Good Friday and the Power We Trust

They were fearful and angry, a condition that always threatens to lead us down regrettable paths. As religious leaders, they determined Jesus needed to be removed from the picture. It was, to their reasoning, in the best interest of everyone. He had consistently undermined their authority, challenged their perceptions of what it means to be God’s people, and most of all, had the growing support of commoners who whispered of a new king. Such rumblings threatened the peace and security of the nation, not to mention their own personal position and privilege.

In an ironic twist, they turn to Pilate as the enforcer of their agenda. He represented the empire, that massive machine of economy and power that brought about its own kind of peace through oppression and the threat of violence. The religious leaders hated Pilate, but his kind of power was what they needed in this hour to ensure their own security. Pilate was no fan of theirs, but he was in no mood for an uprising in this volatile moment, recognizing that his own position could be at stake. This is the creation of fear and anger, an unholy alliance of parties acting in their own interest while pretending to serve the interest of others.

We can easily distance ourselves from that Good Friday scene, certain that we stand on the right side, free of compromising alliances; but honesty brings about an uncomfortable sense of familiarity. The church is not immune to fear and anger, a swirl of emotion arising from a shifting culture that seemingly threatens our position of security and privilege. The possibility of what could be lost compels us to seek a protector, one who can wield the kind of power we think we need for this moment. Our fears whisper that there is refuge in the world’s system of power – it can enforce our agenda, our values, and our purposes; those who walk the halls of influence and sit at the tables of authority can protect us and serve our interests. As long as we serve their interests, that is.

The pressing whispers of fear can produce a spiritual amnesia, causing us to forget far too easily the kingdom to which we belong and the nature of the One we follow. Standing before the power of the empire, Jesus simply said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” The purposes of this kingdom cannot, and will not, be accomplished through the broken, corrupted structures of worldly power. The followers of this King do not fight the way that others fight, nor do they seek their own security and position above all. This King and His kingdom are unlike any other.

In a world of conflict and change, the church can feel the tempting pull toward those systems of power that seemingly give us the security we desire and the promised pursuit of our agenda. But the contrasting picture of power presented on Good Friday calls us to something far better. We do not grasp for earthly power to impose our way or to protect ourselves, but we invitingly reveal Jesus to the world through the subversive power of sacrificial love and grace. This is the way of Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world. This is the way of those who follow Him, living in the firm conviction that the power of Caesar’s sword always pales in the light of cruciform love.

 

 

 

Remember the Ashes

When it comes to movies, if it falls outside the Marvel or DC universes, I probably haven’t seen it. There are exceptions, though. The Pixar movie Inside Out – which I admit watching with only a slight hesitation of embarrassment – gave us a glimpse into the mind of a young girl navigating her way through the change and loss that life brings. In it, we see the personified emotions of Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness as they attempt, with the best of intentions, to help her along in this journey. Joy is determined to rule all, wanting the young girl’s life to be filled with nothing else, and works to prevent Sadness from touching any of the guarded and treasured memories. The unforeseen result, however, is one of breakdown and chaos. We soon come to understand that Joy cannot be fully experienced in the girl’s life without the recognition of Sadness. In fact, it was often in the brokenness of Sadness that she experienced the unexpected love and help of others, resulting in a Joy that she would not have known otherwise.

As Christians, we should find this discovery to be nothing new, but an echo of the hope we proclaim, the Good News that in our brokenness and sorrow we experience the unexpected, and undeserved, joy of grace. That’s why Ash Wednesday, and the season of Lent that it begins, matters. The beauty and wonder of grace is not fully realized without first recognizing our desperate need. The love of Christ, demonstrated in His suffering and death, captures us more completely as we acknowledge our brokenness, and the power of His resurrection brings new life within us as we confess our absolute dependence. Our sorrowful admission of mortality and weakness on Ash Wednesday points us to the joy of our rescue; the forty-day journey of Lent, marked by repentance and sacrifice, leads us to full awareness and celebration of our redemption. One without the other is not a full story.

Many of us are quick to jump to the celebration of the Resurrection, like Walmart rolling in the Easter candy as soon as the Valentine’s candy goes on clearance. With our singular focus on Easter, we neglect the season of confession and sacrifice that goes before. Perhaps it is another unfortunate aspect of our being conformed to the culture around us, one marked by an idolatrous self-reliance and independence, placated by an excess of comfort and convenience. Giving little thought or value to wilderness experiences, we jump from one achievement or celebration to the next. Our lack of reflection in this part of the journey has drained us of mystery and wonder; our failure to look honestly within blinds us to the greatness of the gift offered. Missing the touch of sorrow, and the admission of our weakness, we are incapable of fully celebrating the grace of our deliverance.

And that’s why Ash Wednesday matters. It’s why Lent matters. This is not simply a season we pass through unaware for the sake of getting to Easter – it is an essential part of the story that brings full meaning to the end. The incomparable beauty of God’s love and grace is discovered in the painful but necessary confession of who we truly are, and the hope of the Resurrection becomes real when we remember the ashes. So, may the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” remind us of our utter dependence and need, and may the ashes, in the form of the Cross, point us to the celebration to come.

Different Kingdom, Different Voice: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

In the season of Lent, we fast and deny ourselves for a greater purpose than mere austerity for austerity’s sake. We separate from earthly concerns to engage more deeply in the life of God’s kingdom. Finding quiet in our separation, we hear again the voice that calls us to something radically opposed to the influences that form us day in and day out. The contrast becomes clear, and we are asked to embrace a different and seemingly strange manner of living.

The world we live in equates affluence with blessing, confuses power for true strength, and substitutes position for genuine significance. Driven by the notion of the “self-made” person, we admire the strong who get their way, achieve their goals, and obtain whatever they may want. We are told, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that this can and should be our goal as well. Marketers promise a life worth living through possessions, those who finish first are celebrated while others are disregarded, the supposedly self-sufficient are crowned as “deserving” while those in need are written off as “undeserving.” Our politicians promise to make us great and to give us power, all on top off benefitting our financial and material status.

Be great. Be powerful. Be rich. Be strong. Have, possess, win and achieve. These are the voices of our world, the kingdom in which we reside. More than we realize or confess, these voices drive us, shape us, and set our priorities. An inch at a time, we are drawn in. Little by little we are changed. Soon, the voices seem normal to us, even right and good. So, we begin to live them out, justifying if not outright celebrating them.

Then we step away, and there in the solitude we hear another voice, a wonderfully different voice. We hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

The poor cannot hide their need; they do not live with the illusion of being self-made or self-sufficient. Positions, titles, and power are foreign to them. The standard gauges of success do not apply, and what they possess cannot measure their value. Those who live by and have benefited from the values of this world look away in fear, not wanting to believe that such a condition could ever befall them. Yet Jesus tells us to look, for there is something revealed in this poverty that leads to true blessing.

In Jesus’ kingdom, our independence, self-sufficiency, and achievements gain us nothing. In this different kind of kingdom, it is only in the acknowledgement of our abject poverty that we find the eternal and genuine blessing for which our spirit cries out. In the confession of our brokenness, weakness, and need, we find the life that is worth living. This different voice tells us that dependence is not something to run from or fear, but admitting our absolute dependence on Someone greater brings the security and peace our fighting and grasping could never obtain. In the humble confession of our poverty and need, we find grace.

The voices of this world know nothing of grace. Its absence is evidenced by the continual drive to control, achieve, and possess. But underneath our mask of strength and self-sufficiency, we are insecure and afraid. We must hear again that different voice, the one that calls us to embrace and live by the values of another kingdom, the one that says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” As we listen, the light shines through the fake and shallow, exposing our brokenness and need for what it is, and we find the healing acceptance of grace. Here, we are no longer ashamed or fearful to confess our poverty, but humble confession becomes a freeing and hopeful way of life. The poor in spirit know that, in God’s kingdom, we are bound together not by our common strength, but by our common weakness. In that weakness, we find grace; in that weakness, we are blessed.

When the Weird Becomes Normal

When weirdness becomes common, it ceases to be weird. What was once looked upon as strange or bizarre can become so frequent or commonplace it no longer stands out or draws attention. It loses it oddity, its uniqueness, its sense of eccentricity. It becomes normal. This process of transforming from weird to normal is a gradual one, often occurring without notice or thought, and our general assumption is that becoming normal, as typically defined, is a good thing. And quietly, these strands of so-called normalcy wrap themselves around our deepest desires and insecurities, pulling us, shaping us into someone different than we truly are.

Lent is a time of fasting, self-denial, and reflection that calls us to step away, in some form, from the normalcy of this world. As we disconnect from the “normal” things of this life and world, we start to become aware of all the ways be have become shaped, and even enslaved, by their grip. We see the normalcy of this world is anything but, and what has become common and ordinary is actually dysfunction. Consumerism, materialism, greed, and selfishness appear to rule. Hatred, anger, and fear drive us to accuse and dehumanize others, while caustic and demeaning rhetoric becomes the common language of the culture. We swim in these waters every day, and even as the followers of Jesus, we can adapt to the temperature of the water in ways we do not realize.

We need seasons of fasting and self-denial. It’s when we step out of the water we have been mindlessly swimming in that we realize how different it is from the land that is our home. We remember that we are part of a kingdom that is different than those of this earth, with values that contradict and overturn the accepted normalcy. Our kingdom, and the people of our kingdom, reflect crazy things like love, joy, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. We are strange enough serve anyone in need, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us. It looks strange or odd to those around us, but only because the dysfunction and brokenness of the world has become normal to them.

In the Orthodox tradition, there is a recognized category of Spirit-bearer in the church known as the “fool for Christ.” The “fool” is one who embodies the values of God’s kingdom to such a degree, that lives so completely devoted to the cause and character of Christ, that the world questions their sanity. The season Lent should call each of us to such foolishness. As we separate, in some small way, from worldly matters and concerns, we remember that we are to live as reflections of a different world. We are signposts for a kingdom that is coming, one that is being fulfilled among us. Lent calls us to embrace our oddness once again, the weirdness the world doesn’t understand. As we do, we come to realize that this oddness is not really odd at all – it is the normalcy God always intended for us.

Advent Reminds Us to Choose Mercy

Growing up in the church, my knowledge and understanding of the Christmas story was shaped in great part by the annual children’s program. It was a necessary tradition, loved by parents and grandparents, and valued by pastors for its attendance boosting capabilities. Personally, I despised it. As a shy, introverted kid, being trotted up on a platform and forced to spout some memorized lines to a church full of people was my private Nightmare Before Christmas. With all that aside, there were some things I learned through those December Sunday mornings, and also some things I didn’t. Joseph fell into the latter category. For some undeserved reason, Joseph received little consideration or attention in our retelling of the story. Mary always had a significant, dramatic role, and there were plenty of songs about angels and shepherds. Even the innkeeper usually had an obligatory line, turning away the expecting couple. Joseph, on the other hand, was just the awkward kid in a bathrobe, standing quietly by the manger like some extra in a movie.

He deserves better treatment, and we desperately need to learn what he so well teaches. When Joseph first becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy, for all he knew he was an innocent victim, betrayed by the unfaithfulness of one legally bound to be his wife. As such, he had rights. According to the law, he was bound to divorce the unfaithful spouse, and he could choose to make her and her family pay in the process. He had every right to drag her through a public trial, to impound her dowry, to recover any bride price that was paid. He had that right, and most would say it’s what she deserved.

Joseph was different than most, though. We’re told that because he was a righteous man, he chose to divorce her quietly. He gave up his right to compensation; he turned away from the path of shaming her publicly. Rather than demand his own rights or seek to make someone pay for his hurt, Joseph chose mercy. Contrary to those who said she deserved to suffer, he opted for grace.

Just a surface glance at the state of our world this Advent season tells us that mercy is a quality in short supply. People commonly demand their own rights, while willing denying the rights of others. Hurt and anger seem to overflow into the desire for vengeance, the need to make someone pay. We assume that our hurt justifies any hurt we may cause others. We hate those who hate us; those who fail us are judged and cut off. Our world spins on the axis of getting what you deserve. The notion of responding to all of the hurt, brokenness, failure, and hatred in our world with a spirit of mercy seems “other-worldly.”

Perhaps it seems that way because it is that way. Mercy is not the natural response of this world, but it is the spirit of the kingdom that is coming. The mercy we see in Joseph became fully embodied in the person of Jesus. He laid down his life, not demanding his rights or protecting his own position. Rather than leave us to what we deserve, he paid the price for us. This is mercy; it is the way of Jesus and the spirit of his kingdom. As his followers, you and I are called to live as “other-world” people, bearing witness to another kingdom, another way. When others call for vengeance and hatred, we choose mercy.

May this Advent season remind us that no matter what the world around us might say or what others might do, we follow a King who tells us, “Blessed are the merciful.”

Advent Reminds Us That We Are In Conflict

The Word became flesh and lived among us. This is what we remember in these weeks of Advent and the hope we will celebrate on Christmas. Any sense of reflection will, no doubt, leave us in awe once again of the indescribable, unimaginable humility of Jesus, the One who did not cling to His position, but emptied Himself, taking the very form of a human being. God came to us, not in the trappings of power or position, but as baby born to poor, working-class parents, from a backwater town, and part of an oppressed people. The opening statement of this grand story is a declaration of humility, sacrifice, and self-emptying love.

This is how the kingdom of God comes. The opening scene was not just for show; it was not some divine bait-and-switch where Jesus comes in one way, then abandons it for the expected path of force and power. No – the picture remains the same, all the way to a cross. This is the path of God’s kingdom, revealed in the person of Jesus; it is a kingdom that overcomes by the way of humble sacrifice and perfect love.

And from the beginning of the story, we see the unavoidable conflict that arises with kingdoms of another nature. Herod was king, and took no joy in the announcement of the true king’s birth. In fear, paranoia, and the desperate attempt to secure his own position, he lashes out with violent force, slaughtering the innocent. Sadly, the story does not surprise us. Herod was not the first or the last to secure his position with violence, vengeance, and hatred. History has shown us that this is how kingdoms of the world and earthly powers work. Selfishness, greed, fear, vengeance, violence, and hatred – the traits of brokenness that stand in contrast to the sacrificial love of One born in a stable.

Two kingdoms, both of a radically different character. It is a conflict that has revealed itself to every generation since, and continues to play out before us.

There is a strange and unsettled climate in our world this Advent. Episodes of inexcusable violence and evil have destroyed innocent lives, leaving us all shaken. Fear and insecurity dominate the landscape, fueling the fires of suspicion and hatred. Our public discourse, filled with panic and anger, does more to deepen the divide than to find genuine resolution. The people and powers of this world, engulfed in fear and driven by self-preservation, reach again for the tools of hatred and vengeance.

In these volatile times, Advent reminds us that we are a part of a different kingdom. We walk the path marked out for us by Jesus; we overcome by the way of the cross, the way of love. Yes, the concerns and dangers around us are all too real. There are complex and difficult issues to navigate. Balancing justice, mercy, and the need to protect the innocent requires intense deliberation and difficult conversations. Even as Christians, we will undoubtedly have our disagreements as to the appropriate course of action.  But in the middle of this complexity and mess, we cannot afford to forget who we are.

If we are not careful, we may find ourselves being formed to the image of the wrong kingdom. Fear, shock, and anger, if given control, will push us over a line the followers of Christ should not cross. Rather than simply being concerned about protecting the innocent in a dangerous world, we are drawn into hatred for those we fear. Not satisfied with reasonable defense, we seek vengeance. No longer heartbroken over the violence and evil of our fallen world, we begin to celebrate a culture of violence. Casting a wide net of judgment, we dehumanize those different from us, forgetting they are people Jesus loves and for whom He died.

The world can, indeed, be a scary place. I confess I don’t have the answers for the challenges before us, and I honestly respect the differences of opinion that exist. Of greater concern than our specific philosophical or political conclusions, however, is the spirit we convey. In all of the fear, debate, and confusion, we must not lose our unique identity as the people of God. Perhaps, from the perspective of His kingdom, the greatest threat we face this Advent season is the danger of looking more like Herod’s kingdom than the Prince of Peace we celebrate.

Speaking Truth Is Not Our Greatest Priority

When entering into a conversation with other believers about engaging our world with the love and grace of Jesus, I have come to accept that the discussion will probably include someone immediately and compulsively offering the righteous-sounding caveat “But we need to speak the truth to people!” And what we mean by “speaking truth” is telling others they’re wrong and sinful. It’s a defensive impulse, one which presents itself with every impression of being right and good, but simultaneously possesses a wall-building quality that can shutter us off from our mission, leaving us disconnected and ineffective.  Understand that I have no quarrel with the idea of speaking truth. I’m not willing to compromise what I believe, and I’m not afraid of using the word “sin.” But I have to ask, why is the need to speak truth so often our first reaction when we think of relating to the people around us? Why have we seemingly, and with a nearly militant posture, elevated this to the position of priority above all priorities?

Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink and engaged in conversation before he confronted the truth of her sordid relationship history. Before repentance happened in Zacchaeus’ life, there was an unexpected dinner around his table. When confronted by the self-righteous, Jesus turned the questions of condemnation back on them before telling the adulterous woman to go and “sin no more.” Before words of truth were spoken, we see an expression of love and acceptance that was surprising, extravagant, and scandalous to some. His truth revealed itself in the warm, healing light of His grace.

When truth is stripped bare, ripped from the context of grace and shot like a defensive missile across the border, we no longer bear the image of the Jesus we claim to follow. When followers of Christ are more willing to tell people they are wrong than we are to sit down at the dinner table with them, we do more to hinder the mission of God than fulfill it. If we assume it is our job to bring conviction into the lives of others, we deny any trust in the power of God’s Spirit to do His work. If our first priority is to speak words of correction or condemnation, we neglect the words of Jesus when he clearly said the identifying mark of His people is how we love. And love, in its way and in its time, will push open the doors, allowing truth to speak; but when truth takes the lead, rushing ahead before love makes itself known, the doors turn into walls.

Our first priority is not to “speak the truth” to people; our first priority is always to live as the embodiment of The Truth. If our proclamations of right and wrong are not preceded by a life of love, our words will stand as an expression of arrogance rather than a reflection of Jesus. To be like Christ, our words of truth must reside in the context of a life that reveals the greatest of all truths and the first words of our message:  God so loved the world.

Defending Liberty or Just Ourselves?

Few topics stir the pot of impassioned discourse among American Christians more than that of religious liberty – especially when we feel it is threatened. Trust me, I’m an advocate of liberty, religious and otherwise. I believe in it and defend it, not because it is an American ideal, but because I believe it reflects the reality God has created and the manner in which He has chosen to relate to us. From the beginning, God gave human beings the power of choice, and we continue to possess that freedom by His enabling grace. Since God does not force anyone to believe, but grants us freedom, I think it only sensible that we reflect that same value in how we interact as a society. However, our recent conversations about liberty and freedom, many of which have been marked by anger and fear, should raise questions about our true motivations and concerns. Before posting another angry blurb on Facebook about losing our rights, perhaps we need to step back and ask what we are truly defending and why.

Our first line of argument is usually connected to preserving the right to share the Gospel and the ability to fulfill our mission as the people of God. We commonly spout phrases like “our right to witness is being taken away” and “we’re losing the freedom to carry out ministry.” That kind of rhetoric might make us sound like great defenders of the faith, but in reality, it puts the Gospel in a position of subordination to earthly powers. I can’t help but think that those of the early church – not to mention many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world – would be dumbfounded by such statements. The power of the Gospel and the mission of the Church have never been and never will be dependent upon the rights granted by governments or courts. In fact, the Church seems to be most vital and dynamic in those times and places when religious liberty is not the law of the land. No earthly kingdom can stop the power of God’s Spirit from transforming lives and communities; the kingdom is coming and will come, despite court rulings, lawsuits, or outright persecution. For those who pray “Your kingdom come,” any suggestion that the witness of the Gospel is subject to the rights granted by this or any government is contradictory.

Diminishing the power of the Gospel is not the only contradiction brought to the surface when we launch into our defense of liberty speeches. If we are truly concerned about freedom and religious liberty as a principle to be upheld, then we must support it for all people – even those that disagree with us, those of a different faith, or no faith at all. It’s interesting that some of the Christians who yell the loudest about religious freedom will also scream the loudest in protest when a Muslim center or Buddhist temple is built in their community. If we demand religious freedom as a right, then we must be willing to extend that right to everyone. Defending the right of all to choose and believe as they wish does not mean that we agree with what they choose to do or believe. It simply means that we believe the kingdom of God is not one of coercion, but of choice. The God we serve is one of love and relationship, expressed in His granting of free will. As His people, we must reflect the same values. If we are not consistent, if we do not defend religious liberty for all people, then our motivation is not one of principle, but one of one self-concern and self-preservation alone.

And perhaps that is the hidden motivation in all of this that we would rather not confess. I cannot help but wonder if our angry protests related to religious liberty are not really about the principles involved, but rather a fearful reaction that is more about protecting ourselves. Maybe we’re not actually defending freedom for all, but desperately trying to maintain a privileged position and protect ourselves from the perceived persecution we don’t want to face. If that is the genuine motivation that drives us, then as followers of Jesus, we have missed the mark. How? Well, when did Jesus ever tell his followers to fight for their rights alone or protect themselves from persecution at all costs? In the context of conflict and persecution he called us to respond not by fighting fire with fire, but by turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who persecute us. In a world driven by self-interest and self-protection, we stand as a part of a kingdom that comes by the way of the cross, where those who find life are the ones willing to lay theirs down. If we are driven by a spirit of self-preservation, then we stand at odds with the values of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

It’s one thing to defend freedom and liberty for all; it’s another to selectively cry about it simply because we are worried about ourselves. In this climate of conflict, fear, and anger, we need now more than ever to embody the Spirit of Christ in our world. Before we enter into the conversation, let’s honestly examine our motives and make sure we are defending the principle of liberty and not just ourselves.

Three Things to Remember in Response to the Supreme Court Decision

The ruling of the Supreme Court in favor of same-sex unions has seemingly monopolized our conversations these last 24 hours. A tidal wave of emotions and opinions has washed over our media, social and otherwise. I’m not sure that anyone can say they were truly surprised by the decision, and certainly no one can be surprised by the broad spectrum of reactions. As we would expect, some rejoice while others grieve; some celebrate while others are angered. In the middle of this swirling mass of emotion, we as followers of Jesus cannot afford the dangerous loss of perspective that can so easily occur. To help set a guard over my attitude and responses, here are the things I choose to remember:

Believing I am right about an issue does not grant me permission to be unloving in any manner.

I hold to convictions based on my understanding and interpretation of Biblical authority. They are shaped and informed by the tradition of the Church, the reality of my experience, and my best efforts to apply the gift of reason. I hold to them because I believe them to be true, and I hold to them respectfully but without apology. The church of which I am a part does not sanction same-sex unions, and I stand with that position. The firmness of my convictions, however, will never excuse or justify a lack of love or grace toward anyone. Period.

The primary mark of Jesus’ disciples is not that of being right – it is that of love. We cannot read his words and come to any other conclusion. First and foremost, we will be recognized and identified with him, not by our positions on issues, but by the manner in which we love. Expressions of hatred and bitterness deny his name; the demeaning and devaluing of others through judgment or insult deny his heart. The person who disagrees with me is loved by Jesus just as much as he loves me, and I am in need of grace and mercy just as much as anyone else. The world is full of people screaming opinions, and most of their words are lost in the noise. It is the character of Christlike love that will truly speak volumes, engaging our world in a transforming way.

In all of our discussion and debate, let’s remember that we are talking to and about real people, individuals of immeasurable value that Jesus deeply loves and willingly died for. It is a truth that must be reflected in our words, actions, and attitudes

Marriage authorized by the state and marriage solemnized by the church are separate issues.

Much has been said about the redefinition of marriage, and granted, the Supreme Court has done this from the perspective of civil law. The understanding of marriage from a civil perspective, however, was fundamentally different from that of the Church, even before this decision. States authorize and sanction marriages without regard to the faith of the individuals, their particular understanding of marriage, or their level of commitment. Such matters are not the concern of the state when issuing a license to marry. The license issued by civil authorities provides the relationship a particular standing under the law, along with the legal and economic benefits that come with such recognition.

The solemnization of a marriage in the eyes of the church, on the other hand, is something radically different. It is not legal standing or economic benefit that drives us; it is the recognition and blessing of a God-ordained union. For us, it is entrance into a holy covenant, pledged in the sight of God and within the community of faith. It stands as an expression of the mystical union between Christ and His Church, a lasting relationship of love, faithfulness, and unity. The value and sanctity of marriage is built on something far deeper and more significant than the issuing of a license from the local courthouse. While these differing concerns and perspectives may be deeper and more apparent now, the philosophical divide existed long before this week’s Supreme Court decision.

Recognizing this fundamental difference in perspective also provides us the opportunity to address the weaknesses of our own house. We need to be honest about our own failings, our own lack of care in affirming the sanctity of marriage. Even while we demonstrate great concern over the issue of same-sex unions, we have too often presided over and given approval to wedding ceremonies that were not genuine expressions of faith and covenant. I say this not as judgment or condemnation toward anyone else, but as an act of confession. As a pastor, I admit with regret that there were times I performed weddings simply because it was the child of a church member or someone I knew in the community. We gloss over past divorces without asking the hard questions, or we conduct a ceremony in the language of faith, conveniently ignoring the fact that those getting married make no profession of faith themselves and do not honor our words. Perhaps it is time for us to rediscover and reinforce the concept of marriage as a holy covenant, applying it consistently to all those who ask the church to bear witness to their union.

Our mission has never been to establish Christianity as a civil religion. Our mission is to build the kingdom of God.

Many are lamenting the apparent reality that Christianity no longer holds a privileged position in our culture. We are disappointed and angry that our ideals are not supported by the government, the courts, or the schools. It troubles us that our faith values do not shape the law of the land. We sense that Christianity is no longer the civil religion of our nation, and the separation is a painful one. I understand the struggle and disorientation this seemingly massive shift brings about, but I wonder if this moment affords us the opportunity to step back and refocus in regard to our mission, our call, and our allegiance.

I do not completely disregard the positive effects and influences of civil religion. No doubt, laws informed by faith have produced numerous examples of justice and good for society. An honest look at history, though, would suggest that it also bears other consequences that are not as positive. When Christianity becomes identified or entwined with earthly kingdoms, the health, vitality, and mission of the church suffers in the long-run. The civil religion brand of Christianity has a way of lulling the church into complacency, satisfying us with the apparent cooperation of our culture. We sit in a place of privilege and contentment, certain that the powers of the state will advance our values for us. We settle for earthly power and the rule of law as the tools of our mission. The problem is, earthly kingdoms are not the kingdom of God, and civil law has absolutely no power to change the human heart. Civil religion has a way of producing nominal Christians and a church that loses sight of its mission. As evidence, we can look to some of the most secular nations on earth today and remember that they were once the center of Christendom.

While we may want to hear it, the church has typically been at its best when it is not in the position of privilege or power. The early church did not take on the mission of God expecting the government and courts to be in their corner. Our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world today make no assumption that the laws of the land will favor them. Yet, in the midst of conflict and persecution, we see the kingdom of God break in with unstoppable power. Perhaps we are where we are today because we have spent too many years content with civil religion and cultural Christianity. Maybe we are bearing the fruit of a neglected mission, the call to make genuine, Christ-following disciples. It could be that we are paying the price for a misplaced trust, believing that laws and the force of government could somehow build the kingdom. But earthly kingdoms are just that – kingdoms of this earth. Civil religion and its laws cannot transform hearts and renew minds. And the fact is, Jesus never said that the government, or the courts, or your neighborhood school would be salt and light. He gave that call and entrusted that responsibility to us. We are the ones who must embody the life-changing love and grace of Jesus in our communities. This moment in time may very well be telling us that rather than simply mourning the loss of a civil religion, our efforts and energy would be better directed in recovering a genuine passion for the kingdom-building mission of God.

Prophets In a Dismissive Culture

It would be difficult for anyone to deny that our culture is an argumentative one, too often marked by uncivil discourse and a deep sense of polarization. Our debates are typically not debates for the sake of seeking truth or understanding; they are one-sided speeches, filled more with rhetoric and labeling than with substance. Our goal is to win, to silence the opposition, or at least scream louder than they do. It is the fuel that drives political campaigns, the tool of special interest groups of all kinds, and the key to big radio and television ratings. We love to fight and argue, and we do it well. What we don’t do well is listen.  Those who dare to challenge our position, offer a different opinion, or just raise a question, are immediately tagged as unreasonable, hostile enemies and their words dismissed. Driven by our obsessive need to be right and to win at all costs, we have created a culture of deafness.

When this deaf and dismissive culture is allowed to influence the life and spirit of the church, we find ourselves in the dangerous place of denying something we claim to affirm. In our talk of spiritual gifts, the different roles of ministry, and the various ways people are equipped to serve the church and the world, we recognize the place of the prophet. Prophets are those who challenge us to be more of what we should be; they call out the things that are not in line with the Kingdom, they confront us when we lose our way, and they shine light into the dark places we would rather keep hidden. Prophets challenge our status quo, raise the questions that need to be raised, and tear down our excuses and rationalizations. In other words, they are the people our argumentative, need-to-be right culture labels and dismisses. And when the church becomes like the culture around us, we end up dismissing our own.

Oh, the church likes our prophets – up to a point. We’re good with them shining their light of correction and calling out the wrongs, as long as their message is pointed in the right direction. Of course, the right direction means out there and away from us. Israel and Judah could cheer on the prophets as long as their words of judgment were aimed at Edom or Moab, but when they became the target – well, that was a good way for a prophet to get killed. Nathan tells a great story; that is, up until the point he says, “You are the man!” We recognize and even honor the role of the prophet, as long as their attention is given to the culture around us and the easy targets of blatant sin. When the tables turn, however, and the message calls out the more insidious, hidden sin that can exist within our religious circles, there is often an abrupt end to our appreciation for the prophet.

Our culture simply dismisses their “opposition” with degrading labels or attempts to drown them out by the sheer volume of the rebuke. The world has, sadly, worked its influence within the body of the church, and now those who dare to bring a prophetic word of challenge or raise the difficult question face the same reaction. We have taken our direction from the world’s bottle:  Label. Attack. Dismiss. Repeat. Rather than receive the message or question with a spirit of reflection, discernment, and genuine humility, we react out of the impulsive, defensive posture of our culture. We write people off as nothing more than mean-spirited critics or cynics, all in an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable truth. In the process, we cheat ourselves out of an opportunity to experience the grace of God at our point of weakness and the possibility of becoming more of what we can and should be.

Are there those who are simply critics, cynics, or haters, who hide and excuse their attacks with the guise of “prophetic concern” for the church? Sure. But to instantly cast that judgment on all those who bring a difficult message or raise the hard question is unfair and detrimental. There are those who have hard conversations with me, not because they want to be critics, but because they love me; there are those who challenge the church, not because they hate the institution, but because they love it and want it to be more of what God has called it to be. I cannot allow those who are not genuine to become an excuse for dismissing any and all who may push me forward with a message I would rather not hear.

Personally, I am on a journey and have not yet arrived. Recognition of that calls me to humility, and humility keeps me open to words of correction. The same is true of us corporately. As long as we travel the road of this life, we will live in the tension of the church being the Body of Christ on the one hand, and a flawed human organization on the other. The reality of that tension makes the occasional prophetic word a necessity. Confrontations that call us to become more than what we are, both personally and as a community of faith, are not easy, but they are needed. And they are good. Our dismissive and deaf culture may indeed offer an easier path; but our goal is not the easy path – it is Christlikeness.