Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Breaking My Silence

If there is anyone out there who still follows this blog, I offer a sincere apology. As is obvious, I have posted nary a word since late May. To put it in perspective, I have grown four inches of facial hair since my last post. Please hear my litany of lame excuses. Summer is crazy. My family and I are just now coming down to earth from a pretty hectic summer. Also, a good friend of mine volunteered to hook me up with a new blog; one with more options and a fresh look. However, he has run into some unforeseen difficulties and the new blog lives only as a mirage in the proverbial desert of blogdum. I wrote this to assure the two of you that things are in the works. My goal is to post weekly. Please note that the essence of this goal is hitched to the business end of the new blogsite. Should the new blogsite remain in a state of perpetual limbo, then the aforementioned goal shall languish upon the ash heap of good intentions. Finally, you should know that I will henceforth be writing under the name Thelonious Clemmons. This is for two reasons. First, I've always liked the idea of writing under an alias. Secondly, I've always felt like a Thelonious, and considered myself a Thelonious, even though I was born a Josh.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

hidden in plain sight

What was Jesus thinking? I ask myself that question sometimes. In particular, I've been asking that question as it relates to the recepients of Jesus' ministry. He gave to people who either couldn't pay him back, or could but were unwilling to. He spent himself on outcasts and people of ill repute. He embraced children. He stuck up for professional fornicators. Then he commands all of us to do the love people who won't love us invite people over who are too broke to return the pray for people who didn't ask to be added to our prayer list. And if that weren't enough, he then demands that we do it all in secret! I've had a revelation. I'm not willing to minister to people who can't pay me back unless I get to broadcast it to people who can pay me back. I demand compensation for my works of charity, and my right hand is fully informed as to the actions of my left hand. As far as I can understand it, Jesus was thinking that his heavenly father had his back. He didn't feel the need to gain worldly approval or compensation because he actually trusted his father. I would like to propose that we actually don't. I know I don't. I want too, but i don't. I care too much about what people think of me to give wthout interest, and I crave the strokes of admiration too much to invest in people who don't know or care how important I am. There are more of you out there. If you're a professional minister, then you know you're in this boat.Stand up and be counted. He told us not to lord it over people, but we insist on titles. We will only wash the feet of those who are willing to pat us on the back while we do it. The only way that we would ever hide our good deeds, is if we were certain that an important person would catch us doing it. Maybe the better question is...what are we thinking?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Allow me to introduce you to Dae Dae. His government name is Datreal Neal, and over the past four years he’s become something like a son to me and Laura, and a big brother to Anna Grace and Ellis. Dae Dae and I were matched-up through a mentoring agency here in Asheboro before we had really begun any work on the East Side. Dae Dae has a mom, a brother, a sister, and a pit bull from whom I keep a safe distance. Dae Dae is a member of the track team, and the varsity basketball team. He comes equipped with an explosive first step, but an inconsistent jump shot. Your best bet is to make him go left.

Dae Dae is seventeen years old. For the past four years I have been his mentor, and he has been my teacher. He has articulated for me what life is like for those to whom God has called me. His insight and sincerity have been priceless. Now that you’ve met him, you may well be curious as to the occasion of this introduction. You’re meeting Dae Dae because he is the newest member of our team. Starting in June, Dae Dae will be our first ever summer intern. He will counsel at summer camp, help tend the garden, help with vacation Bible school, pitch in with mission teams, and who knows what else.

In case you’re wondering, here are my motives behind this decision.
1.) Our summers are busy, and I could use some help.
2.) I like Dae Dae, and it will be fun having him around more.
3.) Because we are paying him, he may feel morally compelled to answer my phone calls.
4.) For some time, he has been wrestling with a call to ministry, and this opportunity may help clarify things.
*I’m not sure about #2, and #3, but #1 and #4 are pretty solid.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A vote for ethics

I raised a question a couple of weeks ago that I never really addressed. Which is more important, theology or ethics? In other words, which is more revealing of our spiritual state, what we believe or how we behave? My vote goes for ethics. Theology matters only to the extent that it informs the way we live. Or as Wendell Berry puts it , "you don't believe anything until you believe it with your whole body." I love that old man. True belief is a matter of what you do with your body, not what you think with your brain.

This conundrum wreaked all kind of havoc in the early church. It is especially evident in the relationship of two of the pillars. There is at best a creative tension between Paul and James. One is preaching that salvation comes by faith, while the other insists that faith without works is dead. Go read Acts 15 and 21. Then read Galatians 1 and 2. Though these elder statesmen of the Jesus movement clearly revered each other, the incongruities of their respective messages helped define the first 25 years of Christianity.

First there's James, otherwise known as the brother of Jesus. Although he was not among the original 12, it's apparent that he had ascended the ranks in the Jerusalem church within a few years of Pentecost. In fact, the aforementioned chapters in Acts and Galatians portray even Peter and Paul as deferring to his leadership. By all accounts of church history, James remained a devout Jew. It's even possible that he was a Nazarite ( no bath, no shave, no meat ). James was a Jew who led a Jewish church. He was considered righteous even by his adversaries. He was put to death by the same sad souls who did in his brother. How did James view the Jewish Law? As a joyful obligation for Jews, and a blessed option for God-fearing Gentiles. Note: the Law that James and other Jewish Christians ascribed to was not the Law of the scribes and Pharisees. His was a radical interpretation of the Law set forth by his Lord and brother. It was a Law based on purity of intent and compassion. It was not based on religious zeal and scrupulosity.

Then there's Paul. Paul viewed the Law as a blessed option for Jews, and as utterly pointless for Gentiles. As an ambassador for Christ to the non-Jewish world, Paul felt compelled to strip the Gospel of any undue cultural trappings. Kind of difficult seeing as how Jesus lived his whole life as an observant Jew. How does Paul write 13 letters to Christians and not make one mention of the earthly life of Jesus? That was not his concern. His concern was preaching salvation by faith alone based on the atoning death and Resurrection of Jesus. Let me say this...there's a long line of folks waiting to lambaste Paul for un-Jewishing the Gospel. I don't want to be in that line. At its best, Paul's message depicts an unbiased, all-powerful God with a diverse group of redeemed followers. Without Paul, we may have little clue of the eternal Christ. But taken on its own, his message can also give rise to a generic, three day Gospel that leaves us all worked-up over eternity but secretly wondering what to do in the meantime. Those who want to, can assume that Paul's command to believe in the empty grave relieves us of Jesus' command to take up our cross and deny ourselves.

Ironically, there may have been little difference in how these two actually lived. Acts 21 even has Paul undergoing a thoroughly Jewish purification rite at the behest of James. But can there be any doubt that there was some significant divergence in their preaching? I love James, but I'm not against Paul. My concern is that the church today is dominated by Paul's emphasis on right belief, while James is relegated to the shadowy regions of church history. I guess we're lucky we have him at all, seeing as how Martin Luther seemed hell-bent on striking him from the record.

My point? It matters how we live. My take is that an ounce of ethics is worth a pound of theology. Faith without works is a fat man eating a fifty-dollar steak while preaching on the wages of sin to a starving child.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the carrot and the french fry part 2

Well we've got the easy question out of the way...sort of. The second question, "if hell exists, then who's going?" is a bit trickier. Let me begin with this disclaimer: I am in no position to speculate on the eternal whereabouts of any particular soul. And, by the way, neither is anyone else. None of us can say with any degree of certainty that any specific person is in hell. No not even that one. That said, I think Jesus does give us some indication of what kind of person, or lifestyle should be cause for concern.

For my money, nothing beats the parable of the prodigal son. It's found in Luke 15, so go read it if you haven't yet. The cliff notes of it is that there are two sons and one righteous father. The younger son takes his inheritance in advance and blows it on women and whiskey, wakes up in a pig-sty, and comes crawling home to the compassionate and unqualified embrace of his father. The elder son stayed by the father's side, carried out his duties, and didn't spend nary-a-night with a pig.
The father throws a party to celebrate the return of his youngest, which I presume to be symbolic of heaven. Read the whole chapter and you'll see why. The elder son is envious of this extravagance, and refuses to go in.

OK, here's my take on all of this....The younger sons fault is that he didn't yet understand the fathers love. He thought there was something better out there. Eventually, he realized that he was horribly wrong. The elder son was content to remain in the fathers loving presence. His fault was that he wanted to keep his fathers love to himself.

The most scandalous, and terrifying truth of this parable is that the person on the outside is there by his own choice! The father was begging him to come in and he refused to! It should scare the crap out of all of us who are Christian by birth that the purest, and best behaved of these two brothers couldn't stomach the goodness of the father. The point that Jesus is revealing is clear...all rebellion is destructive, but the number one risk factor for eternal damnation is too much religion. Think about it. Break it down all you want to. There's only one reason the elder son missed out. He simply didn't like who else was on the guest list. Decades of duty-bound service had hardened his heart, and convinced him of his own worthiness. It was no longer enough that he got in. He had to control who else got in too.

In the end, the father was better than either son realized. The rebellious son came to his senses ( v. 17 ). The elder son never did. The moral: self-indulgence and self-righteousness are both sinful, but self-righteousness sets the deeper stain. God help us.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

the carrot and the french fry

Rob Bell has me thinking lately. His book Love Wins has stirred a heated debate these past few weeks over the subtleties of eternal damnation. I admit I haven't read it. I've done what most others have a few excerpts, seen a few interviews and discussed it for hours with other Christians. So this is NOT a book review. These are my views on the topic of heaven and hell, which have been brought to the surface and refined by the recent discussion.

Two questions about hell keep coming up. The first is, "is hell real?" The second is, "if it is real, who's going?" We all have to wrestle with these questions. As far as I can tell, the answer to the first question, hell is not real. It exists, but it's not real. What I mean to say is that hell is not natural. Hell is the eternal manifestation of falsehood. In this way, it's the opposite of real. God is real. In fact, he is reality itself. Heaven is to be in the perpetual presence of God. To be anywhere else is to exist in non-reality. Comparing heaven and hell is like comparing a carrot with a french fry. The carrot is real. It's intended. It's natural. It's here on purpose. The french fry, when held in the shadow of the carrot, can't be said to be real. It's fake. It's fabricated. It's here, but it's presence is not a result of divine volition. (An exception shall be made for Wendy's fries. Those things are dang good.)

Now, on to some scripture. In Matthew 25, through the lens of a parable, we get a look at the judgement seat. Here, the Son of Man is separating the people as a Shepard would separate sheep from goats. The long and short of it is, the ones cast into hell are the ones who refused to lay down their lives for others. Interesting side note...the basis for judgement in this parable is behavior, not belief. heaven and hell have more to do with ethics than theology. More on that later. My main point here is that in this parable, hell is described as having been made "for the devil and his angels." Hell came about as a fabricated consequence for those who rejected divine reality. Unnatural actions breed unnatural consequences. Also, it was made for spiritual rebels, not people. people experiencing hell are experiencing something that was not intended for them. Actually, I think a pretty good definition of hell is to receive what you were not intended to receive. So hell is not real. the very essence of it is fakeness.

Heaven was made for us. Hell was made for the devil. If that's true, then why doesn't everyone go to heaven? Do people go to hell because going to heaven is so hard? No. People go to hell because going to heaven is so easy. Heaven is automatic. It's natural. It's already built into the plan. That's what throws us. We don't trust anything we can't make. Some of us would rather inherit a hell made by our hands than a heaven made by the hands of another. The ultimate irony of heaven is that the only way to miss it is to try to get there on your own terms. -we'll get to the second question next time

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Spring is all about newness. After months of dormancy, the ground, the trees, and the sky begin to show signs of life. In recognition of this pattern, we decided to try something new ourselves. Two things actually. The first is a multi-cultural Bible study, done as a partnership between Foster Street Wesleyan Church, and Greater St. John Baptist. These two churches have developed somewhat of a sister church relationship over the past few years, and we felt that it was time to go deeper. As Pastor Kearns put it, “we have gathered around the frozen pond, and now it’s time to break the ice.” The 10-15 of us who will participate in this Bible study will try to do just that. Studying scripture with people of other backgrounds will expand our vision of what God is up to. It will also force us to face truths that we have mostly avoided thus far. Pray that God would grant us courage in this venture, and that he would use it to heal the hidden wounds of our division.

The second new thing is a community garden. Some kind friends have seen fit to lend us some space to grow some food. The space is located in front of the East Side Homes senior center, which is a perfect location for this project. A handful of our regular volunteers whom God has endowed with green thumbs will lead this work. The local young people will do most of the work, and reap most of the benefits. I’m honestly not sure which I’m more excited about, the prospect of studying God’s Word with a diverse group of Christians, or the looming prospect of fried squash. Please….don‘t make me choose