This Guy and Politics!

I grew up hearing the old saw “never talk about politics and religion at the dinner table” with the idea that the topics were too incendiary for polite company. Being a preacher’s kid kind of put the kibosh on the religion aspect—at least at our house.

I have good memories of rich theological discussion and debate. In fact, my memories are so vivid that I have blamed my father for our differences in theological understanding. Both of my parents encouraged us to think, reason, and study for ourselves. My Dad is in his late seventies now and we still thoroughly enjoy discussing and learning from each other.

But politics? Those don’t play a big role in my memories. I remember political moments for sure. I can easily recall the tension of their support for the Civil Rights movement. I remember the drama and concern while watching the draft numbers from the Vietnam War era being called out on the evening news.

The only overtly political legislation that evoked difficulty or concern that I remember was the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Other than that, I have no memories of political arguments—no upset dialogue, no legislative anxiety. 

Eventually that would change during my high school years. Jimmy Carter was president and I began to pay attention half-heartedly to the political rumblings during his term. My senior year would see me fully engage with the political process for two important reasons. First, the Iranian Hostage Crisis was front page every day—you couldn’t escape the outrage. And second, I took a senior US. Civics class where we could earn an “A” test grade if we registered to vote. If you ever looked at my high school transcript, you’d know I needed every “A” possible!

And by registering toward the end of my senior year (1980), I was able to cast my first ballot in a presidential election—for the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, with that first vote, I was hooked. I studied/ researched issues, involved myself in some low-level activism, and before I even knew what had happened to me, I was a full-fledged political animal. By the time of the twenty-four hour a day cable news networks, politics began having an inordinate sway in my life—a sway that took years to break—a sway that has threatened to overtake my life on several occasions.

So yes, I became one of those gloom and doom folks who sweated out elections, who fussed and fumed over policies deemed detrimental to my way of life. I particularly became unglued/ unbalanced over losing our health insurance and doctors. Frankly, those were some unhappy years. Those were times in which I made the people closest to me miserable–including myself. I wish I could say that in the midst of my angst I always acted with a Christ-like spirit, but that would be self-delusional at best.

If I could be totally honest, as much as I despise the term jerk, that’s exactly what I became. So, what do I want you to know about the Christian and politics? I thought you’d never ask.

We could talk about Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:21, “Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 CSB17) Honestly? That’s a much-needed reminder.

We could talk about Paul’s words in Romans 12—about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice—about not being conformed to this world. Hey, that’s something I need to consider on a regular basic, politics or not.

But in an effort to make you think about where your priorities should lie, take a look at the story of The Rich Young Ruler as told by Jesus in Mark 10:17-22…

And then in Jesus’ explanation in verses 23-31, we find these words: 

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were astonished at his words. Again Jesus said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”” (CSB17)

As you read these verses, try out this little exercise: substitute wealth and riches with political concerns or political capital…

Ouch! 

And worse than that, it is scary to realize how out of whack I can let my priorities be!

As a child of God, I need to remember that His Kingdom is eternal while the politics of this world will one day pass away.

I leave you with the words to an old hymn…

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

(Helen Howarth Lemmel)

Blessings and Peace!

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Madison/ Oxford, MS

Celebrating the political Jesus has never been harder

During and after studying politics in grad school, I often heard variations of the statement that, if we’re to live together, we need to avoid political topics and focus on the things that unite us rather than divide us.

It’s a tempting proposition to be sure. Our political dysfunction has reached fever pitch, and our politics are defined more by screaming heads on cable news shows than even-headed discussions across the dinner table.

The call to civility usually means avoiding topics that appear insurmountable and that make us upset, like abortion, gay marriage, or immigration. While it’s true that we are called to a higher citizenship than our country — and certainly higher than our political party — I am in constant struggle with a single question that has followed me throughout my adult life:

Is Jesus political or not?

On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the whole conversation by citing the infamous, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” passage (Mark 12:17), and Jesus certainly wasn’t partisan in any way that can be seamlessly transplanted into civic debates in 2019 America. Jesus is not a Democrat. Jesus is not a Republican. Let’s start there.

But you don’t have to read far beyond the “Render to Caesar” passage to see that Jesus was constantly, sometimes belligerently, political. He cared about justice, he co-opted political language like the word “kingdom” for his own purposes, he rebuked political figures like Pharisees, he flipped tables in the Temple, he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes — members of two wildly different social classes — at the same time. Even the disciples were politically diverse. Religious sects such as the Essenes, Sadducees, and Zealots were as much political categories as religious ones. What were their dinner conversations like?

Jesus is obviously not a sideliner or a bland apolitical blob of kumbaya morality. He’s not surprised or offended by political difference. In fact, if we understand politics as the art of living together, Jesus spoke about nothing with more passion and grace than he spoke about politics. Turn the other cheek. Give to the poor. Love your neighbor. How’s that for a public policy?

The apolitical Jesus is as real as the loch ness monster or an unbiased media. It’s a cheap cop-out for those who want faux-agreement at the expense of the radical, inclusive, plural politics of Jesus.

Sometimes I read Scripture through a specific lens that helps me understand politics’ place in the Christian walk. Obviously, the Bible is not just a rulebook to follow verbatim. That’s one flawed lens through which to read Scripture. It is not merely a self-help book, a map to get to heaven, or a list of flawless individuals on whom to base our lives, either.

At its core, the Bible is a love story between an almighty, perfect God and humanity. Not just humanity the way we like to see ourselves. But humanity defined by dysfunctions so deep that it’s hard to be in the same room with them — with us. Leave-the-dinner-table-in-a-huff humanity. Tear-your-hair-out humanity. How-can-you-even … humanity.

To love a person — whether it’s your spouse, your child, your parent, your friend, your neighbor, or your enemy — is more rich, more real, and more sustainable when you can learn to love even the parts that are unpalatable. For the left-wing liberal to exhibit love toward the climate denier and to show them respect, not because they are correct, but because God showed grace to Peter when he was wrong — that is the Gospel. For the Trump supporter to love the democratic socialist destroying the country from within because active forgiveness and grace are not just peripheral issues but fundamental to the Christian life — that reflects a real understanding of the ministry of Christ.

For some reason, many liberal Christians talk about the radical inclusivity of Jesus when it comes to poor people or the queer community, but I don’t hear them talking about radically including  the Trump voter. Is that because they worship their own understanding of progress and justice more than Jesus Christ, who loved rich tax collectors, prostitutes, and blind beggars?

For some reason, many conservative Christians speak glowingly about Jesus’ love for unborn children, but rarely for the abortion seeker or the pro-choice activist. Is that because they cast stones first and seek reconciliation later, if at all? Surely faith is more than a checklist of social issues!

If you’re reading this and thinking: “Yeah, but one side is worse than the other,” you might be right, but you’re missing the point.

The more pertinent question is this: Assuming that Christians are not going to shed their political differences out of a flawed understanding of what civility means, how should we do politics? How can we live together, disagree, and have peace in our churches and families all at the same time?

Obviously there are many different responses to how love translates into the political arena, but there is one route that sounds simple but is actually a lifelong struggle: Disagree better.

Disagree fiercely. Disagree often. Disagree with the understanding that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump — FDR and Reagan — are made in the image of God, flawed beyond belief, and in need of constant redemption. Disagree with an eye for reconciliation and grace, knowing that the best way to understand God is to forgive like God forgives. Disagree knowing that politics matter, but that you could be wrong. Enjoy showing grace to the person who is rude to you as a small token of gratitude for a God who has shown you grace despite your many flaws. Treat political discourse like a game to out-grace the other. Find common cause, yes, but also find common love for Christ or humanity or cheese pizza — anything — even when there is zero ideological overlap.

Rebel against those who think the political divide is insurmountable by a God who has seen much worse. Rebel against the notion that political affiliation is identity and put forward the notion that radical love has a place in politics. And then disagree, Jesus-style. Ask questions. Tell stories. Reach out. And in the name of all that is holy, don’t debate politics on Facebook.

I have my views on policy to be sure. Ask me about environmental regulations, drone warfare, or corporate tax loops, and I’ll have a lot to say. And I do feel moments of resentment toward “the other side.” But if politics is the art of living together, and if the likelihood that political dysfunction will decline anytime soon is somewhere between “unlikely” and “never,” then politics represents one of the greatest opportunities to show the power of God in the face of massive dysfunction. In the same way that poverty presents opportunities to show God’s love to the disenfranchised, political dysfunction is a chance to show God’s love to the angry, to the broken, to the alienated, and to the demoralized — to continue God’s track record of making even the most dysfunctional people agents of God’s goodness.

Believe it or not, that sounds a lot like ministry to me.

Just a Game?

I am a New Yorker. Not by birth, but by adoption. My husband and I moved from Los Angeles to New York City in 1999 with big eyes and big dreams. I loved California, but ever since I was ten years old and saw the musical Annie on stage in Los Angeles, I dreamed about what life might be like in N.Y.C. We thought we would stay for three years, maybe five, but this year we will celebrate twenty years in New York, complete with five children, two dogs, and three moves since that initial one bedroom apartment in midtown Manhattan. And we love it here. The hustle and bustle of the city, the leaves in the autumn and the blossoms in the spring, the smell of hot dogs and pretzels at the park during summertime and roasted chestnuts by Rockefeller Center in the wintertime. And while we will never be true Mets fans, or Yankee fans, we respect how much New Yorkers love baseball and love their teams. But there is this practice among Yankee fans that I will always find curious…

“Boston sucks! Boston sucks!”

This is the chant that rings through the hollowed halls of Yankee Stadium when the Yankees are winning. Or perhaps it’s when the Yankees are losing. Hard to tell. But Yankee fans often find their way to shouting these words in unison at the top of their lungs. (Note: I went to a Boston game last year — bad memories, let’s not talk about it — and Boston fans do the same thing in reverse “Yankees suck! Yankees suck!”) And I have to ask myself, “Why?” Why would thousands of people gathered to cheer on their team choose to spend their voice and energy insulting another team? The answer has to do with tribalism and competition and has implications that reach far beyond the baseball field.

Let’s think about Yankee fans for a minute. They love their team. Why? Because the Yankees are THEIR team. Maybe their parents loved the Yankees. Maybe they have memories of cheering for the Yankees when they were children. The players on the field are different. The stadium is new. The uniforms have changed (okay, just a little). But they are the Yankees, and Yankee fans cheer for the Yankees. And Yankee fans root against enemies of the Yankees. Who are their enemies? The Boston Red Sox. So Yankee fans want victory for the Yankees and defeat for  the Red Sox. And it’s all in good fun. Right? Most of the time. But sometimes our pride and our egos are so tied to our teams that we experience true personal failure and shame when our team loses. Sometimes there are insults, verbal and physical, that cross a line and someone gets hurt. Then it’s not fun any longer.

Now think with me for a minute about the many tribal rivalries in our culture. Our sports culture alone is filled with thousands of tribal rivalries. From multi-million dollar sports franchises to little league parents who are asked to leave the field because their cheering is just a little “too intense for the children,” we gravitate toward fierce competition. And this dynamic isn’t limited to sports. Our philosophical and political affiliations also take on a competitive tribal nature as well. Most Americans root for one team or the other — the Republicans or the Democrats. We root for these teams in a way that is very similar to the way we root for our sports teams. We want our team to win and we want our opponents to lose. We are glued to 24 hour news coverage searching for any minor development that may have implications for our team’s success. We treat American politics like one big game.

And that is a problem. Because ultimately politics is about people. Beloved children of God. How we govern ourselves. How we care for each other. As a country, as a world, we are dealing with hard questions — issues that are real, serious, complicated matters of life and death. The complexity of these issues can be overwhelming and frightening. So we turn politics into a game and enjoy a false sense of simplicity. We glorify our own team and demonize our opponents, and avoid engaging with the difficult questions altogether. Rooting for your team is a lot easier, and a lot more fun, than honestly considering the questions that face our neighborhoods, our country and our world. It’s more fun, but it’s irresponsible. 

I believe God is calling Christians to lead our culture in the way of the gospel — away from tribalism and toward the love of neighbor. This means that we should be the first to let go of our political tribal loyalties and courageously look for life-giving answers to the hardest questions. The problems are huge and scary. But we are the ones who believe that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ. We are the ones who believe that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. We are the ones who believe that there is no fear in love. Thus we are the ones who can show others how to courageously walk into the middle of really messy, complicated situations and work hard to find solutions. It’s not easy. And it’s not fun. But it is the way of the cross.

So root for the Yankees, or whoever your team is! Don’t hate or hurt your opponents, but have a great time cheering for your team! It’s all in good fun! But keep an eye on your heart. Look for the ways tribal loyalties can creep in and keep you from loving your neighbor. Don’t let yourself hide in the safety of competition. Be strong and courageous, willing to listen, willing to ask hard questions, and willing to humbly, prayerfully search for answers. Don’t be afraid — the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

March 2019 E-news from the Siburt Institute

Mission Evidences from the Field:
What do Healthy Growing Churches Look Like?
It’s no secret that many congregations are in decline. I can say more about that on another day. But what I have been asking for the past six months is, what do growing churches look like? More specifically, what are the characteristics of newly planted churches that are thriving?

There is a wealth of information out there and I have a long way to go to process what I have already found, but I’d like to begin by sharing what I am seeing in various sources from across the United States. From the nearly three dozen books, reports, studies and essays from the past 10 years, here are some things for mission-focused church leaders to consider: 1. Belonging before believing. With issues of mobility, pluralism, isolation and more, people are looking for meaningful human and divine connection. The idea of human connections needs no deep explanation; however, by divine connection I mean that although the number of persons (especially younger persons) who disassociate with organized faith continues to grow, the interest in spirituality is not going away. Rather persons are actively seeking some meaningful spiritual reality or connection in their life. Belonging does matter for Americans, but the dynamics in play are complex, and launching a coffee shop or a cool new Bible study will not necessarily get millennials to show up or offer a satisfying answer to their spiritual thirst. Belonging emerges in the context of developing deep and trusting relationships. 2. How truly “gospel” your version of the gospel is. Now I may be about to set off a firestorm with what I am about to say, so I acknowledge what I say here may be misunderstood. Here goes. The gospel – the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit – is revealed to us through Scripture. But without fail, the way we talk about the gospel, the way we teach the gospel and the way the gospel gets expressed in our congregational life and programs begins to pick up our own particular history and experience. The way we do things, the songs we sing and the sorts of ministry we engage in reflect our own particular cultural elements. A good visit with a missionary can help illustrate what I am trying to describe. Missionaries know well the importance of communicating the gospel in another culture without their own culture getting in the way. If your congregation is more than 20 years old, in these times of rapid change, there are likely some things that may inadvertently get in the way of the gospel being fully heard and practiced. 3. Salvation in this world and the world to come. Salvation is not just about the soul and the future; it’s also about this world. In what concrete way does the good news of the gospel speak into the lives of broken people in your congregation? Do you have a holistic vision of God’s intent to redeem the world, starting right in your own neighborhood? 4. A Trinitarian vision of God. Spirit-filled communities are dynamic communities. Pentecostal churches are showing a great deal of life today, though I don’t think a particular style of worship is the most significant factor at play. Rather, the conviction of newer, flourishing communities is that God is present in worship and in the ordinary aspects of human existence. Assess the language of your congregation’s worship, Bible classes, small groups and committee meetings. Do all three members of the Trinity show up? 5. The neighborhood is the thing! Churches that embrace their local identity and understand mission in their local communities are finding traction. The neighborhood looks different for urban churches compared with small-town churches. Whatever your neighborhood looks like, it’s important to define it and then live, work, play and serve in that neighborhood. There is much more to be said, and I’m still trying to sort this out myself. So I invite you to ponder these ideas with your fellow leaders and ask what might be a good next step for your congregation as it seeks to be faithful to God’s preferred future.

I will say more next month and begin to offer some resources. Until then, God’s peace to you!

Carson

If you are in the Austin or San Antonio area, please consider joining me in April for a face-to-face conversation about this subject. See details below.
NEWS
On the road with Dr. Carson Reed
Building on the ideas presented in this month’s newsletter article, Dr. Carson Reed will travel to Austin and San Antonio in April to speak with church leaders on the subject, “Vital Signs: What Today’s Healthy Churches Look Like!” On Tuesday, April 23 at 11:30 a.m., he will speak at the Austin Area Ministers’ and Elders’ Lunch at Mimi’s Cafe. On Wednesday, April 24 at 8:30 a.m., he will speak at San Antonio Area Ministers’ and Elders’ Breakfast at the Magnolia Pancake Haus. There’s no charge to participants, but seating is limited.
The Siburt team expands
The Siburt Institute is pleased to welcome Ola Mae Bulkley, the new administrative coordinator for the Siburt Institute and the Doctor of Ministry program! She comes to us from Austin, Texas, where she worked most recently with Hill Country Christian School.

Renee Paul, our former administrative coordinator, is excited to take on the role of events coordinator and to increase her involvement in grant writing on behalf of the Siburt Institute.

We have expanded our church consulting partners to include
Dr. Eddie Sharp (’90), a highly respected church leader who has spent more than 47 years in congregational ministry. Combining his extensive experience and academic training, Sharp focuses on leadership transitions, spiritual formation, spiritual discernment and matters related to minister burnout and stress. Sharp recently retired from the University Avenue Church of Christ in Austin, Texas, where he served as preaching minister since 2008.
Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit (RULS)
The Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action will conduct the next Racial Unity Leadership Summit in Dallas,
May 15-18, led by Dr. Jerry Taylor, associate professor of Bible, missions and ministry for ACU and founding executive director of the center. The summit will be in honor of the late Botham Shem Jean, a young black man whose slaying by a white off-duty police officer sparked racial debate in the Dallas area and beyond. Before his untimely death, Jean, a graduate of Harding University, served as the song leader and young adult minister for the Dallas West Church of Christ, the host congregation for this RULS event. Jean was deeply rooted in Churches of Christ in the U.S. and in St. Lucia, his home country in the Caribbean. 

Ministers and members from both predominantly white congregations and predominantly black congregations of the Churches of Christ will gather for this time of healing across racial lines. All are invited. For more information, contact the Carl Spain Center at carlspaincenter@gmail.com.
Call for the elders
In his latest Mosaic article, Steve Ridgell (’73) invites us to revisit James 5 and take seriously the charge for the elders to anoint and pray for the sick in their congregations. With a keen awareness that Jesus is the true source of power, Ridgell shares the sense of renewal and healing experienced in his local congregation when they took that Scripture to heart. Ridgell, a popular speaker and author, is the director of ministry for Hope for Life, a Herald of Truth Ministry, and serves as an elder at the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Abilene.
Spirit shake-up at Summit 2019
Dr. Leonard Allen will host an all-day pathway on the “Spirit Shake-up” the Monday of Summit 2019, Sept. 16. Allen reminds us that, “the Holy Spirit is no tame Spirit. When the people of God grow comfortable, satisfied and sleepy; when the call of God’s mission to the whole world recedes, the tendency of the Spirit is to shake up the church and dislodge it from its ease and self-satisfaction.” 

Allen served as a professor of Christian Studies at Abilene Christian University for 15 years and has authored several books, including the ACU Press publication, Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God. He now serves as dean of Bible at Lipscomb University. Dr. Lauren White, assistant professor of theology at Lipscomb University, also will present during the pathway.

Mark your calendars to attend Summit at ACU, Sept. 15-18.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Ministers’ and Elders’ Lunch, Austin, April 23Ministers’ and Elders’ Breakfast, San Antonio, April 24Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit, May 15-18 (Contact: carlspaincenter@gmail.com)Summit 2019, Sept. 15 – 18
THOUGHTS TO PONDER
“It is the mark you make on others, the mark you leave behind in the characters and commitments of those you love best, that will determine whether or not your life has made a difference. Grand achievements, great affluence, and good causes lose their luster if they remain yours … if they die with you. Real significance lies in equipping those you love to achieve greater things than you, to generate and use ‘treasures’ more wisely than you, to give themselves to worthy causes more completely than you.”
– Dan T. Garrett (’73) and Dr. Tim Woodruff, Leaving a Legacy: Sustaining Family Unity, Faith and Wealth “We cannot save the world; we should not even try. But we can improve the world, not just by creating better goods and services more responsibly and distributing these goods and services more justly among people, but also – and, perhaps, above all – by learning how to rejoice together in the gift that each one of us and the entire world is. That joy will lead to care.”
– Dr. Miroslav Volf, “What Will Save the World? Caring for the World We Cannot Save”, in A Calling to Care: Nurturing College Students Toward Wholeness (Dr. Timothy W. Herrmann and Kirsten D. Riedel, editors)

The Christian and Politics


Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:19)

Can Christians avoid being political? One definition is “activities within an organization that are aimed at improving someone’s status or position and are typically considered to be devious or divisive.” For instance, check out this text:
Proverbs 31:8-9 NIV [8] Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. [9] Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Doesn’t this apply to the unborn? It is right to speak out to defend the unborn against being killed, but not without being political. Dr. Devin Swindle, a Professor of Bible at Harding University, recently wrote, “If you preach this, you will be accused of being political, but remember this: if you claim citizenship in the Kingdom of God, you will be pledging allegiance to another King who makes political claims on your life, and those claims will be diametrically opposed to the kings and kingdoms of this world. Preaching the King’s politics does not make you a republican or a democrat; it makes you faithful”.

Some want to sit on the sidelines and criticize those who speak out on such issues as abortion. In doing so they are being political themselves. This should not be a surprise since Paul wrote, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1)

You would have to go into a monastery to avoid being political, and even in that move you could be political. A Pacifist is being political by refusing to join the military. Taking a non-combat role in the military is being political. Paying taxes to support our government is being political.

Personally, I spent over 8 years in the U.S. Navy. Over 5 of those years was on/in the same conventional diesel driven submarine, the USS Trout (SS-566). I have served 28 days submerged in that “boat” with 100 other men (not very romantic). One year I was at sea, away from my wife and children, for nine months. Others have done so much more for our freedom. I can’t imagine life in a foxhole or eating the dust of a desert storm or jumping from an airplane into enemy fire. To speak up for our great Nation is political. I can’t be otherwise.

I am a Christian and I am political. I say I am independent but most of the time I vote Republican. I am in ministry working with women in addiction (John 3:17 Ministry for Women with Addictions) I am a supporter of our President. In today’s vernacular I am a “right-leaning conservative.” You may oppose what I have shared. If you do you are being political.