A Sense of Place

When I was a kid, I enjoyed rearranging my bedroom. Every once in a while, I was overcome by an urge to completely rework the space. Nothing was wrong with the prior arrangement; I just wanted something new. I know my parents heard me shifting stuff around back there, but they didn’t seem to mind. I pushed my bed across the room, shoved bookshelves into different corners, and reorganized the posters on my wall. Whenever I finished these renovations, I was brimming with pride over my visionary use of feng shui.

There was only one problem. No one else cared.

I had no siblings to invite for a tour. Plus, I lived far from town, so my circle of friends rarely congregated at my house. I believed I had created a thoroughly welcoming space, but few people would ever experience it.

Lately, I’ve realized the same dilemma plagues the local church. When it comes to our hospitality toward the wider community, we unwittingly operate from a “come and see” mindset. We push promotions and shove forward new programs in an attempt to draw people inside. Meanwhile, numerous research polls show that even as churches utilize cutting-edge technology to gain public attention, church attendance is steadily declining. Even the growth of large church bodies is primarily “switchers,” people who simply jump from one congregation to another, rather than the result of genuine new relationships forged in the local community.

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Collect them all!

Over twenty years of ministry, I experienced this mindset several times, particularly whenever the churches in which I served were engaged in a building program, whether it was the construction of a brand new campus or merely the renovation of an existing building. I’m sure there are thousands of pastors who, like me, were regularly approached by congregants and new acquaintances with questions about those building plans. In those moments, the easiest response is to speak from a “come and see” mentality – to talk about a state-of-the-art sanctuary with a seating capacity of this or that, or a sophisticated, interactive classroom environment for children, or an aesthetically pleasing multi-purpose space from which a dozen different ministries can operate. It’s easy to paint that mental picture, to extol the bells and whistles and fixate on the sleekness of it all. Just you wait. It’s going to be awesome!

But what does any of that matter if no one cares to see it? If we build only what our congregation needs, what have we accomplished other than an expensive room remodel? Too often in my sermons have I felt the need to pose this question: What good is it to build a warm welcome space if we haven’t first learned how to be warm, welcoming people?

Isn’t that an essential responsibility of a local church?

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But… but… but we’ve got a coffee shop in the lobby!

I believe churches should exemplify a commitment to caring for the local community. Christians should consider not simply how their particular physical meeting spaces look to outsiders, but also how those places directly serve the neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations in their immediate vicinity. I don’t just mean how inviting your sanctuary looks, or how conspicuously you advertise your church name to the wider community. I mean being good stewards of the places and spaces God has given you by opening them to community use. Sure, becoming a polling location is great. You know what’s even better? Partnering with local government to facilitate town hall meetings, or with local schools for after-school clubs or tutoring programs. Yes, a food pantry is a wonderful resource. But what if, in addition to dedicating that large closet to collecting canned goods, you turned that extra acre of green lawn into a community garden or weekly farmer’s market that championed healthy eating habits?

“With a commitment to place, and with gratitude for the immensity of God’s gifts there,” write C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in their excellent book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, “our churches become catalysts of human flourishing: nurturing local economies and local culture, and seeking the common good of our places.” This is a community-minded extension of the Apostle Paul’s own encouragement, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

But this kind of mindset is not exclusively a religious practice. Whether we’re talking about a church’s presence in its community, or simply a person’s presence among his or her neighbors, “come and see” is never as compelling as “go and be.” On its own, “come and see” allows us to pretend we’re hospitable without having to put our hands and feet into it. Over the years I’ve met a lot of well-intentioned folks who claimed they loved to entertain people in their home, yet I never once saw the inside of it, and whenever I would invite them over to mine, I learned their schedules were actually far too busy to accommodate such a visit.

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“I’ve got ‘Me-Time’ scheduled every other Thursday from 6:05-6:25 AM…”

We can get so caught up in arranging and re-arranging our own lives that we have little if any desire to welcome other people into them. Technology has made us remarkably efficient and productive, and yet we seem to have less and less time for actual community interaction. These days, we speak more to Alexa or Siri than to our neighbors. Groceries can be ordered online and picked up without ever having to set foot inside the store. Amazon leaves just about anything we could possibly want right on our doorsteps. Increasingly, as a result, our front porches are empty, our neighborhood encounters are fleeting, and involvement in community life is at an all-time low. And if you think Covid-19 hasn’t ingrained an even more rugged sense of rugged individualism into the American social fabric, you’re living in a fantasy world.

Recovering a sense of true community is no easy thing, especially in the middle of a global pandemic where the best preventative is “distancing” from each other. But if we will keep our self-preservationist instincts in check, then maybe we can begin to cultivate a willingness to provide for the needs of others with the same impulse that drives us to provide for ourselves.

Sometimes this will mean designing a church campus that strives to meet your community’s needs, not merely your own. More often, though, it will simply mean pausing at your mailbox to ask your neighbor about his day, respecting someone even if his or her political opinion doesn’t match your own, or engaging in a genuine conversation with the lady ringing up your purchase at Publix, even if you don’t like talking through that pesky face mask.

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Oh, and it also means actually wearing a mask. (Sorry, Karen.)

From time to time, we all get those urges for something new. But when you get that itch to rearrange your schedule, don’t forget to make some room for, well… for whatever opportunities might come your way. Because they’re everywhere. We just have to shed the “come and see” mentality, step outside our doors, and take those chances when we see them.

 

*this post was adapted from a recent column first published in The Jackson Herald 

From One Pastor to Another…

Dear Pastor,

I’m thinking about you today. I want you to know that I’m hopeful for you, concerned about you, nervous for you, appreciative of you, and fearful for you. Most of all, though, I want you to know how much I admire you. It hasn’t been easy, has it?

I write to you out of my own experiences, but truly it is you I hold in my mind. I know our circumstances aren’t identical, of course, but the equivalencies persist. Whether you serve a small church like I do, or a large church, or something in between, none of us found ourselves exempt from this struggle.

The Teacher says “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), which in one respect is true. But, still, no one we know has gone through this before. No professors, no mentors, no older pastors we look up to and occasionally call for advice. Sure, there have always been hard seasons. As we’ve told many a church member over the last few months, every generation goes through trying times, frightful times, life-altering-and-redefining times. There’s wisdom to be gleaned, for sure, and  we have squeezed every last drop from that sponge. Yet the unprecedented nature of these times remains; we’re still waking up each morning under a dark-cloud reminder that the old rhythms have withered and ministry has become far more improvised than we would prefer.

I admire you for sticking with it. If I’m being honest (and what’s the point of writing to you if I’m not), at times I’ve wondered whether I could stick with it. I’m trying, and I know you are, too. Some days are better than others. I place my faith in the truth that God is faithful. But those who claim this faith is easy are most certainly false prophets.

Going Online

First, there’s the struggle of “doing church online.” Just the phrase itself is rife with problems, both grammatical and ecclesiological.

I don’t know about you, but I was already frustrated with social media before this crisis. The fellowship it offers isn’t genuine. The connections and dialogue made available within its parameters are only phantoms, bearing no real substance. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok… they serve a purpose, sure, but you and I both know they cannot sustain the deep needs of the human heart. After all, what does it profit a man to get a hundred Likes for posting a politically snarky meme, yet forfeit his soul?

When we try to use social media to foster genuine fellowship, it’s like trying to slake our thirst with a spoonful of salt. Now, however, we have little choice. We face a circumstantial compromise – for a season we must figure out how to conduct the genuine fellowship we once knew within the dimly lit halls of the social media complex, while all around us flutter a thousand and one black-winged temptations, the unspiritual disciplines of conspiracy theories and clickbait, the rotten fruits of screen addiction and instant gratification. It is not the catacombs of old, by any means, but ours is a harrowing time nonetheless.

I’ve gotta ask, how have you been delivering your sermons? I’ve been preparing them as best I can, though my preferred weekly schedule was quickly tossed in the garbage. But then I’ve had to set up cameras to film them myself, then download to my laptop, then teach myself how to use video-editing software… Preaching the sermon used to be the finish line of a weekly marathon filled with reading, prayer, reflection, research and writing. Once you finally preached it, though, at least you were finished. There wasn’t another four more hours of footage adornment and audio adjustment on the back end to make up for the handicap of it not being delivered in-person.

Meanwhile, you ache for your worship pastor, who is simultaneously engaged in his own struggle to lift congregants’ spirits and inspire them to raise their voices in their own living rooms, all while deprived of his full band or vocal team. Your Children’s Pastor is wracking his brain to somehow convert all his high-energy, hands-on activities to a video stream. And your Student Pastor, whose heart continues to fall as with every passing week fewer and fewer teenagers exhibit the patience necessary to gather online for Bible study because, for crying out loud, they’ve already spent hours on Zoom trying to complete their schoolwork. You want to encourage them, but what is there to say? This is not the way the church should function, and the proof is in the pudding.

I admire you, because despite these setbacks and the completely unexpected load of extra work, you’ve plunged forward into this unsettling new world. “To the work! To the work! In the strength of the Lord,” as the old hymn declares, “and a robe and crown shall our labor reward.” You’ve kept your eyes on the horizon, though it’s been hard, especially when you see the number of views or shares decrease (the cyberspace equivalent of a shrinking attendance), or when your deacons report that some church members don’t have a good enough Internet connection to even access what your team has labored over, or when you speak with church members who remind you that no amount of online content or phone calls or even cards in the mail (old school!) can combat the cruel loneliness that comes with protecting ourselves from the pandemic.

So Many People, So Little Time

Pastoral care was difficult even before Covid-19. When you become a pastor, you quickly understand the apostles’ decision in Acts 6 to establish and specify helpers. It’s hard to balance all our other expectations – directing the vision, collaborating with staff, planning worship, and preparing multiple sermons and Bible lessons, and interceding for the congregation and the community – with the personal attention people expect from their spiritual leaders. You try your best to get out of the office, to make phone calls at appropriate hours, but you quickly find the hourglass has once again run dry. There’s always tomorrow, sure, though tomorrow brings its own fresh set of challenges. What a blessing it is when your people call or visit you, because sometimes you need it more than they do.

Is it me, or has this working-from-home thing only made the sand drain away faster? All this extra work, all the challenges of trying to deal with ministerial issues and maintain congregational projects without being able to meet with all the players in person… It’s maddening how much more time-consuming that has become. Sure, I marvel at some of the technology we’ve been able to employ to keep things running these last few months, but I also know that the only Zoom meetings that run shorter than normal meetings are the ones in which people get so annoyed with the connectivity bugs that they give up and sign-off early. It may help us sustain productivity, but I haven’t experienced any advancements in efficiency, have you?

You want to go visit people. You really do. Here and there, you make a socially-distanced drive-by. You even take your family along, because you’re keenly aware you’re not spending enough time with them these days either. But even if some of your congregants wouldn’t mind having you in their home, you recognize the risk of that, and one thing you must do as a pastor-shepherd is protect the flock, even if that means protecting them from you. In between all your projects, you make phone calls or write notes. And you pray. Oh, how you pray!

At the end of each day, you feel like Oskar Schindler at the end of Spielberg’s film, insisting you could have done more, couldn’t you? You fall asleep thinking this, only to dream of CDC guidelines and controversial recommendations. You awake with a mounting burden of ignorance, of not knowing for sure how your congregants are doing.

You Shall Know the Truth

Top all this off with the struggle you’re now experiencing to determine whether reopening/regathering/resuming (call it what you will) is the right call, and, if so, what precautionary steps should be taken to protect the people even when it’s become virtually impossible in our country for people to agree on which precautionary measures are sound and which are bogus. Sure, you consult the CDC and the WHO, among others, because certainly it is for such a time as this that they were commissioned, but then you discover some folks are skeptical of these organizations. A few even consider them part of a massive hidden agenda to keep us all desperate and fearful. So it is, to your utter exasperation, that determining a set of health guidelines is to flirt with controversy, and the last thing you want to do is stir the already roiling pot of controversy. You want controversy and partisanship and all those awful, divisive poisons as far from your community as possible, but lately there seems no way around them. The truth feels elusive, camouflaged, and so you spend your days researching even more – health reports and medical journals and watching online seminars with epidemiologists – which only adds to your fitful sleep and the weird dreams you’re having at night.

All you want is to regather your church, to call them back from this forced hibernation, to provide space to connect with God and one another, to experience anew the sacred relationship between worship and fellowship. With the mounting unrest in our society, and anguished voices crying out louder and louder each day, never has it been more important to gather in the Name of the One who makes all things new.

You know people are trusting you and – if you have one – your staff to make the right decisions, but man! It’s so easy to second-guess and third-guess decisions right now. If you don’t have a staff to collaborate with, I pray an extra gift of wisdom and discernment for you. I can’t imagine doing this all alone.

Of course, you’re not alone. None of us are. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself. This stay-at-home stuff would have us believe we’re doing this solo, but then we talk to those church members who are doing everything they can to support us and each other. Those deacons who are faithfully calling the people. Those prayer warriors who have not missed one day interceding for us all. We are not alone. Our churches will always be more than me and you, and thank God for that! They are strong not because we are strong, but because the Savior is strong. “His power is made perfect in our weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

So, I admire you for keeping the faith. Now we know a little more about what Paul means when he says, “I have fought the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7) – there are days when this is indeed a fight. We are contending not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities that would use our doubts, our shortcomings, and our character flaws to quell the Spirit’s fire and deal a mortal blow to our faith. Thank goodness we need not fight this battle alone.

Hang in there, Pastor. The struggle is real, but so is Jesus. This too shall pass, but even if it doesn’t, salvation remains. Remember the God of the ages is with you. He blesses, he keeps, he makes his face shine bright to those who seek him.

Grace in omnibus.

A Homebound Good Friday

Today is Good Friday. Today is also Day 26 of my family’s self-quarantine during the Coronavirus pandemic. My thoughts have been leaping back and forth between these two things all morning…

Outside, the wind is gusting. Blowing in from the west. Howling under the eaves. It whistles across the chimney cap and rattles the hood above the kitchen stove. The day is bright, cloudless, but also cold and blustery. It is a day that might invite sun-bathing or a leisurely stroll, if not for the relentless wind.

The kids are inside, sitting at the counter working on a time capsule specifically for the pandemic, which right now is gusting across our country and throughout the world with an unprecedented tenacity. Trying to gain control of its spread has been like trying to control this westerly wind.

I’m at the kitchen table, feeling powerless, scattered, unmoored despite being stuck at home. I’m thinking of the significance of the day – Good Friday – and wishing I could be in a sanctuary somewhere, listening to the readings of Christ’s last hours, singing the words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Perhaps, as a pastor, I could have put together yet another online engagement for this very purpose, but the effort involved in crafting Sunday’s service has already dominated my time. (Like most of my work these days, I can only write this in fits and starts, between homeschool responsibilities, cleaning up perpetual messes, and taking the puppy out to pee.)

There is so much I want to do on this day. It’s been almost twenty years since I have not attended some sort of Good Friday service or prayer vigil – when I’ve not gathered somewhere to, as the song goes, “cast my mind to Calvary where Jesus bled and died for me.”

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It occurs to me that over the last two decades I have been conditioned to a certain way of worshipping and observing holy days. I have had the great privilege of gathering freely to worship who I want in the way I want. In the past, I have actually evaluated Good Friday vigils and services like them based on how creative and insightful they were!

Now, I’d give anything for a chapel and an altar, for one measly upright piano and someone who knew their way around it.

I want a normal Good Friday, I think, and the preposterousness of the notion settles in my gut like a brick. What, after all, is a “normal” Good Friday, Bo? Is this day not a representation of the most abnormal thing ever to befall the world – the Creator God, who spoke the earth into existence, submitting himself to the lashes of whips, the spittle of soldiers, the agonizing weight of the olive wood upon his lacerated back, being impaled on spikes and asphyxiating before a crowd of mostly indifferent onlookers?

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Good Friday is a reminder of the darkest day of our humanity, when both faith and reason were set aside in the name of fear and for the sake of personal convenience. It is a moment in our history in which we proved our innate self-centeredness, our refusal to surrender our own neatly cultivated personal preferences. It is a day to remember that, on our own, we are lost. That when we think we’re in control, when we think we have it all figured out, when we think our opinions are correct and justified and will ultimately be found in the right, God once again opens our eyes to our finitude and frailty.

Good Friday is a day of mourning – mourning for our selfishness, and for the Savior our selfishness executed.

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And yet, we call it “Good.” Good Friday.

Good because, despite what our selfishness would have us believe, we do not control the world. We do not have it all figured out. But God does, and he can turn into good even the darkest hours of our lives. As Augustine of Hippo summed up Romans 8, all things work together for good – even sin. This day is a good one because it belongs to God, not to us.

So let this westerly wind blow. Let it howl and whistle and rattle this little house of mine. Let it remind me of my frailty and my lack of control. I will look to the sun. I will trust in its warmth. And I will praise its Maker, who works all things for good.

Christians & Coronavirus: 4 Reminders

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

#2 – Stop Vilifying the Media

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

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

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

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

 

#3 – Contemplate Our Fragility

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

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

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

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

 

#4 – Lean Into This Unexpected Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we really afford to let this chance go by?

On Enemies

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

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

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

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

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POLITICS: ending friendships since 1776!

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing Lines

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

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

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

prolife

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

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

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

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

disagreement

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

“Love Your Enemies”

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

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

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

cross

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

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

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

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

greta

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

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

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