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Vacant Lots for the Kingdom: $1.00

You can by a vacant lot in South Chicago right now for $1.

With over 5,000 lots in the Englewood district alone, the City of Chicago is buckling under the weight of ongoing upkeep for so many empty and unused spaces around the city. Spaces that emerged after the housing market collapsed and have now become garbage dumps, centers for drug dealing or loitering gang members.

The solution: sell them off for the price of a pack of gum. But before you dash off to Chicago seeking your own piece of the pie, you need to know that there is a catch, you must already own a house on the same block.  

The plan is a rather ingenious one that protects the neighborhood from possible gentrification while simultaneously ensuring that the lots will be well cared for. How? Because the people who care about those spaces the most are the people living next to them. From my front yard here in North Georgia I scarcely, if ever, consider the state of vacant lots in Chicago. Even if I did muster some vague sense of concern, I am doubtful that it would ever transfer into a plan of action. Furthermore, even if I were inspired to act, I am distrustful that my action would be in the best interest of the neighborhood, a neighborhood I don’t live in, full of people I don’t know, in a city that is not my home.  

Conversely, if there was a vacant lot next to my house filled with garbage and drug dealers and gang members, and if my kids were running through it daily, you can imagine I would find myself quite inspired to do something about it.

And yet, many of us find that we are surrounded by vacant lots of various kinds daily that fail to generate any sense of responsibility in us; a responsibility to bring light, or beauty, or joy or dignity to barren spots of land. While we may not live next to a physical patch of abandoned asphalt, every one of us has been called to a place and to a people for which we are responsible. They might be a fellow employee, or someone from your community, your neighborhood, your school, or your street. Jesus calls them your “neighbor” and some of them are desperately in need of attention. Like the cracked hardtop between apartments in South Chicago many of the people we connect with from our sphere of influence have slipped, unnoticed, into disrepair. Weeds have grown up through the ground, chocking out what was once a bed of grass, while broken glass and old tires have slowly replaced gardens and fruit bearing trees. Laughter of innocent children has given way to violence and sounds of gunshot. Have you noticed?

In his book Visions of Vocation, Steve Garber writes,

“Whether our vocations are as butchers, bakers or candlestick makers- or people drawn into worlds of business or law, agriculture or education, architecture or construction, journalism, or international development, health care or the arts – in our own different ways we are responsible, for love’s sake, for the way the world is and ought to be. We are called to be common grace for the common good.” 

Do you share God’s vision, passion and longing for what is possible in the vacant lots surrounding you? After all, if those living closest to them fail to be unmoved by the glaring gap between what they are and what they could become, who will? Is there a lot in particular that you have recognized which needs some attention - some grace, some friendship, some hope, some “common grace” and “common good?” Perhaps  “for love’s sake” you might consider partnering with God as he seeks out the forsaken, the discarded and the forgotten- the vacant and abandoned- joining him in his work of “making all things new.” Let’s seek to ensure that in each of our own neighborhoods there is no need for the city to sell land to anyone with a dollar. We can all agree, they are infinitely more valuable than that.  


Isaac: A Theology of Sacrifice

Abraham was sure he had heard the promise descend out of the sky, straight from God himself. It was the promise of a son. It was the promise that ancient loins would still bring forth life and barren wombs would finally produce lineage. It was the promise of legacy and the possibility of honor among a tribe built on shame for the childless. So when the promise-maker tarried, Abraham laid down with his slave, and tried to force God’s hand.  “Bless me!” his actions cried, “Bless me.”

His grandson Jacob would echo his demands decades later to an angel that wrestled him to the ground in the middle of the desert. Holding tight to the stranger while the sunlight touched the horizon, he demanded also, “Bless me.”

Years after the promise was given, Abraham eventually received a son and as a new day emerged over the cool desert night, Jacob received a new name. For both, there was a cost. In his blessing, Jacob has his hip put out of joint by the angel of the Lord and walks away with a limp as a permanent reminder that no blessing comes without sacrifice. Abraham too, though he receives his blessing, is asked to tie his son to an altar and raise a knife to his chest. A ram is provided as an alternative, but the sacrifice of Abrahams’s heart is already given. The real sacrifice was offered days earlier when, in the shadows of the night, God asks Abraham to return the gift he was given, the gift he had waited years for, the gift he was almost certain would never come. When it finally arrives, God wants it returned to him. 

“Am I enough?” God asks.

In the frailty of our longings we are Abraham and Jacob who so often long for the gift more than the giver. We too cry “bless me” with our eyes closed to the blessing that has already been lavished upon us. We understand God as the Father who made us, redeemed us, and is waiting for us to return home. But we forget he is also the Father who disciplines, tests, shapes and refines. We want children without having to build altars and we want to be given new names without broken hips.  

And so it is, at times, that we all might find ourselves wrestling with strangers in the desert. Tired of waiting, growing weary of living by sightless faith, we take the angel by the hand, or walk our slave to the bedroom, and try to bring about a gift that cannot be taken by force. We rage against God’s apparent slowness and wonder loudly through word and deed if we had ever really heard the promise in the first place. We doubt, we grow angry, impatient, disheartened, and cynical. We stop waiting all together, and slowly begin to forget what it is we were ever really waiting for in the first place.

And this is precisely the mountain that God desires to lead us to. It is the place in which our own Isaac is walking with a pile of wood tied to his back forcing us to look away lest he see our tears. It is the dark night from which angels emerge to pin us to the ground and show us our weakness.

Waiting is the greatest testing ground of our faith. In the delay of receiving and in the absence of resolve we are forced to examine the depths of our hearts like Abraham, to discern whether it was ever enough to simply be his child without the promise of receiving one of our own. Or like Jacob, to comprehend that God himself already knows our name, with or without the blessing of a new one.

No blessing comes without sacrifice, and every sacrifice God demands refines our hearts and returns our gaze to the blessing we already have in the gift of God himself. A gift that we do not have to wait for, fight for, or sacrifice once it arrives. 


 Picture: The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio 



Did Jesus make mistakes?


Did Jesus ever have to say sorry?

The question has been raised recently by Mark Driscoll whose ability to spontaneously insert his foot into his mouth on any given Sunday has become, quite honestly, rather predictable. Several weeks ago Driscoll’s awkward moment in the pulpit was further highlighted by the fact that fellow leaders of Mars Hill actually deleted a six-minute section from his sermon before it was posted online for public consumption. And what was the faux pas? Claiming that while Jesus was indeed sinless, he also, most likely, had “made mistakes.” 

Psychology professor and blogger Warren Throckmorten posted the deleted clips earlier this week on Patheos to prevent theological banter from misconstruing Driscoll’s original words…and banter there has been. Shortly after the censored sermon was broadcast scholars and practitioners alike aired their respective opinions on the issue. Some were disseminated by Christianity Today while others simply took to the Evangelical news outlets of twitter and facebook.

Is the issue important? Certainly….and no, not really. As it typically does on such issues, the question hinges on semantics and the definition of terms. If by “mistakes” Driscoll means to say that as Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52) and “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8) he underwent a fully human experience of trying and failing at non-moral tasks (Driscoll’s illustrations include riding a bike or learning to write letters, or hit a baseball). In this regard one should be able to say that it is reasonable that Jesus made “mistakes.” Certainly, he may have taken a wrong turn, forgot a name, or was late to a meeting and we would consider these trifle instances unintentional errors. Few, if any of us, would have a problem with Jesus making those sort of mistakes.

But what do we make of the use of the word to imply, as it often does, intentional and unwise decisions? We often call it a “mistake” for the woman to have an extra glass of wine before she got in her car to drive home, or for the counselor to become romantically involved with his client. In fact many of us may confess at times that a lapse of judgment on the internet, words spoken in anger and haste, or even dealing inappropriately with the finances of our business, was simply an unfortunate, albeit tragic, “mistake.”

When the word is used in this context, we must unapologetically disagree with Mr. Driscoll about the potential for Jesus to be included in the mix. As one who was unable to do anything but what he glimpsed the father himself doing, Jesus never was sidetracked for a second (John 5:19).

However, perhaps what might cause the most confusion in this debate is not the multi-faceted definition of “mistakes” but the underwhelming use of the word “sin” in our current culture. Maybe all this eyebrow raising has much less to do with our theological integrity then it does our societal confusion about humanity.

Shooters in school hallways, college campuses, and movie theatres have biological and mental disorders. Porn addicts are victims of Internet infused imaginations, and unrealized sexual desires. Addictions to vices are the byproduct of exhausting hours at the office or loneliness. We are violent because of video games. We are abusers because our parents were. We “err because we are human” Alexander Pope taught us, and these errors are to be expected, embraced and explained in ways that increasingly distance us from theological language like…sin.

Charles Spurgeon once said, “When men talk of a little hell it's because they think they have only a little sin and believe in a little Savior.” In a similar way, when we reduce the gravity of sinful humanity to a people who might occasionally make “mistakes,” our lapse in language also prevents us from experiencing the full weight and glory of the gospel. We can grant that Christ may have overcooked a roasted goat on occasion, but we dare not suggest that he ever failed to accomplish all that the Father had asked of him. Indeed, Jesus didn’t come to ensure that we wouldn’t ever spill our milk or trip on a crack in the sidewalk, he came to bring dead people back to life. Dismissing our sin for mistakes sounds an awful lot like the sick declaring themselves healthy enough to never seek out the doctor (Mark 2:17).



      




Not all Christians are Terrorists

Suppose for a moment that there was an attack on a government building several years ago that killed thousands of people. And suppose that the atrocity was committed by a very small band of cult members who opposed a number of policies instituted by our government, including the right to abortion and same-sex unions; ideology which they deemed to be in direct conflict with the clear teachings of Scripture. Suppose they believed that the attack on the building was akin to Jesus clearing the temple and that their act of loyalty to God would bring them eternal glory in Heaven. 

Now imagine that years later, on the site where the attack occurred, a memorial is erected and a museum is built to “never forget” the great cost of radical ideology. Now imagine that as you enter this museum there is a unique section dedicated to the perpetrators of the brutality. There is a Bible on a table, and there is a video playing on the wall giving a brief synopsis of the history and the basic tenants of the Christian movement. In fact, everywhere you look in the museum there is a nearly constant emphasis on the religious views of these terrorists, and a determined point to highlight the fact that they were driven to murder by their unyielding devotion to the Bible and their loyalty to the Christian faith.

Finally, imagine that you yourself are a Christian, and you yourself lost loved ones in the attack. Standing in the museum, are you allowed to join the community of the grieving? Are you allowed to be a victim, or are you compelled to be a perpetrator?

The new 9/11 museum opened its doors last week in New York City with an equal amount of fanfare and controversy. While the above simulation was hypothetical, it was based on the fact that this was precisely the experience of many Muslims who entered the museum in the middle of May. While museum curators attempted to be historically accurate with the details of the attack, the very use of the word “Islam” was inappropriate to many Muslims who stand as opposed to the radical extremism of al-Qaeda as anyone else who visited the museum that day. Muslims who not only disagree with terrorism, but who came to the museum in order to find healing for their own loss, seeking a community to grieve with. 

Dr. Dee Britton is a professor and writer that has centered her research on what is known as “collective memory.” The basic premise of her work is, especially as it relates to instances of trauma, the way we remember communally plays a significant role in the healing process, not only for families and organizations, but even entire nations. She writes,  

“A social group’s identity is constructed with narratives and traditions that are created to give its members a sense of a community….Regardless of the size and complexity of the social group, the group needs to construct and maintain an identity that unites its members (through) the stories, artifacts, food and drink, symbols, traditions, images, and music that form the ties that bind members together.”

As it relates to the 9/11 museum, my concern is that through the specific “stories, and artifacts” on display, Muslim Americans are not invited fully to the table of healing. Just as many Christians may feel unfairly represented by the opening, fictitious story, and compelled to protest “those people are NOT Christians,” so too are Muslims whose religion looks no more analogous to the faith of hijackers than my own religion mirrors the snake-handlers of Appalachia or the Branch Davidians.  

My prayer is that Christians especially would be on the forefront of a national dialogue that recognizes the common humanity of Muslims while helping to foster, perhaps even leading the way, towards a greater understanding of the theological inaccuracy of calling all Muslims terrorists. Indeed, perhaps more than anyone else, Christians should be sensitive to the way our media is constantly bent on drawing attention to the exception while calling it the rule.

I am keenly aware that there are vast, and incredibly important differences between Muslims and Christians. And yet, I also know that death, suffering, and loss present the very fertile soil in which genuine and potentially life-altering conversations about religion, faith and hope can actually take place. In that regard, I want 9/11 to become a bridge and not a barricade for Kingdom work.

Continue the conversation and follow Steve on twitter by clicking HERE


Christians Need to Change the Climate

   
   
    Mike Kuhn, author of Fresh Vision for the Muslim World, rightly warns, “there are missional implications to the political affinities of evangelicals.” Kuhn’s point is an important one, as it relates to a myriad of current social issues that we wrestle with as a nation. But while it is true to suggest that we need to be mindful of the way in which theology affect our politics, it is equally important for Christians to recognize when they have allowed their politics to influence their theology.

      At the outset, let me make it clear that scripture does not prohibit the involvement of Christians in politics. Undeniably, reformed theology in particular has shunned the common distinction between “sacred” and “secular” and has long supported the need for Christians to impact every sphere of society, including government.

     However, the political atmosphere of modern America has become quite difficult to compartmentalize into a well-kept corner of our lives. Partisan debates dominate the headlines and have fostered an environment in which people are compelled to choose a side.

    Given these realities, I have been anxious to see how Christians might respond to the third National Climate Assessment (NSA) released in early May by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). I am curious, because there are very few issues today including immigration, marriage, healthcare, or education that have not become, almost overnight, utterly politicized. Climate change has not been spared. And as these issues have moved from being, primarily, a social concern to mere political ammunition, I have watched many Christians become defined increasingly by their political beliefs rather than their theological convictions. 

     In the report a panel of more than 300 scientists conclude “Long-term, independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges, and many other data sources all confirm that our nation, like the rest of the world, is warming.” Furthermore, exploration of “multiple lines of independent evidence confirm that human activities are the primary cause of the global warming of the past 50 years.” Finally, the scientists warn that this warming of the world caused primarily by human activity “presents a major challenge for society.”

     If I might condense the report even further- The world is experiencing climactic change that has, is, and will present major challenges for our entire society, and the primary cause is…humans. If that is all Christians knew, if we could distance ourselves for a moment from debates about fossil fuel, deregulation, and the particular party attached to either side of those debates, would we care? Should we care? And should we be on the forefront of our nations response through the diversification of transportation options, water conservation, sustainable agricultural practices, or the development alternative energy sources as the report suggests? Or will our politics tempt us to close our eyes and ignore the command to be stewards of the earth we were given to rule (Gen. 1:28)?

     My prayer is that the church’s response will be guided first by their identity in Christ, rather than their political affiliation. For as the Arch Bishop of Whales, Dr Barry Morgan, preached in a recent Easter sermon “Caring for creation means enjoying the gifts that God has given us, but also ensuring that they are there for future generations…Our task now is to live by the values of His risen life – to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. And that is good news for all people and for the whole of creation.”






  

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I am a father and I am a son. I am adopted and rescued...a friend of Jesus. I am Carrie's husband and dad to Luke, Andrew and Zachary. I am the Director of Spiritual Formation at Toccoa Falls College and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). I am a teacher who loves to engage the world with words and I am a Christian who aims to be the Good News in speech in deed. I am an artist attempting to create good art that glorifies the Creator and encourages his creation to seek him.