Apr 11 2011

Ears to Hear?

Rodger Woodworth

A concerned husband goes to see the family doctor: “I think my wife is deaf. She never hears me the first time I say something. In fact, I often have to repeat things over and over again.” “Well,” the doctor replies, “go home tonight, stand about 15 feet from her, and say something. If she doesn’t reply, move about five feet closer and say it again. Keep doing this so we can get an idea of the severity of her deafness.”

Sure enough, the husband goes home, and he does exactly as instructed. He stands about 15 feet from his wife, who is standing in the kitchen, chopping some vegetables. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” He gets no response, so he moves about five feet closer and asks again. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” No reply. He moves five feet closer, and still no reply. He gets fed up and moves right behind her—about an inch away—and asks one final time, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She replies, “For the fourth time, vegetable stew!”

I too have a hearing problem.  Unfortunately, according to my wife, it is a problem of selective hearing.  Jesus said a similar thing about people who have ears but do not hear.  Like the TV or my laptop that contributes to the selective hearing of my wife’s voice, there are cultural noises and comfortable activities that constrict our hearing of  Jesus’s message.  Guilty again.  I hate it when Jesus sides with my wife. 

The pragmatic counsel of our culture drowns out Jesus’ theology of racial and ethnic unity.  Self-interest and individualism have distracted us from hearing the call of our Christian vocations of being salt and light.  The constant buzz of materialism and prosperity divert our attention from scripture’s warning about greed. Yet as I often do with my wife we insist our hearing is fine while missing the life changing richness of our Master’s voice. 

We may need to ask the One who restored hearing to the deaf to provide the same corrective touch to our spiritual ears.  I know my wife would agree.  ”Whoever has ears to hear let them hear.”

Mar 17 2011

Crossing Culture’s Substitutionary Sacrifice

Rodger Woodworth

After nearly 35 years of life and ministry in the city I know how draining it can be to befriend, love and relationally commit to people who are wounded and loveless, persecuted and needy.  Tim Keller says, in his book Kings Cross, “It has to be this way because all life-changing love is substitutionary sacrifice”.  Because of God’s love Jesus made that kind of sacrifice for our messed-up, emotionally troubled lives.   Instead of avoiding us Jesus crossed the biggest cultural divide ever,  leaving His heavenly comfort to make the ultimate emotional and physical sacrifice. 

Jesus taught that if we only love those who love us or are kind only to our friends, what good is that and how are we different from people who don’t believe in Christ?  (Matthew 5:46-47)

Crossing culture and being multi-racial is becoming popular in our western society.  From commercials to celebrities we are bombarded with multi-ethnic images of unity.  But these, all be it positive pictures, are devoid of a story behind the faces.  How often we have hosted well meaning white suburbanites in our “hood” for a weekend who can’t wait to take pictures with our neighbors without getting to know the story of their lives.  Reynolds Chapman from the Duke Center for Reconciliation says, “It’s like skipping to the climax of a movie without watching the 90 minutes that lead up to it”. 

Crossing culture’s substitutionary sacrifice requires a patient long term commitment to know, love, and submit to those who are not only different than us but whose needs may cost us something as their troubles and issues become ours.   As Keller writes, “You can’t love them without taking a hit yourself.  A transfer of some kind is required.”

Feb 24 2011

The Common Ground of Crossing Culture

Rodger Woodworth

I recently began to introduce my three nine year old grandsons to the game of rugby, a game I played for more than a dozen years.  The BBC shows the Six Nations rugby games at noon on Saturdays.  Zach, Alex and Jackson have now declared they like rugby more than football.  It makes a grandfather proud even if they said it just to be nice. 

If you don’t know the rules behind rugby you can feel a bit clueless watching a bunch of grown men run, tackle and kick what looks like an inflated football.  But when you understand the rules and the difference between a set scrum and a ruck or a mall the 80 minutes of nonstop action becomes quite entertaining.   Did you know that in the recent Super Bowl the total time of actual play was only 16 minutes?   Did you know that the Rugby World Cup is the second most watched sporting event in the world and that the Soccer World Cup is the first most watched not the Super Bowl?

Most of us know very little about the international world of sports because we filter everything through the eyeglasses of our American culture.  While we may do that subconsciously we are not just programmed robots of culture we are also active creators of culture.  We have created the culture of American football and that is the lens with which we judge sports played primarily beyond our national boundaries.  We do the same with beliefs and behaviors, with thoughts and traditions, that are outside our mental models of what our world should look like. 

The Apostle Paul wrote that he tried to “find common ground with everyone so that he might bring them to Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  Paul was willing to adjust his lifestyle and behavior to that of the people to whom he encountered in order to win them to ChristIn other words Paul was willing to take off his Jewish glasses to look through the Gentile lens in order to find some common ground.  If we will attempt to cross the chasm of cultural differences to express the love of Christ we will also discover the common realities we share with others.  You might even join my grandsons and find you relish the sport of ruby more than American football.

Feb 24 2011

Sinners in the family tree

Rodger Woodworth

Martin Luther wrote:

Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree!  Now if the Lord does that here, so ought we to despise no one … but put ourselves right in the middle of the fight for sinners and help them.

Feb 3 2011

Cultural Idolatry

Rodger Woodworth

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “If you want to know what water is don’t ask the fish.”  A fish doesn’t understand its own environment until it enters dry land and struggles to survive.  In a similar way no one culture can know itself fully until it enters into the cultural environment of another.  As we cross the cultural divide to embrace those different than us we come to a greater appreciation of our own culture but more importantly we become aware of our cultural idols. 

There is no such thing as a culture free expression of the Christian faith; all of Christianity has been distorted by cultural prejudices.  The Enlightenment has partially blinded American Christianity to the spirit world while some African’s heritage of superstition has distorted their view of the spirit world.  Who is right?  Both world views have been affected by their culture.  Some cultures put a very high value on getting an appropriate return on their investment of time, talent and treasure while others focus more on relationships at the expense of time. 

Only when we allow the relationship with another culture to honestly critique our cultural expressions of faith can we see our prejudices.  We need our brothers and sisters from across the cultural divide to help us identify potential idols.  Especially for us Euro-centric Christians, the danger is to put our cultural identity above our Christian beliefs without even knowing it.  Accountability and love with other Christians across racial and ethnic divisions helps us to better critique and complete our own faith culture, whether that is our individual faith, fellowship group, church or denomination.

Nov 17 2010

Transformed by Diversity

Rodger Woodworth

After 17 years as the founding pastor it seemed right to the Holy Spirit and my family that my ministry at New Hope Church has come to an end.   You notice I didn’t say it seems right to me.   While I trust in the witness of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of my family leaving the pulpit and the people at New Hope has proved to be more difficult than I imagined.  I am looking forward to a new chapter of life and ministry for both me and the church yet why am I feeling such a sense of loss?

In the book Against All Odds, the authors’ research on the struggle for racial integration in religious organizations reveals that most of those who are a part of an ethnically diverse church would never consider going back to a homogeneous model.  Why?  I believe it is because our lives become impoverished to some degree when we do not engage and reflect the multi-ethnic nature of God’s Kingdom.  Our view of the Kingdom is limited when everyone’s struggles are the same, creating a soft reality.  It limits our understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence.  When there is a diversity of cultures and economics we experience God’s grace in ways that may be unfamiliar to us.  God and his Kingdom are multifaceted and as others different than us experience God’s revelation we are enriched. 

 In relationships with people different than us our prejudices are revealed and we are stretched to love those who may not love us back.  This experience becomes a part of God’s threshing floor as He removes the chaff from within us.  We grow in our appreciation of Jesus’ love, patience and servant hood.  Blacks in our church have overcome their experiences of racism and discrimination by whites to accept and love me as their white pastor.  That experience continues to transform me and is what will help fill my sense of loss as I continue seeking the enrichment of God’s diverse Kingdom.

Aug 17 2010

Crossing Culture for the Sake of the Gospel

Rodger Woodworth

Why so much fuss about race and ethnicity these days?  As one reader related to Tony Norman, an African-American columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: “The world has moved on”, he insisted, “Sure, racism and discrimination had been a  problem in America once upon a time, but Martin Luther King turned that around with his beautiful ‘I Have a Dream’ speech”.  Certainly the Civil Rights movement created some equal opportunities for nonwhites, but then why are we still separate – in our neighborhoods, churches and fellowships – and why should we care?

I believe when the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesians to “always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit and bind yourselves together with peace”, that he was probably pointing to more than disagreements over worship style or carpet colors.  “Paul chosen by God to be an apostle” was a Jew sent to proclaim the power of the gospel to the Gentiles – a gospel that had brought them near to Christ by His blood and made them members and citizens of God’s family and Kingdom.   This was God’s secret plan being revealed,” To bring everything together under the authority of Christ.”  As Paul crossed the cultural divide of hostility to invite these strangers and outsiders to be a part of God’s people, the very integrity of the gospel was at stake.  Paul believed this so strongly he was imprisoned for it and prayed that he would be able to continue explaining “God’s secret plan that the Good News is for the Gentiles, too.” 

This same cross-cultural work is needed today in our churches and on our college campuses to demonstrate the reconciling power of the gospel.  Other religions may be able to produce miracles but they cannot duplicate the miracle of Jew and Greek, slave and free, black and white coming together under the authority of Jesus Christ.  As we look to our programs and outreach for this coming season and semester, in what ways will we display God’s secret plan that the Good News is also for those different then us?  While you probably won’t end up in chains it will cost you something but for the sake of the gospel it will be glorious.

May 13 2010

Cultural Norms vs. Kingdom Values

Rodger Woodworth

These past several months I have had the opportunity to speak at several college ministries on campus about the issue of racial reconciliation and racial justice.  With the exception of one predominately African-American group the students were all white.  As I walked through the various student unions or gathering places I observed blacks sitting together amidst a sea of white students. I would summarize the general response of students to my biblical and cultural challenge for racial unity as one of indifference at best. However, a few questioned the need to address the issue at all, oozing out as an inherent political and cultural position.

In Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, he writes about the resentment from southerners over abolitionists call to Christians to deal with the sin of slavery.  The response from many churches was that it was not their responsibility to change the status quo but only to save souls.  That indifference only served to reinforce the culture of slavery in the South. 

If the Apostle Paul were alive would he have said the same thing to the churches in the South and to our campus ministries today, as he did to Peter, that they were not following the truth of the Good News?  Peter had stopped eating with the Gentiles because he was afraid of what his Jewish homeboys would say.  His ‘hypocrisy” had caused others to do the same thing – the separation of Jewish and Gentile Christians had become a cultural norm. 

As Christians we are called to be change agents wherever we see the truth of the Gospel not being followed.  Racial separation and injustice may be a cultural norm but it is not a kingdom value.  It is always more convenient to maintain and follow the status quo but it rarely glorifies God.

Apr 20 2010

From Babel to Pentecost

Rodger Woodworth


Richard Lovelace once wrote that people who are insecure in Christ will often “fix upon their race, their membership in a party, their familiar social and ecclesiastical patterns and their culture as means of self-recommendation.”  Ouch!  How often, when I begin to lose confidence in my ability to live and minister in my multi-cultural community, I clothe myself in the pride of being a white Anglo-Saxon protestant.   In these uncertain financial times people are putting on the armor of their respective political party while throwing salvos at the other side.  The mega church has thrived on the pride of people’s identity being wrapped up in their membership in a successful church.  Anxiety and insecurity can lead to the hubris desire of asserting the righteousness of our own group and criticizing others. 

All of this reeks of the tower of Babel – “a time when the whole world spoke a single language” and “began to take advantage of their common language and political unity”, (Genesis 11:1, 6).  The people were striving for a unity that would give them security and make a name for them.  While Jesus tells us that unity will be the major way outsiders will know God sent His Son, it is a unity of Christians who are different from one another – culturally, racially and economically – that contains the true glory of God. God confirmed this at Pentecost when H e began to reverse the curse of Babel by showing that His Holy Spirit can overcome the linguistic and ethnic barriers we erect. 

For ages people have retreated into the security of familiar customs and cultures and have regarded differences as something to avoid.  These prejudices and preferences according to Tim Keller are a “form of self-righteousness, a way to feel acceptable and worthwhile on our own merits”.  We do this when we begin to convince ourselves that our race, our tradition or our politics are superior to others.  If we are to really embody the gospel to the world around us we must have a bias towards being multi-cultural. We can only do that when our security and identity is fully in Christ and not our cultural heritage.

Apr 1 2010

Imagine That!

Rodger Woodworth

Have you ever walked into a meeting or social setting with strangers and immediately began to imagine where you are on some fanciful ladder of comparison?  I have – I think men are especially susceptible to this.  Well, Paul teaches that I am to count others as more significant than myself (Philippians 2:3 ESV).  Yes even those who are uneducated or jobless, too young or too old, too different or too disagreeable, are to be counted not just as equals but as more significant than me.

Paul’s point is not what others are but what you count others to be.  And the focus in not on how well they read or how much money they make, the color of their skin or their political views, the focus is: Will you count them as worthy of your friendship, encouragement or help?  Not are they worthy of your investment of time and energy but will you count them as worthy?  Will you take thought not just for your interests but for theirs?  Will you encourage, take the time to get to know them, help them and build them up.  Will you stop your daily pleasures long enough to show interest in them?

And how does this other-oriented commitment come to pass?  Verse 3 says, “In humility count others more significant than ourselves.”  It comes from humility.  Literally: “lowliness.”  This is the great opposite of a sense of entitlement.  Humility is the opposite of “You owe me.”  Paul said, “For I have a great sense of obligation to people in our culture and to people in other cultures, to the educated and uneducated alike” (Romans 1:14 NLT).  In other words, they didn’t owe him.  He owed them.

Why?  Why are we Christians to have a humble sense that we owe service to others?  Because God so loved us that he gave his only Son.  He treated us as worthy of his service, when we were everything other than worthy.  He counted us as greater than himself.  That is where our humility comes from; this overwhelming act of God’s grace, this moment-by-moment grace promised for eternity.

Now imagine how different our world could be if we actually counted others as more significant.  Maybe a more civil political discourse, a less segregated Sunday morning church, a more multi-cultural campus ministry, just imagine the possibilities.  God did imagine it, that is why he sent his Son.