If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
Yup. It’s back. The truth is that, for a while, I had lost it. But now it’s back.
You’re probably wondering, “What? What’s back?”
The fire is back. It’s in my bones. I feel it when I wake up. I think about it throughout the day. It’s back.
CATCHING FIRE (…but not like the hunger games)
I first felt the fire in January 2012, when I went to a conference called Ambition. It was a conference hosted by the organization that I worked for, InterVarsity, that was focused on planting new ministries on college campuses around the country and mobilizing students in our current chapters to reach their universities with the Gospel.
But while I was there, something strange happened. I got a fire, not just for college ministry, but for the church as a whole. My heart started to pound as I thought about this crazy idea of planting churches and mobilizing existing ones to reach people with the good news about Jesus Christ. As I thought about this, my heart started to pound like an engine and pump fuel through my veins. I realized that Jesus is so good – sooooo good – and that I cannot just keep him to myself anymore. I was so captivated by the awesomeness of Jesus Christ that I was willing to do something crazy for him.
And so I did. I left the ministry that I loved (InterVarsity) to follow the calling he had for me to begin pursuing pastoral ministry. I decided to do the crazy thing of joining a denomination – the Lutheran Church – in order to pursue this calling, which, for a nondenominational evangelical guy like me, was equivalent to a junior high guy suddenly waking up one morning and realizing that girls really aren’t that bad.
I got plugged into a great church (Trinity) and connected to an awesome network (FiveTwo) where I met other men and women who were just as on fire for planting churches and reaching the lost as I was. I would wake up in the morning thinking about planting. I would go to sleep at night, dreaming about how to better reach people with the Gospel. It was in my head. It was in my bones. I was on fire.
And then I lost it.
So how did this happen? How did I lose the fire? Honestly, it was a whole lot of things, but, in many ways, coming to Seminary has been the hardest. Why? Well, there was the shock, due to a variety of complicated circumstances, which led to us needing to leave our home church and come to our denominational school to finish out training for pastoral ministry. Then there was the shock of entering into a denominational subculture which does not always value things like church planting, evangelism, or interdenominational partnerships for the sake of reaching the lost. Finally, there is the reality that, in Seminary, it is easy for your faith to become a homework assignment.
I remember a mentor of mine saying that Seminary is one of the most dangerous places for you to be, because Seminary can destroy your soul. I have felt and experienced all of this. And as I did, the fire started to die. It was getting snuffed out by papers, derogatory comments, cynicism, and tribalism. I was lonely and angry, sad and depressed.
GETTING IT BACK
So how did it come back? Honestly, I don’t know. In many ways it makes me think of something Jesus once said:
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I don’t think it was any one thing in particular, but rather a series of small things, each one adding tinder back to the tiny spark that was once a roaring flame.
The first was the realization that the highlight of this past year was going through something called CPAC (church planters assessment cohort). During those three days we met with fellow seminarians and current pastors, all who have a passion for planting churches and reaching people with the Gospel. As we worked together to come up with strategies for planting a church my heart really started to beat again. I remember getting to the end of our time together and looking at my fellow students as we all said, “You know…this could work. We could actually do this.” Planting was back on the table.
The second was spending time with a couple of other passionate guys who want more from pastoral ministry. They want to see new ministries launched, new churches planted, and new people reached with the Gospel. Just sharing stories, passions, and heartaches has made a world of difference. Hope was returning.
The third was reading through a book. Over the break I took some time to sit down with the book Church Planter by Darrin Patrick. Though there was no lightening bolt moment as I read through it, I couldn’t help but think, “Hey…he’s talking about me.” He was describing my heart and my longings in terms I could relate to. I was starting to feel the burn.
The fourth (and certainly not the least) was that I have just been spending time in Scripture. Every day, three chapters a day, I just read. I love seeing God at work. I love seeing how, from the beginning of Scripture to the end, he has been pursuing us, wooing us, and going about his work in redeeming us through Christ. God is good. Jesus is precious to me once more. The fire was lit.
This week the burn has been there. I wake up thinking about church planting. I go to sleep dreaming about how to reach the lost with the Gospel. There is a fire in my bones that won’t go out. More than anything I want to pursue this calling to plant new ministries, to reach more people, and to preach the Gospel with everything I’ve got. I love it and I don’t want it to leave.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
The first thing is to start talking with people. This month I have the privilege of joining my friends at FiveTwo‘s annual wikiconference. While the conference is always a blast, what I have missed are the friendships and camaraderie that come with it. I’m looking forward to sitting in the room with planters, pastors, and practitioners and just picking their brains about planting and starting new ministries.
I am also planning to meeting and talking with some of the guys who lead The Journey, a multisite church here in St. Louis that is also one of the national hubs for the Acts 29 church planting network. I want to learn from people who are doing this planting thing well, so that I know how to start looking ahead and preparing for life after the Sem.
But more than this, I need to stay connected throughout this year with people who have planted, who are planting, and who want to plant. I need to build relationships with people who share the same passion and take the time to listen to and learn from them. I need the connections that I have lost over the course of this past year as well as to make some new ones in the process.
The second thing is to start praying and looking ahead to life after Seminary. I need to take the time to ask God, “What do you have for us?” I think it is going to be important to make sure that we are being as attentive to him as we were when we first decided to transition out of InterVarsity and into pastoral ministry. This will take regular time in Scripture, ongoing conversations with friends, family, and colleagues, and a healthy diet of books, talks, and sermons that will keep this fire burning.
The truth is that I want to do something crazy for Jesus again. And I can’t wait to see where he will take us.
This is a re-post of my guest column from Faithline Protestants, a web forum that explores the intersection between Protestant Christianity and interfaith work.
It’s been hard for me to watch the news lately. Even going on Facebook has been difficult. Every time I go online I hear of more disturbing stories emerging from Iraq and Syria as the militant group ISIS continues to oppress minorities, rape women, and violently execute innocent men, women, and children. But what has made these horrific acts even more difficult to watch is the conversation swirling around them. Over and over again I have watched friends, colleagues, media personalities, and news outlets call ISIS the face of Islam. More and more people have begun to say things like, “This is what Islam is really about. They are finally showing their true colors to the world.” And as I have seen this picture of Islam painted over and over again I have actually begun to wonder, “Are they right? Is this truly what Islam is all about?”
What terrifies me about that thought is just how pervasive it is. For someone who spent his undergraduate studies focusing on Islam to suddenly start to wonder if this faith tradition is truly, at its core, a religion of violence says something about the power of this narrative. It is one that has begun to make me question even my own understanding of Islam.
And so, it has taken a conscious effort on my part to remember my past. I remember the late night conversations in the dining hall with my classmate Umar as we talked about the shared emphasis on social justice within both Christianity and Islam. I remember my Malaysian roommate, Adzwan, and how he would play religious music from his home country while I would share worship songs from my own faith tradition. I remember all the years of visiting the local mosque during Ramadan, only to be greeted with warm hugs, delicious food, and long conversations about the need to promote peace and advance humanitarian causes around the dinner table. I remember reading beautiful Sufi poetry, learning about Muslim leaders in nonviolence, and reading books by pioneering activists like Farid Escak, Eboo Patel, and Feisal Abdul Rauf.
And then I am confronted with ISIS, and my question suddenly becomes, “How do I respond to this, in light of all I know and all I have experienced?” The answer comes when I slow down and think carefully about what I am seeing. ISIS is an abbreviation of the name “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. More recently, this group has shortened its name to “The Islamic State.” And suddenly it becomes clear what the real agenda of this organization is. They are seeking to define Islam for the world. They want their extremist brand of religion to be the face of Islam to people the world over. They want to steal the heritage of this faith tradition and narrowly define it for their own violent and bloodthirsty ends. And, sadly….I think they are winning.
They are winning every time a Western news media outlet calls these fanatics “Muslims.” They are winning every time a person thinks, “This is the truth about Islam.” ISIS wants us to see them as the authoritative voice of how Muslims think, act, and behave in the modern world. And every time we charge them with being the true face of Islam, we give power to their voice while silencing the countless Muslims around the world who work for peace, nonviolence, and social justice.
So how do we change this trend? I would argue that the first thing we can do is call these people what they are: psychopaths, murderers, and rapists. They are not Muslims. They are not religious fanatics. They are genocidal maniacs. Pure and simple. We need to stop equating them and their violence with a faith tradition that is far more diverse and beautiful than the horror they would export. We need to rob them of their voice and their attempts to usurp the name “Islam” from the countless men and women who honorably and peacefully bear the name of “Muslim”.
Second, we can learn from, support, and work alongside the countless Muslim leaders who oppose groups like ISIS. I think of leaders like Feisal Abdul Rauf, Eboo Patel, Farid Esack, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, and Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, who are all leaders in the Muslim community and who have advanced the cause of peace both in the West and abroad. In doing so we can advance the cause of peace and work for greater understanding between people of all faith communities.
Thirdly, we need to get to know our Muslim neighbors. As one of the largest religious communities in the United States, it is likely that every one of us has at least one Muslim neighbor, coworker, or friend. I think it might be worth asking them about their faith and how it informs their life. Take some time to stop and listen to their stories and allow them to give you a broader perspective on what it means to be a follower of Islam. I think that this will not only strengthen your friendship, but will help redefine how we think about one another in a world where extremists are seeking to steal the mic.
My hope is that ISIS will not win the war against Islam. But that will only happen when we begin to interact with each other and work together to combat their propaganda campaign. May we truly stand united against the threats from terrorists everywhere.
This is a re-post from my article over at Made for More. Made for More is a great forum for exploring the intersection of life and faith and wrestling with the tough questions that are posed by both. Head on over to their website and check them out.
FAREWELL PASTOR MARK?
This past Sunday Mark Driscoll, lead pastor of the Seattle megachurch Mars Hill, shocked the evangelical world once again when he announced that he is stepping down for at least the next month and a half while the leadership of his church investigates the charges brought against him by 21 former elders. For those who have not been following this story, Pastor Driscoll has come under increasing scrutiny over the past year as he has faced charges of creating a culture of fear among the church’s leadership, plagiarism, and using ministry funds to advance his own book sales. In one of the more shocking developments of the past few weeks, Driscoll and Mars Hill were removed from the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting organization that he helped start, by its leadership board.
Reactions to Pastor Driscoll’s remarks have been mixed. Some are shocked and saddened by the news. Others have rejoiced. However, in all of these reactions there seems to be an overwhelming sense that this is the end of the road for Driscoll as a leader in American Christianity. Words like “demise” and “the end of a career” have popped up again and again. Even in his well-balanced post on the issue, Jonathan Merritt of the Religion News Service concluded by writing that “I grieve that the story did not have a happier ending.”
But while I agree with many that stepping down is the right move for Mark Driscoll, I honestly hope that this is not the end for Pastor Mark. In fact, my prayer for both Mark and for Mars Hill is that they would take this time to demonstrate what real repentance looks like. We’ve seen far too many Christian leaders fall over the years and few who have actually been reconciled to their accusers and return to healthy ministry.
The truth is that Mark Driscoll is a gifted leader. You don’t plant a church that goes on to include over 14,000 people and launch one of America’s most successful church-planting networks without being gifted. Furthermore, Mark is an incredibly skilled communicator whose sermons and books have reached countless people around the world. He is young, talented, and whether you agree with him or not, he takes Scripture seriously. To lose such a leader is a loss not only for Mars Hill, but also for the church at large.
That being said, it is clear from recent events that Pastor Driscoll needs to take some time away from leadership, “for processing, healing, and growth”. The accusations against him are serious and many people have been hurt. His decision to step down and allow Mars Hill’s leadership the time and space to investigate these charges is a responsible step, but it is only a first step. Much more will be needed in order to restore him to ministry leadership.
But hear me clearly. I did say “restore”. The goal of all church discipline is ultimately the restoration of the individual person and the healing of relationships that have been broken. Too many, in the wake of Mark’s announcement, have rejoiced and celebrated Mark’s “demise”. But such an attitude is not in keeping with what we, as Christians, should be pursuing in circumstances like these. So what does the road of repentance look like in circumstances like these?
PASTOR MARK’S PERSONAL WALK
It is clear that a lot must be done in Pastor Mark’s own life for him to be restored to leadership. This is something that he has verbally acknowledged. But what is clear is that much more is needed that verbal apologies. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the following:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
As such, Mark’s personal road of repentance is going to have to bring him face-to-face with those he has wronged as well as involve wrestling with his own struggles as a leader. Here is what that might look like:
- Directly addressing his accusers & their accusations.
In order to live out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, Pastor Mark is going to have to address his accusers and their accusations face-to-face. He is going to need time to talk with those who have felt injured or hurt by his leadership. But more than this, he will need to take concrete steps to address the ways in which he has caused harm. This may mean spending time working with and learning from an organization that builds healthy team cultures and equips pastors to do the same. Learning from leaders like Pete Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Church, could be a starting point.
- Learning to live in humble submission.
One of the major themes of Mark’s own ministry is learning to submit to your church’s elders and those in authority. In the face of these accusations, now may be a good time for Pastor Driscoll to spend some time humbly serving under the leadership of others for a season. This will, perhaps, be one of the most difficult steps. It is hard because anyone who has been in leadership naturally has a hard time taking a back seat, especially when you have led at the level and to the caliber that Pastor Mark has led.
This will also be difficult on the person under whose leadership he serves, as it is not easy to lead and direct someone as gifted, talented, and, yes, stubborn as Mark. Yet, I think this will be vital for his own growth and healing, as he learns to truly serve selflessly and obediently under the leadership of another. My one piece of advice here would be that Pastor Mark serve under someone who is truly his elder brother, both in years and in spiritual maturity, who can care for him and guide him in a way that is both authoritative and pastoral.
- Receiving long-term counseling.
It is never easy to handle change, especially one as difficult and painful as stepping down from ministry. As such, I believe counseling is a must for Pastor Driscoll. This would need to go well beyond one or two sessions to include ongoing guidance and support as he processes his thoughts and feelings during this season. However, as someone who has personally benefited from the care of a professional counselor, I know that this will be vital in terms of restoring Mark to healthy leadership.
If it isn’t clear already from this brief list, this will certainly take longer than the minimum six weeks that Pastor Mark and the elders have given for his time away. As such, I think that Pastor Mark and his leadership team should seriously consider a 12-month Sabbatical, if not longer, to give proper time and space for this process to take place.
While this may seem like a long time, I think it is essential to ensure healthy, long-term ministry on the other side. Martin Luther once said that, “When our Lord and master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” This journey for Mark will take the whole of his life, as it does for all of us, but it will need a season to take root and it will be necessary for the church to support him in these first steps.
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH
Which brings me to my last point: what should the role of the church be in helping restore Pastor Mark? I think that this is a vital question that we, as Christians, need to ask ourselves, because the truth is that none of us is immune from sin. We all fail and mess up. Yet Scripture calls on us to bear one another’s burdens in love, and that extends to walking with Pastor Driscoll in this season of change. So what does that look like for us? Here are a couple of thoughts:
- Stop gossiping and start praying.
We need to stop attacking Pastor Mark and Mars Hill and, instead, start earnestly praying for them. We should ask God to bring them comfort and guidance as they move forward together.
- The leaders who have disciplined Pastor Driscoll should now be a part of his restoration.
There have been many pastors and church leaders who have brought accusations and calls to step down to Pastor Driscoll. Now that these calls have been heeded, it is time for those same leaders to love, support, and walk with Mark as he grows. I’m thinking specifically of the Acts 29 Network and the Gospel Coalition leadership. These men include some of Mark’s friends, allies, and protégés from the past, and he needs their love and insight now more than ever. So there should be an earnest attempt to heal any wounds that exist between them and walk with Pastor Driscoll in this time of growth and discernment.
- Thank Pastor Mark and encourage him in his walk with Christ.
The truth is that many of us have benefited from Mark’s ministry. Whatever his faults and imperfections, God has used him to bless and encourage countless people in their walks with Christ. As such, he needs to hear stories from those people about how God has used him in their lives. Over the next weeks and months Pastor Driscoll is going to hear a lot of criticisms and get a lot of hate mail. So what he needs are godly people who will also send him messages of hope and love. He needs to hear that God has and will continue to use him. He needs to be reminded that when he has been faithful to Christ, God has used him to bless others. Rather than calling out the wrong in him, let’s be a part of calling out what is right and good in him, and encourage him to develop those healthy and fruitful aspects of who he is. So write him an email, send him a letter, or just give him an encouraging Twitter shout-out. It will mean more than you know.
- Finally, defend him against the haters.
The truth is that there are those who will never be happy, no matter how far Mark goes in his walk of repentance. Mark needs people who will back him up and defend him from the haters. He has already been humbled. He doesn’t need to get kicked while he is down. Let’s protect our brother in Christ as he learns and grows.
My hope is that we will indeed see Mark return to ministry and, yes, leadership in ministry. Furthermore, I hope that the process leading to that day will be healthy for Mark and for the Church as a whole. I pray that the road of repentance would not only bring about healing for Mark and for those involved in these conflicts, but would also speak powerfully to our culture at large about the grace of the God we worship. I pray that through this, Christ would be glorified and I echo Mark Driscoll’s words in saying that “the best thing for us each to do is look to Him and point others to Him.”
LET’S GET SPIRITUAL!!!
What does it look like to live a spiritual life? This is a question that I have had since I was young. Even before I became a Christian I was drawn to spirituality and religion. I wanted to know what it meant to be close to God and live a holy life. Holy people are attractive to me. Their selfless living, their intimacy with God, and their insight into life are things that I desire for myself. This is why I was so drawn to the spiritual disciplines when I started my Christian walk; practices like fasting, retreats of silence, lectio divina, and so forth.
In fact, if you want to make any money writing Christian books just write on discipleship, being “missional”, or the spiritual disciplines and you’re guaranteed to have a bestseller. Why? Because there is a powerful interest in rediscovering and re-applying these ancient practices of the Church, especially in evangelical circles. During my years as an InterVarsity staff worker I would regularly take retreats of silence or practice disciplines like fasting as a way of growing in my walk with Christ. I could easily do an hour-long daily devotion, complete with Scripture reading, journal writing, and praying. I loved it.
A RUDE AWAKENING
However, my spiritual equilibrium was not to last, because my life was about to be interrupted by one of the greatest challenges to my spiritual walk that I would ever encounter: children. With the birth of our first and, two short years later, the arrival of our second, I quickly came to the realization that the days of hour-long devotions had come to an end. With the kids waking up ungodly early and going to bed ungodly late, the academic demands of seminary, the responsibilities of work, and the need to continue to nurture my marriage with Jenny, I suddenly realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to enter my personal monastery and meditate on my place in God’s universe. Why? Because the barbarian hordes named two-and-four-year-old would regularly storm the cloister and upend the furniture. And my spiritual life began to suffer.
Furthermore, this season at seminary has not made it easy to stay spiritually healthy. In fact, I am convinced that nothing will endanger your faith as much as getting an M.Div. This is largely because the things that you once enjoyed doing purely for the joy of doing them (studying Scripture, praying, sharing your faith, reading theology, going to church, etc) suddenly become homework assignments. Furthermore, studies have shown that whenever you attach an external motivator (a grade) to an internal motivator (a love for reading the Bible), the joy you have in doing that activity drastically decreases.
The result was that these past 12 months have been some of the driest and most frustrating that I have had spiritually in recent memory. My patience with my kids has been shorter, my desire to read Scripture almost gone, and my prayers increasingly scattered and disjointed. But what I began to realize is that these issues were merely symptoms of a deeper problem
A STUNTED VIEW OF SPIRITUALITY
But if I’m going to be completely honest, the reason why this period has been so dry has very little to do with the kids or seminary. While these two things have certainly been a change, it would be a cop-out to blame them for my spiritual drought.
So why haven’t I been able to cope? Well, because I had developed a stunted view of the spiritual life. I had come to see “spirituality” as something that could only be achieved through special practices and disciplines like fasting, retreats of silence, long devotions, extended prayers, and so forth. These were my God times.
I had inadvertently defined spirituality as a rhythm of life that took me out of the world to “get away with the Lord” and now family and seminary were messing with my spiritual mojo. I did not have the tools or resources to cope with these changing realities because I had not developed a view of spirituality that was able to encompass things like taking my kids to the bathroom or writing a paper on denominational history.
FINDING GOD IN THE MIDST OF THE MUNDANE
The truth is that I desperately needed to have my understanding of spirituality redefined. Luckily, the answer came through one of my readings in seminary: Here I Stand by Roland Bainton. In that book Bainton summarizes Martin Luther’s view of “vocational calling” in the following way:
“God has called men to labor because he labors. He works at common occupations. God is a tailor who makes for the deer a coat that will last a thousand years. He is a shoemaker also who provides boots that the deer will not outlive. God is the best cook, because the heat of the sun supplies all the heat there is for cooking. God is a butler who sets forth a feast for the sparrows and spends on them annually more than the total revenue of the king of France…As God, Christ, the Virgin, the prince of the apostles, and the shepherds labored, even so we must labor in our callings. God has no hands and feet of his own. He must continue his labors through human instruments. The lowlier the task the better. The milkmaid and the carter of manure are doing a work more pleasing to God than the psalm singing of a Carthusian. Luther never tired of defending those callings which for one reason or another were disparaged. The mother was considered lower than the virgin. Luther replied that the mother exhibits the pattern of the love of God, which overcomes sins just as her love overcomes dirty diapers” (Bainton 233-234).
What this helped me realize was that true spirituality is found not in retreating from the world, but in seeing and depending on God as we go about our daily tasks. Rather than waiting to meet God in a day-long retreat of silence or feeling like I need an hour-long devotional time, God is pleased to meet with me as I wash dishes or bathe my kids. He has made me a husband and a father, a preacher and a student. As such, doing homework well is more pleasing than five hours of solitude. Playing with my kids is holier than skipping out on a meal.
Furthermore, it is in living out these callings that I am actually driven back to God. He uses my life as a husband and father to round off my rough edges, to highlight my selfishness and sin, and to form me as someone who loves and cares for others. As such, these moments actually become a motivator rather than a hindrance to prayer.
It makes me think of John the Baptist’s advice to those who came asking, “What shall we do?” Rather than tell them to put on a camel’s fur coat and run into the wilderness to pray, he told the soldier to do his duty well and the tax collector to be fair and honest in his accounting. He pointed people back to their daily lives and said, “Live your life to the glory of God.”
For the Christian, spirituality is about seeing God in the midst of the daily grind. It is about seeing the mundane circumstances of our weeks as holy moments. It is about encountering God in our daily walk, for he is a God who was incarnate in ordinary flesh, the divine and holy one who walked dusty roads with the “average Joe”s of the world.
SPIRITUALITY FOR THE AVERAGE JOE
What I’ve slowly been learning is that God does not call us to retreat from the world. He doesn’t ask us to renounce the lives he has given us. He doesn’t call us to leave our jobs in order to become monks (or nuns). He places us in everyday circumstances and uses everyday tasks to serve others and to shape us as his children. Rather than meeting us through additional practices and spiritual disciplines, he desires to meet us in the disciplines of daily living as we perform the tasks and functions to which we have been called.
This is not to say that spiritual disciplines are not important or have no value. Rather, it is to say that they are optional and extracurricular; do them if you have time and only if they are helpful. But what matters more is learning to see God in the midst of our daily lives, in the context of our immediate relationships, and as we perform the jobs and tasks which have been entrusted to us. For these are holy moments, divine friendships, and disciplines which shape and refine us as people who know and trust God in all moments of life.
While I still have not figured out what spiritual value a paper on denominational history has, I’m beginning to see my daily moments as great times of learning from God as I play with my kids, love my wife, and dedicate myself to my studies. Thanks be to God for meeting with this average Joe in the midst of the mundane.
One of my favorite movies is the film A Few Good Men. I like it because it is an awesome courtroom drama in which a hot-shot JAG lawyer (played by Tom Cruise) has to defend the actions of two marines who are on trial for murder. Over the course of the film he learns what it means to respect and defend his clients, even though he disagrees with their actions.
In one scene he offers them a plea bargain in order to avoid the trial. However, the two men do not want to take it because they felt that they were doing right in following orders and seeking to discipline their fellow Marine for breaking the chain of command. They said that he violated their code. When Cruise’s character asks them what their code is, one of the Marines responds:
“Unit, Corps, God, Country.”
The reason I mention this is because my last post addressed the question of Christian priorities when it comes to political engagement. In the course of making my argument I wrote the following:
“We engage politics and political issues is with a different set of priorities; ones that focus on service to our neighbors and the administration of just laws rather than advancing the agenda of a particular interest group or political party.”
However, the one issue that I realize I needed to elaborate on some more was this question of “Who is my neighbor?” If we are to serve our neighbors rather than an interest group, it begs the question, “How do we evaluate who our neighbors are and what it looks like to serve them?” That’s what this post aims to address.
THE PROBLEM WITH “UNIT, CORPS, GOD, COUNTRY”
The truth is that very few Christians would disagree with the call to love our neighbors. In fact, when summarizing all of the Old Testament Torah and the Prophets, Jesus said:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The call to love our neighbors is one of the most familiar parts of Jesus’ teaching. Sadly a problem arises when it comes time to define who our neighbor actually is. In many ways, I think we develop a Christianized version of the code, “Unit, Corps, God, Country”. We tend to think of our neighbors in the categories of “Family, Community, Country, God”. What I mean by this is that we tend to define who our neighbor is in terms of whether or not we are related to them, whether or not they are a part of our immediate community, and whether or not they are a part of our country.
For example, if I were to apply this code to my own life, it means I look out for my wife and kids, my extended family, and anyone who is a middle-class White person in America with moderate political views. We turn this call to love our neighbors into a justification for caring for our own interests and the interests of those who are like us and with whom we agree.
The code starts to break down when you begin to push the boundaries of who qualifies as a neighbor. After all, how do we tend to think about those who are different from us? Allow me to offer a couple of examples:
- What about Muslims? We label them “terrorists”.
- What about undocumented people? They’re “illegal aliens”.
- What about the homeless? We call them “lazy welfare abusers”.
- What about members of the LGBTQ community? We label them “fags”.
- What about the Chinese? They’re “communists who are trying to take over the world”.
- What about our enemies? They’re “dangerous and should be killed or imprisoned”.
If you were offended by that list GOOD. You should be. Because it’s an offensive list. And I would argue that it is offensive because we have taken people, human beings made in the image of God, and dehumanized them. Furthermore, we have made excuses for why we shouldn’t care for them and their needs, much less treat them in a “neighborly” fashion.
And what is sad is that, quite honestly, I have heard all of those things on the lips of people within the church. I’ve heard Christians say these kinds of things about people and it breaks my heart. And yet, these all betray that we are working with an inner hierarchy that preferences those who are like us over those who are different.
But the funny thing is that Jesus had something to say about people who operate with this code:
44 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?“
~Matthew 5:43-48 (emphasis mine)
Yup. You just heard that from the man. The code doesn’t match up with Jesus’ notion of who is our neighbor. So what does?
A DIFFERENT CODE
So how does Jesus answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is found in Luke 10:25-37 where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story a Samaritan man cares for a Jewish man who has been robbed and beaten. When he asks the Jewish expert in the Law who was a neighbor to the man who was beaten, he answers, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Again, this is a pretty familiar story for Christians, but I honestly don’t think we wrestle enough with the implications of what is being said here. We have to remember that the Samaritans and the Jews in Jesus’ day were not on the best of terms. The Jewish people looked at the Samaritans as religious and ethnic outsiders. They were heretics and half breeds. Animosity between the two groups often became violent and there are several recorded incidents of violent conflict between the groups in the 1st centuries BC and AD. For Jesus’ hearers a Samaritan is not the likely hero of this story. If anything, they would have expected a Samaritan to be the culprit.
And yet here is Jesus holding up a Samaritan as the hero of the story. It is the Samaritan who is the neighbor. It is the religious and ethnic outsider, the enemy and the outcast, who is the neighbor. This totally upends the code of “Unit, Corps, God, Country” because it says that our neighbor is actually the one who is least like us. It is the person with whom there is the greatest distance, the greatest tension, that we are to consider our neighbor.
What this tells us is that Jesus’ understanding of who our neighbor is flies directly in the face of what we would prefer and, as Christians, we have to not only wrestle with it, but seek to apply it to our own lives.
SERVING OUR NEIGHBOR
So how do we do that? What does it look like to serve our neighbor, especially the neighbor who is so different from us? My answer is going to sound like a cop-out, but honestly it starts by getting to know them. That is the only way you are going to build trust, learn their needs, and discover where they are at in their walk with God. There is no formula for this. Service to neighbor has to begin with relationships.
And this is what is so uncomfortable for us. If I’m honest, it is uncomfortable for me to be in a room full of people who are different from me. It is hard to talk with someone with whom I disagree politically. And, honestly, it is hard for me to love and pray for those who want to kill me.
And yet…that is what Jesus calls us to do. He calls us to love, pray for, and serve our neighbors as he defines them. We have to wrestle with that and ask God for the strength to change our hearts as we reach out others.
So what would it look like for those Christians who spoke poorly about the “other” to re-evaluate their views through the lens of this parable? What would it look like for you and for me to do so? I think this would radically redefine what political issues we take an interest in, the books we read, the places we live, and the people we hang out with. That is what this parable calls us to. That is what it looks like to love our neighbors and it is a far better code than “Unit, Corps, God, Country.”
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
~1 Corinthians 5:20 (ESV)
Early this month we, as a country, celebrated the Fourth of July and I have to admit that, since becoming a Christian, I have struggled with how best to honor this holiday. The reasons why are multiple, but perhaps the biggest reason is because of the tendency, in many American Christian circles, to blend nationalism and faith. The most recent example of this was Holly Fisher’s 4th of July Twitter post of her posing with a flag, an assault rifle, and a Bible. Over the years I have heard too many of my brothers and sisters in faith parade out Bible quotes in support of a nationalist political agenda and question the faith of those who don’t hold those particular political views or whose theological conclusions seem to challenge or question conservative political values, especially on issues of social justice, racial reconciliation, poverty, war & peace, and immigration.
Sadly, the response hasn’t been any better, for as many Bible-quote-toting conservatives as there are, there is an equally large number of Bible-quote-toting liberals doing the same. The problem is that, for both, Scripture and our identity as Christians is being tied to a political allegiance. In fact, in his groundbreaking study of American religion, Robert Putnam noted that for the majority of Christians political and party affiliations play a more powerful role in determining which church they belong to than their theological beliefs.
All of this leads me to ask the question, “How do we, as Christians, actually view our role in society? To what do we pledge allegiance? A nation? A party?” This is my attempt to answer those questions.
PILGRIMS, ALIENS, OR EXILES?
There have been countless attempts to answer this question down through the ages of the Church, even from our very earliest days as citizens under the Roman Empire. So to claim that I am offering anything new or insightful would be arrogant and unfaithful to those who have come before. Christians have variously been called “pilgrims”, “exiles”, and “resident aliens”.
While each of these views has its basis in Scripture, one paradigm that I have found particularly helpful is that of “ambassador”. Christians are to be ambassadors for Christ. Not only is this term Scriptural, but the implications of it are profound for how we view ourselves and how we interact with the broader national culture, especially when it comes to politics and social engagement.
A DIFFERENT ALLEGIANCE
What makes the paradigm of ambassador so compelling is that it assumes that we are a “sent” people. We are sent on behalf of another government or ruler to a country that is not our own. While we live in that country or land, our allegiance remains tied back to our sovereign. It is His laws we are to uphold, His agenda we are to pursue, and His priorities that we are to value above all others. To give our allegiance to the country to which we are sent would be to violate the allegiance that we have already pledged: to our King. As such, Christians cannot and should not hold any allegiance to any earthly power (political or otherwise) that supersedes their allegiance to Christ.
While this is easy to say, I think that oftentimes we are shaped more by our cultures, families, communities, or the political paradigms that we inherited from our parents. However, as Christians we have to be self-reflective and ask, “Which of these values is in line with those of Christ and which are not?” Rather than uncritically sticking the label “Christian” upon the values we already hold, we subject our preconceived notions to the test of Christ and ask whether or not the values we hold actually align with those of our King.
Honestly, the best way to do this is by talking to other Christians who were not raised in the same cultures, communities, families, or even under the same political systems as ourselves. For when we do so we help each other identify those assumptions, beliefs, and practices which may be out of step with those of Christ, for we do not necessarily share the same blinders as one another. In doing so, we become more effective ambassadors for our King as we begin to shed other allegiances which stand in the way of our faithful witness.
A DIFFERENT MISSION
Likewise, as a sent people we have a particular mission. Ambassadors are sent for the purpose of winning a hearing for their home culture and government. Ambassadors are not sent with the strength of arms nor with the power of economic might. Rather, through a combination of personal integrity, diplomacy, and an awareness of the culture to which they are being sent, ambassadors seek to improve the reputation of their home culture among the culture to which they have been sent.
Sadly, I think that this is lost on many American Christians today. We want to win a hearing for Christ, but we use political power games or economic might to try and accomplish this. We vote for “Christian” politicians, establish “Christian” Super PACs, run “Christian” political campaigns, and donate to “Christian” causes. We use the tools of might and power to try and force an agenda rather than winsomely persuading and presenting a case for the Gospel.
The result, sadly, is that Christians just come across as another political option in an already hyper-politicized nation. We are just one more interest group trying to grab the reins of power. This damages our witness, because it looks like we care more about our constituency than about serving our neighbors…all of them. Rather I think we need to consider that, as Christ’s ambassadors, God is making His appeal through us: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
So what does this look like in terms of political engagement? I think the answer is found in passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-25. In these two passages we learn that God has instituted secular governments to be agents for justice and the welfare of the broader society. Sadly, many secular governments and governing officials seem to only be in the political game to serve themselves and their narrow constituencies or interest groups. Our role, as Christ’s ambassadors, is to call them back to the service and administration of justice and good order, NOT to the establishment of a pseudo-Christian theocracy.
This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t vote nor to give the impression that Christians should hold politics at arm’s length. Rather, it is to say that we engage politics and political issues is with a different set of priorities; ones that focus on service to our neighbors and the administration of just laws rather than advancing the agenda of a particular interest group or political party.
This is part of the reason that Christians should not fit neatly into any political party or group, because the reality is that, in our current climate, neither of our two major parties fulfills this function well. And the truth is that, in our broken world, they probably never will. So, we exhort, challenge, pray for, serve, and encourage whoever sits in power to exercise their God given authority with justice and for the betterment of our neighbors.
“WE PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE ___________________?”
So who do we pledge allegiance to? The truth is simple. We pledge allegiance to Christ. It is to Him and His reign that we look for guidance as we consider our engagement with any political issue. As such, we need to examine our political leanings carefully and weigh them against the priorities of Jesus. I think that this is best done within the community of the global Church as we talk to our brothers and sisters in faith and learn how to question and evaluate our views in dialogue with one another. We must remember that we are ambassadors; citizens of the kingdom of Christ sent to win a hearing for Him in countries across the globe.