The Charlottesville Clarion Call

‪I am among the privileged. I have never worried about discrimination. I have never had to even think much about racism. Growing up, I didn’t even know what Jim Crow was or how recent it was (or that in many ways still in practice). I didn’t understand the systemic racism that has fueled our country. I didn’t understand how things like the GI Bill, HOAs, freeway/infrastructure placement, and the War on Drugs were designed to further the racist agenda. ‬

‪In case you haven’t seen the news, white supremacists (many with machine guns) have staged protests in Charlottesville, chanting things like “White Lives Matter” and “Soil and Blood”. If you think that the views on parade (with tiki torches) in Charlottesville are “fringe”, you need to understand our history a bit deeper.‬ and the current displays in Charlottesville are a clarion call. We cannot ignore racism any longer.

‪For too long, the “church in America” has either openly or with complicity helped perpetuate this racist agenda, when in fact, our faith calls us to stand with the oppressed. I don’t know what it means or what it looks like but we must take the lead in fighting racism and I don’t know what it means or looks like but White Evangelicals must be at the front of the line. Otherwise nothing will change. ‬

‪It’s past time we faced this issue head-on. Our God not only stands with the oppressed but calls us to do so as well. Our Savior lead with love, service and compassion, laying down His own life for His enemies. I have been wondering a lot lately: would I stand in between people and white supremacists with machine guns? Would I put myself in harm’s way so that other may know the love of God? I worry that the time when I need to answer those questions may be sooner than I’d like.‬

‪The church’s role is to upend systems of injustice and inequality, not perpetuate them. Christians must regain a subversive voice and practice the civil disobedience of love, pursuing equality in more than word. ‬

‪I am deeply troubled by the brazenness with which racism is on display these days but I know that being troubled is not enough. My heart breaks for those who are made to live in fear and subjugation. My heart breaks for those who hate others because of the color of their skin. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to move forward. I can condemn racism on my blog but what can I do in real life? I don’t know, but I want to find out.‬

‪Will you pray with me and for me? Would you help me understand the things I don’t? I don’t know what any of this means other than I can’t remain silent. How can Christians in America (how can *we*) walk in the humble confidence (in the face of evil) that the Light is winning? How can we make the hollow words of our founding fathers “liberty and justice for all” a reality? How can we dismantle systemic powers of racism and oppression?

‪I look forward to your thoughts.‪

“The LORD is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, O LORD, do not abandon those who search for you.”‪
(Psalm 9:9-10)
‪There are plenty of resources on this topic but here are some that I have found to be eye-opening:‬

What resources have helped you on this journey?

The “Enlightened Self-Interest” of Christianity

If we’re friends, then at some point, I’ve probably begun a sentence with the phrase: “I heard on NPR  . . . ”

Anyways, I was listening to NPR earlier this month when they ran an interview with “Retiring U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried.”

At one point, NPR’s Steve Inskeep prompted Fried with: “I read the speech that you gave on your way out of the State Department. And your description of America’s role in the world reminded me of a phrase that I learned in school, enlightened self-interest. What’s it mean?”

I have to be honest and say that “enlightened self-interest” is a phrase that I had heard before but never really thought about or investigated. Fried’s answer had me thinking all day:

It means that as we think of America first, as we should, we should understand that our interests are best served when other countries also prosper. We realized long ago that our prosperity and our security at home was advanced when other nations felt secure and were more prosperous.

Aside from the gross nationalism and ultimately selfish motives (we help so that we can get ahead) which I cannot support, my interest was particularly piqued by Fried saying: “our interests are best served when other countries also prosper.” This was something that resonated. It carried weight. So I looked up the phrase “enlightened self-interest” on Wikipedia (so you know it’s true), and this is what I found:

Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.

What strikes me about this concept is that it seems to transcend selfishness. Of course you could seek to simply pursue your own self-interest. Many people do. But to understand that your true self-interest is found when others benefit seems counter-intuitive. It means will probably face choices in which you must sacrifice your own immediate needs or wants for the sake of others. It means that you can’t view others as obstacles to your own goals because we’re all weaved in this thing together. It means our interests can’t be separated.

To understand that my self-interest may be met by serving others is not the same thing as seeking my own self-interest by using others for that end; even if it means serving them. The heart of the idea of “enlightened self-interest” (if I am understanding it correctly) is that I benefit when we all benefit. And for me to truly benefit, we must all benefit.

I couldn’t help but think of Jeremiah 29. God’s people had been removed from their homeland and cast into Babylonian exile because of their faithlessness. But God continued to talk to them. To teach them and guide them. Sometimes he did it through mouthpiece-people called prophets. Consider Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: [5] Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. [6] Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. [7] But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

My friend Tyler Johnson (of Redemption Church, the Surge NetworkMissional Training Center, etc.) once summarized the heart behind James Davison Hunter’s wonderful book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World using sports metaphors. I’m not a sports-fan but I remember the gist: the “most valuable player” is oftentimes not the one who scores the most himself but the one who helps the team score the most points. The MVP wins when the team wins.

This seems to me to be a great summation of the heart of Christianity. Christianity certainly includes the idea of “personal salvation” but it has always been more than that. From the beginning, God told Abraham that his descendants (people of faith in God through Jesus) would be blessed so that they would be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:1-3):

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God’s people have always been charged with showing the world who God is and what He is like. They have always had “blessing” at the heart of their identity. We all know the story too well to pretend that they (or we) always lived up to this ideal. But it has been there nonetheless. Consider, for example, Leviticus 19:18:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (repeated in Matthew 22:39, etc.)

Though often known as simply a list of do’s and don’ts, right there, in the heart of Leviticus is the command to think of others as much as you think of yourself (which for most of us is quite a lot). Far from reversing this trend, the New Testament brings clarity and force. Paul audaciously tells us to be like Jesus which means to consider others not just as much as we think of ourselves but as more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2). Jesus, takes it a step further and says that it’s not just “others” that we should seek to benefit but even our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

In other words, if ever there were a people who should practice the idea of “enlightened self-interest”, it is Christians. But not because we might find our self-interest benefited in helping others but because we have already received all of the love, peace, and acceptance we could ever hope for. Remember that scene when Jesus went out to his crazy cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17)? As Jesus came up from the water, the Father, as the voice from Heaven said: This is my child in whom I am well-pleased.

If you trust in Jesus, He says the same of you. There is nothing you can do to earn it or lose it. He is pleased with you. He will not just be pleased when you obey or get your act together. He is pleased with you. What might change in your life if you believed that your approach to others wasn’t governed by needing their acceptance (because you have already been accepted by God through Jesus) but how you might help them flourish?

Because of our blessings from God, our very identity is tied to pursuing the betterment of our communities near and far. We have been blessed to be a blessing to others.

I confess that I have too often thought of Christianity in terms of my own soul getting to heaven when I die rather than in terms of how I am called, equipped and sent to bless others in the hear and now.

What good shall we do today?

What injustice shall we fight?

What peace shall we make?

Who should we bless?

What reconciliation shall we bridge?

Which enemy shall we love?

We have been blessed. How shall we be a blessing?

Can We Talk (Hell/Eternal Damnation Edition)?

I mentioned in the previous post in the “Can We Talk” series (Complementarian/Egalitarian Edition)? how I believe in the value of dialogue. I also introduced the concept behind this series:

Over the past couple of years, I have seen the idea of “orthodoxy” applied to issues I’m not sure it should have been. I have seen well-intentioned Christians say that other well-intentioned Christians are not in fact Christians because of their views on things like hell, gender roles and the like. So let’s explore some of these issues together. I’d like to propose a topic in the briefest way possible and let you help fill out the discussion. I’d like us all to listen and learn from one another. Maybe you’ll find your own position strengthened as a result, and maybe you’ll be persuaded to another view. Either way, it is a valuable exercise to to listen to one another.

In other words, we might think of this series as the online, interactive version of those “Four Views” books.

There are lots of important but not ultimate issues in Christianity. Your understanding and practice of God’s intended gender design matter; in family, in “church”, at work. They matter and they are important. But they are not ultimate. You can be Complementarian, Egalitarian, somewhere or nowhere in between and still be a Christian. This is not an issue on the defining edge of orthodoxy. There are issues of orthodoxy which define who is an who is not a Christian. The Deity of Jesus/the Trinity are some primary ones.

But we have a tendency to promote other views to the level of orthodoxy. We hold all kinds of views on which we believe those who disagree simply cannot be Christian. The problem, of course is that the people over on the other sides of those same issues probably view it as orthodoxy as well and they’re just as suspicious of your salvation as you are of theirs. It is vital that we think through our positions consistently in the light of God’s revelation. We should know and understand what we believe. We should know and understand the core of our belief. We must know which lines are borders and which ones are not.

Which brings me to a quick disclaimer, then today’s topic. First, in the context of this series, asking whether or not some topics are defining issues of orthodoxy is not an expression of my opinion on these topics. These are simply heavily-discussed topics upon which people sometimes place rather heavy dogmatic value. For some, to disagree is to disbelieve. It never hurts to take fresh looks at such issues.

The topic of “hell” and/or “eternal damnation” has often been a contentious one. No one likes to consider that they may spend eternity in a lake of fire. No one would wish any such thing on their loved ones. The notion of hell has also often been tied to questions surrounding the extent of the atonement. Believing in Universalism necessarily affects your view of hell. Some have argued that hell is not only literal but eternal. Others argue that, though there is indeed a literal hell, it is not eternal. At some point, God will simply wipe you from existence. Still others have argued that hell was never meant to be taken literally while others argue that God will one day win every one in to His family. Some slip in the snide notion that if you need the threat of eternal damnation to do good, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

As you can see, this topic is deep and wide and we could chase lots of interconnected doctrinal rabbit trails together. Let’s talk it out. Here’s some questions to get us started (feel free to add others and don’t feel it necessary to answer every question in your response):

  • Do you view this as an issue of orthodoxy (must someone believe this to be considered a “Christian”)?
  • Can you believe in a non-literal or a non-eternal hell and still be considered “orthodox”?
  • Do you believe in a literal, eternal hell?
  • Do you believe that Annihilationism is a valid biblical position?
  • Is Annihilationism within what you would consider to be “orthodoxy”?
  • Do you believe that the Bible’s teaching on hell is meant to be understood figuratively?
  • Is Universalism a valid biblical position?
  • Is Universalism within what you would consider to be “orthodoxy”?
  • How does your view of hell relate to your idea of justice? Of grace? Of love?
  • What questions am I missing?
  • What do you think?

 As always, please be respectful. I can’t wait to learn from you.

Why Saying “America First” Is Not Compatible With Christianity

The American experiment is predicated on the notion of the peaceful transfer of power. We just underwent one such transition. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump swore on a Bible to stand on behalf of others and gave an address. An inaugural address can tell us a lot about what a new president values.

A new president can tell us a lot about what we value (even though he lost the popular vote in a landslide).

Trump’s speech was simply an extension of his campaign rhetoric promising us that we would win and that, from now on, it’s going to be “America First”. We’re going to put up a wall, we’re going to turn away refugees and immigrants, we’re going to tax companies that build things out of the country. In short, we’re not going to be pushed around any more and gosh-dangit, it’s about time we thought of ourselves. As Trump said:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

I wrote the other day about how Christianity is always political. Our faith informs and fuels our politics. Every election season, Christians confound one another trying to convince each other that certain political positions that automatically mean you’re not a Christian. And, of course, if you only took your faith as seriously as I do, we would vote the same.

Part of the difficulty, of course is that, for many, Christianity also means being a patriot. We have adopted this sentimental notion of the “good ol’ boy” who loves his Momma, loves his truck, loves his guns, loves God and his country. To be a Christian in America, for many, means being an American, and being proud to be an American. There is a good section of our country that believes that America is a “Christian” nation and that to be Christian inseparably means supporting America.
But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? For example, Trump’s message is unbiblical at best, anti-Christian at worst. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Despite that the fact that many people claim to have voted for Trump out of sincere Christian convictions, he proved on Inauguration Day that he not only misunderstands Christianity, he stands in direct opposition to many core Christian convictions. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Let’s think about it.

During the campaign, Trump promised his supporters that, under his leadership, America would “win” so much that: “You will be tired of winning. We will win win win.” Every candidate promised to help get their country ahead. But “winning” in Trump’s world seems to be a zero-sum game. In other words, for us to “win”, someone else must lose. Trump has proven that he is not the forgiving type. He has admitted to holding grudges and promotes getting even with others.

The Christian understanding leads us to pursue the “flourishing” (shalom) of all. In other words, we win when others win. This is part of the reason why God tells His exiled people to seek the betterment of their captive cities (Jeremiah 29). Christians win when others flourish. But this is not what Trump means by “We will win win win.” He has already shown that, if Mexico is unwilling to pay for our wall, then we will punish them. Winning for Trump always means beating someone else. This is simply not in line with a biblical approach to dealing with others.

Christianity is, at its core, “other-centric”. It requires that we consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2). Paul tells the Romans that if they want to compete, they should out-honor one another (Romans 12:10). Jesus tells us that the path to true greatness is through humbling ourselves and putting others first (Matthew 20:16) and just in case we’re unclear, Jesus clarifies that greatness lies in serving others (Matthew 20: 26-27).

Yet, Trump promised to put “America first” and this is exactly what many of his supporters wanted him to say. Even many of his Christian supporters. But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? Let’s unpack this a bit for a minute, speaking in the context of a presidential inauguration, to Americans, the contextual implication of putting “America first” equals the same thing as saying: “Let’s put ourselves first (even at the cost of excluding others).” “Let’s put ourselves first” is simply the plural of “ME FIRST”.

But Christianity requires us to put others first. Christianity is simply not compatible with the sort of nationalistic patriotism. Christians in America seem to be at a perpetual crossroads. Will we influence the American culture more than we let it influence us? Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion that, despite the best efforts of many Christians, American culture tends to win:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

Christians must separate themselves from a culture which promotes self-service. Christians must regain lives of sacrifice and the practice of service. God is love and far too often, no one would know it by watching us. What will we show a watching world? Will we buy in to a nationalistic patriotism that’s simply flag-wrapped selfishness or will we follow Jesus into servanthood seeking the good of others?

Christianity Is Always Political

We are fortunate to live in a country in which we get to re-choose our major leaders on a rotating cycle. The up-side of this is that we get to regularly examine how we come to our political positions. We regularly have the opportunity to discover anew how our worldviews create our political opinions. The down-side is that it is easy to simply take party loyalty for granted and simply assume that (if you are a Christian as am I) our party affiliation is, “of course the most biblical choice” without continually re-examining whether our votes really align with biblical values.

In other words since voting for major offices is such a regular part of our life in this country, it’s tempting to simply fall in to patterns of voting without really thinking about why we’ve aligned with a certain candidate or party. It seems even rarer still for adults to switch party loyalties once they have been ingrained.

But Christians are called to continually re-examine their beliefs, “taking every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5, etc.), striving for a maturity that is not easily swayed (Ephesians 4:9-16). We are told to strive after maturity and expected to think deeply.

The 2016 election cycle has been contentious to say the least and it has caused lots of division among Christians. Many (including myself) have felt as though the Republican candidate is completely and utterly out of step with what I value as a Christian. Others have argued that the Republican party is always the more biblical choice regardless of the candidate. Still others take it a step further and say that Donald Trump is actually God’s candidate.

As I’ve dialogued with family and friends about the different positions Christians might take over this election cycle, one view repeated itself enough that I’ve been thinking a lot about it. In short, many people told me that they have actively tried to separate their faith from their political opinions and votes. Several people told me that Christianity can be interpreted and applied by people of both major political party and can be inconclusive at best and divisive at worst, so they have decided to vote aside from their faith. 

As I’ve tried to understand this position, I’m driven more and more to the conviction that Christianity is always political. Our faith cannot be separated from our politics. In fact, I would argue that our politics are an outworking of our faith. Christianity addresses how we should care for the poor (Psalm 34:6; Proverbs 22:9, 31:20; Daniel 4:27; Matthew 19:21; Galatians 2:10, etc.). Christianity addresses our attitude to violence (Exodus 14:14; 1 Samuel 17:47; Psalms 11:5, 17:4, 20:7; Matthew 5:9, etc.). We could go on, but my point is that Christianity directly addresses issues which fuel our voting habits.

We tend to forget that Rome viewed Christianity as a political threat. Part of being a citizen meant declaring that Caesar was Lord. But as people came to faith in Jesus, they were no longer able to declare such things because Jesus was now their Lord. This might be difficult for us to understand in our current political day and age but it is fairly easy to see why political leaders would not only view this as insubordination but as a threat to their own positions of power.

We tend to forget that it is the Christian faith which has led many to acts of civil disobedience and to become directly involved in politics. Whether abolition, women’s suffrage, the fight for civil rights, Christianity has not only always been political, it has often been quite unpopular.

Christianity in America has often been co-opted to support the pursuit of wealth and comfort. It has been used to justify oppression rather than combat it. Christianity has been turned upside down and used to endorse power structures which directly oppose biblical convictions.

We live in a time whose importance will only really become apparent with time. Christians in America have the opportunity to shed the skin of consumerism and leave behind (and fight) systems of oppression. Christians in America have the duty to follow Christianity rather than America. Christians have the chance (and perhaps obligation) to reclaim the practice of civil disobedience. Part of our prophetic voice in culture has always been to speak truth to power, not to court favor.

The heart of Christianity is for social justice, care for the poor, nonviolence and the flourishing of our cities. These convictions have unmistakable political ramifications. Christianity is always political and it’s up to us to work this out in public.

I look forward to your thoughts.

Beware of Formulaic Gospelism

One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that it often look so different; it comes with great freedom. One of the most difficult things about Christianity can be when we expect everyone to look the same.

American Christianity has a long history of diminishing the good news of Jesus. Americans like to simplify. Boil it down to practical, sellable bits and bytes. Though Christianity has had a tremendous cultural presence in America but it often finds itself watered down. As Alan Wolfe notes in his informative book The Transformation of American Religion:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

The basic premise of Wolfe’s book is that, though Christians in America talk a big talk, they’re not all that different from the rest of us, so don’t worry.

Christianity in America has often had a rocky road. We often add to it, making it more difficult than it need be. We often take away from it, making it more simple than it really is. We attach certain behaviors and codes and tell people that if they don’t meet them, they can never be saved. Or we tell people that all they have to do is believe a certain set of propositions without any change in heart.

One of the American mistreatments of the Good News of Jesus’ life, obedience, substitutionary death, ascension and intercession is sometimes known as “easy believism”. The problem with this approach, for many is that it simply requires nothing but belief. No heart change, much less lifestyle change. This approach teaches that we should not even expect behavioral change or repentance, just belief. The result is often people who claim to be Christians with no discernible difference in life, heart or conduct before or after “salvation”. Belief with no requirement of sacrifice.

At the heart of this discussion, among other things, is the question of how salvation is related to our actions. The Bible seems clear that our actions cannot produce salvation but that salvation will always affect our actions. Our behaviors will change.

How people change has been a keen question for pastors, counselors and all Christians for years. This is at the heart of many approaches to what we call “discipleship”: the process of becoming more like Jesus and helping others to do the same.

There has been a helpful trajectory over the past few years to regain the centrality of the Gospel in the life of the Believer. The Gospel is not simply how someone “gets in to heaven” when they die, it is the answer to ongoing transformation (leaving sin behind) in this life; for the here and now. But as is sometimes the case in matters such like this, many Christians have begun to turn this reliance into a formula.

Christianity has had a tenuous relationship in America with the self-help movement, often forgetting that Christianity is not, in fact about just becoming better people. It has always been about more than “your best life now”. But we love to boil things down. We love alitteration and simple steps. We love formulas that can be distilled and packaged.

We are in danger of trying to reduce the transformative power of the Gospel in to simple, easy-to-follow steps. Where we once had easy believism, we now face formulaic gospelism. We sometimes expect Christian growth to look the same for everyone and instead of urging one another on to holiness, we judge each other based on how much they do things the way we think they should be done.

The Bible is clear that Christian growth comes through the repeated process of faith and repentance. But this doesn’t always look the same for every one. That’s part of the beauty of Christianity, it meets each one where we we’re at and takes us each to the destination of Christ-likeness. But it moves us at different paces through different scenery, struggles, strains and trials. It works within every unique personality in unique but universal ways.

We must fight the urge to expect everyone to look the same. We must resist the notion that Gospel transformation can be boiled down to a few simple steps. The Gospel is deep and powerful and moves us all in the same direction but it cannot be controlled. As we journey together, let’s not believe that a common destination requires that we walk in lock-step. Formulas are great for math but not necessarily for holiness.

 

Christians Are The Motel 6 Of The World

porchlightEvery night I do a walk-through, of our house, locking each door before bedtime. I don’t know why, but the past few nights, I’ve peeked out the front door and wondered why some people leave their porchlight on overnight while others do not. And then, as I am often wont to, I spiritualized (shall we say “Jesus Juke”?) the fact that some people leave their porchlights on every night while others do not.

“Light” is a common biblical metaphor. Jesus calls Himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), saying: “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. Later, Jesus gives the same descriptor to people (Matthew 5:14). This is amazing. Jesus says that what is true of Him (being the “light of the world”) is true of His people (being the “light of the world”). But what does this mean for us?

Throughout the the Bible, “light” is used as a symbol of the Divine presence, help and salvation (Exodus 13:21Psalm 27:1, 36:9;  Isaiah 60:19, Matthew 4:16; Luke 2:32, etc.).

The idea of light carries many connotations: safety, a place of refuge, hospitality, knowledge, and more. Light helps people find their way. Light drives out darkness and exposes things not seen. Think of some of “light phrases”: “brought to the light” or “in the light of day”. Most life needs light to survive.

Light is such a pervasive metaphor that it’s even an advertising slogan for a sometimes less-than-stellar motel chain. For years, Motel 6’s slogan has been: “we’ll leave the light on for you.” In other words, they’ll be a beacon of safety, comfort and security in the night of hard travel. Whether or not they live up to those standards is up to you. But it’s great marketing for a hotel chain.

I wonder how many people think of Christians in terms like this, that we bring knowledge, understanding, safety, comfort and life. Especially during this election season, what does it mean for Christians to be “the light of the world”?

Of course, this requires balance: too much light can cause problems as well. Harsh. Blinding. Unpleasant. It can cause you to recoil. I wonder how many people think of Christians in terms like this, that we cause them to recoil or turn away? Sometimes people don’t like Christians because our presence reminds them of their own sin. But sometimes people don’t like Christians because we bring the uncomfortable aspects of light without bringing comfort or presenting a way forward. Light imperfect.

Times are hard. Division is the soundtrack of life for many these days. Fear is in the air and protests in the streets. Many feel betrayed while others believe God’s man won the election, even if he lost the popular vote. Others can’t understand how we would elect such an openly immoral person to the highest office in our land. Racists feel emboldened while others mourn. This election season seems to be more about politics. After all, politics are simply display what’s already in the heart. And our country’s EKG isn’t good. We’re not healthy.

What might happen if Jesus’ people radically reoriented their lives around the principles and practices which have always been at the core of our faith? God wants His people to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) and to care for our cities, even when we find ourselves at odds with the leadership (Jeremiah 29). God has blessed His people so that we will be a blessing to others (Genesis 12). So that we will be light in the darkness.

We are facing a vital crossroads for Christianity in America. Many people are questioning what it even means to say you’re a Christian if you voted for the most questionable candidate in recent memory, if not ever. Others wonder what it even means to be a Christian if you didn’t vote for the political party that opposes abortion. And the culture hears our words, watches our actions, and wonders, too, what it even means to say that you’re a Christian in 2016 America. If all it means is going to church once in a while, opposing the sins of certain groups and voting for a political party, why bother?

Through Jesus, Christians have been entrusted and empowered with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Reconciliation, of course is most often understood as: “the restoration of friendly relations” or “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.” It’s one thing for disputing parties to come together, it’s another to be charged with “the ministry of reconciliation”. If we were a business, Christians could say: “Reconciliation is our business”. This has profound implications for Christians in the current US climate.

It’s OK to have political opinions. It’s OK to have strong political opinions. But Christians have been charged with something more than a political agenda. Though we are free to and probably even encouraged to engage in our culture’s political system, we must not be enslaved to it. We must not engage in demonizing those with different opinions and we must not allow others to do so. We must never allow any political party to count on our vote because our task is greater than politics. Even though we participate in politics, our calling lies above. We are called to listen to both sides because we are charged with reconciliation, with bringing different parties together. This is nearly impossible when we are so blinded by our own views that we dehumanize those who disagree. We are called to rise above our vote and love our enemies. We are called to seek out justice and oppose oppression. We are called to stand in the middle of opposing parties, not among them. We are called to bring an end to the bickering, not be its loudest voices.

We are called to be light. We are charged with reconciliation.

Sometimes this means just listening. Sometimes it means comforting the mourning. Sometimes it means speaking up. It always means standing with the “least of these”, the marginalized and those who have no voice. Sometimes this means standing with the unborn. Sometimes it means not only calling others to humility but modeling it. Sometimes it means not only calling others to listen to model it. Sometimes it not only means asking others to be kind and gentle but modeling it. Sometimes it means calling out immorality, bigotry, sexism, intimidation and bullying and a culture of death. It always means standing in the division.

What are some practical ways we might do so? What keeps us from doing so?

This election cycle has cost American Christianity a lot of credibility. But since Christianity in America often resembles America more than it does Christ this may not be an entirely bad thing. Many who are unwilling to carry the Cross and love their enemies will be blown away with the chaff. Many who have believed that following Jesus was akin to winning at life or having their best life now will be unprepared for the work ahead. But God’s people must be the Motel 6 of the world. We must offer safety, comfort and security to all. We must figure out what it means to bear the burden of reconciliation. We must figure out what it means to be light and stand against the darkness on both sides of the political aisle.

I don’t entirely know what this means. But I do know that God’s church will not be lost (Matthew 16:18) and the need for reconcilers will never cease. I have been convicted over the past year to listen deeper but also to speak up when necessary and to act when needed. My eyes have been opened to the great needs ahead and my heart has been ignited to do more. Not to earn anything but because I’ve been blessed.

Christians. We’ll leave the light on for you.

Christians. Reconciliation is our business.

Now that’s good marketing. But will culture’s experience with Christians live up to the hype?

 

 

 

 

I Get It. And We Should Talk About It.

104633512Nashville mega-church pastor Pete Wilson recently resigned from the multi-campus Cross Point Church which he and his wife Brandi planted in 2002.

As the church celebrated its 14th anniversary, Wilson delivered a video message in which he said (among other things):

“Most of you in this church only experience what I do on Sundays, especially those of you who watch online. You just see me when I kind of come up here on Sundays but the reality is as leader and the pastor of a church, what happens in between those Sundays is just as important and it requires a lot of leadership and it requires a lot of leadership energy. And leaders in any realm of life, leaders who lead on empty don’t lead well and for some time now I’ve been leading on empty. And so I believe that the best thing for me to do is to step aside from Cross Point and so I am officially resigning as the pastor of Cross Point Church”

Wilson went on to say: “We’ve said that this is a church where it’s OK to not be okay, and I’m not okay. I’m tired. I’m broken, and I just need some rest. I love you guys; I love the vision of this church.”

Wilson then resigned from vocational ministry.

I don’t know Wilson.

But I get it.

In November, 2014, I discussed my own decision to resign from vocational ministry. In that post, I wrestled with what sometimes makes resigning from ministry different than resigning from any other career:

How do you tell people you need a break from teaching others when it seems like that’s what you’re gifted at? How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is to care for people? You can’t take a break from caring. How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is “Christianity”. You don’t take a break from Jesus.

There are many reasons a pastor might resign.Ministerial dropout rates continually hover around 50%.  The Tennessean quotes Lifeway Research, who in 2015, asked 734 former senior pastors why they left, finding:

that 40 percent left pastoral work before age 65 because they had a change in calling, 25 percent cited a conflict in a church, 12 percent left because of personal finances and 12 percent left for family issues.

Aside from unrepentant sin, the most controversial explanation of pastoral resignation seems to be the all-dreaded but ill-defined “burnout”.Though “pastor burnout” is often ill-defined, it is often equated with spiritual failure that could have been avoided simply by following the right formula.

Consider Thom Rainer’s post “Autopsy Of A Burned Out Pastor: 13 Lessons“. Rainer acknowledges that: “Perhaps the autopsy metaphor is not the best choice”, but the implications of failure (or maybe even spiritual death?) certainly stain his choice of words. In fact, in the “lessons learned” section (i.e. things you can do to prevent the same fate for yourself) includes such nuggets as:

  • Being a short-term people pleaser became a longer-term problem.
  • The pastor had no effective way to deal with critics.
  • The pastor did not have daily Bible time.
  • The pastor’s family was neglected.

You get the gist.

Any pastor who experiences burnout could have prevented it.

If only.

They’d followed the right steps.

This seems sort of like Donald Drumpf saying that soldiers who return from battle suffering from PTSD simply “couldn’t handle it.”

The Christian community has been frustratingly slow to to develop holistic approaches to mental health care. Popular counseling approaches vilify the use of antidepressants while many believe that pastoral burnout can simply be avoided if we check off the right spiritual-workout boxes.

Instead of acknowledging the complexities of mental and spiritual health, we have adopted a formulaic approach seemingly borrowed more from the world of self-help than from the Bible. Follow these simple steps and you too can live a worry-free life (Of course this is related to the self-help model of preaching many of our churches have adopted but that’s a post for another day).

Pastoral burnout is a complex issue that requires more than self-help steps (as is most of the spiritual life).

Pastoral burnout is often the result of clinical depression marinated in a culture in which it is nearly impossible to discuss job performance without suffering a critique  of one’s spiritual health (even though the two may not be related at all).

It is the result of feeling like you are alone. Even when you’re surrounded by people who may have your best interest at heart (and some who don’t).

It is the result of unrealistic expectations. From Everyone. Including yourself.

It is the result of feeling like you can’t confide in your “fellow leaders” because you’ve set yourself up to “lead” them. After all, there has to be a “first among equals, right?”

It is the result of feeling like it’s all up to you because the buck stops somewhere and the captain goes down with the ship and I just haven’t quite gotten to the point of true shared leadership yet . . .

It is the result of a culture which skips over some of the Psalms and equates depression with spiritual failure.

My own experience has led me to find many of the discussions of either depression or pastoral burnout are shallow at best, superficial in the middle and outright judgmental at worst. Burnout is nearly always equated with spiritual failure.

No wonder why more pastors aren’t honest with their struggles until the best option seems to be the last option of resignation.

This is as much an issue of mental health as it is the result of ill-defined and unrealistic expectations. We have set up our pastors to be entrepreneurs, salesmen, counselors, managers, public speakers, accountants, human resources specialists and nearly everything in between. And we have created cultures in which, despite our best intentions otherwise, it’s not OK to not be OK. Especially if you’re a leader.

I hate that Pete Wilson and his family have to go through this season. But I am thankful that the issues surrounding the spiritual and mental health of pastors and all Christians is having a moment of national conversation. I am thankful that more and more people are opening the public eye to this much-needed conversation.

We must commit to fostering environments of acceptance. Many of us simply don’t feel safe to say that we’re not OK. If that’s true for many Christians in general, its certainly acute in our leaders. We need more leaders who display the humble confidence to demonstrate the multi-faceted tapestry that is the Christian faith. Some times are good. Some times are bad. We must be honest enough to voice both. We must be caring enough to accept others.

My prayer is that Wilson’s resignation sparks a worldwide discussion of how we structure our churches, what we expect of our leaders, what we expect of one another and what an authentic Christian life really looks like.

 

External Processing, Thoughtful Dialogue and Pride

dialogue-tagsI find myself in the curious cultural position of being an external processor. I think out loud and I learn by considering other viewpoints and talking through ideas. I sometimes put ideas out in the public sphere specifically to facilitate discussion and learn from others. But I have been accused of “trolling” (I had to actually Urban Dictionary the phrase the first time it came up) because this sometimes means posting about controversial topics. I am offended by the trolling comment because it assumes ill-intent in my motives for posting about controversial issues. As if I’m simply wanting to incite people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I guess I can see where the accusation comes from. It’s our natural bent to avoid controversy. Unless you’re a power hungry reality television star, who believes that all press is good press. But I digress. After all, it is considered impolite to discuss religion and politics at family functions. But why? Well, because faith and politics are issues held with the head and the heart. Our beliefs become convictions. And we often can’t seem to really figure out how religion and politics go together in the first place, can we? Much less how to thoughtfully discuss issues without becoming needlessly offended or needlessly offending.

When you disagree with my political position, you also disagree with my religious position which also means that you’ve attached me personally (or so we think). Emotions are the track for these roller coaster discussions. Tempers flare from crests of emotions because to disagree with my convictions is to disagree with me. And how could any sane person believe what you just said. I’m saying you’re a moron. But . . .

The Prayer Of The Ugh-Churched

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned against You in my heart and thoughts. I have grown discontent in my journey towards You. I love you still and seek You fervently. In fact, this love for You and desire to grow more like You has fanned the flames of frustration. I want more than church programs. I want the church to live like family. I want to be challenged to grow more dependent on You, not on gifted teachers. I want to be equipped rather than rely on someone else for my spiritual development and I want to be engaged rather than entertained.

Many Christians say they want “real” and “authentic” community but the very structures we adopt for the local church tend emphasize intellectual growth over relationships. We have classes to teach people how  to live in community but we don’t actually expect anyone to be in such a community. In fact, we’re a bit taken aback when we do see it.

When we say “doing life together”, it usually means superimposing some sort of academic study on to people who may or may not actually grow the most from academic study. We approach the Christian life as if we were simply disciplined enough, everything would be better. We academetize everything to the point that we discourage people who have no business being discouraged about following Jesus. It’s great if you can tell me the declentions of a Greek verb but I’d rather know you were trying to love those in your path as best you can. We make people who don’t like to read books read books other than the Bible so that they will understand the Bible better. And if they won’t even pretend to like to read to appease their leaders, they are deemed as somehow less spiritual and not “leader material”. We ask people to take time away from their families so we can tell them to love their families better. We ask people to meet with other Christians to learn how to talk to people who aren’t Christians. Really? Is this what it’s come to?

I’m sorry but if we can’t talk to our neighbor about everyday life, we’re not going to talk to them about Jesus. And if that’s the only think we ever talk to them about we’re just going to seem weird and they’re going to think that we view them as a project rather than a friend.

We use verses out of context to promote our own agendas like the (hopefully) well-intentioned pastor using Hebrews 10:25‘s admonition to not neglect gathering together with other believers to say that you have to be at every worship service (I’d be happy to elaborate on this at some point, but for now, I’ll say that I’m pretty sure that the writer to the Hebrews did not mean that we should attend a production once a week where we passively listen to a speaker tell us for 45 minutes how to live while a band urges us to sing along to their performance.). We draw lines in the sand that don’t need to be drawn and we call it “inerrancy” (the Bible was not given to tell us the age of the earth and to believe in an old earth does not mean not believing the rest of the Bible). We major on the minors and wrongly divide (I have not applied to several churches because they require someone who believes a Pre-Trib/Pre-Mil eschatology. Yes, I think eschatology is important. No, I don’t think this is something to divide over).

Father, protect me that my frustration does not sprout into bitterness. Surround me with people who want more.

Help us, Father to own our weaknesses rather than pretending they don’t exist. Help us to to find a better way forward instead of retreading the same well-intentioned but dead-end paths. Surround me with people who believe that the church is neither a building and who believe that worship is not an event and certainly not a performance. Lead me to people who believe that growth occurs primarily in community and understand that you can’t program real community. Lead me to people who believe that growing in discipleship is not necessarily the same thing as growing in knowledge about the Bible, though the two are often deeply intertwined.

Father, help us to move beyond cliché understandings of words like “authentic” and “organic”. Fill my heart with love and patience. Teach me as a leader to equip others rather than make them rely on me. Please deepen my own love, not only for You but for your your people. May I come to understand my faith, not as an add-on but as a marinade for life.

May my frustration be an instrument of healing for others. May I never lead out of opposition but from joyful obedience. May my love for you increase and may I become more dependent on You. Grant me wisdom, fill me with joy, lead me to serve and surround me with others who want the same.

Amen.