Creating Space for New Constructs

“I would die for you”

No one had ever said that to me before. But as this man, who was clearly a former Navy Seal, explained to me the reason he sat where he did in church was in case someone came into the church shooting. He fully intended to jump in front of me and take a bullet for me.

A few weeks later one of our female Pastors preached. He came up to me with the same fervency and wanted to know why I would “allow” a woman to preach in the church.

That was the last time I saw him.

I guess he meant to say, “I’ll take a bullet for you…until you do something I disagree with. Then you’re on your own”

“You should speak with confidence the things you believe God is calling you to say”

She told me that after overhearing me share that I guarded the way I would preach. And that while I never preached anything I believed to be untrue, I often held back and didn’t share what I believed to be fully true.

Alongside a few other experiences, her encouragement helped to give me the courage to start offering some challenges in sermons that seemed to me to be what the Gospel would look like in our time and place. It felt freeing to speak with confidence the things that I believed God was calling me to say.

She apparently didn’t think I was listening to God correctly, or maybe God had told her I was supposed to be saying something different. Either way, she let me know her displeasure that I had taken her advice when she made it clear that she believed I did not treat the Scriptures with respect.

One of the things I’ve come to realize is that some people don’t actually want a pastor, what they’re looking for is a puppet. We’re often looking for someone who will simply reinforce the worldview that we came with. We talk about wanting to be discipled, until we are personally confronted and challenged and then we cry foul.

For many in the church, we hit a point when we think we’ve got it. If we’ve grown up in the church, it’s a view of God and faith that was taught to us in our teenage years. If we came to faith later in life, it’s often the views that were passed on to us early in our life of faith.

The problem is that while those views made sense at those stages, at some point there is more depth and complexity that you are able to move into. That depth and complexity, however, often feels to us like we’re violating the earlier view we had. So, we fight against it, seeking out people who will simply provide new information that reinforces what we already believe, and then we’ll call them deep.

The secret that many pastors are holding onto is that they know in order to keep certain groups and people in the church, they have parameters on what they can say and what they can’t say, regardless of what they believe is fully true.

It’s set up a system in many churches in America that the early church leader Paul warns against when he tells his young apprentice Timothy, that in order to suit their own desires, people will gather around themselves teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.

That was often given to me as a warning to “not give in to culture”. But I’ve actually experienced it much more in the church. Where people gravitate towards churches, and who expect their pastors to tell them what their itching ears want to hear.

I’m reminded of what’s described in the old parable of the French Revolutionary who sees crowds of people running by and says, “there go my people. I must follow them so I can see where I’m supposed to lead them”.

In every generation, there are movements within the church that challenge the status quo. Movements that talk about God and faith in ways that make those who are most comfortable in the established systems incredibly uncomfortable. We often don’t realize how radical these movements are because we have adopted their language, theologies, and structures and missed the fact that we probably would have been fighting against them had we been there while it was happening.

Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Maybe it’s not the way you would phrase it or the way you think about it, but maybe that’s why you need to hear it.

You’ll never go beyond where you are now unless you’re willing to let go of the constructs that brought you to the place where you are. Jesus says you have to be willing to lose your life.

We’ll never go forward as long as we’re clinging to what was and what has been.

On Jerry Jr, Trump and Widespread Evangelical Support

In 2016 I published a short book about the collision of the Kingdom of God and politics. It was taken from a series of sermons that I gave in 2012 before that election, which feels like a different world from the political world we are in now. It was largely written in response to the errors that I had seen in the Religious Right (and in the Religious Left, but much more so in my own personal experiences with the Religious Right) in trying to utilize a political system as the means to achieve kingdom ends. I still believe that is the wrong way to pursue the Kingdom of God, but as with anything, the current cultural moment raises new issues and asks new questions that need to be addressed.

In addressing politics and faith over the years, one thing I have discovered is that when people are reading or listening to me, they have desire for me to equitably attack “both sides” whenever we are discussing something. In these kinds of conversations people will often say something like, “why aren’t you attacking the Democrats (or Republicans) more?”. My concern and calling is not to critique the politics of either Republicans or Democrats or really any political party, but rather to call the church to be the people of God in this present moment. In the places where it seems to me that we are missing that, I will speak up. I am not concerned with trying to have an equal balance of critiquing the donkey or the elephant, but rather continuing to call people to the way of the Lamb.

On January 1, the Washington Post ran an interview with Jerry Falwell Jr that exposed some of the destructive thinking that has become far too prevalent in the church today and it needs to be addressed. I am not someone who feels the need to comment on everything someone says in the name of the church or in every current event, otherwise I would simply spend all of my time responding because the opportunities are endless. However, when something seems to me to be pervasively widespread, continual and destructive to my understanding of who the church is called to be, it merits some kind of response.

Falwell, as the president of the country’s largest Christian University, has been a supporter of President Trump from early on and apparently reconciles the discrepancies of his faith with some of Trump’s behavior and policies that are contrary to that with a description of two different kingdoms – an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom. He describes essentially separating each of those kingdoms and engaging in each of them in different ways. While, I would agree with him that they are separate kingdoms that function in very different ways, I do not believe that the New Testament, nor the way of Jesus in general calls us to treat those as separate ways of engaging the world around us. Nor are they coequal ways of engaging different spheres of our lives. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus expected his followers to operate out of and being agents who are a part of bringing the reality of God’s kingdom to the experience of our lives here and now. For the follower of Jesus, God’s kingdom is not meant to be some kind of spiritual experience that has no bearing on the reality of our lives, but instead is actually meant to be the driving force that affects all of how we live, the choices we make, the way we treat other people, what we value. Jesus would say it this way at one point, “seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness…”

There is indeed an earthly kingdom. A way in which the world operates and the values it ascribes to. It is also a driving force that affects all of how we live, the choices we make, and the way we treat other people. It is not a value system that the people of Jesus are meant to separate out as another realm where we operate differently. Instead, the people of God are meant to be bringing the way of God’s kingdom into those spaces. At times, it even means operating subversively against the way in which the earthly kingdom operates. A people who operate in God’s kingdom are not just concerned with the ends that are achieved, but also the means by which we get there.

I didn’t realize how pervasive this dualistic view of how we interact with the world actually was until I read this interview with Falwell. It helps to make sense of so many other things that seem to have gotten out of place for those of us who claim to follow Jesus in recent years. For instance, when white evangelical Christians are the group most likely to be against accepting refugees, more than any other group identified in the polling, that runs against the way the church has functioned in caring for refugees and the calling of the Kingdom of God. Or when the opinion of evangelicals regarding immigrants is more shaped by President Trump and political narratives than by evangelical leaders or by the Scriptures. The ability to separate out our faith from our worldview is disconcerting at best.

As Falwell suggests, the United States may not have an obligation to love our neighbors or care for the poor (we can argue that on another day), but followers of Jesus do. For followers of Jesus to desire and pursue things that are contrary to that, is explicitly contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Just because politics are not the means by which we pursue kingdom ends, does not mean that we actively utilize politics in ways that are directly contrary to kingdom ends. I don’t know of any Christians who think in this way who would advocate for policies that would increase abortions or ones that would strip the church of it’s non-profit status and protections, or to disallow Christian colleges from gaining the advantage of federally supplemented loans. While I would argue it’s not the best use of our calling as a church to try and utilize political means to pursue those things, it is not something we actively work against.

When I released “In God We Trust,” one of my concerns was that the broader church that I found myself a part of was too tied into and overly linked with a political party. Some seem to have now gone a step farther, in becoming even more linked with a particular person. Falwell was asked if there was anything that Trump could do that would endanger support from himself or other evangelical leaders. His answer was simply “no.” As a friend of mine put it, “Regardless of who it is, this is what’s called a cult.” I am not sure I understand it or fully get where this blanket support is coming from, but the unquestioning evangelical support of President Trump has me perplexed. In fact, white evangelicals are the only major religious group to continue to have a favorable opinion of President Trump.

The same evangelical leaders who spoke out against Bill Clinton during the Lewinskly scandal saying that his character matters because character is significant in leadership, then defended Trump as a candidate saying things like “his character doesn’t matter because we aren’t electing a pastor”. When things like that happen, you begin to wonder if there are different standards for evangelical leaders depending on whether or not you have an R or a D after your name on the ballot. In fact, one of the most significant swings that has happened in evangelicals’ worldview, is a complete about-face in the way that character matters in leadership. We do not have to hold a President to the same standards as a Pastor of a church to say that character matters in leadership. Nor do we have to change our values in that regard in order to align with specific policy decisions.

There may be policies that Trump supports and advocates that can be within a kingdom framework. I personally was glad to see the prison reform legislation pass and would love to see more work done there. That does not mean, however, that you need to give blanket support to all of his policies. It doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to his dishonorable and immoral behavior as President. It does not mean that we adopt shifting worldviews in order to accommodate our politics or our chosen political candidate. We can be nuanced and thoughtfully Christian without offering blanket support of a political party or of a particular person.

Frankly, I don’t understand what has been happening with the blanket support of Trump and his policies amongst white evangelicals. I’m not interested in “would Hillary have been any better?” kinds of debates, nor am I interested in calling Trump the new Hitler. I’m not interested in rehashing the election or telling you who to vote for. I’m simply interested in the church being the church. I’m interested in the people who call themselves followers of Jesus living in the ways of the Kingdom and letting that shape their worldview. I’m not interested in Christians needing to comment on everything that Trump says and does that is contrary to the way of Jesus. But I am interested in not giving blind allegiance and support to him as he does those things. I would find myself offering the same critique if the larger church system that I find myself a part of offered the same kind of widespread, pervasive support of a different candidate, party or policies that seemed to me to be destructive to the church. I am in no way partisan but rather try to find myself on the side of the church and who she is called to be.

I’m reminded and regularly challenged by a word of caution offered by Jesus, when he said, “what good does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet forfeit their soul?” My calling is not to engage in partisan debates, but rather to point the church to where we may be losing our soul.

A Christmas Reflection For This Week

“Do not be afraid”

This statement by an angel shows up several times in the Christmas story. It’s said to Zechariah as the birth of John is announced. The same is said to Mary as she is told of her pregnancy. Then the angels say it to the Shepherds as they first hear about of the birth of Jesus.

“Do not be afraid.”

I wonder if a part of the reason the angels would begin a significant announcement with those words was so that what they had to say could actually be heard.

In those kinds of moments, it would be easy to let your fear override the words that you’re hearing. It would be easy for your mind to be somewhere else, thinking about something else, all the while, the angels are giving you incredibly significant news that you’re going to have an opportunity to respond to. In order to not miss what was going to happen in that moment, the angel would say,

“Do not be afraid.”

Because fear would take them out of that moment. Fear would keep Mary from pondering and treasuring these things. Fear would keep the shepherds away from the manger. They are told to not be afraid, because fear would distract them from what God was doing in that moment and in that place.

Maybe if those same angels came to us today, instead of saying “do not be afraid,” maybe they would instead say something like, “put down your phone” or “don’t add something else to your to-do list” or “stop your incessant worrying for a moment”. I wonder if the statements we would hear would be the things that keep us from being fully present in the moment.

What if during this season, God is wanting to say something to you, but we have become so preoccupied that we aren’t able to hear it. Maybe this week, in preparation for Christmas, you could take some time to put your list away, turn your phone off, and allow yourself to not worry about all that has to be done. Maybe you take a slow, meandering walk with your family. How about you get a fire going and make coffee and hot chocolate and just hang out. Or perhaps you turn off the TV one evening and instead read the story of the first Christmas – it’s only a few chapters – Matthew 1 & 2 and Luke 1 & 2.

I’m reminded of the words of the Psalmist who said, “Today if only you would hear his voice.” Today. Not tomorrow. Not sometime when things slow down. Today.

Could it be that one of the reasons the angels would begin their declarations that we read every year at Christmas with the statement, “Do not be afraid,” was as a way of saying, “Be fully present so that you can hear what God wants to say to you and experience what God is about to do”.

This week, as you prepare for Christmas, don’t forget to slow down and be present so you can hear what God wants to say and experience what God is about to do.