The Five Faces of Christianity

manyfacesA few days ago, there was a well-publicized terrorist act in which an American journalist was brutally beheaded. The next day, our Secretary of State rushed to a microphone to inform us that this was not “the real face of Islam.” While I could write an entire series on that statement alone, I’ll leave that up to my more political brethren.

John Kerry’s carefully chosen words, however, did spark an entirely different line of thought in my meager brain. What if the tables were turned and a Christian had perpetrated some dastardly deed? Would some dignitary stand up and unabashedly pronounce that it was inarguably not the face of Christianity on display?

“My quick answer to that is, no.”

My quick answer to that is, no. No one would bother to do that. The reason is a positive one. The reason is that no one would feel the need.

No one would feel the need because everyone understands that this kind of act is not the face of Christianity. Everyone understands this because Christianity has proven over the past 2000 years that her face is totally different. Hence, she would not need any outside defense to reinforce that assertion.

If that is true (and I think it is), it begs another question. What IS the face of Christianity? Who are we? What do we look like? How are we generally perceived?

We are multifaceted, multicultured, and multigenerational. We have myriads of theologies, tenets, denominations, and sects. We come in all colors, worship styles, and daily life practices. So what is our face?


Are we known as Christian fundamentalists? Are we legalists? Are we theological liberals, or conservatives? Are we known as Bible thumpers or proponents of the social gospel? Are we known by our TV ministries, our work among the poor and homeless, or our hospitality to strangers?

The fact is, we are known by all these faces and more. So what is our face? Do we even have one?

The answer to that (in my estimation) is, yes we do. It is quite simply the face of Jesus. It is his face we must show. Our lives and practices must reveal his persona. We can, of necessity, be who we are; but we must learn to get out of the way enough for people to see the real Jesus.

“The Real Jesus…”

JESUS OF NAZARETH -- Pictured: Robert Powell as Jesus -- Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
JESUS OF NAZARETH — Pictured: Robert Powell as Jesus — Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

The real Jesus is the one whose “love covers a multitude of sins.” He’s the one who prayed that we would be united, just as he and the Father are united. He’s the one who told the Pharisees that he had other sheep not of their fold, and that he would call them and they would hear his voice.

We can discuss (even argue about) our different theologies, practices and styles. It seems to me, however, that the arguments stop at the foot of the cross. The blood of the Savior washes all who seek him there, regardless of our differences. It’s his face we must show the world.


Mt. Zion: Chapels, Cemeteries and Judgment

The Old Testament prophet, Obadiah, said, “On Mount Zion will be deliverance.” When I was a kid, I lived near a place called Mt. Zion.  I assumed at the time, that it was the only Mt. Zion in the world.  It was at the top of a hill (imagine that) and was the site of Mt. Zion Church and Mt. Zion Cemetery.  Some of my relatives are buried there.

As I entered into adolescence and Bennezette Elkadulthood (as I’m sure you’ve guessed), I began to run across dozens (maybe hundreds) of Mt. Zion’s.  They seemed to be everywhere…especially churches. You’ve seen some. They have names like Mt. Zion Church, Mt. Zion Chapel, and Mt. Zion Bible Fellowship.

It wasn’t until I was almost sixty that I had the privilege of standing on the real Mt. Zion–the first one.  On that holy hill, my life was changed. It changed when Jesus died upon it two thousand years ago.

“My original Mt. Zion was in Elk County, PA–one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

I remember feeling as a young lad that Mt. Zion was a special place.  Little did I realize then how special it truly was.  I didn’t realize how special the real Mt. Zion would become to me a few years later.

Like most things, however, Mt. Zion has its darker side. Obadiah, like many of the Old Testament Prophets, didn’t have a lot of good things to say. That’s probably because the prophecies were about (and geared toward) people who weren’t doing a lot of good things.

“None of us like to be negative.”

None of us like to be negative. (Well, I guess some of us do, but contrary to popular opinion, I’m not one of them.) Yet, it’s the negativity in Scripture that sets up the positive message of salvation.

Obadiah is one of the shorter books in the Bible. It’s so short, it’s not divided into chapters as most of them. It consists of twenty-one verses.

The message of Obadiah is a call to arms. The call is against a little place named Edom. Apparently that’s where Obadiah called home. Because of that little fact, he knew it well, and he knew it needed to go down.

Live ItIt’s a tough thing to pronounce judgment against your own. Maybe that’s why his writing is so short. It could have easily gotten lost among the volumes included in Scripture. In fact, it is indeed overlooked much of the time.

Obadiah’s call for warlike deliverance on Mt. Zion must have been hard for him to deliver. It’s no small thing to postulate, predict, or prophesy. And yet he did.

There are times in the church when we are faced with the same dilemma–times when we sense the need to come against our own. These days there are in-church battles over abortion, homosexuality, and a variety of other major topics.

It’s not easy to take a stand against your own. I would simply suggest we do what the Presbyterian brethren like to say—do it “decently and in order.”

Imagine There’s No Heaven

Sermon titles often come out of the blue. Sometimes the preacher doesn’t even Imaginemention or explain where they came from.  It’s a mystery of the faith.  You may recognize this title.  It’s a line from John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.”

When I was a kid and had thick, brown hair I loved the Beatles and their music.  They were like gods to me.  Lennon was my favorite.  I wanted to be just like him…hair, guitar, song writing…the whole package.  Obviously, since he was a god and I a mere mortal, that pinnacle was slightly out of my reach.  But I could dream couldn’t I?

“When I was twenty years old, I heard the call of God (the real one).”

When I was twenty years old, I heard the call of God (the real one).  I dedicated my life, as best I knew how, to serving Him and Him alone.  As the years went by and I gave serious consideration to the various facets of my life, I began to realize    some of my heroes and “gods” were less than worthy.  John Lennon was one of them.

To tell you the truth, I was crushed.  Lennon was still a great song writer.  He was still a talented rock and roller.  The impact he had had on my life was unmistakable and undeniable.  Yet, his philosophy of life…well, as many people would say today…sucked.

LennonA lot of people, including many Christians, love the song “Imagine.”  They think it’s a beautiful song.  Well, musically, I can’t and don’t deny that.  Philosophically, it’s awful.  Why would one want to imagine there’s no Heaven…no God…no faith?  Lennon’s second line is, “It’s easy if you try.”

I can’t.  I’ve tried.  I can’t imagine there’s no Heaven.  It simply makes no sense to me.  I might be naive, but it just simply does not compute for me.  Lennon says he wants us to live for today.  I guess that’s the only way his belief system would work.  When today is gone, where are we?

We certainly wouldn’t be the kind of people he wanted us to be.  If we’re just biological machines, why concern ourselves with all the things Lennon wanted us to do and be…world peace, unity, sharing everything.  Lennon was a millionaire.  As far as I know, he never shared anything.  When he was asked about it, he answered that he would if he could find a worthwhile cause.  Apparently there isn’t one.

“History shows we aren’t simply altruistic without a reason.”

The history of the world shows us we aren’t simply altruistic without a reason.  If there’s no NY LennonHeaven, I’m in it for ME.  But there IS a Heaven, I want to go there, and Jesus is the only way I know to realize that goal.  Because He wants me to work for peace, unity, and to share what I have, I will.

My old hero, John Lennon, said, “You may say I’m a dreamer.”  Yes, John, you were.  Dreams are great, as long as they’re based in reality.  Heaven is real, and I can’t imagine life without that reality.

Sin Boldly: What a Great Legacy

Though I’ve been a United Methodist for many years, I went to a Presbyterian seminary.  A good third of the student body there was United Methodist as well.  We had no seminary near us, so many of us gravitated to PTS (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).

But we weren’t the only ones who did reformation-sunday-2012-boldly-smlthat.  There were smatterings of many different Christian denominations there…Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Assembly of God, and Episcopalians to name a few.  Among that motley crew, there were some Lutherans.

I remember one young Lutheran in particular who had a shirt I loved.  It was simply a white T-shirt that had two words printed on the front.  In big, black, defiant letters it said, “SIN BOLDLY.”  If you ever see a shirt like that, buy it for me.

Luther must have been quite a guy! (In case you’re wondering, that little phrase is attributed to Martin Luther, the great Reformer). Of course, he didn’t mean that we should go and look to get into trouble with God. Maybe we should look to get into trouble FOR God, but that’s a whole different topic. In short, we shouldn’t be looking to sin as a general practice.

But Luther reformation-day-germany   wanted us to be sure and steadfast in one, solid truth. That truth is we have a Savior who can actually save us. He loves us, atones for our sins, and we can count on him.

That always leaves us in a somewhat precarious position, of course. It’s precarious only because we’re lousy sinners. If we would just quit sinning, we’d be okay. He’d forgive us and that would be that.

Because we can’t seem to do that, we’re always living in a tension between our lives as saints and as sinners. We’re saints because we’ve been set apart for God’s purposes. We’re sinners because…well, we just are.

October 25 was Reformation Sunday

This past week, we (at least we Protestants) celebrated Reformation Sunday. I’m sure the Lutherans do it up a tad better than the rest of us, yet it’s a pretty important day on the Christian calendar. In my opinion, we should always be reforming. So, this has to be a good day.

To be fair to Luther, there’s a second part to his quote. It didn’t make the T-shirt in question, but it’s equally important. He apparently said, “Sin boldly! But let your trust in Christ be bolder!” That second part, of course, balances it all out.

With our trust in Christ, we can be assured that our sin is forgiven. We can be bold in the assertion that he not only knows how to save us, but will save us indeed.lrose_stainedglass300

We’re sinners saved by the grace of God. Nothing, or no one else can pull this off for us. We can’t do it ourselves, and there’s no other human being around who has the where-with-all.

So my friends, sin (and trust in Jesus) boldly.

Pumpkin Spaghetti Sauce

It’s October, it’s autumn, it’s harvest season… You know what that means. It’s all pumpkin all the time. It used to mean lots of pumpkin pie. Then someone added pumpkin bread. Then there was an explosion.pumpkin-isolated

Coffee shops with pumpkin lattes, salons featuring pumpkin spiced hair, and stores with pumpkin scented lotion. I went grocery shopping and saw some pumpkin spaghetti sauce (no, I didn’t buy it). Is anyone a little pumpkin weary at this point?

There’s an old saying, “You can never get too much of a good thing.” There’s another old saying that goes, “You can get too much of a good thing.” Imagine that.

We can’t make up our minds. I’m in the boat with everyone else. I love pumpkin. I didn’t think I could get too much of it. I was wrong.

Pumpkin Spaghetti Sauce sounds intriguing.

I must admit. The Pumpkin Spaghetti Sauce intrigues me. I may even try it one day. I’ll have to be in the proper state of mind, however.

What is it about we humans? We love to jump on the bandwagon. If something works, we exploit it. If something tastes good, we have to overdo it. If something becomes stylish, we have to fill our closets with it. Is there no end?

I know by now, some of you are asking yourselves, “How is he going to relate this to the church?” Well, here goes.

We do the same thing in the church. If something works for the church down the street, we have to do it. I don’t know how many times over thirty-five years of pastoral ministry I’ve sat in meetings and heard this mantra.11999659_1063107853700084_1851421374755003260_o

“It worked for them, it will work for us.” “All the other churches are doing it, so should we?” “That looks like a cool ministry. Let’s try it!” It’s the pumpkin harvest all over again.

We are such followers. I guess that’s the nature of sheep. But how about we follow Jesus instead of the flock down the road? Do you think it might be a good thing to have an original thought? Might we take a slightly different path than “what worked for them?”

“A lot of church traditions began when we saw a need…”

A lot of church traditions began when we saw a need, worked to address it, and filled that need. It was such a success; we had to do it every year (whether the need still existed or not). Then the church down the street had to copy it because it looked like a successful program. Then the entire denomination adopted it as a mission program because…well, who knows why? But obviously, everyone should do it.12182763_1003345439685612_8139003419264814306_o

We’re the church. The Great Shepherd leads us. We’re wired to meet needs and serve others. Needs change and causes rise and fall. Yet, we often are plugged into the same program we’ve been doing for twenty-five years.

What say we all make some pumpkin spaghetti sauce and sell it to fund our building program? Who’s with me? (Sorry—got carried away…)

I Can’t Hear You!

There’s a recurring theme in the coverage of major sports that bothers me. If you watch these things, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

The scene is the outside entrance to the players’ locker room or stadium. There is a traveling estate (bus) parked near the door. Players are disembarking and heading in. There are fans and reporters standing along the perimeter of the walkway.

martin-lutherAs the adored athletes stroll by, they act like there’s no one else around. They can do so quite easily because they are wearing state-of-the-art headphones.

I often wonder what they’re listening to: Mozart, rap, the latest Christian teaching on social justice? Then I think, “Are they listening to anything at all?” Maybe they just put them on so they don’t have to interact with anyone else.

When I was a kid, there was a TV series (a comedy) called Hogan’s Heroes. One of the main characters was a Nazi soldier named Sergeant Schultz. His famous line was, “I see nothing!” He used this every time he heard something he wasn’t supposed to hear.

There are loads of examples we could site of people refusing to hear for one reason or another. Sometimes we call that selective hearing.

“Selective hearing can be experienced everywhere.”

Selective hearing can be experienced everywhere. It’s probably most disturbing when it’s found in the church. At this point, I must admit I’m probably as guilty as anyone.

We end up in the church to begin with because we somehow heard the call of God upon our lives. Regardless of how we heard it, it drew us like a magnet. Then things got tough.

We began to realize that being a Christian is a whole lot different than saying we’re Christian. We began to experience a call to discipleship—a call to commitment—a call to DO rather than to simply SAY.

“Once we heard the call, it became hard to avoid.”

Once we heard the call, it became hard to avoid. Eventually it became a lot easier not to hear the call at all. We put on the state-of-the-art headphones, and we went our merry way.

Oh don’t get me wrong. We still do a lot of the right things. We still have a sense of what the call is all about. But we’ve gotten really good at hearing it when we want to hear it and blocking it out when it’s inconvenient.

Jesus Did His PartI’ve gotten really good over the years of wearing the headphones when the call draws me into areas where it’s going to cost me my pride. I want to be who I want to be, and I want everyone to know how good I am. Sometimes answering the call threatens to strip me of that pride. How dare the Lord put my status in danger.

I’ve spent thirty-five years in pastoral ministry. Much of that time, I’ve played it safe. I’ve placated those who could (or would) make it hard on me. I’m guessing it’s time to begin slipping off those headphones.

Go to Church (or Not)

Glen HandThere is an entire segment of the church that doesn’t “go to church.” Just to make sure you know what I’m talking about, please allow me to explain.

We all know that the church is not a building–it’s a people. It’s the gathering of believers. Literally, it’s the “called out ones” or “called together ones.”

There always seems to be a number of people who identify as Christian, but don’t seem to take part in the process. They don’t attend services. They don’t give of their time. And, apparently, they don’t give of their money either.

This, of course, is nothing new.

In many Christian denominations, pastors and other leaders are happy when a third of the members show up. It’s an age-old story. Sorry folks, but that’s just the way it is.

More recently, however, I’ve come face to face with a whole new population of dropouts. And when I say dropouts, I mean that in a very literal sense. These are people who have just gotten fed up and left—period.

The reasons for their leaving are myriad. I won’t even begin to list them here. Suffice it to say, a lot of those reasons are legitimate. They tried for a long time to “go to church.” They’ve even tried two or three or seven different congregations. They’ve done this over long periods of time. Now they’re just done.

These are not people who, as one might Smith Chapel 3suppose, were just hanging around the fringes of the church. This new segment (at least new to me) is comprised of leaders, standouts, elders, pastors, and diehard church folks. Now they’re gone.

When I say gone, I mean gone. I’ve listened to some of these people. I’ve heard their stories. I’ve spoken to some of them. Not only have they left, they have no intention of ever coming back.

If they’re gone for two months, you may as well cross them off the list.

When I was a young pastor, I remember attending a clergy meeting where absentees were discussed. The statement was put forth in that gathering that if someone was MIA for two weeks, you had better check up on him or her. The ensuing statistics indicated if they were gone for two months, you might as well cross them off your list.

That sounds a bit harsh. As a pastor, I can’t bring myself to cross people off the list (particularly after a mere two months). But alas, those are the statistics.

This is a dilemma for those of us left behind.

All this leaves a dilemma for those of us left behind. Do we spend our time trying to re-enlist the services of the dear departed, or do we move onto more fertile ground? Do we attempt to learn why such devoted people leave and then proceed Church IIIto plug the dike? Or do we go about business as usual and consider their absence an anomaly?

These are not questions we can take lightly, nor are they easy to answer. There’s only so much time. Where is it most appropriately spent?

Sand Flounder: The Official Fish of Today’s Church

Have you ever heard of a Sand Flounder? I remember reading an article about them. They’re fascinating creatures. They begin their lives looking like ordinary fish. But as time goes on and Mother Nature beats them into submission, they become quite grotesque looking.

Apparently they go through larval type SandFlounderstages and do it quite rapidly. They end up becoming very flat and lay on the ocean floor. Their right eye migrates to their left side so both are looking up as it lies there.

One description I read said they are “left handed” (a term I find rather ridiculous for a fish). Some of them become really ugly–even for a fish.

When I read about these misshapen creatures, I immediately thought of today’s church. I suppose that’s insulting to some, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a part of the church most of my life. Frankly, it’s not always pretty.

Interestingly enough, a simple, two-line fish drawing was the clandestine symbol for the early church. It’s the early church from which we’ve evolved to become what we are today—a little grotesque and somewhat deformed.

I don’t say these things lightly.

I realize we live in a different era that demands different strategies and twenty-first century know-how. Yet I often wonder if we need to take somewhat of a U-turn to the first century in our attitudes and actions.

Take a good look at what was happening in the early church. Look at the Book of Acts. Check out the letters of Paul, John, and Peter. How did we get from there to here?

Acts chapter two describes a church that looked out for each other (as well as their neighbors). Their love and compassion for people was so prevalent that they enjoyed “the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

jesus fishI realize it was all new and exciting then, but shouldn’t it still be new and exciting? Every day is new, and serving others is exciting. It seems to me we’ve lost our fervor.

I know we’ve come a long way and we’ve gotten quite large. I just read the following group of statistics:

“World Christianity consists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries, these denominations themselves being composed of over 3,400,000 worship centers, churches or congregations.”

With that kind of weight, we’re bound to get a little bogged down in trivia, dogma, and tradition (as well as a myriad of other things we could all mention).

If we actually are like the sand flounder and barely resemble what we started out to be, I believe there is still good news.

  1. God seems to love us still.
  2. God’s grace is sufficient.
  3. Even if we begin taking baby steps back to where we should be, God will bless each of those steps.


Restrooms and the State of the Church

Locker Room SignThis is the sign I see every time I walk into the men’s locker room at my neighborhood gym (please stop laughing—I work out every chance I get, spare tire not withstanding). I don’t know about any of you, but I find this policy a tad disconcerting.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m “old school.” It could be I’m a bit self-conscious. Is it possible I’m a prude? Or maybe I’m just “a guy.” In any case, I’m always bothered by what it says. I don’t want ANY females in my locker room. I don’t care how old!

It always reminds me of an old Bill Cosby routine. A guy takes his two-year-old girl into a men’s restroom, and all the other guys are embarrassed and mumble about a female’s presence. A woman takes her son into a restroom, and all the women make a fuss over him. When asked how old he is now, she replies, “Thirty-seven.”

Much to my relief, no females have yet to enter the locker room while I was in there. The closest I’ve ever come was when a young boy’s mother stood at the door and yelled for him to come out. I got a little tense when he refused. I thought for sure she was going to barge in on my less than modest state of dress.

No Females Allowed

It didn’t happen. Yet, I was definitely panicking as I quickly plotted my route of escape. I’m not sure if I’d fit into one of those lockers. I should probably practice that one, just in case. One never knows when these fire drills will pay off.

This is, of course, a minor thing. Who cares if some loving father brings in his four year old daughter (well, I guess I do)? It’s not an earth-shattering thing.

In our society, signs like this are everywhere. They invite people in, and they keep people out. The church is no different.

With the church, however, it seems that our IMG_1038signs are invisible. We say things to “outsiders” that are as loud and as visible as any printed sign. Because of that, a lot of those folks remain outside.

Often, our written signs on the exterior of our buildings are welcoming. They invite people to worship. They tell folks we’re a loving congregation. They attempt to excite the senses and draw the curious.

The signs once inside are too often very different. On the inside we begin to flash signs that send a different message. With our looks, body language, tone of voice, and actions (or non-actions) we say entirely different things.

We say things like:

  • You’re different than me!
  • Who invited you to come here?
  • Couldn’t you find a place better suited for your type?

I’ve experienced this myself on occasion, so I know it’s true. It all begins with attitude. Have we developed the welcoming attitude of Christ, or are we protecting our little club?

RSVP (French for “Send Me the Bill”)

54fq5mjhiw1wzhj3_580x380There have been some recent news articles about disgruntled wedding couples charging their no-show guests. That’s right. If someone RSVPs and fails to show up for the reception, they receive a hefty bill.

At first blush, this seems a bit tacky. Yet having been the father of the bride a couple times, I guess I can have some sympathy for these couples (at least in principle).

Weddings (if you include the receptions) can cost many thousands of dollars. Where I live, the average cost of a wedding could buy you a small home (if you bought it in a different county). At the very least, it would be a nice down payment.


If someone tells you they’ll be there, you pay someone handsomely to prepare for their time with you. You want them to enjoy it, be well fed, and have great entertainment in a beautiful setting. These things aren’t cheap.

So if they don’t show up, it could be highly annoying (not to mention expensive). You’ve just laid out a few hundred bucks so someone you love (or at least someone you thought enough of to invite) could share in your celebration. Your big day arrives, but your guest does not.

It’s the old “I threw a party and no one showed up” routine. That gets old in a hurry. It’s one thing to be late. But to dis the entire day…?! Not good (or polite).

g6oi2q0ak48rpwx_580x380Taking all that into consideration, deep down inside I can’t say as I blame the angry couple for sending a bill. I certainly would advise the no-shows to take a different course of action. At least let someone know your plans have changed.

As I mentioned earlier, however, sending a bill seems a tad tasteless (even if we understand the emotion behind the gesture). You may be hurt. You may have lost some money in the process. You may even have lost a friend or two. But sending a bill? I don’t know about that.

Jesus told a story or two like this. Remember the parable about the guy who threw a wedding banquet and no one came? No bills were sent out that day. Instead, new invitations were handed out. Strangers were invited. The waiters went out and beat the bushes looking for people who wanted to party hearty.

Apparently, God sees things a bit differently than we do. When folks turn him down, he doesn’t fret over it. He moves on and gets new folks. Imagine that.

It’s not our party!

Maybe we of the church could take a lesson from him. Instead of getting torqued, insulted, hurt, or indignant, we could move on to more fertile ground. Put in the place of the guy who threw the party, we often become discouraged and give up.

There’s one big difference though. It’s not our party. We’re the waiters. Buck up, folks! It may be time to send out a few new invitations.