Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Political Church II: "These Folks Couldn't Win a High School Student Body Race"

Location: Bagram Airfield, Bagram, Afghanistan
Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin is unhappy with those of my ilk.  Generally conservative and very astute in her political observations, Rubin has noticed that Christians can be very unwieldy political allies, except ... well, her lament is rather more colorful:
Christian conservatives are very bad at politics. The left imagines that these people have the GOP on a short leash and are wily operators wielding influence with the best of them. The left tells us the Romney-Ryan ticket is in their grasp. Nonsense. These folks couldn’t win a high school student body race.
Rubin puts forward as Exhibit A the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary, in which social conservatives failed to unite around a candidate until it was too late to change the outcome. Exhibit B, naturally, is Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who swallowed his foot up to his kneecap last week when he advanced the weird and repugnant theory that raped women somehow don't conceive children.  Akin had only just barely emerged victorious from his primary race on the strength of his socially conservative views.

So is Rubin right?  On one hand, I don't disagree with the her notion that Christians can be politically maladroit. But here's the thing ... I think I'm okay with that. Frankly, I'm not sure I like what happens to the church whenever we really get our political act together.

Now please don't misunderstand me--I actually watch politics quite closely. I am happy when my candidates win their elections, and I recognize that one needs to be both shrewd and principled to win and be effective in office. However, Rubin and I appear to have different bottom-line values, as she demonstrates in her complaint:

In behaving as they do, social conservative “leaders” are often afraid of their own members, or the leaders might be horribly naive themselves. But at moments where common sense and sure-footed leadership is needed, social conservative leaders come across as amateurs. It’s a shame, because they diminish their own relevance and hurt their cause ... If social conservative leaders want to maintain their influence and advance their cause, they better learn how to play politics.
This has the appearance of wisdom, but only if you believe politics to be of paramount importance.  I do not, and the church must not.  Politics can be dangerously seductive and corrosive for the church.  In fact, our own relevance is diminished not when we fail to "learn how to play politics", but when we abandon the work of Christ and deny the power of the gospel, in order to chase after the siren song of secular solutions.  As I pointed out when I first wrote about this in 2009:
... I think that politics can offer a false hope to Christians, that such-and-such a leader will offer deliverance and rescue our spiritual ambitions. Scripture and history also teach us that we are not to trust in princes, and that our citizenship is in heaven.
A Christian's first duty is to glorify God.  A Christian's first mission is to be salt and light in the world, proclaiming the gospel to all creation.  Perhaps if we spent more time on these things, some of the other things would take care of themselves.  Perhaps, in the Providence of God, our faithful labors in His mission field would yield a harvest, and our spiritually revived countrymen might then see fit to place godly people into high office, who would then do what godly people do--acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly would be a nice start.

Regardless, our God-given mission is not to outpoint the secular humanists on the political playing field.  Jesus didn't come into the world merely to reform Jerusalem's government (praise God!), and the Apostle Paul didn't go to Rome to run for office.  Political outcomes are, in the final analysis, a mere reflection of the culture we live in.  That culture has been drifting away from Christ for decades, if not longer.  We will not win it back by putting "our guy" in the White House, getting our legislative agenda through Congress, or getting the right Supreme Court justices appointed.

Look, I like politics.  I am ideologically attuned.  I would like my country to spend less, promote freedom and responsibility, value life and the nuclear family, and have a strong national defense, among other things.  These are important to me, and I believe they would serve the country I love and serve very well.

They're just so much less important than Jennifer Rubin thinks they are.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Norty Schwartz: "I Stood Tight with You to the End"

General Norton Schwartz, Nineteenth Chief of Staff of of the United States Air Force, retired yesterday.  I was not present, but was able to watch the events live in Afghanistan on The Pentagon Channel. 

Still, I will say that during my two years as Commander of the United States Air Force Honor Guard, "Norty" and I shared some good times together.  Or at least some very interesting ones.

Certainly there were some high-profile events, such as the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for Senator Ted Stevens (who flew in the US Army Air Forces during WWII), and the big CONJEFAMER "Tattoo" of 2010.  There were a number of foreign Air Chief arrival ceremonies and various general officer retirements.

The most memorable for me, however, was one that attracted very few spectators and no cameras.  It was a funeral for a retired Air Force 4-star general on a hot summer afternoon in 2010.  It was a very simple full-honors ceremony, meaning that we had the Air Force Band and Honor Guard formations, but no chapel service and no flyovers.  Just a transfer to the caisson and a quick march to a nearby gravesite. 

And a fast-moving thunderstorm.

It's the officer-in-charge's job to make the weather call before a funeral.  Though I could see the storm on the horizon, looking at the circumstances I judged we should be able to get through with the ceremony before it hit.  So we pressed ahead ... full honors, no raincoats.

Did I mention it was a very fast-moving thunderstorm?

As the procession moved down toward gravesite, I could sense the storm bearing down on us with alarming switfness.  At this point the die was cast, however.  There was nothing more to be done. I followed the casket from the caisson to gravesite, took up my post at the foot of the casket.  I found myself staring up along the American flag held at at "tabletop" over the casket, with General Schwartz staring back at me at the head.  The chaplain moved through his remarks as quickly as dignity allowed, as we all grew increasingly aware of the crack of the thunder and the lightning flashing above us. 

The Firing Party performed three perfect volleys.  The bugler played Taps.  Then I heard the band marching off as the thunder rolled and the winds picked up.

General Schwartz didn't flinch.  Neither did the Honor Guard.   The Body Bearers conducted a perfect flag fold and passed it to the Chief of Staff, who knelt and handed it to the next of kin while we waited ... motionless.  The wind began to howl and the first raindrops appeared.  The Arlington Lady spoke a few soothing words to the family.  Finally, the ceremony was concluded.  I called "Bearers, post!"

Within seconds after we began our march-off, the storm crashed violently in on us.  The party at gravesite scattered to their waiting vehicles, as we marched toward our buses.  Hats flew in the shockingly sudden hurricane-force wind gusts, but in typical Honor Guard fashion the formation held together.  We were almost instantly deluged as the rain came down in buckets.  Fortunately, it was the last funeral of the day, and we drove the soggy troops back to base.

It was, in a word, epic.  But the story didn't quite end there.

The next day featured a large general-officer retirement ceremony, in which the Chief of Staff was in attendance.  After the ceremony wrapped up, I walked outside for our "hotwash" (after-action review).  When I arrived I learned that General Schwartz had already been there to give out his attaboys for the just-completed ceremony.  But what all the Airmen remembered was when he asked who had been at the storm-drenched funeral the day before.  When the hands went up, he said, "I stood tight with you to the end!"

Godspeed, sir.
2010 CONJEFAMER Tattoo on the Ceremonial Lawn.  General Schwartz is in the center saluting the colors next to
Maj Gen Altuna (Dominican Republic).  I'm in the left foreground with my back to the camera.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

For Thou Shalt Heap Coals of Fire upon his Head: Chik-fil-A Edition

Three years ago I told a story about how I had once observed the truth of Proverbs 25:21-22 in my own life as a young Airman stationed in the Philippines.  This is the wisdom from Scripture that instructs us:
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:
For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.
My story (which you can find here) was humorous, but in the past few days, a viral YouTube video has told the story much more eloquenty than I ever could.  I mean, here's a person who literally gives her "enemy" water to drink ... in an extra-large Chik-fil-A cup with a straw!  Thus unfolds a remarkable testimony:

Joe Carter from The Gospel Coalition explains why all this matters to the church:
I don't know if, Rachel, the young woman in the video, is a Christian, but her response provides a helpful model for believers. Caught off guard in an uncomfortable and demeaning situation, she responds with civility and gentleness, expressing a desire to serve others. There's a time to respond with arguments and persuasion and there are times when all that you can do is respond with kindness. Rachel has obviously developed the type of character that would allow her to quickly realize what response was needed.
"A soft answer turns away wrath," Proverbs says, "but a harsh word stirs up anger." I don't think that was the lesson Smith thought would come from his experience at the drive-thru, but it's one that we can all learn from.
The great Battle of Chik-fil-A of 2012 has become the signature event in the American Culture Wars in which the church finds itself embroiled, often with many "harsh words" that stir up anger--though I don't include the thousands who peacefully and happily went to eat chicken last Wednesday on the so-called Chik-fil-A Appreciation Day in this category. 

Even so, I have avoided commenting much on this, because I find these sideshows draining and distracting from the church's primary goal of being pure and faithful ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I don't consider the deterioration of our American culture to be unimportant ... just far less important than the deterioration of the church's culture and our need to be salt and light to the lost and dying.  As I shared with a young believer earlier this week:
I agree that Jesus was clearly more interested in purifying the community of believers (what we now call the church) than he was in purifying the surrounding society. The #1 problem homosexuals face is the #1 problem heterosexuals face: they need to repent, believe in Jesus, and be redeemed unto salvation. If we were successful in making all the gays "straight" we would not have succeeded in solving their core problem--their need to know Christ. 
Rachel's response should challenge and encourage Christians for the simple reason that our responses to the world's iniquities need to look a lot like hers:  gentle, loving, and humble service.  I'm sure she didn't go to work that day to become famous.  Rather, she showed remarkable personal qualities in a stressful situation without any warning.  She heaped gave her enemy water to drink, and thus heaped burning coals upon his head.

Well done, Rachel.

Get a Grip on God's Grace, Part 5: The People of God

Location: Bagram Airfield, Bagram, Afghanistan
Previous installment - Part 4: Works of Service
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Corinthians 12:21)
The temptation to treat faith a "a private matter" is especially strong and pervasive in the American church, as we are a society built on rugged individualism and personal responsibility.  There is much to be said for those qualities, but they are certainly not the principle upon which God has built His church.  The lone-wolf Christian is a clearly unbiblical concept and a total loser as a strategy.  Spiritual isolation is a sinful and self-destructive habit and robs the church of the strength and agility God specifically designed for it.  This is why the pinky finger in this five-part illustration represents the people of God.

Returning once again to King Josiah, we find that his reforms succeeded in part because of the way he organized his people to use the gifts and talents God had strategically placed for their mutual benefit:
They went to Hilkiah the high priest and gave him the money that had been brought into the temple of God, which the Levites who were the gatekeepers had collected from the people of Manasseh, Ephraim and the entire remnant of Israel and from all the people of Judah and Benjamin and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Then they entrusted it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the Lord’s temple. These men paid the workers who repaired and restored the temple. They also gave money to the carpenters and builders to purchase dressed stone, and timber for joists and beams for the buildings that the kings of Judah had allowed to fall into ruin. The workers labored faithfully. Over them to direct them were Jahath and Obadiah, Levites descended from Merari, and Zechariah and Meshullam, descended from Kohath. The Levites-—all who were skilled in playing musical instruments--had charge of the laborers and supervised all the workers from job to job. Some of the Levites were secretaries, scribes and gatekeepers. (2 Chronicles 34:9-13)
God's people in the land of Judah had languished for decades, neglecting and rebelling against God's commands.  Yet we find that reform and renewal remained possible with faithful leadership and the wholesale devotion of His people.  We see leaders, administrators, skilled craftsmen and strong laborers all working together and with a unity of purpose.  Some accepted jobs outside their most obvious gifts (such as the musicians working as supervisors), because this was the work in front of them and it needed to be done.  We see money contributed and brought in from across the land ... money that God entrusted to the stewardship of individuals, expecting that they would be open-handed when the time came that He would require it.  This is God's people coming together under the faithful King Josiah and finding God's strength in God's community.

Don't read anything into the relative size of this final digit!  Ever try getting a strong grip without a pinky?  Rather, all the other elements of the Christian life interact with this crucial one.  God's Spirit is promised and present when "two or three gather" in God's name.  The Word of God is preached and taught by those He has gifted for that service.  Worship is clearly set forth as a primary objective for the church's gatherings.  Our labors for God are performed largely with and for God's people.

What's more, King Josiah recognized the urgency of coming together, for disaster lay at Judah's doorstep.  The days were treacherous.  The erstwhile Kingdom of Israel to the north had long since fallen to foreign invaders due to its own rebellion, and Judah was sliding into the same pit.  The need to assemble, rededicate, and labor on God's behalf was clear.

This need is less keenly felt in our churches today, but it is just as important as it was in the days of Josiah, as the Scripture makes clear:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end ... And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 3:12-14, 10:24-25)
The enemy we face is not a foreign king outside the walls, but Satan ... a roaring lion who hates God's people and seeks our piecemeal destruction.  He has at his disposal an ally, planted on the inside, called "sin's deceitfulness".  Neither the stranded sheep nor the lone wolves are safe from his wicked schemes, and if he can encourage more fools to isolate themselves and peel off, so much the worse for them and for the weakened body!  The tools he uses today are his familiar lies and half-truths: "The church is irrelevant and full of hypocrites"; "Religion is a private matter"; "I'm too busy"; "I'm not being 'fed'" ... you've heard them before.  You've probably fallen into a few of them yourself!  I know I have.

They all amount to weak excuses for sin.  God's command could not be clearer.  He express intent and command is for us to live as one body.  We are vitally connected--encouraging and spurring one another on toward love and good deeds ... daily!

Dear Christian, may you continue to strengthen your grip through wholehearted reliance on God's Holy Spirit; faithful instruction in His Word; sincere, reverent and regular worship; diligence in the works He has assigned you; and loving encouragement from His people ... and all the more as you see the Day approaching.