On being an outsider at church

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

Jesus – Luke 12:51

After my last post, my brother told me he is glad politics isn’t mentioned in his church – he would hate to feel isolated because his political views might not match those of other members of the congregation. My pastor tries not to be political and he rarely mentions politics in his sermons. Where I have been exposed to political views of the congregation is in my small group or koinonia. I have been in two groups so far and in both, I have found my political views to be at odds with others in the group. When politics is discussed, I feel like an outsider, like I am not following the same Christ. How can I have real fellowship and unity of purpose with Christians who are not like-minded?

My first small group met in the home of a member of the church, a woman who has served as a deacon. It was a great group of women and we shared and learned a lot in our Bible studies. But it became really uncomfortable when a couple of people claimed that Obama was a socialist. When the hostess called Obama the anti-Christ, I dropped out of the group and told her that the political comments were the reason.

I was invited to join my current group by a woman I met in a Sunday school class. At first we met in the home of one of the women but she travels a lot so we started meeting at church. As I’ve gotten to know the women, I’ve figured out that once again, I am an outsider. A few years ago, in response to news stories about a refugee crisis, one group member said she would throw the children back over the fence. WWJD? Definitely not that. When we were discussing “taking up your cross,” another woman said that for her that means speaking out against homosexuality. Not once has she expressed any concern for their souls. Another woman has expressed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant views.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, I heard a guy telling someone about a Sunday school class on voting your Christian values. The person asked whether there was a consensus in the class about who to vote for. He just laughed and said, oh yeah. I knew I would not have wanted to be in that class. After the election, the senior pastor said he thought that those of us who were upset about the results did not trust God enough. In my small group, one of the women laughed about the negative reaction to the election – “snowflakes.”

I thought about searching for a different church, one that reflects my views on God’s love, mercy, and justice, and the kind of life that Christ calls me to live. I decided to stay where I am because the word of God is preached, even if much of the congregation doesn’t really get the message of Jesus Christ. The scripture is being fulfilled. They hear but never understand.

When politics comes up in my small group, I feel like a visitor from another planet. The much repeated statistic about the election is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. When I heard that statistic, I looked around at my group and thought to myself, that sounds right. I am the one in five who could not vote for the man who is the antithesis of my Savior. I am an outsider in my Christian group because my allegiance is to Christ, not to a political party.

Sometimes I feel like a liberal among conservatives and sometimes like a conservative among liberals.  I have conservative theology—I believe the Bible—but that leads me to “progressive” opinions about politics, because the Bible has much to say about justice and helping the poor.  And I believe we are called to show love and grace even toward people we disagree with, especially toward people we disagree with.

Philip Yancey, Author of Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners

In being an outsider, I face challenging questions about Christian fellowship. Can I have a meaningful connection with people I disagree with? Can we live in harmony with each other (Romans 12:16)? Can we encourage each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11)? Can we accept one other (Romans 15:7)? Can we be kind and compassionate to each other (Ephesians 4:32)? Can we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)?

I can easily answer yes to most of these questions. Despite our differences, we are united in our love of God. We are one in our desire to seek Him. And yet, because my political beliefs are at odds with the rest of the group, I experience a lot of inner turmoil. I don’t accept views that contradict the teachings of Jesus. When those views are expressed, what should I say? Most of the time, I keep my mouth shut. I can get angry when I am passionate about an issue and I know that I should be gentle and not quarrelsome. That said, I could not be silent when one of the women said she hoped that Trump is a Christian and another said that “they say he is a Christian.” (Read 1 John 1:5-10.)

It would be easier to only worship with people who share my political views. But I have to live in this world; I can’t isolate myself from people who believe differently. In the Parable of the Weeds, the enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. The servant asked the owner, do you want us to pull up the weeds? “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”

Taking Christ Back for America

In my last post, I wrote about The Truth Project’s practice of conflating religion and politics which was most obvious in lesson nine, The State: Whose Law. Next week, I will watch the lesson titled The American Experiment: Stepping Stones. For years, I have watched conservative Christians blur the lines between politics and religion. I’ve read the study outline so I know that Dr. Tackett claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, the nation is now denying our biblically based Christian roots, and “believers who care deeply and passionately about their country” must try to salvage a government based on Christian values. Yet today it is so easy to see the corrupting influence of politics on Christianity.

Around the same time that Focus on the Family published The Truth Project video series (© 2006), an evangelical pastor named Gregory Boyd was feeling pressure from “right-wing political and religious sources” and from people in his congregation to participate in political activities, including distributing political leaflets and encouraging the congregation to vote for “the right candidate.” As he explains in the introduction to his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, he decided to preach a sermon series explaining why his church should not join in promoting right-wing political activity. He also aimed to explain why the Christian faith should not be closely associated with any political point of view.

Boyd said that he received a lot of positive feedback from his sermon series. Some people were grateful because they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not “toeing the conservative party line.” (I know the feeling all to well.) But he also said he had never received such intense negative feedback. About 20% of his congregation left the church.

Boyd’s thesis is that “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.” In their quest for political power, these evangelicals have exchanged the good news of the gospel for political ideals and agendas. Like Tackett, many of these Christians mistakenly believe that they are “taking America back for God.”

How do conservative Christians aim to take America back for God? They vote for Christian candidates, oppose abortion, oppose gay marriage, fight to keep the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, fight to keep prayer in public schools and to display the Ten Commandments in public places, and make a really big deal about their right to say Merry Christmas.

Anyone who has been around the past couple of decades has observed Christians try to transform the kingdom of God to their own desired design for the kingdom of this world. The result is a quasi-religion that no longer resembles Christ.

It is heartening to find a pastor these days who is not afraid to say how idolatrous and dangerous it is to fuse religion and politics. Anything that takes the place of God in a believer’s heart is an idol. A Christian’s identity should come from Christ and not from their nation or political party. Believers who fuse their religious and political identities are easily led astray by false teachers who bring the way of truth into disrepute, twisting and distorting biblical truths to serve their own purposes. And sadly, when nonbelievers see that Christians are no different from anyone else, they are turned off by the hypocrisy.

The Myth of a Christian Nation

Why is there no such thing as a Christian nation? As J.D. Walt observed, “the only entity that can actually be Christian is a human being.” Many individuals claim to be a Christian without really understanding what it means to follow Christ. Christianity is not a cultural identity. Christianity is not a political identity. You don’t become a Christian by going to church or being baptized. You become a Christian by confessing your sins and making a very personal and life-transforming decision to follow Christ.

The Truth Project feeds the myth of a Christian nation in part by claiming that God has a specific design and purpose for government. Contrary to Tackett’s assertion, God doesn’t design worldly governments. As Boyd notes, God uses governments as they are, “in all their ungodly rebellious ways,” to serve his divine purposes. In other words, God doesn’t mandate one form of government over another. However, if governments preserve law and order in the right way (with justice and mercy), they serve God’s purpose (Romans 13).

The Truth Project believes that even though not all of America’s early leaders were Christians, they all agreed that the success of America’s republican form of government is “directly dependent upon the virtue and morality of her people, and that virtue and morality are necessarily founded upon religion – by which all meant the Christian religion.”

But the truth is, all worldly governments are flawed, even governments that proclaim “in God we trust.” Boyd points out that the god of this age is Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan inserts himself in earthly affairs and deceives the nations (Revelations 9:11, 20:3, 8, 13:14). The ways of the world are influenced by “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).

As Boyd reminds us, the history of the world is a history of violent conflicts. Boyd used Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as brilliant illustrations of fallen humans driven by passions they cannot control – desires for possessions, power, etc. These desires and passions lead to conflicts with other humans because other people feel just as strongly about their wants and desires. And while humans fight it out, Zeus sits on the mountain amused by it all.

When a worldly ruler elevates himself above all others, tears other people down, spreads lies, sows discord, seeks vengeance against his enemies, and treats others inhumanely, I imagine Satan laughing and saying, “well done, bad and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few dastardly things; I will put you in charge of many more.” And when Christians exchange the truth of the gospel for the seductive lure of political power, I imagine that Satan is overjoyed.

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Jesus – John 8:44

Power corrupts…

Boyd says that whenever you see a person or group exercising power over other people, you are seeing a version of the kingdom of the world. Boyd calls power over other people the “power of the sword.” Humans use power over people to bend other people to their will and to inflict pain and suffering on those who defy or threaten their authority. The power of the sword is exercised in many ways – physical violence, restraint, coercion, threats, and denial of rights or access to resources.

Laws, enforced by the sword, control behavior but cannot change hearts.

Gregory A. Boyd

There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power can be used for good but sometimes power changes people. As Chris Benderev wrote in the article When power goes to your head, it may shut out your heart, having power over people reduces our ability to empathize with them.

The kingdom of the world is nothing like the kingdom of God. It is a tribal “us versus them” kingdom – my race versus yours, my country versus yours, my religion versus yours, my political party versus yours. The world’s way is all about winning and having the upper hand. The world’s kingdom is a tit for tat kingdom. No insult or injury goes unanswered or unpunished.

The kingdom of God is radically different from the kingdom of this world. In the kingdom of God, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. God’s kingdom is based on the power of the cross, that is, the power of redemption, the power of sacrificial living. Followers of Christ are to express power under people, humbly serving others. Followers of Christ are to love their enemies and to leave vengeance to God.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Philippians 2:3-5

I am among a growing chorus of believers who care so deeply and passionately about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we feel called to reclaim the name and share the real message of Christ. The hope of a nation does not depend on having a government based on biblical values. The hope of a nation lies in the redeeming power of Christ. He has the power to change people from the inside out! For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

****

Father, may I not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of my mind and my heart so that I can be more like Christ, loving others as I love myself.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

****

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Crickets

I have been waiting to hear your response to the ugly, vile comments the president directed at four congresswomen of color. His comments were so outrageous yet so in character, so blatantly racist, so anti-Christ, I hoped that at long last you would speak up and stand on the side of all that is right and just and moral.

Crickets. Nothing but the sound of crickets.

Even you who are outwardly religious are silent. Over and over again, you hear him say things that break Christ’s heart and yet you say nothing! Not one word when he pushed the racist lie about Obama’s birthplace. Not one word when he called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. Not one word when he called white supremacists “very fine people.” Not one word as his administration separates migrant children from their parents and treats brown people who cross our border as less than human. Not one damn word.

Crickets. Nothing but the sound of crickets.

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34

Your silence speaks volumes. Your silence says you’re okay with the way he demeans women and people of color. It tells me that perhaps you even agree with his derogatory comments. It tells me that you judge a person by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character. It tells me you think that women should just shut up and blindly follow a man, even one as immoral and sinful as he is.

Crickets. Nothing but the sound of crickets.

When I do hear a peep out of some of you, you show me your true colors. Your bigotry and xenophia are on full display. You wave the flag and say, if you don’t like it here, leave. You call human beings illegals. You say we owe illegals nothing; we owe veterans everything as if there isn’t enough love to go around.

I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you’re not a bigot. Maybe you’re a good person who doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll offend someone if you speak out. I get that. But I have to ask, who will speak for you when someone doesn’t treat you with the human dignity you deserve?

Crickets. Nothing but the sound of crickets.

Who will call out the president’s racism? Who will call out this ugly sin if not people of faith like me who know that we are all human and we have been commanded by our Maker to love one another?

The moral duty to name and reject racism cannot only fall on the shoulders of people of color, those who are being targeted and assaulted; it must also include other white people in this nation. 

Jim Wallace

My own reluctance to speak out shames me. God gave me a conscience. God gave me empathy and compassion. God gave me a voice. So let me tell you something, you who remain silent or deny or make excuses for his abhorrent behavior:

Racism is a sin. Racism is reprehensible. There is no excuse for his behavior. Your president is a racist and his words and behavior are not acceptable.

******

African Field cricket Gryllus bimaculatus at Bristol Zoo, Bristol, England. Photographed by Adrian Pingstone in February 2005 and released to the public domain.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

It’s weird when you’re watching a documentary with a scene from a puppet show that aired more than 50 years ago to find yourself saying, wow, that sounds like you-know-who. In an early episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, King Friday XIII was very angry because Lady Elaine had rearranged things in The Land of Make-Believe. King Friday didn’t like change. So border guards were put in place to prevent people from coming and going. In a side note in an article about episode two, the author wrote, it’s a scenario that seems almost too real today — a petulant ruler who blames outsiders for making changes to his kingdom so he decides to shut his country’s borders, even though the real problem is WITHIN his kingdom.

The second episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired when I was 4 1/2 years old. I wasn’t aware of the social and political turmoil of the time – ongoing racial divisions, the Vietnam War. I don’t remember how old I was when I first watched the show. I just remember that Mr. Rogers was kind, calm and consistent – and a good neighbor.

In Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I learned that Fred Rogers bravely and lovingly tackled a lot of adult issues in his children’s show. In an episode that aired in 1969 (1065), Mr. Rogers cooled off his feet in a small pool of cold water. When Officer Clemmons, a black man, stopped by to visit, Mr. Rogers invited him to share the pool with him. It was a simple gesture that may not seem like a big deal now, but in the 1960’s, many swimming pools were still segregated. It was, as Hannah Anderson wrote, an act of reconciliation and humility, symbolic of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

In the documentary, I learned that the number 143 was special to Mr. Rogers. In an episode with Mr. McFeely, he explained that 143 was a kind of code. He said, it takes one letter to say I, four letters to say love, and three letters to say you.

One of the things I didn’t know before watching the documentary was that many people blame Mr. Rogers for giving rise to our entitlement culture. They think that because he told kids that you are special just for being you, he was in effect telling them that nothing is expected of you. Don’t blame Mr. Rogers. His critics miss the message he was trying to get across – that we all have inherent value as human beings. And I think Rogers understood that some people really need to hear this. God loves you unconditionally.

I found myself crying when I saw a scene with Daniel the Tiger, a puppet based on Fred Rogers himself. Daniel wonders to Lady Aberlin whether he was a mistake. I’m not like anyone else I know. Lady Aberlin sings to him, You’re not a fake. You’re no mistake. You are my friend. At the end of the scene, the two sing at the same time – Daniel repeating his worry that he is a mistake as she tells him he is not. His self-doubts persist even as she assures him he is fine just as he is. Even as an adult, I know how persistent negative self-talk can be and how important it is to have friends who let you know that you are accepted just as you are.

Fred Rogers was well known for his love for his neighbor. In explaining the song Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Fred Rogers said it is an invitation to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving. Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.

It’s an invitation to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving. Love is at the root of everything. Love or the lack of it.

Fred Rogers

Sometimes the real problem is not other people. It is the lack of love within us. You are both loved and capable of loving people who are not like you. Since we’re in this life together we might as well say, would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?

***

Sometimes I Wonder If I’m a Mistake

[Daniel Striped Tiger]

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not like anyone else I know
When I’m asleep or even awake
Sometimes I get to dreaming that I’m just a fake
I’m not like anyone else

Others I know are big and are wild
I’m very small and quite tame
Most of the time I’m weak and I’m mild
Do you suppose that’s a shame

Often I wonder if I’m a mistake
I’m not supposed to be scared am I
Sometimes I cry and sometimes I shake
Wondering isn’t it true that the strong never break
I’m not like anyone else I know
I’m not like anyone else

[Lady Aberlin]

I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping
When you are waking
You are my friend

It’s really true
I like you
Crying or shaking or dreaming or breaking
There’s no one mistaking it
You’re my best friend

I think you are just fine as you are
I really must tell you
I do like the person that you are becoming
When you are sleeping
When you are waking
You’re not a fake
You’re no mistake
You are my friend

Where is the hope?

The last time I went to my Bible study, a woman in my group handed me a book, With Her Last Breath, written by the Director of Caring Ministry at our church, Barbara M. Roberts. The book is about the suicide of Roberts’ niece Kathy and includes images of the 26-page journal that Kathy wrote in the last 36 hours or so of her life. Which each page of the journal, Roberts provides advice to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and to those who walk beside them.

Another friend couldn’t bring herself to finish the book because it reminded her too much of a struggling family member. It is hard to read about people who are suicidal, but I wanted to learn how to recognize when someone needs help and how to uplift and support those who have lost all hope as Kathy did.

Hope and despair

Hope and despair are polar opposites so we may think they are mutually exclusive emotions. But as Roberts wrote, hope and despair are often intertwined. We can feel both at the same time. We all experience ups and downs in this life and it can be really hard to hold onto your hope.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40: 31-32

Kathy believed in God but her life on this earth had become so unbearable due to health issues and loneliness that she felt she had no hope – except in the promise of heaven. She believed that killing herself was against God’s will but suicide was the only way she knew to escape her pain and torment. She hoped that God would forgive her.

At the time of her death, Kathy was just a few months older than I am now. She had COPD and was living on disability benefits. She rarely left her apartment. She had lost the one person in her life who was her support system.

In leaving a journal behind, Kathy provided a glimpse into the mind of a suicidal person. She wrote that she couldn’t take it anymore. She was tired of everything being so hard. She felt like she was in a living hell. She had never felt so alone and in the dark. Each day was worse than the one before. It had become hard to just exist. She wished that she could find one good reason to live. She could hardly breathe. She wondered what God wanted of her. She wondered, if God wanted her to live, why her life had been reduced to misery and suffering.

Empathy and understanding

I have not experienced the physical suffering that made Kathy’s life intolerable. But I have been through trying situations that have nearly broken my spirit. I have experienced feelings of despair, anguish, and hopelessness. In my lowest moments, I cried out to God – I begged God – please help me! I can’t take this anymore. And in those dark moments, I even said words to my Maker that I didn’t really mean. I want to die. Thankfully, I knew that God was with me. He lifted my burdens. He pulled me through.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
   the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2

In reading Kathy’s journal, I found myself wondering why she didn’t ask God to help her. I believe that if she had asked, God would have put the right people in her life to ease her loneliness and suffering. But as Roberts wrote, “Sometimes people do not use the way out that God provides but rather choose their own solution.” Kathy didn’t ask God for a way out. She chose her own way out of suffering and knew that she could not ask God to help her commit suicide. It is easy to judge Kathy for the decision she made. But I know from my own experience, when you are really depressed, your thoughts are not the most rational.

Kathy rightly noted that no one else was qualified to judge her. No one else knew what her life, the life she described as a living hell, was doing to her. I can only imagine how hopeless I would have felt in my own struggles if I had not had a social support system, if I had not had people who depended on me, if I had not had reasons to go on.

God redeems our own times of suffering by allowing us to come alongside others in their suffering. This, of course, is based upon the assumption that others are honest about their struggles.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

Helping the hurting

I wrote a bit about my own struggles with despair. I have also struggled to be a good helper of the hurting. A few times in my 32-year marriage, my husband got very depressed and it was really, really hard for me to deal with. He isolated himself. He wouldn’t talk to me or anyone else. I felt ill equipped to help him through it. So I did the only thing I knew to do. I stayed with him and I prayed for him.

Roberts wrote that unlike other obvious injuries, the hurt of a broken heart is hidden. You don’t have to be a skilled healer or gifted counselor to help. Just being available to listen and to walk alongside the person helps the hurting.

It is an amazing gift of God’s grace that the kind of expertise needed for the broken heart comes from those God has placed in our lives whose skill set includes love, availability, listening and just simply being a fellow journeyer willing to travel with us.

Barbara M. Roberts, With Her Last Breath

How can you be a supportive fellow journeyer in this thing called life? How can you help others find hope?

  1. Be fully present and attentive.
  2. Listen without interrupting.
  3. Communicate your caring and support.
  4. Take the person’s concerns seriously.
  5. Don’t minimize their suffering.
  6. Don’t be pushy or judgmental.
  7. Keep the person’s confidence but get help, if you are really worried.

Dear Lord, please help those who are struggling right now with feelings of despair and hopelessness. Wrap your loving arms around them. Let them know that they are not alone. Help me to be a light in the darkness. Help me to be available where I am needed, help me to listen, help me to love.

+++++++

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash