Friday, January 22, 2021

Make Room

  “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.… Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.”

-John 8:36-37 (NIV) 

I know you don’t want to read more about what happened at the Capitol two weeks ago. I don’t blame you. But what happened was historically significant, and culturally so, too. So please excuse me for mentioning it, if only to get to what I really want to talk about.


     At least some of those present at the Capitol…protest?…unrest?…riot?…sedition?…I guess history will decide at some point what to call it…at least some of those present, at least the ones who forced their way in and endangered lives and roamed the halls with zip ties and weapons looking for members of Congress, were there because there was no room in their world.

     No room for other ideas. No room for alternate points of view. No room for different experiences that might lead someone to a different perspective on the world. No room for the idea that seven million more Americans prefer, at this point in time, a different President in the White House. No room for lawmakers and judges and election officials who won’t support the world they want. And, make no mistake, no room for fellow Americans who don’t have the same view of America that they do. 

     People who have no room in their worlds for people who are different from them and from the norms they expect will not stop at forcing their way into government buildings. They’ll force their way into workplaces. Mosques, synagogues, and churches. Schools. Even private homes. Given enough resources and emboldened enough, they’ll crash the gates anywhere to find anyone who disagrees with them and silence any critique of the world they want to build. If you think I’m overstating the case, stop and consider. It’s happened everywhere there has been a large segment of society that had no room for an alternate view of the world from theirs.

     In fact, that’s where the line has to be drawn, right? People can have different views on any number of issues and work together, serve together, learn together, worship together. They don’t have to compromise their convictions, They don’t have to pretend that disagreements don’t happen. They do, however, have to allow room in their lives — or at least in their worlds — for each other. You’re entitled to your beliefs, and to defend them passionately. But if you lose that ability to allow room for other points of view, you no longer deserve a seat at the table.

     An old line, attributed to Voltaire by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I may not like your views, or even you, but there’s room in my world for you. And I’ll do what I can to make sure others give you room, too. 

     It’s funny — well, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word — but the church has often been accused of not having room for differing points of view. Sometimes, of course, we’ve earned that reputation. But to the degree we’re actually following Jesus, we’re perhaps uniquely qualified to offer room to those who see the world differently. That’s because, theologically, there’s nothing about Jesus that demands we exclude anyone. If you have a different view of Christianity you might be inclined to argue that, but you’d be mistaking what some of us have done with Jesus for the actual Jesus. It’s a fact that some of us have used Jesus to defend our own inability to allow room in the world for people who are different from us, but we didn’t get that from Jesus. That came from our own self-centeredness, our own fear, our own anxiety about change. We just found in Jesus — a radically edited and altered Jesus — a convenient spokesperson. 

     Jesus, you might remember, is the one who said

     “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

     He also said

     “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you…. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

     I didn’t even have to go out of one chapter of Luke to find those quotes. Later in Luke he told his followers to love their neighbor, and then defined neighbor as the one who needs help, whoever he or she is. Make room for human beings in your world, even inside the boundaries of who you call “neighbor.” Even those who are different from you, even those who at first blush you’d say have no business in your world. Jesus calls us to make room for them and for the needs that they have, and to treat them with care and compassion.

     Jesus, in fact, was only really hard on one group of people: those who wouldn’t make room  at their tables, in their world, and in their hearts for someone who was different. He had harsh words for those who would require complete adherence to their view of the world, who would only give acceptance and love in return for total obedience. “Whitewashed tombs,” he called them, because however good it may look on the surface, their way is the way of death. “Hypocrites,” because everything they did was for the applause of the crowd and their own self-interest.

     Our world has always been a place where the powerful fail to make room for the weak. It’s always been a place where the privileged refuse to allow the needy the room they need to make their situation better. The pious have not often made room for the sinners. The native-born have often behaved as if there was no room for the immigrant. Whites continue to balk at making room for people of color. And, of course, the point of every election seems to be that one political party crowd the other out of as much room in the halls of power as they possibly can. 

     But Jesus told his followers to refuse to play by those rules. He said, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And shortly before he gave his life to show that there is room for everyone, he prayed that his followers “may be one as [he and the Father] are one," that “they may be brought to complete unity.” In that, he believed, the world might see and believe in him and know the love of God. They might know that there is room in God’s love for them, too.

     So, see? To the extent that we really follow Jesus, we will show the world what it means to give room to those who are different, to love those with whom we don’t always agree, and even to show the love of God to those we might consider reprehensible. We’ll reject the importance of winning and holding on to power or being more aggressive or stronger or more ruthless than anyone else. We’ll love each other as Jesus loves us. We’ll make it our life’s purpose to show those around us that there’s room for them among us.

     May we make room.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Peaceful and Quiet Lives

  I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers,  intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —for kings and all those in authority,  that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness  and holiness. This is good, and pleases  God our Savior, who wants  all people  to be saved  and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 

-1 Timothy 2:1-4 (NIV)

A little over eight years ago, I wrote this about the 2012 election:

     It was, by my count, the twelfth time in my life that the United States has peacefully elected a President.

     I’m always amazed when it happens. Even a couple of elections ago, when it was weeks before we knew who won, there were no tanks in the streets. No civil war. Even when we elect a new President, the transfer of power is always orderly. In a world where peaceful transfers of power can’t be taken for granted, that’s something to appreciate, even if we sometimes forget to appreciate it.

     Well, we managed to do it one more time after that. And then there was this election.

     No civil war, but people literally calling for it. No tanks in the streets, not yet, though it’s sounding like we’ll see a lot of troops on Inauguration Day. Hardly a peaceful election. Hardly an orderly transfer of power. Instead, we got a mob forcing their way into the Capitol following the speech of a President still insisting without evidence that the election was stolen. Members of Congress and the Vice-President had to shelter in place. We have credible threats of armed demonstrations in every state capital and D.C. through Inauguration Day. I wrote that I was amazed when an orderly transition happens, but it turns out that I’m more amazed when it doesn’t. It’s still hard for me to believe what I saw.

     Most everyone is publicly saying the right things: that the mob scene we saw last Wednesday shouldn’t have happened, that there should be justice, that arrests should be made, that there should be no further violence. I’m thankful we can at least still agree on that, most of us. Congress got back together the same night of the attack and did the work the Constitution requires of them. We did see some courage and leadership.

     But despite everyone saying the right things out loud, I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced some of the people at all levels decrying the violence today wouldn’t have hailed the mob as heroes if what they tried to do had worked. I’m going to need to see a lot more of the right things before I have a lot of confidence that the culture around our politics has changed.

     But so what? I’m not a political commentator. I’m a Christian, and I’m a minister and pastor, and I know that most of the people who care to read what I have to say are Christians as well, the kind of Christians who read wordy, rambling posts like this. So, speaking to Christians, I want to say the following. (If you’re not a Christian, you’re invited to read it as well. Maybe something will speak to you too.)

     I know some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are angry and upset over the election. You believe President Trump protected religious freedom, or that he’s pro-life. You’re scared of an America with any Democrat, or this one in particular, in the White House. Maybe you don’t really like President Trump as a person, but you like his policies — or dislike Democratic ones — enough that you wanted four more years for him. I know you don’t share his obvious misogyny, or his disregard for the stories of immigrants. I know you don’t approve of his marital unfaithfulness. I know that there are no perfect Presidents, not in their personal lives, not in their character, and not in their policies. The people we elect never measure up to the character of our King. That’s why we follow him.

     That’s what I want to remind you of; if you’re a Christian, you follow Jesus.

     Let me be real for a second: Some of what I’ve seen on social media the last couple of months from people who are followers of Jesus is reprehensible. To the degree that we’re guilty of passing on lies and half-truths, we’ve contributed to the current climate in our nation. To the degree that we use incendiary language about those we disagree with, we’re complicit. To the degree that we mock or insult, we’re a part of it. There is no acceptable reason — none — for a Christian to call for violence or war to solve our nation’s problems (but I’ve seen it). There’s no good reason — none — for those of us who follow the One who went to a cross and offered forgiveness to the ones who put him there to excuse violence. 

     You know how much I suspect Jesus cares about our political opinions? Less than the number of pixels in the period at the end of this sentence.

     I say that because Jesus doesn’t tell us to stand up and have an armed rebellion every time an election doesn’t go our way. What we are told is that we should pray for “for kings and all those in authority.” He even tells us what kinds of prayers: “petitions, prayers,  intercession and thanksgiving .” Ask God to guide them, to help them do good and frustrate them when they do evil. Ask him to bless and sustain them in the work that they do. Thank him for giving us leaders, and for the way he does his work in the world through them. 

     That doesn’t mean that everything they do is the work of God. Doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t disagree with them when they do wrong. That you should defend them no matter what. That anyone who says something against them is godless. One of the clearest commands in the Bible, though, is that Christians are to pray for our leaders.

     That’s because what God wants, above all, is that we live peaceful and quiet lives. “This is good, and pleases  God our Savior,” Paul writes. Whether a conservative or a liberal is in the White House doesn’t make the list. What we ought to be praying about is that our leaders will order society so that we can go about our business quietly and undisturbed. And our business, of course, is to live “in all godliness and holiness.” We don’t need a government to make Christianity the official religion for that to happen. But the less society sees us angry and fighting and the more they see us living godly and holy lives, the better the chances that they will “be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” What’s good, what pleases God, is not that America is Great Again. It’s that people know truth and come to Jesus. 

     To the extent that we’re contributing to the stench of lies, anger, hatred, and violence in our world, we’re blowing it. We’re blowing it in a huge way.

     I’d love to see this: the next time you want to post something critical of your political opponents, do a little more work and post it in the form of a prayer. Something like this:

God, please bless our country during this transition. Please help our incoming President to do what’s best for the most of our citizens, especially those who are the weakest and most vulnerable. Lead him in addressing our worst problems. Give him the wisdom to know what’s right and the character to do it. Frustrate the plans of those who plot evil today. Give those deceived by lies open ears and open hearts. Let justice and righteousness be known. Be with our former President, and give him peace. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

This Is Why

  Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,

who rely on horses,

who trust in the multitude of their chariots

and in the great strength of their horsemen,

but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,

or seek help from the LORD.

-Isaiah 30:1 (NIV)

This is why.

      This is why Christians shouldn’t get too caught up in political parties. This is why we shouldn’t believe the easy words of demagogues who appeal to our fear or our pride or our selfishness to gain and hold on to power. This is why we ought to be careful about believing that this candidate will save us, or that this next candidate will save us from the first one. This is why we ought to look for an outstretched hand whenever someone arises from the political landscape to claim that he or she will protect our “way of life” and vanquish our enemies. This is why valuing military power, economic strength, and a closed society over justice and righteousness never works. 

     Eventually, someone will ask something of you as the price for maintaining those things — something that you can’t pay, or shouldn’t be willing to. They’ll ask you to believe and propagate lies. They’ll ask you to turn on your neighbor who doesn’t toe the official line. They’ll ask you to turn a blind eye to injustice — even to excuse it. When they do, you’ll have to struggle with how deep your political loyalty runs and how and where it entangles with your faith.  

     I’m not trying to say “I told you so.” Far from it. I’m reminding myself of it. Those who may have seen it coming this time might just as easily be a little too cozy with the powers-that-be the next time around. The temptation to find security in the halls of government and those who inhabit them is always with us. 

     Always has been, I guess. Millennia ago, the prophet Isaiah told God’s people, God’s nation, not to trust in a political alliance with Egypt to keep themselves secure and prosperous. It was so tempting, with the armies of Babylon on their borders. Egypt had their horses and chariots and warriors, enough army to go toe-to-toe with Babylon. By comparison, Israel wasn’t very imposing at all. Any general worth their swagger stick would have recognized a military strategy in which Israel’s army went into battle alone against Babylon was suicidal. Whatever deal they had to make to get Egypt’s ordinance on their side was worth it.

     The problem being that God drew a line: to go to Egypt for help, to make a deal that entangles them in a covenant with another nation, is to fail to trust in God. It’s to give up on the first covenant that they had made with him. Alliances with foreign kings bring worship of foreign gods. They bring loss of identity as God’s people, defined by their covenant with God. They require unfair taxes that place hardship on the nation. 

     It went way back. Gideon put the Midianites to flight with 300 men armed with trumpets and torches. In the Exodus, Israel had taken the walled city of Jericho without firing a shot, instead obeying God and waiting for him to bring down the walls. Their champion David defeated the Philistine champion, Goliath, with no armor and only a shepherd’s sling for a weapon. The history was there, the stories of God’s deliverance,  but instead of trusting in God Israel was being drawn into a political alliance that would in the end provide them with nothing. 

      Are we any better at history? Maybe not. Over and over, the church has allied itself with political powers. Even more often, perhaps, Christians have made the mistake of thinking that the people whose names they check in a voting booth and whose campaigns they donate to will save them from the things they fear and give them the security they crave. But there have always been a few reminding us that our hope is in God, not in political power or the politicians who promise it.  

     This is why. This is why they remind us.

     Let the events of this week in D.C. — events that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will study in school and wonder just how in the blazes we let it happen —  let them remind us as Christians of the cost of clutching at political power. Today, believers who thought to one degree or another that a political alliance with the current administration was worth the price are left backpedaling, or deflecting, or excusing, or explaining, or apologizing. The church will be picking up the pieces of our witness to the gospel for years because some of us — not all of us, and not even all of us who voted for Trump — thought that just this once trusting in his chariots and horses might be a little more realistic than trusting in God.

     And, of course, in a year or two or four or whatever, some of us may be regretting just as much trusting in Biden to deliver us. Illicit alliances aren’t just red and they aren’t just blue. They’ll lead us to turn on the neighbors we’re supposed to be loving. They’ll lead us to make compromises that prop up the one in whom we’ve placed our faith. They’ll lead us to neglect the weightier matters of following Jesus for the trivia of maintaining loyalty to the party or candidate. 

     They’ll lead us, in short, to give up our citizenship in the Kingdom of God in favor of the kingdoms of this world. 

     But how? How do we completely avoid political engagement?

     Well, I didn’t say that you should. But how about this: Why not try to keep your political engagement more hands-on? Come out from behind a keyboard and off social media and engage locally. Be part of positive, constructive work in the community in which you live. Get vacant lots turned into playgrounds. Run for a local school council to make a real difference in the educational experiences of children who you know. Join a citizens’ police oversight board. Donate to or volunteer at a food pantry. Help get a community garden started. Clean up trash, help repair an elderly neighbor’s house, advocate for affordable housing. There are a thousand things you can do to serve.

     And that’s the key word here: service. Jesus said that those who want to be great should serve — not claw for power, but serve someone else. For a believer, politics should not be about what I can get for myself and those I love. It should be how I can show love for my neighbor, whoever they are — how I can help them share some of the things that I enjoy. We’re most like Jesus when we’re serving those around us. We’re least like him when we’re jockeying for political power. 

     Politics as service keeps us focused on the central, twin, issues of living in our world: justice/righteousness. Jesus told us not to be anxious about having what we think we need — our own little kingdoms — and instead to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Our political parties aren't the equivalent of righteousness and justice, but they should be the means of them. If they aren't, what good are they? We have to know, don’t we, that much of our political involvement hasn’t been about those things. We need to repent of that and resolve to do better.

     What we saw this week, and what we’ll be trying to explain for years to come — this is why.