The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life! – Jesus the Christ
Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there. Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team. But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.
Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically. 45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide. It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic. As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.
We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well. When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.
It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days. I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian. When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left. The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world. We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.
But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide. A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide. Another young gay man commits suicide. To the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer: yes.
In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him. This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it. There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly. I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something. A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.
On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change. Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity. Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story. It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now. Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…” Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something: Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.
So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.
Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere. There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.
We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.
Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843. Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain. Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.
Warning: I don’t like the tax bill that just passed, or the quality of judges currently being appointed, or much else happening presently in Washington. Having said that, I have a concern that Christ followers in both parties have elevated politics to a status of idolatry. We who follow Christ have a primary calling – and it’s not electing leftists or rightists. It’s lighting candles!! In this darkest season, (at least literally, and for many, in every way) here’s what I mean…
The first winter we lived in the mountains, an early storm knocked down hundreds of fir trees deep in the cascades, and those trees knocked down wires and transformers, resulting in just over five full days without power, along with temperatures in the single digits and teens. We heat with wood and have a functional BBQ so survival wasn’t an issue. The big issue we faced every day, though, was the inevitable approach darkness.
About 2 in the afternoon we’d feel it; darkness was coming fast and if we weren’t prepared, it wouldn’t be pretty. So our afternoon routine consisted of cursing the darkness and saving up facebook rants to share when the power came back on. We’d spin some cool theories blaming Russians, fire tweets on our still live phones about just how dark the darkness was, is, and ever shall be – unless we vote differently next time. We were especially bitter at those with generators – you know: the 1%. The oligarchy.
Rubbish, of course. We were too busy lighting candles, and making sure we knew where the next candles were stored so that when these went out we were good to go. Sure, darkness comes (and goes too, by the way, as I share in the chapter, “Towns”, in my new book). Of course there are times to expose the darkness, rage against the darkness, and articulate the better alternative to which we’re all invited (see #metoo). Without this, Sophie Scholl contents herself, perhaps, with a private faith that pays no regard to the evil realities happening all around her. MLK withdraws from the conflict, bowing to the pressures of evil rather than fighting to assure that justice for all means “for all”. There’s a time and place to act boldly. However….
On this, the darkest night of the year, I’m reminded that the first order of business is make sure there’s a lit candle somewhere in the room when darknesses of injustice, corruption, greed, complacency, and cynicism seem to be growing. It’s far too easy in this environment to elevate the realities of darkness to such an extent that we forget our calling is to light a candle. Lose sight of our calling, and the darkness seems darker than it is. Then our despondency runs the risk of empowering said darkness even more. Let’s get off that train for a while, and talk about the light instead, and our calling to make it real.
The message of the 2nd advent, when Christ returns to reign fully, is that we’ll have no need for sun because there’ll be no more night (I think it’s poetic metaphor, but that’s not the point right here). Obviously, we’re not there yet. In the meantime, the light of Christ is intended to be these shining moments of hope, justice, beauty, and healing breaking through the darkest nights, like angels did for shepherds that glad night. The message of light sounds like this:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear…?”
“Make your face shine upon us and we shall be saved…”
“…shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death…”
“…put aside the deeds of darkness; put on the armor of light…”
The theme that’s woven through these verses can be summed up this way: Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle!! What does that mean, and how do we do it?
Draw near to the light. The big theme of the Bible isn’t that darkness is vanquished. That’s just the final chapter. Rather, we’re reminded over and over again that, in the midst of darkness, whether found in prison camps or oncology wards, therapist’s offices or the scene of the accident, there’s a light, “Emmanuel. God with us!” Light in the darkness. I fear that over the past year evangelicals on both the left and right have spoken more about darkness than light. This can never be a good thing. My prayer for 2018, at least for the community I lead in Seattle, is that we’ll be characterized as “people of the light” by virtue of our pursuit of Christ, our true and brightest light. I believe such a pursuit will begat generosity, hospitality, care for earth, and solidarity with those in need, so that the light of Christ will shine through us in these darkest days.
Rejoice in what’s good. There are countless causes for joy every day, no matter if they are private or national trials because God is giving us good gifts, reconciling relationships, liberating captives, and using people to create little moments of light over and over again. Psalm 126:3 says, “the Lord has done great things for us… so we will rejoice!”
Joy, as I’ll share on Christmas Eve is a natural response when we pay attention to God’s revelation, noting what God has done, and made, and given us. This is why I tell my children, “every day is Christmas and God is a good parent giving me gifts”. The gifts include: forgiveness of my failures and the confidence that God loves me in spite of them, sunrises, snowfalls, friendships around the world and good conversations, running, skiing, trees, the privilege of teaching and leading, intimacy, revelation while studying, the chance to create, snowfalls, a warm house, clean water, music, sleep, a bed, shoes, and… I could go on, but you get the picture. LISTEN!! We all need to pay attention to the state of the world, but when all you can see is injustice, division, the rise of fear and hate, and leadership crises, your light’s going out! You need to wake and pay attention to the things that bring joy. See them. Name them. Give thanks. Poof! Your candle’s lit again!
I didn’t even mention my gratitude for a new identity in Christ that includes access to all the power, hope, love, wisdom and strength that is the resurrected Jesus, alive in me and you!
Remember the end of the story – Light Wins!! We likely don’t all agree on what that looks like, or how we’ll get there, but if we’re in Christ, can we not all agree that the day is coming when every disease will be healed, every war ended, and all poverty vanquished? There’s a banquet coming, with the best food and wine, and we’ll look around the table, populated by left and right, black and white, asian and hispanic, rich and poor. Listen to this: “God will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and remove the reproach of His people from all the earth….and it will be said on that day, “this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us!” “
There’s your end to the story!! Yes, the darkness will arrive again tonight, both physically and when I watch the news. But rather than cursing the darkness, I’ll choose, tonight and throughout 2018, to light a candle. I hope you’ll join me.
PS – if you’re near Seattle on Sunday…
The political and theological left and right have become so tired of both shooting each other and being shot at, that there’s little stomach left for honest conversation about ethics, faith, and the relationship of faith to politics. So when you go over the river and through the woods to enjoy a family gathering at Grandma’s house this coming Thursday, what will you talk about? Here’s a little guide to help:
Here’s hoping you embrace your identity as exile so you can relax and live into the confidence of your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. May you find beauty there, and hope, and may the light of your joy and gratitude radiate at your Thanksgiving table, wherever you are.
I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends. It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers. “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket. After she left the room I read it. She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19. It read: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”
I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket. It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution. Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:
peer groups in school
Work place gossip
Social media rants
Political parties with all their posturing
Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion
The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it. Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”
Of course you’ll be elected president.
Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.
Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world.
What’s wrong with this picture?
My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland). My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective. We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.
I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders. Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric. Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.
In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations:
1. Words Matter. One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression. Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says: “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)
I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words. There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.
2. A leader’s character matters. Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles: As goes the king, so go the people. I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”. Two concerns are cogent at this point.
I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine. Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground. The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end. People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies. The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence.
I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character. No. No. No. Ask the Bible. Ask anyone building a business from the ground up. Ask coaches. They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes. Policies matter. Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad. But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.
By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter. As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision. A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball. And people no longer trust each other’s words. No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative. We can’t control our president or other politicians. We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean. Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.
What does the pornography problem in the Bible belt, and the appalling lack of generosity among democrats have to do with a burnt/raw pancake? Plenty….
“Ephraim is a cake not turned…”. Hosea 7:8. That’s Hosea’s description of a nation gone wrong, and it’s terribly applicable today.
a cake not turned: Burnt to a coal at the bottom, raw dough at the top: an apt emblem of a character full of inconsistencies (Bishop Horsley).
The prophets were good at painting word pictures, and word pictures are good because, rather than listing specific problems unique to a time and place, they portray a principle. The principle then becomes widely applicable to other cultures, eras, and situations. This is part of what makes the Bible so incredibly relevant, if only we’d take the time to read and ponder.
Today I’m pondering the “cake not turned”. You’ve no doubt eaten a pancake that was burnt on the bottom but raw on the top. It’s wrong; imbalanced; filled with overemphasis and a commensurate underemphasis. God’s complaint with Israel was that they’d lost their devotion to God as their source and their lover, choosing loyalty to surrounding pagan ideals instead.
Israel was, in other words, selective in her loyalty to God, alternately embracing and denying the values of Jehovah based on what they wanted, what they considered to be best for them moment to moment. The result of this was a mixture of bribery, white-collar robbery, neglect of the Sabbath, woven together with lip service given to God, and outward forms of worship often continuing in spite of glaring disobedience to God’s revelation. Light and dark. Burnt and raw. Idolatry wrapped in religion.
Sound familiar? It should! The mixture of political loyalties with faith has long been an example of this burnt pancake phenomenon. Consider mainline churches, which are often largely aligned with left leaning politics and more socialist policies. Their views are, rightly, intent on seeing to it that the poor aren’t left hungry, cold, or naked. It’s hard to argue with those priorities if you take the Bible seriously.
But two complaints arise immediately regarding this seemingly holy affiliation. First, if the left is so intent on caring for the poor, why are they themselves so greedy? The problem of meager charitable giving among liberals is well-known, as seen in this article, which posits that conservatives give 30% more to charity than democrats.
My second complaint is that liberals are selective in their adherence to the Bible, being quick to appeal to verses on caring for the poor, but silent on Jesus’ sexual ethics, including his stringent view of divorce. And by the way, nobody on this planet is more vulnerable than the unborn, who the left seem to regard as nothing more than tissue until they’re born.
Conservative (and many evangelical) churches, provide an opposite, though equally alarming snapshot. They’re all about the sexual ethics, with vocal views on premarital sex, same-sex behavior, masturbation, abortion, and in some places, divorce and remarriage too. Most of these values are derived from the same Bible the left uses to address systemic economic sin.
My complaint is that in the same manner the left is stingy while preaching generosity, the right is sexually dysfunctional while preaching family values. They crucify Bill Clinton for his sexual sins, and then elect a president who is in his third marriage and whose language and behavior would get him fired in most work environments, including FOX NEWS. They even go to some lengths to call him a Christian in spite of the appalling lack of any compelling life evidence.
Further, the right suffers from the same hypocrisy problem as the left. Regarding our nation’s porn addiction, the 4 out of the top 5 states are in the Bible belt (Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia), the very places where God’s sexual ethic thunders from the pulpit weekly. Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas, are three of top four states in per capita abortion rates. Pro Life indeed. Similarly, these same states, so pro-life, seem intent on protecting life in the womb, but once you’re born, you’re on your own. Policies regarding family leave and access to health care and social services for those in poverty are weak.
Let’s summarize. You have a party that preaches generosity, but is stingy, and they elect a man with an exemplary marriage. You have a party that preaches sexual ethics, but elects a womanizer, and whose states are most stridently red also happen to be national leaders in porn use and abortion.
This is the cake not turned problem, and until we see the problem and acknowledge it, we’ll continue talking past each other, advocating that “my partial view of reality is better than your partial view of reality” We can do better.
Why am writing this?
1. So that we can stop wedding political parties with our faith, and begin to recognize that no party has the faith
2. So that we can recognize, all of us, that preaching values does not equal living them.
3. So that we can recognize that it’s in the human heart to view God’s values and directives as a buffet line, where we pick what we want, and leave the rest.
4. So that we can repent of the buffet line mentality, our divisions into self referential and self-righteous little communities, and our arrogance – instead asking God to give us ears to hear what the spirit is saying, especially through those with whom we disagree, and so move toward the unity of the faith that will better represent God’s heart.
In a world filled with burnt/raw pancakes, it would be refreshing to find a few that are properly cooked. Perhaps you can help cook one!
Do you remember eighth grade geometry, and the subject of axioms? An axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”. An example in math would be: “if x and y are real numbers, then the sum of x+y is also a real number”. There’s no need to prove it because it’s self evident. Axioms are important because mathematicians and philosophers build structures on their foundations.
Get the axiom wrong and the whole structure will ultimately be unsustainable. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”. This gets practical in our moment because there are claims floating around in our social/political world and they’re being accepted as axiomatic.
“The lyin’ media”
“My inauguration crowd was bigger”
“I won the popular vote”
“I was wiretapped by the previous president”
I’m not writing here as democrat (I’m independent and voted both sides in the last election) and I’m not writing about health care, or the philosophy that lower taxes will be good for the economy. Both the conservative and progressive voices are vital in shaping our democracy; their ideas need collision with each other in order to arrive at next steps in moving a country forward – at least that was the intent of the framers. Further, the conservative world won the election and has both the right and responsibility to govern. All of us are on the bus, so we’d all do well to press for success.
It’s the very desire for democracy to succeed, whoever is in power, that causes me to write today. Whatever your party loyalties, know that a very dangerous foundation is being laid when a country is asked to believe things as if they were axiomatic, simply because they’re spoken by people with authority. While not technically axioms, we’re being asked to believe more and more things, “sans evidence”.
My plea is that you not go there, that we not go there as a nation, that we not allow our leaders to take us there.
Promises gone awry are one thing. (“If you like your current health care plan you can keep it”). They’re named. Apologies are made. We learn. Hopefully we move on.
This is a different time; a different leader. As David Brooks writes: “Everything about Trump that appalls 65% of America strengthens him with the other 35%”. This is an axiom problem. It stems from a readiness to believe things, simply because they’re declared by someone, in spite of the fact that, not only are they not self-evident, but all available evidence points in a different direction.
And so we come to the importance of character. Nobody is perfect, of course, and we know our previous presidents well enough to know that feet of clay have been in the Oval Office from the beginning. Still, the accumulation of spectacular declarations lacking any evidence is new territory. The credibility gap that is nothing more than fodder for late night comedians presently, will become the soil of national crisis when we’re asked to enter a sacrificial war because our leader makes an axiomatic declaration demanding it and, no surprise, most of the notion won’t buy it.
When I teach German students, I’m happy to report that they don’t take what I say at face value. They ask hard questions. They challenge my statements. They ask for evidence. I was taken aback by this years ago, when I first began teaching in Europe. When I asked why they’re “so skeptical” they told me it had to do with their history, that they’d learned the dangers of following blindly, and so built healthy skepticism into their education of youth.
“Following blindly” is becoming a habit these days and that shouldn’t surprise us, though it should alarm us. It’s in our nature to believe what we want to believe, rather than allow ourselves to be shaped by revelation that would be disruptive to our held views. Can I suggest that, rather than elevating any human leader, or source, to the status of infallible – all of us commit to thinking both critically, and open mindedly – to engaging with those holding differing views both civilly and honestly – and that we do it all with the goal of building on a foundation of finding truth rather than defending fallacious axioms.
So here we are, with truth claims being offered and the expectation declared that we believe them axiomatically, simply because authorities have spoken.
Well Mr. President, and speakers of both house and senate, and minority leaders of those same chambers, if there’s any good news in your deplorable, unabashedly partisan behaviors of late its this: your lies have become unbelievable, even to yourselves and the people of your own parties. Your truth claims are, I can only pray, creating a vast sea of skeptics who will no longer take what’s said at face value. And in the wake of your collective integrity failure, my hope and prayer is that the next round of elections won’t be the circus this previous round was. Instead, perhaps, people will once again look for people with integrity and elect them, weighing character above everything else.
…because one thing is certain throughout the history of the world: as goes the king, so goes the nation.
But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free? The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies. So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ. They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.
He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
A freedom tied to obedience
These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute. As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.” Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”. The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom. There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.
What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong. If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?
Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love. We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny. This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.
I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers. They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.
A freedom tied to external revelation
One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed. “If you want to own a gun, own a gun. If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion. If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.” What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone. Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being. What if you want my wife? Or my children? Or my stuff?
So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”
Ah, but there’s the problem. One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone. Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server. But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.
The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage. Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul. “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you” Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom. Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.
Simple right? We’re all free. Yes, free. And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom. How’s this working for us? Not so well, I’d argue.
What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke. Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing. My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps. Freedom? Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway. That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.
Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable. Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.
In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more. But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.
The Illusion of Freedom
When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been anyone’s slaves…” In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?” I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome. Before that it was Greece. Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire. Before that it was Babylon. Before that it was Assyria. Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.
We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.
But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need. This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough. Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority. That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.
“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”
I glance at my watch. 15:50. I shut my computer, toss on some shoes and a jacket, and am out the door because so far, all week, I’ve missed the sunsets over the lake. It’s about a half mile down to the park on the waterfront and when I arrive, the suns maybe 15 minutes from dipping below the Alps as it moves west, just now greetings my friends in Seattle as first light of a new day.
The views are stunning. Swans, ducks, geese, and a sky painted gloriously by the interplay of ever changing light and clouds make for spectacular, memorable artistry. But I’m equally intrigued by the people all around me. Over there a German couple holding hands, whose grandparents would have war stories to tell. There’s a man walking, slowly, who looks to be over 70. He would have been a child when this beautiful city was so heavily bombed in WWII. Today, this little plot of soil is a place of peace and beauty, a photo op for sunsets and, on a clear day, a stunning view of the Alps. A place for wind surfing.
But of course it wasn’t always so. I wonder what thoughts must have unfolded in the minds of people on this beach 70 years ago as they looked across the water to the mountains of Switzerland? Those dark days in Germany’s history were preceded by other dark days in the 1920’s and 30’s, days of want and deprivation. It was into that vortex of economic crisis that a leader rose up promising brighter days, a leader whose power and darkness would enshroud all of Europe in a dark cloud for a season.
During the those days, I wonder how many stood here and looked across the Alps, longing to be free from the scourge of war, and loss, and genocide? Getting there wasn’t possible, even though it was visible, just over there, just beyond reach. The darkness of war, the scourge and brutality of evil rulers – all of it was on full display then. But now there’s peace, and beauty, and couples holding hands.
What I find remarkable are the ways in which Germany has flowered these past 70 years after her defeat. The first Chancellor of Germany after the war put structures in place to assure less blind nationalism, less violence, and significantly, more economic equity. The “social market economy” was born at this time, and this article explains that it… “led to the eventual development of the Social Market Economy as a viable socio-political and economic alternative between the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and the collectivist planned economy not as a compromise, but as a combination of seemingly conflicting objectives namely greater state provision for social security and the preservation of individual freedom” The country is by no means perfect, but make no mistake – this nation that was so humbled throughout the first half of the last century learned from their mistakes and, to this day, display a marvelous blend of discipline and charity that comes about through hard work, thrift, and a collective commitment to the well being of everyone, evidenced in social services and taxation that would rile the sensibilities of the American political right. Even now, they, the most successful economy in all of Europe, continue to call their overspending European counterparts to both raise taxes and cut spending – a strategy that, while perfectly reasonable, offends both the American left and right.
I think about the transformation of Rwanda that’s occurred in the wake of the genocide. The transformation of Iceland in the wake of their own economic meltdown. The changed lives of friends who’ve been stricken with cancer and recovered with an entirely different set of priorities, or of those who finally stood up and said, “I’m an alcoholic” who have been to depths and back, raised up to a fuller life than ever before.
As I look around this peaceful setting, I realize that the glory of the gospel, and the glory of God’s goodness in the world is that beauty can come right out the ash heap of our own arrogance and failure; that if we’re willing to learn from them, the mistakes of our past can make us wiser, more beautiful, more generous, and more fruitful than ever we’d have been had we remained prim, and proper – looking good outwardly, but in reality filled with our own foolish presumptions and self-aggrandized priorities. This, of course, requires humility, and therein lies the problem.
To fix social or personal ailments always demands beginning with the notion that we are, at the least, part of the problem. Our choices, our history, our values – something’s broken. When was the last time you heard the Tea Party admit that they’re part of the problem, or BP, or Monsanto, or the Democrats. All I hear is blame, and the notion that the problem is wholly over there in “those greedy idiots” is, itself, the biggest problem of all. We can all see the flaws in the other’s ideas and policies with 2020 clarity. It’s the log in our own eye, we can’t seem to handle. And logs in eyes aren’t very good things to have when you’re in the drivers seat. That’s why I’m praying for humility… at any price… for me, and all the rest of us too in the developed world.
It’s been a week. In the normally limp and newsless lazy days of late August, our senses have been assaulted by horrific images, at home and abroad. We’ve learned that the Syrian government is exterminating their own people, and that options of intervention run the risk of a full scale attack of Israel, an event which puts the middle east, and hence the world, in a heightened state of vulnerability – more ready to burst into flames than a California forest.
Meanwhile, our pop culture offers one of it’s stars at a music awards show and we’re struck with the realization that nobility, inspiration, edification, and real beauty are all lying on the ash heap of a previous era. In their place, we’re offered objectified and sexualized bodies, bawdy lyrics, and the stark realization that our cultural “elite” have played their hand, declaring that this is, and will be, the new lower norm. CNN’s elevation of the event to front and center news is newsworthy in its own right because the huge spike in readership for this “news” over any real news reveals the depths of depravity (yes, it’s an Onion article, because truth is sometimes best told through satire) to which our collective culture is rapidly sinking.
It’s tempting to respond to all of it by turning off all media and withdrawing to a cave, or a fundamentalist church that’s working on personal purity and self-fulfillment while waiting for Jesus to come fix it all. Nope: that’s a false hope leading to disengagement and private faith. It’s tempting too, to mobilize, aligning ourselves with campaigns to reign in the crass media, and make sure our military, and Israel’s are both strong enough, not only to win the impending wars, which could be massive, but also the wars that will happen AFTER the wars are won, because God only knows who will fill the power vacuum in a new Syria. It will become Egypt 2.0, only worse. Nope: that’s false anger, leading to public rage, and more fear based responses.
How about this instead?
Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the anciengt paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ – Jeremiah 6:16
What are these ancient paths that will enabling us to know peace, beauty, hope, in the midst of the meltdown?
1. They are paths that take intimacy with God seriously. Jeremiah lived in similar days, when people couldn’t look outside or inside without getting depressed or overwhelmed. When all hell breaks loose, whether personally, culturally, or globally, it will be good to already have habits that take intimacy with God seriously. This was Jeremiah’s point in my favorite Bible verse, found here. He said that no other pursuit is worthy of “boasting”, which is a way of saying that nobody really cares about the car you drive, or the mountains you’ve climbed (corporate or literal), and neither, in the end, should you. Your real joy, real meaning, ultimately should have intimacy with God at its foundation. He’s the one who, as Jeremiah says, “practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth…” Make knowing God a priority, and God’s priorities become yours. You’re called, in the midst of all this insanity, to look like Jesus, and you will, as a by product of making intimacy with God your main priority. We won’t always have economic prosperity, national greatness, physical strength – but we’ll always have our relationship with God – right up to our dying breath, and beyond.
Knowing God means looking for revelation from God everywhere, as I’ll write about later next week. But to begin with, everyone needs a lens through which to look at everything differently. Acquiring this lens comes by making a habit of listening for God’s voice in a daily encounter. If you need help with that, let me suggest this resource, or this one, or this one.
I rise early, make my coffee, open my bible, sit in the forest, receive God’s revelation, pray a bit – and get on with my day. Over time, I’m gaining a perspective on reality that’s different, more hopeful, less fearful. I wish the same for you!
2. It’s a path that looks around and does something. It’s easy, when the bottom drops out, to allow our concerns to shrink until our concerns become nothing more than our personal peace and safety. Jeremiah, though, writing to people in the midst of a world (and culture) gone mad, writes: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
This is Jeremiah’s way of saying that hand wringing, and moaning, whining and withdrawing into our Christian ghettos to talk about how the world’s all “gone to hell”, or spinning conspiracy theories about birth certificates or NSA wire tappings or whatever it is that Limbaugh’s saying today isn’t, in any way, the Christian life. Rather, the Christian life means being the presence of Jesus, right where you are, which means:
Giving stuff away, throwing a party for the neighbors, visiting someone in the hospital, spending time with children, mentoring a young mom, or young teen, serving in a homeless shelter, planting a garden, making beautiful music or art or great coffee, visiting someone who’s lonely, spending quality time with your grown children, or o so much more.
The days ahead don’t look very bright from my chair. Years ago, though, I read this about that:
Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
Good idea… I think I will.
The convergence of my daily Bible readings and a memorial service for my dear friend have me thinking about how much richer are lives can be if we all align around the one true thing that matters, which is Jesus Christ and his glorious reign.
Daniel and Esther are two personalities in Israel’s history who understood that they will gladly serve the king, and work for the good of kingdom in which they find themselves, but not at the cost of obedience to their one true King, Jehovah. This is why Daniel openly defies the king’s edict by praying to Jehovah, not in secret, but in full view of his open window, as a means of declaring that there’s only One to which we’re called to offer unrestrained allegiance. Esther risks her life by standing before the king, unbidden, fully realizing that by doing so she’ll either be invited in or executed. Her reason for this bold move? Mordecai, a Jew, refused to bow down to the powers of state because he believed that his allegiance was ultimately to God. Neither nation, nor any political party (Republican, Democrat, Green, Other) or ideology (socialist, libertarian, monarchists, tea people, coffee people, “free” market capitalists, Other) will ever embody the reign of Christ. Because of this, we have one true king, one true kingdom, one true citizenship, and it’s not related to our flag or borders – it’s related to Jesus.
Meanwhile, as I read Esther this morning and write this piece, I’m mindful of my global Torchbearer family gathering to grieve the loss of our dear friend and remarkable teacher/leader, Hans Peter Royer. My daughter eulogized his life eloquently here recently. Today, missing my friends, I’m pondering the privilege of being in a community bound together, truly, by fellowship in Christ alone. Our common purpose is Christ; declaring him as the only source of life, inviting people to live out from his resurrection power, and seeking to disciple people into a life of making his good reign visible through relationships and service in our broken world. These things matter more than anything – and as long as they do, we enjoy rich fellowship and unity of purpose in spite of our vast differences.
Differences? Yes! Under the surface of our united grief today there are many cultures and hence, ways of living together as nations. For example, many devout Christ followers in Europe favor universal health coverage and shudder at thought that there’s a nation where people are walking the streets carrying weapons. Devout Christ followers in America often hold exactly the opposite views in the name of freedom of responsibility. Meanwhile, these arguments, on both sides, seem elitist and esoteric to those who are busy preaching Christ in places where the threat of terror hangs over their locations daily. When we’re together we speak of Christ and his reign, speak of how we’re working together to make that reign visible, call each other to deeper Christ commitments.
But never, unless we happen to be skiing together in Austria on the very day of an elementary school shooting spree in Connecticut, do we talk about gun control. Even then, when we do, and Austrians shake their heads at our addiction to “freedom” even as some Americans shake theirs at the Europeans readiness to give up such rights – we don’t baptize our views in the gospel of Christ.
Does this mean there’s never a time to be political? Far from it. Christ followers have an absolute obligation to do justice and love mercy. This requires addressing systemic issues that contribute to poverty, violence, and oppression. But here’s the critical thing to see: We’re called to do this in the name of Jesus, not in the name of a party, or nation. To the extent that we do, we’re able to dialogue about these things, think critically, prayerfully sharpen each other, and then go back into our cultures and truly “seek the welfare of the city in which we live” – all the while freed from the illusion that the ways of Babylon, or Gun Rights, or Universal Health Care are, inherently, Jesus’ ways. We’ll be as suspicious of Huffington Post as Fox News
Jesus’ way will be most visible in this broken world when the people of God embody visible alternatives that are trans-national, trans-political, trans-racial – places where the poor and marginalized are valued, and earthly weapons are never the preferred solution to solving any problems, and people are given the opportunity to be freed from everything, ranging from human trafficking to the many addictions that enslave the prosperous. This is hardly a call to some disembodied apolitical spiritism. Rather, it’s a call to make God’s reign visible, at cost of our lives if necessary. But no nation or kingdom or ideology in this world gets it right – democratics are no more the party of Jesus than the tea party. We need to get over it.
Beer & Brats in Germany. Chai and Dal-Bot in Nepal. Croissants and Chardonnay in France: Christ is there – loving, serving, blessing, and standing against the powers, in favor of THE POWER that is the source of life. May we stand with Him, and in Him, and through Him – because nothing else matters.
If I could wish one thing for our churches these days, it would be that we’d return with due haste to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ, and devote ourselves utterly to making Christ’s reign visible. Everything else is chaff.