Praying for the President

By this time, you are probably familiar with Laurel and Yanny.

Didn’t expect me to start there, did you?

If you aren’t familiar with this maddening sound byte, just know that some people hear Laurel and some people heard Yanny when the audio clip was played. For me, I heard Yanny consistently for two weeks and now can only hear Laurel.

What gives.

Anyway, just google it, listen to it with your friends, and then let the arguments begin.

But how we perceive the same stimuli differently doesn’t just happen with audio memes.

Have you seen the picture of the gray and teal (or is it pink and white) sneaker? This meme is continuing to divide everyone on the internet. Half of the people swear the shoe is gray and teal, while the other half are absolutely convinced it is pink and white.

Perception, or what constitutes perception, is absolutely fascinating. Two people can literally listen to the exact same sound clip, or see the exact same picture, and interpret it two entirely different ways. And these differences in perception may be influenced by our upbringing, our unique culture, our life experiences, or our individual biology.

All of these factors taken together may help us see things from a certain perspective, but may also keep us from hearing or seeing something from a completely different perspective, as well.

None of this makes us bad people. It simply means that we see and interpret the world a certain way, because of our own unique inputs that influence our own unique biology. That then molds and shapes us into the person that we are and then influences how we perceive the world.

Of course this can be seen in any area of life, but one place where our diverse perceptions are significantly evident, for better or worse, are in faith communities. But instead of the differences being as trivial as hearing Laurel or Yanny, or seeing the color of sneakers, the differences in how we perceive and interpret faith actually impacts how we see ourselves, other people, and the purpose for which we exist in the world.

For example, there is a biblical passage that has become increasingly prominent over the last couple of decades, but has kind of gone viral over the last few weeks since Franklin Graham asked the country to pray for the president and since the president unexpectedly showed up at David Platt’s church to be prayed over during their Sunday worship service.

The passage is from 1 Timothy 2 and reads like this:

First of all, therefore, I encourage petitions, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings to be made on behalf of all human beings, on behalf of kings and of all who hold preeminence, so that we might lead a tranquil and quiet life in all piety and solemnity.

How have you always understood that passage? Is it possible for two people to perceive that passage in two completely different ways?

Before answering those questions, let me offer my standard disclaimer. I despise politics. I am not a Democrat, nor a Republican, nor a representative of any other political party or persuasion. When I make commentary on the adulterous relationship of religion and politics, I am not trying to prop up one political side or the other. To me, the way of Jesus ought to speak to power rather than be in bed with power, or interested in becoming the power. Focusing on the way of Jesus, as it subverts power, is my only concern.

So with that being said, you may be thinking that 1 Timothy is pretty straight forward in what it is saying- That we ought to pray for those in authority, including our President, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.

But our unique history and background as Americans have significantly influenced how we perceive and interpret that passage.

For many Evangelical Christians, the United States was once a Christian nation that has now turned from God. They believe that God wants to restore America as a godly nation through the guidance and leadership of godly leaders in the Church and governmental system. But they also believe that there are “enemies” who are trying to keep that from happening.

With this background shaping the Evangelical perception, it is easy to see why they interpret 1 Timothy as the reason why they need to pray for the president. Because from their perspective, he is the godly man who God is using to restore a Christian nation and push back the enemies, both foreign and domestic, that are trying to keep this restoration from happening.

And for the vast majority of Evangelicals, this is the straight and honest reading and understanding of 1 Timothy within an American context.

But before we dig deeper into this Evangelical perspective, there is another way that this same passage can be read by those, like me, who perceive it differently.

Being that the author of 1 Timothy was likely the Apostle Paul and that this letter was likely written after he had been imprisoned in Rome, most scholars date its authorship at 65 AD or later. This is interesting and sheds a bit of light on how the passage could be read differently based on the historical context in which it was written. At that time, Christians were being persecuted and martyred by the Roman Emperor, Nero, who blamed the Christian community for the Great Fire of Rome, which destroyed two-thirds of the city.

And as you can imagine, in this context, “praying for those in authority that we me live peaceful and quiet lives,” takes on an entirely different meaning. Paul was encouraging Timothy to pray that those in authority might change their hearts and posture toward Christians so that the Christian community would no longer be tormented and killed by the governing authority.

But while the historical context in which Paul was writing was different than 21st century America, I am certain that Paul would still want the Church praying for the governing authorities, so that their hearts and posture may be more like Christ-like.

But, he would absolutely not be encouraging the Church to get in bed with the governmental powers or to use the government for religious purposes.

To be really honest here, Paul’s invocation to pray for the governing authorities is a far cry from the carte blanche prayers many Evangelicals offer for the president. Paul’s was a plea to the Christian minority group to pray for the powerful and hostile aggressor to change heart. He was literally instructing them to pray for their enemies.

The Evangelical prayer, however, is a prayer of protection for a man who represents a fallen system that they are trying to Christianize. And “praying for those in authority” has come to mean praying for a political party (and a president) to carry out their moral agenda without interruption from the enemy.

So should we pray for the president?

While I believe it is essential that we pray for all of humanity, including our president and governmental leaders, it is for the transformational peace and love of Christ. And to that end, I will unapologetically pray for anyone at anytime (yes, even when it happens unexpectedly onstage during a church service), because each of us, even the vilest offender, need prayer for that kind of peace and love. For it was Jesus who, again, said that we should pray for our friends and enemies alike. So to the extent that Progressive Christians will not pray for the president, so that his heart might change and, at a minimum, be more peaceful toward all people, they are mistaken.

But let me be clear.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom, not made of buildings and laws and governments and politicians, but of people who have abandoned the inferior and limiting values of those systems and entities.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, does not try to control or legislate a person’s behavior through laws, but transforms hearts, minds, and souls through the Spirit.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, is not a divided and fearful hierarchical system that opposes people, but a loving movement that unites nationalities, ethnicities, races, genders, and orientations into a united Body.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, does not minimize, dehumanize, belittle, or bully people, but that loves and serves all people, even those who oppose and fight as enemies.  

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom, not dependent upon a single man or a certain political party, but comprised of a people, a new humanity, that is rising up to show the world the way of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

And it is only this kingdom that will help us see and perceive clearly, despite our past experiences, our histories, and our unique wirings.

So yes, I pray for the president. But I pray that his heart would be transformed into the likeness of Christ. And until that happens, and so long as his, or any other president’s, actions and behavior oppose Christ and his kingdom, my prayer will be one of speaking the truth of Christ to power.

Peace…

Brandon

Washing My Hands of God

To say that this year has been difficult is a woeful understatement. It has been seven long and painful months since Abbott died tragically on an unseasonably warm and inviting February night.

The devastating impact of his death, while reverberating deeply within our town on so many levels, knocked our smaller community back on our heels and then to our knees. Our house church, of which Abbott and his family have been an integral part over the last decade, is still completely broken.

But each week, we gather back together and hold each other and try to pick up the fragmented pieces as best we can.

How does a person even take a step forward in so much pain and suffering?

How does a group of friends walk through this pain and suffering together?

How do people hold one another in woundedness, in anger, in frustration, and in doubt?

This is all new territory.

I have to admit, for as often as I believe that I have the right words to say, the right perspective to offer, or the appropriate wisdom to counsel, I have realized that I have absolutely nothing that can remedy or alleviate the pain, or the heart ache. It is a place I rarely find myself. A place of complete helplessness.

And then, there are all of the impossibly difficult faith questions about the purpose of life, why we are here, what this life is all about, and then God’s seeming distance and indifference toward our lives in the pain and suffering.

Last year, reflecting on suffering, I wrote the following words, not knowing how prescient and true they would be for me and my friends, as we walk together in our collective grief.

“Suffering breaks us down into insufferable little parts where we can either self-destruct or cry out helplessly to God, because we are in a place where we have seemingly lost all control. Our sense of self has been shattered. Our identity has been obliterated. And it is in our place of pain through suffering where we can choose whether we make it our final destination or a transformative passageway.

That is the profound mystery of suffering.

Suffering strips away any and all control we believed we have had over people and situations. And it is in this place, our place of pain through suffering, the place where we have lost all control, where our hearts and minds can either be closed off or opened to the healing and transformative love of God.”

But it is a place where the choice doesn’t seem so easy. It’s a place where one can easily be pushed to the end of faith. It is a place where it seems like the most logical conclusion is to wash our hands of a God who has abandoned us in our sufferings, who has left us lost and alone.

That is the place where my friend Jackie, Abbott’s mom, was a couple of months ago, as she was preparing for a backpacking trip to the Pacific Northwest with a couple of her friends.

While she did not share with us everything she was thinking as the trip approached, one thing she did share was that she needed to go out into nature and just breathe and decompress and find peace and stillness. Unbeknownst to us, she was also giving God her pain and asking for a sign to know that God is with her in this place of pain, to know that God has not abandoned her.

Being that she was going to be in one of the most rainy regions of the United States, she simply asked God to give her a rainbow as a sign that she is not alone and that God is with her in this.

On the last rainy evening, utterly dejected, not having seen a rainbow over the three previous days, Jackie said that she “had words with God,” and that, in her brokenness, she was “washing her hands of God.”

She poured out her heart and soul to God in agony. She broke herself open in real and raw emotion to God by saying, “I have lost my son and I am broken and in so much pain… and the least you could do is give me a sign that you are with me in this. But you can’t even do that. I am (expletive) done with you.”

The next morning, as the sun came up against a promising blue morning sky, the ladies broke camp and were met by a husband and wife team who would be shuttling them back to the ferry. They loaded their gear into the flatbed truck and took their spots amongst the gear.

As the truck barreled down the road, Jackie, who had recently gotten a couple of tattoos after Abbott died, noticed that the lady in the passenger seat had a tattoo on her forearm, but couldn’t quite make out what is was or what it said. It wasn’t long before the truck drove onto the ferry for the short ride out of the National Park.

As they reached the other side and began to unload their gear, the man, whom they affectionately referred to as “Standing Rock,” because of his imposing stature, and his wife got out of the truck and joined the ladies at the back of the truck to help with the gear.

Jackie noticed that Standing Rock had a tattoo of baby’s foot on the back of his leg with a date just below the tattoo.

It was Abbott’s birthday.

July 9th.

Shocked and taken aback that he had a tattoo with Abbott’s exact birth date on his leg, Jackie pointed it out to her friends.

Among the surprise and chatter, Standing Rock’s wife explained that their newborn baby boy died on that date, so they each got a tattoo to commemorate his life. Moved by their story of loss, Jackie told them that Abbott died four months earlier and the date of their tattoos was Abbott’s birthday.

July 9th.

And that’s when the lady walked up to Jackie and turned her arm over to show Jackie her tattoo.

img_4515

There is a rainbow
of hope at the end
of every storm
7-9-16

There are just no words.

The rainbow.
The date.
The promise.

Never will I leave you.
Never will I forsake you.

I AM here.

I have to admit that I don’t fully understand this life, or why it has to be so full of tragedy, pain, and loss. Further, I don’t understand the mysteries of God or how all of this will fully resolve as one of the greatest stories ever told.

I really don’t.
But I do know this.

Even in our darkest hour, God does not leave us, does not abandon us.

God’s love and compassion, amidst the pain and suffering, still surrounds us and holds us.

And it is in this place where we can close off, shut down, and make our suffering a final destination, or the place where we can trust that God is truly with us and not against us, trust that God is breaking with us and is with us even in our suffering, trust that God has not left us or abandoned us or forsaken us, and trust that God’s love is always with us and enveloping us and holding us… even when our hearts are broken.

Peace and always love…

Brandon

Why I Am Done With Thoughts and Prayers

There is no question that social media has this amazing way of evoking our very best and our very worst.

But sometimes, our widespread immersion in social media can even make the most innocuous and otherwise unnoticed idle chatter turn into a massive tsunami of worthless throw aways, just by their sheer volume.

In other words, when each of us has the ability to see, in real time, the social media responses of hundreds of thousands of people to tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, a certain pattern emerges and becomes evident, that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or undetected if we were not so connected to everyone.

And this is certainly the case with the perpetual inundation of “thoughts and prayers,” that find their way scattered under news stories, across timelines, and in comment sections every day for every single triviality or real tragedy.

What may have never reached critical mass (or critical irritation), and then may have never become the focal point of impending death by the masses, had it never met the World Wide Web, “thoughts and prayers” have now become the figurative thorn in our collective social media side.

‪”Thoughts and prayers” is the 21st century equivalent to its 20th century “God bless you” predecessor.‬

‪It is empty and throwaway language that means nothing. Empty and throwaway language that makes us feel good that we “doing something,” but neither elicits nor requires action. Empty and throwaway language that appears as a nice gesture to all but demands no participation and no change.‬

‪And in my opinion, that’s why we need to be done with “thoughts and prayers.”‬

One may wonder why there is such a harsh and critical backlash against such a perceived nicety. And, of course, there may be myriad reasons, but the most evocative response comes from a growing movement of individuals who are done with empty talk and throwaway language that has a good and virtuous appearance, but does nothing for real world impact and that simply perpetuates the problem by verbally agreeing that something needs to change but negates the words through inaction.

“Thoughts and prayers” are devoid of meaning, of value, of consequence, of participation, of action, of change.

That’s why I believe prayer has largely been misunderstood, because it was never meant to be merely a mental assent or vocal exercise.

Prayer is not exclusively to be understood as thoughts or words, but as alignment. 

And to that end, our “thoughts and prayers” have failed, because we have made them empty gestures devoid of embodiment.

Prayer, properly understood, is to be an alignment with God and the embodiment of God’s kingdom that is to be lived out in the world through our lives.

When Jesus taught the disciples how to pray he said, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That line alone is the key to unlocking prayer- God’s Kingdom coming to earth and God’s will being done on earth requires people embodying this prayer.

Again, prayer is an alignment with God and the embodiment of God’s kingdom that is to be lived out in the world through our lives.

We have mistakenly repeated the Lord’s Prayer as if it is a request being made to God to magically make something happen on earth while we passively sit around and wait for it to happen.

But that was never the intention of the Lord’s Prayer.

When Jesus says, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” it is a prayer declaring our alignment and partnership with God to bring heaven and earth together as one through our lives. God’s will is that his Kingdom will extend into all the earth and the only way that happens is through us.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are agreeing and aligning ourselves with God to be the embodiment of transformation and forgiveness and reconciliation and healing in the world.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are taking an active position in the world to extend the God’s kingdom of love and peace and hope to individuals, families, and communities.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are those who, do not just passively send our “thoughts and prayers” in tragedy, but become the prayer in the ways we nurture and care for the hurting, in the ways we sit in solidarity with those who are grieving, and in the ways we give sacrificially of ourselves on their behalf.

Please don’t miss this- prayer is not simply a verbal request that is made to God that then waits around for God to do something.

Prayer is a transformative, heart, body, mind, and soul alignment with God in which we literally become the prayer. We become the means through which God is working in the world. We become the point where God meets people in their place of pain. Prayer is our, “Here am I, send me” moment.

Goodbye, thoughts and prayers!

SELF-CHECK: What does it look like for me to move from being a “thoughts and prayers” person to actually becoming the embodiment of prayer in a situation? To this person? To these people? To this community?

Peace and love…

Brandon