Excerpt from “Jesus People”

Beatitudes, Books

Like ravens we have gathered around the carcass of cheap grace. From it we have imbibed the poison which has killed the following of Jesus among us.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

In 1933, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party came to power in Germany and began to systematically transform Germany into a totalitarian state. They eliminated all opposition, and all power was consolidated within the Führer himself. From there, he proceeded to implement his nationalistic, militaristic, and racist policies. As part of his agenda, Hitler saw the local churches of Germany as an important ideological battleground. In order to increase and galvanize his influence, he sought to unify all of the Protestant churches of Germany into one state-sponsored, pro-Nazi Church. And thousands of churches and pastors caved in under the pressure.

But from the very beginning there was also a resistance movement. Many churches and their leaders stood in opposition to this development on moral and theological grounds, eventually calling themselves the “Confessing Church.” They recognized that capitulating to the power of the Nazi state would eventually eliminate their doctrinal freedom, corrupt their theology, and compromise their prophetic witness.

Therefore, in May of 1934 these Christians gathered and drafted a document known as the “Barmen Declaration.” Against a climate of totalitarian control, the Barmen Declaration was an unmistakable resolution of absolute surrender to the supreme authority of Christ. Through this document, these opposition leaders were issuing a clarion call to the churches of Germany to repent of their cowardice and to pledge their allegiance to Christ, not Hitler.

This prophetic boldness is possible only for those who clearly understand and embrace the gospel announcement of the New Testament. Though we live in a world that is fundamentally broken and beyond human repair, the good news is that God intends to salvage and redeem it. Through his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus Christ has defeated the powers and principalities that keep the world bound in evil and has now ascended as Lord of all, ruling heaven and earth and making all things new.[1] The Confessing Church understood the implications these truths had upon their lives—that God cares about the current affairs of the world, the risen Christ has given us a path we must follow, and our devotion belongs to him who reigns over all. Because the Confessing Church had a deep grasp of these realities, they were able to resist the evils of their generation and embody a faithful witness for Christ.

Now it is our turn. In the midst of the moral darkness of our twenty-first century world, Christians must pledge our allegiance to Christ as our reigning king and embrace his vision for human life and society right now. The people of this world need more than a get-out-of-hell-for-free card. They need a new Master. A new Ruler. A new Teacher who can show us the path that leads to life. His name is Jesus Christ. And everything about our lives must orbit around him.

In the midst of a culture characterized by power-hunger, greed, pride, violence, lust, celebrity-worship, and unbridled ambition, we must live the way our Master taught us to live and trust his agenda for the world right now. Our churches must gather around his teaching and become crucibles of transformation where people are learning how to walk with Jesus on the path of peacemaking, mercy, forgiveness, longsuffering, self-denial, and love of enemies.

As we fully embrace this vision, we may discover that not every churchgoer may actually be interested in being formed in the Jesus way. Nevertheless, our commission remains unchanged. Jesus bluntly told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). These are not the words of a slick salesman attempting to bait-and-switch his audience. This is a straight-forward description of the deep-rooted commitment Christ expects all of his apprentices to share. Granted, it would take years for these original disciples to fully understand this calling and live with radical fidelity to Christ. And Jesus was certainly patient with them along the journey. But from the very beginning, he was always leading them towards this trajectory of self-denial and obedience unto death.

Our mission is not to simply secure decisions for Christ in order to save souls for the afterlife. This language would have sounded quite strange in the ears of the apostles, and it bears little resemblance to the content of the message found in the New Testament. Our heavenly task is to be communities of people who are following the path of Christ, adhering to the way of life that he taught and modeled, and leading others in the same.[2] Our primary aim is not to cure social ills. Nor is it to numerically grow our churches. Nor is it to expand our influence over culture. To be clear, these effects are certainly not wrong or evil. In fact, they are often the eventual byproducts of true kingdom advancement. But none of them define the target of our heavenly assignment.

The mission of our churches is quite simply to come under the reign of Christ and learn to walk in his footsteps wherever they may lead us. He is our rabbi. And we are his apprentices who have gathered together to learn his way of life in an age of individualism, consumerism, and secularism. Rather than allowing “isms” like these to pervert our precious faith, may we recapture the radical and subversive character of authentic Christianity encapsulated within the Beatitudes.

I have come to believe that the greatest and most effective witness for Christ in the twenty-first century will not emerge from the stylistic appeal of our worship gatherings. Nor will it emerge from some brilliant outreach program or assimilation strategy (though these may be vital components).

It will emerge from gathered communities of people who have become so thoroughly formed in the way of Jesus, and who have allowed the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to so infiltrate every fiber of their being and every extremity of their lives, that the society around them cannot help but sit up and notice, “These people have been with Jesus.”

[This excerpt is taken from the the Afterword of Jesus People: Communities Formed by the Beatitudes which releases September 18, 2021. The e-book version is now available for pre-order. The hardcover and paperback editions will be available for purchase on the release date.]

[1] See Revelation 21:5.

[2] See Matthew 28:18-20.

2020 Reading Recap

Books, Church Leadership, Spiritual Growth

Below is a small selection of some of my favorite books that I read throughout the year. I’ll include a link to each book (there are nine of them), a short explanation for why I enjoyed the book so much, as well as a select quote or two.

(Disclaimer: My inclusion of any author on a list like this shouldn’t be taken as my tacit endorsement of everything this person may have ever said or written in their life. Got it? Good…)

The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life by Henri Nouwen

Why I enjoyed it: Nouwen’s writing is simple and accessible, and yet so deep and rich. This is a very short and readable book ideal especially for leaders who have a tendency to be driven by unrestrained ambition.

Select quote: “We will never come to know our true vocation in life unless we are willing to grapple with the radical claim the gospel places on us.”

A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament by Michael Card

Why I enjoyed it: Among other things, 2020 has been a year of intense sorrow and grief. I have several close friends and members of my church family who have experienced the pain of loss in various forms. Even though our final destiny is one of eternal celebration, the Christian life is not just about smiles, cheerfulness, and good feelings. Each of us will experience seasons throughout our lives in which we will bear excruciating sorrow, and it will seem as though God is totally absent. But it is only through Good Friday and Holy Saturday that we can access Easter Sunday. And that requires that we know how to lament. Michael Card’s book is an excellent introduction to the biblical language of lamentation.

Select quote: “Until we learn to lament, we have nothing to say to most of the world.”

Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King by Matthew Bates

Why I enjoyed it: American evangelicalism desperately needs to recover a New Testament perspective on the matter of salvation and what it means to “believe” in Jesus Christ. New Testament scholar Matthew Bates has provided us with an important (and accessible) exploration into the meaning of the Greek word pistis (often translated “believe” in the New Testament). In short, it doesn’t mean what we think it means…

Select quote: “With regard to eternal salvation, rather than speaking of belief, trust, or faith in Jesus, we should speak instead of fidelity to Jesus as cosmic Lord or allegiance to Jesus the king. This, of course, is not to say that the best way to translate every occurrence of pistis (and related terms) is always or even usually ‘allegiance.’ Rather it is to say that allegiance is the best macro-term available to us that can describe what God requires from us for eternal salvation.”

The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson

Why I enjoyed it: Peterson looks back on his life of pastoring, telling stories and sharing the lessons he learned along the way. If you are a pastor or church leader, this is an easy and entertaining read chock-full of some amazing, thought-provoking nuggets that will challenge how you approach your vocation.

Select quote: “I don’t love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed. I don’t love the dehumanizing ways that turn men, women, and children into impersonal roles and causes and statistics. I don’t love the competitive spirit that treats others as rivals and even as enemies. The cultural conditions in which I am immersed require, at least for me, a kind of fierce vigilance to guard my vocation from these cultural pollutants so dangerously toxic to persons who want to follow Jesus in the way that he is Jesus.”

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh

Why I enjoyed it: Last year I read Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while I was doing some research on the Sermon on the Mount. Strange Glory is a well-written, fairly comprehensive account of the life of the man himself. Bonhoeffer’s story is a fascinating example of the reality that people are not static. We are all on the journey of becoming. In Bonhoeffer’s case, he would eventually walk away from a kind of sterilized theology that has no relevance for the real world and embrace the radical claims of the Christian gospel in a way that would eventually lead to his own martyrdom.

Select quote: [Bonhoeffer] “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of the nation and thereby destroying our civilization,” he had finally explained in a letter to Niebuhr. “I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security. …I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America.”

People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue by Preston Sprinkle

Why I enjoyed it: This is the most honest, compassionate, and truthful resource I have ever come across on this topic. New Testament scholar Preston Sprinkle does a more than skillful job wading through the various biblical texts. He gives a clear perspective on various questions that are part of this discussion, and yet he does so with amazing sensitivity and compassion. This is one you’ll need to read all the way through (don’t stop after the first chapter or two).

Select quote: “If the church is ever going to solve this issue, it needs to stop seeing it as an ‘issue.’ Homosexuality is not an issue to be solved; it’s about people who need to love and be loved.”

Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson

Why I enjoyed it: This one is especially written for pastors. Peterson relates the pastoral vocation to each of the components of the biblical story of Jonah. Deeply convicting, encouraging, and challenging.

Select quote: “Somehow we American pastors, without really noticing what was happening, got our vocations redefined in the terms of American careerism. We quit thinking of the parish as a location for pastoral spirituality and started thinking of it as an opportunity for advancement. Tarshish, not Nineveh, was the destination. The moment we did that, we started thinking wrongly, for the vocation of pastor has to do with living out the implications of the word of God in community, not sailing off into the exotic seas of religion in search of fame and fortune.”

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ by Fleming Rutledge

Why I enjoyed it: An astounding work that may not be for the casual reader (nearly 700 pages). But Fleming Rutledge does an outstanding job of helping readers understand the nature of the atonement. She brings out each of the major motifs that connect to the crucifixion of Christ, helping the reader to realize just how incredible the Cross actually is. Rather than emphasizing one “atonement theory” over others, she demonstrates how each of the major atonement theories have something indispensable to contribute to how we understand Christ’s death.

Select quote: “From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.”

Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich by Dean G. Stroud

Why I enjoyed it: This is a collection of sermons given by German pastors that served as prophetic critiques against the nationalistic, militaristic, and racist policies of Nazi-ism during Hitler’s reign of terror. I was greatly inspired to read these courageous sermons from pastors who risked their lives (and in some cases gave their lives) by upholding their supreme allegiance to Christ in the midst of the scandalous compromise of the “German Christian” movement in the mid-to-late 1930s.

Select quotes: [Helmit Gollwitzer] “Whoever considers himself a Christian and yet shares the outrage over this call to repentance should at least know that he has exchanged God’s standard for the standard of the current political propaganda and has replaced the altar of divine justice with the altar of his own nation’s self-justification.”

[Paul Schneider] “I would rather die for my faith than live a cowardly and cultured life with the rest of the world. For nowhere is it said that God will allow us in all circumstances here to live the little span of earthly life without going through loss of money, property, honor, life and limb, wife and child. Even more, such sorrows must come upon the Christian at times; but the Lord brings the little boat of the church through the stormy seas of human events, which must grow calm at his word.”

Staying on the Journey

Kingdom of God, Spiritual Growth

One recent Saturday morning, my son Carson and I decided to go on a little hike on the Acadiana Park Nature Trail in Lafayette. Ill-advisedly, we decided to bring our chihuahua, Deuce. Just us three guys hanging out.

Deuce is named after famous New Orleans Saints running back, Deuce McAllister, who retired after the 2006 season.

So as you may have already guessed, Deuce (the chihuahua) is getting up in years. He is 14 years old. And it shows. He can’t run as fast or jump as high as he used to. His joints give him problems. He also suffers a bit with asthma. Not to mention, he can also get rather cranky if you have the audacity to pet him while he’s taking one of his frequent power naps.