Journalists say that for a story you need an idea. For a blog, you need only a thought. These essays aren’t really either, but they are more blog than story, so they generally need a thought, more than an idea. This month, this concept applies better than it does most months. I have little more than a thought, or better said, I have a bunch of thoughts, with no idea what to do with them. So I’ll share a few of them with you, and see if writing them down does any good.
Over the recent American Memorial Day weekend I spent a little time thinking of those who died in service of our country. I honor their lives and their sacrifice, and the ones they left behind. There is an almost inherent need in any society to honor that sacrifice, and the need is on a very fundamental level. We need them in much the same way our ancestors needed the heroes and heroines of mythology; they point to selflessness and give us hope that we too can be more than meets the eye.
Churches normally participate in these civic celebrations, though this year things were different with quarantine and limited services. I’m hesitant to say anything here that can be perceived as disapproval, for there is almost no more dangerous stance to be taken by an American minister than anything less than excited participation in memorials for troops or support for the military. I memorialize my uncle, who contracted lung cancer via his exposure to Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam, and left us far too soon. I support my many friends and family members who serve in various branches of the military, and do so with the highest possible integrity. But I do grow increasingly wary at each season of these types of celebrations (and yes, they are now almost seasonal, rather than annual). I’m not wary due to a lack of patriotism or community pride. I’m wary that our love of country and liberty has blurred the lines between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. I worry that we have a subtle form of American Christianity, that promotes the idea of living in the “greatest country on earth” with belonging to the Kingdom itself; that we see no difference; that we think the liberties afforded us in Christ should be (or even can be) promoted by the state; that we are living in a moral society if the church is recognized, but living in a godless one whenever we perceive a slight.
What I’m sharing are just thoughts, though rather dangerous ones. Many people will hear it and not think on it much at all. The easy response is, “You’re over thinking it pastor. People are just proud of their country.” My reply would be, so am I, but I also recognize that my country and my allegiance to my Kingdom are too different things, and I’m not sure they belong in the same place. You see, the gospel knows no boundaries; no nationalities; no languages; no creed. It works in lands of liberty and lands of tyranny. The church that it produces cannot be co-opted by a flag, a constitution, or an army. You could make a compelling argument that the church actually works better in lands of tyranny and persecution; its nearly impossible for that church to get in bed with the beast of Empire in any way.
Here’s an example: Imagine the early church pledging allegiance to the Roman Empire before they had service, or praising a recent ruling by Caesar that made things a little easier on them. Imagine they hung Roman standards from the walls of their houses of worship. Imagine they assumed that belonging to Rome meant that you were favored by God to be born in such a great place.
Now, take it a step further. Imagine the pastor of the local house church stood up to share the word for that week, and rather than sharing a story of their Messiah, King Jesus, he spread some amazing information he had heard in the market that week about an underground conspiracy that ran into the deepest parts of the leadership of Rome, and threatened the Empire as they knew it. He called out the names of leaders, businessmen, actors, entertainers, and quoted news sources. Would you be shocked? Would you be disappointed? I would.
I hope you can see what I did there. I tried to be subtle, but only a little.
Another response might be, “You aren’t comparing apples to apples. One was the Roman Empire, the other isn’t.” Fair enough. That is a fact. But if you have ever read the messages of Jesus to the Seven Churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 and thought, “Man, that sounds like the church of today,” then you too have successfully spotted the church of Jesus Christ in the shadow of Empire. Her challenge is to remain loyal, and separate, and unique; to honor the Lamb over the beast; to find her salvation in her Messiah, not in her nation.
Again, just thoughts; stuff I wrestle with. If you don’t, that’s fine, it indicates nothing more than the age-old fact that two people don’t always look at things the same way, and that is okay. In this case, I really hope I’m wrong, because then we are just fine. If I’m right, well, I don’t want to be right.
Along the same lines, here’s another thought: I think its disrespectful to what Jesus did on the cross to use verses that describe that sacrifice to help us describe our own. A popular verse to use to describe sacrifice is John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that to lay down one’s life for his friends.” We like to use that to show the largess of the sacrifices of soldiers and policemen. I do not doubt the volume of the sacrifice, and I thank God for it, but to compare it to what Jesus did for us on the cross is tantamount to blasphemy. He turned his cheek to his accusers, did not open his mouth in his own defense, swung a sword neither offensively or defensively at anyone, and did it all on behalf of others, so that they might experience the life of his Father. He didn’t go down shooting. He just went down, and then he came back. His sacrifice is incomparable. Besides, that verse is meant to describe the greatest love, not the greatest sacrifice.
Here’s another thought: I think it’s easy to tell people what to do and how to think when you are far removed from where they are. It was easy for me to share my ideas of how itinerant ministries ought to operate, while I was pastoring a local church, and it is just as easy for me, in itinerant ministry to have the local church all figured out. It was easy to tell people how to raise their kids, and then I had a couple, and it wasn’t so easy. You get the point.
It was easy for me to tell leaders how to treat their staff; how to get along. My brother was my music director when I was pastoring, and my father was my assistant. Of course we knew how to get along! Give me someone whose ideas of worship clash with my own, or an assistant that has a different take on pulpit ministry and lets see if I’m as smart.
It’s easy to tell everyone they need to find a home church and get over their hurts whenever your church is stable and your situation is good. The old way of saying it would be, “walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” The biblical way of saying it is “surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” In other words, he can speak into our situation because he has been in our situation. We go through it; he goes through it. Let’s remember that when we are telling other people how to go through it.
Well, I think that’s enough of my thoughts and musings for this month. I’ve probably said more than I should have, but it isn’t anything that hasn’t been rolling around in my head and my heart for quite some time. Once in a while, you have to let something go so you can embrace something else.
Grace to you.