Lots of people enjoy pastries, and they can be even more tempting when they are fruit-filled. The fruit at the core is a flavor enhancer, making the pastry all the more attractive. You see where I’m going with this metaphor! My plea is for Christian communities to strive to keep their “fruit-filling.” The teaching in Galatians 5 includes this observation and admonition:

But the fruit  of the Spirit is love,  joy, peace,  forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

“Fruit” is the apostle Paul’s metaphor for what Christians ought to be producing in our lives. The fruit stands in sharp contrast to attitudes and behaviors that most often lead to the destruction of healthy relationships and also tend to damage our own psyches. Yet the list of fruit doesn’t appear to be very electrifying; there’s no emphasis here on miracles or flashy signs of any sort. In fact, there is much here that all people, even non-Christians would admire. But Paul is clear that these virtues flow from the Holy Spirit of God. Evidence of the presence of God’s Spirit among the Christian community include such virtues that are easy to pronounce and define but difficult to practice.

Although this list seems simple and even somewhat unexciting for some Christians, I maintain that the practice and growth in such virtues is critically important. We need to keep reflecting on this list, especially in our politicized culture with its highly contentious issues. We’ve all seen the war of words on social media between people claiming to be brothers and sisters in the faith. At times it can be quite disheartening.

I recently came across this blog post, exploring why Christians “don’t play nice.” The author deals with how Christians can disagree on such tough topics that face us today by emphasizing love, which happens to be the first on the list of fruit of the Spirit.

I suggest that all these virtues need to be at the center of our community’s life, like a bowl of fruit as the centerpiece on the table–visible for all to see. To that end I am starting a new sermon series on May 12 on the Fruit of the Spirit at my church, Sanctuary Covenant Church. My hope is that we can encourage each other to put ourselves in the best environment so that we can allow the Holy Spirit to make our lives more fruitful. Just as fruit trees grow not by their own effort, but by being in the right environment (e.g., with light, nutrients, water), Christians can see fruit grow in our lives not simply by trying harder (a recipe for failure), but by putting ourselves in the right environment so that God will bring about growth. It’s that environment, among other things, that I want to examine in my sermon series.

Hopefully, as we mature in our faith, we will be more known for the fruit of the Spirit in our lives than for what we don’t like about the culture. After all, a fruit-filled center is delicious.

My wife Susan and I went to see 42 a few days ago. I confess that I am neither a baseball aficionado nor expert on the life of Jackie Robinson, but having been an avid baseball fan as a kid, I very much enjoyed watching the story. And as an African American, I was moved while being let to reflect on a time in history not too much before my time, and certainly during the time of my parents.

The movie focused on Jackie Robinson’s transition from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson is a hero. I’m glad that his story continues to be told and that Major League Baseball will let no one else wear #42, except when all players simultaneously wear the number as a tribute to Jackie.

Several years ago, when I was a church-planting pastor in Brooklyn, NY, a friend was about to interview for a teaching position at The Jackie Robinson Middle School. He called me the night before and asked, “Dennis, who was Jackie Robinson?” Yes, it was years before the Internet, Google, etc, but it was still amazing that someone–especially someone living in Brooklyn–could not know who Jackie Robinson was! Yet, I am not totally naive; I do understand how such ignorance is possible.

But we cannot afford to ignore trailblazers, especially when it comes to truth and justice. The movie 42 illustrated why Jackie Robinson is a hero because of his attitude, along with his talent. Jackie Robinson’s displayed a true Christian attitude while under the heat of vicious racism. It was hard for anyone to miss–especially us pastors–the role that Christian faith played in the lives of Jackie Robinson and also Branch Rickey, the general manager and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed Robinson. According to this online biography, Branch Rickey’s religious faith “would become a distinguishing trait of his later baseball career.” In the movie, Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey quoted Scripture, especially with reference to the ethics of Jesus. Notions such as “turning the other cheek” were tossed about in Rickey’s appeals to Robinson.

I suspect it is possible to have a cynical view and see in Rickey’s use of Scripture a similar dynamic as to what happened in the days of American slavery. In those days overseers selectively quoted Scripture to slaves: “Obey your master.” The goal of slave owners was to create a docility borne out of the perverse notion that God had ordained the roles of master and slave. Slave masters wanted strong bodies but weak minds. However, in the case of Branch Rickey’s use of the teachings of Jesus, the goal was not to create a docile Jackie Robinson. The goal was to help the talented young ballplayer to stay in baseball and lead a revolution. Jackie Robinson was not being taught to approve of any notions of white superiority, or to accept segregation or Jim Crow. Instead, he was being called to be like Jesus, who had the power to fight back on the same terms as his accusers, but chose a different way.

I am concerned that some might miss Jackie Robinson’s heroism, along with that of others who peacefully go against oppressive systems, because we have been conditioned to think that fighting back must happen in the way that the oppressor fights. The line in the movie about Jackie Robinson being “strong enough NOT to fight” might be interpreted to say that he wasn’t a fighter or that fighting oppression is wrong. Not so. It is just that the fight must be fought with different weapons than might be expected; that is the way of Jesus.

I hope that instead of looking down on Jackie Robinson’s self-discipline, we can appreciate his quiet strength. Quiet strength does not mean weakness. “Quiet strength” has been a term used to describe the late Rosa Parks, another icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Some have tried to characterize her quiet strength as weakness, but apparently historian Jeanne Theoharis points out that Parks had a track record of fighting segregation. I’ve not yet read Theoharis’ book, but perhaps we can see that quiet strength and fighting are not oxymoronic. Indeed, the kind of strength displayed by Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks takes fighting to a different level.

Several months ago there was much furor over the movie Django Unchained. The story of an intelligent, confident slave devoted to one woman appealed to many. The idea of a skilled, gun-slinging slave, who could take it to the owners, overseers, as well as the weak-willed, appeals to some Americans’ view of justice. Maybe they would admire Jackie Robinson more if he were “Djackie,” physically taking on those who heaped abuse on him. But Django is fiction, not a documentary.

My father grew up in the Bronx and was 4 years younger than Jackie Robinson. I remember as a young boy I had a few chances to go to baseball games with my father, and we typically went to see the New York Mets, as we were living in Queens then. I remember asking my father if he had grown up a fan of the New York Yankees because he lived in the Bronx. He said “no.” I asked “why not?” He said because the Dodgers had Jackie Robinson.

While the credits were rolling at the end of 42, when most people had left the theater, the soundtrack shifted to Count Basie’s “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” The only people left inside besides my wife and me were a group of African American women, one of whom was elderly. That woman came up to Susan and me, bopping her head to the music, and saying, “that [the story of Jackie Robinson] happened during my time!” She said it with pride.

My friend Scot McKnight’s recent blog post on plagiarized sermons got me to thinking. We pastors operate under a fair amount of pressure and stress. I won’t elaborate on that now, but it is a topic worth examining (especially since there are statistics on how many of us burn out and/or feel that our lives are worse off for being in the ministry. Check out the stats toward the end of this post on Pastor Stress).

Yet even with all the stress we face–and I certainly have my share–I can’t imagine preaching someone else’s sermons! It’s not surprising that plagiarism is easy in this digital age. As an adjunct instructor for many years I know the pressure on students to copy someone else’s work. I just never thought of doing that as a preacher! Scot wrote about preachers who use the sermons of other preachers–and pass them off as their own!

Part of the pressure we pastors face is not to be boring! We have to be entertaining, relevant, relational, informative–and not too long! I am sure that some of my colleagues would agree that it is difficult at times to be what people think they want. We often feel that we are competing with a TV preacher, some mega church pastor in the next town, or perhaps even the memory of a beloved pastor who baptized some of them or dedicated their children. Sermon prep and delivery is not a simple or insignificant task.

Yet, as Scot noted, “the sermon is highly biblical, highly personal, highly local, and highly temporal: it is the individual preacher engaging God and Bible and congregation, in that specific location, for that time.” I agree. As I noted in my comment on Scot’s blog, my sermons have to touch on OUR life together. While what is preached in some mega church somewhere in a fancy suburb may generally apply to us, telling OUR story while studying the Scriptures connects us together. I have to try my best to do at least that.

Actually, in this era of church as “production” more than “community,” with podcasts and video by celebrity pastors, local sermons may be starting to die anyway. That too, is something that will need some further scrutiny and discussion. Maybe I can copy somebody’s thoughts on that…just kidding.

 

Over on my church’s blog site I reflected a bit on the desire of some to get rid of Black History month, suggesting that it has outlived its usefulness. Maybe you can check it out.

I came across this blog post recently, “Are Atheists the New Campus Crusaders?”  The piece describes the rise of Secular Student Alliances (SSAs) on college campuses. The opening illustration points out activities at the University of Illinois. The mention of the U of I piqued my interest because I will be speaking at the University of Illinois in a couple weeks for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.

I am not particularly disturbed at the existence or even proliferation of SSAs. There have always been atheists on college campuses—from students to faculty to administration. During my college years most dorm parties and even some fraternity parties were secular student alliances! College students certainly have every right to explore their beliefs and associate with whomever they choose. Even so, I don’t want my Christian (and other religious) college friends to feel threatened. I want to encourage you college students who have religious faith, and I want to affirm and encourage you with four points:

First, please know that your faith is not antithetical to learning. Several of our most prestigious colleges and universities were founded by people of faith. Those people were certainly far from perfect. For example, many of them preached the Bible but didn’t know what to make of the souls of Black folk. But nevertheless it was a faith in God that moved them to start institutions where people could reflect on the world, and even grow in understanding the evils of slavery. Faith is not antithetical to education. While the atheists may have their crusade, it is clear that there are bright folks, professors as well as students, who think deeply about the world and simultaneously have a deep faith in God. Even though its focus in on the Ivy League, you might find a group such as Christian Union to be encouraging.

Second, you are better off “taking your chances” with God. I don’t have any desire to debate the existence of God, and God doesn’t really need me to. After all, God (as well as those who believe in God) was around long before me and will be long after I am dead. And while I really don’t think believing in God is a gamble, I say “take your chances” because I think there is much to gain through belief and not much to lose. In other words, I find some value to “Pascal’s wager,” even though some people have tried to shoot holes in it (check this out for a good explanation and discussion of the challenge offered by Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and philosopher. The author of the piece at this link even responds to some of the challenges made to Pascal’s wager).

My experiences have affirmed that going through life with faith in God is worth the challenges and the sacrifices. As a pastor, I’ve heard and seen too many stories of people who, after the fun of their younger years of disregard for God, have more regrets than delights. Yes, that is only anecdotal evidence, but check out this study that demonstrated, objectively, that belief in God makes one “happier and healthier.”

Third, God is pleased with your witness in the face of skeptics. Currently I am working on a commentary on the New Testament book of 1 Peter. Some of his words come to mind when I think of Christian college students who might face criticism: At one point Peter writes,

For you have spent enough time in the past  doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.  But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:3-5; NIV).

There’s no need to be self-righteous, of course, but knowing that God sees and knows your situation can be very encouraging.

Fourth, don’t be annoying jerks! Sadly, many people are turned away from faith in God because of how people practice their faith. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker and posters that say, “Lord, save me from your followers.” There’s no question that Christianity (as well as some other beliefs) have a history that includes those who perpetrated violence, oppression, and all sorts of evil. There have always been arrogant, self-righteous people who claim to speak for God on all sorts of issues—even ones that the Bible doesn’t address! It may not be fair to be judged by the actions of some (I certainly haven’t stopped going to doctors because there are bad ones out there who have committed malpractice), but there’s also no justification for being pharisaical. If we don’t model the life of Jesus—not just in personal acts of piety, but also in broader concerns for justice in the world—then we should not be so quick to speak on his behalf. Once again Peter has wisdom for us on this topic:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer  to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16; NIV).

So I encourage my young sisters and brothers to keep on loving the Lord. Don’t sweat the atheists too much. Focus on doing what you know is right; God will honor you.

There’s been recent talk about the growth of the “nones,” that is, those who when asked to identify their religion, check “none.” There’s no question that cynicism against organized religion (and sometimes I think specifically Protestant Christianity) has increased. I was wondering if we Christians brought it on ourselves, and a day after thinking that I came across this blog piece suggesting that arrogance on the part of Christians may have contributed to the Rise of the Nones. It’s like that bumper sticker that says, “Lord, deliver me from your followers.” It’s possible that some parts of the Christian community haven’t been as Christ-like as we could be.

Yet here I am a pastor and biblical scholar wannabe, still holding out hope that we who profess to be Christians can make a positive impact on our world. Through our love (for God, for each other, for our neighbors, and even for our enemies) we can diminish the cynicism and help people find faith. The kind of love I am talking about cannot be mushy sentimentality. It cannot be merely rhetorical. Love must be shown through our actions individually and collectively.

New Testament Scholar Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the NT: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics refers to the Christian community as “embodied metaphor.” He writes, “The church itself, being transformed into the image of Christ, becomes a living metaphor for the power of God…” Dr. Hays writes his thoughts while reflecting on these words of the Apostle Paul found in the New Testament:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:2-3 NRSV)

Christian communities are living letters. But what do our letters communicate? Judgment only? Self-righteousness? Anger? Or do we communicate faith, hope, and love? Dr. Hays emphasizes the power of God being evident in communities of faith that “perform the Scriptures.” I agree, but right now want to focus on our performance of love.

I was the founding pastor of two churches, one in Brooklyn way back in the late 80s and then one in Washington, DC at the beginning of the New Millennium. Now I am the senior pastor of a relatively young congregation in Minneapolis, Sanctuary Covenant Church.  I am thrilled that my current church, like those I planted, is made up of different kinds of people: ethnically, economically, and in many other ways.  This church, like those others, is committed to justice for all—especially those on the margins of society. We are trying hard to be living letters who communicate Good News, the Gospel!

Recently, as I have been preaching a series of messages about God’s “tough love,” I got a Facebook message from someone who brought a friend to worship with us. She was thrilled that her friend, a visitor, was treated with respect and love, and also heard a message that seemed relevant to their life. But we not only strive to make the visitor who ventured inside the doors to feel welcome, but also to communicate genuine love to our friends and neighbors who may never attend our worship services. Being living letters isn’t just a Sunday exercise.

And we certainly aren’t the only congregation committed to being a living letter. There are many in this country as well as other countries. My hope is that we will all do our part to love as our Lord Jesus loved, to eliminate arrogance, and maybe even to help convince some of the “nones” to consider faith in God. After all,  we believe Jesus taught that the greatest thing to do is to love God with our whole selves, and love our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so, we’ll be living love letters to all willing to read.

It has been a tough time in our nation over this last year, not to mention all the challenges our world is facing, ranging from ecological concerns to economic disasters, to war and the threat of war. There is much to concern us But it is also right to take time to be grateful for the many blessings that we do enjoy. I am thankful to God for taking me to the brink of 2013 in reasonably good health with so many things to be thankful for:

everyone likes Susan’s smile!

First of all, there’s my wife, Susan: she enjoys her work here in the Twin Cities with Aeon, using her MSW skills.

Jonathan and Erica at my installation service in September, 2012

I am also very thankful for our oldest, Jonathan, along with his lovely wife, Erica, now live in Atlanta, GA. Jonathan is an artist and a social worker. Erica is working on her PhD in Education at Georgia State University.

 

I am thankful for our next child, Jason. He is a musician and educator, still living in Washington, DC. He writes music, serves at our former church, and works with middle school boys in an after school program.

Jason on the streets of NYC

 

 

I am thankful for our third child, Joanna, who recently relocated from Northridge, CA to Brooklyn, NY (a place she’s not lived since she was 6 years old!)

Joanna at my installation in September 2012

Joanna at my installation in September 2012

She interprets for deaf people, mostly students at Kingsborough Community College.

 

I am thankful for our youngest, Jessica, who remained in Houston after college and teaches Social Studies and Drama to Middle School students at a Title 1 school.

Jessica at Rice University

Jessica at Rice University

 

I am grateful for you–my  friends and family, and for my new ministry call as the senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN. I have the awesome privilege of joining my experience and gifts with those of the wonderful folks in this diverse and talented congregation.We are trusting in the Lord for guidance in 2013. I miss so many people in Washington, DC, as I was a pastor there and adjunct instructor of Bible at two different institutions. But I am look forward to what God has in store for me here in Minnesota.

Along with my pastoral duties I have much writing to do in 2013. I am striving to be more productive by focusing my time and energy better than I have in the recent past.

I also want to grow in the discipline of prayer. Even after many years in ministry there is much more to learn about prayer and its practice.

I sincerely hope that you will have a blessed New Year. Thanks to all of you who keep in touch. It truly warms my heart.

I just got my first taste of winter here in Minneapolis with 16” of snow yesterday and temperatures in the teens today! And of course there is no snow day; we are expected to get to where we need to be! So with such cold temperatures today, I faced the Minnesota Ice. But I didn’t drive the car today! I took the public bus to my appointments and to my office. I know there will be more of the Minnesota Ice since it’s only December. I have some good boots on order and I will be dressing in layers.

But there’s another kind of apparent cold out here that I need to figure out. I had been told that there’s this cultural phenomenon described as “Minnesota Nice.” Here’s the popular Wikipedia definition, and here’s a more scholarly analysis of the behavior. None of this sits well with a native New Yorker! We New Yorkers have long had a reputation for speaking our minds and not backing down from confrontation. Here’s a nice explanation of a NYC attitude.

So, as you might imagine, I wasn’t feeling this Minnesota Nice thing! Yet being a man who has felt called to cross-cultural ministry here in the USA, I am wiling to try. I will do my best to embrace the cultural differences. I am hoping that my NY attitude (tempered by nearly 18 years in DC) will not alienate the lovely people that I am meeting here in Minnesota, but I am also hoping that cultural customs will not prevent us from “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). My wife and I hope to entertain more in our home, as we did in Brooklyn, NY and Washington, DC. Maybe some potluck dinners will help thaw the ice.

Being the “new kid” has been tough in many ways, but it’s only been a bit over 6 months. Who knows? Maybe before long I’ll be cross-country skiing and possibly even ice fishing! (Not!)

While in Chicago for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I had an occasion to greet Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, one of my seminary instructors from back in the day (the 80s!). He was pleasant with me, as he’s always been toward me, and honored the role of pastors by referring to us as something like “the best theological interpreters for the church.” His point was that we interpret and put into practice what comes out of serious theological reflection by academics. Amen!

My encounter with Dr. Vanhoozer was at the publisher Zondervan’s luncheon for authors. Some of my friends know that I’ve had a book deal with Zondervan Academic for a few years to write a commentary on 1 Peter for a new series that is designed to be accessible for most pastors and “lay” people. So I get to attend the authors’ luncheon (I need to finish the commentary so I don’t feel like an interloper at those at gatherings!). Because I’m not a “known entity,” I am especially grateful to have even been invited to be part of the team, and I so much want to do a good job writing.

I confess that I feel particular pressure to do quality work because I am an urban, African American pastor. I was the only African American at the luncheon. This has not been the first time for me in that context, as well as other similar settings, including the alumni gathering for my seminary that happened the next evening.

I also presented a brief paper and was part of a panel discussion at a session of the conference, and my dear friend (and roommate for the conference) pointed out that I was the only African American in the room (I had noticed). Of course, being over 50 years old, that experience is not a new one for me. Indeed, it brought back feelings I and others have had about having “to represent.”

Lest you think I am overreacting, let me share this:
A few years ago at an SBL gathering, I got into the lecture room early. There was a world-renown biblical scholar with a woman I assumed was his wife, already in the room. They happened to be sitting under a chandelier that wasn’t working. I went to the restroom before the session, and as I returned, the woman was coming out of the lecture room. When she saw me, she stared to ask if I was there to fix the light! Mind you: I was wearing a shirt and tie (and pants and all the rest) and had on my conference nametag! What did she see first? My skin? After an awkward moment of silence, she said, “never mind,” and I told her that I saw a hotel worker down the hall. Somehow I felt the need to keep her from feeling badly that she had mistaken me for “the help!” How messed up is that?

God has given me some wonderful opportunities to participate in interesting ministry gatherings. I realize that I am still growing in feeling that I am not out of place. But I am hoping–and feel my hopes are being realized–that none of my bright and talented children will ever have to feel out of place in their own country.

 

One time on The Simpsons, Bart says, “Je ne parle pas Français,” which means, “I do not speak French.” That is an example of a paradox. If he can’t speak French, how can he say it in French?

Here’s a definition of the word “paradox“: a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.

Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). That is a paradox. I am currently in the midst of a series of sermons that highlight some paradoxical teachings in the New Testament, especially among the sayings of Jesus. I’m calling the series, “The Paradox of Giving.”

My hope is that even though our attitudes and behaviors may at times appear to make little sense to others, in the eyes of God those thoughts and actions may be exactly the right thing to think and do.