Friday, July 29, 2022

God is an Encourager

 …God did not appoint us to suffer wrath  but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,  just as in fact you are doing...
-1 Thessalonians 5:10-11 (NIV)

A large chunk of the Bible might not exist if someone hadn’t taken the time and made the effort to encourage someone else. 

     In the book of Acts, Saul, a Jewish theologian and leader, has a big problem with Christians. Has such a big problem with them, in fact, that he was involved in the lynching of Stephen, an outspoken believer in Jesus who really upset the religious and civic leaders of Jerusalem. Not content to work against them his own city, Saul traveled to other cities to arrest Christians and throw them in prison.

     The church seemed to be pretty wary of Saul. Understandably so. So when Saul met Jesus as he traveled to Damascus to persecute Christians, the man God sent to him to teach him the gospel, Ananias, was reluctant to go to see him. When Saul eventually had to sneak out of Damascus and returned to Jerusalem and tried to connect with the church there, they didn’t want anything to do with him. Everybody steered clear. I don’t know, he wasn’t invited to potlucks or to join a small group, maybe. They forgot to tell him that they changed the time for worship. In any case, no one believed that his conversion was real. The church all thought that it was some kind of elaborate ruse.

     Except one guy, Joseph. He believed in Saul all the way. He got him in to see the apostles, where he told them more about Saul’s conversion and Jesus’ words to him, and about how he had preached Jesus without fear in Damascus. While the apostles might have doubted Saul, they knew Joseph could be trusted. Acts 4, in fact, tells us that he had a nickname among the apostles. They called him “Barnabas” — “Son of Encouragement.”

     What they meant was that Barnabas pretty much exemplified encouragement. He was the epitome of encouragement. When they thought of Barnabas, that’s what they thought of. That’s certainly what he did for Saul by standing at his side when everyone else was holding him at arm’s length. That must have been what he did for many in the Jerusalem church.

     If you’ve ever been encouraged by someone when you needed it most, you understand why Barnabas was appreciated for his ability to encourage.

     In English, the word just says what it does, right? Encourage. To encourage someone is to help them overcome fears, transcend doubts that they can do what they need to do. When someone encourages you, they give you confidence and hope. They lift your spirits, they make you believe. If you want to change your life in some way, you need people to encourage you. If you want to accomplish something difficult, it helps to have encouragers around you. Encouragers — well, they give you courage.

     The word in the New Testament usually translated “encourage” has even more shades of meaning. It has to do with being near someone in order to give them help, comfort, or solace. While we usually think of encouragement as being unrelentingly positive, the New Testament word can also include urging, persuasion, and even warning. (I think of how a parent, in love, might “encourage" their child to change their behavior through threat of punishment.) Where that word overlaps with the English word “encourage” is in the idea of taking it upon yourself to help someone believe that they’re able to do what’s right and what’s best, even when it’s hard.

     Did you know that the same word that’s applied to Barnabas in Acts is applied to God in 2 Corinthians 1:3? There, he is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.” It’s translated “comfort” in most English versions, but it's the same word. God is an encourager!

     A related word is applied to the Holy Spirit in John 14, 15, and 16. There, Jesus refers to the Spirit as “the Advocate” — in some translations “the Helper” or “the Comforter.” The Spirit will come to Jesus’ followers and encourage them as they testify about Jesus. The Spirit will bring them peace by reminding them of Jesus. The Spirit will vindicate them by proving the world to be wrong in its opposition to Jesus. In these three chapters of John, Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the Spirit will encourage them in his absence in all these ways. God, through the Holy Spirit, is an encourager!

     How has God comforted you in the past? How is he comforting you now? There in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we disciples of Jesus should “comfort — encourage — those in any trouble with the comfort — encouragement — we ourselves receive from God.” God is an encourager, but he doesn’t want us to be black holes of encouragement, receiving what he gives and letting no light escape. The idea is that God often encourages others through us. Encouragement is to be passed on. 

     Paul writes about encouragement in his letters at least 20 times. Wonder why. 

     I think it might have been because, before he was Paul, he was Saul. That converted fundamentalist terrorist that most everyone in the church was afraid of became Paul, the preacher who did the most of any single person to share the message of Jesus with the world. His letters make up half the books of the New Testament. Our Bibles would look very different today if Barnabas hadn’t encouraged Paul — and encouraged the church to give him a chance. What would Christianity be missing today if not for Barnabas and his encouraging nature?

     In our world as it is, people need encouragers. I don’t think most people will be talked into believing in Jesus; there’s just too much noise all the time. I don’t think most people will be informed into belief; information is everywhere. I don’t think most people will be argued into belief; there’s so much argument now that out of self-defense most people just hear what supports the beliefs they already have. 

     I think encouragement might be what makes the difference. If God is an encourager, we should be encouragers too. If the Holy Spirit comes encouraging and comforting, then we in whom the Spirit lives should be known as encouragers as well. 

     So who might be the Saul to your Barnabas? Who can you encourage? Who can you advocate for? Who’s had their heart taken from them and needs you to help them grow a new one? Maybe you know someone who’s young in their faith, or limping in their walk with Jesus. Maybe someone who’s burned some bridges and needs your encouragement because no one else thinks they’re worth the effort. Maybe you know someone who’s burning the candle at both ends and needs some kind words and helpful acts. Maybe there’s someone in your life who’s turned down a wrong path and needs some encouragement to turn around.

     Give them some encouragement, and they may just see God in that. They may just experience the Spirit.

     Never underestimate the power of encouragement. God has been known to change the world through just one encourager!

Friday, July 22, 2022

Love and Justice

 I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

-God (Hosea 6:6, NIV)

I saw a great quote from Cornell West recently, one I want to share with you: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

      We have a problem with defining justice, I think because when we hear the word we so easily associate justice with “the justice system.” While we need the justice system, I don’t think its primary purpose is to produce justice — at least not justice as the Bible defines it. The justice system exists to make up for a lack of justice. Sometimes it’s able to restore some semblance of justice. Other times, all it can do is to create a deterrent against others committing the same injustice, through penalties and punishment. And none of that, of course, even wrestles with the idea that our justice system is not always just.

     Justice, in the Bible, is a much more positive concept than that. It’s a way of treating each other with faithfulness and care. Justice requires that our own needs be subverted at times to take care of the more urgent needs of someone else. In biblical terms, widows, orphans, and foreigners require more concern and care than healthy, wealthy Israelites with networks of family and neighbors to help them. Justice requires those in power to take seriously their responsibility to guard the poor against mistreatment by the wealthy and to make laws that most zealously guard the rights of those who are most likely to lose them. 

     Point is, justice isn’t created by courts and police officers and jails and lawsuits. Justice is created by human beings recognizing our responsibilities for one another, being willing to acknowledge that my neighbor’s problems are my problems, too. Justice is, in the words of Jesus (quoting the Hebrew Bible), loving my neighbor as myself. And so Dr. West is right — Justice is what love looks like in public.

     I think this helps us. I’ve heard Christians say that justice is an Old Testament idea, that Jesus and the apostles didn’t speak or write much about justice. It’s true that the word “justice” doesn’t appear as much in English translations of the New Testament as it does in the Old Testament. Three reflections, though: one is that the word “righteousness” does exist, and that word is very close to the Old Testament ideas of justice.

     Two, Jesus’ teachings and probably every New Testament book contain detailed descriptions of how Jesus-followers should treat each other and the world around us. Those standards, including special concern for the poor, orphans, widows and the elderly, are exactly the standards a just society revolves around. The New Testament expects that we will be creating communities — churches — in which God’s justice can be seen in action.

     And, third, Jesus and the New Testament have a lot to say about love. In Christ, love is justice. 

     Problem is, in the American church we don’t make that connection between justice and love. 

     So we can talk about loving people we know, who we’re close to, who we care about, while forgetting that love goes beyond our immediate context. That’s why, for example, Christian slaveholders in the antebellum south could talk about “love” for their slaves while propping up an irredeemable, horrific system built on atrocities and disdain toward an entire race without seeing a contradiction. It’s how Christian leaders in the Jim Crow south could say with a straight face that love for Blacks demanded segregated schools and churches. It’s how church leaders today defend abusers as “men of God” while refusing to listen to their victims. It’s how we deny the poor, the lonely, the sick, and the prisoner the privilege of calling out to God on their behalf as a community of faith. It’s how some church leaders decry demonstrations against police shootings or misogyny while supporting or at least excusing an incursion into the Capitol intended to intimidate and perhaps even to kill or injure government officials.

     I did a quick, very unscientific survey of the songs we sing in worship at our gatherings. I recently heard one of our worship leaders say that we have a repertoire of around 2,000 songs. Of those, 9 contain the word “justice.” Two of those say that the cross is a reconciliation of God’s justice and love. (See how we’ve lost that connection?) A few refer to justice as either something Christ will return to bring to earth, or something that characterizes God’s kingdom. Only one actually asks God to bring justice to the earth. In only two are we led to aspire to be people of justice ourselves.

     In contrast, the word “justice” appears 128 times in the New International Version of the Bible. That’s just the times translators decided to render Greek and Hebrew words with that English word. The huge majority of those occurrences refer to the right, equitable, faithful treatment of human beings that God requires of his people.

     The closely-related word, “righteousness,” occurs over 200 times in the NIV. While in the New Testament it can refer to the righteousness of Jesus which faith in him imputes to believers, much more often in Scripture it refers to obeying God, being “clean” before him, having integrity, and often is a synonym for justice. 

    If we know the book of Hosea, it’s usually because we’re familiar with the prophet’s personal story: God told him to marry a “promiscuous woman” so that his life would be sort of a parable reflecting God’s relationship to Israel. (And you think the lines between your home and work lives get a little blurred!) The root problem is idolatry, the worship of other gods, but here’s how Israel’s “promiscuity” plays out: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.”

     No faithfulness, love, or acknowledgment of God, which means the brakes are off for every form of selfish behavior until “bloodshed follows bloodshed.” All my  life, I’ve heard the term “faithful Christian” applied to those who attend services regularly. It has more to do in the Bible, though, with faithfulness to our social contracts, to the imperative we have to care for one another. It has to do mostly with justice, righteousness, and love. 

     Hosea’s best known verse is this one: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” In his day, Jesus told the religious people to “go and learn what [that] means.” What it means is that we can have “religion,” “faithful” Christians attending worship services, without justice and love — but it doesn’t impress God very much. What it means is that we need to acknowledge the ways in which even the songs we sing, the sermons we preach and hear, and the prayers we pray can contribute more to unfaithfulness and injustice than to acknowledgment of God and the mercy and love he expects us to show to each other and the world around us. 

    At church we were praying for the refugees from Ukraine, and those still in places of violence, and someone asked, “Shouldn’t we sometimes pray that God will prevent those who are bent on doing evil from carrying out their plans?” There’s a good start: to recognize that our world is full of powerless people who need God’s protection from the powerful who would grind them under their heels. As God’s people, we should care about them, pray for them and against those who would hurt them, and show them love every way we can. That is the beginning of justice — love for those who need help born out of God’s love for them.

     Love is justice. Let’s obey Jesus and go and learn what that means. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

On Handling Conflict

 A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.

-Proverbs 16:28 (NIV)

By nature, I’m non-confrontational. I prefer to get along well with people. When I don’t, I tend to avoid the situation rather than deal with it — which sometimes makes it look like I’m avoiding them. But it’s not them, at least not usually. It’s the conflict I’m avoiding. I know people who seem to thrive on conflict, and I don’t get it. 

     Certainly, I think social media and echo-chamber news have helped to create an appetite for conflict in our world that is not healthy at all. But I’ve started to come to the conclusion that some conflict is absolutely necessary. Handled well, conflict creates new solutions. It pushes us to work out our differences in mutually beneficial ways that we never would have thought of without the conflict. Sometimes it forces us to admit our faults and grow as human beings. So the existence of conflict doesn’t represent a failure. Far from it.

     We should know that’s true anyway since, in all four of the Gospels, Jesus is constantly embroiled in conflict. It’s interesting that not one of the Gospel writers imagined writing about Jesus’ life without including the conflict he had with some of the religious leaders of his time: the Pharisees, the experts on the Law, and eventually the Sanhedrin. Jesus himself dealt with conflict.

     Not only that, but he told his disciples that those who hated him would hate them too. He warned them that they might be expelled from synagogues and even that their own families might turn on them. He even reassured them that they’d be blessed when everyone hated them — he didn’t mean by that what we sometimes think he meant, but it’s clear that he didn’t imagine that the lives of people who try to follow him will be absent a conflict or two. 

     So conflict isn’t a failure. It’s just that we so often flub the way we handle it that when it rears its head we tend to throw up our hands and give up. We either avoid, like me, or we adopt a scorched-earth policy and wade in fists flying, voices raised, red-faced and fiery-eyed.

     So I have a few thoughts on how to handle conflict. Again, these aren’t thoughts on how to avoid conflict, or win conflict. These things won’t always help to defuse conflict, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll help resolve it. But I think they will sometimes. And I think that if you try to follow these guidelines you’ll at least feel better about the conflict that you’re a part of.

     To begin, please remember: you’re not the good guy in the story. We so easily cast ourselves as the protagonist in most any conflict we’re a part of that we often see compromise as impossible. After all, you don’t compromise with the bad guys.

     This, by the way, is why it’s hard for us to look at Jesus as a model for conflict resolution. Jesus could call people who disagreed with him “offspring of vipers” or “whitewashed tombs” because when people disagreed with him, they were literally opposing the work and Word of God. However good a person you are, you’re not always on the side of the angels. You probably have a part in creating or escalating a conflict. (If you truly don’t, you might be in an unhealthy or even abusive relationship.) Own your part. Ask yourself from time to time what it’s like to be on the other side of your skin. You’re not the bad guy in the story either, probably, but neither are you the sole representative and defender of truth, justice, and goodness. Acknowledge that you might have some things wrong too, or at least that you don’t have a complete grasp of the truth. 

     Second, talk to people, not about them. This shouldn’t have to be said, especially to Christians, but it’s violated so often that I probably need to. James calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” because what we say can do so much damage — and we seem so willing to use it that way. What you say about people affects others’ opinions of them too. It can poison those who hear what you say against them. It can damage your credibility, too. And it does nothing to resolve conflict. So do what Jesus teaches: if you have a conflict with someone, go talk to them first, before you tell anyone else about it. 

     Third, believe the best about other people. Probably because of how quickly we make ourselves the heroes in the stories of our conflicts, we often attribute all kinds of dark, inaccurate, and unfair motives to the people we disagree with. Paul warns the church in Rome against judging their fellow Christians when they disagree, and reminds them that they answer to God and want to please him too. Now and then, maybe, someone will do something to confirm the worst. But, as long as you can, believe the best about them.

     This will help in dealing with conflict. You can tell someone kindly that their actions came across as insensitive while also assuring them that you know they didn’t intend them to come across that way. Nine times out of ten, they probably didn’t. If you genuinely believe the best about them, you’ll be less inclined to demonize them.

     Fourth, explain your position, don’t blame. Again, I think because of number one, we’re so quick to put the burden of the conflict on others. “Why are you always so angry?” “You never think about what you say.” “Why do I always have to clean up your messes?” Or this gem, often heard in church: “If you’d just read the Bible, you’d see that…”

     In marriage counseling, it’s sometimes helpful to have the spouses speak in terms of how their partner’s actions make them feel. That won’t always help with other conflicts, but it’s true that you’ll rarely solve conflicts by assigning blame. (Remember, whoever you have the conflict with probably thinks they’re the good guy, too!) So instead of “You’re always so angry,” try something along the lines of, “You know, it bothered me that you got upset during our conversation. It made me feel pretty uncomfortable. Could we talk about it?”

     Or, instead of “If you’d just read the Bible…” how about something more like, “I never really thought about that, here’s how I read that verse…” Or, “OK, I see what you’re saying, but have you considered how that relates to this other verse?"  

     You get the point. Most conflict isn’t strictly a matter of right versus wrong, but of interpersonal relationships and how we live and thrive together with our differences. Explaining without blaming focuses on improving those relationships.

     Fifth, let those you have conflict know that you believe things can and will improve. We tend to equate conflict with the death of a friendship. But if you let people know you expect to get through this conflict and remain close-knit and united, it tells them that you value them and that your conflict won’t change that. Paul tells the church in Corinth that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Love doesn’t give up easily, so when you have conflict with someone let them know that you aren’t giving up on your relationship.

     Finally, I guess I don’t even have to mention that you should pray for those you’re in some kind of conflict with. But, look at that — I did mention it. Prayer gives you empathy for someone else. It banishes hate and bitterness. And it places you on level ground with them: in need of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness.

     Which is right where you both need to be.

Friday, July 8, 2022

How to Change the World

 “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…”

-Acts 17:6 (NRSV)

I was sitting in a hospital room with my father-in-law Monday morning with the local news on TV. I wasn’t really paying attention, I had the sound turned all the way down, but I noticed out of the corner of my eye as the broadcast went to a shot of the anchors in the studio that they suddenly had very serious, somber expressions on their faces. Their tight mouths and narrowed eyes didn’t fit with the usual content of a news broadcast on a holiday morning. So I wasn’t surprised to see “Breaking News” across the bottom of the screen.

     I was surprised that it was breaking in Highland Park, a nice town on the shore of Lake Michigan about a 20-minute drive from my house.

     It was, of course, coverage of the mass shooting at an Independence Day parade that we would eventually learn left 7 people dead and 46 wounded. Kids were killed, paralyzed, and orphaned. This week, as a write this, funerals are being planned. People are shocked and grieving. Calls for gun laws are being raised again, as are the voices of those who insist that more restrictive laws infringe on the Constitutional rights of responsible gun owners. To that, I would just wonder why someone who might be inclined to boycott Disney wouldn’t also be inclined to boycott supporting a firearm industry that’s made billions of dollars selling guns like those used in Highland Park? Sure, the Constitution says you can own a gun. But should you? But that’s not what this is about.

     What it’s about is something a friend and member of my church in Chicago, Nicole Estes, said in a story by the Christian Chronicle this week on the Highland Park shooting. Nicole and Steve and their daughters live just a few minutes from Highland Park. They eat there, shop there. The shooter was arrested a mile and half from their front door. Nicole says in the story that Highland Park is “a somber place to be right now.” She says she’s been praying about all the mass shootings, and “it’s a comfort because I know that our God is more powerful than Satan.” But then she says this: “We’ve always been this nation that’s ‘under God,’ that everyone’s admired for the good that’s in America and the safety that’s in America. And now we have this happening. … It’s terrorizing to everyone.”

     Nicole’s words clicked with some things I’ve been thinking about this week. What I’ve heard from a lot of people after mass shootings, about violence in our cities, about police misconduct, about the events of January 6, is a sense of helplessness. We all know that these things are terrible, brought about by a tiny fraction of the American population who have found that acts of violent cowardice give them outsized influence. But we don’t know what to do about it. Or, maybe, can’t agree to make the sacrifices we may need to make. In any case, we lament the loss of our collective innocence that we’re this great nation in which these things shouldn’t happen. And we feel helpless to make a difference.

     What I want to say is that we aren’t helpless. We can change the world. Well, not us, but Christ in us. It was said of the church in the book of Acts, in the Bible, that they were turning the world upside-down. That’s exactly what we can still do, if we will. And here’s how.

     First: Model contentment instead of dissatisfaction.    Paul wrote to the church in Philippi that he knew how to be ”content in any and every situation.” His big secret was, simply, " I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The writer of Hebrews warns us to “be content with what [we] have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” Contentment, then, is knowing that because of God’s faithfulness we have what we need. So much of the violence in our world, I’m convinced, comes from the fact that we’re never just…content. We’re always wanting, always aspiring, always conspiring to get more, more, more. We get angry when we don’t have everything to which we think we’re entitled, right now. A house. Cheaper gas. A better job. A better romantic life. On and on it goes. Our expectations have risen and our contentment has plummeted. Ray Wylie Hubbard says, “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations — well, I have really good days.” To be more content, practice being thankful. I think most of the other Christian virtues come out of this one. Develop the habit of giving thanks. Then we won’t add to the anger and frustration in the world, because we’ll be too busy discovering the depths of God’s faithfulness and all we can do through him.

     The second way to change the world: Always look out for those who don’t have enough. There’s a tension here that we’ll visit again. When it comes to your own situation, practice the discipline of contentment, whatever your circumstances. But don’t be content when you see others suffering from poverty, want, lack of resources or recourse, lack of love, lack of opportunity. Reach out to them. Show kindness and compassion. Offer what you have. People who are suffering lash out. They think they’re alone. They lose their connections to the rest of humanity because they think the rest of humanity has disconnected from them. Prove them wrong. Don’t let a child in your sphere of influence grow up thinking that no one loves them or values them. Don’t let someone miss a meal if you can do something about it. Don’t allow someone you can touch to get old and die alone. Do what you can to make sure people who need care get it. God has always expected his people to look out for those on the margins of society. You can’t help everyone, but most of us can do more than we imagine.

     The third way to change the world: Return love and peace for hate and conflict. This is, quite literally, the gospel. Jesus changed the world by absorbing hate, misunderstanding, violence, and murderous intent and returning love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace. It’s amazing how quickly even the church abandons this. This is how we “win.” This is how sin, evil, violence, and death lose. Not by being outfought, but by being outloved. We live in a world in which insults, barbs, threats, and even shots are exchanged at the drop of a hat. The way of Christ is always countercultural, but never more so than today. When we take people at their worst and show them the unshakable, uncompromising love of God, we stop evil in its tracks.

     But here’s another tension: the fourth way to change the world is to Never turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of others. When we can stop the abuse and neglect of others, we should. Even when we can just raise our voices for those who have no one to speak for them, we should. It is like Christ to endure mistreatment with love; it is not like him to stay quiet when others are being mistreated. Injustice is a corrosive influence in society. When the powerful abuse the powerless, the reasons for society to exist — protection, cooperation, interdependence — go out the window. Follow Jesus in insisting that those with power care for those who depend upon them. Never allow someone to be ganged up on or be alone. 

     Finally: Pray. Nicole is. So should we all be. God is more powerful than Satan. Sometimes we think of prayer as something done instead of anything else. But for us, it’s the starting point for all we do, because our power to change the world comes from what God has done for us in Jesus.

     This is why I remain optimistic. Not because people are smart — we aren’t — but because God is powerful and good. We can change the world. Now let’s do it.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Church and State

 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,

-Philippians 3:20 (NIV)

Last week — the week before Independence Day — an American politician announced at a rally that
she is “tired of this separation of church and state junk.” She argues that the phrase isn’t in the Constitution, and actually comes from “a stinking letter” — specifically a letter from Thomas Jefferson in which he wrote that the American public had built “a wall of separation between Church and State,” a metaphor that he borrowed from Roger Williams and John Locke.

     She can be tired of it if she wants, but the “wall” Jefferson referred to comes from the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the Bill of Rights expressly forbids Congress from creating a national Church, or interfering with the practice of religion in any way. A couple of centuries of American jurisprudence has applied that clause to various situations including school prayer, the use of religious symbols on public property, courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments, government-reimbursed busing or tax credits for religious schools, and so on. 

     The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli expressly states that America “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims]…” James Madison wrote in 1811,  "practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” While total “separation” has not always been practical, it has always been the goal of our country’s government to preserve the practice of religion — or no practice of religion at all — as a personal, individual choice not subject to the whims of those who have civil power.

     It’s easy to see why. 

    Our separation-of-church-and-state-fatigued politician this week went on to say, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church.” But, historically, when government and religion get entangled, it’s not good for either. In John Calvin’s Geneva, the church had enormous civil power — the Reformed church. Those thought to be heretics — because they disagreed with some doctrine or practice — were exiled, imprisoned and sometimes executed. The church dictated attendance at worship, public life, what recreation was available, even who a citizen of Geneva could have sex with. 

     When the church gains power, it looks less and less like Jesus as its power grows. It begins to control, coerce, and command. It’s no coincidence, I think, that this same politician recently suggested that Jesus “didn’t have enough [AR-15s] to keep his government from killing him.” She needed to say that; the cross is an embarrassment to those who think the church needs more civil power, that Jesus should have fought back against an oppressive, tyrannical, unjust government.

     Please, let’s remember in a world that thinks power is the solution that we follow someone who “laid down his life” willingly.

     Let’s remember that we follow in the footsteps of someone who warned that those who draw the sword will die by the sword, who literally healed a man his disciples wounded trying to save his life. 

     Let’s remember that we follow the One who “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!”

     We follow the one who believed that only when God’s kingdom comes will things be “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

     To follow Jesus is to let go of the illusion that if we just had more power we could make things exactly as they ought to be. It’s to pursue his mindset of making ourselves nothing, serving those around us, and letting go of the temptation to use our power to our own advantage. It’s to give up on violence or intimidation as a way of self-preservation, and instead lay down our lives for others — even those who might oppose us.

     Let’s not be surprised when those who believe in power don’t understand this. Why would they?

     What’s more discouraging is when some of us who do claim faith in Jesus plaster his name all over efforts to disenfranchise voters, perpetuate injustice, and marginalize people for whom he gave his life.

     There’s a lot about America to love, and I’m thankful for the blessings of being an American.

     But one of those blessings is simply this: I don’t have to accept it when my country doesn’t live up to its ideals. One of the best things about America is that we, its citizens, can speak up when we see wrong. We can speak up for the wronged, even when they’re wronged by those in power. 

     And we can model an alternative. Another great thing about America is that loyalty to the nation doesn’t have to be our highest allegiance. And, as Christians, it can’t be. I saw a survey recently from Nationscape in which over 85% of Americans who claimed to be Christians said that being an American was at least as important to them as their faith. That’s a problem. Jesus, of course, said that we can’t serve two masters. Paul reminds us  that “our citizenship is in heaven.” The writer of Hebrews said we should aspire to be “aliens and strangers” in the world. We can, and should, show the world around us that there is another Kingdom, in which God is sovereign and in which the values of love, peace, righteousness, service, and sacrifice are primary. Our world should see in the church a colony of this kingdom in which we’re all busy making those values visible and influential in the world around us — not by dictating to others how to live, but by the way we ourselves live. They should hear us speaking up, not for ourselves, but for those who are hurting, those who are lost, those who are falling through the cracks and failed by the system and ground under the feet of the powerful. They should see us giving ourselves in loving service to our neighbors.

     One of the best things about America isn’t even found in the Constitution. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, and it goes like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all [people] are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

     Those who came up with those words were right. By virtue of being God’s creation, no human being is greater than or less than any other. There is no exception to that. All have the same rights to live, to be free, and to have the chance to find joy and peace and security. May that truly be what America is about. But even when it isn’t, may it truly be what the church champions.   

     May we be grateful for the blessings God has given us as Americans. May we be thankful for the good in our nation, and just as honest about the bad. And may, always, our true citizenship be in heaven, and may we live out our lives as ambassadors of that kingdom.