Friday, May 29, 2020

Prayer in a time of near-depair

In church we often pray for our nation's leaders. We pray for wisdom. We pray for justice.

It always seems like weak tea to me. Perhaps that's a measure of the weakness of my faith, but so be it.

We have a leader who is so relentlessly unwise, so decidedly anti-wisdom, that it might be better to pray, Lord, give us wise leaders instead of the one we have now.

Give us less shooting-from-the-hip, less name-calling, less policymaking as political payback or pandering for votes.

Give us fewer scurrilous attacks in social media, fewer vicious accusations, fewer Twitter-taunts and less flooding the field with lies.

The President just tweeted, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." He seemed to be calling for law enforcement to open fire on rioters in Minneapolis. 

How have we come to this point, Lord? How have we sunk so low?

I am afraid for my nation. I pray that the coming election will provide an opportunity for wisdom to prevail, because I have no hope for wisdom in our current leadership. My prayer does not arise from hopefulness, but from desperation. May your people, Lord, the followers in the Jesus way, follow hard now, in the midst of this crisis. May we follow hard and close, hearing His voice, so that in some measure we may say in awe, no matter who our leaders are or what they say and do, "Look! His Kingdom is coming, on earth as it is in heaven!"

In Jesus' strong name, Amen

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Plague Journal (68): Tell me a story

Everybody has a narrative. It's the story we tell about ourselves. It has many facets, and yet it is condensable. If we were to write it down, it might be a novel, or it might be a haiku. 

We carry it around in our heads. We feel uncomfortable when someone begins to question it because deep inside we know it's based on half-truths at best. It was always a self-serving story. That was its purpose. Sometimes we went so far as to call it "my truth." Sometimes we said, "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

Self-dealing is our stock and trade. For long periods of time our narrative serves us pretty well in this regard, but then sometimes something happens that brings the narrative to a breaking point. Let's say part of my narrative was that I loved my Dad but he didn't love me. What a burden to grow up with. With this story you could justify your many failings. But then your Dad dies and at the funeral everyone is weeping and you're asked to say a few words. Your narrative is cracking, it can't bear the strain. You can't rely on it here. You're weeping too and you tell people you just lost your best friend. It's your new story, and it works. Everyone empathizes with you and your grief seems the most profound of anyone there.

So yes, we're pretty good at this. We are the story-making animal.  But some people are simply always telling their story, over and over to anyone who will listen (we are the self-depicting animal), while certain other people are always asking others to tell their story (but that's a much smaller cohort). Not that they don't have a story of their own, but maybe they've just grown tired of it. In the end self-dealing can seem like such a paltry thing. Get me out of my head, we pray. My head is not particularly truthful.

What we need is to discover the overarching narrative, the story of stories. Something bigger than ourselves. But this megastory can't come from us. It is not something we impose upon the sky. It is the sky. That is, if it exists at all.

If it exists at all, it is the story where I am not king. I am not brave in this story. I do not defeat the dragon, save the child, cross the trackless waste, build the hospital, or speak truth to power. Nor do I ever overcome that one glaring weakness. I do not come home to cheering crowds. It is not about me.

When Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the earth," these may well have been the most explosive words ever uttered. When he said, "The first shall be last, and the last first," he was exploding all our narratives. We cannot shoehorn ourselves into his megastory via convenient self-depictions. He sees through us. He silences our silly narratives. 

The only thing to do now is to listen. Jesus, tell me a story.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Plague Journal (67): Mind the Gap!

It has blessed me greatly over the years to have known a few exiles. They had fled their homes on the other side of the world in fear, and in time had made their way to America. Here in America, they were always incredibly grateful to this country, but they also loved their homelands. Most of them held within their breasts two competing desires or dreams. One, to return. The other, to remain.

This reminds me of Paul saying to the Philippians that he desires to go and be with the Lord, and yet also, since there is still work for him, his stronger desire is to remain. Especially as a Christian believer grows older, he or she begins to long more and more for home: an end to exile. This looks like a longing for death, but it is nothing so morbid. It is a longing for real life, for the heavenly city. It is a longing for the end of exile.

Not morbid, and not in the end other-worldly either. I think that, as the Christian believer grows older, they come to love this world aright. They don't long to be away from this world so much as for the world's renewal. They don't speak wistfully of its destruction, but longingly of its fulfillment in the new heaven and new earth. Paul reminds us elsewhere that even the world itself, its rocks and trees, long for this.

The exiles I have known became exiles overnight when they fled for their lives from the countries they called home. But a Christian's sense of exile grows slowly. We begin as children of this world, longing only for more and more of what surrounds us. But then, for many of us, when we became believers, we were aware suddenly that in some strange way a gap had opened up between us and this world. We became aware of our exile. We were strangers in a strange land. But soon, for most of us, that dreamlike awareness disappeared. And so there we were: in this world and also of it.

Sometimes God gives us a vision of the future in order to fire our longing and cause us, thereby, to seek Him with all our hearts. The vision that beguiles me always is that from the Revelation of John, the 21st chapter. That's where we see a perfectly cube-shaped city descending from the sky down to the earth. 

Its shape as a cube is only meant to be symbolic of its perfection. There are streets in this city, and a throne, and a river that flows from the throne, and trees that line the river and remain green throughout the year. You see, it is a city of life. This is not a back-to-nature vision, but a vision of the union of the city and country into a wholistic space that will last for all eternity.

This is a picture of homecoming where the home comes to us rather than we to the home. It is meant to fire our hearts, for someday this world will indeed be our home, the abode of God and of those who love Him. In the meantime, we live as exiles, seeking the peace of the very earthly cities in which we live now, not only drawing back from evil and warning everyone in all seriousness about its presence but also, as we grow and mature, bearing the fruits of the Spirit for the good of all even in our exile.

What I want to say is, the gap is real. As we keep in step with the Spirit we will grow in our awareness of it. There was never really a single moment when I put off the ways of the world and put on the ways of the Kingdom, like changing a suit, but as we grow in Godliness by the power of the Holy Spirit, we become more at home in the ways of the Kingdom, less at home in the ways of the world.

There is much to love in this world. There will be mountains and roses and quiet lakes and downy woodpeckers in the new earth, and also streets, and perhaps little sidewalk cafes and people lifting a toast to the lamb on the throne. And we will share in the creator's love of this ongoing creation, as we His many children walk in a world put right at last by the Father, with Jesus on its throne.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Plague Journal (66): Poppycock!

Cleaning off the back porch yesterday, I found a book lying on the floor behind a chair that I had actually begun reading last summer. I hadn't gotten very far when I set it aside and then (apparently) completely forgot about it. 

Anyhoo, it's a baseball history book: David Halberstam's Summer of '49. Yesterday I started over, and I know I'm going to like it. This category, baseball as social history, is one I always enjoy, and in fact after this I'll probably read Halberstam's October 1964. And his book The Teammates is one of the best of this type ever written.

With all that as prologue, I just want to get snarky about something Halberstam says early in this book. He is talking about the resurgence in baseball's popularity after WWII, when all the great players who had been drafted into the war-effort came back to the game. Attendance doubled! Passions, team allegiance, were running high. Anyway, in the midst of all this Halberstam says something about America that seems to me to be essentially false, and the perpetuation of an unexamined myth that you hear from time to time from liberal commentators. So, speaking of the attitude of owners then, and implicitly comparing them to today's class of owners, Halberstam writes:
Rich businessmen, thinking about becoming owners of sports teams, did not yet talk about the entertainment dollar, for America was a Calvinst nation, not much given to entertaining itself.
I think the word for this is "poppycock." I'll set aside the clearly mistaken notion that America was a Calvinist nation (it was anything but) and focus on the odd notion that America was "not much given to entertaining itself."

You wonder how Hollywood ever made it big with all these Americans spurning entertainment. In a world that had, by the late 40s, produced Swing music, dance marathons, the phenomenon of families gathered around the radio to hear the latest from Fibber McGee and Molly, pin-up girls, and the highly successful careers of Mae West, Clark Gable, the Three Stooges, Bing and Frank and jazz and Busby Berkeley, songs like Baby It's Cold Outside and I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl, not to mention the massive popularity of horse racing, boxing, college football, and yes, baseball. [This list can be expanded by millions, but in the interest of brevity, I'll stop there.]

Halberstam seems to contend that the popularity of baseball, rather than being of a piece with America's constant search for distraction, was somehow a new indicator, a seachange in the American character. He makes this assumption about America being a nation of entertainment-averse people without providing a scintilla of evidence, because truisms never require evidence. They're just supposed to be self-evident. This particular truism, that America is a Calvinist (or sometimes "Puritanical" nation) is one I've heard from time to time over the years, often from smart people like Halberstam, and it is never accompanied by evidence.

Because, as I said, it's poppycock!

Monday, May 25, 2020

Plague Journal (65): how shall we live together in this world?

I was a political partisan for many years. In my youth I was a devout Leftist, then later I gravitated to the Right. In both cases I was earnest, a true believer. And when it came to voting, I never missed.

But that has all changed. I'm still a bit of a political junkie, but I am like Yeats' horseman toward the political scene: I cast a cold (but I hope observant) eye as I pass by. There are always more important things.

In chapter 12 of Romans the Apostle Paul is giving instructions to the Christians in Rome, and he cites some of these "more important things." Beginning at verse 9 we have a section-header in the ESV which says, "Marks of the True Christian." Read the whole section, but here are a few highlights:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (v.9)
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (v.12)
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (v.14) 
If possbile, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (v.18)
Now, I am in no way suggesting that I myself am a model of this sort of behavior. But there you have it: what the ESV editors describe as "marks of the true Christian." I want to connect these "marks" with what I have been talking about in the last three posts (here, here, & here). That is, the relationship of the Christian to politics, or how the Christian ought to think about politics.

If we only think about politics as the stuff that politicians do, partisan battles in Congress and in the media, talking-points and talking-heads, political rhetoric intended to sway voters (with truth the first casualty), then my advice is to cast a very cold eye indeed. But it is also important to remember that politics is about people. Not simply about joining a faction, but about answering the question, how shall we live together in this world?

And with that question in mind, we come back to Paul's answer for believers. Christian, Paul seems to say, here are some ways you might seek to live in relation to others in your particular community. For me this is all aspirational. There is no element of Paul's advice above that I grade out well on. I am no model for any of this. But we are nothing if we do no aspire heavenward. As Paul says elsewhere in this same section of Romans, "Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord."

These are your instructions, Christian. They apply to relations inside and outside the church. They are "political" instructions as much as they are spiritual. Let genuine love be the hallmark of your political interactions. This is our political calling in the Lord. If you want to be salt and light, this is the way to do it. Walk in love.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Plague Journal (64): On political idolatry

Christians are not primarily "political animals," because for them politics is not primary. It's not where they fix their hope. I would suggest that "politics" as we know it is always corrupting. You become a supporter of a particular candidate, then a repeater of that candidate's talking points (these are the handful of carefully circumscribed themes that the candidate's handlers figure will lead to victory in the election), perhaps an influencer who urges people to go and vote (ah, yes, the importance of voting is endlessly emphasized) for the preferred candidate, who in your rhetoric has become something of a transcendent figure (though he is only a man), a bringer of hope, even a man sent from God!

There is always a good deal of absurdity in all this, but it is in the nature of all kinds of false faiths to completely overlook the absurdity of it all. This phenomenon of Christians going all-in on a political candidate was never more egregiously on display than in the candidacy of Donald Trump. Charismatic Christians especially tended to depict him as a chosen one, sent from God to save the nation. When challenged, they might fall back defensively on the idea that they simply voted for him because he was the lesser evil, but since the election they have become adept at conceding no criticism, seeing no evil. Which, as I mentioned yesterday, is the tell that you are speaking to a Christian that has willfully chucked discernment into the trash, all to better honor their hero and own the libs.

In truth, there is nothing exciting about voting for the lesser evil. It fails to inspire. You become part of no grand movement, no cause, no hopeful dream of a better America. But the Christian knows, or ought to know, that in every election he or she is voting for the lesser evil. It is hard to worship at the altar of Democracy when all your choices are evil to one degree or another. But elections are the liturgical ceremony at the center of that worship, and we Christians enter there as if into the Temple of Athene. With overriding skepticism. 

I am not suggesting that Christians shouldn't vote. But neither am I suggesting that they should. In fact, thinking collectively of the electoral influence of Christians in America, I would say the results have not been encouraging. They have been less "salt and light" than shills, political apologists, and rubber-stampers. It has always proven to be a misdirection for us, a wastage and a distraction, and harmful to our primary mission. With regard to politics we have become conformed to this world instead of the next. And that is about the saddest criticism one can make of the church in America.

We need to repent of our idolatry, pure and simple.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Plague Journal (63): On Kingdom politics

Yesterday I posted something about kingdoms.  I was riffing off of  Colossians 1:13, where Paul reminds the Colossian Christians that they have been transferred from a domain of darkness to the kingdom of Jesus. 

This passage reminds us that Jesus is a king with a kingdom. In fact, he is the King of kings. The OT frequently refers to God as the King of kings, but in John's Revelation it is Jesus that is referred to in this manner. He is the authority that is above all earthly authorities. (see Rev. 1:5 for starters).

This hierarchy of authority does not mean that we as Christians can disregard all other authority but God's. But it does imply that, in this fallen world, this world where sin has corrupted everyone and all things, and even kings, there will inevitably be conflict between the way of King Jesus and the ways of our earthly authorities.

It's up to every Christian to figure out, alone or in community, when such conflicts arise and what might be the appropriate response. Someone should write a book about this, and probably has, but I'd just like to make a few fundamental observations.

First, if you're one of those people who insist that one political party or another is the party that Christians ought to support, you have made politics your king of kings, and Jesus is perhaps just one of the lesser kings. 

Another way of saying this is, you have declared your allegiance to a party, or a faction within a party, or a political leader, and made that allegiance the foremost thing, the guiding principle in your life and thought. This sad phenomenon is on display all the time in Christian circles. One of the tells that someone has made, say, a political leader their king of kings is that they will brook no criticism of that person. It would seem, to judge by them, that the political leader (or party, etc.) can do no wrong. Their support looks for all the world like reverence.

Secondly, Christians should be mistrustful of earthly authority and political systems generally. Not at war with it (more on that in a moment), but quite certain that their hope does not lie in politics. A Christian who is also a political partisan must be a deeply conflicted soul.

Every Christian since Jesus first called a handful of fishermen away from their nets and began a walkabout in Galilee ought to understand that he or she is an alien in this world, whatever political system they live under. That goes for us in America no less than to those who were persecuted under Caesar. If for a time the empire feels kindly or at least tolerant toward you, count yourself blessed. But it will not always be that way. At least, not if we hold to our primary allegiance.

Given all this, how then should we live? That has always been the big question, right? All I have to say at the moment is, read chapter 12 of Romans. It's all there.