Friday, December 28, 2007

The Dilemma of Christian Citizenship

As I, like you, watch Pakistan crumble, I pray for them and silently give thanks for the democratic tradition of our own country. We don't suffer from coups. We don't watch our political representatives come to blows on TV. Yes, we've got our problems, but I'll take our problems any day.

That said, I think we Christians face a serious dilemma. There is plenty of pious talk about the power and importance of faithful Christian witness within government, but how do we do it? How are we doing? We have at least three presidential candidates all being questioned about the extent to which their religious convictions affect their politics. And there's a certain amount of gaming going on. What does it look like to the world when we Christians carry on this way? More importantly, what does God think?

In the second chapter of Ephesians, we read these words: "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one...that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two..." (Eph. 2:14-15, NRSV). There is something special going on in the Ephesian church. The power of God is being demonstrated in what would have been a pretty hostile Ephesian environment. That power has been made manifest in the formation of a new people. In other words, against the odds God is doing something politically unprecedented. In Christ, people who are hostile toward each other are becoming fellow-citizens.

A new people. Christ empowers us to be something different; to embody the realities of God's kingdom; to provide a world-changing witness. This is our mission. The way we live matters to the world. It isn't just what we profess about Jesus as Lord that counts. In Christ we are new creatures. In Christ, the world which is still to come has come. Christ's followers embody that new creation world. It absolutely must show in the way we live.

So, what happens when we American Christians slip into the way of all flesh by succubming to the political game? What happens to the world - far beyond the church - when we Christians live like the rest of the world in politics? In government? What happens to the world when they can't tell any difference between the way Christians behave politically and the way the rest of the world behaves?

For starters, let's be willing to tell the truth about ourselves. This means that "spin" is really lying. I'm one of nine people in our (United Methodist) jurisdiction, "running" for bishop. We all want to remain Christian throughout the process even though we know it's a political one. To do so, I must tell the truth about myself. I must not fudge on the facts. I must not inflate my accomplishments, even slightly, in order to position myself strategically. I must err to the side of truth and avoid exaggeration.

Likewise, I must always remember and demonstrate my conviction that all the episcopal candidates are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are of the same Body, fellow citizens of God's reign. I must trust God and the church to arrive at the right conclusions. When it is all said and done, the integrity of Christ's Body and the mission of the church are far more important than whether or not I get elected bishop.

Ecclesial politics are not world politics. The stakes are higher by magnitudes for people running for offices such as the presidency. Nonetheless, for Christians, there are still boundaries - ecclesial or worldly - that we must not cross. Yet we do, to our shame. When we do, we need to humble ourselves and repent. True repentance itself is a witness to the power of God to change lives. When we make excuses for ourselves, we lose the chance to make a powerful witness.

I am bothered when Christians cross this line at any level. We use the rhetoric of responsible citizenship, but employ the tactics of political gamesmanship. Worse, to put it lamely, God is bothered. The Bible is replete with prophetic criticisms of what we jadedly accept as "inevitable" compromises.

Christian citizenship means ultimately believing in God's providential guidance, no matter how disappointed or elated I may be with the outcome of any political process. I know that this value seems naive, but it really matters.

So, Christian candidates of all kinds and levels: run enthusiastically. Run vigorously. Run honestly. Run humbly. But remember the larger realities at play. At the end of the day, we will be judged by the Righteous Judge. Please, Christian friends and colleagues, keep me honest. And God give me the grace, when I err, to repent and return to the way of Jesus. Most of all, may the Church in every place offer a living witness like the Ephesian church. To the extent we are able, may we be responsible citizens of the world. But when push comes to shove, may we be found clearly identifying ourselves as citizens of God's kingdom.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Politics, Cable News and Learning How to Witness

Mitt Romney the Mormon. Mike Huckabee the Southern Baptist. Barack Obama the United Church of Christ with Muslim relatives. Do people really care that much about religion? Hardly.

The media should be ashamed of themselves ("media" is still plural for "medium," which even people in the media seem largely to have forgotten) for all the hoopla over the religious commitments of political candidates. If you notice, there is precious little of their actual commitments made known by the media. The references are mostly a way of categorizing people, which then prompts the stereotypes: "If Huckabee's a Baptist, will he try to make everyone Christian?" "Is Romney as wacky as those alleged co-religionist polygamists making the news?" "Is Obama really a Muslim just pretending to be a Christian?" And playing on stereotypes is a way to get people riled, which means more people watching the program. Gosh, poor Hillary is starting to look boring!

And that's the point. Nothing is worse for cable news networks than becoming boring. I know that I'm far from the first to say it, but because of the 24 hour cycle, TV news has been reduced to melodrama. It is a clownish, cartoonish, caricature of actual news. Even with the better programs we get little. It's mostly speculation. Journalists may be close to the action in Washington, but they're still outsiders trying to get a glimpse of what's going on on the inside - in the policy meetings where actual decisions are made.

I know: we're not going to change the way the news media work. They are mostly huge business conglomerates who must make a profit. But I hope we Christians can learn how not to fall prey to believing the garbage. We all have our political leanings, but we could make a powerful witness by not participating in the allegations and innuendo that make up 90% of what passes for news.

Even more importantly, I pray we don't ape their tactics. I fear we sometimes do. The church is not guided by the profit motive (are we?) and our mission is about redemption and reconciliation, not controversy and "gotcha.'" Jesus told his disciples not to engage in empty oath-taking or swearing by. "Let your word be 'Yes, Yes,' or 'No, No;' anything more than this comes from the evil one," (Mt. 5:37). If ever there was a time for Christians to practice rigorous honesty with ourselves, the time is now.

And on that note, I'm thankful for groups such as the United Methodist News Service and others like it, who maintain a level of even-handedness that I wish we found on the evening news. There are venues for church-related opinion-making, even bloviating (after all, what are blogs for?). However, in the season when we are thinking about the Prince of Peace, may we be especially careful to be truthful to ourselves and charitable to our opponents - in every possible way, including politics.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


American Christianity needs a wake-up call and some new books are giving it. For example, find a copy of David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' book, UnChristian: What a new Generation Thinks about Christianity...and Why It Matters (and settle in for an old-fashioned trip to the ecclesial woodshed). It comes from research done among 16-29 year olds by the Barna Group, for which Kinnaman is the president. Each chapter but the last deals with a particular criticism leveled against the church. Here's a sample: "judgmental" (no surprise), "antihomosexual," "hypocritical," and "too political." Maybe the most damning of the chapters is, "Get Saved!" (yes, the exclamation point is actually in the chapter title). It shows how we have reduced the Christian faith to a momentary and often fleeting decision associated with an evangelistic invitation. It gives young people the feeling that they're just notches on our spiritual gunbelts; not really friends or even people, just projects.

Possibly the most important factor in this book is the make-up of those who responded to the questions. They are not the "never trieds" who have had no contact with the church. On the contrary, they have been in our youth groups and our worship services. They know us firsthand. They have actually experienced the judgmentalism and hypocrisy that they name. They really gave Christianity a serious trial-run...and we failed them. The trend among young people, according to this book, is to become more suspicious and distant from organized Christianity.

Since I work on a college campus, I spend a lot of time with young people. Even among the committed Christians, there is a level of frustration with organized Christianity that I don't think I've seen since maybe I was a college student. We Boomers thought we were changing the world, but instead we became part of the system. We therefore have some work to do. For starters, we need to humble ourselves and listen - even if (especially if) what we hear from young people is harsh and strident. Second, we must move over and let young people grab the controls. I don't mean completely. I'm not calling for absolution of responsiblity. Rather, we need to stand beside and work with young people as we share leadership with them. I'm talking about real change and all change is difficult, even when it is desired.

Truthfully, we need not worry about young people leading the church. Many of the great historic movements of the Spirit have come through the leadership of young people. For you United- and other Methodists, Francis Asbury was 26 years old when he came to America as a missionary and was 39 (maybe 40) when he became a bishop! Modern Protestant missions can be attributed to the leadership of young people. Have you ever heard of the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1810? What eventually became the World Council of Churches grew out of several movements that can be traced back to Dwight Moody's gathering university students at his Mt. Hermon center in 1887.

I work in a so-called mainline denomination. I'm 53 years old and still considered one of the young ones in the ministry. It's spooky. Half of our clergy will reach retirement age within the next ten years. We can change the way we relate to young people. We must change. They're going to lead somewhere and we don't want to miss it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Church Leader's Job

Here's a thought that should terrorize every person who calls himself or herself a minister. Saint Augustine, toward the end of his Confessions, says, "To all officers of your ministry, who are necessary for perfecting the fathful in this life, you willed that by those same faithful, works fruitful for the life to come should be offered for their temporal usage," (Book 13, ch. 34).

Like Glenn Beck, here's what I think I know:
1. The "officers of the church" (pastors and other such leaders) are the instrumental cause for the perfecting (maturing) of church members. God has ordained that pastors and teachers are the means of growth for the church. If we don't do our jobs, the church doesn't grow, i.e. Christians don't grow.
2. The "faithful" (Christians, the church) are the instrumental cause of good works that produce eternal life. They are offered to the world for the sake of the world's salvation. If the church doesn't do its job, the world goes hungry.
3. If pastors and other leaders don't do their job, the church can't do its job. The result is not a happy one for the world.

In case someone may think I'm slipping into "works righteousness," (i.e. that we earn our salvation by good works), you need not waste time going down that path. My line of thinking does not at all call into question God's grace for our salvation. It does, on the other hand, make me think that the church - at least most of what we call the church in the United States - is doing a cruddy job.

I've been thinking recently about the connection between my personal spiritual growth and the calling of Jesus to serve the neighbor. Most of the time when we focus on spiritual growth and the relevant practices (i.e. Bible reading, prayer, fasting, worship), we don't connect it to other people. The closest we get is some notion of accountability; that is, I recognize I need other believers to help me grow.

More importantly, we Christians need to grow toward maturity for other people. Our spiritual life is not our own. It's for the other.

When I start to think of how self-absorbed most of our church activity is, I am embarrassed. I am a "religious leader," an "officer of the ministry" as Augustine put it. What am I doing to help the church do its job? If you're in ministry, what are you doing? Honestly, how much of your time is spent in activity that aims at blessing, healing, growing the other? I'm asking myself this question more and more.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Religion and Science: Friends or Enemies?

I just read a book by the guy who directs the Human Genome Project. Francis Collins is a scientist of the highest order and he's been working on one of the biggest and most important projects the world has seen in awhile. He has been a major player in mapping our DNA, which is encoded with somewhere around 3 billion bits of information. That's amazing.

Collins is also a very dedicated and transparent Christian. He's a biologist--and a Christian. For some people, these two terms in the same sentence mean conflict. It's like pushing the positive (or negative) poles of a magnet together. It just won't happen. Collins disagrees. His book, The Language of God tells the story of his own journey from atheism to Christianity. He also wants Christians to stop fighting non-Christians (or other Christians) over evolution. He argues that evolution is, so to speak, the language of God for creating life. More importantly, science and religion really are partners in the revelation of truth. As he puts it in the conclusion, "The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic."

I know this kind of language is troubling to some people. Atheists probably don't like it any better than Christians who are convinced that evolution is false - a lie from the Devil. Still, I recommend the book. Collins is a very clear writer. If you want a peek at the science of the genome project, he does a great job of describing it to people who, like myself, can only speak the ABC's of science. He also shares his personal story without a lot of "drama." It's just real. And it's compelling.

The book reminds me that Christians ought to take the lead in asking hard questions and facing them honestly, especially about science and religion. These two fields of knowledge are not mortal enemies. God is big--and powerful. He doesn't really need me to protect his reputation from the relatively few people who are convinced that science disproves Christianity. But I certainly need God to guide me to truth. And I need people like Francis Collins--as God's instrument-- to show me the better way.