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 9/11, Death, and the Crippling Effects of Fear

We were afraid of things before 9/11.

What happened over a handful of hours that Tuesday morning sixteen years ago did not suddenly render the citizenry of the United States of America apprehensive or fearful. We had things to be afraid of back then. Like natural disasters, school shootings, the rise of gangsta rap…

But what happened on 9/11 was not an “it-just-got-real” kind of awakening to global terrorism, or even the unsettling feeling that America was more vulnerable than we had long assumed. It was actually far more subtle a change than these. What happened was a shift in a basic narrative about our own existence, both as a nation as well as individuals. We did not simply learn new fear.

We learned dread.

The World of Dread

One of the main effects of the 9/11 attacks was how unexpected they were – how utterly blindsided they made the vast majority of us feel. None of us – save for conspiracy theorists and maybe a few people in Langley, Virginia – woke up that morning on high alert. Our eyes weren’t already nervously glued to cable news (which, yes, was alive and kicking even back then) for the latest updates out of the Middle East or North Korea. Most folks on the West Coast weren’t even awake at all when the world started caving in.

My own morning began as mundanely as any of that year. Rising with the alarm clock at the crack of dawn to shower and dress up nicer than I had been used to throughout my college career in order to look as professional as a twenty-one-year-old can look to the student body of San Marcos High School in San Marcos, Texas, where I was less than a month into my student teaching semester, and my final sprint to the finish line of graduation. By the time I walked in the classroom, the radio was already reporting that a small, private plane had crashed into the side of the North Tower. Another hour and two additional crashes later, I was standing in the hallway of the school trying to call my father on a cell phone that weighed heavier than the laptop I’m currently writing this on. I knew he had been set to board an American Airlines flight from Miami to Dallas that morning, and the breaking news reports – which we mostly kept muted on the classroom TV – were still speculating that the hijacked flights could have originated from as far away as Miami. It was another couple of hours before I finally heard his voice on the other end of a scratchy cell connection, assuring me he was fine, not to worry, just going to be stuck in south Florida for a few more days. As a pilot himself, my father had flown all over the country when I was growing up. However, weighed down by the chaotic series of events that morning, he had never sounded, or felt, farther away than he did in that moment.

That night, I drove two blocks to the gas station nearest to my apartment and waited in line for thirty minutes to fill up. Not for any reason other than increased speculation that gasoline could very well become as scarce for all of us as it was for The Road Warrior. I didn’t know that this speculation would quickly turn out to be false. I didn’t know that, while probably a wise thing to do considering the circumstances, it was nonetheless an overreaction. The point is, I didn’t know anything for sure.

For all I and everyone else knew, more attacks could already be in the offing. As the week drew on and the rubble smoldered and the President spoke through a loudspeaker and cable news gave airtime to every interpretation it could think of, reassurance of safety never came. We became increasingly aware that the world – or at least our place within it – had irrevocably changed. We were living in a new normal. Fear had struck, and in so doing it had released its most dangerous toxins: suspicion and anxiety. As a result, these became the main contributors to our opinions and our behaviors. When the identities of the culprits came to light, a lot of us promptly became experts at identifying suspicious people (or, at least, identifying anyone with brown skin, be they Arab, Persian, or Puerto Rican) because we had been reminded of stranger-danger and were compelled to be ever-vigilant going forward. We keyed in to newscasts and foreign policy reports with greater interest than before, not because we were interested in the news itself, but because we were as stressed and worried as we had ever been, and we craved even the slightest of assurances that corrections were being made and retributions were being paid.

We hadn’t expected anything like 9/11, but now we knew better. We knew that it could happen again, at any moment, at any time, and be the work of just about anybody.

Whether we were aware of it or not, we had been ushered into the world of dread, a state of existence that befalls any who allow fear to rule over their lives. The world of dread is a vast, lawless landscape of the mind where anything goes and the darkest scenarios are not merely possible, they are probable. So protect what is yours at all costs, and trust no one.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the primary narratives about our lives, the world, even existence itself changed, and not for the better. We became less trusting, more withdrawn and individualistic. Our sense of community was no longer driven by hospitality and inclusion, but rather a circling of the wagons. However, this shift in our perspectives was so subtle that most of us hardly noticed. We just assumed we had learned a tragic lesson about being more cautious as a society. About individual responsibility and the dangers of naivety. About the need to indulge our doubts regarding the alleged kindness of strangers.

The Damaging Effects of Dread

I know how far-reaching are the effects of dread. I have experienced first-hand what happens when we let fear rule over our minds and cloud our perspectives.

Thirteen years before the Towers fell, my own little world caved in. On 12/19 of 1987, my sister died suddenly and tragically, the victim of a freak accident during a Christmas-caroling hayride. Like all of us on 9/11, I don’t think anyone in my family, or any other family who belonged to our small town’s First Baptist Church, woke up that morning expecting anything but another chilly, central Texas day filled with holiday shopping and home decoration. But by nightfall, I found myself in the back of the family van as it barreled along county roads, my father praying aloud the same desperate words: “Jesus, please. Please, Jesus.” When we arrived on a neighborhood street near the center of town, I saw the swirling red glare of an ambulance. My parents made me stay in the car. I don’t know how long I was alone in there. It could have been five minutes, it could  have been fifty. All I remember is feeling jealous that Katy would get more attention – maybe even more presents – over the holidays because obviously with this accident she would be in some sort of cast. Perhaps encasing a broken arm, or maybe a broken leg. But everyone would want to sign it, and that meant a lot more focus on her than me. (I hope you will give me a break on this; I was eight years old, and this was the most selfish time of the year for kids my age.) But then the side door of the van finally opened and my parents were standing there and my father looked at me and, in a voice strangled by tears, he spoke my name and said, “Katy died tonight.” I cried, too, and held onto my mother. Neither she nor my father ever appeared more helpless than they did in that moment.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself wandering into my sister’s bedroom a lot. It was the standard bedroom of a thirteen-year-old, eighth-grade girl. I opened and closed her music box. I ran my fingers along the spines of her collection of young adult paperbacks. I fiddled with her Garfield telephone that opened its eyes when you took the receiver off the cradle. Mostly I listened to the silence and allowed myself to exist in the sudden, gaping emptiness of the place.

I wondered where Katy was now. I wondered how soon it would be before death came for me as well.

For the next decade and a half, I lived with the knowledge that tragedy can strike at any time. And no one is safe. There was little I knew for sure, but I did know one thing. If death could befall a thirteen-year-old girl on a Christmas-caroling hayride, it could certainly come for me at any moment.

I had become acquainted with death, perhaps far sooner than children should be. It was on my mind a lot. I would lie in bed at night, paralyzed with dread, not so much by the standard closet boogeymen and half-dozen other nocturnal fears I was used to, but by the thought of my own candle being unceremoniously snuffed out. What did it matter how I went out, really? The simple fact was that, sooner or later, I was a goner.

It was this unrelenting weight of dread that eventually got me listening more closely in church. When talk arose of salvation and going to heaven (which was, of course, far better than the alternative), I perked up my ears and paid attention. Eventually, about a year after Katy’s death, I whispered some semblance of a sinner’s prayer beneath the protective shroud of my bed covers. Essentially, it was a get-out-of-hell-free prayer. I accepted that only Jesus could save me, and so I asked him to. But despite praying the prayer, my fears of sudden death were not instantly relieved. Quite the contrary. While I was happy to have followed the prescribed steps to ensure I wouldn’t burn for eternity, I was still destined to die, and that in itself remained a terrifying thing.

If anything, I became even more fixated on death, and the parasitic dread that had wormed its way into my mind continued to pump me full of anxiety. It got to the point that even heaven became an unsettling concept. Did eternity really just go on and on, never-ending, a perpetual, otherworldly existence? I couldn’t wrap my mind around such a thing, no matter how golden the streets were said to be, and so, ironically, I came to fear the unknown of a second existence as much as I dreaded the certainty that the first one would one day come to a most-assured end.

The Dwindling of Dread

It has taken a long time, a great deal of reflection, and the dismissing of a lot of bad theology to even begin to climb out of a self-dug grave of dread. But this is what fear does; it corrupts everything it touches. It can turn even the brightest hopes into unnerving shadows.

I believe this has been one of the most significant impacts of 9/11. For all our patriotic responses, I cannot help but recognize an undercurrent of dread in so much of what we think, say, and do as a country. We use the term “post 9/11 world” often, because we have accepted that things have changed. That life will never again be like it was in a pre-9/11 world. And the theological struggles of my youth have helped me understand just how difficult it can be to resist the relentless pull of fear upon our minds.

It is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the prospects of impending disaster, or be swept up in the sensationalistic fear-mongering of cable news, social media, and presidential elections. The enterprises of suspicion, prejudice, distrust and dread are as robust as ever. In fact, it seems we have become expert practitioners in these unspiritual disciplines, to the point that no country in the world could ever claim greater proficiency in the neuroses of terror. We may barrel out our chests and insist that the terrorists will never win, but that’s only because we mostly judge the win-lose line according to physical destruction, not mental anguish.

Now, I’m not saying caution is all bad. And I’m not arguing that the dangers we perceive in our world aren’t real. While we had plenty to fear before 9/11, our cup does indeed seem to runneth over sixteen years later. We are afraid of terrorism hotbeds and lone-wolf attacks and mobs of white supremacists. We are afraid of rogue police officers and creepy clown sightings and all those killers and rapists who keep crossing our unwalled Mexican border. We are afraid of WikiLeaks and alt-right news and diplomats who hide their super-secret, society-crumbling schemes on private e-mail servers. We are afraid of the politics of Supreme Court justices, the inherent dangers in visiting crowded public squares, and the persistent reports that our oceans’ temperatures are rising. We’re afraid even of our own President.

As I compose this long and winding post, the unrelenting, peripheral winds of Hurricane Irma slam my house. I look out my bedroom window and see the trees swaying violently. So, yeah, there’s still plenty of natural disasters to fear, too. Maybe even more than there used to be, thanks to those (allegedly) warmer oceans. Sometimes it seems as unlikely that we can successfully resist fearfulness as it is that these trees will resist bending beneath the power of a hurricane.

One needs only a few seconds to take stock of how much we have to fear even in the present moment. As I write all this, half of Houston lies in ruins, a maniacal dictator aims his intercontinental ballistic missiles in our direction, and a catastrophic storm shakes my part of the country like a dog with a chew-toy. So it is that any reflecting I attempt to do on this 9/11 anniversary will of course be a reflection on the crippling, society-altering effects of fear. But at least these days my prayers are no longer voiced according to the language of dread. My supplications are not merely one despondent lament after another. No, I am learning how to pray hopeful prayers. They are honest, yes, and full of sincerity about the world I live in, but they retain an unabashed optimism about this present life.

Here are some of the things I pray for these days:

I pray that those like me – who have indeed repented of all their false narratives and embraced the salvation offered by and through Jesus – might exhibit the courage and the resolve so many people in this country boast about but don’t actually possess. That we would take a hacksaw to the shackles of future-fear, and vehemently refuse to let our perspectives become clouded by suspicion and anxiety.

I pray that even within this reality of ours, which some days feels as if it suffers under the sick compulsion to remind us that death is swift and inevitable, we would lean into a different set of disciplines – compassion, encouragement, patience, intelligence, mercy, advocacy, and self-control – and truly, truly become people who do not live inside self-made prisons of dread.

I pray that when doubts arise and fears assail, we would seize upon the greatest of all disciplines: love. And not just any love. Not a shallow, fleeting, self-obsessed love. Not a vacuous, tolerant, permissive love. The love we pursue must be much stronger than those. The love we choose to give must be a love that is resilient. It must not conform in any way to the patterns and prejudices of a frightened world. “There is no fear in love,” wrote the Apostle John, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”

So, on the anniversary of 9/11, even as many of us sit amidst the rage of Irma, may we devote ourselves to a power that is as unexpected and society-altering as death, yet became the only force in the universe death could not defeat. May we learn His kind of love. Sacrificial, unconditional, irrepressible. A love that rejects every ounce of fear. A perfect love.

Free from dread.

#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.

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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.”

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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.

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.”

Donald-trump

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.

rat

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.

bedtime

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.

cnn

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.

 

Law & Order SVU home invasions ice-t

“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.

worship

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.

protest-sign

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.

throwing-bible-gifgifw700

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.

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 1)

I feel guilty. Last weekend, I bought four great books at a library sale (also known as the Holy Grail of cheap used book sales). But I haven’t even cracked one of them yet because I can’t stop watching The West Wing on Netflix.

I’ve already seen every episode, some more than once, and yet it continues to play on my iPad. On the treadmill. Before going to bed. Passing time on a lazy Saturday. I’ve even been taking in portions of episodes while eating lunch at my desk. I keep telling myself that good writing is good writing, and The West Wing still represents some of the best television writing of the past few decades. Even when its creator, Aaron Sorkin, departed the show after season four and the show suffered an inevitable slippage in quality, it still remained a cut above most of the other TV dramas at the time.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

However, my real problem isn’t neglecting a stack of great books. Nor is it that I’m watching these episodes again despite remembering 95% of what happens.

My real problem is that watching The West Wing is dangerous behavior.

Why? you might ask.

Because with every episode of this show, I am once again exposed to the kind of unabashed idealism that is usually reserved for Disney movies and Lord of the Rings characters.

It doesn’t matter what your preferred political stance is. The story lines of The West Wing were less interested in advocating a particular partisan viewpoint than they were focused on the what-if’s and what-could-be’s of a group of sincere idealists working in the highest levels of government. This is Sorkin’s M.O. The “Well-Educated Idealist” is his favorite character archetype, and he has often been criticized for his repeated imaginings of such a character at work in our society’s systems – systems which the majority of people are quick to label corrupt, or unprincipled, or wayward, or incompetent. His most successful imagining – The West Wing – placed such idealists within the political sphere, but he’s done it similarly with sports broadcasting (Sports Night), network television (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and cable news (The Newsroom). Even the film Moneyball, whose script Sorkin was hired to polish, portrayed a sense of resolute idealism – of bright people struggling to trust in the value of a system that so many around them said could never work.

The West Wing is dangerous because that kind of idealism is dangerous. It might have won Sorkin a few Emmys, but in real life it rarely wins you many friends.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn't something even television viewers enjoy all that much.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn’t something even TV viewers enjoy all that much.

“O Beautiful for Tragedy”

So, why is it that uncompromising idealism – people showing loyalty to collective duty over individual aspiration – is a dangerous thing?

The answer, of course, is that it just doesn’t seem like the world works that way anymore.

During my years teaching American literature at an international school for missionary kids, I was beset with complaints from the kids when we delved into the units on realism and naturalism. They protested that every story, play, and novel we read was depressing. Copies of The Crucible and The Great Gatsby came back to me with dented spines and tattered covers inflicted by kids who had thrown them across the room in frustration. During one class, an intelligent young woman with an infectiously sweet disposition asked me, “Why do all these stories have such sad endings?”

“Well,” I said, intending a joke, “you may not realize this because you haven’t spent much time there, but Americans are really depressed people. Nothing ever goes the way we want it to, so of course our stories are going to be sad.”

Instead of laughing, everyone in class looked at me like I’d just dropkicked a puppy.

"If there are no more questions, let's take a look at the next novel we'll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy's The Road."

“If there are no more questions, let’s take a look at the next novel we’ll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.”

Idealism in the Church

Of course, there is plenty of art and pop culture that portray joy and optimism. But unabashed idealism is hard to come by.

As a minister, when I watch The West Wing, I can’t help but transfer some of its pie-in-the-sky views to the Church. Idealistic action rarely claims victories in our modern world, and a rapidly growing number of Americans see Christians not at people of irresistable joy and impressive integrity, but as corrupt and unprincipled. Today, churches are accused of being wayward and incompetent.

Consider the exception that proves the rule. One of the few figures that has fascinated many non-believers in recent months is Pope Francis. I think the reason so many non-Catholics admire Pope Francis is that he has not adhered to the assumptions of what a Pope is supposed to do. His Eminence is speaking and acting less like a pietistic empty shirt and more like a living, breathing example of pragmatic idealism. People appreciate that… at least in small doses.

Wishful statements are made that today’s churches need more people like Pope Francis in them. I agree, of course, but I can’t help but wonder if it is still possible to cultivate that kind of fleshed-out idealism in the modern Church.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to be a pessimist. I want to be an idealist. But do we have the courage and determination to cultivate such a committed belief in our church’s members – that the greater good must trump personal comforts?  Can such idealism become a viable, sustainable reality in our churches? Could it really last, or, like most of Sorkin’s television dramas, would it only be tolerated for a few brief seasons before its luster wears off?

Critics of The West Wing often pointed to the fact that the decisions and actions of characters on the show would never happen in real-life Washington D.C., either because of legal issues or simply because no one with such a viewpoint would last long in a job like that. I sometimes fear that the same drab reality may be true in the majority of our churches.

What do you think? Is it possible that an authentic, visionary faith can be reawakened in the Church? Can the current few genuine idealists we have in our churches become a potent multitude of uncompromising ambassadors of hope? Can more of the people of God act like the people of God?

Or will we continue to be sidetracked by a plethora of distractions, from popular political squabbles that unnecessarily divide us to the weekly hassles of why the preacher moved the pulpit? Will we insist that all of our members learn how to share the gospel, or look the other way while some of them only share gossip? Will we spend our money on global initiatives dedicated to alleviate the suffering of all people, or on activist groups who want to take a Hollywood production company to task for the creative liberties they took filming the story of Noah?

Noah-Watcher V2 -luca nemolato

“Rock monsters! I’m, like, 99% sure that’s not in the Bible!”

What do you think? Am I off-base here? Is idealism dangerous? Is it deluded? Dead? Or, does it have a place in today’s churches?

 

In part two of this article, I’ll further explore what idealism looks like when it’s lived out in a church. Stay tuned…