“That’s what Christians are supposed to do…”

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“That’s what Christians are supposed to be doing…”

This is the phrase a non-religious friend of mine said when we were talking yesterday.  We were talking about ways to tackle homelessness and I had the opportunity to share with my friend what the good people at St. Stephen Lutheran Church were undertaking – doing ministry over at the Flying J – making sure people had access to showers, laundry, and food.  We spoke for several minutes about some other opportunities we were considering and the many possibilities that existed to make an impact in the lives of people who needed help – including getting people connected with resources and professionals that could help them.

That’s when my friend said those words that caught my attention.

And revealed something insightful to me as well.

How are we Christians known and what are we known for?  Are we known because of a sect of Christianity that seems more concerned with aligning with political power – if so, then we have our focus in the wrong place.  If this is the most important thing that we Christians do, then there is something seriously wrong with our Christianity and with our faith.

I don’t buy the notion that Jesus died for our sins so that we could align ourselves with one or the other political party in the US in the 21st century and treat our political opponents in a very non-Sermon on the Mount way.

The old hymn says that they will know we are Christians by our love.  Not by our politics.  Not by our fear.  Not by our separating people into us and them.  Not into our allegiance and loyalty to a party, politician, or nation.  By our love.

Love acted out.  Love that this lived out.

It is time for Christians to act like Christians again.  Let me alter that – there are many Christians who do live out their faith and love.  They just don’t get the attention that many other Christians do who are more interested in making stupid comments about how we shouldn’t vaccinate our kids or that God is punishing some portion of the country through disasters because we don’t hate homosexuals enough or other such nonsense.

They will know we are Christians by our love.  They will know we are Christians by the care we give and offer the poor and outcast.  They will know we are Christians by using what we have been giving to help those in need.  They will know we are Christians by how we feed people.  They will know we are Christians by how we value people – all people.  They will know.  Why?

As my friend so eloquently stated – “That’s what Christians are supposed to be doing…”

It’s just so obvious.  It’s obvious to someone who isn’t even a practicing Christian that this is what Christianity is supposed to be about.  Why isn’t it obvious to practicing Christians?

As we heard in our Gospel lesson from this past Sunday – Jesus said.  “The time has been fulfilled.  The Kingdom of God has come near.”  The time is now for us to act like Christians.  God’s Kingdom is at hand.

Guns

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Guns.  The mere mention of this topics causes a rise in anxiety level for many people.  Many others automatically start thinking of one-liners, defenses, attacks, and more – they know there is going to be a fight.  Still others are so attached to these issues that they become a part of their very identity and used as part of how they describe who they are – any discussion whatsoever on these topics is considered a questioning or an attack of the person.  Isn’t it interesting that something that can be used for violence creates anxiety, fear, and anger at the mere mention of the word?

And still others, although a much smaller minority, if I had to guess, hang their head in sadness over the intense division that we face in the United States.  How exactly are we “united?”  What exactly are we united about?  I don’t see it.

Two days ago there was another shooting in a school.  The next day there is debate about guns.  There is debate about whether it is appropriate to have a debate about guns.  There are some who call for “common sense” or “reasonable” gun control.  I don’t like those terms.  I think they do more damage than are helpful.  Image being on the other side of any issue and you hear your opponent talking about “common sense” or “reasonable” legislation on your hot button issue.  How do you like just being called unreasonable or without common sense because you don’t agree with your opponent?  How does that advance us any closer to a solution?

There are others who will raise the standard of the Second Amendment and claim that the way to deal with shootings is to arm more people in the schools.  The argument is that since many schools are gun free zones, all it means is that they are sitting ducks.  Is arming more people the answer?  Is increasing the potential or the means for more violence a way to deal with the threat of violence?  Is becoming more militarized a good direction for our culture?  What are the unintended consequences of such an action?

We are completely missing the issue at hand.  We seem to think that material solutions solve all of our problems.  We seem to believe that if we just pass this one piece of legislation, then people will stop doing evil things.  If we just arm everyone, then there will be enough deterrents to make it stop.

And we miss something deeper.

That the material solutions – legislation, guns, or anything else, are only one small part of the equation.  They will remain small as long as we continue to turn a blind eye on the non-material – the spiritual.  That doesn’t mean we should just sit around and wait for the next tragedy that is coming.  That doesn’t mean we just express “thoughts and prayers” as though that’s all that needs to be said.  Prayer isn’t some passive thing that we do, something that gets us off the hook from a responsible response. Prayer is supposed to cause us to get up and do something.  Otherwise, it is just empty words, from empty faith.  What’s the point of having a faith that doesn’t cause us to be so uncomfortable and inconvenienced to do something?  What is the point of having a faith that doesn’t afflict us in our comfort?  It’s worthless and it isn’t faith at all.

Our culture is a culture of sin, brokenness, and mistrust. I don’t mean this in the traditional, conservative, religious-political way.  I’m not arguing that we are sinful because we engage in this or that activity.

Rather, we are sinful.  Period.  As a result things happen because of that brokenness.  Sin is ultimately about broken relationships.  I think there are four broken relationships that impact everything else – our broken relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the rest of creation.

If we think we can mend these broken relationships by using only material things, we are mistaken – fatally.  Sin always ends in death.  Death of a relationship, death of a life, death of hope, death of meaning.

I don’t know the answer to problem we face regarding gun violence.  I do know that it goes beyond a piece of legislation though.  And it does involve legislation too.

But, if all we do is pass another gun law, we are fooling ourselves if we think that will stop the violence that happens in our nation.

We have a culture that doesn’t value life – gun violence is a symptom of this.  It’s just one symptom though.  And treating the symptom doesn’t result in a cure.

We willingly consume food that is detrimental to our health and our bodies.  We do it because they cost less money – our money is more valuable than our bodies and our health.

We willingly consume entertainment that glorifies violent death and destruction of people and creation.  We consume this same entertainment that sees others as pawns in a game and useful agents meant to offer us pleasure.  We do it because we need a way to relax.

We willingly make abortion an option for women who, for whatever reason, feel that terminating a pregnancy is the best option for them.  We do it because paying someone to get rid of the problem is easier and cheaper than surrounding a woman and her family with the resources and care she needs to bring new life into the world.  That would take a lot of work, and require a change in our culture.  Besides, it’s fun to get caught up in arguing about the exceptions.  We don’t have the time or energy to talk about how to create an environment where better options exist.

We willingly create and participate in a “health” care system that is really more focused on sick care rather than health care. We do it because focusing on health takes more effort, requires us to be vulnerable, and has upfront costs.  And it would require us to change.

We willingly fight about “issues” in the abstract because if we really thought about the impact of those issues on real people, it would be too much to bear.  It’s so much easier to fight about issues, than deal with people’s lives.  We might feel guilty or shameful for what we support and oppose.

We willingly fight about immigration and foreigners in this country and what laws should be in place and how many of “them” should be allowed in.  Is it 5,000,000, is it 1,000,000, is it 0?  Does it matter?  Those are just numbers on a screen – not actual lives.  It’s easier to keep things in the abstract.  It’s easier to build an expensive wall so that we don’t have to even look at our neighbors – we can feel safer, even if the wall does more to trap us in our own yard than keep others out.  But gosh, we need to feel safe because we are fragile and live in fear apparently.

We willingly fight about race – a human construct that on the surface is ridiculous, sinful, and screams brokenness into our culture.  We aren’t willing to hear from those who have been oppressed because our experience has been just fine, thank you very much – so what are they possibly talking about?  It’s easier to fight about race, than to listen.  Listening would mean we would have to be open to change and then actually change.

I could go on.  But I don’t have to.  In each of these “issues” we, our culture, are oriented towards sin and brokenness.  We are oriented towards death.  We devalue and dehumanize our opponents and make them enemies because we have made being right and being comfortable an idol that we worship.  We fear change because of what it will cost us.  We don’t want to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced.  We would rather talk.  We’d rather scapegoat and blame others for the problems we face.  We’d rather be lazy and take the easy way out of the responsibility that is right in front of us.

Two days ago was Ash Wednesday.  I love Ash Wednesday.  It is a day in which I am reminded of the prevalence of death.  Death is smashed right in my face, on my forehead.  It’s not just ashes of something that was alive that is now dead.  It’s not just the reminder that I too will someday come face to face with death.  It is the recognition that we live in a world that is oriented towards death – it is besieging us constantly.  It is in our face, on our screens, in the words we choose to use, in our digestive systems, in our skin, in our relationships, and our money.

It is in the idols that we worship.

But Ash Wednesday is more than just a reminder of how prevalent death is – it is also the declaration of something else.  It is the declaration that we cannot over come death on our own.  No matter what we do or how hard we try, we will not defeat death. There is one only who has defeated death – Jesus.

Jesus brings a promise – a powerful promise.  A promise of resurrection.  But in order to experience resurrection, we have to experience death.  That could mean literal death of our bodies.  But it also means death in other ways – death of organizations, relationships, jobs, etc.  And death of things that we hold really close to us – our identities with human made constructs and ideas, our passionate desires to be right and to be recognized as being right while others are wrong, our focus on separating people in to those who are with us and those who are against us.  These need to die before we can experience resurrection.

I pray we have the openness to kill these things that need to die.  Yes, kill them, before they kill us.

The Good News of Jesus is that death does not have the final say.  It is merely a stop on the way.  We fear death because we think it is an ending – a permanent ending.  Yet, Jesus says no.  Jesus promises resurrection – renewed, restored, and transformed life.  Better life.  Better than we could ever imagine.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him.  We know what our crosses are – the things that we are clutching so dearly.  The things that will ultimately kill us.  The cross is an instrument of death.  Are we bold enough to allow it to do its job?  Are we bold enough to actually trust Jesus’ words and promises?  We we bold enough to allow these things that we clutch to die?

Or do we fear resurrection?  Do we fear what transformed life would be like?  Do we fear not being in control?

A promise has been made to us.  Do we trust it?  If so, how do we respond today?  How will you respond today?  I start with prayer and it pushes me out of my comfort zone to go and see the humanity, the very essence of life, that is around me.  It pushes me out with open eyes in uncomfortable ways in inconvenient times to see what is around me and to respond.  To bring life, hope, grace, and forgiveness because these have been given to me.  It is my prayer that you become so afflicted by violence, tragedy, homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, human trafficking, porn addiction, alcohol abuse, racism, sexism, nationalism, and other sins that besiege us that you respond.  It is my prayer that you are made so uncomfortable and inconvenienced by these things that the only option you have is to respond to eliminate these things in your context.  It is my hope that your thoughts and prayers are not empty, but that they pour salt in your open wounds and cause you to get up and go.

Food stamps vs. food boxes – it’s more than about food

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I read an article in Fortune magazine about the Trump Administration that started like this:

The Trump administration wants to overhaul the longstanding food stamp program, replacing it with a box of canned goods that it has likened to Blue Apron—a high-end meal kit service.

Source: http://fortune.com/2018/02/13/food-stamps-blue-apron-americas-harvest-box/

On the surface this doesn’t sound like a big deal.  If you’ve never had to be on Food Stamps, then you probably buy into the idea that people on Food Stamps abuse the benefit by buying beer and lobster, etc.  You’ve probably heard horror stories about this.

Here’s the main stated reason why this is being done:

Mulvaney claimed that the change would allow the government to save nearly $130 billion over 10 years, as it would lower government costs because it could buy the products at wholesale prices.

It’s about the money.

I would argue that it won’t save money in the long run.  The biggest reason is something I can’t quantify or point to direct evidence.

This gets into bigger issues than just feeding people.  If that’s all it were about, then great, let’s do it more efficiently and save money and get people food. The only problem with this line of thought is that nothing is in a vacuum.  Feeding people isn’t just about making sure they get food.  We have to look deeper.  Why is someone in such a situation that they need assistance in feeding themselves?  It’s not a nice, simple solution to this problem. But we Americans are really good at just throwing money at a problem and thinking that if we solve the material want or lack, then all will be well.

Except that is not the case.  The reason why government will never be able to solve hunger is because it refuses to see a person or family holistically.  It refuses to acknowledge the non-material parts of a person.  You can’t solve hunger or poverty or violence and focus solely on the material.

There is more to a person than the food they eat, the house they live in, and the job they get paid to do.

There are things that are not tangible too.  Things that we can’t measure or control – but we can influence or create an environment where the non-material is allowed to grow and flourish.

The biggest flaw with changing the food stamp program to a boxed meal isn’t the fact that the food will be less healthy – that’s a material issue.  That’s measurable and there is truth to that.  There won’t be fresh fruit, veggies, or meat.  It’s the fact that families in poverty are in poverty because, for one thing, they have limited choices.  When we take away a family’s or a person’s choice in what they will eat, we are not empowering them to make choices for themselves.  We are making them more dependent on others to make choices for them.  Meanwhile we feel good about providing the material things they supposedly need – regardless of what they want or really need.  We are dictating to them how they are to run their lives.  The effects of this are not good.  When someone’s choices are limited or they lose all their choices, it doesn’t turn out well for that person or family.   That is not how someone moves out of poverty.  That’s how they stay trapped in poverty longer.

This isn’t an argument to say that the food stamp program is great and works perfectly.  It doesn’t.  It doesn’t work effectively because it also is solely focused on the material need and ignores anything outside of that.

One of my all time favorite books is called “When Helping Hurts,” by Scott Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  Here’s how they describe poverty:

Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

pg. 62, “When Helping Hurts”

And their answer to what to do about it:

Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.

pg. 78, “When Helping Hurts”

If our only goal is to make sure that people have enough material things, we will never relieve poverty or hunger or any other challenge we face because they problems don’t exist in a vacuum and go beyond the material.

There is more to people than just the material.  And as long as we ignore this fact, we will not really be helping people.  And we will all suffer the consequences as a result.

This is the opportunity for the church.  We aren’t government agencies, and we aren’t like other non-profits.  We should certainly work with these organizations – they can provide things that churches can’t.  But churches can do things that government and non-profits can’t or won’t do – touch on the non-material side of life.  We can touch a person’s spirit, their reason for living, their broken relationships, and offer resurrection – transformed life.  That is what makes churches unique.  We have the best news in the history of the world – a message of resurrection and transformation.

I’m willing to bet when we share this message, when we live out the message, when the message is communicated through the material help that we provide, then people will want more.  They will want to hear more.  They will want to be a part of community that lives our resurrection.  They will want to experience resurrection.

Remember you are dust…

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…and to dust you shall return.

These are the words spoken on Ash Wednesday.

I love Ash Wednesday.  I love Lent.  I love Holy Week.  It’s my favorite church time of the year.  The season of Lent forces us to deal with things most people would rather not face.  it forces me to deal with realities about who/whose I am.  It forces me to deal with my limitations and brokenness.  And to hear words of grace that I desperately need.

It starts with Ash Wednesday.  We are told that we are going to die.  Not only are we told we are going to die, but the message is forced on us – it literally is put in/on our face.  Since our culture is afraid of death, we need to hear this.  Many people are moving away from having funerals where a body or ashes are present to a memorial service or a celebration of life or something of this nature.  I understand this – we’d rather not deal with death.  Death is not a fun topic.  It sounds so final.  Yet, the Good News is that death does not get the final say.

As we go through Lent, we hear about how broken we really are.  We hear how desperately we need Jesus.  We can’t do this on our own.  And thankfully God provides the means.  The Good News is that death does not get the final say.

Then we come to Holy Week.  As we progress through the week, the story gets grimmer and dimmer.  It seems as though all hope is lost.  There is betrayal and handing of Jesus over.  There is brokenness and sin.  There are many lasts.  There are many ends.  Yet, as we go into Easter, we experience the end of the ends – a new beginning.  Resurrection!

We have to experience death before we can know resurrection.  This is the Good News.  Death does not have the final say.  God has the final say.  And it is good news for us.  The best news in the history of the world.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Remember you are dust, but God will not forget you or God’s promises to you.  Remember you are dust…

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

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Orthodoxy is having the right beliefs.

Orthopraxy is the right practice.

Which is more important?  Which leads to the other?  Does rightness come from the belief or the action?  We might has well be asking which came first, the chicken or the egg.  Theologians have been arguing about this for centuries.

It comes down to this – do you believe the right thing?  If so, then you will carry it out in the right way.  Or…

If you carry out the practice in the right way, then it will impact your beliefs mostly because as a human you are drawn to have your actions and your beliefs in alignment and to be congruent.

But which is more important?

The challenge for this question is that either can end up being a type of idol.  In orthodoxy, we can end up making demands on people to comply with our version of orthodoxy and anyone who doesn’t fit in is damned.  You end up with purity tests that people need to pass.  You end up with the sins of certainty, pride, and being right.  Relationship is considered secondary.

In orthopraxy, we can end up with a relativistic belief system that swings and sways in each moment, grounded in feelings that can leave us rudderless, and potentially left believing nothing and everything.  You end up with an idol of works – who cares more than others?

So which is more important?  Neither and both.  I would argue that each informs the other.  You can’t have just orthodoxy – or maybe I should rephrase that – you shouldn’t have just orthodoxy.  When you only have orthodoxy, there is no movement to actually carry out what you claim to believe because it is secondary and not as important as what you believe.  We see this lived out in religious circles and in politics.

At the same time, you shouldn’t just have orthopraxy.  When you have only orthopraxy, the question because why are you doing what you are doing?  What is the cause of the movement and action?  What is the intent?

Instead, it is healthy to have both.  One informs the other and the other informs the one. Our beliefs should inform our actions and our actions should impact our beliefs based on what we are experiencing.  It is the marriage of theory/ideals with practice/reality.

As with most things in life, it is usually not a good idea to choose one option at the expense of the other.  Typically there is a middle ground that taps into the best of both worlds.  And it is in this middle place that I think orthodoxy and orthopraxy meet, impact each other, and allow us to better carry out our callings.

Faith – Vulnerability = Extremism

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I was recently at a wellness retreat.  The main speaker wasn’t able to come due to flight cancellations.  The staff scrambled to adjust and did an excellent job considering the circumstances. In place of the speaker, we got to hear about Dr. Brene Brown and her work on vulnerability.

During one of the presentations we heard Brown’s equation:

Faith without vulnerability equals extremism.

This is very insightful.

Being vulnerable is seen as being weak in our current culture.  Yet, the opposite is true.  Vulnerability comes from a place of strength.  Those that are weak wall off others.  Those that have self-doubt keep people out of their lives.  Those that have low self-confidence shut off from others and keep things at the intellectual and abstract level.

We live in a culture is based on weakness, although it wants to claim that it is strong.  When you push to eliminate opposition and conquer others, you aren’t starting from strength – you start from fear.  Fear is a sign of weakness.

Our culture claims that no matter what you do, it will never be enough.  It starts from scarcity and weakness.  It sends the message that you aren’t good enough.  You aren’t extraordinary enough.

This isn’t healthy, nor can it sustain long-term.

What would it look like to come from a place of strength?  It would offer an environment where vulnerability was encouraged.  Being vulnerable is the core essence of life.  Jesus was vulnerable throughout his life.  Vulnerable to the point of death.  It takes someone with a great deal of self-confidence, self-knowledge, and self-love to go that far.  But it doesn’t end with self, or else that would just be selfishness.  Instead, because of that strong foundation, Jesus was able to turn outward, to empower others, to offer words of forgiveness and healing, to share Good News with the broken.

The church’s message is counter cultural to its core.  It’s a message of vulnerability.

Greatness doesn’t come in walling people off, it comes in letting people into your life.  being stone faced and hard-core in everything isn’t a sign of strength.  Rather, it is a sign for help.  Demanding compliance doesn’t show strength, it shows how weak you truly are.

Faith isn’t blind and it isn’t all just about belief.  Faith is meant to be lived out.  And that means being vulnerable.  It means being vulnerable to the point of seeing how faith is a gift given to you because you need it.

Faith without vulnerability is extremism.  And it’s destructive.  And it ends in death because it is empty and worthless.

Why I’m doing ashes on the go

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To do ashes on the go or not, that is the question many Lutheran pastors face.  There is actually a significant amount of debate about this – is it appropriate, in appropriate, or adiaphora?  I lean towards adiaphora, a good Lutheran term that means it ultimately doesn’t matter and has no bearing on our salvation so do what works in your context.  And in my context, ashes on the go works.

Think of ashes on the go as similar to a drive through window for your order of food.  Many pastors think this demeans the practice.  Many think it cheapens the message.  Many argue that people should come to a full service to remember that they are dust and to dust they shall return.  People should make the time to attend a service when it is offered this coming Wednesday.  Or that pastors ought to offer a service at different times so those that don’t normally come will have an opportunity to go either early in the morning or late at night.

I understand these arguments and I’m willing to say that there is plenty of truth in many of these statements.  Yet…Yet, I’m still offering ashes on the go.  While people “ought” to go to a church service, we both know that many won’t.  In our culture where more and more people have not had an interaction with a church and where church is not the primary mover of culture and society anymore, there are many things that people “ought” to do when it comes to church that just aren’t going to happen.  We could offer a service at 6am for the folks who go to work early – guess what, if they aren’t part of a church, those folks aren’t going to magically show up.  They don’t go to church now, why would they go any other day?

So why am I offering ashes on the go this coming Wednesday?  Because I can for one thing.  Because Jesus didn’t say wait inside your church buildings for people to come to you.  Because Jesus said to go and tell.  I’m doing ashes on the go because it is an opportunity for people to hear the counter cultural message of the Gospel – that you are going to die, but that is not the end of the story.

Do you realize how radical it is to tell people they are going to die?  That’s what “you are dust and to dust you shall return” means.  It means you are going to die, your body is going to decompose.  But that is not the end.  Far from it.  God has more in store for all of creation.

I’m doing ashes on the go because there is a better chance that someone who receives ashes will seek baptism than if we make them jump through hoops to get ashes or receive communion – especially when they are spiritually hungry.  I am doing ashes on the go because I believe God shows up in the craziest of places and does miracles, even in a short interaction.  I am doing ashes to go because it’s not about me putting ashes on a person’s forehead.  It’s about God’s word being spoken to someone – the Word that has the power to transform a person in an instant.

If you think ashes on the go is cheapening the whole thing, then here is my suggestion – don’t do it and don’t receive it.  But don’t wail and moan about it and expect me to sit by with a smile on my face as you rip it apart.

I’m doing ashes on the go because there are many people out there who have never encountered Jesus, or had a terrible experience with church.  I’m doing ashes on the go because there are plenty of people out there who are just waiting to encounter Jesus and don’t know it yet – and they would never step foot in a church.  So I’m going where they are, in their context – in the midst of the hustle and bustle of their busy lives.  I’m going to say the words “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” And for a moment, the reality of life and death will be right there, in and on people’s faces.  No hiding.  And I believe that God will do amazing things as a result – things that I may not ever know about.

Yes, I’m going ashes on the go.  If you find yourself on the Miracles mile between Carlisle and Mechanicsburg, PA on Wednesday morning from 7am on, stop by.  I’ll be in the parking lot of Flying J and Dunkin Donuts.  I’d love to talk and give ashes.

Allegiance and Loyalty

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Yesterday I saw an article about Trump calling Democrats not clapping for him during the State of the Union address as treasonous.  I also saw an article about Trump wanting a military parade down Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, DC.

Just citing these two articles probably evokes highly emotional reactions.  I’m willing to guess that you either think that Trump was kidding about the treason comment and that he is just showing support for the military and this is a way to honor them, or you think that this is moving us in a direction this country hasn’t seen in a long time – towards tyranny – with Trump seeing himself as a type of emperor.

There doesn’t seem to be much room for other reactions.

Regardless of what is true and what direction we are heading as a nation, I think it highlights something important – This is an unprecedented Administration in recent history.  One that has succeeded at dividing an already divided nation even further than anyone thought was possible.  In many respects though it is not something completely new – we just haven’t seen it in our lifetime.  Harken back to the 1800’s and you might see some similarities. Names like John Adams, Andrew Jackson, and several forgotten Republican administrations in the late 1800’s had similar characteristics that we won’t address here.

The “treasonous” statement in particular is interesting to me.  The constitution defines treason very narrowly, but that’s not what I want to point out.  Rather, I’d like to take a look something else – Is a nation equivalent to its leader?  Is a nation personified in its leader?  Does loyalty to a leader constitute loyalty to a nation?  And what does that even mean?  What is loyalty?

There have been several articles that state that Trump has asked people if they are loyal to him, or who they voted for.  Forget about if that is legal or even a smart thing to do for a moment.

What if that question were asked of you?  What if it were asked of you by any president, put Trump aside for a moment.  Pick a president you really liked.  What if they asked you to swear your loyalty to them.  Would you?  Would you swear allegiance to a leader?  Would you see that as being equal as swearing allegiance to your nation?

If you are Christian, how do you square your Christianity to swearing allegiance or your loyalty to a human being?  If you would be willing to do that, I wonder how you see Scripture’s view of allegiance.

It’s not fair for me to ask these questions without answering them myself.

My loyalty is to Jesus.  My allegiance is to God.  Nothing can share that allegiance.  It is my hope that America never gets to a point where loyalty oaths are demanded of its citizens.  Should we ever come to that, we’ll be in a grave situation.  And I will not comply.

Idols among us

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What is an idol?  Something either highly revered or worshiped.

When we think of idols, often we think of the Old Testament.  But idols are hardly lost to the distant past.  There are many human made idols that are among us these days.

President Trump is an idol for some.  I recently saw a video of several Evangelical Christian women who were interviewed about their thoughts about Trump.  These were solid Trump supporters.  They were asked about the controversy over the hush money allegedly paid to porn star Stormy Daniels.  They talked about grace and everyone getting a second chance.  They talked about how he changed once in office because he handed his life over to Christ.  They talked about excusing his behavior and tone and name calling because he was supporting “Christian” policies.  The line that sums it up came from the reporter asking this question – “So, he can’t do any wrong then, can he?”  The answer was to agree with this idea.

President Obama was an idol for others.  Remember all the statements about Obama being a type of Messiah figure?  Remember how blind supporters of his were so moved by his speeches?  Remember how pundits who were infatuated with him talked about how they got a tingle in their spine that went down their leg by just being in his presence?  I imagine that if the same reporter asked a group of die-hard Obama supporters if the man could do no wrong, they would have to agree with that statement.

These are just men.  Flawed human beings.  Broken in many different ways.  They make mistakes and sometimes worse – do things that cause problems for people, stoke anger and divisiveness, and do things that many others see as wrong.  But then again, so do all of us.  They aren’t special in that regard.  They just happen to be on a bigger stage where their actions and words impact more people than anyone else – for a time.  And then their time is done and someone new steps in.  A new idol that still others will worship.

And it is all folly.  The idea of worshipping a person – to the point where you can see no fault ever in anything the person does or says – is misguided.  It’s sinful.  We aren’t supposed to live like this.

There is only one who we worship – God.  When we put someone or something at the level in which they guide our thoughts, beliefs, and daily actions, then we being idolatrous.  We have confused the temporal with the eternal.  We have traded in faith from God for table scraps from idols.  We have traded in holy daily living for anger, division, fear, and mistrust.  And when we follow this path, we should not be surprised that our human-made systems are broken.  Our systems are made up of human beings.  We are broken.

This is not the time for idols.  Let us put them aside.  Instead of giving our daily attention to the idols we make in our own image, let us listen to God’s calling for our lives.  Instead of listening to the daily talking points of our partisan loyalties, let us hear and live out the teachings of God.  Instead of swearing allegiance to and making excuses for the actions of our idols, let us respond in trust to the call of Christ to pick up our cross and follow him, to go and teach all that he taught, to live out the Sermon on the Mount.

What is fake and what is real?

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What is fake and what is real?  Recently I was leading a Confirmation class in a church and the topic of the day was Social Media and Faith.  It was great conversation in which the youth and adults were engaged in conversation.

One of the fathers handed me an article from the NY Times entitled “Buying Online Influence From a Shadowy Market.” (NY Times, 1/28/18).  It was a long article – covering parts of three pages.  The core of the article was that the Times found through their investigation that there are many people who have had their social media identity stolen by firms who use them to pump up their clients’ influence.  The company that the Times was looking at has a variety of celebrity, sports, pastors, and other “famous” people as their clients.  The client pays the company money to get followers.  The more follower someone has, the more influence they get.  And when you have influence, you get paid more.  The idea is that other companies want to pay spokespeople who have a large audience to hawk their product or service.  It comes down to the money.

And it’s fake.  The followers are fake – often just bots that were created.  Most of the followers aren’t even real people.  This means that many popular influencers have only a fraction of real followers, with a large percentage of followers being bots and fake accounts.

The story highlights how so many famous, and those that desire to be famous, are paying for followers.  There’s lots of money to be made, don’t you know?

With all this going on, and with so much money being made, I can only conclude one thing – celebrity is fake.  The popularity of celebrities is, when it comes down to it, a sham.  Yesterday I wrote about trust.  It’s hard to trust someone who pays to have followers.

In the Old Testament we are told the story of the Israelites who are wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.  At the beginning of their wandering, they stop at a mountain and Moses, who leads them, goes up the mountain to talk with God.  He’s gone for 40 days.  While he’s gone, the people get anxious and demand that a new god be made – a golden calf.  Aaron, Moses’ brother, who is the chief priest, goes along with this.  The people build a golden calf – a god that they created.  They couldn’t wait for Moses, they were impatient.

But the golden calf is fake, empty, and worthless.  It’s just a carved pile of metal.  It is powerless.  And so are it’s followers.  They wanted to hack their way to the promised land.

Yet, once again, we see that hacking isn’t the way to go.

When we follow something that is fake, we put our trust in something that cannot withstand the light of day, trust, or hardship.  Fake things always end up being revealed for what they are.  Don’t get upset when some continue to follow their fake gods.  Even after Moses came back with the tablets of God’s law, there were some who stuck with their golden calf.  It didn’t end well for them.  Unfortunately, others suffer as a result – those that are innocent.  Fake things always have a way ruining things beyond themselves.

What is real?  Real takes more discernment.  And by that I mean listening.  Real takes time.  Real is about investing in people, over a long period of time.  Real doesn’t promise quick and easy results.  Real promises the reality that the path forward may very well suck.

But real is worth it.  Real is taking one step at a time.  Because that’s how you get anywhere you are going that is worthwhile.  Real is so much better than fake.  Fake is the drug with the short-term hit.  But real…real is something different.  Real isn’t focused on the moment.  It’s focused on the whole process.  Because real produces something that will last.  Not fad away quickly.  Real.  That’s the thing we should be focusing on.