This month: 185 - Priesthood of All Believers
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

Remember Me    Register ›

Archives for March, 2019

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.

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.

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)


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.

“In the green of the grass, in the smell of the sea. in the clouds floating by, at the top of a tree. in the sound crickets make at the end of a day. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved, they all say.” – Nancy Tillman, childrens’ book author

I have spent most of my life believing that my behavior made me worthy or un-worthy of love. As an enneagram 3, I learned somewhere early in life, that good behavior equaled success and success equaled love. So I pursued success and avoided failure at all costs. This is how we 3’s exist in the world.

The deterioration of this worldview began when I had my first child 6 years ago. For the first time in my life I was faced with my own failure in a continual head-on collision that wouldn’t stop. Failure was after me and it wouldn’t let me go. And don’t get me wrong, I did everything right. I read all the right books. I went to all the right classes. I talked to all the right people. I even interviewed parents at my church who were really “doing it right” when it came to sleep training and discipline. I studied everything from breast-feeding to home-made baby food and I was poised and ready to succeed as a parent.

My son came out fast. The doctor didn’t have her glove on as he shot into the world, literally kicking and screaming and he didn’t stop for the first weeks of his life. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get him to nurse, to sleep or to stop crying. For me, this was failure to the very highest degree. What mother couldn’t nurse or calm her baby? What mother doesn’t want to bond with her baby? I was depressed. And I knew that I had to find help. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see now that I needed another way of existing in the world. My currency of success went bankrupt. I couldn’t succeed. I couldn’t do this one thing right. It was during this time that I began participating in a spiritual direction group. Think group therapy for ministers. Then I began one on one spiritual direction. Think actual therapy for your spiritual life. The practice that my spiritual director gave me was silence. I was instructed to practice silence. Every day. I was confused but I listened very intently to her explain the practice to me. I had to do it right, of course. Our conversation went something like this.

Me (eagerly)-“Ok. What do I do?”
Director-“You sit in silence. Every day.”
Me-“Ok. And do what?”-
Director-“You sit there. In silence. With God.”
Me (confused)-“I just sit there?”-
Director-“Yes. And let God love you. You don’t do anything. You be.”
Me-“Hmmm….Ok. I can do that.”
Director-“You don’t do, Kelly. You be. Be. Loved. By God. Every day. In silence.”

It sounded dreadful but I gave it a try. She said that I should be prepared to feel frustrated or feel like I was wasting my time or feel as though nothing was “happening.” She was right. I felt this way many times. But I stayed with it. Mostly because I knew she was going to ask me about it the following month.

I have practiced daily silence for years now. And it has changed my life. Let me be clear, my circumstances haven’t changed. Today my son who came out kicking and screaming is still inviting me to face my own failure every single day. I find that I don’t know how to parent him. I don’t know how to love him best at times. I am impulsive when I should be calm. I talk too much when I should listen. I do it wrong. All the time. But practicing silence has taught me that I am loved. I am not loved for anything that I do or anything that I don’t do. I am loved because of who I am. I am loved by God in my inner being, deep down in my guts, in my essence, in the core of who I am, I am seen and loved by God. And every day, when I set my stopwatch for silence I am reminded of this. As I am still, as I let my lungs slowly fill up with air, I begin to believe that I am loved for my being and not my doing. I begin to believe that I am loved for who I am and not what I do. And this has changed everything for me.


Photo credit:  Photo by Camille Orgel on Unsplash

You cannot change what you will not name.

I do not know the origins of this quote, but I have full confidence in its truthfulness. The dysfunction of our individual lives and of our entire society becomes increasingly worse when we fail to acknowledge the pain that lies beneath the brokenness.

No one is exempt from struggle, hardship and pain. There’s no dishonor in having to deal with anger, grief and shame. But when you fail to properly name the forces that cause your inner pain, you wind up being controlled by them, held under their spell, and unable to influence your own future.

The power of naming isn’t only about escaping sin. Speaking the truth also involves naming the realities we live in so that we can honestly engage our world and our mission.

My mother worked for 30 years as the children’s minister of a large church in middle Tennessee. Here’s the interesting part. She was never called a minister. She could serve as the children’s minister as long as no one called her a minister. Children’s coordinator. Director of children’s ministry. Various titles, but never minister.

Do words matter? Is there power in naming something? And what happens when you fail to name the reality in which you live?

I preach for a church I love in Fresno, California. This church had a long, dark period where not everyone was willing to speak the truth about its ragamuffin nature: A string of fired ministers. Sexual impropriety among prominent leaders. Tragic deaths. The narrative of brokenness seemed obvious enough to me, but naming it as such wasn’t entirely popular with everyone.

Does the truth need to be spoken? Are you in the right when you name past wrongs? Does the pain of the past always need to brought out into the light?

Sometimes the pain of one’s existence becomes so great that you find it difficult to speak the truth. In “Death of a Salesman,” Biff bemoans the sad fact that “we never told the truth for ten minutes in this house.” What power is there in naming things as they really are?

Eve Ensler may not be a faith hero, but her campaign against violence to women has changed thousands of lives around the world. “I believe in the power and mystery of naming things,” she once said. Her campaign to speak the truth was deeply personal. Her father had violated her as a child in ways that no child should have to endure. Despite her deep pain—or perhaps because it was so deep—she had long been unable to tell the truth to her own mother. Then one day, she finally opened up:

“When I was finally able to sit with my mother and name the specific sexual and physical violence my father had perpetrated on me as a child, it was an impossible moment. It was the naming, the saying of what had actually happened in her presence that lifted my twenty-year depression. By remaining silent, I had muted my experience, denied it, pushed it down. This had flattened my entire life. I believe it was this moment of naming that allowed both my mother and I to eventually face our deepest demons and deceptions and become free.” (from an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, March 20, 2006)

I believe that one of the greatest problems in Churches of Christ today is our inability to tell the truth. We don’t want to name the sins of our past. Nor do are we willing to accurately name the realities in which we live. This failure to stop bearing false witness against God and against ourselves will continue to drive us into extinction.

In spite of this bleak picture, I believe in the power of naming. If enough brave congregations would start telling the truth about their decline, openly admit the sins of their past, and start properly naming things instead of playing word games, then I believe in God’s power to bring resurrection.

Your church can have a future. But that future starts with accurately naming the past. You must begin to tell the truth about who you are.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find bigger fans of Saturday Night Live than my wife and I. The way the show has recast itself and re-envisioned itself over the decades is enigmatic to say the least and, truth be told, nothing short of a media miracle. The number of major comedic stars who got their big break there is remarkable, and for the last 25 years, I haven’t missed an episode. We even started watching the very first season with our kids (don’t judge us!)

Sometimes an episode is a total dud, while other times there are moments that you know immediately will be talked about for weeks – a reality only fortified in today’s sound byte and Youtube world (now, they even have the President’s tweets helping drive the show!) My experience with the show is similar to Matt Damon’s as he detailed in what I found to be one of the most heart-felt moments in the show’s history during his opening monologue for this past year’s Christmas episode. [Side note: Back in 2010, I surprised my wife with a trip to New York City for our anniversary and we actually got to go to a live broadcast of the Christmas episode that year – one of the highlights of our lives – sad, I know. I detailed the story here if you are interested.]

To say the show has been polarizing and has had its share of controversial moments would be an understatement. Many people reading this article are probably already rolling their eyes and have written the show off because “it used to be funny,” or “it’s gotten too political,” or “it’s just too crass.”

Political satire has always been at the heart of the show, and there have been too many times they have crossed the line to count (just one recent example is back in November cast member Pete Davidson was publicly rebuked for comments made about Texas politician Dan Crenshaw who was injured in combat). These moments are just too much for some people  – on top of the incessant ridicule-turned-baiting of the President, and I get that SNL is not going to appeal to everyone’s sense of humor.

At the same time, there have been moments when I have marveled at the way that they sometimes navigate controversial and polarizing waters with a tact, grace, and level-headedness that I, frankly, think the church could learn from. I’ve always felt that comedy is modern day prophecy. The best standup comedians can artistically weave through issues that no one else will (racism, classism, politics, etc.) regarding current events that is at the same time humorous and thought-provoking. And when they are really on their game, I’m not sure anyone does it much better than Saturday Night Live.

I mentioned the recent gaffe by Pete Davidson, and in one of those transcendent moments on SNL, they reminded us of what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like when Crenshaw appeared with Davidson the following week.

A sketch during a Thanksgiving themed episode a few years back has always stood out as a prophetic witness to me. The Presidential election season was really heating up and the rancor of polarization seemed to be at an all time high, and SNL seized on that climate and offered a gift to us. It’s hilarious, but like all prophetic-comedic messages, cloaked in truth. In the sketch, it’s Adele that saves us from division and helps bring us above our rancor. Clearly, it seems to me, the church is called to be Adele in this way (as weird as that sentence sounds – better watch the skit to make sense of it). [Furthermore, one moral of this article is the church needs to laugh more and relax! That would be a good first step.]

As we gather around the table of Christ, those political differences and opinions we have aren’t magically going to go away. Hatred is in all of us, and we – as Christians – are seeking to drive that out of our hearts. Adding to the challenge is that it’s often cloaked in subtlety and nuance and we tend to live our lives among others who look and think like us. Then, the youngest girl at the table gets up and reminds everyone what unites them – hopefully in our churches that something is more substantive than an Adele song!

Then there was the sketch that has risen above all others in the history of the show in my opinion. In the preview of this month’s theme on Wineskins, Matt wrote, “We’re going to go there.” Well .  . . a few years ago . . . SNL went there too – politics and racism all right there in a sketch called Black Jeopardy (and with almost 40 million views – I think it struck a cord).

Ever since the first time I saw this skit, I wished that I had had the foresight to create something like this in church. I love everything about this skit. It’s funny, it’s edgy, it’s not trite, it calls us to rise above ideology. Just the still picture there of the preview helps us question where it’s going to go. Two young African American women and an old white guy sporting a MAGA hat. There’s a tinge of emotion stirred in all of our stomachs as we see that image. And yet as the game plays out – the moral of the skit is that we are so much more alike than we are different. “Doug, you’re alright!” The problem is, when we hide behind our ideologies and code words all the while labeling and dismissing those who are different than us, we become separated as “other.”

What saddens  me the most about this skit is that this message seems to be ringing out more loudly in a late night comedy show than in the lives of our churches. THIS is what the church is supposed to look like! It seems to me that Saturday Night Live is doing politics better than churches are. What do we need? We need to come together and learn from one another, listen to one another, and find out that our life experiences are much different. We will find out that we have much in common. Until then, how can we ever hope to have substantive conversations with each other about the Gospel? Until we have neutralized the ideologies that divide us, how can we expect to have a seat at the table and share Good News? How can we learn from those who are different from us, if we never sit down and talk to them?

 

I am convinced that God cares about what goes on with politics…not always so much about the politics themselves but about how His people engage in the process.

We cannot claim the political high ground while producing “acts of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21) rather than the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-26).

We cannot spew hate rather than show love and think Jesus is pleased even if the outcome seems right.

We cannot overlook evil in order to support our agenda.

We cannot be more focused on earthly kingdoms than on God’s kingdom.

We can allow Jesus to shape and form our political thoughts.

We can show love to those who have conclusions that don’t match our own.

We can sit down to dinner with people who don’t have to agree with us to get along.

We cannot have the right conclusions while getting to those conclusions through terrible attitudes, ungodly conversations, unrighteous thoughts, and unruly actions.

If the right candidate (which means your candidate, of course) wins but you exhibited these things you are in the wrong,

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21)

If the wrong candidate wins (which means your opponent’s candidate, of course) and you still exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, you can still be in the right,

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Gal 5:22-26)

As Christians we must go about things in a Christ-like way. Jesus should challenge our attitudes as much as he should challenge our politics.

Before you engage in that next debate or post that meme, ask yourself if you are doing it out of the fruit of the Spirit or in spite of the fruit of the Spirit? Ask yourself if it is a work of the flesh or a work of the Spirit. Jesus will help us sort these things out if we stop and consider not just which political view is right but what actions and attitudes must be exhibited as we have these conversations. Much ground has been lost in the kingdom, not as much over wrong positions, but over ungodly attitudes in the process. God care about the political process and that process is the inner process among His people.

As our religious convictions become increasingly filtered through blue- or red-colored glasses, Christians in the United States seem to be more of a force for division than unity.

The problem isn’t the disagreement. The letters of the New Testament reflect that the church has been rife with disagreement since the ascension of Jesus. Paul and Priscilla, James and Junia — the early church leaders in the Roman Empire grappled with issues just as contentious and diverse as the questions with which Christians in the United States struggle today.

Taking our cue from the early church leaders, we should definitely care about how theologically sound orthodoxy reflects justice, righteousness, and mercy in our personal actions and in our national legislation.

But as we consider how to move forward as a politically divided body of Christ, we shouldn’t start with specific legislative or ethical questions about abortion, the death penalty, gun ownership, climate change, the wall, or whatever else. Starting here will only lead to more resentment and disunity.

First, we need to answer a more fundamental question about identity: Are we American Christians or Christian Americans?

The question may seem semantic, but it is fundamental to everything we believe, especially when we make those beliefs law. Are we Christians who happen to be American, or are we Americans who happen to be Christian? Which do we value more: our citizenship in the United States or our citizenship in heaven? What is more important to us: the blood we share with fellow Americans because of a shared ethnicity and history, or the blood we share with humanity because Jesus Christ died for all?

What is it: America first or kingdom first?

Paul certainly asked himself and the church in Philippi the same questions. False teachers had told the Gentile Philippians that they needed to become like Jews to inherit the kingdom of God. Paul clarified that these false teachers had it backward: They saw themselves foremost as Jews who happened to believe in the saving power of Jesus.

Instead, Paul says, when you make following Jesus the core of your identity, your earthly citizenships — the circumstances and affiliations into which you were born by chance — are of secondary importance:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Philippians 3:17-21 (NRSV)

“What is it?” Paul is asking. “Where is your citizenship?”

Sure, your earthly citizenship might be in Rome (or the United States). It might be in a specific denomination or biological family.

But your heavenly citizenship — if you take the call of Jesus seriously — is in God’s kingdom. Not just in the future, but right now. Both are important. But which one is the core of your identity?

There are Christians of all political persuasions who place their political, ethnic, denominational, or other “citizenships” over their kingdom citizenship; people who identify more closely with non-Christian Americans than with Christians of other nationalities; people who relate more to non-Christians who also happen to be fellow Republicans or fellow Democrats than Christians of a different political party.

So next time we see a news story or enter a debate about legislation, let us remove the plank from our own eye: Let us examine how we are placing our earthly affiliations over our heavenly identity.

Only then will the name “Christian” in the United States become less associated with political affiliations and legislative preferences and begin to reflect the radical choice that is following the ultimate citizen of God’s kingdom, Jesus Christ.

Who are we, brothers and sisters?  Now, more than ever, the American Church needs to answer that question.  A cursory answer you might pose is, “We are the Church.”  You might say, “We are Christians.” The response might even be, “We’re God’s people.” While those are true, I’ll ask again.  Who are we?

One need only look around the assembly on Sunday to see that partisan politics have found a willing home within our congregations. Republican or Democrat? I contend that the idol of politics has become the real dividing issue of our time. 

These divisions are not new among God’s people. Jesus’ world included four partisan parties among the Jewish people: The Zealots, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each had its own ideology about how the world should work considering Roman occupation.   Zealots were coercive revolutionaries. Sadducees were collaborators. Pharisees were the separate and pure; superior and far apart from sinners. The last group is the Essenes who withdrew from social and political affairs. 

All but the Essenes practiced a fierce belief of the national superiority of Israel.  The Essenes hyper-spiritualized the concept. They did not put as much stock in the physical, but they were nonetheless following the same ideology to their chagrin. You cannot blame them at all.  God had told them they would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). They received the Promised Land to dwell in.  So, when foreign interlopers defiled the land by their presence, it’s understandable that it would offend them. 

The power struggles and hateful interactions between these sects of the Jewish people created the toxic environment into which Christ was born. It is into this charged, divided world that Jesus stepped into history and with Him brought a new approach. He lived in a time consumed with the damnable idol of nationalism – not unlike the place we live today.

His death and resurrection birthed the Church.  God introduced the Church as an alternative to partisan politics. He raised up his Son to set the standard that crushed nationalism and bred brotherhood. The Church had, as Scot McKnight writes, an “Ethos from Beyond.” This Kingdom of God that Jesus brought was that it was so revolutionary that even today we cannot comprehend its scope and implications. 

One of the great things that drew me to the heritage of the Restoration Movement was the desire to be like the first Christians.  We’ve made great strides and for that I am grateful to God. In the realm of politics, we have in our time, undone thousands of years of Christian progress. Again we find ourselves stuck in the irresistible pull of political power and nationalism.  Our divisions have caused the Body a great harm to ourselves and to our witness. We have done great harm to one another. We have divided the body.

Political process cannot ever build God’s kingdom. That does not mean that political processes cannot be a force for good.  It means we cannot put our hope there. Ever. A nation and its politics are just that – a nation.  A nation cannot submit to God as it isn’t human, therefore it cannot be part of the Kingdom of God. We must come to grips with the truth that nationalism is idolatry. Why?  Because it stifles the Kingdom.

How can we be salt and light if we side with political power? How can we have a single-minded allegiance to God, while grasping on to earthly structures? Forgive me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t God demand and command allegiance to Him alone and not to a fallen human, state, flag, or political party? Does He not introduce an alternative Kingdom called the Church?

The State is part of the world, and God’s Kingdom never can be the state, part of the state, or a tool of the state. It would do us well to retrace history and see what has happened when the church has given herself to the State.  The Crusades, the Middle-Ages, the Salem Witch Trials, Segregation, Slavery, and racism. Atrocities like this happen when God’s people drink the maddening wine of nationalism and partisan politics.

Instead, we present an alternative – a new social order as Viola states, and an ethic from above. Instead, the ekklesia is a place where racism, social prejudice, sexism, discrimination, etc., are absent (Gal. 3:28). Instead, justice, mercy, reconciliation, love, forgiveness, and unity are the law. We do not belong to the world (John 8:23, 15:19, 17:9, 17:16). 

When we try to be part of two kingdoms, we poison the Lord’s Supper. There is “death in the pot,” (2 Kings 4:38-41), and though wine doesn’t mess with the poison, the poison makes the wine toxic.  Being consumed with politics makes us useless in the Kingdom. I must be a citizen of Heaven, and only then, can I be a part of the alternate Kingdom of God. 

I am an American citizen by birth, but to a degree I am not. My citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). If my country asks me to do something or go along with something that is at odds with Scripture, then I have an obligation.  I am obligated to renounce my citizenship as an American for my true citizenship. We must always remember that every political system is threatened by the radical message of Jesus. When the threat grows large enough, they will crucify our Lord all over again; even if it calls itself a “Christian Nation.” Every government will eventually find itself at odds with God’s Kingdom.

Let us remember that the Church is the alternative to all the political divisiveness and partisan politics.  It is above the fray of mudslinging.  Christ gives His Church a distinct role to shine our light and point to Jesus.  The Church speaks to earthly powers, not for them.  We speak for God.  God’s power and God’s Word are the final authority and therefore, are superior to anything or anyone.  

Instead, may we remember who we are instead:  Christians.  We are the bedraggled underdogs of the world in which God has given the Kingdom to.  We are ambassadors of a higher ethic, an alternative one. When we stoop down to nationalism and partisan politics, we divide Christ. Scripture is clear on this:  dividing the Body is a sin. We can do better. We can dialogue better.  We can love one another, even if we disagree. We must.  For if we do not, it is my fear, that we will continue to speed toward irrelevancy in an already doubting culture. Even worse, my fear is that we will repeat atrocities of the past.

Let me close with the timeless words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1954 sermon: “Paul’s Letter to the American Church”:

“But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”