How to Be a Jerk for Jesus

When I was in college, I attended a two-day seminar on apologetics hosted at a church in Austin. A group of students from our campus ministry organization went up together. I can’t speak for them, but at the time I was mildly excited. I had only recently read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity for the first time, and was a bit of a neophyte when it came to this field of study and rhetoric. However, I found the practice of making valid arguments for faith, and rebutting arguments against it, exhilarating, and I was stoked to learn more.

And yet, what I encountered at this seminar quickly doused these kindled sparks of excitement, and for many years after soured my appreciation for modern-day Christian apologetics.

It was not that I saw through the arguments presented at this seminar (and, believe me, the amount of rhetorical ropeadopes and dialectical mic drops presented by the main speaker was staggering!). No, most of them were pretty impressive maneuvers of logic and reasoned rebuke. Commendable, even.

The problem, it turned out, did not lie with the apologetics being presented. The problem was the apologist himself.

ugly suit

No, it wasn’t because he dressed like a crazy person.

In one of his wonderful essays for Release Magazine, “Telling the Joke,” the late Rich Mullins recounts a heated exchange he once had with a friend, in which he systematically knocked down every argument against the validity of the gospel of Jesus Christ only to be shocked by his friend’s response. As Rich put it:

After I had whacked away his last scrap of defense, after I had successfully cut off every possible escape route that he could use, after I had backed him into an inescapable corner and hit him with a great inarguable truth, [he] blew me away by simply saying, “I do not want to be a Christian. I don’t want your Jesus Christ.” (Release, February/March 1996)

What left me feeling rotten about the seminar I attended was the unmistakable smugness and arrogant glee in the tone of the speaker (who had been touted as a sought-after expert in the field of Christian apologetics) as he walked us through his finely tuned workbook curriculum. Chapter by chapter, we learned, as each page put it, how to prove Mormons are wrong, how to prove Islam is a lie, how to prove atheists are illogical. (There was also a chapter on the fallacies of Catholicism, which in hindsight I realize should have been more of a giveaway of the kind of person we were dealing with.) It was clear that this man loved the work he did, and that, in and of itself, was fine. Indeed, I assume the Ravi Zachariases and Josh McDowells and Lee Strobels of the world love what they do. This man’s devotion to his field of study was not the issue. Rather, it was how much of the man’s personality, passion, and energy seemed focused on not simply contending for the validity of the Christian faith, but absolutely obliterating every opponent he could think of.

Throughout the seminar, this man related stories of past exchanges with imams, Hindu priests, New Age adherents, even Satanists, and, with each subsequent story, he seemed to relish recounting exactly how he had put each one of these pagans in their place. Rarely did he describe these exchanges in a way that highlighted kindness, or gentleness, or even patience. Only flawless precision. These stories were tales of how he outsmarted his opponents and became the undisputed victor of each argument.

What it boiled down to was this. For this alleged expert in the field of apologetics, it seemed that the gospel of Jesus Christ was valuable not because of some inward transformation, but because he had determined ways to empirically and reasonably verify it. It was powerful because it was intellectually ratified, not because it was spiritually manifest inside him. I don’t mean to insinuate the guy is not a devoted follower of Jesus. But for three hours that night (and several more the next morning) the life of faith he exhibited had little to do with the fruits of the Spirit described by the Apostle Paul in Galatians, and much more to do with proving himself right in the face of all other faiths. In this tried-and-true notebook, he had clearly identified the enemies of Christianity, and his focus was not on loving them.

It was on beating them.

Now, apologetics can be a useful tool for Christians, especially in our increasingly pluralistic world. These days, if you are choosing to resist the anti-social hypnotism of your smartphone and are actually looking up at people and engaging with them, you are likely to encounter people who believe all sorts of things contrary to the gospel message. You will meet people who completely dismiss Jesus as a misunderstood and vastly overrated historical figure. You will meet others who are happy that you’ve found meaning in the Christian faith, but not to assume that everyone needs that particular belief system in order to find their own existential meaning. You may even meet full-fledged nihilists who, while outright rejecting any and all religious ideas presented to them, nonetheless surprise you by how well-rounded and gracious they are.

nihilists

Probably not these guys, though.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you,” writes St. Peter. St. Paul echoes him in a letter to his protegé, Timothy: “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

If you are meeting people and truly engaging them in conversation and relationship, there will come moments in which you have the opportunity to talk about what you believe. Maybe not breaking out your Bible and flipping to the Romans road, but at least relating the fundamental narratives about who God is and how he interacts with humanity. And, in doing so, you may also find yourself entertaining questions about, or even arguments against, your beliefs. Apologetics is a way of organizing and articulating these narratives within various forms of dialogue. It is intended as a catalyst for deeper conversation, not as a club to bust the lips of skeptics.

Yes, it feels really, really good to win an argument. There is an exceedingly pleasant rush of dopamine that comes whenever you prove yourself right about something. In a day and age in which it has become increasingly rare to convince people they might be mistaken about even the smallest of issues, to actually win an argument is an extraordinary experience. But, like Rich Mullins’s friend showed him, there is more to faith than “proving” its legitimacy. The life of faith was never meant to be lived solely within the mind.

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The word evangelism refers to presenting the gospel in a way that persuades a person to surrender their lives to the salvation and direction of Jesus Christ. But the term is rooted in the New Testament word euangelion, which literally means “good tidings” and was later transliterated as “gospel.” From the very beginning this euangelion was far more than an intellectual exercise – an argument about the legitimacy of faith. It alluded to something much bigger – to the life-changing, reality-altering hope that God is not vindictive but gracious, and that his love for humanity knows no bounds.

At the heart of Jewish ritual prayer is the line, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength.” The Gospel of Luke  records Jesus quoting this line in response to a question about the greatest commandment, and the language includes “and with all of your mind” (in light of how the Greeks viewed knowledge as separate from the others). The point is simple: the life of faith is marked by a submission of the entire human experience – our appetites and emotions, our personalities and passions, our abilities and resources, and, of course, our intellects and memories. Genuine faith transforms the whole person.

So, if you’re in it for the rush of victory, or if the person with whom you are arguing rejects Christianity out of spite for the way you’re defending it, then you’re misusing the tool of apologetics. You might have fashioned a handful of clever points. You may have developed a shrewd and impressive polemic. You may have carefully honed the ability to make a captivating case for the validity of the Christian faith.

But have you made faith captivating? Have you exhibited a gospel message that transforms heart and soul as well as mind?

baby

You mean I have to be compassionate, too? What a drag!

May we never be so passionate to win an argument that we forget what we’re arguing for. May we encourage twice as much as we correct and rebuke, because, for many of us, that is weakest part of our interactions with others. And may we be people who trade a desire to be seen as right for the desire to be seen as whole.

“I am a Christian,” writes Rich Mullins in that same essay, “because I have seen the love of God lived out in the lives of people who know Him. The Word has become flesh and I have encountered God in the people who have manifested (in many “unreasonable” ways) His Presence; a Presence that is more than convincing – it is a Presence that is compelling.”

#Charlottesville and the Folk Religion of the “Alt-Right”

I write this on Sunday morning. I’m sitting in my office at the church considering how many of my friends and colleagues are preparing to stand before their own congregations and preach their sermons, and how many of those preachers have felt compelled to drastically change the sermons they have already crafted, and the anxiety they feel when this broken world of ours is beset by sudden and shocking events that inevitably tip their hand – when they know they must say something even when it feels like nothing we could ever say will take away the pain and outrage and confusion.

torches

This weekend, a large group of American citizens gathered for a march in Charlottesville, Virginia. They lit torches, created signs, and stuck a handful of catchy chants into the back pocket of their blue jeans and camouflage pants. As darkness fell, they advanced upon a city square like some ultra-racist variation of pitchfork-toting villagers come to kill Frankenstein’s monster. Numerous confrontations ensued. Passersby became entangled in the violence. Counter-protestors shouted back. Eventually, mere rhetoric gave way to fists, feet, clubs, and pepper spray. One person turned his car into a weapon and plowed into a crowd of pedestrians, killing a young woman. In the process of patrolling the madness, two law enforcement officials died in a helicopter crash.

Social media has been awash with pictures of angry faces, provocative signs, human walls, and the professionally issued statements from civic leaders and politicians, most of whom have denounced the violence. The president is one of these (though his statements have been a little too ambiguous for a lot of people’s liking). Personally, I am shocked by everything I have seen and everything I have read.

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Not to be callous, but I spent my more reflective moments last week considering how I might answer the question, Would God allow a nuclear war? I figured this was the big concern on most people’s minds, at least at present. As such, when I first learned of the events in Charlottesville on Saturday morning, my equilibrium was rocked. Despite the state of race relations in our country, I still wasn’t expecting this.

Unfortunately, a discouragingly large number of people with access to torches and a plethora of hate-filled rhetoric vehemently disagreed with what I had thought was the biggest problem of our day. They disagreed so sharply that they organized a march. So, here we are once again, fighting amongst ourselves, engaging in a vitriolic blame-game about individual rights and societal influence despite a looming shadow of much more dire issues aimed directly at our collective humanity.

I turned my attention, though, to the events in Charlottesville, and it was not long before an image shook me to my core. It was that of a human wall populated by men and women in clerical robes, priest collars, and prayer shawls. They stand shoulder to shoulder. Some clutch Bibles against their hips, while a few feet away the blue-jeaned and camouflaged-adorned “alt-right” scream about the need to return America to “its Christian roots.”

clergy

What?!

And I realize that whether I like it or not, we must not only adjust our sermons and Bible studies this morning because of an astonishing outbreak of insolence and rage in our country; we have to change them because tangled up in the back-and-forth arguments of both sides is the Kingdom of God. Both sides believe they are standing up for its principles, and to the millions of outside observers it is almost impossible to distinguish if one side is completely right and the other completely wrong, or if the Christian faith is just another malleable philosophical system that can be manipulated into bearing all manner of social views, however alternative or fringe.

A Prayer for Clarity

This past week, I sent an e-mail welcoming a recent visitor to the church, but it turned out I had the wrong address. I received a snarky response from an obvious atheist who attributed the Christian faith to nothing more than 2000-years worth of mass hysteria. I’m not the kind of person who can leave such a parting shot alone, so in addition to apologizing for confusing his address, I added a short plea for civility rather than rudeness. He responded curtly, “Get off your high horse, Bo. Your religion is responsible for more intolerance and injustice than rude assholes like myself could ever aspire to.”

Now, I probably shouldn’t have written back in the first place. I probably should have allowed this apparently militant atheist to insult my beliefs without response. However, what bothered me most was not the insult. It was that this man had learned a completely false concept of God’s Kingdom. When he thinks of Christianity, what he sees is the catalyst for suffering, not the remedy for it. When he encounters a Christian, he doesn’t see someone who’s life has been radically redefined by a relationship with God’s son, but rather someone who has applied for membership in an oppressive, power-hungry regime of moralistic bigotry. And that’s as much the fault of actual Christians not denouncing such behavior as it is his for accepting such fraudulent expressions of faith.

So, this morning, what I pray for from my fellow preachers and teachers regarding the events in Charlottesville is clarity. I hope that we will denounce what is clearly not Christianity – in this particular instance the hate-filled, violent tantrums of the “alt-right” – because avoidance or ambiguity of this situation will only muddle society’s comprehension of Christianity. In this case, the truth is that a Christian who steps into the fray can do so only with those who stand against the cries for subjugation, exclusion, and regressive entitlement. If he steps in on the other side, he has effectively stepped out of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of God as if it were a real place – a true reality that was slowly unfolding, day-by-day, beneath the surface of our worldly events, however mundane or chaotic. He did not shy away from pinpointing where certain people – or, at least, certain behaviors – were located in proximity to this coming Kingdom. To a lawyer who agreed with him that the greatest commandments were not ceremonial directives but rather wholehearted love of God and neighbors, Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” When his disciples tried to prevent children from crawling onto his lap, Jesus rebuked them, saying that the Kingdom is populated with people who do just that. And he taught that the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted were the ones who would “inherit the Kingdom of God.”

But Jesus also told a story about a man who missed out on God’s Kingdom when, after receiving unexpected forgiveness for an astonishing amount of debt, threw one of his own debtors into prison, having failed to let that forgiveness permeate and transform his life. Then there was the time Jesus watched a wealthy man walk away from his counsel and remarked, “It is exceedingly difficult for a rich person to enter God’s Kingdom.” In contrast to the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, he also lamented the self-centered perspectives of the rich, the prideful, and the self-actualized, which would inevitably lead only to ruin.

The Folk Religion of the Alt-Right

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

The main reason white supremacists have historically been able to claim Christianity as a banner is that society long ago replaced a life lived according to the radical truths of Christianity with cultural concepts like decency, propriety, and “know-your-role/know-your-place” classism. For many people, the Kingdom of God became intertwined with the idolatrous City of Man, where conduct, appearance, and status reign supreme.

I do not doubt that many of those who support views espoused by the alt-right, and perhaps even some who marched on Charlottesville, believe they are on the side of a good, fair, and moral citizenry. I accept their earnestness and their passion. I recognize that they truly believe they are stemming the tide of a great injustice. In their minds, they are heroes, not villains. However, what they are actually standing up for is not Christianity but the ideology of a particular brand of folk religion.

In his book, Questions to All Your Answers, Roger Olson provides a helpful description of what exactly folk religion is. He writes, “[it] is practiced mostly by individuals although they may network with each other. A folk religion spawns little or no research or focused thought. Theology is anathema to folk religion; it lives by word of mouth and internet circulation. It cares only about feelings and experiences and hardly at all about doctrine or critical reflection.”

Indeed, so much of the Christianity we have encountered over last year’s election season, as well as the way some particular evangelical leaders have contorted Scripture to support our current administration’s policies (including this one), is not Christianity at all. It is folk religion. It is molding and shaping a faith system that fits neatly into our particular opinions, ambitions, and carefully curated prejudices. Sadly, some of the most successful pastors in our country are mere folk Christians, not true citizens of God Kingdom. Of course, we must remember that the same can be said for some individuals on the opposite side of the present issues, who can become so focused on “progress” that they speed right past the Kingdom in search of a utopia of their own design.

So, I pray for clarity, because folk religion dupes a lot of people. Contrary to what my short-lived e-mail pen-pal believes, the actual culprit behind all the intolerance and injustice in the world is folk religion – a ghastly legacy of ruthless selfishness perpetrated by person after person donning a Jesus mask utterly stripped of its true colors and features, like the unnatural Shatner mask from Halloween. And in whatever venue we have at our disposals – pulpits, classrooms, blogs – we need to call it what it is. We need to re-establish exactly how far such people are from the Kingdom of God, if only to clarify what the Kingdom of God really is. 

Giving an Answer

both sides

Just a few minutes ago I heard a church member remark how much wiser it would have been for those who oppose alt-right ideologies to have simply turned their backs on this group’s torch-lit march through Charlottesville. No counter-protesters. No news agencies. No photographers. I have to admit, I started chuckling at the thought of a bunch of indignant white nationalists assembling on an empty university lawn, their only audience the summer crickets chirping indifferently. They look around curiously, holding signs that no one will read. They shrug their shoulders impotently. “Should we just go home?”

If only.

The truth is that our society will not – cannot – ignore such people. It’s going to give them its attention, and its going to comment on them and react to them and formulate ideas in response to them. And because of this, those who unequivocally offer their allegiance to the eternal Kingdom of God cannot ignore them either. We cannot turn our backs on the issues at stake. We must not pretend like everything will eventually settle down and revert to life as usual.

“In your hearts revere Christ,” writes the Apostle Peter to the churches of the first century. “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls your beliefs into account. Only do so with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who slander your good deeds in Christ end up ashamed” (1 Pet. 3:15-17).

Whether it knows it or not, this world is calling us to account. Let’s not be afraid to give a clear answer.

A Need to Disconnect

This is part two of a two-part essay. The first part, which you can read HERE, focused on the problem. This week, I do my best to offer a solution.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Even if someone could have foreseen the dangers that lay far ahead, what other choice was there. They could not concern themselves with future generations. If they didn’t do something now, there would be no future generations.

So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. …  Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground. But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children.” 

“You have saved our lives,” they said. “May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 47:20-21, 23-25)

This is how the Bible records the origin of Hebrew enslavement to Egypt. It starts in the midst of a terrible famine. It’s the socioeconomic backdrop that we don’t often notice raging behind the drama of Joseph and his brothers. Year by year, the peoples of Canaan and the other surrounding regions find themselves unable to grow crops, unable to raise animals, unable to hunt or forage. And Joseph, who has ascended all the way to Pharaoh’s cabinet, responds to the suffering of a lot more people than his remorseful siblings.

skywalker 2

Joseph’s family are the Skywalkers within a Universe full of other compelling stories.

Of course, by establishing a system of civil servitude and taxation based on the productivity of Egypt’s subjects, Joseph has also opened the door to oppression. Though he is essentially the first taskmaster the Israelites will know, at least he is kind. He understands their plight. He strives to create a system that maintains balance.

But Joseph cannot live forever.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us.”…

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.  (Exodus 1:8, 11-14)

More often than not, oppression is the go-to tool of an empire. To keep a heavy hand upon the common rabble is not simply a way to exert power. It is a way to prevent the people from considering any other power but yours.

Still, in the story of the Israelites’ toil in Egypt, we see more than just a picture of oppression. We see the ingeniously cruel amalgamation of oppression and productivity, of enslavement and efficiency. Despite such persecutory suffering, Pharaoh’s demand for endless toil somehow still breeds blind allegiance! Consider what the Israelite elders say to Moses and Aaron after their royal court disruptions, which only serve to enrage Pharaoh who turns around and accuses the Israelites of laziness – laziness! – and ups the ante on their brick-and-mortar production quotas.

…they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them,  and they said, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”  (Exodus 5:20-21)

Today, when we read this story, we shake our heads at the infamous Israelite stubbornness, how they lash out at the very people working for their deliverance! We fail to recognize that systems of endless productivity and efficiency make us oblivious to what real freedom looks like when it actually presents itself.

phone

This sermon is a little long for our taste. Glad we brought something to pass the time.

In my previous post, I ranted about addressed this same oppressive reality in our society today. We may not struggle under the thumb of a tyrannical Pharaoh, but we are fools to deny that numerous, present-day taskmasters aren’t woven into our own cultural fabric. They hide behind so much of what we have come to accept as modern-day realities, often whispering even behind simple phrases like “normal society,” “status quo,” “tech-savvy,” “bonus check,” or “Sorry but I’ve got to take this call.”

I also wrote about a new law that took effect in France this year, which places restrictions on large companies regarding their employee’s connectivity to work e-mails and messages; it is a small yet significant step in trying to give people back some semblance of rest, a portion of their existence not wholly defined by occupational pursuits. And it is the very thing that so frightened and enraged Pharaoh.

Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments is an iconic piece of cinema, but it doesn’t get everything right about the Exodus story. The most memorable of all its lines – “Let my people go!” – is deceptively inaccurate. Moses and Aaron did not swagger into the royal court as tenacious liberators, brazenly offering Pharaoh a lose-lose deal. No, their request was much tamer. “Let my people take a break” would be a more accurate line. All they asked for, at least at first, was a spiritual retreat – essentially a three-day weekend – in which the Israelites could pilgrimage into the wilderness and offer sacrifices to their God.

Ten Commandments

Also, Ridley Scott wasn’t the only one to envision Egyptian and Semitic peoples as slightly tanned Caucasians.

Pharaoh refuses not because a three-day retreat would mean three days of limited brick and mortar production. Remember, the productivity quotas imposed on the Israelites were designed to oppress, to weary, to strip away every defining aspect of who they were, except hopeless slaves. This almost impossible workload was instituted so they would have no time whatsoever to indulge in their own sociocultural identity. After all, awakening to the reality of who you truly are – and what you were made for – poses the greatest threat to the powers of oppression.

Why? Because you start to realize you may not actually need them anymore. That there might be another way of life. One that liberates rather than subjugates. One that frees rather than abuses.

This, by the way, is the Rosetta Stone of interpretation we should apply to the Law, which is given to the Israelites on the other side of the Sea of Reeds after the waters effectively annul Joseph’s citizen-slave system. Consider how the Book of Exodus introduces the Ten Commandments:

And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…”  (Exodus 20:1)

Every single law and ordinance and regulation flows from this foundational identity, and should be understood as pointing back to the principles of the Lawgiver, rather than arbitrary codes of conduct for a fledgling nation. God is the Deliverer. He is the breaker of chains. He is the new taskmaster that, in stark contrast to Pharaoh, desires his servants to live in peace and prosperity, to live free from the wearying, life-sapping bonds of endless productivity and efficiency.

Game of Thrones Season 3 Review

Copycat.

For any who may not be convinced by this, consider what the fourth commandment is, and the way both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 describe it. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” If the greatest Ruler/Creator/Designer/Builder dedicated a day to complete rest (the Hebrew word, menuha, literally means “to cease”), and, what is more, if out of every single piece of creation it was this day of complete rest that He chose to call “holy” (qadash), you can be certain He wants His subjects to do far more than honor it. He wants them to experience it.

Let’s consider that fact for an additional moment. In the Creation poem that opens our Bibles, only one thing is explicitly deemed “holy.” It’s not the vast Pacific. It’s not the majestic Rockies. It’s not even the man and the woman, made in God’s own image. Sure, they’re called “good,” but only the seventh day – the Sabbath – is actually called holy. This day in which God ceases from extraordinary, glorious productivity – this is what must be declared most excellent, set apart, and preserved.

The French legislation is known as the “right to disconnect law.” But God’s law already has one. It is a “need to disconnect law.”

Sabbath, at its core, is about disconnecting from the cultural obligations and expectations to produce, to want, to crave, to be stimulated and insubstantially satisfied by the world’s systems. As Jesus corrected the Pharisees, the Sabbath was made for man. It should never be defined by deprivation or a list of don’t-do-and-can’t-do’s; instead, we should see it as a happy return to the freedom and peace we have already been given by our Great Deliverer. It is a day we devote to face-to-face connection with our families, cultivating deeper relationships with friends, celebrating the extraordinary beauty of this short life, and worshipping the One who made the world and called it very, very good.

France’s passing of a “disconnect” law should give us pause. It should remind us that insatiable productivity is an ever-present threat, and the assumption that everyone should always be connected – dialed in to the Matrix – is not a passing fad. Even in a society that prides itself on individualism and personal freedom, Pharaoh’s identity-sapping edicts are alive and well.

And just like in Egypt, it thrives off our wearied acquiescence to the system. It feeds off a culture that spinelessly shrugs its shoulders and says, “I can’t afford not to check my e-mails, answer my phone, come in on a Saturday. I can’t afford not to check my Facebook feed, respond to these texts, be one of the 300,000,000 people who viewed this video…”

rest

What are you talking about? I’m quietly sitting still in a mostly dark room. How is this not restful?”

What would it look like if not just a negligible minority of us but rather a whole country full of Christians (not to mention Jews) decided to truly observe the Sabbath for what it was always intended to be? What would happen if, for a single day each week, we turned our backs on all the professional obligations and nagging responsibilities that incessantly demand our time and energy, and also set aside all the tools and gadgets that sneakily tether us to unquenchable compulsions? What would happen if, instead, we pursued the things that gave us true rest? The things that restored our awareness of freedom, intimacy, joy, and celebration.

While the stresses of daily life and work would remain, I suspect our weariness of them would lessen. I don’t think we would so often lament how busy we are. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to consult our phone screens when we’re in the company of other people. Maybe we’d even become a little kinder. A little more patient. A little more peaceful.

Because that’s what deliverance does. It changes your life.

A Right to Disconnect

This week’s post is the first of a two-part essay. First, I’ll identify and examine the problem. Next week, I’ll do my best to offer the solution…

Did you hear about the “right to disconnect” law that went into effect earlier this year in France?

Essentially, it requires companies with more than fifty employees to establish certain hours – normally evenings and weekends – in which employees are discouraged from making phone calls and sending or responding to work e-mails. In other words, the law makes it much more acceptable for a person to “leave work at work.” Imagine that.

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Those crazy French with their ridiculous berets, baguettes, and perceptive approaches to employee health.

I don’t know if you are as stunned as I am that France passed this legislation. Honestly, I’m surprised its proponents were able to get enough people on board in the first place. At the heart of this new law is the sober recognition that unchecked pressure in our occupations can lead to a wide variety of health problems, including, according to one article, impaired sleep, depression, alcohol abuse, and heart disease. However, I have no doubt that when this legislation was proposed, many people feared potential negative effects – for one, placing limits on employee connectivity would reduce workplace productivity and efficiency. Maybe its the cynic in me, but I’m blown away that enough French lawmakers could agree that the value of a human person is not defined by the stuff he or she makes.

When I first learned about this law, I couldn’t help but wallow within my own cultural discontent. I continue to doubt the U.S. would pass similar legislation, and not simply because of complications due to bureaucratic rigmarole (which, over the last decade, has surpassed baseball as America’s greatest national pastime). I don’t know how popular the law’s passage was in France, but I think it is an exceedingly safe bet that quite a few U.S. politicians and lobbyists would be up-in-arms about it here; this, as they so often shout with fists held high, “is a free country.” Granted, what people actually mean when they use that line is, “This is a country steeped in opportunistic individualism, and therefore, by definition, any suggestion of a better way to do, well, anything, is immediately and forever suspect.”

Let’s face it, any law that even suggests limitations on our level of connectivity would certainly be met with adamant opposition. After all, look how convenient technology has made it to stay dialed in to our voicemails, e-mails, text messages, and social media profiles? We can literally carry all of that around in a single pants pocket. Even if they somehow miraculously reached a consensus on the benefits of such a law, can you see our government succeeding in the same way France’s did? For the sake of comparison, after the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Pulse shootings, multiple congressional representatives sought to regulate background checks for the purchase of assault rifles – assault rifles! – and hardly made a dent. How do you think people would react to regulations on items we can’t even bring ourselves to set aside when we we’re using the toilet?

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“How dare you tell me I can’t overstimulate myself? I earned this stress-induced Irritable Bowel Syndrome!”

So, kudos to the French for acknowledging something most perpetually stressed-out people don’t like to think about. There but for the grace of God go us not.

But whether we choose to acknowledge the dangers of ceaseless productivity or not, we also know there are other perils just as significant as physical health, and workplace pressure is not the only phenomenon in which they surface. The technological advances of the past few decades have been extraordinary, even mind-boggling. They have increased to an incredible degree humanity’s ability to produce, and to produce more efficiently. At the same time, we are awaking to the truth that increased automation and connectivity does indeed come with a downside. And it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the negative effects birthed by these new advances, whether in our occupational spheres, our local communities, or even our most intimate relationships.

My wife and I often talk of what we percieve as a pervasive, willing bondage to connectivity and endless productivity. While we do not have a “right to disconnect” law in our country (yet?), there are other laws intended to protect basic human health in the workplace. Even so, due to our society’s incessant striving to do more and do it faster, these laws are not always enforced very… forcefully. For instance, it is not uncommon anymore for Leigh to come home both exhausted and ravenous after her twelve-hour hospital shift, and this is because she did not get so much as a lunch break during that entire amount of time. I used to get so indignant about this injustice; because I care so much for her, I would fume about the blatant squelching of her occupational rights. Didn’t the hospital ever worry that fatigued nurses who hardly even have the opportunity to sit down over the span of twelve hours, let alone get time to consume a single meal, might become a liability rather than an asset? However, after ten years with little change in the culture of hospital staffing, now we simply shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and I do my very best to make sure dinner is ready and waiting when she staggers through the door.

The hard reality is that our jobs are perpetually frenetic, and one of the main reasons for this is our culture’s habitual obsession with productivity and efficiency. But instead of viewing this as a hazardous or unsafe reality, we’re encouraged to think of our stress-saturated jobs as “challenging,” “fast-paced,” or “highly rewarding.” Thus, staggering through the door like zombies and collapsing onto the living room sofa at the end of the day is now our norm. No wonder a once negative word like “bingeing” has become the popular and acceptable way to consume entertainment; it takes far less energy to just watch another episode of something than to go for a walk, or actually carry on a meaningful conversation with another person.

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“This isn’t even good, but I’m too tired to have standards.”

And that’s the other side of this cruel coin. Even if your drive to produce stays in the office parking lot, still the ever-expanding human appetite for connectivity is not satiated. The cravings for instant and perpetual stimulation follow us no matter where we go. We have become a people less and less comfortable with quiet and stillness, with morning commutes not infused by drive-time radio or Spotify playlists, with evenings not spent sitting in front of the electronically-enhanced binge boxes we still quaintly refer to as “TVs.” Quiet, meandering, agenda-less conversation is fast becoming a lost art.

Every time my family has the opportunity to eat out for dinner, my wife and I cannot help but subtly draw each other’s attentions to how many couples, families, or groups of friends are all staring down at smartphone screens rather than actually talking with the flesh-and-blood humans sitting mere inches away. It’s become a kind of game, like when you would play “Slugbug” on car rides. Except the pain you feel isn’t from your brother socking you in the shoulder, but rather a gradually swelling sense of melancholy at the state of the American social circle. Is this really the picture of our future? Is this the relational landscape my children will inherit?

It turns out that having our eyes glued to smartphone screens for hours on end, whether we’re checking e-mails, texting “friends,” or allowing our brain cells to gorge on YouTube videos, can be detrimental to both our mental and social health. We marvel at how cutting-edge technologies have ushered us into a brand new epic of human existence. And yet, hidden beneath every utopia is a dystopia. Yes, we can celebrate that humanity has become deeply connected across the entire globe. But we should also acknowledge that an increasing number of face-to-face relationships between family members and proximal friends are quietly suffering in the aftermath of such an extraordinary societal shift.

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Pictured: suffering.

I realize the French law doesn’t address personal overuse of smartphones, or how many hours we wile away staring at Netflix and Facebook, or that our knee-jerk response when our children get rowdy is to shove an iPad in front of their faces. But all these issues orbit the same evolving nucleus of human behavior. How we interact with one another (or how much we neglect interacting with one another) is changing. Whether it’s the job pressures or a personal addiction to Twitter that’s causing this distancing, something needs to change. And soon!

Now, please understand the purpose of this essay is not to make you feel rotten for indulging technology. That would be highly duplicitous of me. I own a smartphone that I’m constantly stuffing full of frivolous apps. I’m entrenched in a half-dozen different television series on Netflix and HBONow (because, I mean, c’mon, it’s not like I’m going to just pass on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones). And I’m definitely aware that, at this very moment, I’m using an online word processing program on my laptop to write this post, all while iTunes ticks through song after song in an 80’s/90’s Rock playlist.

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And to answer your inevitable question, yes, “More Than a Feeling” is currently up to bat… again.

So, no, I’m not advocating we rid ourselves of technology – that we actually go “off the grid” like that family in the Domino’s commercials. I realize doing so would, among other things, mean the death of my blog and its humble little audience. After all, you’re also accessing this article on a smartphone, or a tablet, or a laptop (or, if you’re reading it sometime in the future, on the fully integrated nanobot sensory chip imbedded behind your left cornea, which we all know AmaGoogleSoft recommends as the most proficient of the implant’s locations).

But there is a distinct difference between indulging the benefits of our technological advances, and allowing these advances to infiltrate every aspect of human existence. Especially those moments that once provided us with stark, unbounded, freewheeling contact with others. Last week, after a three-year abstention, I decided to rejoin Facebook. I was tired of finding out secondhand, and months too late, about the significant events in so many people’s lives. However, if you were to tell me I had to choose between the 950 Facebook friends (yep, still there after three years) and a single, face-to-face friendship with another person, I would not hesitate to choose the flesh-and-blood friend. Wouldn’t you?

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Now there’s a good TV show pitch! Next week on The Bachelor: Facebook Edition, find out which one of Skyler’s 1000 friends will receive the final red rose emoji!

My intention with this essay was not merely to lament the harmful side-effects of our increasingly connected culture. But I do think it would be a very healthy choice for us to tred carefully through such societal advances. To not be so quick to trade human interactions for the artificial succor provided by our various devices and other online compulsions.

Even if setting aside or turning off our gadgets results in awkward silences or off-putting stillness, let’s not be so quick to flee the emptiness we have momentarily established. There is something hidden within it – something deep and eternally true. Someting that, if you are patient, will gradually begin to make itself known to you, and, in so doing, reveal a treasure that all the sleekest gadgets and fastest connection speeds in the world cannot replace.

But more on that next week…

Why Evangelicalism Isn’t to Blame

In the wake of the presidential election, a lot of insinuations regarding who is responsible for electing Donald Trump have been tossed around by news sources, pundits, dissatisfied voters, and many a social media post. As far as I have noticed, the culprits receiving perhaps the most blame in news articles, blogs, and social media have been a group of Americans categorized as “white evangelicals.”

If this political demographic had not drawn its fair share of ire leading up to the election, it is receiving a cascade of vitriol now. On Twitter, in particular, I have read the incensed statements of friends and strangers alike denigrating this group as, at best, duped patsies, and, at worst, homophobic-racist-bigots by association. Most troubling to me has been how these allegations are coming as much from Christians as they are non-Christians and atheists.

For instance:

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It did not take long for my anxiety over the election of Donald Trump to be overshadowed by full-on despair at the unmitigated acrimony leveled against evangelicalism. More than I am worried about a Trump White House – and, believe me, I am still pretty worried about a Trump White House – I have been much more hurt by this reactionary fallout toward evangelicalism.

Why?

Because, last Tuesday, I cast a vote in the presidential election. And it was not for Donald Trump. For over a year, I was deeply disturbed at the idea of him becoming Commander-in-Chief, not simply because of his past and present moral debasement, but also because, having researched many of the policies he touted throughout his campaign, I could see in them no ultimate viability. In other words, my vote was not cast for Trump not only because of the lack of personal temperance and honor I saw in him, but also because I chose to be an informed voter who, despite the perceived character of a candidate, nonetheless weighs the practicality of his or her platforms.

And yet, I am an evangelical, and a white evangelical at that. Thus, according to a large group of Americans, many of whom are infuriated at the result of this election, I am responsible for a President Donald J. Trump.

From the tweets of those Christians above, it now seems the only good and right course of action for me is to renounce evangelicalism as a corrupt and profane group. Otherwise, I must accept the indignation of my more enlightened brothers and sisters in the faith, and live under the guilt of my association. Even if, technically, I belong to the mere 19% of white evangelicals whose votes were not cast for Trump, I will certainly find myself haunted by my inability to persuade my demographic’s majority not to vote for a monster. That, or I must wallow in shame because I was not bold or courageous enough to speak against him and those who planned to vote for him.

According to the first Tweet featured above, from spiritual director and author Richard Rohr, whom I deeply respect, the evangelical movement has irrevocably defiled itself. Real Christians should extricate themselves from it as soon as possible, as if it doing so were truly the quick and simple adjustment some think it is. As if all it takes is for a Baptist to start attending a Catholic parish instead, or an Assemblies of God Republican to re-register as a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party and transfer his membership to an Episcopal church.

The truth is, every single Christian whose tweets are shown above have not slipped the bounds of evangelicalism as wholly as they may think. Many of them may disparage both the word and the social demographic it categorizes, but were you to press them for an honest answer on whether they have truly rejected the core principles of evangelicalism, you would find almost all of them remain squarely in the center of evangelicalism whether they like it to not.

Back in seminary, I had a friend who was outspoken about his rejection of the term “Christian.” To him, the word had been so drastically watered-down and misapplied that he had completely lost use of it (or, rather, he feared he would be associated with people with whom he did not share particular political or spiritual beliefs). He preferred, instead, the title “marked by X,” (X representing the Greek letter, chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”). “I am not a Christian,” he would say to us. “I am marked by X.”

Meaning he was a Christian; he just didn’t like the word.

My friend despised the many false connotations the word “Christian” had picked up over the years, like dirt and cockleburs that stick to a hiker’s clothing as he journeys along a wooded trail. In the minds of many people today, the word “evangelical” is in very nearly the same situation. The question, then, is whether or not Christians should “divorce” themselves from the word or persist in using it?

What would we gain if we rejected evangelicalism as a term? Clarity, maybe. Or at least a slightly clearer conscience.

What would we lose? Only a word describing the very heart of Christianity itself. Not to mention associating ourselves with a more than 500-year-old movement of individual and communal liberation.

The term “evangelicalism” comes from the Koine Greek word euangelion, a combination of eû (“good”) and ángelos (“messenger”). The word is found all over the New Testament, commonly translated “good news” or “gospel.” In the Church, it refers exclusively to “the way, the truth, and the life” provided us by Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to stake your entire existence on the belief that atonement for sin, salvation of the soul, and redemption of the body is found in Jesus alone. It means pursuing transformation by the Holy Spirit through the practice of spiritual disciplines modeled for us by the Savior, including befriending rich and poor alike, showing endless compassion to the oppressed, responding to all conflict and confrontation with grace and non-violence, and accepting the expectation that your obedience to the Law must surpass that of even the religious (and political) elite. Throughout history, the evangelical movement has continually challenged the Church to find its identity in this Gospel, and to, in turn, proclaim and practice its principles unto all humankind.

Historically, the evangelical movement has boldly stood up to corrupt, idolatrous men of power who selfishly and opportunistically entangled the Church with the State, and who used its influence to oppress millions and withhold dignity and basic rights from the masses. It preached that forgiveness of sin comes from God alone, and that no mere human being may wield power over another’s soul. It insisted that all people have a divine right to read the Scriptures in their own common languages. It contended time and again that salvation is for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

Are we sure we want to separate ourselves from so extraordinary a movement, and the incredibly fitting word that describes it, simply because a handful of one country’s population (categorized “evangelicals” by secular news agencies and pollsters ) have made what many would say is a bad political choice out of the very real temptation for personal prosperity and security?

The simple fact is, even if a person is a committed Christian, they are not exempted from national concerns. The inclination to chase after individual liberties, sustainable employment, general safety at home and lasting security abroad is as common to us as it is to every other American. No matter what some Christians may claim, these desires do not always present themselves as black-and-white choices, even when we consider them in light of the Gospel. Certainly many of these “white evangelicals” are considered Christians simply because they live in heavily “Christianized” areas, not because the principles of the Gospel populate the top of their personal priority lists. In other words, the only way the term “evangelical” describes them is in its false, sociopolitical context.

And yet, I am also well aware that there are plenty of people within the 81% of white evangelical Trump voters who have indeed been cleansed of their sins – past, present, and future – and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I could not reconcile a Gospel-centered life with a vote for Trump. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ would disagree. And many others either were not considering the principles of the Gospel, or considered a vote for any official candidate to be a compromise of those values in one way or another. And so many “evangelicals” voted for a guy who promised (however dubious such promises may be) that he would fight to protect their morals and way of life. They are afraid the country is turning its back on many important things, including at least some of the principles of the Gospel they believe in, and so they cast their vote for the person who convinced them he would do the most to stem the tide, and perhaps even reverse it.

In other words, the true meaning of evangelicalism, nor the tradition of the movement, is not responsible for the result of the election. National sentiment is, and whether or not it is easy to describe this sentiment as “evangelical,” it is ahistorical and pseudo-theological to do so.

I realize that my argument is primarily semantic. It mostly revolves around the definition of a word. But no matter how many times I read the indignant statements of Christians who have turned their noses up at “evangelicals” and have joined with the masses in equating the movement with racism, homophobia, bigotry, and regressive conservatism, I cannot bring myself to disassociate with a concept that stands at the heart of our faith.

The evening after the election, I was teaching a class on the inspiration and translation of Scripture. I reminded the class that one of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement was fully evident in the room: every person had their own copy of the Bible, not only in their own language, but even in a style of that language they most preferred to read! (I am willing to bet a large sum of money that every single person whose tweets are shown above take advantage of that same privilege.)

One man asked, “What’s the difference between a Christian and an ‘evangelical Christian’?”

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, there are many people who would have you believe the answer to this man’s question is, “A lot!”

But if Christians – be they Trump protestors or Trump supporters – will resist the temptation to treat politics as that which brings justification, security, and ultimate happiness, then maybe we can restore the original meaning of evangelicalism. Maybe we can even be united by it, even as we continue to differ on specific ethical or denominational issues. Maybe we can humbly admit that no one is so enlightened in the faith that they cannot be led astray by Gospel-less perspectives and opinions.

Maybe we can come to see the nonsensical redundancy of the term “evangelical Christian,” because we know a true Christian is evangelical, and a true evangelical is a Christian. Maybe we can look that man in the eye when he asks his question, and reply, “Actually, there is no difference at all.”

This article has been updated since its original publication in order to correct language, primarily in the 19th paragraph, that unintentionally insinuated those who voted for Donald Trump do not truly believe in, or understand, the Gospel. This, of course, is the opposite of the point I was endeavoring to make. My sincerest apologies to any who may have been offended in their initial reading.

The Greatest Danger We’ll Face in 2016

If you walked the streets of your neighborhood, or even the aisles of your local Target store, and asked the people you encountered what they believed to be the greatest threat to humanity’s development, what do you suppose they might say? Who or what would be the potential culprits?

No doubt some would toe the current media line and answer “gun violence” or “gun control.” Some might consider our country’s deeply divided views on immigration. Others might nod toward ISIS or other Islamic extremists. The most cynical might blame religion in general. A few germaphobes might point the finger at Ebola or some new flu you can get from armadillos or Canadian geese or something. There would probably be a handful who say, “Hillary,” while hopefully at least some reasonable people answering, “Trump.”

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Please, America. Please… just… just… no.

Here’s what I don’t think many people, if any, would say. I don’t think they would respond to the very problem studies show affects more people than terrorism or gun violence or immigrants takin’ our jobs. More people even than are affected by anxiety, depression, heart disease or cancer combined.

I don’t think anyone would say, “Excess.”

Our society is fanatical about speed and afflicted with the need for more. Year after year, we take great strides in productivity and efficiency, and while we may marvel at the industrial and technological advancements of the past two hundred years, we have ignored the tragically adverse effects such progress has wreaked on humanity.

The Inescapable Illness

“At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance,” wrote the 19th-century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, as he described the bewildering social changes in America resulting from the Industrial Revolution. He observed men chasing after more money, more possessions, more abilities, while simultaneously less and less content despite everything they had acquired. “The spectacle itself, however, is as old as the world,” acknowledges de Tocqueville. True. Industrial America was only the latest victim of what many now refer to as “hurry sickness.”

I have no doubt felt the effects of such an illness. It surely no less than an epidemic in our country. We have becomes slaves to productivity and efficiency; we are incapable of ignoring the ticking of the clock. The comedian Louis C.K. makes us all laugh when he profanely fusses at human beings for being impatient for a picture to load on the technological wonders that are our smartphones, but the joke is that this is no exaggeration. We are all in a rush, and, if pressed to give a reason why, the only explanation we can really offer is, “So I can move on to the next thing I need to do.” Even if that next thing is a much-needed nap, rest itself as been tightly wedged into our congested and overcrowded daily schedules.

When you or I lament that there is never enough time in the day to accomplish everything we have to do, truer words were never spoken . If you’ve ever made that remark, guess what? You are afflicted with hurry sickness.

De Tocqueville goes on: “He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.” As a result, what happens to us? If we evaluate our attitudes and behaviors honestly, we find that this pace of life quite often makes us anxious, irritable, non-present. He who suffers from hurry sickness finds he spins less and less time with other people without an agenda unfurled between them. Our relationships are weakened because they plummet from the priority list. Without realizing it, we isolate ourselves from others – few if any really know the real us. Even when we do kick back and have a beer with a friend, we find much of our conversation dominated by our respective job responsibilities and family problems in need of solutions.

A Costly Cure

And here’s the rub. The cure for hurry sickness is actually quite simple, but it is stubbornly rejected time and time again. Why? Because this cure is not like other cures. It isn’t adaptable to our current, normal lifestyles. There is no pill to pop, no energy shake to grab on-the-go so we may continue flitting from one meeting to the next and multitasking only so we can multiply our productivity. No, the cure for hurry sickness is to slow down. To step out of the rat race. Not just two-week’s vacation from it – that’s nothing more than a Band-Aid. To be cured of this addiction to productivity and efficiency is to no longer bow to the power it exerts over us.

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Is it even possible to escape such a thing?

As a minister, I am nonetheless susceptible to the great temptation of our modern culture. I, too, want to accomplish just as much as everyone else as quickly as possible. I, too, complain there is never enough time in the day. I, too, have found myself snapping at people who hold up my progress by raising questions or disagreeing with me. And I, too, have given in to anger and uncharacteristically “gone off” on someone about an unsolved problem. All of this is indicative of hurry sickness – of a soul under stress, not at peace.

But I’m trying. I’m attempting to slow down this year. To resist the ever-present urge to rush, to accomplish or complete a large number of tasks every day, to produce results quickly, to cook dinner as quickly as I can, to ferry my children off to bed with as little lethargy as possible. I’m trying to avoid feeling like I never take any time for myself – for reading, writing, praying. There are more important things than feeling productive. Of course there are.

Slowing down and doing less doesn’t mean I shirk all my responsibilities. It doesn’t mean I show up late to meetings and tell the people I’ve put out, “Deal with it.” It doesn’t mean I indulge procrastination.

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But it also means this shouldn’t be my go-to bedtime book for my kids.

No, it simply means that I renounce the aggressiveness and stress that so often controls my days. Instead, I practice stillness, receptiveness, patience. I take time to reflect. By doing less, I create space in my day, and by slowing down, I do not surrender to the temptation to immediately fill those gaps. And I evaluate my progress in this not by how much I have produced and how quickly I get things done, but by how many meaningful conversations I’ve had in the past week, how many meals I recall savoring, how many times I’ve stopped to observe something beautiful. It is the very essence of “quality over quantity.”

The Root of All Sickness

This won’t be easy. The siren songs of our society can be terribly mesmerizing. I still have deadlines. I still work with people who need my timely input. I still carry a smartphone, and I still get “push” notifications from CNN.

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So, North Korea has an H-Bomb. Thanks, CNN, for that late-night notification. I’m sure I’ll get a good night’s sleep now.

But I have finally come to see our hurry-obsessed culture for what it is. Idolatry.

I have listened to many a Christian offer that same “not enough time in the day” lament as an explanation for why they don’t spend more time reading their Bible, praying, or simply enjoying solitude with God. And I very often commiserated because their struggle was also mine. I would always agree: “Spiritual disciplines can be hard.” But deep down, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, I’ve always known that how a person spends his time reflects what he values most. It isn’t that there isn’t enough time in the day. It’s that there is not enough time after we have scheduled and done what we most value. Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s shopping, maybe it’s Facebook, maybe it’s our child’s soccer practice, maybe it’s another Law and Order marathon on USA.

 

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“Yo, you tellin’ me thisth dude wasth s’posthed to be a wapper back in tha day? That’sth ridiculousth!”  

Our idol is whatever we value most, and whatever we value most determines how we spend our time. This doesn’t mean that if we work a long-hour job or we spend our days taking care of our children that these things have necessarily become idols. That happens only if we allow these important, time-consuming things to control and direct our days – if we surrender to the assumption that everything else must revolve around these things. Just because you spend 9 hours at work and only 45 minutes praying and reading Scripture doesn’t mean your job is the most important thing in your life. That would be elevating quantity over quality. Rather, when you strive to protect your job within your schedule but fail to protect that 45 minutes you spend with God, that’s when you know which one you truly value more. That’s when idolatry rears its all too familiar head.

That’s the irony of this whole thing for me; a common assumption is that the minister would never make such a mistake. But I must confess I have often valued my job as a minister over my relationship with the God I am supposed to be pointing people to. I have put off meeting with a church member in order to complete a planned task. I have lingered at the office longer than I should have, subtracting time I could be at home with my family. And there have been many days when I have scheduled early meetings that caused me to neglect my own personal time of prayer and reflection.

That’s idolatry.

When you stop to think about this in light of the Ten Commandments, hurry sickness puts a believer at least two in the hole. We have essentially placed another god – our schedule – before our heavenly Father, and if we’ve done that, it’s probably been years since we’ve remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy.

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What, you mean sitting in the semi-dark listening to music and a spiritual TED talk for an hour and the  rushing off to lunch before the Methodist church lets out doesn’t constitute keeping the Sabbath?

Trusting the Healer

And all the while, the God who saves us – who sent His Son that we might know peace – watches us run from one task to next, one consumeristic pleasure to another, wondering when we’ll realize that it will never satisfy us – we will never achieve this good life that society promises us is right there for the taking if we would just reach a little bit more

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives,” said Jesus. The Greek word is eirene, the Hebrew is shalom. It isn’t a passive thing – the absence of strife. It is a powerful, active experience. It means fullness, wholeness, to live well. Or, as Frederick Buchner puts it, shalom means “having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.”

To know the genuine, abiding peace of the Son of God, we must live as he did. He was certainly tempted by hurry and progress and efficiency and success, but he never bowed to those influences no matter how insistently they grabbed for his allegiance. And if we are to live as Jesus did, then we must make him the highest authority – the one, true God – of our life, and protect our time and pace with him at all costs.

This is what I am trying to do in 2016. I will no doubt produce less, become a bit more limited in my availability to others, have less acquisitions and professional attainments to show for the year, but all the while I will have gained something far beyond the cumulative value of hurry-driven accomplishments.

I will have gained fullness. I will be more wholly and happily myself than ever before.

What about you?

5 Reminders for Christians Worried About Same-Sex Marriage

In my last post, I wrote about the inherent tension that comes from pursuing a holy life. I believe this tension has become as evident as ever within American churches in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. Many, many Christians are struggling to reconcile orthopraxy with orthodoxy – that is, correct conduct with correct belief.

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How are Christians supposed to maintain genuine attitudes of hospitality and compassion to people they believe are openly engaging in sinful practices? And, now that same-sex marriage has been federally legalized, does this mark the beginning of the end for any form of biblical morality within government legislation?

If we are going to adequately and correctly address questions such as these, there are several important truths Christians in this country need to bear in mind…

#1 – Christians in America still enjoy unprecedented levels of religious liberty.

When it comes to our place in American society, it is difficult for the modern-day Church to find any similarities to the Christian Church of the first century. For hundreds of years, followers of the Way (Acts 9:2, 22:4) were the weird and suspicious cult members of the neighborhood. Their worship practices were misunderstood, and their theology was considered heretical by some and ludicrous by others. In those first few centuries, persecution was an integral part of their reality; sometimes it was localized to a particular region because a local governor didn’t like them, and other times the Roman Emperor himself sanctioned the oppression empire-wide. And so we’re clear, the Church didn’t define persecution merely as unkind words or unfair stereotyping of their faith. That, they believed, was just the nature of a worldly society desiring to malign them. No, persecution was more significant than that. It was shocking, often violent. From vicious slander to the stripping of business ownership. From treatment as social pariahs to imprisonment, forced apostasy and even execution.

Kind of puts our fussing about the

Kind of puts our fussing about the “rights” of florists and caterers in perspective.

When we stop and consider the social conditions within which the first and second-century Church operated, believers in America should be thoroughly humbled by how good we’ve got it. We should also be embarrassed that while recent Pew Research reports indicate a decline in church membership today, in contrast the early Church grew at an extraordinary rate despite being seen as much more counter-cultural. We may lament the recent decision by the Supreme Court, but we should also remember that both the judge writing for the majority and the President of the United States himself included statements acknowledging and calling for respect of those in the country who hold dissenting views due to religious reasons in particular. This, along with the First Amendment itself, would have bewildered Christians in the first century.

And, concurrently, they certainly would have reminded us that…

#2 – Christians are not called to infringe on another person’s civil rights.

Some Christians may refuse to admit it, but there is simply no basis in Scripture for preventing a citizen of a democratic country from enjoying his or her civil rights. What is more, Christians were never called to enforce their belief system – or the behavioral standards incumbent – on the public at large. Sure, they could and did argue for the value of it. Boldly even. But when the powers that be rejected their theological, moral and ethical viewpoints, neither did the Christians take their dolls and go home to pout. They recognized that what they believed in – the new reality to which they had sworn allegiance – was much bigger than mere civic responsibility. Jesus did not spend his last hours accusing the Sanhedrin of corruption and unfair treatment, but rather looked into the eyes of skeptical Pilate and said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Of course, there are many Christians who would argue that America was founded as a Christian nation and that means it should uphold Christian morality. The problem with this, besides the fact that the foundation of the United States was more a product of Enlightenment principles than biblical ones, is that it assumes the measure of a good society is found in its laws rather than the ideas that inspired them. But what does it mean to be American? Is it to be a biblically moral person, or to be a person liberated from tyranny and oppression? This Saturday is Independence Day. What will that celebration look like: Reveling in the satisfaction that comes from being law-abiding citizens, or gratefully extolling our country’s commitment to equality and personal freedom? At some point, Christians must recognize that for other people to live unto the standards we hold ourselves to, they must be inspired toward them, not forced into them. In the meantime, we mustn’t degrade people who fail to uphold a standard they don’t even believe in.

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And speaking of forcing people into something, we should remember that…

#3 – A Christian is called to live a holy life, not to legislate for one.

The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage reveals that a lot of Christians are deeply confused about the inherent difference between an authentic life of faith and civil responsibility. The Bible never claims that trusting in God will bring about a socially comfortable life. The story of Scripture finds true believers constantly at odds with the world around them, with no legislation to ease that antagonism. Those who seek to live a righteous life according to the will of God will, at some point, find themselves in conflict with the prevailing moral and ethical standards of the day. As that point, the committed follower must choose whether he or she will continue to think, speak or act contrary to that worldly standard, or assimilate to it.

The Book of Leviticus was an incredibly progressive work, defining a sacrificial system and a code of moral/ethical conduct far more advanced than any of the prevailing polytheistic societies that surrounded the ancient Israelites. Thus, we read time and again phrases like, “be holy,” “consecrate yourselves,” and “I am the Lord.” It is clear that the purpose of the book was not simply to establish a detailed code of law for the Israelites to live by. No, it was first and foremost a call to live a holy life – to be different, distinct from all the other neighboring cultures and their hazardous influences. To be a people set apart and belonging to a loving, almighty God.

Yeah, I tried to read that one. I really did, but then my eyelids got all heavy...

Yeah, I really tried to read that one, but then my eyelids got all heavy…

In the New Testament, we find Jesus upholding this same call despite living under a different law – the Law of Rome – which had politically subjugated the Jewish code. But for Jesus, holiness need not be government sanctioned. It was a question of open-handed devotion to God, not fist-clenched obedience to the law. He embraced the moral and ethical code, claiming in his most famous sermon that he had not come to abolish this call but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20), but he continually pointed to inner motivation as the key to outward behavior. Christians today need to understand that even if we are unsuccessful in passing legislation that upholds our behavioral ideals, that failure in no way affects our unique call to live a holy life unto the Lord within this country.

Which brings us to the biggest spot of tension, namely that…

#4 – Christians are called to resist idolatry, not simply to uphold biblical morality.

Historically, Christians have been called not to pull back from a society that contains unbiblical laws, but rather to abide within it. Peter’s first letter acknowledged the tension of living in a culture that rejected what they saw as an unpatriotic, upstart Messiah cult. Nonetheless, while encouraging Christians to pursue holy living, he also instructed them to submit to, and even honor, human authorities. Any Christian who would seek to justify his or her disrespectful or ill talk against the government or its leaders would do well to contemplate 1 Peter 2:11-17. Those words pull no punches.

The New Testament never assumes society would affirm the principles and standards of God’s kingdom, or even that it could. Rather, Christians are expected to resist the spiritual, political or social idols that offered only false identity and fleeting provision. The problem is, we often forget what idolatry really is. When we place our trust in a worldly institution or individual (for security, provision, identity, recognition, and/or pleasure), that is idolatry. It has always come in many forms, from natural elements to graven images to political figures. And we find a variety of manifestations of idolatry in our world today, but one Christians often overlook is American individualism. A side-effect to living in a country founded on Enlightenment ideals and upholding democratic principles is that we place quite a bit of importance on individual freedom – that “pursuit of happiness” part of our Declaration of Independence. Thus, when some Christians rage against American courts that choose not to uphold their moral standards, they are reacting less from a commitment to spiritual holiness and more from an innate sense that their personal liberties are being challenged. In reality, they have made idols out of state and federal laws. They have placed in them their sense of security and personal worth, and when that law changes, they feel vulnerable, insecure, and threatened.

And what of same-sex marriage itself? In our time, one of the most deceptive idols has turned out to be human sexuality. Our conditioning within American individualism only furthers the misguided belief that sexual expression is key to defining oneself. More and more people, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, etc., have been fed his lie. And so, the search for individual identity trumps submission to divine relationship, let alone biblical morality. However, even committed Christians have just as often fallen prey to this particular form of idolatry. For instance, young Christians who believe that a “true-love-waiting” soul mate will finally complete their existence are just as misguided as homosexual couples who believe they will find true fulfillment through government-sanctioned marriage.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

So, given the above four truths, how do we as Christians move forward, particularly in relationship with those who do not share our commitment to holy living?

#5 – Christians should be ever-mindful of their approach as much as their attitude.

The whole story of Scripture – Old Testament and New – is of God calling people to anticipate and participate in His work of redemption and restoration. The first two chapters of Genesis paint us a vivid picture of God’s perfect intentions, and it is immediately followed by a story of how the whole thing was thrown out of sorts by our selfishness. (Adam and Eve’s response to the serpent’s lie that they could become “like gods” is indicative of the idolatrous thinking discussed above.) Everything after that is the account of God seeking to restore what has been broken. And at the exact right time, God’s son appeared to not only provide atonement for that inherent selfishness, but also to show us what it looks like when we truly live within God’s redemptive plan.

One of the most impressive things about Jesus’ life is how he was able to uphold a moral standard while simultaneously showing sincere empathy and genuine compassion to people whose lives had become idolatrous messes. Jesus’ attitude about sin never faltered. He was both grieved and angered by it, particularly the way it prevented people from recognizing what God was up to in their midst. Nevertheless, he also maintained an intimate and understanding approach toward sinful people. He did not keep people at arm’s length, but instead showed them incredible patience. And he never once complained that the government should better regulate faithful living. As one writer has put it, his position on sin never overshadowed his posture toward those lost in it. So, when it came to instructing his disciples in holy living, he did not say, “Let your light be so legislated among all people that they may be legally held to your moral standards and glorify your Father in heaven.” Nope. He wasn’t interested in seeing a world that knew nothing of holiness forced to conform to that standard.

“Listen, before I take off, did everyone add their names to the petition that was passed around?”

Instead, Jesus asked his followers to live in such a way that here and there in a lost and bewildered world, we might stand out as those rare individuals who know where true identity comes from. That we might be those peculiar folks who, as it turns out, have learned what real freedom is all about.