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

One New Humanity

I remember sitting in an undergrad philosophy class at Hanover College in which the professor, discussing the limitations, nuances, and intricacies of human language, explained to us that while we English speakers have one word for the frozen precipitation that falls from the sky, snow, the Inuit people have over 50 words to describe every variation and type of snow.

I have to admit at being amazed at such detail of observation and nuance of experience.

There is a real beauty in being able to use descriptive words and language to paint a mental picture for others that is rich and vibrant in it’s specificity and detail. As a writer, I am continually reminded of the importance of words and how appreciative readers are at being able to participate in an experience, at being able to feel a visceral connection, and at being able to imagine the intricate details of an image… all through words.

Words can bring observations and experiences to life.

However, our diversity in words and language make us expert classifiers and near-obsessive labelers.

And you may be wondering why you picked up on a bit of cynicism with that last sentence.

While we all may not have the exhaustingly expressive, yet delightfully observant-of-every-fine-detail chops of Dostoevsky, we all have an almost innate need for descriptors. We are hard-wired, it seems, with the ability to observe, discriminate, label, and classify.

Of course this is not inherently bad and actually serves many good and useful purposes, however, our specificity in precise and meticulous observations, our keen eye at discriminating, our acuteness in classifying and labeling can actually, consequently and unintentionally, limit our experiences and create divisions of reality.

Rather than seeing people as they are, rather than enjoying experiences for what they are, we very naturally, maybe even unconsciously, begin to divide all things into categories and groups, which can then very easily lead to the creation of dualities and hierarchies, and then ultimately antagonisms and conflicts among the divisions, simply by the categories in which we place people and experiences and then by what we subsequently believe about them based solely upon how they are described, labeled, or categorized.

Let me be very clear in what I am saying.

We live in a time in which there are hyper-obsessions with how we describe ourselves, how we label others and put them into categories, how we begin to assign worth and value based upon the label a person or group wears and the category in which a person or group identifies, and then how we begin to live in division and conflict, either mentally or physically, with a labeled and categorized person or group… without ever knowing the person behind the label.

The sad and tragic reality is that underneath a label or a classification is a person, a flesh and blood human being, a living and breathing creation with a soul, who has been reduced to a cheap descriptor, who is only seen as an easy label for how they are described, who is stereotyped and caricatured, not for the depth of who they are, or as one uniquely created by God, but as an object that can be disrespected, diminished, and discarded.

God help us.

We are in a very precarious time in history.  The discriminating generalizations and xenophobic stereotypes, the widening fissures and the deepening crevasses in relationships, and then the tectonic plates of verbal and physical conflict between people and groups are shaking the foundations on which we stand. We are on the precipice of a cultural civil war and it is a dark manifestation of our fearful individualism, our isolated homogeny, and our dehumanization and devaluation of “those people” (whoever “those people” are, but it seems like there are more “those people” than ever today).

Our rugged individualism has failed us.

Maybe we are too deeply entrenched in our individual hatreds. Maybe we have sold our souls too long ago to the political machines of rancor and antagonism. Maybe we have pledged allegiance to our own interests in the world. Maybe we have been shackled to religions of rightness (and everyone’s wrongness) for too long.

I don’t know.

Maybe we are just too far gone for solutions.

But as one who actually believes that the time in which we live is rich with opportunity for a new and better humanity (and maybe it has taken us seeing the ugliness of humanity for us to have a longing for a new kind of humanity), I want to invite you out of the division and destruction and antipathy and hatred that surrounds us, maybe even that in which you have participated, and into a uniting and edifying reality built upon goodness and love for all people that no longer sees the world as we versus they, but simply as we.

I am not sure if you have ever considered this, but up until the time of Jesus the trajectory of the biblical narrative was a devolution into division, classification, and labeling that then further disintegrated into dualistic thinking, hateful discrimination, fearful xenophobia, we/they mentalities, cyclical conflicts, ethnic and religious prejudices, political animosities, and perpetual wars.

And this cycle played out over and over and over and over.

Does it sound familiar?

But with the introduction of Jesus, this tired and predictable trajectory ended.

Please do not tune me out here.

When I talk about Jesus, I am not referring to anything or anyone but Jesus Christ alone, because so many people, churches, and institutions have twisted Jesus into something he never was.

So I am not talking about churches, evangelicalism, institutional religion, or any other deviation of religion that has abandoned, maligned, or distorted the way of Jesus.

I am talking to you, right now, about Jesus Christ alone.

Because in Jesus, and in the message Jesus preached, you find the most revolutionary, counter-cultural, and radical movement in the history of the planet.

And that is not some crazy, religious claim.

At the height of dualistic thinking, hateful discrimination, fearful xenophobia, we/they mentalities, cyclical conflicts, ethnic and religious prejudices, political animosities, and perpetual wars, Jesus started a movement away from classifications, labels, and divisions which then began to erase dividing lines and hierarchies and conflicts… all with the most unlikely people from every disparate part of life.

Jesus faced, head on, ethnocentrism and racism. Jesus stood up to inequality and social stratification. Jesus embraced the uncivilized, the disabled, the outcast, the stigmatized, the unclean, the infected, the sinner. Jesus broke every glass ceiling of every institution and construct of his time (and even ours today).

No longer were people to be seen as Jew or Gentile, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as rich or poor, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as male or female, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as barbarians or civilized, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be viewed as clean or unclean, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer were people to be labeled or classified, no longer were people to be divided against or placed in hierarchies, no longer were people to live in conflict or hostility, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

In this one new humanity, Christ is all, and is in all. And in this one new humanity we no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view. In Christ, the old ways have gone, and the new ways have come- one new humanity. For in this one new humanity, we unite and align in Christ and in values that transcend every dividing line.

That is the radical beauty of the message Jesus preached- That humanity would no longer align by label or classification, but would unite and align in a love that transcends every label, every classification, every ideology, and every division.

No longer are we to be Protestant or Catholic, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be fundamentalists or progressives, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be those on the inside or those on the outside, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be Democrats or Republicans, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be Conservative or Progressive, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be legal citizen or illegal alien, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be privileged or under-privileged, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be gay or straight, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be transgendered or cisgendered, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be religious or atheist, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

No longer are we to be American or Pakistani or Afghani or Korean or Venezuelan, because in Christ there is one new humanity.

For it is through Christ in which all things were created. And by Christ that all things hold together. And in Christ that God reconciled all things to himself. That’s the good news.

And we continue this reconciliation by inviting everyone out of the labels, classifications, dividing lines, and hostilities.

I was listening to some friends, who had long histories as Conservative Evangelicals and who had more recently swung far the other direction toward Progressivism, discuss the recent failures of political progressivism. They had finally come to the realization that labels, descriptors, and classifiers no longer work and that there has to be something more. One friend even said, “I am not even sure if there is anything that adequately describes or represents us.”

And there is a growing number of individuals, like my friends, who are coming to the same realization about the failure of labels, descriptors, and classifiers and how ineffective they are and how divided they make us, one against another.

Here is the truth.

That which we long for, that which we strive for, can not be named or contained within those things that promotes antagonism and keeps us divided. They have never been found there and never will be. It is a dead end road.

However, that which we long for, that which we strive for, can only be found in the love of Christ that transcends every label, every descriptor, every classification, and every dividing line and then manifests in a growing movement of peace, mercy, grace, forgiveness, restorative justice, and unity.

Let me say that again, the love of Christ transcends every label, every descriptor, every classification, and every dividing line. And it is the love of Christ alone in which we should find our identity and the only place where we should reside, for it is the only place where every person in the world is welcome, treated equally, and loved fully for who they are.

Peace and love…

Brandon

This Is How We Move Forward…

The irony of this post is that the following words could just as easily been written to Conservative Evangelicals who, over the last eight years, had become wildly fearful of President Obama and his policies. For they became a people professing to follow Jesus, while becoming obsessed and entrenched with the politics of our country, abandoning the peaceful, loving, non-fearful way of Jesus.

And while this has been wildly apparent, in an ironic twist, after witnessing Conservative Evangelicals continuing to abandon the way of Jesus and live in a state of fear, many Progressive Christians have done the exact same thing. They have been consumed by a fear of President-elect Trump and have resorted to attitudes and characteristics that look nothing like the Jesus they profess to follow.

Listen.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you are on- This country is not your hope. This political system is not your hope. This government is not your hope. This president is not your hope.

Each one of them will continue to fail you because they are comprised of broken and sinful people. And despite the political leanings of our leaders and the vision they have for this country, our country exists to increase wealth and power in the world. And the means by which our country achieves those ends at the very foundation, at the very core, can be nothing but antithetical to the way of Jesus.

This is the way it has always been and the way it will always continue to be- A country cannot follow Jesus.

This is not a lament. It is a reality. And we are wildly mistaken if we ever hold our politicians, government, and country to that standard.

Now with that being said, we can use our voices, we can cast our votes, we can try to influence it to be more equitable and just, but it will always be a monster that exists for it’s own wealth and power. It will always be a monster that exists for it’s own self-interest. And it will always be a monster that devours anyone who stands in it’s way.

That is the inherent nature of governments. That is what they have always been and that’s what they will continue to be until the very end.

Yet somehow, so many Christians still try to redeem it or have expectations that it ought to be inherently moral or just. But the truth is that, not only can a government not be redeemed, it cannot be wholly moral or just. A government may, on occasion make a moral or just decision or implement a moral or just law, but we are sadly mistaken when we believe it can be cleansed and made whole. No matter your governmental idealism, a government will always work to perpetuate it’s own wealth and power, and in the process will create victims, casualties, and collateral damage.

This is the predictably destructive path of every single man-made government in the history of mankind. Our leaders, our government, and our country are no different.

That is why Jesus did not waste time trying to reform governments, because they are interminably broken. They will always operate out of self-interest. And they will always leave a trail of devastation in their wake.

Jesus stepped outside of the fractured, divided, oppressive systems of the world and invited people into an entirely different present reality that, despite the wreckage around us, exists as a refuge to those who no longer put their hope, faith, and trust in these broken systems and to those who have been victims and casualties of the system.

The invitation is to come out of a hope, faith, and trust in broken governmental leaders and systems and into a hope, faith, and trust in Jesus and his kingdom of wholeness and healing.

The invitation is to come out of political division and animosity and into a Kingdom of diverse unity and graceful brotherhood and sisterhood.

The invitation is to come out of a life slavishly glued to politics and political news hour-by-hour and into a Kingdom of ever-present liberation and shalom.

The invitation is to come out of lives consumed by verbally demeaning and destroying people or candidates who disagree with your politics and into a Kingdom working and praying for the healing and restoration of people and the reconciliation of relationships with all people.

The invitation is to come out of hatred toward political leaders, political foes, their followers, and every group of people you are told are your enemies and into a Kingdom of self-sacrificial love for every political leader, political foe, and every single group of people you are told to hate and stand against.

The invitation is to come out of lives utterly ravaged by the fear of political leaders, their politics, and their followers and into a Kingdom that will fearlessly move forward as peace emissaries, hope ambassadors, and a light in the darkness.

For it is only light that will drive out darkness. And we can not be the darkness.

We are to be a light constantly demonstrating this radical love of God, and inviting everyone into this abundant life. That is our only hope. And that is the only hope for humanity.

But we let politics, political leaders, and governments make us angry… and fearful.

And it is an absolute understatement to say that FEAR has a massive death grip on so many Christians, regardless of political persuasion. So many Christians are more obsessed with politics and governments than embodying and extending the Kingdom of Christ.

They are afraid of instability, afraid of tyranny, afraid of “losing freedoms,” afraid of opposing ideologies, afraid of the government, afraid of presidents, afraid of “losing their rights” or “losing their civil liberties,” afraid of the government “taking their guns,” afraid of the government taking their religious liberties, afraid of their money becoming worthless, afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of “new world orders,” and afraid of Anti-Christ figures.

It’s exhausting.  And it’s not who we are to be.

Don’t miss what I am saying here.

I am not saying that we ought not work peacefully, prayerfully, lovingly, and creatively to oppose those things (and people) who work against the extension of the kingdom of God in the world. We will always stand beside and work peacefully, prayerfully, lovingly, and creatively for the marginalized, the victimized, and the oppressed.

But as a people who live in the perfect love of God, we fear nothing.

And as we extend that perfect love to others, we will fear nothing.

It’s not too crazy of an idea to believe that if we aren’t living like Christ presently, when times are relatively good, then we will never live like Christ when times get really difficult in the future.

We can’t simply be a people content to only receive the love of God. We have to be people who fearlessly and sacrificially extend the love of God to everyone… even when times are difficult, even when the politics of our day are amoral and unjust, even when the world is crazy and chaotic.

That may be hard to swallow because it confronts the fear in which we have been residing and exposes how insufficient and negligent we have been at extending the love of God.

Think about it.

Do you hate the President of the United States and his policies – or – are you praying for his heart to change, for him to know the way of Jesus, and then loving him despite what actions he takes?

Do you hate the leaders whom we have been told are our enemies or whom we have been told are working against us- or- are you ignoring these voices and choosing to love our enemies the way Jesus Christ loved his enemies.

Do you find yourself getting angry with other people or people groups when you listen to right-wing or left-wing talk radio, when you watch news programs, and when you read the newspaper – or – are you tuning out and learning how to mercifully and gracefully love all people and all people groups despite their situation or circumstance?

Do your actions, when standing for a position on an issue, make you hurt, minimize, and wound individuals and people groups – or – do they heal, lift up, mend, and restore individuals and people groups in the loving, graceful, and merciful love of Christ?

Are your words and attitude toward others divisive, angry, hostile, demeaning, and devaluing when you disagree with their position or the way in which they live their lives – or – are your words and attitude always full of life, love, kindness, encouragement, and the building up of others?

We are just scratching the surface with these questions.

Let the world only know us for our all-consuming, enveloping, and overwhelming love.

Nothing less.

Jesus is calling us out of the divisive, political spectator crowd and along the narrow pathway with him.

To surrender every ounce of our lives to follow him and his way.
To walk away from a life that is easy.
To walk away from a life that is predictable.
To walk away from a life that is comfortable.
To enter into a life of risk.
To be willing to suffer pain and alienation.
To be willing to die.
All for love.

And he is asking us to not just receive God’s love, but to also be willing to surrender our lives in order to fearlessly give it away.

Let us be a people who are not stressed, anxious, or worried in our present lives or at the first sign of turmoil, but rather let us be a people who put our entire hope, faith, and trust in God.

Let us be a people who do not let the light of righteousness burn out in our present lives or as the world continues to grow darker around us, but rather let us be a people with a renewed sense that we are to have a unified purpose together extending the righteousness of God in the present, even as things become increasingly complex and chaotic.

Let us be a people who are not just announcing a watered-down Good News message with our lips presently or becoming even more silent in the face of opposition, but rather let us be a people who understand fully and unequivocally the life-changing, world-altering reality of the Good News of the kingdom and let us be a people who invite everyone in the world with our words, our lives, and our all.

Let us be a people who are not easily swayed by propaganda, talking heads, political leaders, or any other thing that could lead us astray presently or as times become increasingly uncertain, but rather let us be a people resolved to know Jesus so intimately, his kingdom so thoroughly, his voice so specifically, that we could never be misguided.
And let us be a people who are not sucked into the national news headlines, the talk-show venom, the political mudslinging, the divisive rhetoric, and the cultural instigation presently or in times when it will be easier to blame and hate others, but rather let us be a people so overwhelmed and full of the love of God that we would rather give our lives than not give that love away.

Peace and love…

Brandon