Wednesday, February 26, 2014


   I am learning a lot as I go around the country challenging churches to do mercy that is effective to change people's lives.  So many churches motivate their members to do something, then mobilize them to do almost anything, except to bring poor people into their own congregation and love on them for a dozen years.

   One of the problems I have (with myself) is to give any criticism about anyone doing something merciful.  I don't think our real problem is that we have too much mercy.  I am glad but cautious with challenges about helping people too much although I agree with a lot of the diagnosis about money and time that is misspent and that damages poor people by creating dependency or damages their dignity.

    I am cautious because Jesus doesn't spend a lot of time condemning wasteful acts of mercy but concentrates more on our unwillingness to show any.  I want to encourage people to engage in mercy ministry, but I want to further encourage them to the kind of mercy that brings real change in the condition's of people's lives.

   I often call people to "disciple the poor out of poverty."  Recently in two different places I was asked to supply a "curriculum" that would teach churches how to do that.  This was a challenge to me, and there are some very practical steps I could endorse to help churches have a plan.  However, I think that somewhere I might not have been understood when I stressed that relationships are what help people change their lives, and that the context of the local church, with its love and modeling of life, is where the poor are helped to be discipled out of poverty.    I am afraid that a simplistic outline of courses that we could provide to the poor might be used as one more excuse not to bring them into our lives or congregations.

     If the poor can't culturally fit in your church then send some of your middle class people, who have been given the grace to be the servants of others, to plant a church in the community of the poor.  Churches ought to mobilize their members to have a heart for mercy by giving them experiences to be "exposed" to mercy ministry.  Once exposed to it they then need to be trained and continually challenged and motivated to be "engaged" in mercy ministry.  However, if they are not trained and challenged in how to relationally and practically bring the poor out of poverty, thus making mercy ministry "effective," then the mercy seems to be more for the mercy worker' experience than it is for the poor.

    Effective mercy understands the need for both charity and development, which are the two parts of mercy to the poor. Unfortunately both charity and development programs can miss the necessity of relationships in the context of a local church.  Effective mercy is realized when relationships are developed over the long term with models and mentors (including families) which help the poor see a different value system.  Values are often better caught than taught.  The model of family itself is an essential building block to help end poverty.

    Obviously a curriculum is what pastors and leaders understand and something that can be transferable.  The process of loving, hearing stories, caring, responding in compassion and yet with wisdom, holding people accountable, challenging them to do for themselves without cutting them off, immersing them in the sound teaching of the Bible and the Gospel, all take time.  This doesn't happen in simple two hour tutoring sessions or basketball games at the rec center (though relationships might begin there).  I think in my book I will add some practical type courses that will help, but my call to the saints is to love people across social/economic lines deeply, practically, and enduringly.

Monday, February 17, 2014


   Immediately preceding this writing, in the last two days,  the issue of the word "race" has come up in two different places.  Should we use the word, is it Biblical, is it right to speak of "racial reconciliation?"  Is the word race a biological reality, or is it a "social construct?"

    I confess that when I hear such questions I immediately wonder what the motive behind the question might be.  Is this being asked as a denial of the reality of "racism?"  Is this an attempt to distance oneself from the struggle against racism, is it a form of self-hatred and a refusal to be considered part of a "race?"  Is it an attempt to achieve an idealistic end by insisting on eschatological outcomes as present categories?  Is it an academic question for intellectual precision or does it have a practical application?

    In my ministry I have been challenged by people who wonder if it is correct to use the term "African-American" or any hyphenated derivative of the word "American."  Some individuals hate to be put in categories of any kind, or they may  have nationalistic or patriotic feelings about sub-dividing citizens based on ethnicity or skin color.

    It might be easy to simply blow such questions off as coming from ignorant racists or self-hating victims of racism, but that would not be fair or mindful that such questions can be honestly asked and wondered about.
    If it is possible let me suggest these ideas as a way of being helpful about these questions, if indeed they are asked in sincerity and not from obstinate or malicious ignorance.

1.  We believe in the common unity of all mankind, that from one blood God made all the nations of the earth and sovereignly planned their places and times.

2.  All human beings are created in, and bear, the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth.

3.  God divided the people of the world into language groups and spread them across the world.  We believe he did this to protect the human race from itself, and from its own self-idolatry.

4.  In the course of time ethnic diversity became established through adaption to climate, sexual preference, interbreeding and genetic resistance or vulnerability to diseases.  This is not evolution, there is no species change, but people groups did come to have fairly distinct generalized characteristics.

5.  In the process of times some people groups reached development stages ahead of others and these development stages were used as rationalizations of supposed superiority of one group over another.

6.  In the process of rationalized ethno-centric separation/superiority over/against others, combined with the ethnic divergence (especially of skin color and body type) between people groups the concept of race as a biological division of humanity was introduced through inept and immature science, practitioners of which were affected by their own ethnic prejudices.

7.  The spiritual and emotional attitude of ethno-centrism, especially expressed in a concept of "over" rather than just "different," using a manufactured concept of race created what we know as "racism," or a sense of racial superiority.

8.  Whatever we wish had not happened there are some historical and present social realities;

  •  a. People see color if they are not blind, and they notice hair and body types, and they make emotional and social choices due to what they see. 
  •  b.  Not all generalized observations of people groups are wrong or bad observations, but can too easily fall into stereotypes readily believed by our prejudices. 
  •  c.  Even if there is no such biological thing as race there is an historical and sociological reality of a thing called "racism."
  •  d. It is not wrong to acknowledge the ethnic and cultural diversity of people, in fact it can be quite insulting to deny it as if what God had given them was something to be ignored rather than celebrated and embraced. 
  •  e. Our ethnic, historical, and genetic make-up are parts of God's gift to us and  people groups have cultural aspects which need to be understood and appreciated.
  •   f.  It is wrong not to love people, and if our ethnic, social, or cultural judgment of them leads us in anyway to diminish them or abuse them we have sinned against God.
  •   g.  All human beings are more than their ethnicity but everyone comes in a human body that comes from parents who came from some people group who came from some place; to deny this is not helpful in cultural interaction.

9.  In spite of ethnic or cultural differences the Gospel of Jesus Christ enables saints to become servants of other people across cultures by taking ethnicity and culture seriously, not be denying it.  This was the mission strategy of the Apostle Paul.

10.  The historical reality of the use of the concept of race in this country, through racial slavery, took many different ethnic groups from Africa and coalesced them into a new ethnic group known to us as African Americans.  Their native tongues were denied them and they were amalgamated into being English speakers.  Their native cultural and religious practices were by and large denied to them and they were forced to invent and derive new ones, thus they have a unique culture in the world, parts of which overlap with the majority of other Americans and some of which do not.  American slavery was largely based on skin color, explained as race.  Other ethnic groups came here to assimilate, Africans were brought here and were denied assimilation except for functional reasons.

11.  Though the Bible does not speak specifically of "racial reconciliation" it is a logical and necessary corollary of a mission and justice mandate based on the reconciliation accomplished on the cross. In the Gospel we believe the coalescing of all Gentiles into a reconciliation with the Jews was accomplished through the person and the blood of Jesus (the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile necessarily accomplished reconciliation between all sub-ethnic groups of Gentiles and all are included in the prayer of Jesus to make us "one.")

12.  Racial reconciliation is a necessary and legitimate ministry and manner of speaking due to the sinful reality of racism and its division of people.  To deny the active use and history of not only the word but the wickedness of racism is to perpetuate it and to engage in nonsensical discussion.

Friday, February 14, 2014


The question was, "What is justice?" The young woman asked me to define it and after all these years I still find it difficult to give a simple answer. A word that we use so often but which sometimes seems hard to apply correctly.  It seems like everyone knows what it isn't, everyone seems to innately grasp what is "injustice," especially if they have been treated that way. When we see someone abused, deprived of their rights, oppressed, robbed, taken advantage of by those having power or locked out when they should be let in like everyone else we feel disturbed; like things are out of balance.  Justice is "equity" and when the balance of things is upset we should and ought to feel bothered.
   I did quote her a verse from Proverbs which says, "Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it fully,' (28:5) NIV.  Later I turned to Webster's New World Dictionary with Student  Handbook and comment number 1. was, "being righteous."  Comment number 5. was "reward or penalty as deserved."   Under the phrase "to do justice" was comment number 1,, "to treat fitly or rightly."
    Being righteous and being just are essentially the same thing.  Proverbs has a line of reasoning that teaches if one is wise then he will be righteous, and to live in a righteous way is to live wise.  To be righteous means you will treat others with justice and you will deal justly in your affairs.  Seeking the Lord makes us righteous; without a fear of Him, without a relationship with Him it is impossible to be truly wise, and thus truly righteous, and thus truly just.
   I find the book of Proverbs to be very helpful in keeping me on track as to issues of justice.  I learn there that God cares about just measurements and weights.  This means I give everyone the same measurement, with the same standard.  In the matter of payments and costs this hopefully gives me a reputation of integrity. Most everyone wants to have their vegetables weighed by the same measure on the scale at the market, to pay for a gallon of gasoline and have your gallon be exactly the same amount of gasoline as my gallon.  This is the part of economics that is fairly simple math, but when the math gets complicated it is interesting to see how the measurements change for those who have control of it.
    In a world that has lost its foundations in accepting God's Word as Truth justice is more and more defined by groups and self interest..  In a world of people who do not seek the Lord, who do not know the fear of God, there is a free for all in defining truth and thus a difficulty to find our way to righteousness.  Justice is always overturned when the interests of one person or group is given greater emphasis, protection, or advantage than others.  The reasons for this can be for a variety of reasons such as ignorance, selfishness, greed, racism, etc. Historically people seem to have been able to perpetuate injustice against others in complete sincerity that they had a "right" to do these things to other people.  Some have known full well that there actions were wrong, unjust, or evil and they cynically continued the injustice.  Others have done it with layers of self-justification to appease their conscience.
    Having a Word from God which is absolute helps us to understand how morality affects justice.  God makes hard lines of conduct where humans could be confused and allow immorality as they pursue a faddish concept of rights.  In other words, some things we seem to innately get and some things have to be revealed to us.  If we have no fear of God than that revelation won't mean anything to us, until of course we come to the point of "reward or penalty as deserved" when we stand before God.  Christians believe this is inevitable and the fact that everybody dies reminds us of it.
    People who fear God believe that ultimately there is justice, for everyone, though it be delayed until death.  Christians base all their hope on the idea that spiritual justice was satisfied by the death of Jesus on the cross.  Since there is no difference in that all people sin we all face death with absolute bleakness as we await God's judgment on our lives.  That is, unless the penalty for our sin, guilt, and shame has been paid by the atoning death of the One for the many, the Just for the unjust, the only Righteous One for the unrighteous many.  Having this faith in the substitution of Jesus in taking their punishment gives the Christian hope, but it is proved in the Christian's transformation into a moral and just actor in this world.
    If any people ought to live justly it should be Christians. When those who have claimed Christ as their Lord have been unjust to others they have not proved out their faith and are certainly open to the charge of being hypocrites.  They have not loved their brother in those acts of injustice, and so when they say they love God they have lied.  It is hard to accept that a person has been transformed by the grace of God into a saint if they have failed to love and failed to treat others as they wish to be treated.  The balance that the Apostle John gives in the book of I John about our love for God being proved by our love for our brothers is fairly simple and straightforward, and devastating against our rationalizations.
   "The righteous care about justice for the poor but the wicked have no such concern." (Proverbs 29:7) NIV
Righteousness for the Christian goes beyond just thinking about his or her own morality but extends into caring for those who cannot defend themselves.  "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." (Proverbs 31:8-9) NIV  We are not being just if our concern for righteousness only extends to our own reputation, our own moral rectitude.  Righteousness for the Christian is not complete until his compassion and his defense extends to the rights of the helpless and the poor.