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?

Christians, What Now?

reconciliation-clipart-sj7The election of Donald Trump has swirled a storm of questions around Christians in America. The deep divisions across the country are mirrored in our faith communities. Some voted for Trump because they agree with Republican economic principles while opposed him because of his outright immorality. Some voted for Trump because they believe that he will help curb abortion in America while others opposed him because of his promotion of war crimes, including torture. Some voted for him because they wanted to “shake up” Washington while others opposed him because he seems to exude sexism and even appears to have confessed to sexual assault. Some ignored his transgressions. Others held their nose and others simply couldn’t pull the lever for this candidate.

And yet we are all part of the same family (John 1:12Romans 12:21, etc.)  with the same Father (1 John 3:1-2, etc.) and the same callings. We are called to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), offering safety, comfort, security, bringing knowledge and driving out the darkness. We are charged to seek the welfare of our cities (Jeremiah 29) while opposing oppression (Proverbs 14:31;  Psalm 103:5-6Zechariah 7:9-10, etc.) and standing for marginalized, being the voice of the voiceless (Jeremiah 22:3; Micah 6:8, etc.) and fighting for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, etc.). Christians are called to be good citizens while speaking truth to the power structures of our day.

As I wrote about yesterday, because of and through Jesus, Christians are charged with the “ministry of reconciliation” in a divided world. We must seek peace and we must stand in the gap, reconciling warring factions. This is only possible when we understand our calling to be greater than partisan politics.

But that’s not all we’re called to and herein lies some of the difficulty we are heading towards. Trump has peddled in fear and given rise to bigotry. He has demeaned others, bragged about adultery and made a living swindling others. Christians must not only be among the calmest voices pursuing reconciliation but among the loudest voices holding the Trump administration accountable. I’ll be honest: I don’t know what this looks like.screen-shot-2015-05-11-at-3-06-41-pm

How can we strive to be good citizens, fulfilling our mandate to care for others and love our enemies while still retaining the prophetic voices of salt and light? We can accept the results of the election. This is not the same thing as endorsing Trump’s beliefs and behaviors. But he was elected and we are called to honor our leaders. We can separate his transgressions from political policies. We can listen to those whose frustration ushered Trump into the Oval Office while also listening to those who feel threatened by his rise. We can give Trump a chance while not forgetting his past because right now, it’s up to him to prove that he will do good with power and that’s he’s not the person he’s led so many of us to believe him to be.

But we must not expect government to fulfill our mandate. It’s one thing to speak truth to power, asking Trump to change his rhetoric and it’s another for us to tangibly put this love in to practice. It’s not enough to call our leaders to welcome immigrants if we’re not doing it. It’s not enough for us to call our leaders to honor life if we don’t.

Christians are called to speak against oppression. Christians are called to pursue reconciliation. I don’t know where else to look to try to understand this other than the life of Jesus. He condemned the hypocrisy of his days’ religious leaders while spending time (thus validating) the marginalized. Somehow, He was able to pursue reconciling men and God (and men with men) while speaking against injustice. This is the task ahead of Christians.

Those who supported Trump have a lot to answer for. Many feel that turning a blind eye to his transgressions cost Christianity in America valuable credibility. Those who opposed Trump must not give in to cynicism. Both sides must find a way to honor their convictions while coming together. Both sides must show the world that we are Jesus’ because of our love for one another (John 13:31), speaking against immorality and for the weak.

We have a lot to figure out. Let’s work together.

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?

 

 

 

 

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 Weekly Town Crier

towncrierWell hi there. How are you? How’s your week been? was it a good week or a bad week? Was it a busy week or a slow week. Did your week leave you feeling weak?

Well have no fear, the Weekly Town Crier is here to inform you on all of the things about which you are ill informed. Or maybe he just collects links of interest and passes them along to you for your interest.

Buy my art here or here or contact me directly to purchase originals.

Browse Large Hearted Boy‘s list of “100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads.”

Listen to a mix of some of my favorite songs released in 2015.

Browse my 42 favorite albums of 2015.

Download a three-volume mix of Jesusy songs I collected.

R.I.P. Louis Meyers, co-founder of SXSW.

R.I.P. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid.

Read Christianity Today‘s piece: “Israeli Christians Think and Do Almost the Opposite of American Evangelicals”.

Read about the Florida Sheriff who has pledged “to arrest CEO Tim Cook if Apple resists crypto cooperation”.

Read as Consequence of Sound considers the legacy of MTV’s 120 Minutes. Remember when the Music Television Network actually thought music mattered?

Read as jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb reflects on the making of some of Miles Davis‘ greatest albums at Uncut magazine.

Read as Paste magazine talks with a proponent of the flat earth theory.

Read as Flavorwire profiles Obama’s SXSW role this year.

Read as Peter Capaldi criticizes their BBC for neglecting Doctor Who.

Read as Damien Jurado talks with Paste and opens up about battle with depression: “I Went from the Light Really Into the Black.”

Read as Salon reports that the estate of Harper Lee has begun actions to cease the publication of the (rightly) ubiquitous mass market paperback edition of To Kill A Mocking bird.

Read Consequence of Sound‘s report that the Eagles are breaking up.

Read Brain Pickings‘ piece: “Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last”.

  • Read as The Guardian considers “Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: maybe a film adaptation just isn’t meant to be”.

Read as The Atlantic considers: “The Trader Joe‘s Lesson: How to Pay a Living Wage and Still Make Money in Retail”.

Read Uncrate‘s report that AC/DC is canceling the remainder of their tour dates as Brian Johnson faces total hearing loss.

Read as The Daily Beast profiles “The Stupidly Simple Spy Messages No Computer Could Decode”.

Read as Ars Technica reports: “Google AI goes 3-0, wins Go match against Lee Se-dol”.

Read as On The Media argues: “Why The Publishing Industry Isn’t In Peril”.

Read as Bryan Cranston tells The Advocate that he’d love to star in a Malcom in the Middle reunion.

Browse “The Scariest Urban Legend From Every State” at Thought Catalog.

Read about the “New company offering same-day in-home releases of new films”from Napster founder Sean Parker which has received the “backing of Abrams, Spielberg.”

Read Techly‘s report that “In Switzerland, It’s Illegal To Own Just One Guinea Pig Because They’re Prone To Loneliness”.

Browse Fast Company‘s list of “7 Interview Questions For Measuring Emotional Intelligence”.

Read Damn Interesting‘s profile of Colonel Sanders.

Crank Out Infinite Geometric Designs With The Wooden Cycloid Drawing Machine” at Colassal. 

Read Brooklyn Vegan‘s piece about an increasing problem: homeowners move into areas with (already) existing music venues and then make noise complaints, and win.

Read “Relevant”‘s report that Hillsong is getting its own television network.

Read reports that Christian celebrity speaker Mark Driscoll will launch his new speaking platform here in AZ on Easter Sunday.

Read The Observer‘s profile of Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band on the release of their magnificent double album The Rarity of Experience. Forsyth discusses the influence of R.E.M, Television, the Dead and wonders on his Facebook page of the interview: “I talked a lot about why the Solar Motel Band is actually jazz band in flannel or something.”

  • Read Pitchfork‘s review of the album: “Solar Motel Band leader Chris Forsyth strikes a near-perfect balance between ’70s rock tradition and present-day experimentation with his signature guitar tone.”

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It’s OK If We Don’t Worship The Same God And It’s Not Intolerant To Say So (Right?)

coexistBy now you may have heard the tale of (former) Wheaton Professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins was recently let go from the college, not for wearing a hijab but for declaring that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God”.

This situation has stirred up the proverbial poop-storm of controversy with media outlets pretending that they understand (and can define) “Christianity” (and religion in general for that matter) better than its practitioners who themselves can’t seem to agree on definitions and boundaries. Miraslov Volf has tried to play with the meaning of the word “same” (as in “Muslims and Christians worship the same god”) while Scot McKnight and others have contradicted him.

For many, the controversy centers on the ideas of tolerance and intolerance. Some seem to believe that Hawkins’ firing was an act of intolerance by Wheaton College. Much of this, of course has to do with how we perceive the ideas of “tolerance” and “intolerance”. Tolerance used to mean something like we disagree and that’s OK, we can and probably should continue in dialogue and cooperation while still owning our distinct beliefs. But somewhere along the path to politically correct town, it has come to mean something more like: we disagree but you can’t say I’m wrong and you probably need to make room in your set of beliefs for mine. I paraphrase, of course.

The key issue at stake is not whether or not Hawkins wants to wear a hijab but her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God”. As an employee of a Christian institution of higher learning, Hawkins has committed herself to live and teach within certain parameters. The leadership of Wheaton has decided that her current beliefs are outside of those parameters.

Screen-Shot-2015-12-16-at-8.49.56-AMWe need to remember that every system of religious beliefs has boundaries. This is what makes them unique and distinct. This is the root of the idea of “Orthodoxy”, which every religious system of belief has. There are some beliefs within the bounds of orthodoxy for every religion and there are some beliefs that simply disqualify from walking that religious path.

If I reject the Koran en toto or the legitimacy of Muhammad, I am not a Muslim. If I reject the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the legitimacy of Joseph Smith, I am not a Mormon. If I reject the legitimacy of the Pope as a vehicle for God’s revelation, I am not a Catholic. If I believe that Jesus is God and the long-awaited Messiah, I am not a Jew.

If you do not worship the God who has revealed Himself as One God in Three Persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), each distinct yet fully God, then we do not worship the same God and you are not a Christian. In other words, if you do not believe in the Trinity or if you do not believe that Jesus is fully man AND fully God (along with the Father and Spirit), we do not worship the same God.

Jews are not Christians. Mormons are not Christians. Muslims are not Christians. And it’s not intolerant to say so. In fact, it does each religion a disservice to pretend otherwise.

Pretending that all religions are somehow the same or lead to the same place devalues all of them. While there are certainly areas of agreement, there are also most certainly differences in belief and practice. Tolerance dictates that we acknowledge those differences while seeking ways to work together for the common good. It is not intolerant to acknowledge and own our differences and it doesn’t help to try and change the commonly accepted definition of words like “same” as Volf has done. That’s akin to Bill Clinton trying to blur the definition of “is” to escape ownership of transgressions. It’s not only unhelpful, it is destructive.

It’s OK to acknowledge that we worship different gods and it’s OK for a professing “Christian” college to fire someone who holds different beliefs. In fact, this seems to me a better alternative than pretending that the distinctives of Christianity are no longer distinct.

I’m sure I’ll hear from you and I look forward to it.

 

A New Year, A New Me (?)

1388095921000-new-yearsNew Year’s.
Birthdays.

New Year’s.
Birthdays.

New Year’s.
Birthdays.

New Year’s.
Birthdays.

New Year’s.
Birthdays.

New Year’s.

New Year’s.

New Year’s.

New Year’s. Well, here we are once again. The oddest holiday of all. A one-second holiday. The one where we all pretend we’re ecstatic that the calendar has turned in on itself once again and here we are to repeat the whole thing yet once again. And again. And (hopefully?) agai.

One second we’re old. The next we’re new again. We’ve shed our psychological skin and embraced a new beginning. Or the monkey on our back has added a few pounds and feels just a bit heavier as we face the prospect of carrying it around for another trip around the sun.

We celebrate the passing of time because we’ve survived. Some of it felt like it was in our control (even though most of it didn’t). There’s no reason we should have survived this year’s lap of a giant 1,000/hour spinning marble around a flaming ball of explosive gases, held in place by a rock finding its identity in spinning around us as we spin around the ball of fire.

As the years swallow themselves, we remember those who didn’t survive this year’s cruise around the sun. We know that one day, maybe soon, most definitely sooner than we’d like, we will join them in jettisoning this spinning ball.

As we lap the sun once again, we are torn. Should we celebrate our survival or mourn those whose time ended? Can you do both? Can you do both without guilt?  Isn’t curious that so many of our celebrations are about nothing more than the fact that we survived another year?

And yet with each Birthday. With each trip around the sun. With each New Year, we instinctively cling to the hope that things will can get better. Things will get better.Things have to get better. They just have to because I can’t keep on like this. Not another year.

I don’t know how you understand these annual rites of passage but I can’t help but interpret them through the Biblical Story. We celebrate the passing of each year with resolutions for the same reason we mythologize the Phoenix rising from the ashes: we believe in redemption. We long for restoration. Something deep inside us, un/happy as we might be, feels like we were created for more. So much more. This just quite doesn’t seem like all of this creation business has lived up to its potential. Things just aren’t quite as they should be.

We celebrate the passing of another year with hopes to do better knowing that we won’t. Believing that maybe we can’t. Maybe the set of chemicals injected into us by our parents and theirs before have simply determined how each year, each month, each day will play itself out. But I don’t think so.

Because God Himself entered in to human history. The Eternal stepped in to time. The Perfect into the imperfect. Trusting God fully; wholly; completely, in every way. In ways I could never. In ways I would never. Even to the end. Unto the end. Through it all. Even to death. Death on a cross. Through the grave and into Intercession.

My faith in Jesus reminds me that, left to myself, relying on my own devices, I won’t do any better with this coming year than I did the last. I can make all of the resolutions I want and more but I won’t keep them unless I want to and I won’t want to unless my heart itself changes and I won’t ever want to unless something (SomeOne) outside of me acts on my behalf.

My faith in Jesus provides each year, each moment, with purpose. The passing of each year throws me to the floor with gratefulness. I know I cannot do it without Jesus because I’ve had more than enough chances to prove otherwise and each time I end up with nowhere to go but to Him.

I know that some of you have views on Jesus than I do. I’m not here to argue with you. I just want you to know that, in spite of the way many Christians express themselves politically or culturally, or artistically, or in-person, our story is one of death and renewal. Our God died in our place so that we might live.

The passing of each year brings us to the end of ourselves once again. As we optimistically bear weights we’re not sure we can bear, we are reminded that God bears our burdens so that following Him (this year and the next, and the next, etc.) might bring relief to our souls. Could this be the year we’re anxious for nothing? Could this be when we finally learn to be calm in the storm? The Foundation is there, but will we stand on it or lose our grip?

The passing of this year and every year reminds the Christian that we cannot face what’s next on our own. And thankfully, we don’t have to.

What does the new year mean to you?

Sports Remind Us Of The (Real) Bigger Story

True-Story-new
Many us struggle to believe that our lives carry much significance beyond the daily mundane. Most of our lives feel as though they lack the significance of anything larger than paying the bills and getting the kids to school on time. Everything must be on time. It becomes difficult to believe that life is yours and meant to be lived.

I’ve come to believe that part of the reason so many American Suburban Christians struggle to believe in the significance of their own lives is because we’ve sanitized the True Story (as recorded in the Bible) so much that it no longer excites our imaginations. We’ve neutered its heroes into moralistic do-gooders who resemble Dudley Do-Right more than Samson. And Samson’s supposed to be in the story!

However right is heart might be, Dudley just never inspires us to be more. To do more. To live a better story. To make a difference. To take a chance we know can’t be won unless God shows up. And trust that He will. That’s a difficult place to call home. Especially when so many of us live subdued, passive suburban lives that just don’t feel like they mean that much and don’t seem to fit into any bigger story. Much less one about the fate of mankind and a Creator outside of time interested in and even guiding His creation.

We tell the Bible Story as though its simply one story among many, not as if it is the True Story which defines every other story; in which every character finds their role and the meaning of it. We forget that the Bible is not always family friendly. It tells stories of drunken betrayal, incest, rape, genocide, adultery, prostitute, traitors, and so much more. But somewhere along the way, many well-intentioned suburnanized Christians came to believe that everything must be appropriate for their children’s level of moral maturity so “family friendly” seemed to be a prerequisite for “Christian family” pop culture intake. So that the parents themselves would not watch/read/listen to anything that they would find offensive for their children.

Our re-telling of the Bible story sanitizes itself so that no one will be offended by it. And it becomes less and less interesting, less and less inspiring with each retelling. Sure the main point, the climax of the story in Jesus still resonates with us but the rest of the story has become so dull. Or at least it doesn’t seem to shine as brightly as it used to. Not like the stories in books or on cable, or even in sports. We end up looking for meaning in stories other than the Bible Story.

I am not a sports guy. But I have sons who are so I watch sports with them. Not being a sports guy, I’ve thought a lot about the appeal. Because, frankly, I don’t get it. We’re not only watching grown men being paid millions of dollars to play a game and then we somehow pretend like it matters, (when in reality, millions of dollars are actually in play, many of them tax dollars) and “we” come to identify so much with the people on the field so much that we say things like “we really brought it home today” when the most most of “we” did was sit on the couch and drink beer, yelling at the “we” actually doing what we, of course, would have done better. At least that’s how it seemed to be prior to love my sons well enough to actively watch sports with them.

I think that part of the allure of sports is that we know our lives are part of a bigger story, even when we struggle to see how. Like moths to the light, we are drawn to stories that pretend to have mythic proportions. So, not only to we watch sports, we  find ourselves in the inescapable of most narrative: rooting for some; means booing for others. So we build up narratives around each team so that, some are the “good guys”, others the “bad guys” and a mere game has elevated itself into the mythic consciences of millions.

We all want to be part of a bigger story and just like professional wrestling, other professional sports are not just about games, they’re about creating narratives onto which people can hook into and ultimately feel that they’re somehow a part of something bigger than themselves. Every season provides heroes and villains. Underdogs and outliers.

The popularity of professional sports is fine as long we remember that the conflict here is unimportant. “We” will be just fine whether “our team” wins or loses. Because our own lives, as mundane as they might seem, have ultimate value because they are part of the True Story; God’s story of redeeming a people and a world unto Himself; for our good in His glory.

I’m still not a sports guy. But at least now I have a context in which to understand why my sons are. And at least I can sympathize with their sentiments, even if I don’t share their narrative.

What If Preaching Isn’t The Primary Role Of A Pastor?

Preaching_TheoMatters3Yesterday I wondered about why it seems that so much of “American Christianity” resembles the self-help driven “pursuit of happiness” more than it does following Jesus through the Valleys as well as they plateaus.

Long-time reader, first-time commenter Jennifer noted:

It seems what you’re asking for is a Christianity in which people inside the body of Christ are authentic with one another.

“That’s exactly what I’m asking for”, I responded, continuing:

I’ve come to believe that most (well-intentioned) church programs exist because real relationships don’t. The main thing we’ve been called to is discipleship which happens best in relationships, not church classrooms. Since programs/classes are not real life, they’re not designed or equipped to deal with people’s real lives so we default by pretending everything is fine.

Many of our churches foster fake environments in which people pretend everything is fine “because JESUS” because they’re simply not designed to deal with real life. You come, sit in a sit, get told how to win at life, sing some rousing songs, maybe go to a class to learn some information and then go about your week until it’s time to charge your emotional batteries once again.

Many churches seek to fill our calendars “equipping us” with classes and programs because that’s what churches do. But what we’ve missed is that if we fostered intentional, “authentic” (the quotes indicate that I realize just how much baggage the word carries but I use it anyways) relationships. It seems to me that the trend has been to make Christians dependent on their churches for their spiritual growth. The default question has become “how will you feed me?” rather than “how can I serve?”

But we’ve been called to discipleship, not what fills the seats. Paul tells us that the role of church leaders is to equip everyday believers “for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13), not make them dependent on their leaders.

This has led me to think deeply about one of Evangelicalism’s (especially in “Reformed” circles in which I have traveled) sacred cows. Lately, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with posts arguing that preaching is the primary things a pastor should be concerned with. For example, Jason Allen writes in a piece about “5 words to avoid in every sermon” at For The Church:

Preaching is God’s ordained method to convey his Word and build his church. As such, preaching is every pastor’s principle responsibility and every church’s primary need. Therefore, every pastor must preach, and preach well, every Lord’s day.

Banner of Truth recently posted this memed Calvin quote:

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Let me go ahead and calm the frothing masses: I deeply value preaching. I think it should be an integral part of the regular rhythms of any local church. It is where a unified vision can be presented, it is where a church family can learn together as a whole, it is where the elders can help publicly protect from error and instruct in following Jesus. It is an essential part of what God has laid out for the local church. But what troubles me is the notion that it is the most important thing a pastor does.

I once heard John MacArthur say to a room full of seasoned, young and aspiring pastors that if they weren’t spending at least 40 hours a week in their study, then they had no business getting up in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Their primary job, MacArthur urged, was preaching on Sunday.

There is a local church with one of those electronic billboards that flashes cheesy Christian sayings. A while back, the sign said: “Worth the drive.” What’s worth the drive? Well, knowing that particular church, the Sunday gathering is “worth the drive” and in particular, it’s “worth the drive” to hear that particular pastor talk for 40 minutes.

It seems to me that the assumption that the pastor’s primary responsibility is preaching must also carry with it the assumptions that Sunday is the primary point of a local church’s existence and that since discipleship is the primary point of a church’s existence, then preaching is the primary way we pursue discipleship. But I cannot follow such straight lines of thinking through the twists and turns of Scripture.

Pastors are compared to shepherds in the bible. As I try to make sense of all of this, I can’t help but picture a shepherd gathering his sheep once a week and lecturing them on how to live the rest of the week and then just sending them out to face the dangers of the world. Of course this is foolish, but when we over-emphasize the importance of the Sunday sermon, the analogy seems to fit. Shepherds were worthless if they didn’t spend time with their sheep, guiding, protecting, disciplining if necessary (it may shock you to know that the heartwarming picture of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders was because he had broken the sheep’s leg because it wandered off so many times).

I am unashamedly going off of the notion that the church should be most concerned with discipleship; that is, helping one another become more like Jesus. This conviction leads me to the conclusion that preaching is incredibly important but it is potentially harmful to tell pastors that it is the “most important” part of their job.

I would rather be shepherded by someone who spends more time with people than books. I want to be the type of pastor who values people more than doctrine. If I ever pastor again, I want to know what my people need to hear because I know my people. And, as shocking as it may seem, you can’t know people without spending time with them. With all due respect to MacArthur, his advice is terrific for professional teachers but horrible for actual pastors.

Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates passive Christians who tend towards a knowledge-based (rather than an experiential) faith. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon is a large part of why so many pastors feel so discouraged. Once, after a sermon, I had someone come up to me afterward and, very nicely, tell me that they really struggled to follow that week’s sermon. The very next person in line to talk with me told me that it was the single most moving sermon they had ever heard and they would remember it for a long time. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates unrealistic expectations that the pastor always “be on” and owes more to our desire to be entertained than our desire to be more like Jesus. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon has helped fuel the “celebrity pastor” movement rather than reminding us all that pastors are strugglers through this life just like they people they’ve been called to shepherd.

If we have primarily been called to discipleship then it seems to me that relationships are the single most important thing a pastor does. Sermons rarely serve to deepen relationships. In fact, sermons are sharpened the more a pastor knows the people to whom he is speaking. Shepherds must spend time with the sheep or they’re a lousy shepherd.

Again, I’m not discounting preaching (though I do question the monologue approach in its effectiveness to really equip the saints but maybe that’s another post for another day). I value preaching and it’s something I personally love. I’m simply asking if we have over-emphasized its role in discipleship. Are we actually hindering pastors from their true role when we tell them that the 45 minutes a week when they lecture people is the most important thing they do?

I look forward to your thoughts.

Inside (Out) the Christian Life, Sadness and Depression

45173My family and I love most of the Pixar movies. We haven’t seen The Good Dinosaur yet, but Inside Out was no exception.

Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley and her family as they move from the midwest to San Francisco. But there’s a catch. Most of the movie takes place inside Riley’s head and the main characters are five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.

I don’t want to drop too many spoilers but let’s just say that the plot takes a twist when Joy tries to prevent Sadness from having too much influence over Riley. In fact, much of the conflict revolves around Joy trying to limit Sadness’ influence.

The assumption, of course, is that it is “better” to be happy than sad. So much so that Joy is willing to pursue this agenda even at the cost of betraying Sadness, generally belittling her and suggesting that Sadness has little to offer and generally made things worse. The optimal state, according to Joy and many of us is happiness.

Most of us would probably agree. We would say that we would rather be happy than sad. After all, Americans have dedicated our country to “the pursuit of happiness.” We deserve to be happy, right? Happiness means that things are better.

And it seems that much of this mindset has found its way into “American Christianity” (moralistic therapeutic deism). Whether it’s Joel Osteen telling us that we deserve our “best life now” because we’re children of God or local megachurches promising people they can “win at life,” much of “American Christianity” seems barely one-step removed from simply wanting to make people feel good about themselves.  Our worship gatherings resemble rock concerts and our preachers mimic self-help snakeoil-men.

But, of course, one of the things that makes Inside Out brilliant is that everyone, including Joy, is forced to not only accept Sadness but cherish her. Because, they realize that, without sadness, empathy is next to impossible. Without sadness, happiness is simply a hollow masking over of the circumstances. Without sadness, we’re willing to make harmful choices to keep up the thrill of “happiness”. We may not long for sadness but we cannot truly grow without it.

I wonder, then, why so little of “Christian worship” welcomes sadness into the chorus. After all, isn’t our “worship music” supposed to be an extension and elevation of the everyday? Then why is it all in major keys? Life is not always joyful and triumphant. Sometimes you feel as though you’ve been kicked one too many times and you’re just not sure you’ll get up this time and you just need to sing, “How long do I have to wait patiently for you, God?”  Where are the songs that acknowledge that God’s help may not come until the morning (Psalm 46:5) and the sun feels as though it’s barely set.

We have equated worship with a positive emotional response because we have come to understand that faith in Jesus is ultimately about making us happy. We have signposts everywhere telling us that we’re on the wrong path. But it’s so smooth and everyone else is on it. You really want me to go through that narrow gate that hardly anyone else is going through to that really difficult looking path (Matthew 7:13-14)?

But a faith that serves primarily to make its holder happy is not a faith that will stand the storm (Matthew 7:24-27). We even have “Christian counseling” movements that tell people that their depression/anxiety, etc. is a result of sin. And they’re simply compounding sin if they take medication to deal with their already sinful sin of disbelief that God’s Word is not somehow sufficient to deal with their unrepented sin which caused their depression in the first place.

We have pushed sadness and depression and anxiety and frustration beyond the city gates because they just bring us down, man. But following Jesus is so beautiful because it envelops all of life. Of course there is a place for sadness and of course Jesus can see us through it because He himself wept (John 11:35). Jesus could have simply told his friends that “God works in mysterious ways” and that He was working even this difficult situation for their good and rebuke the sadness. But He didn’t. He wept. Because sadness is real and must be accepted because it gives depth, it makes us richer, it brings us closer, it gives us empathy and shows us the true value of happiness when it comes. It also reminds us that it’s not realistic or healthy to expect to be happy all of the time.

I’m not sure what it looks like but I want a Christianity that’s ministry to me when I’m sad is not just to point out the reasons I should be happy or to rebuke for the reasons I’m not. There may certainly be times when rebuke is necessary but I wonder how much richer our faith would be if we were simply willing to meet with people in their sadness and sit with them? What if more of our songs, sermons and gathered worship helped us understand sadness and depression rather than try to give us tips to avoid them?

Maybe it means writing more worship songs in minor keys? Maybe it means simply reading more of the Psalms together? Maybe it means more preachers admitting that following Jesus is sometimes really difficult and it will not always feel like our “best life now”? Maybe it means recognizing that there are parts of the Bible that we’d rather skip over? Maybe it means that it won’t be until we values the lows as much as the highs that our faith truly means anything in the everyday?

Am I the only one who feels like “American Christianity” deserves the Flanders stereotype? I guess if I am, I’ve got issues other than depression to work through. But if I’m not, I wonder why so many churches seem to take the same approach. I’d love your thoughts.

In the meantime, here’s a unique take on a “Christian classic”: