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The Christian Power Complex

Trump power complex

The story told in Luke’s gospel about two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus is striking. The story tells of these two downtrodden men, in disbelief that the man they had once believed was the Messiah, was now dead.

But Jesus disguises his identity and joins these men for part of their journey to Emmaus, listening to them share their grief, pain, and sorrow. Jesus jumps into the conversation, reminding them of what the Messiah had come to do. At their arrival to Emmaus, Jesus breaks bread with these 2 disciples, though they still do not recognize him. As the food is passed, in a flash they recognize Jesus for who he is, and subsequently, Jesus vanishes. But the bread remains.

Has Jesus truly left the room? Well yes, but no. No he hasn’t. He is in the room, embodied in the form of bread, because he had only days earlier told his disciples that the bread signified his body, broken for those who would follow him (Luke 24:30-31).

The Play for Power

The story has consistently been a reminder to me about how even disciples of Jesus want something from God he never desires to give. These disciples were in shock over Jesus’ death primarily because they saw him as the one who would fix Israel, by again redeeming it and raising it to prominence. And based on the response Jesus gave them, it’s quite clear, they missed it!

The redemption Jesus came to bring about was not of power, but of sacrifice. Many followers of Jesus had hoped he would give them a seat at the table of power, overthrowing Roman rule. Instead, Jesus gave them bread and a cup.

About this Brian Zanhd rightly emphasizes that,

“The false hope for the kingdom of Christ to be one of conventional political power was always bound to disappoint those who fail to understand the true nature of this new kingdom, whether it’s the Emmaus Road disciples, the architects of Christendom, or the modern-day Religious Right. Jesus will not be with us as a means of conventional political power” (Water to Wine, pg. 133).

A month ago Donald Trump met with a large group of Christian evangelical leaders, a group I consider myself to be part of. While the entire meeting really deserves a larger discussion, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the meeting. In directing his thoughts toward these church and ministry leaders Trump put his emphasis on power, saying:

“You are the most powerful group in this country. But you have to realize that. You have to band together. You have to band together. If you don’t band together, you’re really not powerful. You have a powerful church. I see it. I see some of these incredible pastors and ministers and people that speak so brilliantly. And I see it. But they’re great within their audience but then outside they don’t have it. You have to band together as a group. And if you do that, you will bring it back like nothing has ever been brought back.” (read the entire meeting transcript here)

One Last Grasp

Based on the polling data from the New York Times, a large majority of evangelical Christians are planning to vote for Trump this November. His appeal to power has, thus far, worked like a charm. If it’s power you want, Trump is your guy.

I see many within my tribe walking this same Emmaus Road of fear and disillusionment, wondering what grave circumstance will overcome them next, looking for anyone who might speak to their basest fears. Meanwhile, Jesus is sitting at the table, breaking bread.

My entire life the Religious Right, Moral Majority has set fire to Democrats for the lack of morality within their platform, now at the end of their shelf life, they have abandoned their own moral compass for one last stab at power. The dying wish of a hugely influential group is not to wash the feet of those who wish them dead, but to grasp at power.

But, of course, for the Christian, power is not what Christ calls us too.

A Reason for Hope

While fear may categorize these times, I firmly believe these hard times are a new opportunity for Christians to show that the kingdom which truly matters comes not through power, but through sacrifice. Hope is not found on a ballot or in a house in DC. Hope is found only in the gospel.

If nothing else the 2016 election is forcing Christians to reprioritize where politics fits within the hope they have. Voting is not even the most important thing a Christian will do on November 8th. Let’s lay down our power to take up our prophetic role within a society soon to be let down by false advertising.

I believe the best days are ahead, no matter the outcome in November, and I believe that because the kingdom of God is coming and it is here. Through the body and blood of Christ, broken and shed for you, we inhabit the presence of God, and His presence fills this world through our hands and feet.

Friends, be the church.

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Whose Lives Matter?

blue_lives_matter_black lives matter

There’s a debate taking place right now, maybe you’ve noticed too because it has been impossible to ignore: #BlackLivesMatter followed closely behind by #AllLivesMatter followed recently by the #BlueLivesMatter push.

This is my attempt to cut through the noise.

Let me first acknowledge that I have little to no ability to claim experiential authority on this subject. I am a 31-year-old white male (I wrote about white privilege 2 years ago), married with kids, living in a predominantly white city. When it comes to the plight of what our culture sees as discriminated people, I miss the boat. Instead, I share my thoughts as a pastor, and as someone who wants to provide a better way forward in the midst of our racial division.

The Dividing Labels

If you are a #blacklivesmatter supporter you’ve been labeled a liberal progressive. If you are a #alllivesmatter supporter you are against the liberal progressive. If you are a #bluelivesmatter you are a super-conservative. This is my unscientific explanation based on how I’ve seen people using these labels. We are easily divided by talking around each other.

This kind of division is nothing new. The New Testament gives lots of coverage to the division between Jews and gentiles, both during the earthly ministry of Jesus, and even after his ascension. This division had a title, “The Dividing Wall of Hostility.” It refers to a specific place within the Temple courts in 1st century Jerusalem, which then symbolically represented the division within society as a whole for Jews and gentiles.

Archaeologists found something connected to the outer courts of the Jerusalem temple, inscribed with the words: “Whoever is captured past this point will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.” Meaning gentiles who went beyond that outer court would be killed. This was the kind of relationship Jews had with gentiles. Divided.

What has Jesus done to this dividing wall? Paul explains:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Ephesians 3:13-16

Through Christ, we are offered reconciliation both with God and mankind. In him, we are one.

Throughout the book of Acts the apostles had difficulty knowing how to bring Jews and gentiles together into the body of Christ, as one. Early in Acts the church was one only in principle, never in practice. At first, they thought all gentiles had to become like Jews, but ultimately they decided that the body of Christ could be unified while having diversity. Their principle of reconciliation and oneness became their practice through intentional effort.

Exactly, So Don’t All Lives Matter?

Yes, of course, all lives matter. But what does saying that accomplish other than stating the obvious? Mike Erre made the point that within the human body all your bones matter. But the broken bone matters most. You care for the broken bone. You give it more attention and focus.

So too with matters of race, those who are broken deserve care—they deserve more attention and focus. Why? Because they are broken. In recent weeks the black community and other minority races have voiced their pain and frustration. When the response is #alllivesmatter or #bluelivesmatter you have stated you would rather not listen.

Movements like #Alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter silence those who spoke up first saying #blacklivesmatter.

Now I know many of you have used #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter and I know that in nearly every instance you are doing so to try to bring unity. I’m not judging you. I’m encouraging you to think of this from a black man’s or woman’s perspective. This doesn’t mean you support everything related to the #blacklivesmatter movement, but it does mean you choose to value and listen to the broken and the hurting because God does.

In speaking to his church, Matt Chandler had this to say about race and the division of it:

When we fight for deep relationships with those we are tempted to view as racially divided from us, humility results on both sides. We learn to value differences and to recognize how much we have in common as children of the same God. And we cease trying to rebuild walls that have been crushed to dust by the peacemaking work of Christ, by which many are made one.

#Blacklivesmatter is most often a cry of lament from generations of oppression. By linking arms with those who mourn, we put into practice the hard fought oneness Christ desires of his people.

Friends, let us never tire of doing good (Gal 6:9).

Next Steps

Wondering what you could do next? Here’s a few helpful things I’ve read:

 

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Following Jesus in an Evil World

sunset

A few months ago I chose a passage in Matthew 13 to speak on this past Sunday. The parable of the weeds highlights living with evil (righteousness and evil growing in the same soil), even though evil will, in the end, be thrown into the eternal fire.

As events in Baton Rouge, then Minneapolis, then Dallas, then Nice, France took place, it seemed all the more poignant to consider how Christ followers live in light of an evil world. While facing evil some want to run to doomsday theology, forgetting the fact that for the Christian, fear is a liar. I think there’s a decidedly different approach that Bible presents, in light of the gospel.

The Protection of Hell

In his book The Skeletons in God’s Closet, Joshua Ryan Butler rightly points out the common reference to “hell” in the Bible is a physical place known as the Valley of Hinnom. Evil, having no place in heaven, is thrown outside the city gates, to a place where idolatry and injustice can reign as they light their own fires. Here’s a diagram he uses to describe heaven and earth’s relation to hell:

comparing-heaven-earth-stories-1024x503

 

On the left we have the problematic understanding of heaven and earth and hell. In this we see ourselves on earth, and from earth we either go to heaven or hell for eternity. But this is not what the Bible says about earth’s relationship to heaven.

In the Gospel story the Bible presents earth is full of hell and it’s evil, but upon the return of Jesus, heaven comes down to earth, and hell is banished outside of the walls of this new earth, this new Jerusalem, the city of God. God excludes sin, evil, hell, from his kingdom because of his goodness, for the sake of protecting what is good.

We see this within the book of Revelation, during the climactic end of the Bible story. God, with the 2nd coming of Christ, brings down the new Jerusalem, down from heaven to earth. From this capital city, God’s ruling, reigning, restorative power goes out into all of the world, the holy city standing at the center of all of it, as all things are made new.

It is this New Jerusalem which stands in contrast to gehenna, hell, the valley of Hinnom. As Butler says, “Through the new Jerusalem, we see God’s posture as one of welcoming embrace, but sin and her allies are never allowed to enter inside the city gates: ‘Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (Revelation 21:27).'”

Fear is Everywhere

What does this have to do with evil in today’s world?

Well, everything actually. Check out Colossians 2:15, where Paul writes, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Christ has exposed evil for what it is, triumphing over it, and evil is soon to be cast outside of the holy dwelling of God with his people.

Therefore, there’s nothing to fear.

Fear has a stranglehold on the world today. Politicians are turning fear into a commodity for the sake of votes. Every day a new headline appears that can cause your life to go into a tailspin. Yet the Christian believer has nothing to fear. Nothing.

The most frequently stated command in the entire Bible is “do not be afraid.” This doesn’t even include variations of that phrase. Do not be afraid. Why? How? Because believers are eternally protected by the fire of God’s holy love for his children (Zechariah 2:5).

When the Messiah is born and the earthly king sends soldiers to kill him…do not be afraid.

When an entire town is furious enough to push the Messiah off of a cliff…do not be afraid.

When the ruler of the free world is targeting Christians and killing their leaders…do not be afraid.

When fear and violence overtake the headlines all over the world…do not be afraid.

In the face of unrest and violence, with fear winning the battle over society, Christians must be a stabilizing force of hope, pointing people to the light shining out of the darkness.

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Being Black

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in the United States. I’ve only ever been white, my whole life.

Last night video showed a man dying in the seat of his car, having been shot by a police officer while he was grabbing his ID the officer asked for, having already identified his legally held weapon. This happened a few miles from the house I grew up in, near Minneapolis.

This was all shown on Facebook Live, while his girlfriend was being handcuffed, and his 4-year-old daughter helplessly watched. His name is Philando Castile. His tail light was out. This follows the cell phone footage of Alton Sterling being shot in the head for carrying a gun in his pocket.

This is unthinkable and it demands outrage.

I’m as tired of outrage culture as anyone else, but when we call a man dying a death he did not deserve part of outrage culture, we silence the voice of the oppressed.

It’s interesting that Christian culture has embraced a select few hip-hop artists as part of their club. These guys champion the gospel. They do it in a way that is “relevant” (Christians love to be relevant) to a part of society many struggle to relate with. The most conservative of Christian organizations has welcomed many of these guys with open arms.

But when these individuals start calling out the systemic brutality of a race, people call foul, people call outrage culture, people turn on them. How cowardly.

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in the United States, so I’m choosing to listen to those who are. Maybe you should too.

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The Inept Empowerment of Self-Expression

selfie

I read a news headline a week ago that said “breastfeeding bride nurses during wedding ceremony, getting praise from moms around the world.” At first I thought, “great work from The Onion on that one.” But no, it’s real.

I have no intention of having a debate about breastfeeding. I simply want to make the observation about the narrative surrounding breastfeeding, which is that moms should be able to nurse wherever is needed. This is the all-too-common narrative of empowerment and self-expression.

This is certainly not unique to breastfeeding. These issues make headlines every single day. Racial tensions. Gun rights. Political activism. Religious liberty. Today the cure for marginalization is self-expression. Those who do not provide for the self-expression of others are those who are marginalizing others.

Expressive Individualism

Sociologists describe this societal push as expressive individualism: the belief that identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self.

In light of this growing belief system (yes belief system, self-expression has a rigorous devotion today), I want to ask the question: when should you limit yourself? When should you choose not to exercise your rights?

Even in Jesus’ day there was a remarkable focus on personal rights, chief among them the right to life. He said in John 10 about his own right to life: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Here we see Jesus saying ‘I have this right but I choose not to exercise it.’ In fact, in many things in life, the highest value comes not in exercising your rights, but in laying them down for the sake of others.

Can you find true satisfaction in life by being able to express who you are? Or is something missing? Is there a reason to limit yourself for the sake of freedom?

The only way to be truly fulfilled in your self-expression is for someone or something outside of yourself to validate it. This is why there’s such backlash against people and groups who come across as inhibiting self-expression today, because the validation of self-expression is necessary for the fulfillment of it.

Self-expression is basically a performance then, where you try to get others to like you and your expression of yourself.

A Better Way

This is what makes the Christian faith so powerfully different.

While God’s Word allows for all people to express who they are, validation is not given through expression. God sees you and already validates you, so you don’t have to look to people and things beyond yourself to give you a pat on the back.

Because we are already validated and loved by God, we are freed from the constant need to fully express ourselves, to instead keep our eyes focused on the needs of others. You can be freed, through limitation.

David Brooks of the New York Times had this to say to high school graduates a few years back:

“Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

The Christian does not need to find empowerment through self-expression because they worship a God who gave up his rights, and He empowers you to find the truest life by giving up yours. 

{Image: Jayme Burrows}

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The Danger of Likes (or why I joined Snapchat)

snapchat

I joined Snapchat. There, I said it. I admit it. If you want proof, find me here.

I joined Snapchat because I was sick of hearing people joining and loving it. I knew all the bad press, all the misuses of the app, but I decided to give it a shot. And I have to say, I kind of love it.

Why, you ask?

Because there’s no likes.

Still don’t get what I’m saying?

Ok, I’ll explain.

Snapchat is an awful user experience.

  • It’s nearly impossible to add friends unless they’re in your phone contacts.
  • You can’t use it on a computer, only through a phone application.
  • The first screen you see when you open the app is your camera. There’s no explanation for what to do after that.
  • There’s no way to provide public feedback for something a friend has posted. No likes, no shares, no retweets, no comments. Only private messages (Snaps), and posts to your Story (those stay posted for your friends to view for 24 hours).

And that last one, there’s the rub. Snapchat is a social network that has almost zero marketability. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—users push their content and their products all the time. It’s overrun with content videos and opinion pieces. None of that stuff works on Snapchat. No links. Just stories using pictures and videos.

The Danger of the Public Forum

There’s a danger to using a public forum that allows public feedback on everything posted. You begin to share your life in a way that will be appreciated by as many as possible. Just look at this profile of a 13 year-old, she deletes every picture that doesn’t get enough likes. No joke.

Throughout the four gospel accounts, Jesus performs various signs and wonders, many ending with Jesus telling those He touches and heals not to tell anyone. And there’s the time when He tells His disciples not to tell anyone that they think Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8).

People have come up with various explanations for this, but I think one reason for this is that Jesus didn’t want to become a celebrity. That, in fact, humans were not meant to receive unending praise, our egos can’t handle all of it.

Maybe this is why Jesus taught his followers to go into their rooms to pray. And maybe this is why he said “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others” (Matthew 6:1, NLT). Not only, he says, will you lose your heavenly reward, but it’s likely you’ll become a slave to the admiration of others.

Shaping Your Life for Likes

Now, let me be clear, I’m not saying that being on Snapchat is a Jesus-approved thing, or that the people who use other social networks are less godly (God knows, I’m on all of them). I’m simply sharing my own struggle with watching some of my favorite social networks become great places for platforms and marketing and content and commercials. Once you can get enough likes, social networks make better business platforms than relational connectors.

When we’re telling the stories of our lives on networks that universally utilize public feedback forums, we begin to shape our lives for likes, and this is damaging to our souls. We create a false reality for the sake of improved reach and likeability, instead of the messy reality, where we need God’s help each and every day.

In a sense, a life adjusted for likes becomes a gospel-less life where we can be good enough, and everyone else will like that. I want social networks to be social, but I worry I shape my life too much for the sake of everyone else appreciating it and I don’t like that.

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