On Campus at Penn State Berks

Penn State Berks is a mission field.  I truly appreciate the work of Benson Hines in helping many people to see that college campuses are much like tribes on foreign mission fields.  Each tribes has its own culture, history, language and so on.  Our purpose is for people to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Since the members of each campus tribe have a different culture, the  methods we use may end up differing from campus to campus (tribe to tribe).

One unique aspect of campus tribes, as opposed to unreached people groups throughout the world, is that many students on campus have prior experiences with Christians.  Such experiences color their attitude toward Christians as a whole.  This became starkly clear to me recently.  A couple weeks ago we had a men’s night as a bunch of guys from CSF went to a pizza buffet, then returned to the dorms for a game of Risk.  It was getting late and one student, having to get up at 4 AM for ROTC stuff, left to get some sleep and another student who had walked by took his place.  The new student is Jewish.  A bit of conversation ensued about Jesus which remained friendly.  The Jewish student knew the Christians from before and was not interested in a religious discussion.  I introduced myself to him as the pastor for CSF.

A few days later I emailed one of the Christian students, saying I would like to buy that Jewish student lunch and get to know him.  The Jewish student refused, saying he feared I would try to convert him.  Later that same day he saw me on campus and came up to me to explain, saying he had had some negative experiences with people like me (Christians, pastors).  It is interesting because he seems interested in discussing spiritual topics, truth and so on.  If I recall though, a Christian (perhaps a pastor) had invited him to lunch once and the whole lunch had become a debate about religion.

On one hand I guess he was right, I would try to “convert” him if by that he means I believe that Jesus Christ is the savior and that belief, being central to who I am, would naturally come up in conversation.  On the other hand, I was taken aback because I am (or at least, try to be) respectful to those who disagree with me.  I try to listen as much, if not more than I talk.  I think it is just my job to be a friend, to build a relationship, to show Jesus in my words and actions but to leave the actual “converting” to the Holy Spirit.

This encounter has reminded me of the great challenge we face in reaching the campus tribes!  So many students have been hurt by religion and are not even interested.  My prayer is that the students in CSF would find ways to befriend people, to overcome these challenges, and to present the beautiful good news of Jesus Christ with love, kindness, humility and respect.

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Weekly Word – Costly Grace

This semester at CSF we are going through Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus. Last night we spoke about how we are liberated from the bondage of sin so that we are enabled to live, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, lives of radical, counter-cultural discipleship.

Studies have shown that the religion of young people in American culture is Moral Therapeutic Deism. The majority of you people believe there is a “God”. They stop there, believing that on this point all religions more or less agree and that is really all that matters. This God does not really interact with us much (hence “deism”). Religion is just about ethics, being a good person, which again is where all religions, more or less, agree. Finally, the purpose of religion is to make you feel good about yourself (therapeutic). If God is watching he pretty much likes what you like and approves of anything you do.

When we read the stories of Jesus, this whole idea is shredded. We are reminded that you are not saved by simply believing in God (that makes you a theist or a deist). Salvation, healing, freedom – these things come in the grace of Jesus Christ. We believe not in an abstract “God” but in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. As God walking among humanity, when Christians speak of God we start with Jesus Christ.

This is counter-cultural to the idea that focuses on some sort of God that all religions believe in. It also goes counter-cultural to the idea that this God favors America and wants us to be happy and healthy and live comfortable lives. Such a God is far from the God that we see in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is king of a kingdom that encompasses the entire world and as Christians our first allegiance is to Jesus Christ.

We are often tempted to put our trust in lesser kingdoms. I believe it is perfectly okay to be patriotic, to fly American flags, to care about what goes on in our country and to join the military. But the challenge we face is that physical nations throughout history have always demanded our ultimate allegiance.

This was a choice the German Christians faced in the 1930s. With the rise of Hitler many churches in Germany believed that God was moving, restoring the German people to a place of supremacy. A minority of German Christians (“The Confessing Church”) stood against the extreme nationalism and subordination of the church to the state. In 1934 they drafted the Barmen Declaration. It was mostly written by theologian Karl Barth. In it they affirmed the supremacy of Christ. Here are a few excerpts:

  • We reiect the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
  • We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
  • We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.
  • We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.

Another of the writers of the Barmen Declaration was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of the amazing book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer, going against his pacifist commitments, would later take part in an attempt to assassinate Hitler. The attempt failed and Bonhoeffer was executed. Early in The Cost of Discipleship he contrasted what he calls “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace”:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace…Cheap grace means the justification of the sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him…Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and it is grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us” (Bonhoeffer, 43-45).

May we be people radically committed to Jesus Christ above all other things and be transformed to living counter-cultural lives as we follow him.

On Campus at Penn State Berks

CSF is a student club at Penn State Berks which means we submit to the governing authority of the Student Government Association (SGA).  Each year SGA is run by a different group of students but for the most part the rules remain the same.  Specifically, for CSF to remain a club we must have a representative at each SGA meeting.  If we miss three then our funding is frozen and who knows, we may lose our status as a club!  This would be bad for many reasons, one being that CSF relies on SGA funding for our spring break service trip and without that we would be in trouble!  I ask you then to pray for the CSF rep this year and to pray that CSF would continue to have a good relationship with SGA.  These students work hard to enhance student life, so keep them in your prayers.

This coming weekend CSF will be heading to University Park for the football game where we will be working the concession stand with CSF UP.  It is always a fun time.  As a sidenote, this fulfills our SGA fundraising requirement for the semester!  Pray that we have safe travels, that students who have never been up there before find their way around, and that we have fun.  Also, I enjoy this trip as it is a chance to see old CSF Berks students who are studying at UP.

Have a great week.

Good ole’ America

This is going to be a random entry.  I have just read and listened to lots of things recently that illustrate the craziness, both good and bad, of this country of ours.

First, a United States citizen is suing the federal government because they are trying to kill him without any sort of trial, outside of a war zone.  This article from Glenn Greenwald explains, and here’s a quote:

“Just how perverse is the Obama administration’s assassination program is reflected in the rights Awlaki is forced to assert.  He alleges — as the Complaint puts it — that the Government is violating his “Fifth Amendment Right Not to be Deprived of Life Without Due Process.”  Just re-read that and contemplate that in Barack Obama’s America, that right even needs to be contested.”

How crazy is this? I have been listening to Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast and it is eye-opening. The reason no politician talks about this is because both parties do this kind of stuff when they are in power.  Carlin asks, if we live in a country that is forever at war, and many senators have said the war on terror may last decades (of course it will, how do you win a war on terror?) and if the president has special powers (like being able to order the killing of US citizens without trials) during war, then we live in a totalitarian government, don’t we? Maybe we are not the whole way there yet, but it makes you wonder how people who lived in countries that later became totalitarian felt as it was happening. Perhaps they felt like us: they either didn’t know, didn’t care or were helpless.

Other weird stuff is going on too in regards to America and Islam.  Some church in Florida, that is not really well-known even in the town it is in but has somehow gotten worldwide exposure (the media creating a story so they do not report on the important stuff like the government killing American citizens?)  for its plan to burn Qur’ans. When has book burning ever been a good idea?  Pretty much everyone agrees this church and its pastor are ignorant for doing this.  It will certainly not draw anyone closer to Christ.  Ironically, the name of the church is “Dove”.

On the other hand, one of the great things about America are our freedoms.  People have the freedom to burn religious texts while adherents to those religions can build churches pretty much wherever they want.  Of course, some Americans are not happy with Muslims exercising this freedom in New York city by building a community center (mosque?) near Ground Zero.  This story has been beaten to death (perhaps not so ironically just prior to mid-term elections…in order to fire people up and distract us from other issues?  Remember the fourth amendment?).  At any rate, you have to love how the same freedoms allow people to build churches and ridicule religion.  That is not found everywhere.

Freedoms are great, but at times our freedoms have led us to excess.  David Brooks reviews a book by David Platt, a pastor who argues that the American dream of more, more, more is quite at odds with the message of Jesus.

Finally, it always helps to get a view from others.  It gives perspective.  So here are some observations on America by a visitor from Ireland.

America, like all countries throughout history, has her good and her bad.  Some things are funny, some depressing, some scary.
That’s life in good ole’ America.

Weekly Word – Matthew’s Genealogy – Judah

Last night at CSF we talked about the family tree (the genealogy) of Jesus that Matthew begins his story with (1:1-17).  Many Jews wrote genealogies in their histories but Matthew is unique in including four women.  Even more amazing, rather than including some of the great women from the Old Testament (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel), he includes women with questionable reputations (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba [Uriah’s wife]).  What Matthew is emphasizing is that God has always welcomed any person who comes in humility and faith and that Jesus is then not just for the religious “insiders” but for everyone, including (especially) those who have been told by religion that they are not good enough (“outsiders”).  In other words, the saving grace of Jesus Christ is for all people, it meets a need we all have.

Through preparing for last night’s teaching, I have been thinking more about the character of Judah.  Judah was the fourth of the twelve sons of Jacob in the book of Genesis.  In those days, being the firstborn son was a big deal, you would receive a double-portion of the inheritance and take your father’s place as head of the family.  The story of Genesis shows that things do not always go as expected, for example Esau was the first born but his brother Jacob ends up with the blessing and birthright the firstborn deserves (Gen. 25:19-34; 27:1-40).

Jacob is kind of a jerk and a schemer.  His family is the definition of dysfunctional.  Jacob had twelve sons from two wives and two concubines (his wives’ servants).  His favorite wife was Rachel and her servant was Bilhah, both of whom were the mothers of some of his children.   His firstborn son, Reuben (whose mother was Leah), should have received all the rights of the firstborn.  But after Rachel died, Reuben slept with Rachel’s servant (and his own step-mother) Bilhah (Gen. 35:22).

Jacob’s second and third sons were named Simeon and Levi (also from Leah).  In a story that provokes debate among Bible scholars, their sister, Dinah, draws the eye of a man named Shechem.  Some argue that Shechem rapes her, others argue that the two are in love and it is a tragic story.  Either way, Simeon and Levi are very angry about this relationship, or whatever it is, happening.  Chief among the problems is that Shechem is not a worshiper of God, he does not bear the mark (circumcision) of God’s people.  Shechem’s father makes an agreement with Dinah’s father that all the men of Shechem’s family will be circumcised, that the two groups can marry each other and become one.  But while all the men of Shechem’s family are recovering from the painful circumcisions, Simeon and Levi attack and massacre all of them.  Their father, Jacob, is very angry, fearing that other groups related to Shechem’s family will seek revenge (this story is in Genesis 34).

These acts disqualify Reuben, Simeon and Levi from the rights of firstborn.  Next in line is Judah.  Of course,he has his own sordid tale in which he impregnated his daughter-in-law Tamar thinking she was a common prostitute (Gen. 38).  At the same time, Judah bears a hint of humility and repentance absence from his older brothers, as he states about Tamar, “She is more righteous than I am” (38:26).  Judah continues to mature, later on offering to exchange his own life for that of his youngest brother Benjamin (Gen. 43:3-9) and eventually offering himself up in order to save all of his brothers (Gen. 44:16-34).

On his deathbed, Jacob blesses his sons.  The first three are brought low: Reuben for going into his father’s bed (49:4) and Simeon and Levi for their excessive violence (49:5-6).  Conversely, Judah is lifted up, told that his brothers will praise him, that he will rule and that he is a lion (49:8-10).  Judah continues to hold pride of place among God’s people in the Old Testament story as the kings in Jerusalem are his descendants.  Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is a descendant of Judah (as we learn in Matthew’s genealogy).  Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who has triumphed (Rev.5:5).

The story of Judah is one of grace.  His brothers made horrible decisions, which reminds us that decisions have consequences.  Certainly God could have forgiven any of them and they would have kept their place, although their is no indication they sought such forgiveness.  Judah also made some bad decisions which could have caused him to lose his place also.  Yet God’s grace was there to restore Judah.  Ultimately it is a story of God’s grace as this man grows from the sordid engagement with Tamar to the man who offers himself in his brother’s place to save them.

Judah points then to his descendant Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ offered his life in place of each and every one of us in order to save us.  We can say Jesus is the greater Judah, the one in whom Judah was pointing for what Judah did partially Jesus has done fully.  May we be reminded this morning that we have a savior who offered himself in our place, dying for us and giving us new life.

Who is God?

Who is God? That was the first question we were asked at one of our Q and A nights on campus last year. I do not remember what went through my mind exactly, other than wondering how to answer such a broad and open-ended question. Where to start?

Recalling that night, I am pretty sure I focused on the person of Jesus. It has become more and more clear to me over the years that for Christians to speak of God is to speak of Jesus Christ. Christians do not just believe in an abstract God but rather that the Creator God took on flesh and walked the earth as a human for just over 30 years, died on a Roman cross and three days later rose from the dead. The very foundation of our faith is that Jesus is fully human and fully God. I think Christians need to emphasize this more than ever.

We hear about God a lot in America. People mention God all the time! Phrases like “In God we trust” and “God bless America” are rooted in our heritage. Athletes and celebrities and politicians and others often speak of God. But that brings us back to our question: who is God?

When a Muslim speaks of “God”, what do they mean?

When a Mormon speaks of “God”, what do they mean?

When a Jew speaks of “God”, what do they mean?

When a Jehovah’s Witness speaks of “God”, what do they mean?

When a Christian speaks of “God”, what do they mean?

Obviously there are some similarities. All of the above religions would agree that some sort of higher power, creator and sustainer, exists. But to honest, committed adherents of any of those religions, there are disagreements of who this God is. All of these groups believe in a “God” who acts in the world, which makes them theists. Yet the disagreements cannot be cast aside.

Christians are unique because we believe God appears in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. As JI Packer says, this is the great stumbling block of Christianity:

It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. ‘The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby…and there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is as fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation. This is the real stumbling block in Christianity. It is here that Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many of those who feel the difficulties concerning the virgin birth, the miracles, the atonement, and the resurrection have come to grief.” (JI Packer, Knowing God, 53)

This is not just theological mumbo-jumbo, an esoteric idea with no connection to real life. Who you believe God is plays out tremendously in life (or at least it should).

Jesus Christ shows us who God is (he is fully God) and shows us what it means to be truly human (he is fully human). Part of this, certainly not all of it but a large part, is self-sacrificial suffering. Jesus did not triumph through heavy-handed power plays, he triumphed by dying on a cross for all humanity. God did not become human in order to walk the halls of power as an Emperor or President, God became human and then became a slave and died (see Philippians 2:5-11). Any formulation of God that ignores this falls short of the Christian God revealed in the person of Jesus.

Simply believing that God exists is not enough. At the end of time every knee will bow and every tongue will confess not simply that God exists, but that Jesus Christ is Lord (see Philippians 2:5-11 again).

The supremacy of Jesus Christ affects our worship, prayer and daily living. It affects how we speak of God. It changes everything. It matters. It means that whatever common ground we have with other theists (and I believe there is some), our ultimate commitment to Jesus Christ and his mission stands in the forefront always and forever. If anywhere I am a fundamentalist, it is here, for better or worse.

There are other questions to explore here. I am thinking this stuff through as I read scripture, other books and pray. In the future I will make these reflections public. For now I leave you with a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, an early church father writing in the late 300s:

“By uniting to himself that which was condemned [the Son] may release it from all condemnation, becoming for all people all things that we are, except sin – body, soul, mind, and all through which death reaches – and thus he became man, who is the combination of all these; God in visible form, because he retained that which is perceived by mind alone.” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Fourth Theological Oration)