The Problem With American Christianity

Psalm 9.19

Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.

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Inside of an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children are being held in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage has 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips, and large foil sheets that are supped to be used as blankets.

This is how the scene was described yesterday when the U.S. Border patrol allowed reporters into the warehouse where they are currently holding people arrested at the southern US border. All across the country churches and civil rights activists have been responding to the news of the government’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the resulting separation of families.

As a Christian leader there is much that I can say about this kind of policy, but it is limited by the fact that we chose these particular politicians to lead us; further complicating the issue is how often people make it known to me that they don’t want to hear about politics in church. However, our Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently responded to criticisms about the nearly 2,000 children that have been taken from their parents by saying, “I would cite the apostle Paul who clearly and wisely said in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

And when politicians start citing bible verses, when they bring the church into politics, then it becomes something else entirely.

Romans 13, and in particular the verse crudely quoted by our Attorney General, is often used to justify all kinds of acts committed by the government. And, as Stanley Hauerwas often points out, we never think about how Romans 13 was exactly the text the German Christians used to serve Hitler. And, to make matters even worse, it is a text taken out of context and we fail to read in in light of the verses that lead up to it!

Romans 12 is all about the marks of Christianity predicated on blessing those who are marginalized. It is fundamentally a list about what it means to exist in a world full of evil by not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good. Then, and only then, shall we be subject to the governing authorities.

However, instead of reading Romans 12 into Romans 13 so many people separate these thoughts from one another in order to justify political rules that don’t expect Caesar (leaders) to be repentant. Separating these theological convictions from one another is exactly the kind of move that produces Christians who blindly submit to the will of the nation-state instead of calling the nation-state into question.

If we read Romans 13 like Jeff Sessions then we will fail to see that that verse also applies to Caesar! Far too many Christians today no longer know how to read scripture, and how to read it well. Again, to quote Hauerwas, “American Christians don’t know how to read the bible well. They don’t know how to read the bible well because they’re Americans before they’re Christians.”

Caesar, in whatever form of leadership, is only divinely instituted when he/she is also held accountable to a world made possible by a 1st century Jew who was murdered on a cross. We are only bound by Caesar when Caesar is bound by an ethic that believes in extending hospitality to strangers, feeding the hungry, and hating what is evil. Romans 13 is nothing without Romans 12.

We don’t like to talk about divine judgment in the church these days. Most of us are far more comfortable with a God of peace and mercy and justice if it doesn’t require anything on our part. But the psalmist is frighteningly wise to call for the Lord to judge the nations and to not let mortals prevail. Whether we like to think about it, or even admit it, the Lord will judge us for how we treat the least of these.

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Devotional – Psalm 138.6

Devotional:

Psalm 138.6

For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

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On Sunday morning, in the middle of worship, I gathered the children from the congregation and I announced a new plan for ministry. We moved about the sanctuary and I showed them where I was praying when God spoke to me as clear as day about what we need to do. Their faces were aglow with anticipation as I announced that the future of the church rests on the congregation’s ability to raise $54 million dollars.

While the children danced around with thoughts of all the money, the adults sank down deeper in their pews. I was grateful that one of the kids finally asked what the money was actually for and then I proudly announced that we need to purchase a private jet so that I, as the pastor, can share the gospel around the world.

I, of course, was kidding.

But a pastor named Jesse Duplantis said just about the same thing to his church two weeks ago, and he was dead serious.

If that church raises the funds, and it seems like it might, it will be Duplantis’ 4th private jet since entering ministry and he justifies the request because, “If Jesus were on the earth today he wouldn’t be riding on a donkey, he’d be in a private jet spreading the gospel.”

The Lord we worship is magnificent and beyond our ability to comprehend yet, as the psalmist puts it, our Lord regards the lowly. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about the subject of money more than just about anything else and very wonderfully says that its easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

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I, for one, cannot wait to see Jesse Duplantis fly his (4th!) private jet through the eye of a needle.

In our fast-paced frenetic world that is so consumed by a thirst for power and wealth, it is always a strange thing to remember that our Lord came to dwell among us not as the televangelists live, but like those who wander among the margins of life. We worship a first century Jew who ate among the sinners, not a preacher who thinks flying with other people is akin to spending time with demons.

What a blessing and privilege to know that though our God is mighty, God chooses to meet us in the muck of life, instead of escaping away into the stratosphere.

Devotional – Acts 10.44

Devotional:

Acts 10.44

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.

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Far too much of the church is calibrated for a world that no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. Whether it’s the ways we worship, or the types of books we use in Sunday school, or even the debates that happen in the parking lot; sometimes the church feels like it’s stuck in 1982.

When I drive through town and see church marquees that read: “Church – The Way It Used To Be” I cringe. I cringe because no one even really knows what that means, and just because it used to be a certain way doesn’t mean that it needs to be that way today. The church is (supposed to be) alive! It is not some memorial to days long ago.

As God’s church we are called to two realities: We pass the tradition from one generation to another AND we open our eyes and ears to the winds of the Holy Spirit by which the tradition comes alive for each generation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that adding something like projectors and screens in worship will make everything better, but it does mean that the Spirit loves to interrupt our lifelessness with new life.

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In Acts we read about how Peter was in the middle of preaching when the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. Notice: the verse does not say that the Spirit fell on Peter to give him the words to say, but that while he was speaking the Spirit landed on all who heard what he was saying.

The Spirit loves flipping upside down our expectations and priorities. The Spirit shows up when we least expect it and it lands in ways we can scarcely imagine. The Spirit interrupts our ways of understanding the church as if to say: “Behold! I am doing a new thing!”

However, sometimes the Holy Spirit has a hard time getting through our stubborn desire to stay where we are. We can read all the right books, and pray all the right prayers, but it takes a willingness to know and believe that the Spirit moves to respond to that Spirit with new understandings of reality.

Time and time again, from Acts until today, the Spirit loves interrupting our sensibilities with new ways of moving forward. The Spirit is the one who has a story to tell, but the way we tell the story is changing.

We might think we know how the world works, and what the church is supposed to look like, but that’s usually when the Spirit shows up in the middle of our conversations to grab us by the collar and says, “Follow me!”

Devotional – Psalm 22.28

Devotional:

Psalm 22.28

For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.

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“What’s the difference between dominion and domination?” I asked the question before the Sunday School class with curiousity about how they might respond. We’ve been working our way through Diana Butler Bass’ book Grounded which address the particularity of God’s creation and humanity’s responsibility to be good stewards of this gift. At first the room was quiet as people put their thoughts together and then they started flooding out:

“Dominion is like a kind a gracious king who cares about the kingdom, whereas domination like a ruthless ruler who does whatever they want.”

“Dominion means responsibility and domination means destruction.”

We listened to one another and then took it a step further to contemplate whether we’ve cared for the earth with dominion or domination. We shared stories of pristine wilderness experiences and incredible natural beauty. However, we also shared anecdotes of ruined soil, toxic water, and tainted air.

In Genesis God’s gives humanity dominion over creation. We were given the responsibility to care for the planet with love and devotion. And our lives are such that today we are intimately connected with the dirt beneath our feet, the water we drink, and the air we breathe, even if we take them all for granted.

But we don’t care for creation simply because God told us to.

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On a primal and fundamental level we affirm that dominion first belong to the Lord, and that God rules over all nations. There might be days when this seems strange, and even paradoxical (particularly when we see images of atrocities from all across the world) but this world belongs to God first and only secondarily to us.

Imagine, if you can, that your best friend in the world offered to let you borrow his or her car, or maybe a house to stay in… Would you not take care of it even better than your own? Would the thought of his or her generosity be such that it would propel you to be an incredible steward of the gift rather than taking it for granted?

The earth is a precious, and at times fragile, gift. And, more often than not, we treat it terribly. We rarely think twice before flicking a piece of trash out the window while we’re driving, we take our clean drinking water for granted, and we assume that because a particular item of food is available at the grocery store that we are entitled to it.

But we are not entitled to anything.

This earth is a delicate gift offered to us with an expectation of responsibility. Just as we have been given dominion (not domination) over the earth, we remember that God has dominion over us.

Devotional – Psalm 23.5

Devotional:

Psalm 23.5

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

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Sometimes the more we say something the less we understand what it means. Think about the phrase, “I love you.” Perhaps you can remember the first time your spouse offered those three magical words and how your body tingled with joy and hope and expectation. But then fast-forward 20 years… Do those three words still shake you to your core? Or are they more like the bookends to a conversation?

The same holds true for particular parts of Christianity. We memorize things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed to such a degree that we can say them in church, week after week, without thinking about what we are actually saying. We grow so accustom to seeing the same phrases and announcements in the bulletin that we just gloss over them (incidentally, I jokingly told the congregation that I hid a line in the bulletin months ago saying something like “the first person to notice this sentence will receive $20” and that no one found it. Of course I didn’t actually do it, but you could tell that a number of people were disappointed they missed the opportunity to make some quick cash!)

And then you take things like beloved moments in scripture, and we accept them without reflecting on them as well.

The 23rd Psalm might be the most well known passage in the entire bible, and yet somehow it contains a verse that many of us often forget. We like the idea of being lead to green pastures, and lying beside still waters, but having a table prepared for us IN THE PRESENCE OF OUR ENEMIES is another thing entirely.

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Now, to be clear, when we think about who those “enemies” might be, we often conjure up people on the other side of the globe. However, sometimes our greatest enemies are actually the people in the pews next to us.

In God’s strange and mysterious wisdom, Christians are regularly gathered together to break bread with both allies AND enemies. We come to the table with the people we love AND hate. The table is prepared for us in the presence of those we love AND fear.

God’s table, where we encounter a little bit of heaven on earth, is the place where we begin the difficult and powerful work of being reconciled with those around us. It is because God is willing to gather us with our enemies that we are anointed for the work of discipleship in this world. Only a people who willingly gather with those we might call our enemies can also faithfully affirm that our cups runneth over.

Devotional – Psalm 4.4

Devotional:

Psalm 4.4

When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

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I like going to the gym. It’s one of the few places I can go without being spotted as a pastor (and therefore can avoid of all the Christianisms that often occur like, “I haven’t been to church in a long time,” and “What do you think heaven is like?”). There is a peace I experience while running on the treadmill in that I can be alone in my thoughts, with just enough distraction in running to actually relax.

On Monday afternoon, while about halfway through my run, my mindful journey was interrupted by the person running next to me. When I quickly glanced over it was clear that he was deeply disturbed by something on the television screen and I could hear him cursing under his breath. For 15 minutes I continued to run in silence, but I could not stop listening to, and worrying about, the man next to me. With every passing minute his face grew redder, his volume increased, and his anger became even more palpable until he could no longer stand it, he shut off the machine, and he walked away.

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I honestly left the gym feeling pretty good about myself. Not only had I taken the time to be mindful about my physical health but also I wasn’t nearly as angry or ridiculous as the man running next to me. I know I left on Monday afternoon with a sense of pride. At least, I did until I got in the car, started listening to the news on the radio, and saw my tight knuckles gripping the steering wheel as I listened to all that is going on in the world. By the time I got home I realized that I was no better than the man from the gym, the only difference was he let out his emotions in front of everyone and I did it in the solitude of my car.

How do you respond to difficult information? Do you pick up a nearby object and hurl it across the room? Do you mutter words of anger under your breath? Do you lash out on those around you? Do you clench your fists in concentrated frustration?

It is impossible, and frankly unhealthy, to keep everything bottled up. Whether it’s a response to what you witness on the news or learning something disturbing about someone you know and love, we can’t avoid how we feel. But, as the psalmist puts it, we can at least take the time to ponder it in silence before reacting.

If the Lord we worship responded to our many failures with knee-jerk reactions, this world would probably not exist. But God is patient and contemplative when it comes to how God’s creatures act. Sometimes God is silent specifically such that we might come to realize who we are and who we need to be.

We all live and move in a world predicated on knee-jerk reactions. The 24-hour news cycle bombards us with information designed to elicit responses from us. We check our emails, and social media accounts with a regularity that is frightening (myself included). But God shows us a different way; a way in which we can ponder the events of the world in silence before jumping into the fray.

Devotional – Acts 4.33

Devotional:

Acts 4.33

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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50 years ago today, while standing outside St. Joseph’s Hospital, Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux announced, “Martin Luther King is dead.” Rifle-armed police were blocking the front entrances and immediately had to hold back a crowd that gathered quickly. The city of Memphis quickly went into a state of emergency as news of Dr. King’s assassination became public.

Dr. King was in Memphis to help organize a strike of sanitation workers for higher pay and the right to union representation. Though known for his work in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was active in regard to a number of subjects including the Vietnam War, capitalism, and unjust economic practices. And because he was so vocal in turning things upside down (read: the first shall be last and the last shall be first), he was murdered.

Dr. King’s legacy is one filled with hope and, at the same time, frustration. He certainly left the country better than he found it, but few would argue that his dream has truly come to fruition. We are still a racially broken country, we are still held captive to the drama and economics of warfare, and the income inequality is higher now than it has ever been.

Part of what made Dr. King’s words and work so powerful is that he did what he did as a testimony to the virtues made real to him in Jesus. The Lord he met in the pages of his bible spoke decisively to him about the need to be prophetic in a time such as his. Jesus was a savior concerned with those on the margins, and therefore Dr. King believed it was his duty to be concerned with those on the margins during his lifetime.

When you look through the old speeches, the videos of the marches, and you weigh out how much he was able to accomplish in his 39 years of life, it is clear that grace was with him. But Dr. King’s vision of a better world, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God on earth, did not die with them. Those visions are now part of our responsibility, whether that means providing voice to the voiceless, or being in solidarity with those without power, or simply befriending the friendless, there is still work to be done.

Today we give thanks for the life and the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., we reflect on the last fifty years since his assassination, and we are bold to pray that God might use us like God used Dr. King knowing full and well what might happen to us in the end.