2 Brief Thoughts on Elections

Christians make two mistakes when it comes to elections.  Either we are triumphalist, thinking that because our candidate won, all will be well, or we are defeatist and despairing, thinking that because our candidate lost, all will be lost.  Both reactions are mistaken.

Elections Are Important

Don’t get me wrong–politics matters.  I voted yesterday, and I think it matters who is elected, from dog catcher to president, and I want our leaders to lead and our government to run well.  It matters whether the trains run on time and the roads are paved and the trash picked up.  But as important as all that is, politics is not ultimate, and political power is not most important.  There is something more important than politics, and therefore Christians shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that our hope depends on how the election returns come in.

But Political Power is Not *Most* Important

Faithfulness is more important than politics and election results.  David Watson is the Dean of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and he wrote a blog post yesterday about the temptation the church faces to value political power over faithfulness.  Professor Watson’s article is worth quoting from at length (though you should read the whole thing):

My fellow evangelicals, let me state this clearly: the “system” will never serve us, because the “system” is not of Christ. The “system” is a political machine beholden to special interests, lobbying groups, large corporations, financial contributors, and other entities, many of which are not the least bit concerned with anything remotely resembling Christian values. The idea that you can tear down the “system” and reshape it to serve you is, and always has been, a lie. It has been a lie since the time of Constantine. The “system” is about power, but Christ’s power is the power of the cross, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Christians must always stand outside the “system,” even when it is ostensibly Christian. As Christ taught us, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Christians willing to compromise core tenets of the faith in order to bend the political process to their will may win in the short term, but it will be a pyrrhic victory. In the end, they will lose far more than they gain. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36). It’s not worth it. It’s not even close….

His ending makes our choice clear:

Who will we follow? Will we follow Christ and rightly understand ourselves as a countercultural family of faith, or will we baptize an idol of crass materialism, place a crown on its head, and call it Jesus?

Good stuff.

 

 

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Everybody Wants To Be The Same

Everybody wants things to be different, but nobody wants to be different.  It is the different people, though, who make the biggest difference. The people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were always different, which is why they made the difference they did.

Le Chambon Was Different

Le Chambon is a small town in southwestern France, and for centuries it had been the home for a population of French Protestants called Huguenots.  The Huguenots had been influenced by John Calvin and had been persecuted by the Roman Catholic French state during the wars of religion.  The Huguenots, therefore, knew what it meant to be different and knew what it meant to suffer.

André Trocmé, wife Magda, and their children [https://extravagantcreation.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/pastor-andre-trocme-wife-magda-and-children63.jpg]

André Trocmé, wife Magda, and their children [https://goo.gl/8vfEGN]

André Trocmé and the Jews

When World War II began, Pastor André Trocmé led the people of Le Chambon in welcoming and sheltering refugees and fugitives, many of them Jews.  The people of the town refused to declare allegiance to the collaborationist government in Vichy and devised ingenious ways to disguise the Jewish population around them.

In August of 1942, the police came to the town and demanded that Le Chambon give up the Jews they were hiding.  On August 30, André Trocmé ascended the steps of the pulpit in his packed church.

The church in Le Chambon [http://goo.gl/bnFsv6]

The church in Le Chambon [http://goo.gl/bnFsv6]

The pastor told the people to “do the will of God, not of men.”  The authorities left the town without making any arrests.

In 1943, however, Pastor Trocmé was arrested and detained for 5 weeks, and after his release he had to go into hiding until the end of the war.  His wife Magda carried on his work and provided leadership to the effort to shelter and save Jewish refugees.

Approximately 5,000 Jewish refugees were sheltered in Le Chambon (a town of only 5,000 people) over the course of the war; not a single Jew was given over to the Nazis.

There is a memorial to André and Magda Trocmé at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Yad Vashem [http://goo.gl/sr6tkR]

Yad Vashem [http://goo.gl/sr6tkR]

If You’re Not Different, You’re Not Any Good

Nobody wants to be different, which is why the world is the way it is: everybody is just like everybody else.

It’s like salt.  Salt is meant to flavor and preserve, but if salt loses its saltiness, it’s good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot.

The people of Le Chambon were different, and so they made a difference.

 

In memory of the people of Le Chambon, the salt of the earth and “righteous among the nations.”

 

 

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Who Cares if Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Lots of folks are asking that question these days, and though it is an important question (and one that I will not be answering in this post), I don’t think the question is as helpful as other people seem to think.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Some people say yes, and these people imply that Christians are therefore under obligation to show compassion to Muslims because of their theological commonalities.  After all, aren’t Christians and Jews and Muslims all “people of the book?”  (That phrase comes from the Qu’ran.)  And, since we are all people of the book, shouldn’t Christians treat Muslims with compassion?

I do not agree with this implication.

The Problem With Saying Yes

As Mark Tooley points out in Newsweek, if you stress that Christians are obligated to show compassion to Muslims because they are theological cousins, you are inadvertently implying that Christians are not under the same obligation to show compassion to other peoples with whom they don’t have any theological commonalities.  Hindus, for example, are not “people of the book,” and yet that fact should not affect Christian treatment of Hindus (or Sikhs or Jains or Buddhists or atheist communists, etc.)

A Christian’s compassion for another does not depend on that other’s theological commitments.  Whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether a Christian should show compassion towards his Muslim neighbor.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  What if the answer is no–should that change how a Christian treats her Muslim neighbor?

Love Isn’t Conditional

Christians are not required to only love people with whom we agree (or partially agree).

Jesus, after all, told his followers to love their enemies.

 

 

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This Is Why I Love My Job

On Sunday, I was reminded how grateful I am that I get to do what I do.  The congregation I serve in East Dallas celebrated our 5th birthday on Sunday, and I’ll be the first to tell you that the sermon wasn’t the best part of the service.  No, it was what happened afterwards that everyone is talking about.

Who Knew Cardboard Could Make You Cry?

We had asked some folks from our congregation to share their “cardboard testimonies” immediately following my sermon.  Nothing I could ever say could be as powerful as what those folks wrote on their cardboard signs:

I feel so grateful to get to be a part of a place like Munger and to see the saving power of God up close.

Amen.

 

 

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Happy Birthday Munger!

Five years! The congregation I serve in East Dallas celebrated our 5th anniversary today, and my friend Lin Thomas–a great Mungarian!–blessed us with a birthday poem.  Check out the 90 second video, below.

Lin’s Birthday Poem

Lin, who is blind, is a faithful and generous member of our congregation.  (You might remember that he shared a Thanksgiving prayer with us last November.)  This morning, this is what he had to say to a packed house of Mungarians:

We are so blessed.

 

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In Death’s Dark Valley

Our community was shocked last week when we heard the evil news that an 18 year-old young woman named Zoe Hastings was found murdered.  What do we do in the face of this kind of loss?  I don’t know the Hastings family personally and I don’t presume to have any idea of the hell through which they are walking.  But, I have been thinking about loss, and I humbly offer the following thoughts to anyone struggling with the question, “What do we do in the face of evil, death, and suffering?”

We Grieve

When we experience loss, we grieve.  It is appropriate and necessary to be filled with anger or dread or numbness.  It’s okay to scream and cry.  When someone you love is taken away, anything less than grief would be an obscenity.  And, because grief comes in all different forms and in different ways and at different times for different people, whatever you are feeling is fine.  Don’t analyze it.  Just grieve.

We Resist

When we experience evil and loss we want to scream out “Why?”  When evil comes upon us, it is always inexplicable, but for some reason we still feel the need to offer an explanation.  Don’t.  One of the wisest things I ever heard my father say: “Resist the urge the explain.”  We don’t know why Zoe Hastings was murdered.  No one knows.  “Why?” is a useless question, and do not attempt to offer an explanation or a platitude–however well intentioned–to someone grieving.  Resist the urge to explain: it won’t do any good.

We Hope

I may not have an answer to the “Why?” questions, but there is something else that I do have.   Please know that I mean no offense in sharing the following, as I am aware that not everyone reading this shares my faith.  But, as a Christian, in the face of evil, pain, and loss, I have hope.

Now, Christian hope is not wishful thinking.  It is not a vague sense that we should think positively or put a sunny gloss on our grief.  Wishful thinking has nothing to offer to those who grieve.

No, Christian hope is certainty.  Christian hope is based on the fact that Jesus is risen; Christian hope knows that the Resurrection proves that evil will not win and that everything sad will become untrue.  Christian hope is the certainty that God will ultimately right every wrong.

That is the hope I have.

So, in the face of evil, death and suffering, we grieve.  And we wait until the day when God will make everything new.

And we hope.

Lord, help our unbelief.

 

P.S.  One of My Favorite Bible Verses

Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

Jesus is Not Running For President

Hypocrisy.  “Hypocrisy” is the first complaint many people make against Christians.  And you know what? They’re right: we are hypocrites.  Especially when it comes to politics.

Politics First, Faith Second

I’ve noticed that many American Christians are shaped more profoundly by the political views of our respective tribes—liberal, conservative, etc.—than we are by the Jesus we claim to follow. Recent polling of American Catholic views of Pope Francis are a good example of this tendency:

  • Conservative Roman Catholics are in approval of the Pope’s views on same-sex marriage and abortion (he’s opposed to both) but they disapprove of his remarks on climate change and his critique of unfettered capitalism.
  • Liberal Roman Catholics are the exact opposite.

I am not in any way implying that the Pope speaks for Jesus, nor that all Christians ought to think the same way as Pope Francis. My point is simply that it is troubling that American Catholic views of Pope Francis break down along partisan lines.

And it’s not only Roman Catholics who do this: Protestants like me do the same thing as well. And this tendency to put politics first and faith second is extremely problematic.

Jesus is Lord, Not Caesar

“Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar.” For 2,000 years, Christians have made the claim that the ultimate authority is not whoever holds temporal political power, but that Jesus Christ is rightful Lord of the universe. Jesus is Lord, which means his place is first, and I (and everything else) am second.  But when people who claim to follow Jesus take their identities from the Democratic or Republican parties first and from Jesus second, we are effectively saying, “Caesar is more important than Jesus.” We are saying our first allegiance is to our political tribe and we are only paying lip service to our Lord. Our tendency is to justify our political views with our faith, rather than beginning with our faith and then trying to work out our politics. In other words, we are hypocrites.

No, It’s Not Wrong to Vote Red or Blue

I am not saying that if we all just followed the Bible then we would know exactly how to vote. I’m not that naïve. The Bible is not always easy to interpret or understand, and even if it were, this world is complicated and imperfect, so policy decisions are always going to require choices between lesser and greater evils and actions without certainty of outcomes. Life is complicated, and because of this, some Christians will believe that they can be more faithful Christians in the public square as Republicans and some will believe they can be more faithful followers of Jesus as Democrats, etc. It’s not wrong to take a political position on this or that issue.

What is wrong is to be a Republican or a Democrat first, and a follower of Jesus second. If you believe everything in your respective party’s platform is 100% in line with the teachings of Jesus, you have a problem. It should be obvious that Democratic or Republican policies are uncertain attempts to work in a messy world—they are not gospel, and we should not confuse them as such.

A Quick Self-Assessment

How do you know what you believe? If you are a Christian, do you believe what you believe because you have deeply wrestled in prayer and searched the scriptures over this or that issue, or do you believe what you believe because everyone in your political tribe thinks this way?

So, with regard to the topics below, we need to ask ourselves, “Why do we believe what we believe?”

  • Same-sex marriage
  • Guns
  • War
  • Torture
  • Drone attacks
  • Immigration
  • The Planned Parenthood videos
  • The Death Penalty
  • Welfare policies

Jesus is Not Running For President

We are going to have to pick a president next year, and that president will not be perfect. Christians will disagree over which man or woman running is best equipped to lead our country. That is okay. What is not okay is for me to transfer my ultimate allegiance to my political tribe. Jesus is not running for president, and political parties and partisan positions shouldn’t be worshipped. Don’t make the mistake of putting second things in the place of what ought to be First.  That’s called idolatry, and it never works out very well.

Just ask the builders of Babel.

 

 

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The Real Root of Our Dissatisfaction

“It’s no wonder we often find ourselves looking for satisfaction in all the wrong ways.  You and I are deluged from every side by advertising designed to foster dissatisfaction with our current lives.  From what I’ve seen on television, my life would be much more satisfying if I were to eat Special K for breakfast, buy my car insurance form GEICO, and wear a Breitling watch.  No one is impervious to advertising’s influence….

The real root of our dissatisfaction goes deeper than our response to the blitz of media advertising.  It resides somewhere deep in our souls and traces its origins all the way back to Eden.  The serpent’s question to Eve strikes home in all of our hearts: ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

Before this, Eve had delighted in God’s provision, but now she wants more.  She decides that the only fruit that will satisfy her hangs from the branches of the one tree God forbade her to eat from.  But upon partaking of the fruit, she finds–as we all have–that living outside of God’s boundaries and provision leads to fatal dissatisfaction.  Once humanity crossed the threshold into a broken relationship with God, we’ve been dissatisfied ever since.”

from Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul, by Bill Hybels (pp. 256-257)

Why Did God Permit the Charleston Murders?

We don’t know.  “We don’t know” is the honest answer to any question about why God permitted Dylan Roof to murder the Charleston Nine.  No one knows.  But though we will never have a definitive answer this side of the grave, a strange parable Jesus tells does offer an interesting perspective on the perennial “Why?” we ask whenever innocent people suffer.

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Today’s Eat This Book Portion

The Eat This Book campaign at my church provides folks a scripture reading schedule to follow.  Right now, we are reading through the Gospel of Matthew (about a half chapter a day), and today’s reading comes from Matthew 13, one of my favorite passages in scripture.  Reading the strange parable of the wheat and the weeds this morning has got me thinking about last week’s murders in Charleston.

The Wheat and the Weeds

wheat-fields-nature-landscape-sunrise

Surrounded by a crowd by the shore of the Sea of Galilee one day, Jesus told the following parable:

 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn….” 

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!'”

(Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Parables are meant to unsettle, to make you think.  So go read this strange parable again, slowly.  (In other words, don’t scan the way you normally do on the Internet.)

Some Quick Observations

  • Jesus points out that evil and good are so tightly mixed together in this world that no man or woman can perfectly separate one from another.  I know this is true, because I know it is true in me.
  • Jesus reminds us that, though evil seems to be growing stronger, so is good.  This is an evil world, but evil is not stronger than good.
  • Jesus says that, this side of Judgement Day, it is impossible to root up all the evil in the world without also destroying the good.  For reasons only known to God, if there is to be good in the universe, there must also be the freedom for evil.
  • Jesus makes it very clear that evil, though it seems strong today, will one day be utterly destroyed by God.
Emmanuel AME Zion Church member Kevin Polite helps members into the church for the service on 6/21/15 [David Goldman/Getty Images].

Emmanuel AME Zion Church member Kevin Polite helps members into the church for the service on 6/21/15 [David Goldman/Getty Images].

Let Me Know What You Think

I find this parable strangely comforting.  What about you?  What do you think this parable is about, and how might it relate to the evil that was done in Charleston last week?

 

 

What If Creationists and Atheists Are Both Wrong?

What if the way you’ve been thinking about God is all wrong?  If so, you’re in good company: according to Ric Machuga, both creationists and atheists also tend to think about God incorrectly, and both groups have been thinking about God incorrectly in the same way.

Dr. Machuga is professor of philosophy at Butte College in Northern California, and the author of Three Theological Mistakes: How to Correct Enlightenment Assumptions about God, Miracles, and Free Will.  In a recent article in Books and Culture, he argues that both creationists and atheists often make the same mistake when thinking about God.  (The article is behind a paywall; I subscribe to the print journal.)

Is God Like a Divine Watchmaker?

Does God exist?  Creationists say yes, and atheists say no.  However, we need to more specifically define what we mean by “exist:”

[Medieval philosphers] Moses Maimonides (Jewish), Thomas Aquinas (Christian), and Ibn Rushd (Muslim) all understood that ‘existence’ was not a simple Yes/No matter.  While God certainly ‘exists,’ they all insisted that God’s ‘existence’ was fundamentally unlike everything else’s ‘existence.'”

Creationists, Atheists, and Even Isaac Newtown….

In our scientific culture, we tend to think of God as a divine craftsman, a heavenly watchmaker who made the universe and set it ticking.  Creationists fight hard to defend the idea of God as divine craftsman (using Genesis 1-2), while atheists fight hard to discredit the idea of God as divine craftsman (using biology, cosmology, and paleontology).  But what if God isn’t like a watchmaker at all?

The watchmaker's bench

Professor Machuga points out that thinking about God as the ultimate craftsman is a logical mistake.

Watchmakers and watches both exist.  And though they are very different in many ways–watchmakers are conscious, intentional agents; watches are not–their ‘thingness’ is precisely the same.  Contrast this with the difference between Shakespeare and Hamlet.  While both the author and his character ‘exist,’ they certainly don’t exist in the same way.  Shakespeare existed as a human being.  Hamlet only ‘exists’ as the fictional character created by Shakespeare.  Yet, the difference between Shakespeare’s existence and Hamlet’s existence is far less than the difference between God’s existence and everything else” [emphasis mine].

Isaac Newton thought that the physical laws he uncovered were “not only consistent with the existence of a supernatural Craftsman, but that they required such a God.”  Unfortunately, Newton, for all his brilliance, made a mistake in thinking about God:

Of course, in one sense, Newton knew that God and his creation ‘existed’ in different ways.  Breadth, height, and weight are common to all material objects, whereas God is a pure spirit with neither breadth, height, nor weight.  Nevertheless, to speak of a ‘very skilled mechanic’ [Newton’s phrase] intervening to prevent planetary chaos presupposes that God and the planets exist in the same way and in the same universe” [italics in the original].

But, God and the universe do NOT exist in the same way.  God is not a just divine craftsman, and thinking of God in that way points us in the wrong direction.  A better direction is to think of God as a divine playwright, because God’s reality is utterly distinct from the reality of the universe he created.  If this distinction seems confusing, just think about Shakespeare:

Because Shakespeare is not contiguous with the world of his creature, he can have a reality, endurance, stability, and ‘otherness’ that far exceeds Hamlet’s.  Without Shakespeare, Hamlet is literally nothing.  But without Hamlet, Shakespeare is still something, even if his glory is slightly diminished.”

God Isn’t a Divine Watchmaker, but a Divine Playwright

God is not simply the largest, greatest, and strongest part of our reality; God is another reality, distinct from us.  God is not a divine watchmaker who sets the universe ticking; God is a divine playwright who wills us into existence from his imagination.

We Can’t Prove or Find God, Unless….

This means that the only evidence for God that can be found in our universe is evidence that God deliberately places here.  It means that we shouldn’t expect to be able to prove God’s existence any more than Hamlet could prove the existence of Shakespeare.  It means that unless God shows up, we can never ever find him.

And it means that the Incarnation changes everything.