideal of individualism, but as an excuse, it is historically invalid.  Here are three examples I point to as highlights:

  1. The Ancient Israelites. The sins of the generation of formerly enslaved Israelites following 400 years of Egyptian slavery were so broad and continuous, despite the blessings of GOD (presence, provision, and protection) that He caused them to wander in the desserts of Sinai and Arabia for 40 years.  They were not allowed to enter the promised land.  The entire culture was judged and held accountable.  It was only after this generation died that entry was possible.  And the same faith and obedience required but not demonstrated by their parents was required of this new generation.  They were raised in the midst of consistently disobedient and spiritually derelict people.  This was a major component of their legacy.  And while the new generation were given opportunity and help in not repeating the mistakes of the past, and even despite their pledges to be faithful, their track record was inconsistent, and it degraded over time in ways that modeled the previous generation.  The result: once again, the entire culture was judged and held accountable.  Who among them were able to say, “I didn’t do it so it’s not my problem.”  It was everyone’s problem.

 

  1. The Shoah (Holocaust of the Jews during World War II). The genocide of 6 million Jews by the German Nazi regime and their proxies (along with 5 million Poles, Russians, Roma, and homosexuals) was inarguably among the most horrible set of events in human history.  In the last 70 years, however, in the old West Germany and now in the consolidated country, reconciliation efforts have been extensive, continuous and genuine.  One result is Germany’s ascendant international popularity within the international community..2  What is more astounding are the number of Jews who are opting to move to Germany as a place where they feel safe and comfortable.3  This remarkable outcome could not have happened without the collective support and engagement of a majority of the German population.

3.  Japan and Korea. To this day, tensions remain between Japan and South Korea expressed in political and trade disputes.  The roots go back 100 years and was vividly evidenced during WWII.  During the war, Japan conquered and occupied Korea and made many Koreans forced laborers (slaves).  Additionally, many Korean women were forced into sexual slavery through a system referred to as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.  The demands for Japan to repair the damage caused by their atrocities have not been sufficiently met according to the South Korean government.  The Japanese, however, have staked out a position that all matters are settled,4 e. they are no longer responsible for what happened in the past.   This unresolved tension is a sensitive issue for the Japanese, one for which it is not politically correct to openly discuss.  Many young South Korean adults, on the other hand and born decades after the war, have taken this on as their own issue of current political protest.  It remains a problem.

Each generation’s failure to confront and address the sins of prior generations perpetuates participation in the sin, not because we necessarily overtly commit them (although we can) but because we omit acknowledging and confronting their existence and impact (James 4:17).  If we truly are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, not being the cause of something does not mitigate against responsibility for wrongs against our siblings because. long after those who have caused the problem have passed into eternity, the impact of the wrong remains.  A society that depends on the “I’m not responsible” argument is one that is not supported by history.  The sins and failures of each generation have this way of following succeeding generations.  The argument ignores the corporate nature of the human body…and most certainly the GOD-defined nature of the body of Christ.

The opportunity is to either correct the past or to ignore the past, wishfully thinking that the past will resolve itself.  Perhaps, like the ancient Israelites, it will take direct action by GOD to address the wrongs of both the far and near past.  The Germans took it upon themselves to look themselves in the mirror and courageously face their past.  The result is that something wondrous is happening.  For the South Koreans and the Japanese, the situation remains to be seen, although it seems both sides have the feet dug-in.

Like any unresolved conflict, the result of ignoring the past or suppressing it just forces conflict to bubble over (or explode) at another time and perhaps in other ways.  Not sure about that?  Ask Dr. Phil or any competent psychological counselor.  That’s what I believe we are seeing in the USA today, the reemergence of long-simmering conflict repeatedly ignored and suppressed by the denial of its existence and the refusal to acknowledge any responsibility, individual or collective.

Another reason we’re here is because whenever an individual or group experiences injustice, someone else benefits, materially and/or psychologically.  When these benefits accrue to one (or to some), are the beneficiaries not complicit in the injustice if they accept the benefits?  If the answer is ‘yes,’ then these beneficiaries bear a responsibility to correct the injustice.  Refusal to move toward correction is a tacit approval of the cancerous condition of injustice where it produces privileges for some and penalties for others.  A ‘no’ answer to any complicity is a validation of the injustice and a commitment to the status quo.

Whenever restrictive and discriminatory housing practices, predatory mortgages, prejudicial treatment toward retail customers, inequitable treatment by police, inequities in educational access and delivery for children, use of urban settings for environmental dumping, neighbors who harass those who are exercising their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (e.g. walking, jogging, backyard barbecuing, enjoying public parks, birdwatching), and a list of other examples that are common negative experiences of some folks, there is an opposite positive experience for others.  Something limited or denied to some is made readily available to others.  This is a corrosive reality which has had and continues to have important negative side effects across a broad spectrum of the American population.5

Finally, I return to the word “reconciliation” which I mentioned early in this post and a word I’ve heard lot lately, to hardly anyone’s surprise.  Societal clashes of various sorts tend to raise the profile of that particular need.  Reconciliation was a significant theme in the Promise Keepers movement in the 1990s.  I went to several of those stadium conferences and one or more of the speakers were designated to speak on the topic.  All of them did I great job, I thought…although we’re still talking about it.

In March 1992, I was at a conference held at a Youth for Christ camp outside of Johannesburg, South Africa during the S. A. referendum on ending apartheid.  Only white citizens were able to vote in that referendum, and all of us in the conference (members of my denomination from the African countries south of the equator along with a handful of Americans and Europeans) waited in great anticipation at the outcome.  Even while various people were speaking, a small box radio (remember those?) was tuned in the back of the room so that we could track the voting returns.  That historical vote opened the door to a powerful and deeply needed work of reconciliation in that country that had known so much strife and bitterness rooted in racial separation and domination.

Four decades ago, the first description of reconciliation I heard in my local church was this: Reconciliation is when something broken, like a dinner plate, is carefully pieced and glued back together.  The cracks from the brokenness will still be visible, but the plate is whole once again and fit to be used for its intended purpose.”  I recall this illustration every time I hear the word “reconciliation.”

A question I’ve asked often over the years (usually to myself) is, if Christ was able to reconcile the entire world to the GOD the Father, why can’t we be reconciled to one another, person to person, group to group?  I believe we can, but I think the cost is big, perhaps too big for some.6  It requires of each person a decision to be the reconciliation just as Jesus was.  It means having a broad vision of and for the world.  It means following in Christ’s footsteps in the deeds of reconciliation as well as its words.

Reconciliation flows from the inside out and reflects the desire of the heart to be one with other hearts.  While it may be motivated by an external influence, the movement toward reconciliation cannot flow from anything outside of us.  It won’t come from some source other than the spirit of reconciliation at work within us.  As 2 Corinthians 5:18 says, reconciliation is a ministry given to the Church.  This means those of us who are the Church:  everyone who counts themselves as a member of the family of GOD who loves the world.

How wonderful it would be for us to be the glue that binds the broken pieces together.  This is extremely hard and self-sacrificial work, and for too long many have pushed it away and that’s why we’re still here.  My prayer is that GOD’s way will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

“Every time in history that men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” – Henri Nouwen

1 – Corky Siemaszko, NBC News digital, July 8, 2019.

2 – Greg Rienzi, “Other Nations Could Learn from Germany’s Efforts to Reconcile After WWII,” John Hopkins Magazine, Summer 2015.

3 –  Daniel Estrin, “Thousands of Israelis Make Berlin Their Home and Make Their Cultural Mark,” NPR, March 7, 2019 and Isabel Vincent, “Why American Jews Are Moving to Germany,” New York Post, January 5, 2019.

4 – South Korea and Japan’s Feud Explained, BBC News, December 2, 2019.

5 – Karina Bland, “Blue eyes, brown eyes: What Jane Elliott’s famous experiment says about race 50 years on,” The Republic, AZCentral.com, November 17, 2017 and 2015 Stress in America:The Impact of Discrimination, The American Psychological Association, January 2015.

6 – See Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Touchstone (originallypublished by Macmillan), 1959.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.

 

Crisis in the Church

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’” (Mark 12:17)  

In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which effectively legalized Christianity.  A decade later, Christianity had become the “official” religion of the Roman Empire.  Reading these words as I write them brings to mind those TV commercials citing various consumer and financial products as being the “official” product of sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics.

Prior to the pandemic, I often had reason to drive on I-95 in South Philadelphia and couldn’t help but to see Lincoln Financial Field, the Wells Fargo Center, and Citizens Bank Park, all where Philadelphia professional sports teams play and all with their corporate names largely emblazoned on the exteriors of these facilities.  By various acts that led to the mainstreaming of the faith, creating within it structures and hierarchies along Roman lines, and giving it preferred status, the Church was positioned to be a partner with civil government…and, I fear, sometimes its enabler.

Christianity, the Official Religion of the Roman Empire!

As a result, maintaining its core character as the exclusive creation of Jesus Christ, being His prophetic voice in the world, and performing the priestly function for the blind, the captive, the prisoner, the oppressed, i.e. everyone He loves and seeks, has often been mixed with serving as an instrument of power to pacify populations and sustain the status quo.

The political terms “right wing” and “left wing” had their origins in the French Revolution of the 18th century.  In the French National Assembly, as delegates were debating and attempting to draft a constitution, those aligned with the king and his efforts to minimize reform and retain power and privilege, including the wealthy aristocratic class, would sit to the right of the person presiding over the debate.  Those seeking a republican form of government with less power for the king and more rights for the king’s subjects sat to the left of the person presiding.  It was then typical of the clergy to sit on the right.

The king and his kingdom were eventually overthrown violently. Among the repercussions in France to this day is a chilly attitude toward the Church.  That attitude has not always been warranted, but it can be difficult to overcome the collective memories and biases of a people.

There are plenty of other examples of state/church partnerships such as the various “religious” crusades to retake the Holy Land, forced (sometimes brutal) conversions of Jews and indigenous populations around the world, its role in justifying and sustaining slavery and the ideal of Euro-based ethnic and racial supremacy, and church-endorsed antisemitism by both the western and eastern Church.

Quite frankly, I don’t believe empires need an official religion…they tend to worship themselves.  They seek their own ends which typically don’t align well with the vision of GOD for His world as expressed in His Holy Word.  History has proven that when the Church of Jesus Christ aligns itself closely to the politics and economics of empire, the power of its witness suffers.  It gives to Caesar that which is GOD’s, and the blind, the captive, the prisoner, and the oppressed, i.e. everyone He loves and seeks for His kingdom are at risk of being confused by the Church’s voice or worse, turned-off by it.

I accept that some will naturally be turned-off by the message of the gospel which I believe is good in every way.  Jesus said to expect this.  The hearts of many are hard and the enemy of souls works hard to keep them hard.  I doubt though that those whose hearts are open and seeking the authentic GOD will be confused by the agapē of His servants.  If the Church is confusing or turning people off for other reasons, it is a true crisis for the Church.

Monk and mystic, Carlo Carretto (1910-1988) said that “when there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation.”1  By “contemplation,” he means the intentional practice of being awake to GOD and whatever He may be saying or doing at a point in time.  Contemplation is an quiet, patient openness, awaiting and listening in order to become aware and to discern rather than a reacting and a doing.2 Contemplation is a way of being and a type of prayer that was heavily deemphasized and discarded by those who led the Protestant Reformation.  It has only been in relatively recent times that contemplation as a spiritual discipline has regained some acceptance in the Protestant Church.

Carretto goes on to describe the crisis: “The Church wants to feel able to explain about her [Lord] even when she has lost sight of him; even when…she no longer know his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.”3

I believe “the other people and other things” has often been the alignment with worldly power and the perceived perks that come with that.  The Church, in its history, has demonstrated a belief that such alignments can help it advance its cause which it genuinely believes to be spiritually and morally sound and, therefore, beneficial for all.  But I raise the question as to whether expedience (doing things because they are advantageous) has ever been a legitimate spiritual value.  Subscribing to this indicates a belief in “the ends justifying the means.”  It is utilitarian philosophy (that which achieves a desired end for the perceived benefit of the majority is justified).

Clearly, some believe in this.  I don’t.  It too easily leads to taking what belongs to GOD and giving it to Caesar.  It may work for the benefit human systems; I don’t think it works for the kingdom.  Perhaps that was the point Jesus was making.

1 – Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes. Orbis Books, 1974.

2 – Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. InterVarsity Press, 2005.

3 – Carretto.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise indicated.

For Such A Time As This

“…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Today is Pentecost Sunday.  In Judaism, Pentecost (referring to the 50th) was a harvest celebration held seven weeks and one day following the Passover.  In Christianity, Pentecost marks the birth of the Church when, 50 days after the resurrection of the Christ, His promised Holy Spirit fell on the 120 Jewish believers huddled together, praying in a room.  From that small beginning, the harvest of souls worldwide began.  It continues even now in the midst of deep unsettledness.

Pentecost is personally significant to me as it was the day 41 years ago when I offered myself to Jesus Christ, in faith, as a believer and became an adopted son of GOD.  In time, that believer status transitioned to servant.  I am an adopted son of GOD by the work of Jesus Christ, possessed by His Holy Spirit, and I choose to serve Him because He is worthy.  To borrow from a friend, “I believe Jesus is exactly who He says He is,” and on that my life is based…not that it hasn’t been a difficult struggle at times.

Today, in a pandemic filled world, pastors and priests have or will be proclaiming the Pentecost from their pulpits, home offices, and dining rooms to listeners near and far, in small, masked huddles in church sanctuaries and over various technology platforms.  They will be talking about the historical act of that initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the current relevance and need to experience both a personal and corporate outpouring because it is the will of GOD for all to be saved and baptized with and filled with the Holy Spirit, enlivening the image of GOD within us, the perfect model of whom is Jesus Christ.  Scriptures were or will be referenced and impassioned arguments made.  And as truth is earnestly proclaimed, the Holy Spirit will search the hearts of every listening person, preveniently leading them to make a decision.  At its core, that decision has to do with our own spiritual status quo and whether we will cling to it or relinquish it to GOD.

Our world is very troubled.  That trouble is within our borders and beyond it.  We euphemistically choose words like “pandemic” over “plague” because “pandemic” doesn’t sound quite as threatening.  Nevertheless, people are dying in large numbers even as some clamor and even insist on a return to “normal,” sometimes denying the utter seriousness of our collective situation or choosing to take the risk in what they believe to be a Catch-22 reality.

Beyond this, we find ourselves witnessing scenes reminiscent of those of the late 1960s and early 1970s when frustration, pain, and anger at systemic and isolated injustice spilled over into the streets, often in acts of violence.  I remember what happened in Detroit, in Newark and elsewhere.  As a college sophomore in 1970, I stood with a few others at the head of Springwood Avenue in Asbury Park as buildings I had walked past countless times in my youth burned.  I remember the sounds of gunfire and seeing a WABC news reporter from NY beaten and arrested within 50 yards of where I stood.  I recall the tanks and other military vehicles stationed in the parking lot of the Asbury Park train station.  I witnessed and experienced other things as did virtually all of my contemporaries.  It was hard then and it is hard now.  The Teacher was right, What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)…and here we are.

Beyond our borders we find other tumult.  It’s not exactly what we’re experiencing, but it is disturbing, nonetheless.  We don’t have to look hard to find it if we are interested in knowing.  What is going on in Hong Kong is just one example, but there are many others.   It is as the chorus of a famous song of my youth, says, “That’s the way of the world.”1

Much of what we see, expressed in anger and protest, is a reaction to and rejection of the social political and economic status quo.  It is a rocking of very large boats that strongly resist being rocked.  It is a challenge to those who want to think that all is well or would be if those who are so vocal would stop being so vocal.  Theologian Walter Brueggemann commented on this, “Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion.  The norms of…social control are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms [status quo].  Otherwise the norms would collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.  Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the numbness of his social context.”2

Just by being who He was, Jesus critiqued the “numbness” (i.e., not feeling or caring) of the society blind and unconcerned about the legitimate needs and complaints of those among them.  He offended those who were committed to maintaining the status quo, including the religious establishment.  He is still offending today.  He was concerned with righteousness and justice.  When we listen to what He said, we find both, not just one to the exclusion of the other.  He is still making people uncomfortable.  He said that this would be one of the purposes of the Holy Spirit in order to produce transformation in the spirits of those He seeks.  Conformity to the ways of the world [including its dependence on power-based systems of control] is a rejection of His Spirit-led transformation (Romans 12:1).

When people throw up their hands because they are frustrated, maybe they need to be listened to rather than dismissed or be told, “If you don’t like it, leave!”  Leave?  To go where?   For one out of every eight people in this country, nearly everything once possessed by ancestors was stolen: family names, ancestry, countries of origin, language, culture, dignity, and freedom.  These were continuous, large-scale, systematic, grossly violent acts against human beings who were stolen people, not immigrants.  We live in that legacy today and it is manifest in multiple ways, both subtle and not so subtle.

When folks decline to salute the flag because they, like James Baldwin have concluded, “…the flag to which you have pledged allegiance…has no allegiance to you,”3 consider them worthy of pursuit rather than indignation and condemnation. When people say they’ve had enough, maybe their views should be explored rather than being explained away and ultimately ignored.  When people say, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore,”4 maybe it’s time (or past time) to honestly examine what is behind such deep emotion particularly when, apart from that emotion, we call them “brother” or “sister.”

But there’s this other side, too.  As I process my own feelings and listen to how others have expressed theirs, I recognize that I cannot be a part-time Christian, a part-time servant.  As a bond servant of Jesus Christ, I have made a choice to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh because I have been enabled to do so and I am convinced that is the choice to make.  Quite frankly, right now, it would be so much easier to walk in my flesh and allow the anger, hurt and frustration that has accompanied a life bumping up against 70 years to bubble over in rage…and there is a voice that seeks to convince me that I have every right to do that.

But I have relinquished my rights.  I choose to have no life but Christ’s.  He is in me and I am in Him and He is in the Father.  This doesn’t mean that I am not feeling, I am and more deeply than I might show.  It doesn’t mean I can’t be constructive; I just won’t be destructive.  I won’t return evil for evil.  What I will do is go as He leads me and I’ll say and do what I believe He wants me to say and do.  Both now and in the end, I choose to follow Jesus and let Him be my consequence.  That is my Pentecost choice.  I own it.

What is yours?  Own it!.

  1. Verdine White, Maurice White, Charles Stepney. “That’s the Way of the World.” Recorded by Earth, Wind and Fire. Released in 1975 by Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
  2. Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination, excerpted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Church Leaders, 1983.
  3. James Baldwin. “The American Dream and the American Negro.” The New York Times on the Web, March 7, 1965.
  4. A paraphrase of a statement made by the Howard Beale character in the movie Network, directed by Sidney Lumet. Released in 1976.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.

Random Observations

“The man said to me, ‘Son of man, look carefully and listen closely and pay attention to everything I am going to show you…’” (Ezekiel 40:4)

I was going to post something else today, but it didn’t “feel” right for this time.  Instead, here are a few thoughts that came to me while in prayer.

  • I have received blessing upon blessing throughout my life, including life and love. I can’t claim a single one as being the result of my own efforts.  Every one of these blessings has been because of GOD’s grace.  This is truth.

 

  • I want my eyes and ears to be open to every truth. I want to be able to perceive what is true from what is false, particularly the false which proclaims itself as truth, the darkness that masquerades as light.

  • There is brokenness in the land that is here and there and everywhere. I see a massive going astray…each to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).

  • Many of my brothers and sisters have exchanged their pilgrim tents for permanent settlements, having forgotten in their hearts that their true citizenship is in heaven (Colossians 3:1-3).

  • I perceive a long standing, and now increasing, division among those called to be the living stones of a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5), necessitating pleading cries for unity (John 17:11, 20-22). I pray they are being heard.

  • I see many attaching themselves to people, systems and views that are based in other than GOD, while continuing to claim GOD.

  • I see golden calves and lamps without much oil in the camp of the household of GOD (Exodus 32:4; Matthew 25:1-12).

  • I see an attitude of entitlement to blessings and a blindness to the reality that GOD lifts up and destroys nations (Isaiah 40:15; Jeremiah 4:7).

  • I see a seeking and grasping for hope behind the doors to empty rooms while ignoring GOD’s prescriptive, either because of ignorance or prideful insistence that we are able to cure our own ills (2 Chronicles 7:13-14; John 15:4-5).

  • I see a remnant who are humbly and earnestly seeking GOD’s face and favor for the sake of themselves and others.

These are just a few of the things I am seeing.  What are you seeing and hearing through your prayers?

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to original text content unless otherwise noted.

Check out my Thoughts from Others page for some interesting, encouraging and challenging ideas.

Deep In My Heart

I joined the church at a time when outward adornments, particularly those worn by women, were frowned upon in some quarters.  That was back in the day…maybe even the day before back in the day.  Noticeable makeup and earrings are two things I remember hearing comments on from time-to-time.   Even my first instructor in the ministerial course of study shared how his wearing a wedding band was problematic for some in his church community which was on a very conservative district.  He used, as a teaching tool in that course, the decision he was faced with whether to wear his wedding band at his ordination because he knew some would be offended if he did.  I won’t share his decision here; it’s his testimony.  As silly as it seemed to me that anyone would take the time to be acutely observant about such things, it was nevertheless an important lesson for me because others treated it so seriously.

As time passed, and earrings and makeup became more or less passé in evangelical circles, tattoos took their place as topics of corner conversation for a few.  The only people I knew who had tats when I was a child were those who had been in the military.  Even as an undergraduate during the early 70s when all kinds of societal norms were being challenged, tattoos or other body modifications weren’t broadly popular, with the exception of one social fraternity I know of that branded all of their pledges.  But once tattooing began being practiced across a broad range of American society, tattoos began to creep into the church.  As you might expect, some folks felt the need to comment.

I’m grateful that, by the time tattoos were common, the leaders of my church never made a big deal out of it because I never wanted to be part of a church claiming that all were welcome if, in fact, they weren’t.  There are way too many instances where that’s the case…and for more reasons than just tattoos.  People who were tatted-up or pierced were welcomed and we had a few.  The heart and compassion of one heavily tattooed person in particular was a great blessing to our church.

By the time she began to attend, I had become the lead pastor.  After a time, we got to know each other.  She was bright, well-educated and accomplished in many ways.  When she decided to share her story with me, it included the reasons she had gotten full sleeve tattoos on both arms, wrist to shoulder.  I had never seen them because she always wore long sleeves whenever she came to the church (I’m pretty sure she did that out of concern that it might be problematic for some).  The story she shared with me was rife with suffered abuse, long-term self-abuse, horrible decisions, tragic loss, and times of deep pain I cannot share here.  In Scripture, the experiences she shared with me are often referred to as “mire” and “the pit.”  Her tattoos were visual stories of her hard journey.

By the time she arrived at our church, Jesus Christ had already done a great work of delivery, forgiveness, and cleansing in her, and it was obvious in big and little ways.  She jumped in with both feet and was very supportive of the ministry from day one.  I  began  thinking of her as someone who had great potential to assume a leadership role.  Sadly, she had to eventually move because her military husband was returning from an overseas deployment (I had a chance to connect with him some too over social media).  It had been a long time since she and their two girls had been able to be with him so their decision to move to his stateside duty station was the logical and right thing to do.  I kept in touch with her after her move long enough to learn she had begun pursuing a doctorate in her professional discipline.

It’s easy to allow things that are ultimately superfluous to capture our attention when all seems to be going well in our lives.  That kind of prosperity gives us time to go down spiritual rabbit holes, often about the decisions others have made about their lives.  It seems to me that all of that extraneous stuff tends to dissipate when our comfort, our norms, our preferences, and our safety is under siege.  Coronavirus has upset the apple cart of much in the world and continues to do so.  It is having a dissipating effect on non-essentials, and we in the Church are being brought face-to-face with our commitment to the cost of discipleship.

Toward the end of Galatians 6, the Apostle Paul acknowledges that he had grown tired of having to defend his apostleship to some in the Church, noting that he bore the proof of his ministry by the brands (or marks) of suffering for Christ on his body (Galatians 6:17).  Perhaps he had to resort to that defense because too many couldn’t see the Cross of Christ branded on his heart; they were too busy focused on their internally derived standards for who was qualified.

I believe the Cross of Christ was branded on the heart of my former parishioner which made the outward brandings she bore unimportant to those who chose to know her.  I believe that same branding is on the hearts of many who do not fit into someone else’s non-biblical standard definition of what it means to be a deeply committed Christian.  May that same branding of the Cross be burned deeply into all of our hearts so that we serve Him with faithfulness and gladness.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content.

Jesus or Jonah?

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave His Son, His one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” (John 3:16, Message)

Yesterday, I watched a Smithsonian Channel television show about how Isis terrorists’ destruction of ancient religious sites in Iraq had uncovered underground caverns which contained artifacts with carvings referencing the story of Jonah, including his ministry to the city of Nineveh.

As the Bible story goes, GOD’s commanded the Prophet Jonah to enter the city of Nineveh to proclaim coming judgment on the city because of its long history of rampant wickedness and brutality…unless the people repented.  It was interesting to hear the comments of the various archeologists and theologians as they tried to harmonize the archeological record with the biblical story.  I won’t replay the story here; the entirety is found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

I do, however, want to make this one point: Jonah really didn’t want to do what GOD asked.  He went to extraordinary lengths to avoid obedience, up to and including putting the lives of others at risk.  GOD’s nature of love nature sought mercy for Nineveh; Jonah, GOD’s appointed preacher, preferred judgment for Nineveh.  Ultimately, he did do what he was told to do, and guess what?  The Ninevites listened and took Jonah’s message to heart.  The city experienced the conviction of GOD’s word and repented, avoiding wrath and destruction.  Mercy won out.

Jonah’s name means “dove,” a biblical symbol for GOD’s Holy Spirit and His favor.  Jonah’s divinely given role was to be GOD’s vessel, inducing conviction within the Ninevites and offering favor as a response to their repentance.  How true is it that still today so many live at odds with the favor-bestowing divine image within them, sometimes even after having been gifted with GOD’s salvation, entering into relationship with Him and being blessed with His favor?

The second line of the chorus to Chicago’s 1970 song, “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?* is “Does anyone really care?”  Do we in the church really care that spiritual lostness is a damnable condition in the people we know and in the people we don’t know?  Do we really care if they perish?  GOD cared enough to act.  One aspect of the renewal of our own minds to which Paul calls us to (Romans 12:1-2) is that we care, as well…enough to act.

If we consider Nineveh symbolic of the entire world, then many, many people in it are in deep need of repentance and GOD’s forgiveness.  Without it, like the Ninevites before Jonah’s message, they are lost.  Jesus came to seek and save the lost and He left us with a mandate to do the same (Matthew 28:16-20).   We are called to be like Jesus who cares deeply, not like Jonah who served GOD out of compulsion.

We’re in a time like no other in recent history.  Uncertainty always raises questions and many who are otherwise complacent about spiritual things often become seekers.  If we really believe we have good news, let’s be ready to share it like Jesus and not prefer to hide it like Jonah.

* “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is,” recorded by Chicago on Columbia Records, January 1969.  Lyrics by Robert Lamm.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted

For some thought-provoking insights, take a look at my “Thoughts from Others” page.  

Dirty Feet

“…What kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming…” (2 Peter 3:11-12)

On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus did a curious thing.  He took off His outer robe, wrapped a towel around His waist, took a bowl of water and began to wash the feet of His disciples.  Peter was incensed to the point of refusing this service from the Lord.  I think his motive was right; it was improper in his mind for the Son of GOD to perform a servant’s task.  Jesus made it clear that Peter’s understanding was off-center.  Peter, being Peter, went whole hog, “Well then, don’t just wash my feet, but my whole body!”  Again, Jesus clarified things for him; the rest of him was already clean.  His feet were where the need was (John 13:1-17).

There are many believers today who practice foot washing in their churches, treating this act as a sacrament in the same way as baptism and the eucharist are treated. I think, though, if we restrict this teaching to a literal command to wash the feet of others as a spiritual practice, we can miss a larger point.  I believe Jesus was making a point about being holy and our need to help each other live that way.

1st century Palestine was a dusty place, and foot washing was probably as common for its residents as brushing teeth is in our day.  Walking, the common mode of transportation, would easily make a person’s feet dirty.  Even activity in and around the home would have a similar effect.  The phrase “shake the dust off your feet” was more than symbolic; people had enough dust on their feet to shake some off.  Daily living exposed walkers’ feet to the common dust, dirt, and detritus of the road.  They could never be fully clean until their feet were clean.

In the same way, daily exposure to the common things of this world can have this effect on us, dirtying-up our “feet,” leaving its remnants on us, conflicting our thinking, our aspirations, our commitments, even as the rest of our spiritual bodies are “clean.”  A regular cleansing of the soul is always in order so that all of us is GOD’s, all of us is committed to His glory, all of us is filled with His Spirit, nothing is held in reserve, i.e. being holy.  And this, according to Jesus, is what we should do for each other as He did for us.  I am my sister’s and my brother’s keeper.  They are mine. I am accountable to them, and they to me.  We wash the feet of one another when we help and encourage each other to “walk worthy of our calling” and when we respond affirmatively to that help and encouragement.

Except in certain circles, we don’t hear much about holiness and holy living today, even in the Church.  For many, being holy is an irrelevant and outdated concept inconsistent with the values and preferences of contemporary life.  Others may not go to this extreme, but don’t believe it’s possible to be holy so it’s effectively dismissed.  Others like the concept but avoid focusing on holiness head-on, treating it like super-Christianity.  All three perspectives are in conflict with the Living and written Word of GOD.

The message I see is that not only is holy living possible, its pursuit is necessary to have fellowship with Jesus.  So…“Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep His promise.  Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.  And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of His return is drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25, NLT).

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to original text content.

Bridling the Tongue (And a Tribute)

“If the church would stop talking for 30 days, we would have revival.” – D. L. Moody 

I came across this quote six or seven weeks ago, and it has not left me.  I have revisited the thought many times.  To what extent do I speak unnecessarily?  Am I disciplined in holding my tongue?  What poor contents of my heart are revealed by my words (Matthew 15:11)? Do the things I say edify and encourage?  To what extent are they just unneeded verbal detritus?   The result has been a decision to speak less…and to listen more.

I don’t mean an absence of conversation, as in a vow of silence, but some small (?) steps: not injecting comments if they’re not really needed, not repeating myself for the sake of emphasis or to make sure I’m heard, and not seeking the last word in casual discussion.  I do think there is value in allowing others to have the floor.  What I may feel is an obligatory verbal edit or counterpoint isn’t as necessary as I might want to think.

And then there’s another step for me in this process.  A good friend and former pastor of mine used to challenge us periodically to go seven days without complaining about anything, criticizing anyone, or defending ourselves (including defending our views) for any reason.  I don’t have to question whether that is a small step.  It isn’t. Try it.  I’ve tried several times and will try again in the days ahead.  I believe it’s a worthy challenge for obvious reasons; just because we have the freedom to say things doesn’t mean we always should.  I think Paul summed it up this way, “I have the right to do anything…but not everything is beneficial.  I have the right to do anything, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12)…including the tongue.    

James, the pastor of the First Church of Jerusalem and the brother of our Lord knew control of the tongue was/is essential to a healthy walk on the pathway of life.  He mentions it three different ways in his letter to the Church.  Here’s one example in his typical blunt way of communicating: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongue deceive themselves and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).  

In over 40 years, I’ve never heard GOD yell to get my attention…it’s always been with a quiet whisper; and it was only when I have been quiet that I have heard it.  It’s only when I am quiet that I can hear my family, friends and others share what’s on their hearts and minds.  Love of GOD and our neighbor can manifest itself in many ways.  Perhaps mastery of the tongue is one of those ways.

One final note on Martin Luther King, Jr:

MLK wasn’t a politician, although he operated amongst those for whom politics was all important.

MLK wasn’t an anarchist looking to overthrow authority by creating chaos and disruption, although the reactionary response of many to what he preached revealed itself in chaos and disruption.

MLK wasn’t a moralist, although his message was consistently moral.

MLK was GOD’s man at a point in history when enough was enough.  He was called to confront the social, political, economic and moral hypocrisy condoned and even promoted by the power structures of the nation and call it what it was.

MLK was called to be the point guard of a movement to end the subjugation and denigration of people without power by those with power.

MLK was sent to remind us that the commandment to love our neighbor didn’t have qualifications, like tests of ethnicity, color, country of origin, gender or religion. He was sent to remind us that it is impossible to love GOD without loving our neighbor.

MLK was not perfect; he had his flaws, and was criticized, perhaps rightly, along with much that was unmerited.  But as some wise soul has said, “The only people who are never criticized are the ones who do nothing.” (Source Unknown).

The man might be gone, but the message and the need for struggle remains alive…if we who are here will carry the torch.  May we live lives worthy of this calling.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.