Christians & Coronavirus: 4 Reminders

As Covid-19, the potentially life-threatening coronavirus, spreads across the world, people are reacting in a number of ways. Some drink bleach. Others hoard toilet paper. The rest slather their social media profiles in 100-proof speculation and consternation. Among these are professing Christians, whose anxiety over this health crisis is as palpable as everyone else’s, despite the fact that Christians are supposed to be “crucified with Christ” – it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal. 2:20).

The Bible has much to say about fear, and how believers should cope with it. But it is important for Christians to remember and admit that we are as human as everyone else. We are just as susceptible to this virus, not to mention to the instinctual emotions of anxiety, fear, and panic. As such, even though “we know whom we have believed” (2 Tim 1:12), we do not always respond to crises the right way.

So, as a pastor currently waist-deep in the mire of this crisis and its far-ranging effects, I want to offer a few reminders for believers on how to maintain our calling as Christ’s ambassadors in the midst of this fearful time…

 

#1 – Stop Blustering. (It’s OK to Be Honest about How You Feel.)

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Have you ever watched a sitcom or a comedy sketch in which a bunch of people go to a scary movie, or to one of those haunted house attractions? Within the group there is always at least one person who acts like nothing scares him. He continually speaks derisively about the frightening elements, the joke being that he is actually terrified but won’t admit it.

Sometimes, saying “I’m not scared” can help decrease my fear. (I know as a parent I’ve had to do that on occasion, during a bad thunderstorm, or when there’s a sudden, strange noise in the house.) But putting on a false air of boldness, or ranting about how everyone else is overreacting and there is nothing at all to be concerned about, only makes a person seem increasingly out-of-touch and unhinged. There is nothing gracious or compassionate in ridiculing others for being scared in what is quite obviously a scary time.

It is better to acknowledge fear than deny it. To name it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. To admit you are scared is to be honest (with yourself, with others, and with God) while to announce how un-scared you are is to bear false witness and only dig yourself a deeper emotional hole to wallow in.

Even if you are truly unafraid of  the coronavirus, Christians should recognize that a lot of other people are. As children of the living God, we should not be found rolling our eyes at people’s anxieties, but listening to them, and speaking gently out of our own experiences of leaning on the sovereignty of God over the shortcomings of man.

 

#2 – Stop Vilifying the Media

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Look, I’m not saying every report coming out about Covid-19 has been completely inerrant. Indeed, there are some elements of hysteria woven within our news cycle. However, the vast majority of media outlets and journalists are simply focused on informing people about the details of this virus, not stirring them into a frenzy.

How can I be so sure of this? Because journalists are people, too. I happen to know a few of them personally. They’re good people, trying to do their jobs in the midst of constantly shifting reports from federal agencies and response centers across the globe! I would not want their job for a minute, and I respect the work they are doing. Sure, without the media there might be less hysteria, but without the media we also wouldn’t know anything about this sickness, which would mean even more sick people and even more deaths.

In the last decade or so, Christians have really fumbled the ball on how we think about the media. I know several folks who are absolutely convinced that every major news outlet (except their particular favorite one, of course) is operating under an agenda so sinister it would make a Bond villain blush. It’s astonishing how quick we are to point a finger and cry “Bias!” and yet refuse to admit we may cling to some biases of our own, like a twelve-year-old with a security blanket.

Media offers perspective, and a free media is the lodestar of a free country. It is not something to be denigrated or perpetually distrusted. We may not always agree with a specific angle of media perspective, but, then again, why would we expect to? As followers of Jesus, whose identities are secured by his love and mercy, it’s our responsibility to receive the information distributed to us and then to weigh each point according to the truth of God’s Word. If we skip this second step, we do a great disservice to ourselves and the rest of the world, especially in times like these.

 

#3 – Contemplate Our Fragility

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In a country as technologically advanced as this one, most of our lives unfold a comfortable distance from extreme hardship. Certainly, we experience difficult times. Divorce, high crime rates, systemic poverty and mass shootings are significant plagues upon our society; neither are we immune to natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods.

However, it is exceedingly rare for the whole of our country to face an apocalyptic reality on the level of what the coronavirus has delivered – the very real fear of exponential infection, of a scarcity of goods and services, of overflowing hospitals, of entire cities and industries grinding to a halt with no clear idea when normalcy will return. This is not something we Americans are familiar with. But it is what many other people in other parts of the world face every day. Think Sudan. Think Venezuela. Think Syria. What is frighteningly abnormal for us is, for them, just another Tuesday.

To be a Christian is to think beyond your national identity. It means recognizing we are members of a global movement, a people group that transcends race, gender, nationality, socio-economic class, and the privileges (or lack of privileges) that come with those things. Those of us who profess faith in Christ would do well to remember that extreme violence and extreme poverty and extreme sickness – the desperate groanings of a fallen world – are alive and well throughout the planet. What we are experiencing in America right now is frightening, but we can take comfort in knowing we have powerful infrastructures and trained professionals in place who can and will respond to the crisis. The same cannot be said for everyone.

In times such as these, human beings are confronted with the fragility of their existence. We see how quickly everything we trust in – all the little routines and comforts we hardly think twice about – can be taken away. Most folks in America expect they will be restored, and soon. If nothing else, may this crisis show us the extraordinary luxury behind that expectation.

 

#4 – Lean Into This Unexpected Sabbath

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Speaking of things grinding to a halt, there might actually be a benefit hiding behind all this chaos of school closings and the cancellation of public events. Yes, I realize a plethora of people are still slogging to work everyday (thank you, medical professionals and first-responders!), and there are a lot of folks who are now forced to juggle childcare, not to mention worry about whether or not their small business will fail, or if they can even make enough money to pay rent. I don’t mean to make light of those concerns in any way.

And yet, many of us who too often find ourselves going-going-going, running from one to-do on our lists to another, chauffeuring children from school to sports practice, balancing grocery shopping with church activities with all the little appointments and family responsibilities sprinkled in… All of a sudden, a lot of these self-imposed obligations have disappeared. We find ourselves standing in the eerie quiet of a relaxed schedule, our aching shoulders suddenly relieved by a significantly lightened load. There is time to breathe. Time to think. Time to take things slow.

The Bible has a word for this. It’s called sabbath. At its core, it was a time to slow down, to rest from our labors, to set aside the to-do list and enjoy the peace that comes flooding in when you do. Scripture tells us that God intended his people to practice this once every seven days for the entirety of their lives, but in our modern culture we have all kinds of excuses why that just doesn’t work anymore. We keep ourselves so busy these days that we don’t even have time to feel guilty about ignoring God’s commandment. But all of a sudden, and in only a few days time, so many of the things that kept us busy are – poof! – gone.

Guess what isn’t gone? Guess what’s still hanging around, waiting to be indulged despite always playing second fiddle to our life-draining busyness?

Family. Storytelling. Reading. Laughter. Singing. Playing music. Long walks. Bike rides. Fishing. Hiking. Lingering over a home-cooked meal. You know, the things that make life worthwhile in the first place.

Yes, there are very real concerns to be aware of right now. There are dire needs to pray for, and a truckload of cares to cast upon the mighty arm of the Lord. This is a serious time. But Christians, especially Christians in America, have never had such an extraordinary chance to do good, to exemplify the principles of God’s kingdom, and to model what an honest, gracious, compassionate, and blessed life actually looks like.

Can we really afford to let this chance go by?

On Enemies

Years ago, after being hired to teach at a new school, I met a schoolteacher and we immediately hit it off. We had a lot of things in common. We were roughly the same age, we both gushed nerdy love for many of the same novels and writers, and we both believed that, no matter what career they eventually embarked upon, helping our students learn to be well-read was the pathway to maturity. I could tell we were destined to be more than colleagues; we were going to be confidants.

This is why I was so heartbroken when my newfound friend quickly turned his back on me. He stopped eating lunch with me, stopped asking my opinions on his lesson plans, and seemed to keep his distance socially. He was never overtly rude or insulting, but it was clear he had decided he didn’t want to be my friend after all.

The reason for his change of heart isn’t a mystery, though. I know exactly why he pulled away. We met in late summer of 2008, four months before the presidential election. One day not long after we had connected, our conversation turned to the candidates. I mentioned to him that, out of curiosity, I had recently watched one of Barack Obama’s speeches given earlier in the year at a church on the subject of religious conviction. I told my new friend I liked the speech, thought it was refreshing to hear a candidate speak openly about faith in a non-pandering way.

My new friend suddenly turned to me. “You’re not going to vote for Obama, are you?!” he asked, staring at me with wide, fearful eyes.

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POLITICS: ending friendships since 1776!

I was caught off-guard. Honestly, I hadn’t even thought that far ahead. The election only flickered in my periphery. (This was 2008, before political news became a ravaging lion seeking whom it may devour.) It was something I thought about sparingly, as there were far more pressing matters in my life, like beginning a new school year, setting up a home, and getting to know my colleagues. “I… well… I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.”

“But he’s a Democrat!” my new friend almost shouted, putting a little extra stank on the word “Democrat.”

It wasn’t long before this friend of mine ceased being a friend of mine. He became just another coworker. We hardly spoke other than in evaluation of certain students or other school business. We offered a congenial hello to one another in the hallways. However, he and his wife were always conveniently unavailable when I would invite them for dinner, but thanks to social media I was privy to plenty of selfies of them hanging out with other teachers, sometimes on the very nights they’d told me they had too much work to catch up on.

I’m not saying our falling out was only because I had something vaguely glowing to say about a Democratic presidential candidate, but that certainly was the tell-tale crack in the ice.

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“I’ll rescue you, but only after you admit you’re wrong and I’m right.”

Drawing Lines

One would think the things which had drawn me and my colleague together, the subjects that had dominated our conversations up until that moment of disagreement, would have been more than enough to salve whatever abrasion was inflicted on our budding friendship by differing political views.

The problem, of course, is that, over the last decade or so, We the People are far more preoccupied with what divides us than what unites us.

I’m talking about more than disagreements over politics here. I’m talking about all the suspicion and distrust running rampant in society today. I’m talking about unfairly assuming the worst in people whenever they express an opinion or belief with which my own opinions or beliefs clash. I’m talking about writing people off as valueless because even one note of discord must mean there can be no compatibility – no way forward. I’m talking about turning a deaf ear to those who dare to question the legitimacy of something I hold true, because if they don’t support that they must be a part of some opposing agenda hell-bent on destroying every single one of my principles. Best to be on-guard. You can’t trust anyone these days.

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Look at these self-interested fools so carelessly promoting their own interests!

The vast majority of cable news shows and op-eds are saturated with this kind of social outlook, and because we’re oversaturated by the Hannitys and the Maddows and the Breitbarts and the Voxs these days, and because social media has turned into our own personal echo chambers, we’ve learned the very unspiritual discipline of drawing lines and erecting barriers. Dialogue between sides only happens when there is a guarantee neither side will come out a bigger winner. We are a culture of blustering cowards, quick to take offense and fearful of admitting we might be mistaken about a chosen belief.

A prime example of this is the recent tumult over the Christianity Today controversy, in which the outgoing editor wrote an article in support of President’s Trump impeachment based on the same reasoning the publication’s editors had called for President Clinton’s impeachment back in 1998. Yes, it was an article that sharply divided readers, which is to be expected. The greater concern, though, rose not out of the response of those readers and Christian personalities who disagreed with the editor (they are entitled to their opinion as much as he is), but the subsequent questioning of the magazine’s entire witness as a source for Christ-centered journalism. People angrily and ceremoniously ended their subscriptions not because they didn’t like the magazine itself, but because disagreement on a single issue had forever spoiled their ability to read anything else published under its banner. In one fell swoop, Christainity Today became the enemy.

As Christians, we like to laud the virtues of humility, empathy, compassion, and mutual affection. These, after all, were the things extolled by the apostles in just about every letter we find in the New Testament. However, these days it’s becoming increasingly rare to see these virtues lived out among even professing Christians who disagree. Whether its spiritual issues of theology or worship, or cultural issues of politics, sexuality, immigration, or the environment, more and more Christians are losing their objectivity and the grace that necessarily goes with it.

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“We may both be Southern Baptists who pray fervently, cherish God’s Word, and believe the Church should be taking the gospel of Jesus to the world, but your church sings way too many praise choruses, so…”

“Love Your Enemies”

All of this is a far cry from the teachings of Jesus, who looked his listeners right in the eye and said, “I know you’ve heard the teaching, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I’m telling you that won’t cut it. You’ve got to love your enemies, too, and you’ve got to pray for those who threaten you, because that is what children of the Heavenly Father do” (Mt. 5:43-45, my paraphrase).

Interestingly, the word “love” is the Greek agapao. It does not mean to merely tolerate, or to bite your tongue and just utter a curt “hello” while passing that person in the hallway. It means to welcome, to kindly entertain, and to love dearly. It means, in essence, to erase the barriers that stand between your enemy and you. Agapao is not easy. It’s risky. Love this way, and you can expect to be let down, to be pushed aside. But that doesn’t mean you give up. It’s the way Jesus loved, and loving this way led him all the way to the cross.

Maybe this is part of what Jesus meant when he told people to be his followers to take up their own cross. They didn’t have to die for their sins – that was his job – but they did have to embrace the kind of sacrificial love going to the cross requires. Love in a world that hates. Erase lines in a culture that is obsessed with drawing them. As far as it depends on you, welcome your enemies. Entertain them – which means opening dialogue, listening, and striving for understanding. If common ground still can’t be found, settle for mutual affection in spite of your disagreement.

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How about that? Your cross isn’t all that different from mine.

When we withhold kindness, refuse to engage in dialogue, or go so far as to break fellowship with someone simply because they don’t share a view we feel is particularly important, we’re failing everything that the Church should exemplify. We are not trusting in the power of the gospel to, like Simon the Zealot and Levi the tax collector, unite people in faith, hope, and love in spite of whatever political, cultural, or sociological differences they may hold. We may think our distancing has nothing to do with love. That we’re only protecting ourselves – standing on our principles and refusing to associate with weak-willed or deceived people. However, this only goes to show we’re the ones being deceived. The best way for the Evil One to hold back the kingdom of God is to get us to write each other off for peripheral reasons. When we do this, we carry the bad habits of our fractured world into the sacred bond of Christian fellowship.

Jesus didn’t tell his followers the world would know them by what Bible translation they preferred or what organizations they supported or who they voted for. He didn’t tell them the world would know them as long as they all looked the same and talked the same and held the same exact views. He told them the world would know them by their agapao. By their love.

So, the question is, who are your enemies right now? Who have you written off as useless because their view on something peripheral to this life clashes with your own? Maybe you’ve written off anyone wearing a MAGA hat. Maybe you’ve spurned anyone who’s criticized part of the President’s agenda. Maybe you think anyone who doesn’t accept the truth of climate change is a threat to the world as we know it. Maybe someone who dares pay attention to a “pro-choice” candidate is dead to you.

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Ugh, a sixteen-year-old who writes books and passionately advocates for lower carbon emissions instead of just Snapchatting her friends and binge-watching Riverdale all day. What is our world coming to?

Or maybe it’s even closer to home. Maybe you’ve distanced yourself from people in your own church because they interpret Scripture differently than you, or hold a different worship philosophy than you, or have a different perspective on missions than you. Jesus said to love our enemies, and often those folks are a lot closer to us than we realize.

I suppose we can go on distancing ourselves from each other, just to feel safer and little more confident in our own opinions about the world. But that would be taking the easy way out, and where’s the joy in that?

Thoughts at 40

Every few years, I add a birthday post composed of uncategorized thoughts and opinions currently rattling around the ol’ noggin. It’s a way, I suppose, of taking stock or marking time. Perhaps both. In becoming a senior pastor – which is a pretty significant thing that happened this year – I worried I would struggle to come up with content to teach my congregation each and every Sunday, year in and year out. What if the well ran dry?

I quickly realized two things. First, a lot of preaching is repetition. In the last eight months, I’ve repeated specific truths way more than I’ve introduced new ones. I suspect this is necessary, just as it usually takes several solid strikes to drive a nail. Second, while a lot of the beliefs, thoughts, and musings claiming real-estate in my headspace these days are significant, the abruptness of these opinions aren’t always the easiest to weave into a sermon. They are like unripened avocados – everything is there for edibility, but not yet easy to swallow.

This past Saturday, I turned 40. The big 4-oh! So, yeah, quite a bit fills my mind these days. Family, career, home ownership, community involvement… These are only some of the sources for the half-formed notions that follow. I offer no explanation for them here, nor have I listed them in any discernible order. They are merely strands of concern and conviction of this now forty-year-old pastor.

  • These days we hold at the tip of our minds a hundred different opinions we believe are not only significant, but are also indivisibly tied to our identities. As such, to have even one of these beliefs ignored or disagreed with has become the modern-day equivalent of a glove across the face.
  • Journalism is meant to be persistent for truth, to acquire and protect sources, and even, at times, to write critically of powerful people who attempt to gaslight the world. There is, of course, such a thing as “fake news,” but it very rarely comes from the places our current President would have us believe.
  • I don’t know why, but I’m proud to have never watched a single episode of The Big Bang Theory or Glee.
  • The American Church is fighting over scraps. We’re planting far too many new churches in towns already full of them, and this only contributes to an increase in consumeristic Christianity, not to mention an inevitable ethos of competition as each church strives not so much to bear witness to the gospel as to put on the best Sunday show and offer the most self-focused spiritual programming.
  • Three years ago, I rated my wife’s tendency to be right at 96.7%. Over the last three years, that percentage has held strong, if not gone up a bit.
  • I’m not sure of the specific reasons, but I know from experience it is increasingly difficult to find a doctor (be it a GP or a specialist) who actually cares about your physical ailments and will truly give his/her time and energy to helping you get better.
  • I find most people who quote Romans 6:14, “We are not under law but under grace,” vastly misunderstand Romans in particular and the Apostle Paul’s message in general. If I hear one more minister teach that the Old Testament law does not apply to Christians, I’m going to violate the sixth commandment (in my heart).
  • Climate change is not a hoax. When one looks past the fear-mongering of politicians (deniers and zealots alike) and the non-scientific activists and actually reads the scholarly reports, it becomes crystal clear human beings – particularly in affluent countries like ours – are doing terrible damage to a planet God commissioned us to care for like a gardener tends his garden. The Church must accept this and commit to action, or it will continue to decline in relevance.
  • The Avett Brothers may just be the two nicest, most genuine sibling-musicians in the world.
  • For far too many families in our society, youth sports has become a frighteningly compelling idol, demanding one’s money, time, loyalty, and passion yet giving hardly any lasting value in return.
  • Preaching weekly is difficult. Even for a guy who absolutely loves it, preparing a sermon of quality (as opposed to just slapping some talking points together) is much harder to do on an ongoing, weekly basis than I ever suspected. The thing about pastoring which I thought would come easiest has actually been one of the hardest.
  • My oldest daughter is showing tell-tale signs of my personality type, temperament, and general interests. I’m truly  interested to see what a female version of me looks like.
  • Those of you who ignore individual issues and policies and instead just vote straight-ticket Republican or straight-ticket Democrat… You’re not helping.
  • I miss having likeminded, intimate friends – whom I could talk with about anything – who lived close. It’s been a very long time since they did, and at times it feels like that distance is taking its toll.
  • I’m (irrationally) worried the seasons of autumn and winter won’t exist in the heavenly kingdom. They’re my favorite times of the year, but because they’re marked by withering, death, and dormancy, I fear these seasons are incongruent with heaven, particularly Revelation 21-22. I desperately need one of my professor friends to explain why I’m wrong.
  • The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain is the most delightful series of children’s books in the world.
  • I’m embarrassed and ashamed that the only reason I maintain paid subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video is for the sake of, like, four TV series in total, each of which takes over a year to make a new season (which are usually only 6-10 episodes in length!).
  • I’ve never in my life been ridiculed for saying “Merry Christmas” to someone, and neither has anyone I know. I’ve also never expected or demanded someone say those words to me. I do not need to legitimize my beliefs by demanding baristas and department store clerks accommodate the vocal accoutrements of my religion. Despite what the politicians and cable news pundits may claim, there is no “war of Thanksgiving” and there is no “war on Christmas.” There is, however, a war on truth and common sense.
  • It is a strange and sensitive experience to change the name of a local church. The vision for outward ministry will inevitably collide with a desire for inward tradition. Conversations can easily devolve into matters of denominational heritage and exclusivity. The purpose of the change is regularly lost in the midst of semantic discussions. This is understandable, of course, though I wonder how it stacks up to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33.
  • On a consistently regular basis, I miss living in Germany.
  • I used to believe individualism was the Achilles heel of our society, but now I see that tribalism is the real threat. Tribalism is individualism on steroids. These days, the us-vs.-them mindset plagues our politics, our friendships, our family bonds, and, sadly of all, our churches.
  • I’m not sure why, but I’m increasingly drawn to English history period dramas. Wolf Hall, The Crown, Outlaw King, A Man for All Seasons, The King, Peaky Blinders… Perhaps the fascination stems from my discontent with the American political environment. Or maybe I just like the accents.
  • The most soothing, restful music on earth is currently made by a man named Gregory Alan Isakov.
  • We live in a headline-obsessed yet ironically news-averse culture, a society that pollutes the air through the burning of fossil fuels and pollutes human decency through the burning of our self-righteous indignation.
  • There are spiritual disciplines – practices that open us to God’s goodness and the blessings of the life he has given us. They include practices like centering prayer, fasting, Bible study, Sabbath, acts of compassion, meal-sharing, and church attendance. Then there are unspiritual disciplines – things we do that close us off from God and one another. These include rushing from place to place, watching too much cable news, texting when you really should call, ignoring your children, pressuring your children, resisting conversations with strangers, and looking at your smartphone while in conversation with another human being.

I could probably go to forty, in honor of this prestigious birthday, but twenty-five feels like more than enough to fling into cyberspace. I now consider these thoughts adequately documented.

The Curious Case of Kanye West

I’ve given up trying to have hip musical tastes. Life’s too short. I’m a month shy of 40, and I just want to listen to what I like. So, that usually means the Americana stylings of The Avett Brothers, the acoustic-driven songs of Gregory Alan Isakov, Josh Ritter, or Iron and Wine, or the smooth folk-jazz of Over the Rhine. I no longer concern myself with the Top 40 or the zeitgeist of pop, R&B, or hip-hop. As popular as these genres are, they don’t entertain or inspire me.

Hip-hop in particular was difficult to get into. I mean, I like “Lose Yourself,” but who doesn’t? I tried listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Damn after it won a Pulitzer, but it just didn’t resonate. It’s not that I think hip-hop is a lesser genre. It’s just never been my cup of tea.

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The fact that I use the idiom “cup of tea” may be its own indicator.

Because of this, I have little interest in listening to Jesus is King by Kanye West.

Apparently that’s what every Christian under 45 years of age has been doing the last couple of weeks. If you haven’t heard, Kanye West has become a Christian, and he just released an album expounding upon his newfound faith. He has also stated he will retroactively adjust lyrics from past albums to make them less offensive.

As an exercise in theological evaluation, I suppose I am curious how exactly a notoriously narcissistic hip-hop star articulates the gospel after his conversion? Are his lyrics biblically sound or rough around the doctrinal edges? Is Scripture treated with reverence and respect, or culturally proof-texted to make a predetermined point? Then again, these are questions we should be asking of any album intended to proclaim the truth of the gospel.

My musical tastes will likely prevent me from asking Alexa to fill my kitchen with Kanye’s sick-yet-gospelized beats. Sorry, Kanye. However, I’m not wholly indifferent to news of your conversion. In fact, I’m far more curious about how our culture is treating that than the reviews of your latest studio effort.

What’s Really Going on Here?

It’s not Kanye’s new album, but rather his alleged conversion and the Church’s response to it, that intrigues me. I include “alleged” simply because I do not know Kanye, nor do I know the individuals in his life who claim to have witnessed his surrender to the gospel. I hope that his decision to follow Jesus as “King” is genuine. If it is, I believe it should be celebrated. After all, while I’m not hip enough to quote any of his lyrics, I’m familiar with enough pop culture to know Kanye’s reputation has been anything but humble and compassionate. Christians are right to celebrate when the gospel transforms a life, when a once self-involved individual starts serving the local church.

kanyeinterupts

“I’mma let you finish, Pastor, but first, would the parents of Caleb Williams make your way to the nursery? He ate too many graham crackers and got a tummy ache…”

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure we can call what a lot of Christians are doing in relation to Kanye West’s conversion a celebration of the gospel. Perhaps this is a slip toward cynicism on my part, but what social media posts and religious publications are saying about Kanye’s life-change seem more akin to when your favorite sports team acquires a quality first-round draft pick. It feels like some of us are cheering the success of a team, instead of the power of the gospel. Meanwhile, the other side (the skeptical ones) are quick to doubt the conversion based on any number of assumptions.

We do this a lot, actually. For decades, Christians in America (particularly evangelicals) have struggled with the concept of celebrities professing faith. Sometimes this is a known Christian who becomes more active on the secular stage (think musicians like Amy Grant and P.O.D., or politicians such as Mike Huckabee and Jesse Jackson). When this happens, Christians quickly split into two main camps – those who applaud the person’s courageous choice to exemplify faith to a dark world, and those who question the genuineness of the person’s faith, instead labeling them either a sell-out or an apostate.

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“They’re playing “Meant to Live” on the secular rock station. Switchfoot is dead to me now.”

This divide also surfaces when news breaks that a known celebrity has professed faith in Christ (e.g., Alice Cooper, Justin Bieber, the dude from Korn) or has been “outed” as a believer (e.g., Stephen Colbert, MC Hammer, Chris Pratt). Again, the camps form. Some Christians celebrate the person’s radical choice to turn from the wide gate and instead walk the narrow road of faith. Others scratch their heads and question whether the person’s faith is actually authentic. This is what we’re currently experiencing in the curious case of Kanye West.

In Search of Legitimacy

Often, when popular celebrities are revealed to be people of faith, this tends to legitimize them in the eyes of many believers. A kind of “team pride” dynamic emerges within Christian circles. Whether it’s Bob Dylan, Mel Gibson, or Kanye West, a lot of people feel the need to look back over a person’s career and point to moments that seem to indicate faith in the gospel, or at least an openness to it (“C’mon, man. Don’t you remember “Jesus Walks” from Dropout…“). Inevitably, some newfound fans will compare the newly converted to a certain Pharisee who experienced his own dramatic change of direction. They’re convinced that this one-time enemy of the faith is now a child of the light who will quite possibly have the same worldwide impact as the Saul of Tarsus. After all, just consider their well-established platform, and all those current fans ripe for conversion now that their hero has surrendered to the gospel.

stoning of paul the apostle

That’s how things worked out for Saul, right?

While some of these hopes lie in the realm of the possible, there are some troubling implications to them as well. First, it assumes the spread of the gospel is based as much in popularity as it is in relationship. Joe Schmo may be able to win a couple close friends to Jesus, but imagine how many lives will be touched when Bieber brings Hillsong United on his next tour. There’s no comparing which person will spark the next Great Awakening.

Second, we’re quick to celebrate a profession of mind, but are rarely interested in considering a subsequent change of action. Usually, this is because we don’t want to appear judgmental. However, Scripture reminds us many times over that faith devoid of action can hardly be called genuine. Jesus asked, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt. 7:16-17). And James reminded the Church, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (Ja. 1:22-24). He would later go on to point out that a profession of belief is not enough. “Even the demons believe,” he wrote (2:19).

Now, I’m not saying we should subject new believers to unreasonable scrutiny – especially those we’re acquainted with only through a pop-culture lens. Formation in the Spirit is a lifelong process. Neither am I advocating we should pounce on a believer’s missteps as proof of illegitimate faith. We must remember, though, that it is a Christian’s life that testifies to the truth of salvation, not just a Christian’s mouth.

When holding out for this form of evidence from an allegedly converted celebrity is considered divisive, we have a problem. But the choice to wait-and-see is very often labeled as cynical, judgmental, or even the biggest insult one can throw at a fellow Christian: pharisaical.

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It’s considered offensive and uncouth for Christians to express skepticism at stories of famous people professing faith. Elvis Presley, Tyler Perry, Deion Sanders, every other country music singer… Questioning the authenticity of a celebrity’s profession of faith (true repentance or just a passing fad) often gets you accused of overly pietistic faith. “Someone has come along who can, by his mainstream appeal, validate Christian devotion!” some say. “But look at all the spiritual party-poopers threatened by what they can’t understand.”

I know I do not feel threatened by Kanye’s profession of faith. I’m not even sure what “side” I’m on. I’m certainly not with the doubters. If anything, I’m cautiously optimistic that his is genuine repentance. What I’m waiting for, though, is spiritual fruit, which Jesus reminds all of us is the evidence of true faith. An album called Jesus is King isn’t enough, just as Slow Train Coming and Saved weren’t enough for Dylan. There is more to following Jesus than writing a handful of Christ-themed songs.

What I am threatened by – or perhaps the better word is “concerned” – are those who defend a celebrity’s conversion not out of any actual familiarity with the person, but rather out of a desire to protect the legitimacy they feel a famous person’s faith now gives their own. If Dylan or Bieber or Kanye can be Christians, that must mean my own faith is not incompatible with the mainstream. Christians can be cool. The Church is back, baby!

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“If Lady Gaga would go to church a little more, maybe Mom would let me listen to her albums…”

The Idolatry of Image

While our first experience of repentance may resonate in our very bones, it remains no simple task to follow Jesus daily. In twenty years of ministry, I’ve witnessed countless conversions – people prostrating themselves before sanctuary altars, teenagers walking aisles in tears, all-night conversations with skeptics who finally, in the wee hours of the morning, bow their heads in humble recognition of the Great Mystery. These were powerful moments all.

And yet, I need only glance at my Facebook feed to recognize not every one of these once-repentant souls are currently bearing spiritual fruit. While many lives were radically changed, others never really were. Some who passionately professed belief and spoke words of surrender returned to their old ways not long after that experience. A few have walked away from faith altogether, chalking up their conversion experience to naïveté or ignorance.

The point of this post is not to dismiss the genuineness of confession, nor is it to ponder whether one can lose his or her salvation. I’m merely pointing out that repentance, while central to our salvation, is only step one. Being remade by the Spirit is actually a lifelong process, and to be a true spiritual leader of others requires a lot more than having a built-in platform. There is good reason why Saul backed away from public life for three years before finally engaging with the apostles in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:15-18). Conversion is a glorious bloom, but if it’s going to blossom a commitment to grow in faith – to be corrected, trained, and formed by the truth – must be joined with it. Saul of Tarsus did indeed have an extraordinary impact on the spread of the gospel, but that impact was not immediate. Several years passed between the Damascus Road and his first missionary excursion.

I have no reason to discredit Kanye’s fervor for the gospel, nor do I doubt the lyrics in Jesus is King come from a genuine passion for his Savior. However, what I know the man needs now is the opportunity and the space to grow in his faith, especially considering the materialistic, self-seeking celebrity culture in which he has lived for so long. Good trees don’t bear good fruit overnight.

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Saul went to Arabia. Maybe Kanye should spend three years in the Mojave.

We in the Church have a bad habit of making idols out of famous converts. To pin our hopes to their redeemed coattails and bask in the glow of our own newfound legitimacy. We would do better to treat these people like the young brothers and sisters in Christ they actually are. We should pray for them, and pray against the onslaught of temptation, the whispers of the Evil One who will try to tell them they were just going through a phase, just experiencing a moment of weakness, when they offered that sinner’s prayer.

So, maybe I should give Jesus is King a listen. Kanye’s beats may not be my cup of tea, but, while I don’t know the man personally, that doesn’t mean I can’t pray for him to grow and to learn and to prosper. And it doesn’t mean I can’t change the way I respond to these reports of celebrities who profess faith – entrusting each one to the Lord, and calling upon his name and his influence to bring about the furthering of his purposes.

It’s in Jesus and Jesus alone I place my trust. After all, as Kanye’s album reminds us, he is the King.

Whatever Happened to Joy?

When I was attending seminary, I met a recently married couple who taught me something about an often overlooked struggle between ministry and witness.

Both were students pursuing their advanced degrees, and the more I and my fellow seminarians got to know them, the more we could see that they were made for each other. This was not a case of opposites attract. Quite the contrary. Their sameness was impossible to overlook. They spoke with the same quiet tone, they were both obvious introverts, and they were both exceedingly intelligent. But none of these similarities were as noticeable as how equally devoted the two of them were to a plethora of social causes. No matter what the topic of discussion might be in a given class, when either of them contributed, it was always with a fervent passion for justice and compassion. If you saw one’s mouth open, you already knew the gist of what was about to be fiercely spoken. There were a lot of students at the seminary who could be labeled as “activists,” but these two took the cake. They were are own pair of profusely bleeding hearts.

I don’t mean to disparage them for this. In many ways, this couple served as a much-needed conscience for a lot of us who were perhaps far too concerned with our GPA and our exam schedules than we were the problematic issues of our day, which at that time included such troublesome situations as the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the 2004 Presidential election, and ever-escalating prejudices of a society still reeling from 9/11. In many ways, this couple inspired us not to divorce what we were studying from why we were studying it. There was really only one thing glaringly wrong with this couple’s presence in our community.

They were huge bummers.

You see, it wasn’t that their concerns for a wide variety of causes were unfounded, or that their political stances were not legitimate, or even that they chose to spend most of their free time holding up picket signs or circulating petitions. The problem was that the more they went about this dedicated work of social justice reform, the more their attitudes soured. They became the two gloomiest people in the school. They were often far too indignant with the ills of society to constructively contribute to class discussions. They were moody and melancholic. They may have loved each other, but whatever newlywed bliss may have existed between them was overshadowed by outrage at cultural sins. They were overly contentious even with those of us – their seminary colleagues – who held differing views, stances, or philosophies than theirs. They may have been passionate ministers, but their witness was chiefly marked by anger and resentment. They seemed completely unwilling to smile or laugh because there was just too much suffering in the world and how could any of us privileged, first-world Christians dare smile or laugh at a time like this?!

So, yeah, huge bummers.

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Ah, good times. Good times.

Changing Narratives

This is not a post about the pitfalls of social justice reform. In fact, I’m sickened by the way some of my Christians brothers and sisters guiltlessly disparage the so-called “SJWs” of this age. I don’t know what exactly has happened in the last century or so, but there was a time not that long ago when the Church (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox all) was positioned on the front lines of most social justice movements, including issues of equality, education, universal healthcare, and immigration. My own faith tradition, Baptists, were occasionally viewed as dangerous liberals not two-hundred years ago.

Just because some of our modern-day social justice issues may no longer align with a Christian worldview does not mean followers of Jesus (himself considered the equivalent of an SJW in the eyes of the first-century powers-that-be) should throw the baby out with the bathwater. We certainly shouldn’t buy in to every movement getting airtime on the news today, but neither should we allow ultra-conservative pundits to lump all social justice movements together as the workings of sinister agendas of people that hate us and our country. Give me a break!

No, this post is not about the important role played by social justice warriors. It is about the dangers faced by Christians of all stripes – those who embrace social justice movements and those who are fearful of them – when our fixation on these issues begins to change us.

The term spiritual formation refers to how our daily commitment to the way of Jesus gradually transforms us from the sinful habits and compulsions of our old life to a way of thinking, speaking, and acting that reflects the fruits of God’s transforming Spirit and the higher principles of his Kingdom. At the core of this “formation” is a changing of our narratives. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves regarding who God is and what he desires of us, what matters most in life, and our perpetual need of forgiveness.

This is why new believers are encouraged to immerse themselves in Scripture, to pray regularly, and to connect with a local worshipping community. Each of these things foster the good narratives of our holy God. And that’s tremendously vital when we live in a world that is simultaneously feeding us narratives of self-aggrandizement, materialism, consumerism, and individual freedom – narratives that sap our commitment to selflessness, humility, and empathy for others.

It is so easy to spend more time in the narratives of the world than the narratives of Jesus. We can commit half an hour every morning to reading the Psalms and bowing our heads in prayer, but if we then turn around and immerse ourselves in contentious talk-radio on our morning commute, or let cable news blare away every afternoon for hours on end, why should we be surprised when our attitudes and behaviors are defined more by the rotten fruit of suspicion, offense, contention, anger, and fear than by the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness? If the majority of the narratives we’re drinking in every day are born of this world, then we will continue to exhibit the lesser values of this world. Sure, you’ll still have your conversion experience, your church membership, and your claimed relationship with Jesus, but none of those things automatically transform you into a compelling ambassador for Christ.

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We all do, Mr. President. The question is what lessons are being taught to us.

Misplacing Joy

What bothered me the most about the couple I described above was not their commitment to issues of social justice. I know this came from a deep place of spiritual conviction. Their faith had spurred them forward into a life of service, and that was to be commended. Unfortunately, in the midst of this work they had misplaced a fundamental aspect of the life of faith.

They had misplaced joy.

Now, I’m not saying this couple was never happy. That they couldn’t take comfort or delight while singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or listening to a sermon about the unconditional love of God. But in Scripture the concept of joy is much more than a fleeting sensation. It is a presence of thankfulness and gladness that cannot be shaken by external forces. It is as present in our trials as much as in our triumphs, because the source is not found in present circumstance but rather in the eternal truth of Christ’s forgiveness. Most important of all, this joy is supposed to be noticeably evident in the life of a Christian. The Apostle Paul wrote of it often – both his own joy and the joy he encouraged in his congregations.

“I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy,” he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 7:4.). Paul was able to claim joy even in the midst of all his many hardships. If anyone had reason to be dreadfully morose, it was the apostle who suffered regular persecution from both his fellow Jews and his fellow Romans. And yet, again and again in his letters, Paul cites a joy that remained alive and well in him. Later in his letter to the Corinthians, he writes:

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Cor. 8:1-2)

Paul celebrates a generosity that is born from two things: joy and poverty. That was all it took for the churches of Macedonia, even in the midst of severe affliction, to provide for the needs of others in a way that Paul didn’t just appreciate, but was so impressed he had to tell their story. For him, a Christian’s witness was directly tied to one’s abiding sense of joy.

I look around today, I listen to the conversations of other Christians, I participate in Bible study discussions, and one question in particular nags at me.

Where is our joy?

What happened to Christians in America? Why have we allowed politics and cultural touchpoints to rob us of the fundamental joy of our salvation? It certainly seems to be the prevailing image of Christians today. It is as if the majority of Christians have set aside their joy until they see a return to biblical morality or newfound respect for their particular ideology. Do we really believe the alleged seriousness of this cultural moment makes it OK to speak with the same brand of contentiousness and fear-mongering as those who have never truly known this joy? That it’s acceptable to post vindictive statements and acrimonious memes on our social media feeds with as much regularity as we share favorite Bible verses and devotional nuggets? That our preferred political affiliation or our cultural worldview permits us to belittle and vilify the other side?

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Time to take a stand for Jesus!

When Witness Becomes Worthless

When I was a teenager, I remember being told by various camp speakers and ministers that if I lived obediently to the way of Jesus then people would approach me simply to ask what made me different. They would want to know how they could have the kind of joy and peace so clearly evident in my life. This, it seemed, would be the most compelling method of evangelism – simply nurturing the overt fruits of the Spirit in my life.

Looking around these days, that idea seems woefully naïve. Young people are leaving the Church in droves, congregations are shrinking, and more and more people feel like a non-affiliation with religion is the most reasonable lifestyle option. After all…

  • When the majority of our recognized leaders are as factional and cynical as the rest of the world, who would want to continue associating with us?
  • When Christians in America are more interested in discussing all the sinister agendas we perceive to be leveled against us than they are in spurring one another on to love and good deeds, who would want to seek out membership in any of our communities?
  • When there is nothing about our lives that stands out from the masses – that stands above the furious discord of our age – then our witness has become worthless.

I’ve heard believers talk at length about how Satan is at work in various organizations and groups to destroy the Church, and how we need to stand firm because we’re under attack for our faith. But I truly think what Satan is really up to is fostering a defensive paranoia in as many of our churches as possible, in order to hinder any actual ministry from getting done. After all, a church that sets aside its joy is a church that is effectively crippled from representing the way of Jesus.

It doesn’t take an actual sinister agenda to thwart the Church; all it takes is planting a seed of fear that we’re vulnerable. The world is more than happy to do this planting day after day after day. And, soon enough, we start spending the bulk of our time indulging narratives of self-preservation, religious liberty, and unjust persecution above anything else. We read Scripture only through these lenses. Our small group discussions devolve into lamentations about our wayward culture and the precarious position of the Church in America. And as for the narratives of selflessness, peacemaking, and Jesus’ call to take up our crosses (to actually embrace persecution), well whose got time to heed those narratives when our Constitutional freedoms are under attack?!

And, just like that, our joy becomes little more than a dying ember buried beneath the cold ash of our own fiery indignation.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of joyless Bible studies. I’m wearied of conversations that are devoid of the thankfulness and gladness. These are not fleeting sentiments, but core conditions that should reside at the center of our lives no matter how bad things may seem in our world. I’m sick of reading the angry political rants and mean-spirited opinion pieces that litter my friends’ social media profiles. If the joy of your salvation cannot stand up to the rancor of our age, I have to question whether you’ve ever really experienced that joy at all.

This life is hard, and the people of God must walk a fine line between our convictions and our humility. But it is not enough to smile only every once in a while, or to only lift our hands in praise for a few minutes once a week. The way of Jesus is a way of love over hate, peace over division, patience in affliction, and joy amidst suffering.

May we remember this not merely for the sake of our own troubled spirits, but also for all the hurting souls in whose midst God has placed us.

Why We Don’t Talk Anymore

We’ve come to that moment yet again.

The perpetual, politicized discourse that abides within our social media feeds, among our back porch conversations, and somewhere between our half-empty coffee mugs at the local breakfast spot is now poised to flare up once again with what has, unfortunately, become an all-too-frequent set of talking points. I’m referring, of course, to the interconnected debate over gun-control, mental illness, racism, and personal liberty. We’re discussing debating arguing feuding over these issues far too often these days. It’s like a Simpsons clip show – it’s showing up more and more, and each one only reminds us that the show has been going downhill for quite some time.

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The ghastly tragedies in El Paso and Dayton that occurred this past weekend have thrown a fresh heaping of salt into our lacerated hearts while simultaneously squirting a fresh helping of lighter fluid on a raging wildfire that continues to burn across America.

On one side of the flames are those who cry out for reform – for this nation to sit down for an intervention that will help us turn away from our addiction to firearms and, at long last, seek help.

On the other side are those who cry out for personal liberty – for this country to distinguish the lonely psychopaths, xenophobic degenerates, and violence-obsessed reprobates who commit these horrible acts from the host of good, upstanding gun-owners and enthusiasts who would never so much as jokingly point an unloaded gun at their buddy.

For all the irrational arguments spewed online and on cable news,  both sides know, deep down, that the other side makes some good points. But the vast majority refuse to ever admit it.

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It’s Not Me, It’s You

Instead, when it comes to issues like gun-control, immigration, abortion, gender identity, and religious equality, we are like a divorced couple whose irreconcilable differences became so acute and traumatic that now even the sight of one another sends us spiraling into an uncontrollable fury of indignation and vindictiveness. We do not bear a shred of trust for one another, and we have plenty of past interactions to point to as reasons why.

But what makes this separation even worse is the fact that, at one time, we were united. We had our disagreements, but there was a period where we were relatively successful at living with those differences. However, as we gradually settled deeper into our preferred ideologies, the relationship was strained. We went from appreciating one another, to tolerating one another, to waking up one morning and loathing the one next to us. There were feelings of betrayal on both sides – a lack of fidelity, a chasing after other interests and pleasures that turned the crack between us into a gaping chasm. (By the way, for those of us who do not feel we belong to either “side,” it is abundantly clear we have become children of divorce. Do not think by not aligning ourselves with one side or another that we will make it through this bitter split unscathed.)

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We don’t know how to talk to one another anymore. We’ve lost the capacity to listen all the way through without interjecting. We are bottle rockets of emotion and our fuses have been clipped dangerously short. Before we can recuperate from the problems at hand, we need rehabilitation of discourse. Such a reconditioning cannot be found in the pages of sociology books, or accomplished in the twenty-second soundbites of presidential candidates. And it certainly can’t be achieved through a small town pastor’s blog.

Until we’re ready to sit in the same room together, to rediscover the common aspirations that once bound us (and still can), to resist the urge to shame one another’s viewpoints like we’re blocking shots in the NBA Finals, and to patiently hear each other out, then we should not be surprised at the lack of civility in our politics, not to mention our social media feeds. We shouldn’t gasp when leaders feign ignorance about racially-charged rhetoric rather than condemning it because they don’t want to sound like the other side. We shouldn’t be shocked at the rise of extremist ideas and behaviors from either side. We shouldn’t scratch our heads at those pundits, politicians, and preachers who would have us believe that only one side is right about every issue. And when this deep-seated stubbornness gives birth to suffering and violence, we should not be surprised. When you form a snowball and send it rolling down a slippery slope, do you ever really expect it to stop midway?

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Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

As a pastor, I am finding it more and more difficult to speak into these issues. I have not the intuition nor the energy to share anything of substance – at least anything that actually seems to make a difference. Joy is a commodity in short supply, and the standard for contentment is pathetically low. It has gotten to the point where, if I meet a fellow minister over breakfast or coffee and they don’t regurgitate the talking points of one side (usually assuming I will automatically agree with them), I’m relieved. Perhaps it’s my own proclivity for the dramatic, but there are times when I cannot help but feel like the prophet Jeremiah, tasked with pronouncing the will of the Lord to a people who were absolutely convinced they were in the right and he was just a street-corner kook.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors forever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Jeremiah 7:3-8, NIV

Even as I read these words, in my mind the counterarguments of both sides open their lips and raise their voices. Yeah, well, they’re the ones who are speaking deceptive words. I’m trying to change our actions, but they’re not listening. Whatever innocent blood is shed has nothing to do with me! Why don’t you talk to them about that? I’m trying to be part of the solution, not the problem. And by the way, if these foreigners would just come in legally, I wouldn’t have to “oppress” them…

Our confidence in the merits of our own side will be our undoing. Our refusal to establish common ground has resulted in an insurmountable chasm. It even seems like anyone who attempts to build a bridge between the two must endure sniper-fire from both ends. To be clear, as noble a task as it seems, I am not that bridge builder – I’m too afraid of the bullets.

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The Narrow Road to Unity

The only hope I find is in the one person who wasn’t afraid (or, at least, he didn’t give in to his fear). He knew the work of unity – of uncovering a bond that runs deeper than the most divisive of ideological disagreements – was worth being doubted, rejected, and ridiculed. He knew it was worth dying for. And he was certain that death awaited, that there really was no way to avoid it if he continued down the treacherous, rocky path of reconciliation.

I wonder what he thought when he called his traveling companions to join him on that journey. Those twelve men who formed his inner-circle. Certainly it was no oversight, no miscalculation on his part, that one was a tax-collecting traitor to his countrymen, and another was a Zealot who believed all traitors should be purged in a violent, bloody overthrow of the status quo. What were those fireside conversations like? How could Levi and Simon even stand to be in the same room with one another, let alone not erupt into fisticuffs seconds into any conversation?

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There must have been something far more compelling than their own self-righteousness that held their attention. Someone who did not dismiss the ideas that separated them, but instead graciously offered to help both men transcend their differences  – to be transformed in the narrow way of unity rather than trampled underfoot on the thoroughfare of fearful discord.

Anyone who could get those two to not only tolerate one another, but to ultimately work together in the end… Let’s just say, we would do well to shut our mouths and listen to someone like that.

A Higher Allegiance

This Sunday marks one of those uniquely complicated situations a majority of pastors and worship leaders – at least those in America – face each year.

Memorial Day is an important day in our country’s calendar. On this day, we commemorate the sacrifice of the men and women in the United States Armed Forces who have perished in the midst of their service. It is a solemn day of remembrance for a reality that is all too present in our world. As much as the pundits and politicians may prattle about patriotic ideals of freedom and peace, Memorial Day is nonetheless a reminder that violence grows like a cancer on the human race. It seems the nations of the world cannot keep from locking their horns from time to time, not to mention, in the intervening seasons, sharpening, preening, and polishing for the next challenger.

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Come at me, bro.

Because Memorial Day falls on a Monday, the preceding Sunday worship service must not only be planned in light of the expectation that a significant portion of congregants will be absent due to the long weekend’s festivities (the lake’s not going to water ski itself), but also with regard to how much of this nationwide moment of remembrance should be present within the public liturgy of Sunday’s worship. The latter, of course, is the complicated part.

The worship of the Church is ultimately singular in its focus. It’s about God. A key expression of the soul’s response to the generous omnipotency of God the Father, the world-changing gospel of Jesus the Son, and the mysterious indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an outpouring of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, and celebration. Congregational worship is when our individual outpourings are united together in what we call “the communion of saints.” It’s the Voltron of Christian devotion – individual worship is powerful, but corporate worship is extraordinary.

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PICTURED: 1 Corinthians 12:12

Each week, I sit down with my church’s worship leaders to carefully craft that Sunday’s order of service. While I truly believe preaching to be an art form – that preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon is a uniquely creative act that warrants both individual talent and exhaustive practice – the same can be argued for the planning of a worship service. Constructing a service of congregational worship – painstakingly considering its various movements and individual elements – is not unlike composing a poem. Each line matters. Each word, even. No piece is included without reason No part should be phoned in. The songs spur the prayers, which reflect the salvific message of the Scriptures, which are expounded upon in the sermon, and responded to before the table and altar. And what is this poem about? What is its theme? What is the primary focus?

God.

Always, only God.

Which brings me back to the awkward complications of the pre-Memorial Day worship service. So solemn and respectful is the nature of this day and its prescribed observance that it seems insensitive and heartless for the local church to ignore it within its corporate worship. After all, Memorial Day is, at its core, an acknowledgment of the tragedy of death and the veneration of sacrifice for a cause far greater than oneself. It is a secular observance, yes, born out of the inherent rage of nations and cultures. But if the gathered local church cannot or will not speak to such a moment, I have to question its continued relevance to society in general.

Despite what many professing Christians (as well as some of those same pundits and politicians) may claim, America is not a Christian nation. It is a pluralist nation. The Constitution was crafted under the belief that while the moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian expressions of faith were largely good for civic order and lawfulness, religious exclusivity was not. As such, the founding fathers who were Christians did not seek to legislate their faith any more than the founding fathers who were deists, or atheists, did. So, while the words “separation of Church and state” do not appear in its lines (but rather in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802), the first words of the First Amendment to the Constitution certify the necessary separation of these two entities. This is a good thing. Politicking aside, America bears no national religion. There is no state church. (We take oaths on Bibles, yes, despite the fact that Jesus himself warned us not to do that.)

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From the look of it, you’d think we only had one of these.

I know some colleagues who refuse to acknowledge Memorial Day, Independence Day, or any other secular American observance within their churches. Their reasoning is that it contradicts the theological focus of worship, and dangerously blurs the demarcating line that must run between the Church and the state. I have other friends who are pacifists, some who hail from denominational traditions that uphold pacifism as a tenet of Christian discipline; to them, taking a moment to honor those who have willingly stepped away from such an ideal smacks of hypocrisy. It is not that they aren’t thankful for soldiers who defend their country – it is simply that a worship service is meant to be an outpouring of thanks to God, not to man.

And yet, for the gathered church to turn blind eyes and deaf ears to a nationally recognized moment of remembrance for those who have laid down their lives… well, it just feels wrong. Even if the cause for which these men and women have given their lives is not a godly one, God is indeed present in ungodly places and situations. He is on the bases and carriers, in the O.P.s, Humvees, and cockpits, and surrounding the war-torn communities caught in the middle. War may be hell, but God does not wince at the sight of it.

For pastors seeking to point people to the glory of God and the matchless wonder of his holy kingdom – to assist congregants in lifting their heads above the brambled treeline of this violent world in order to behold the Truth that transcends our man-made darknesses – these moments in the year where our lesser, nationalistic identity points weigh heavy on our minds presents a dilemma. Vice President Mike Pence famously said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” I respect that. However, if he is indeed a Christian “first,” then he understands that one’s Christian identity does not always run congruent with the other two. To assume it does is to water down one’s faith in order to make it more palatable for our earthly pursuits and preferences.

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“… a Hoosier fourth, a tenor fifth, a CostCo Club Member sixth, a Belieber seventh… let’s see, what else?”

Hence the complications in planning a worship service that acknowledges Memorial Day, but does not equate its observance with true Christian worship. It is a dilemma not easily addressed or answered. Is there a way to respectfully acknowledge the kingdom of man while engaged in worship of the Kingdom of God? Is there room in our worship for commemorating those who have fallen in defense of the former? After all, while Jesus ordered Peter to sheath his sword, neither did he blame the man for wanting to draw it in the first place.

Here is what I know. I know that a Christian is one who has pledged himself or herself to a higher allegiance. I know that, ultimately, we live not in hope of a more orderly and sensible earthly kingdom, but in hope of a divine kingdom fully consummated on earth as it is in heaven. I know, also, that this hope must not detach or remove us from the present concerns of society. I know we must engage this world as it is, not only as we believe it should be/will be. I know that worshipping communities must not ignore the harsh realities of our day, but rather sow seeds of peace at every opportunity. Church and state may be separate in America, but this is no justification for Christians to divorce themselves from the world, even as we await a better one.