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 Not So Small Things

It was one of those super frigid Indiana nights in mid-February. I hopped out of my toasty car and walked briskly into the homeless shelter for my nightly volunteer shift. Still warming up in the lobby, a young lady, who was staying at the shelter for the night, looked me up and down and whispered, “You’re fly.”

If you are not familiar with urban vernacular, it basically means, “You’re hot.”

Of course I was taken aback and somewhat embarrassed that she was so forward with me, especially since I was wearing a wedding ring and I had never met her before. But I smiled, stared at the ground to find my equilibrium, and then looked up to sheepishly whisper back, “Thank you, I guess.”

Despite my apparent awkwardness in that moment, she came back at me again, still whispering, but this time a bit more audibly, “You’re fly.”

My face, veiled behind a graying beard, turned red. Whatever chill followed me from the outside was immediately eviscerated by a growing, sweat inducing, warmth. Did someone raise the temperature in this place, I thought. Even more uncomfortably this time, I replied, “Um. Okay. Hey. Thanks.”

My eyes locked in on the floor once again. I became a child hiding behind my blanket hoping no one could see me. The floor was my blanket. If I just kept looking at it, no one would see me, right? Maybe she wouldn’t still be looking at me.

But she was. And she had one more thing to say.

It’s at this point I should tell you that it is impossible, when someone is speaking to you, to discern the difference between the words “you’re” and “your.”

I looked up one last time, and in slow motion, I saw her arm extending and her finger zeroing in on my midsection.

“Your fly.”

And this time it wasn’t a whisper.

An Arctic chill blew passed the gaping hole.

Oh no.

My fly.

I thought I was going to die.

To be honest, it was an appropriate way to end the day. Mid-afternoon I had called my work partner and asked how the day was going. She said that she had slept in and was just running some errands. She had not previously told me she was taking the day off, so I was confused by her response.

After a few silent moments, I hesitantly muttered, “What?”

To which she, a bit too eagerly responded, “I’m just enjoying our company holiday today.”

Yup. I was the only person in the entire company working on President’s Day.

Classic.

It’s amazing to me how the most insignificant, throwaway moments have the potential to become our greatest teachers and catalysts for profound life transformation.

I have been thinking about it for a couple of weeks now. And rather than discarding that day as a series of unfortunate, embarrassing events, what if these moments are gifts that can teach us and help us grow?

For me, it was the momentary realization that I had been too proud in my abilities and my self-sufficiency. I was in need of humility. And there it was, in the most unlikely places, greeting me, ready to teach me, ready to guide me into greater depths.

You may have never thought of it this way, but these small moments are gifts, if we will receive them and let them teach us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, writes that, “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.”

He is exactly right.

We pray that the world will become more peaceful. We pray that our country will become more just, equitable, and virtuous. We pray that our culture will become one that honors all life, that looks to the interest of another, and that treats all people with dignity and respect as image-bearers of God. We may even pray that God will use us to change the world.

Yet, while we pray for the big things, we forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not small) gifts. We neglect the hidden treasures throughout our day that greet us, moment by moment, and that are always there to teach us, and guide us at the soul level.

You are likely familiar with this quote from Tolstoy, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”  Or, this quote from Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or, this quote from Mother Teresa, “We can do no great things – only small things with great love.”

The truth is that the small things are the key to the big things.

In fact, that is the wisdom of Jesus, as well. He says that the Kingdom of God, or God’s in-breaking presence within our lives, is that which has the power to change the big things. It is the small seed that grows into an invasive shrub that takes over everything in its path. It is again the small seed that has the potential to move the biggest mountain. It is the small measure of yeast that causes the large batch of dough to grow and expand. When God’s loving presence is sown, it begins to take root. It grows and expands invasively through our lives and then into our relationships, our neighborhoods, our communities, our country, and our world.

For Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Jesus- to change the big things, one must first be changed.

And that has been my prayer each morning when I first open my eyes while still lying in bed and then my prayer each night as I turn off the light, “Let me be your love. Let me be your peace. Let me be your joy.”

(Even if it takes me learning how to become those things through unzipped pants)

For if my relationships are ever going to change, it begins in me.
If my family is ever going to change, it begins in me.
If my country is ever going to change, it begins in me.
If the world is ever going to change, it begins in me.

And it begins in you, too.

Peace…

Brandon

MANIFESTO for a Divided Country

Every time I go backpacking, I find myself in some of the most remote and isolated backcountry in the world.

On my most recent endeavor to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, from which I am now returning, I was more distant and separated from civilization than I have ever been in my entire life. The closest town, McCarthy, Alaska (population 45) was 50 miles from where we would be backpacking over the week and was only reachable by bush plane.

I don’t know if you have ever had a similar experience, of finding yourself literally cut of from the world- from communication, from news media, from the current geopolitical climate, from domestic unrest, from political upheaval, but it is one of the most liberating, yet terrifying experiences of my life.

In one sense, there is a sweet relief in finding solace in the stillness of the wilderness. Yet, in another sense, there is a profound unease upon reentering the “real world.”

Metaphorically, it is as if this retreat into the wild always provides a necessary cleansing or washing from the accumulated daily muck and mire and mudslinging of our culture, but then is unceremoniously followed by the ugly realization that the mudslinging continues all the while and there is a sad inevitability of having to walk back into it.

And I was told as much upon my first communication the other day when one of my friends said, “After the events of this past week, I suggest heading straight back into the wilderness.”

I seriously thought about it after taking a quick look at the news and social media.

There is a crushing agony to experiencing so much stillness and peace and serenity, but then walking back into so much antipathy, hatred, and division. 

These are certainly the times that try men’s and women’s souls, but retreat is for those who have lost hope that life can actually be better.

Retreat is for those who have lost the prophetic ability to help people imagine and begin working toward a different and better future.

Retreat is for those who have submitted to a defeated reality in which the healing, restorative, reconciling, and saving power of God through Christ has no victory.

And I want each of you to know that I will absolutely not retreat.

I have not lost hope that every single life can be better. I have not lost the prophetic ability to help others imagine and then begin working toward a different and better future. And I will never submit to a defeated reality, because I believe with every ounce of my soul, every ounce of my being, in the healing, restorative, reconciling, and saving power of God through Christ and the victory that is found there for every single individual, for every single relationship, and for every single community, across every culture, every ethnic group, every race, every orientation and lifestyle, and from every tongue, tribe, and nation.

Listen to me, our future can and will be better. 

But it seems, now more than ever, that there is a wide disparity amongst those who ought to be helping make this future better, a great divide between Christians and the Jesus we profess to follow. In fact, many who profess Jesus with their lips do not actively follow Jesus with their lives and this leaves many wondering who we are, where our allegiance lies, and for what purpose we exist.

While this should be obvious, it must be stated, that a follower of Jesus is one who has given their full allegiance and fidelity to Jesus and then one who strives moment by moment to follow the way of Jesus, in word, action, and deed.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will love God and every single human being created in the image of God with our hearts, minds, and souls. And the way this love of God manifests in our lives is, not in guilting, shaming, wounding, hurting, devaluing, standing against, or damning another, but by a willingness to sacrifice one’s self in order to demonstrate this radical love of God to another.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will affirm the God-given worth and value of every single person on the planet from the time of their conception to their final breath of life, no matter their gender, gender identity, orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, affiliation, ideology, religion, socio-economic status, citizenship status, or the sin in their life.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will stand for and will actively work as peacemakers, not just in our own lives, but on behalf of every single life, every single relationship, every single community, and every single situation in which we find ourselves.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will unambiguously and self-sacrificially stand, in solidarity and love with, by, and for every individual or group who is being marginalized, victimized, oppressed, harassed, terrorized, or threatened, no matter who the aggressor may be, no matter if it is a person or a group with whom we may have previously aligned.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will only respond to any verbal or physical antagonism, threat, or offense by another in love.  For each person, even the most violent offender has immeasurable worth and value. Even more, a life fully rooted in the radical love of God can only respond in love, therefore we will respond to every verbal and physical aggression only in love.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will work actively toward forgiveness and reconciliation, not just in our own lives, but between individuals and God, between individuals, and between people-groups, even when this means that we will likely loose standing or position from people or groups with whom we may have previously aligned, for there is no other way forward in a hostile and divided world than in forgiveness and reconciliation.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will strive for lives that emanate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control regardless of the changing conditions around us, regardless of how people, social media, the government, politicians, or the media may try to turn us against others through propaganda and misinformation. We will choose to give others the benefit of a doubt and to love them despite what is said about them, even if it means standing against those with whom we previously aligned.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we will work tirelessly to invite every single person in the world out of systems, structures, organizations, and ideologies that work to divide and build antagonism between people through words and actions, whether it be political, governmental, religious, military, corporate, economic, or ideological, and into a new reality in which love is our absolute foundation, care and compassion is the means by which we relate to one another, grace and forgiveness and reconciliation is our modus operandi, peace is our undying disposition, and unity is the fabric of our relationships and communities.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we choose a different way in this hostile and divided world.

Because right now, there is so much on the line and the world needs the saving, healing, and restorative Body of Christ now more than ever.

Because right now, the world needs those who manifest God’s radiant, self-sacrificing, other-centered love.

Because right now, the world needs those who value all life and believe each person is made in God’s image with immeasurable worth.

Because right now, the world needs those who are actively working to be ambassadors of peace among all people in every situation.

Because right now, the world needs those who are willing to go to their death by standing in love with those are stigmatized as outcasts and pushed to the edges.

Because right now, the world needs those who have taken the path of non-retaliation against hateful litanies and insults, as well as physical aggressions.

Because right now, the world needs those who are working tirelessly to bring the broken pieces back together by working toward forgiveness and reconciliation in all things.

Because right now, the world needs those who are steadfast in moment-by-moment Christ-like character, and who are not easily swayed or manipulated into being anything less than Christ-like.

And because right now, the world needs an invitation into this new, beautiful, life-giving present reality of the Kingdom of God and a people who are willing to extend the invitation.

Brothers and sisters, now more than ever, this worldwide body of Christ must resurrect and come to life, we must unite and lock together arms behind the way of Jesus.

This fractured, broken, and beaten Body of Christ must rise to new life today.

Rise, Church, Rise!

Brandon

This excerpt is from my book Beauty in the Wreckage: Finding Peace in the Age of Outrage available everywhere online.

The Kindle Version is currently $0.99 and the paperback is $10.99 on Amazon!