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How to Rediscover Lost Values with MLK

How to Rediscover Lost Values with MLK

One of my personal traditions is to listen to my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr speech each year on MLK weekend. While not as popular as “I Have a Dream” or “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” my favorite speech, entitled “Rediscovering Lost Values,” embodies the compelling moral vision of King and the broader African-American church that we celebrate each year on MLK day. This speech was actually a sermon delivered at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church before the Montgomery bus boycott that elevated him to a national stage. It reminds us that before King became the renowned activist and public persona, he was a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was his deep faith commitments of the latter that propelled him to become the former. The sermon’s correct diagnosis and searing critique of modern western culture’s moral relativism, in both theory and practice, is as relevant today in 2023 as it was in 1954.

King begins by asserting that, as modern people, “the means by which we live, have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live.” The profound problems we face in our world today cannot be solved by more information or more economic resources, both of which we have more of today than any society in human history. No, the problem lies within the hearts and souls of human beings and results from leaving behind the value of there being a God-given moral fabric to our universe. King likens this to the story of Joseph and Mary accidentally leaving behind Jesus as a boy in Jerusalem while returning to Nazareth (Luke 2:41-52). If we are to move forward as a society, we must go back to rediscover these foundational spiritual and moral values.

The problem is that we have forgotten that God created our universe with moral laws every bit as true as physical laws. Even if you don’t understand Newtonian physics, you know that if you jump off a tall building the law of gravity means that you will fall to the ground and die. Certain things are right and certain things are wrong, in every time, place, and culture, precisely because God made it so… 

It’s wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong! It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China! It was wrong in two thousand BC, and it’s wrong in nineteen fifty-four AD! It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong! It’s wrong to throw our lives away in riotous living. No matter if everybody in Detroit is doing it. It’s wrong! It always will be wrong! And it always has been wrong. It’s wrong in every age, and it’s wrong in every nation. Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. 

Yet, King points out, we think we can disobey God’s moral laws and not face the consequences. He says that we live by an 11th commandment that supersedes the other 10… “Thou shalt not get caught.” You can break any command you want, so long as you don’t get caught and face negative consequences for it. We have deceived ourselves and forgotten the biblical truth that “You shall reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7). This is the result of forgetting the moral foundation of the universe, and the God who upholds it.

At this point you may be amening just like the congregation at Detroit Second Baptist back in 1954. This is when King shifts the focus from our broader culture to the church. He observes that even believers can unintentionally forget God and leave him behind, just like Jesus’ parents accidentally forgot him back in Jerusalem on their way back to Nazareth. It is easy for Christians to “pay lip service to God and not life service.” We create false gods out of materialism or political ideologies that affirm us and how we want to live, and we use those idols to distract ourselves from the real God of Scripture who places moral demands on us and holds us accountable. 

All too often, Christians are passionate about either personal holiness or communal justice, while neglecting the other. King and others in the African-American Christian tradition show us there is a strong moral foundation that should lead to both. There is much the broader church can learn from them. We should seek to know the God who created this moral universe, and follow him by his grace.

This MLK weekend, I encourage you to take some time to read or listen to one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons. Let’s remind ourselves of the moral foundation of God’s created order, and how we follow the God who upholds it.

 

More Resources:

Rediscovering Lost Values

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Confession time…I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music. Maybe that’s because I get tired of hearing the same tunes every year. Maybe it’s just because “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “dreaming of a white Christmas” don’t evoke the same nostalgia for me as they do for others. These songs don’t resonate with my experience growing up in Africa. Or maybe it’s because the quaint sentimentality of many Christmas songs feel out of touch with my life and the concerns of a broken world. Call me a ‘Scrooge’ but I don’t plan on voluntarily listening to much Christmas music this year.

That being said, when I get past my personal music tastes and really pay attention to the lyrics of many traditional Christmas carols, I find them to have a deeply rich theology. One such song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This carol was written by Edmund Sears in 1849 during the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and popularized during the Civil War. The lyrics draw out the disconnect between the announcement of peace from heaven at Christ’s birth and continuing war and suffering on earth.

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

This opening stanza references the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). The carol doesn’t treat this pronouncement as something only given one time in the distant past, but envisions how this message is continually proclaimed. This happens despite the discord and division among humans, referenced by an allusion to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). 

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The next stanza is often omitted in contemporary hymnals, but it is my favorite. Unlike many sentimental Christmas songs, this carol is not unaware of the suffering and brokenness still experienced in this world. Even two thousand years after Christ’s coming, sin and death still reign in our world. Even still, the lyrics call us to hush the messages that lead us to strife and focus on the message of the Promised King.

 But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

The beauty of Christmas is not found in sanitized and picturesque images of an ideal nativity scene, but rather in God’s entrance into the broken messiness of human life as a real baby to save us. He is the one “who redeems your life from the pit” (Psalm 103:4). This song names those messy experiences of pain and suffering we have, and it invites us to look to Christ in the midst of it.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This carol captures the profound tension of the Advent season. We are caught in the already-not-yet, looking back to Jesus’ first coming with joy, and also looking forward in faith to his second coming, when he will make all things right. Unlike out of touch Christmas tunes, this carol connects with that enduring and timeless struggle.

For lo! the days are hastening on
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Listen to the recording of this beautiful carol performed by our campus worship pastors. As the music washes over you, may you experience God in the midst of pain, disappointment, and brokenness. He doesn’t ignore the pain you are in, but instead sees you there and enters into the mess to redeem it. 

We the Fallen People Includes You and Me

We the Fallen People Includes You and Me

I am a democrat [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Humanity.

I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought humankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government.

The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true…I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation….

The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Humankind is so fallen that no one can be trusted with unchecked power over his or her fellows.

“Equality” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses* by C.S. Lewis

 

Political Partisanship

If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you are frustrated and perplexed by the political partisanship that only seems to increase with each passing election cycle. Whether it be disagreements over abortion, inflation, student loan forgiveness, public school curriculum, or anything else, thoughtful and charitable debate is hard to find. In spite of these divisions, there is one thing almost all politicians, pundits, and activists agree on: “most Americans want what is right and good, and they agree with me.” Both sides of our political discourse will creatively redefine what “most Americans” means to make this statement true. You would be hard pressed to find a public persona who asserts “Most Americans disagree with me on this, but they are profoundly mistaken.” In our contemporary political culture, the voice of the people is considered the voice of God. 

 

Sin and American Democracy

I recently had the pleasure of reading We the Fallen People: The Founders and Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie, Professor of History at Wheaton College. In this deeply thought-provoking book, McKenzie explores the relationship between the Christian doctrine of sin and American democracy. He argues that the founders, who were by no means perfect, had a robust view of the brokenness of human nature that coheres with the biblical view. They designed our constitution with that view of human nature in mind and created built-in checks and balances to guard against the tyranny of the majority. However, within a generation, this view of fallen humanity fell out of favor with the function of American politics. The will of “We, the People” gained the moral high ground simply because it reflects the majority of people who consider themselves essentially good. 

Biblically, this is not true. Humans were created good but were broken and tainted by sin when Adam and Eve fell. God sees “that every intention of the thoughts of (humanity’s) heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The prophet Jeremiah locates this corruption deep within the human heart as it “is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). The apostle Paul, summarizing and combining much of the Old Testament, concludes that “none is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). Even Jesus himself declares “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).

 

Fallen Image-Bearers

Now this does not mean every human being is as wicked and evil as they could possibly be. Each human still bears God’s image even after The Fall (Genesis 9:6), and God’s goodness and common grace prevents humans from being absolutely evil. Also, Christians are not completely exempt from brokenness and sin from the moment of their conversion. Though sin is defeated when Christ redeems us and gives us the Holy Spirit, sinful desires and inclinations still remain within us. This is why Paul commands believers not to allow sin to reign in our mortal bodies (Romans 6:12). Moreover, the reality and depth of human sinfulness should lead even saved Christians to maintain a posture of humility toward others because we are all broken (Ephesians 2:1-9). Gospel-centered Christians can’t divide the world neatly into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead, we confess we are all the “bad guys”, and our only hope of being made new is the one Good Guy who died in our place.

Does our broader political engagement and faith in democracy embody this view? McKenzie says no and details major events in Andrew Jackson’s presidency that are emblematic of the opposite shift that still persist today. Notably, Native Americans were removed from the southeast portion of the United States during the “Trail of Tears” in order to distribute more farmland to white settlers. Though there was dissent to this egregious violation of justice and disregard for ratified treaties, such opposition was labeled as ‘elitist’ and wrong because it went against the “populist” will of the people. Jackson would say “the great mass of the people cannot be corrupted” in defense of these policies. This perspective prevails in the present day with our democracy functioning as though humans are individually good and collectively wise.

What should faithful Christians consider in our democratic process in light of this? 

 

Bearing Witness to God’s Kingdom

McKenzie does not argue that returning to the founders’ style of democracy, where only white, property-owning males could vote, would solve our problems. A tyranny of the minority is no better since all are affected by The Fall. He does point to the C.S. Lewis quote noted above and claims our motivation for pursuing democracy must reckon with the reality of human depravity. We should be cautious of assuming a certain perspective or policy is right merely because “the majority” believes it to be so. We should take care to protect the rights of minorities, practice restraint when our preferred “team” is in power, and advocate for principles of justice to be followed, even if they are unpopular. This is because victory for Christian values over our culture should not be the church’s goal, but rather to be faithfully present in the midst of culture to bear witness to God’s kingdom, no matter if the majority accepts or opposes our view.

Our engagement in politics ought to flow out of our virtue formation. One of the most commonly repeated quotes during election season is “America is great because she is good.” McKenzie explains how this is falsely attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, a French author who wrote about American democracy when visiting Jacksonian America. De Toqueville’s actual perspective was the opposite. He said “I cannot regard you (Americans) as a virtuous people.” He recognized a profound individualism in American culture that is antithetical to virtue, in that true virtue seeks the good of the whole at the expense of one’s self. A democracy that elevates the will of the majority, when there are not sufficient structures in that culture to instill the character of self-sacrifice for the betterment of others, will inevitably lead to tyranny and oppression.

Where Is Our Dependence?

As we enter into another contentious election season, let’s keep this in mind. American Christians have been given an immense privilege to have a voice in how our government is run. Engaging politically is potentially one of the most powerful ways to love our neighbors, while simultaneously also being an avenue that can bring immense pain and suffering to them. Let’s use that privilege virtuously to serve others. Let’s engage those we disagree with in a posture of humility. Let’s ask God for guidance and wisdom because we are dependent on him. Let’s interrogate our own political ideals as much as we question the “other side”, knowing that “We the Fallen People” includes ourselves.

Further Reading

McKenzie, Robert Tracy. We the Fallen People : the Founders and the Future of American Democracy. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021.

Lewis, C. S. “Equality” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. First HarperCollins edition 2001 [revised]. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

*Lewis’ quote has been adjusted to reflect contemporary norms for gender-inclusive language for human beings.

A Prayer for a New Home

A Prayer for a New Home

A few months ago I received a unique and exciting pastoral request. A young couple, Luis and Marineya of our Downtown Campus, purchased a house, and they wanted a pastor to pray for God’s blessing over their new home. Marineya is from Bolivia and explained it is typical in her culture to invite one’s faith community and spiritual leaders to do this when moving into a new house. She said this can “be a way for us to dedicate our house to God in service in front of our church community since all we have is his and not ours.”

 

I was intrigued by this idea, having never heard of someone doing something like this. Also, I was deeply honored to be asked. So one Saturday evening, their community group, some other church friends, and I huddled together in their home to pray for God’s blessing over their journey there. We used a prayer liturgy adapted from Every Moment Holy, had a time for people to pray specifically for Marineya and Luis, toasted to their new home, and then continued the celebration with food and drinks. 

 

Whole Life Discipleship

 

For me, this experience so beautifully embodied the kind of whole life discipleship we talk about so often. Jesus is Lord over every area of our life and deeply cares for the spaces where we live, work, and play. We should intentionally find ways to remind ourselves of that reality. We spend much of our lives in our homes, and it is important to mark those key transitions with a focus toward God and his vision for them. I am grateful for Marineya and Luis’ initiative to invite their church community and me into this practice. 

 

Below you will find the adapted liturgy we used that evening. I encourage you to consider using this liturgy or something like it the next time you or a friend move into a new house or apartment! Gather others from your spiritual community and prayerfully and intentionally celebrate God’s blessing in the provision of a new home. Also, take some time to peruse the Every Moment Holy website and consider purchasing one of their prayer books. There are so many moments throughout our daily lives where we can intentionally remind ourselves of God’s presence in them. 

 

A Liturgy for Moving Into a New Home

– adapted from Every Moment Holy*

 

Leader: We thank you for _________’s new home, O Lord, for the shelter it will provide, for the moments of life that will be shared within it.

People: We thank you for this new home and we welcome you here.

 

Dwell with them in this place, O Lord

Dwell among them in these spaces, in these rooms.

Be present at this table as family and friends eat together.

Be present as they rise in the morning and lie down at night.

Be present in the work here. Be present in play.

 

May your Spirit inhabit this home, making of it a sanctuary where hearts and lives are knit together.

Where bonds of love are strengthened, where mercy is learned and practiced.

 

May this home be a harbor of anchorage and refuge,

And a haven from which they journey forth to do your work in the world. 

May it be a garden of nourishment in which their roots go deep

That they might bear fruit for the nourishing of others.

 

May this new home be a place of knowing and of being known.

A place of shared tears and laughter;

A place where forgiveness is easily asked and granted,

And wounds are quickly healed;

A place of meaningful conversation, of words not left unsaid;

A place of joining, of becoming, of creating, and reflecting;

A place where diverse gifts are named and appreciated;

Where they learn to serve one another

And to serve their neighbors as well;

A place where their stories are forever twined by true affections.

 

Grant also, O Lord, that their days lived gratefully within these temporary walls, enjoying these momentary fellowships, would serve to awaken within them a restless longing for their truer home. Incline all our hearts ever toward the glories

Of that better city, built by you, O God, a city whose blessings are never ending, and whose fellowships are eternally unbroken.

 

Amen.

 

*The original prayer was written for a family to pray together when moving into a new home, so I shifted the language so that it made sense for the broader faith community to pray over a family as they move into a new home.

Why We Are Not Preaching on the Woman Caught in Adultery

Why We Are Not Preaching on the Woman Caught in Adultery

This week as we continue our series through the Gospel of John, you might notice that we have skipped over the story of “The Woman Caught in Adultery” (John 7:53-8:11). You may even be disappointed as this is one of your favorite stories about Jesus. I’m with you! I love this story because it presents so vividly both Jesus’ compassion and boldness. Yet even though I like the story in this Scripture passage, we will not be preaching from it. Let me explain why by first giving some background about Scripture , and why we have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word.

 

What is the Bible?

Christ Community Church and the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), the broader association of churches to which we belong, believes that God inspired the words  human authors wrote that have been gathered together into the Bible. According to our statement of faith, “We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings….” 

We believe this because Jesus, as the truest revelation of God (John 1:14-18; Hebrews 1:1-3), endorsed the entire Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) as God’s Word that will never become void (Matthew 5:17-18; John 10:34-35). He even identifies the voice of the human author in Scripture as God’s own voice (Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 12:36). Jesus also authorized His disciples to produce authoritative teaching in line with His message that became our New Testament (John 10:27; 14:26). His earliest followers agreed in identifying all Scripture as originating in God and containing absolute truth (1 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). These biblical writings demonstrate themselves to be God’s Word. They were received as such by the earliest Christians, even as early as Peter viewing Paul’s writings to be as authoritative as the Hebrew Bible (1 Peter 3:15-16). From the beginning, to be a follower of Jesus is to build your life on God’s Word as found in the Bible. This book becomes the center of our gathered worship experience as we hear it read, sung, prayed, and preached over all of us together.

How do we know what is the Bible and what is not? This is why the original writings are so important. John’s Gospel is viewed as Scripture because it was written by an apostle, showed itself to be God’s Word, and was received by the early church as authoritative. If I added my own thoughts to the end of John’s Gospel, those additions would not be seen as part of the Bible and would not be viewed as God’s Word, no matter how insightful I might think they are! In a similar way, if people, even with good intentions, added extra stories or comments to a part of Scripture after it was already written and received by the church, those sections should not be considered as Scripture. Otherwise, the Bible wouldn’t distinctly be God’s Word. 

 

How do we know what the original writings are?

We do not have John’s or any other biblical author’s original manuscript. That does not mean we have no clue about what their original writings included. We have many copies made by Christians throughout history that can be used to determine this. An entire field of scholarly study called “textual criticism” exists and people use their God-given talents to serve the broader church by comparing these manuscripts to determine which readings are more likely to be the original. To make a really complex discipline way too simple, when discrepancies between different copies are found, the reading that is found in the majority of the older copies is more likely to be the original reading. When this comparison is done, it becomes apparent which changes were done, either accidentally or intentionally. Even many of the intentional changes can be seen as misguided instead of malicious;  a copyist simply wanting to add a brief explanation to help readers or include something they mistakenly believed was originally in Scripture.

But before you start getting uneasy about whether we can still trust Scripture if there have been so many errors in copying it down throughout history, know this: after a few hundred years of serious scholarly criticism and discoveries of thousands of new manuscripts from centuries earlier and closer to the time of the early church, the changes to the Bible have been miniscule. There are only a handful of places (this passage, 1 John 5:6-7, and Mark 16:9-20) where a new discovery has substantially changed how a passage is read, and not a single Christian doctrine has been affected by these discoveries. So, we can be reasonably confident that the Bible we have is a trustworthy reflection of the original writings. Far from this scholarly inquiry and reason harming our faith, it has actually bolstered it, with the Bible displaying a much more reliable transmission history than any other ancient text.

 

What about “The Woman Caught in Adultery”?

Looking back at John 7:53-8:11, it is clear this story was not in John’s original gospel. Your Bible likely has brackets around this story with a note that says something like “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.” This is because the only manuscript before the ninth century to include this story was one from the fifth century found in western Europe (further from where John wrote) and also deviates from earlier manuscripts in other key areas. Other copies from the tenth century onward that have it, often place it, or variations of it, in different places throughout the gospels. It only became more common in its current form and location in manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, every other early manuscript omits it, notably including two of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, called Papyrus 66 and Papyrus 75 that date from the second or early third century and were found in Egypt (closer to where John wrote). Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament (c. 325 CE), does not include it either. No pastor or theologian from the eastern side of the early church references it until the tenth century. In their commentaries and sermons, they go directly from John 7:52 to 8:12 (keep in mind that current chapter and verse breakdowns were added later). Finally, all the earliest translations of the Greek New Testament (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Old Latin, and Georgian) skip this story as well.

 

Then how did it get in the Bible?

It is probably a true story about Jesus that His early followers passed around orally, but was not written down in one of our four gospels. This should not surprise us! John himself says that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” and this could be one of those (John 20:30). Papias of Hierapolis, a pastor who lived from 60 to 130 CE in Turkey, records a similar story in his writings that he had heard from others. As this story was told and retold between Christians, probably a scribe in the west really appreciated it (like me and so many others!) and sincerely or disingenuously thought it should be included in a biblical gospel. He or she probably added it to John 8 because it fits with Jesus not judging (verse 15). At the end of the chapter Jesus is about to be stoned (verse 59), so Jesus can be seen as taking the place of the sinful woman. Due to both a compelling story and sparse access to early copies of John, eventually it became the dominant reading by the time of the first English Bible translations.

 

What should we do with it?

There are so many stories of God working in the world that can encourage, challenge, and inspire us. These include writings by the Jewish people between the Old and New Testament, early Christian writings, church history, and experiences that you and I have today. There is nothing wrong with cherishing and learning from these stories. Most of them are probably true! According to the evidence we have, “The Woman Caught in Adultery” fits into this category.

 

However, as disciples of Jesus, we make a distinction between these stories, which may contain errors, and God’s Word that is without error in its original writings. The former stories certainly can be read privately and even referenced in public teaching, but they should not be read and affirmed as God’s Word by Christians gathered together. They are not a part of the Bible we build our life on, that is uniquely “to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”

Further Reading

Evangelical Convictions: a Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Minneapolis, MN: Free Church Publications, 2011.

 

Blomberg, Craig. “The Reliability of the New Testament”. The Gospel Coalition. 

 

Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.

 

Hill, Charles. Who Chose the New Testament Books? Deerfield, IL: Christ on Campus Initiative, 2018.