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

The Parable of the Two Managers

The owner of a vast and abundant vineyard with hundreds of workers was soon planning to hand over the daily operations and responsibilities of his vineyard to two managers, each of whom had been working with him for quite some time. The managers knew the owner’s love for his vineyard, the care he took in growing the fruit, the daily satisfaction he enjoyed working with his hands to keep away weeds and harvest the grapes, and the perpetual joy he found in sharing the choice wine it produced. Even more, the vineyard had become a place of life, community, and festivity for everyone in their small town. Each evening, people would share table, tell stories, and dance into the night. The care each person had for one another was extraordinary and unique. This was the owner’s heart and dream for his vineyard community.

The two managers knew that taking over the vineyard would be a tall order, but each believed he deserved the privilege of managing it.

The first manager had a vision for expanding the reach and influence of the vineyard. He believed that a great partnership between the vineyard and one of their town’s powerful, influential, and wealthy businessmen would be beneficial. Despite the fact that the businessman was a prideful, judgmental, unforgiving, and crass man, who had values completely opposite of the vineyard owner, the manager thought that this partnership would, not only increase the status of the vineyard in the community for generations, but would also allow the vineyard to become even more powerful and influential throughout the town. Despite the fact that the businessman had never been to the vineyard himself, or experienced the depth of community and vibrancy that made it an essential part of the town, he knew that the vineyard had hundreds of workers who could strengthen his position in the community.

The other manager had similar aspirations. He believed the culture that had grown in this vineyard community, of treating everyone with dignity and caring for each other’s needs, was something that could also be instituted and modeled by the local government, so he partnered with the town’s head official. Despite the fact that this town official was a well-known liar, manipulator, and corruptor, untrustworthy to the core and completely opposite of the vineyard owner in every way, this manager believed the that town official would be a great partner in extending the values of the vineyard through governmental initiatives and programs. While the town official had been to the vineyard in the past, it was only to solicit the support and votes of the workers and community members who gathered there each evening. The unique beauty and quaintness of this special community was lost on the official.

One evening the two managers brought together the businessman and town official to the vineyard community and began to explain to those who were eating together, sharing stories, and dancing with one another, that they had great visions of how the businessman and town official could make the vineyard more influential, more powerful, and how the government could begin using the vineyard model to take care of the entire community. The workers and townspeople listened and considered what was being proposed by each manager and a clear rift began to rise among them. Some heard about the perverse character of the businessman and preferred the town official. Others knew intimately about how corrupt the town official was and preferred the businessman.

Fractures in the vineyard community grew. And each evening afterward, the fractures widened as animosity swelled.

While the managers and workers gathered to debate and argue for their vision of the vineyard and their positions on the businessman and town official, the townspeople slowly began to turn away from the divisive and hostile vineyard community.  It wasn’t the community it once was.

Differences of opinion led to voices being raised, accusations being made, and feelings being hurt. The tension escalated when some of the workers got in the face of other workers and began to belittle and dehumanize them with their words. Before long, tables were being turned, bottles were being broken and wine spilled, and the people began to intensely hate one another.

And it was at that point when the lights went out and the entire place went quiet.

When the lights came back on, the vineyard owner was standing in the divided room between the two managers amidst the wreckage and calamity.

What have you done to my vineyard community? What have you brought into this life-giving and hope-filled place? The work of my very own hands and my very own heart have been trampled under the feet of self-interest, power, and corruption. The shared table of brotherhood and sisterhood has been overturned in division and animosity. The life stories of each person have been silenced by political positioning and arguing. The celebratory dance of freedom and joy has been shackled by your belief that what I created in this vineyard community was not enough. This has been my heart and dream for this community- to have a place of invitation and refuge, life and love, and the breaking of bread and sharing of the wine in celebration. Yet, this community of life has become a place of death.

And the fruit of the vine that was crushed and perfected into the choicest wine, has been poured out and spilled, once again, by the hands of greed and power.

Oh you wicked managers, who then can be trusted?

For those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear…

Brandon

Special thanks to my friend Herb Haile for advice on this post.

How This Conservative Evangelical Died

This is the first of two posts in which I have to preemptively tell you that my heart in this is motivated only in love and service to helping Christians (including me) more closely align in following the way of Jesus.

I simply ask that if you are a Christian and one who struggles with anger when a person challenges your faith perspective, then maybe park this post until you can read it in a non-defensive, non-oppositional, and peaceful posture. These words are meant to begin a civil conversation and dialogue and then to guide us into deeper reflection and dependence on the Spirit of God in our lives.

Too many times, Christians read what I write (with the most recent example being about Christians and politics) and quickly retort, “Well, I disagree with your position,” or, “Well, that is just your opinion.”

Others immediately dismiss what I have written and begin listing all of the arguments they have grown up believing to be true.

I am not pointing a finger in judgment here.

They certainly have the right to state their disagreement, but it is almost always done without the slightest bit of reflection or curiosity as to how I arrived at my position. I know this because when I ask each person if what they believe comes from Jesus, they usually state that it does not come from Jesus.

They may point to the Old Testament. They may refer to the founding documents of our country. They may convey that their position is what the majority of Christians believe in our country. They may even say it is their opinion based on what their own church or denomination tells them. But when they disagree with me… they never, ever, ever say that their views on the government or the political system come from Jesus.

I believe most people are trying to be sincere in their faith. I really do. But I also believe they are being brainwashed by well-meaning religious leaders, preachers, and teachers who care more about the United States government and the United States political system than honestly trying to follow in the way of Jesus and then working to advance his counter-cultural kingdom. But the Church’s affinity and obsession with government and politics have led to upside-down, mixed up priorities and profound sickness.

You know the old saying, “It takes one to know one.” Well, the reason I can identify this problem so easily is because I was part of the problem.

Admittedly, I used to have the same exact understanding and view as those who believe that Christianity and the American governmental and political system should be inseparable and that their fusion is absolutely essential. I was the Conservative Evangelical guy who believed that Christians needed to take back our country for God, that we needed to elect Conservative Christians to restore our Judeo-Christian principles and values, that the United States was the “shining light on a hill” and the only source of “good” in the world, and that all of our military endeavors against the enemies of “good” were approved by God.

I was THAT GUY. I was the guy who bought into the marriage of Christianity and politics hook, line, and sinker. I was the guy who believed that it was absolutely essential that the Church be politically active. I was the guy who believed that prayer ought to be in school, that the 10 commandments ought to be outside of the courthouse, and that a “Christian worldview” was the only thing that was going to defeat atheism and evolution and save the next generation.

If those values and beliefs were so ingrained in me and comprised the very core of my being, how in the world could my perspective change so radically?

The simple answer is that God began to completely destroy me. And the destruction left me shell-shocked. In shambles. In pain. Everything I had believed. Everything I had trusted. Everything I had put my faith in… leveled to the ground.

God completely obliterated and annihilated the foundations upon which I had built and resided my entire life. God shattered the lenses through which I viewed reality, the world, and other people. God eradicated my inferior allegiances, my inferior value systems, and all of the worldly wisdom in which I had placed my hope, faith, and trust, because they were all completely anti-thetical to, and opposed by, the way of God perfectly demonstrated in the Christ.

Little did I know that it would take this kind of demolition for something new to be built up in its place. It was something more beautiful, more liberating, more peaceful, and more inclusive. Amidst the wreckage, I began to see the beautiful, alternative, present reality of God’s reign (which Jesus called the kingdom of God) and how we, as his followers, are supposed to give our lives, our pledge, and our allegiance to it only. That is how God took my heart, mind, and soul captive and changed my heart’s every desire.

So when I write about how the preoccupation of the follower of Jesus ought not to be that of governments or politics, but rather that of the kingdom of God, I do not write as some wild-eyed anti-conformist, but rather as a former Conservative Evangelical whom God saw fit to completely decimate and reconstruct as an ambassador for his alternative, upside-down, and beautiful kingdom.

So with that narrative as a backdrop, what does it mean, if what I write is not just “my position” or “my opinion,” but the very truth of God that you need to hear and internalize and pray over, rather than immediately and casually dismiss because it conflicts with your current belief and value system?

The truth is that I cannot twist your arm, force you to understand, or convince you to believe in anything that you do not want to believe. I cannot convince or persuade you into understanding or entering into the beautiful reality of God’s kingdom with my eloquent words. And despite how convincing or persuasive I can be, you have to discover it for yourself, which leads to my next point.

I came to the realization last week while mowing that there was a very good reason why Jesus only talked about the kingdom of God in parables and sayings. By speaking about the kingdom of God in parables and sayings, it keeps people from turning it into a formula for salvation, steps that must be taken to insure eternal life, or laws and rules that must be followed to be a good Christian. We, in the religious realm, certainly have a track record for trying to create new religious laws and protocols and formulas for “who’s in and who’s out.” And that is the real genius of Jesus preaching the Good News of the kingdom of God in parables and sayings. He completely short circuits and circumvents our tendencies toward controlling people and cheapening God’s grace and forgiveness.

However, there is also an unfortunate downside to only speaking of the kingdom of God in parables and sayings. As our Western minds long for a more pragmatic, predictable faith that is achieved by simply following rules and taking the “right steps,” we have completely stopped “asking, seeking, and knocking” to discover the riches of the kingdom of God. Despite the fact that the Good News of the kingdom of God was the reason Jesus said he was sent, was the focus of his parables and the Sermon on the Mount, and was the very first thing he preached after his resurrection, we have completely stopped (or maybe never even started) looking for the kingdom into which Jesus was announcing and inviting us.

I have mentioned this in previous writings, but there were times when Jesus did not explain the parables of the kingdom of God to the crowds. He said frequently that those who understand his parables “have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.” Some people would get it. Some people would not get it. But it was up to each person to be in a humble posture of seeking, asking, and knocking. A person whose posture was resistant, closed-off, or defensive would never have the eyes to see or the ears to hear and understand the deeper mysteries of God’s kingdom.

I am afraid that many people today are in that place as well. We are significantly lacking in the kind of humility that recognizes the reality that we will always be students in this lifetime and that our learning from the Great Teacher will never end. We have stopped seeking to discover greater breadths and depths of truth because we believe we have already discovered all truth. We have ceased asking to have the eyes and heart of God because we already believe that we see everything clearly and that our hearts are fully aligned with God. We have stopped knocking at the door because we believe we have fully arrived at our spiritual destination.

I do not share any of this from a place of arrogance or arrived-ness, because I have definitely not arrived. I fall way short of God’s glory on a daily basis. I only want to simply and humbly ask for you to seek first the kingdom of God. It is only discovered through your own willingness and your own pursuit. It is only when your heart is open, that you can fully receive.

But too many Christian hearts are closed off to the kingdom of God.

And that is why, I believe, so many discussions about the government and politics are so fruitless among Christians. Very few approach politics from a kingdom-centered perspective to begin with, even though this ought to be the lens through which Christians view everything, including governments and politics.  

And here’s the crazy thing, Jesus told his followers to SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM… which makes a Kingdom-centered perspective the most Jesus position of all positions, yet when I implore Christians to seek first the Kingdom of God (rather than our government or our politics) it’s dismissed as just another “opinion.” It seems to me that the most thoroughly Jesus position (the Kingdom of God) ought to be the one that Christians seek first and whole-heartedly embrace, rather than simply treating it as just another “opinion.”

Seeking first the kingdom above all else…

Brandon

Read other posts in this series:

Why I Don’t Want America to Come Back to God
Was Jesus a Republican or Democrat?