Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Faith, Patriotism, and Ultimate Allegiance

I have spent a good deal of time over the past year considering the proper intersection between faith and patriotism for the Christian.  Bottom line:  can a Christian also be a patriot? In other words, how much can and should a Christian love his country?

On parade with a few of my friends, March 2011
Does that sound provocative?  After all, most people would consider me very patriotic.  I've worn my country's uniform for over 26 years, and have solemnly sworn to "uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies."  I have deployed into two combat zones.  I have twice marched proudly down Constitution Avenue in our National Independence Day Parade.

On the other hand, a Christian surely has a higher allegiance!  Scripture leaves no doubt that our ultimate fidelity is owed to our Eternal King, not any temporal one.  For this reason, many evil governments throughout history have oppressed and persecuted the church, fearful of what disruption unwavering allegiance to God might bring to despotic rule.

So how does this play out?  Does my country have reason to doubt my fidelity?  Let us consider an analogy (with the usual caveat that there's no such thing as a "perfect analogy"):

In a Christian marriage, each spouse's primary devotion must be to God. If they put one another over Him, they are guilty of idolatry.  Does that make them less devoted?  In fact, exactly the opposite!  The love and fidelity I give my wife is strengthened by loving Christ first.  He both commands and empowers it, pushing it beyond where I, in my natural selfishness, would prefer to turn inward.  He thereby makes my marriage to withstand many storms and failings--both hers and my own.  By loving God first, I love my wife better.

The same principle holds true of my country.  My willingness to be America's good and trustworthy citizen, to serve her well and faithfully, and even to lay down my life in her defense, is undergirded by my belief that in doing so I obey, honor and serve God.

Now, it is true that our allegiance to God may at some point bring us into direct conflict with the government.  This has happened throughout history, even in America.  Christians must be willing to disobey our earthly rulers when they attempt to force us into disobedience to our Heavenly King--such as refusing the right to worship and make disciples as we have been commanded, as occurs in many places even today.  We may even be called to engage in civil disobedience to voice our objection to grievous wrongs, such as human slavery or (more currently) abortion.  In other words, we need to know when it is time to stand and say, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29)

On the other hand, we need to be careful and choose our battles wisely.  The church frequently loses its way when it becomes so concerned with earthly government that it forgets its primary calling.  The freedom to worship freely is not the same as demanding civil society conform to our beliefs or value them above others.  While we can and should certainly advocate and vote for godly institutions and outcomes, God has not called upon the church to expend our best energies to perfect our secular governments.  That would truly be a tall order.  In fact, the church would do well to first examine our own legion imperfections, removing the plank in our own eye.  Purifying ourselves is hard enough, and more clearly our direct responsibility.

The Apostle Paul gives us the guidelines for our understanding of worldly governments. Besides flatly calling for our obedience (Everyone must submit ... The authorities that exist have been established by God ... pay taxes ... respect ... honor.  Romans 13:1-7), he also tells us how to pray for them:  I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

So then, when we have a government which will allow us to live out our faith peaceably, we have much to be thankful for.  And remember, Paul wrote this at a time when there were no "Christian" governments on the face of the earth!  In other words, he wrote this at a time when governments were far more oppressive, corruptible, and tyrannic than most of us who live in 21st century democracies are likely to encounter.

So can a Christian be a patriot?  Absolutely ... in fact, the very best kind of patriot.  The Christian is one who believes in godly obedience to every authority He has established ... but also believes in just and right governance, and therefore is willing to take a stand to obey God rather than men when necessary!

In short, I return to my favorite musician-poet, Rich Mullins, for a healthy perspective on Christian love for & allegiance to country:

Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you'll come to love it
And how you'll never belong here
So I'll call you my country
But I'm lonely for my home
And I wish that I could take you there with me


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ambition: The Sea is Never Full

All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
-- Ecclesiastes 1:7

In early 2001 while working in the Pentagon, a man I supervised won a high-level award.  As he was giving his impromptu acceptance remarks, he made sure to give me a shout-out:  "I'd like to thank my very ambitious supervisor ..."

While his intent was complimentary (after all, I had spent a great deal of time writing him up for the award), his words bothered me.  They still bother me.  Am I an ambitious man?

If I must be honest, the answer must unequivocally be "yes", for I have always held lofty aspirations for myself.  In this I have been abetted by the military economy, in which awards and promotions are ever held out for us--a constant motivation to excel, but also a temptation to forget why excellence is important in God's economy.

Now, ambition itself is not inherently evil.  In one sense it is what gives us purpose and energy.  The Apostle Paul's "ambition to preach the gospel where Christ has not already been named" drove him to evangelize the known world.  Rather, it is the inward focus of that ambition that leads to vanity.  As Paul himself warned: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.  After all, vanity comes naturally.

A 1994 quote from Rich Mullins has stuck with me over the years.  It came from an interview in the middle of his video, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band.  It may come across as a little rambling, but that was the nature of the interview.  He was being himself ... which was very much in character:
I hope I would leave a legacy of joy, a legacy of real compassion, because i think there is great joy in real compassion. I don't think you can know joy apart from caring deeply about people, caring deeply enough about people that you actually do something. But I have a feeling--if my life is motivated by my ambition to leave a legacy, what I'll probably leave as a legacy is ambition. But if my life is motivated by the power of the spirit in me; if i live in the awareness of the indwelling Christ; if i allow His presence to guide my actions, to guide my motives, those sorts of things--that's the only time I think that we really leave a great legacy. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. My ambition to be a 'good guy' is a fleshly ambition. When Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him a lot of us think that what that means is we are supposed to lay down our vices and we are supposed to cling to virtues. But I think that unless Christ is Lord of our virtues, our virtues become dangerous to us and dangerous to the people around us. I think that when Christ calls us to take up our cross, what He means is you must die not only to whatever vices are in your life--which he will eventually kill off--you must also die to whatever virtues are in your life. Your life is not valuable because you are an articulate speaker; your life is not valuable because you are a generous person; your life is not valuable because of any of that. If we empty ourselves of everything and allow God to be present, then it's no longer us--it's Him. Then it becomes a spiritual thing, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. That's when I think Christianity really begins to make sense.
Rich Mullins lived "wide-open", as they say ... which is not to say he lived perfectly, or even above reproach.  One could almost say he seemed almost to exist right on the edges of sanity, yet was furiously devoted to Christ.  He could be shockingly honest, and I think it's fair to say he would have been a disaster in the bureaucratic environments customary to most of us.  But I have become convinced that it was this abandon that was necessary to his genius, and which led to gems like this:

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Deadly Perils of the Information Superhighway

Dead to rights!  It happened so fast.  Before I realized what I'd done, I'd done it. I watched the silly little video, allowed myself to be dazzled, and hit the "Share" button.  The next thing I knew I was moping in my car, surrounded by stern-looking, mirror-shaded Internet Police as the blue lights flashed.  I was caught.

"Sir, is this your video?"

Um.  Maybe?

I stammered, cried, and pled my case.  How was I to know?  It looked so awesome and ... so real (Evan, how could you?).  But the warning signs were clearly posted--I'd simply ignored them in my haste and enthusiasm.  I had become one of ... those people.  A dupe.  A hoax re-poster.

A speeder on the Information Superhighway.

It was an embarrassing episode, but fortunately the cops who pulled me over were plain-clothed Friends (of the Facebook variety), and I was let off with a warning.  Yet it was a clear reminder:  the Internet is a vast, virtually ungoverned space.  It's full of dazzling sights, boundless vistas, and all manner of colorful characters.
  • There are countless empty cul-de-sacs and dead ends, which you likely won't discover until you've wandered miles out of your way.
  • There are off-ramps into some very seedy neighborhoods, from which it is very hard to escape with your heart, mind, or soul intact.  
  • There are expensive rest stops with smooth-talking, money-grabbing merchants selling all manner of wares, most of which you don't need.  But now that you see them ... and, what a deal!
  • There are slick-looking charlatans in shiny sports cars, ready to entice you into following them onto their particular political, cultural, philosophical or theological "express" lane, which leads ... who knows where?
  • There are highway bandits who look for all the world like "normal" travelers, until they somehow manage to pick your lock and speed away with all your treasure.
  • There are chaotic social-media parking lots crammed with humanity from every walk of life.  Many are out in public unwashed and unshaven, wearing their pajamas and curlers.  They're not on their best behavior.  They don't seem to realize that everyone's gawking at them, and that the hidden cameras are recording every loud fart and nose-pick.  Careful, you might be one of them.
  • There are crazies full of road-rage--screaming jerks inviting you to join them in hurling invective to no good purpose--that is, until you "feel better".
  • Probably most insidious, there are long and winding roads going nowhere at all, on which it is possible to meander for hours ... weeks ... yes, even years ... until you finally stop and wonder where all the time went.
Please be careful out there.  There are far, far worse fates than getting caught speeding.

Look carefully then how you drive, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the roads are evil. (Ephesians 5:15-16, ESV ... slightly adapted to fit the theme)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

How the Church Can Save the Country: Exalt Christ, Make Disciples

Those who watched this space during election season know I was critical of the church's propensity to become preoccupied with issues and activities that are not central to its chief mission and calling.  I have recently been contemplating a picture which has been growing in my thoughts, and which I have attempted to construct above.  Keeping in mind that there is no such thing as a "perfect analogy", the key thoughts I have tried to represent are as follows.

The public culture is only as healthy as its overall spiritual condition allows. The culture is fed by its dominant beliefs, values and ethics.

Our public institutions are the most visible manifestations of the culture. They are often dazzling and give the illusion of permanence, but are in fact quite brittle and change with the weather.

The church’s primary public responsibility is to exalt Christ; to clearly, lovingly and boldly represent Christ in word and deed; and to make and grow disciples of Christ.

  • When healthy, the church nourishes the culture by faithfully performing this mission. When unhealthy, the church merely reflects the dominant culture, providing limited nourishment.
  • When unfocused, the church gets caught up in trying to recolor the leaves, rather than addressing the underlying spiritual condition by remaining faithful to our Lord and concentrating on our primary mission.
This is intended to provoke thought and discussion, so please ... think and discuss!

UPDATE:  Please also visit Petra's observations on this post over at TGS as she also wrestles with this issue.  Let me just add by way of clarification:  I don't believe the church's chief mission is to change the public culture.  The point of the above is that much of the church gets carried away with chasing this idea ("coloring the leaves").  Still, I do believe that the culture may be changed for the good as a natural by-product of the church carrying out its primary purpose, as stated above:  to exalt, faithfully represent & make/grow disciples of Christ.  After all, when there is more salt, and that salt has not lost its saltiness, it cannot fail to flavor the earth (Matthew 5:13).

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

JailerQuest 2013 Update!

It's Day 1 of JailerQuest 2013!  Begin the YouVersion Blended Plan today!

So far I know of 10 people who've signed up to read through the Bible this year with us in JailerQuest 2013.  I'm glad to have the company of great people to keep me honest and motivated.  From my experience, this interaction is the key to seeing the project through.  However, I've noticed the YouVersion web site is a little less robust than I'd hoped, plus a little buggy.  If you're able, please follow the instructions on my previous post to join our YouVersion group, but I don't know if we'll be able to count on it to give us the kind of group dynamic I'd hoped for.

Therefore, I've set up a second interaction opportunity on Facebook:  an open group called, not surprisingly, JailerQuest 2013, which can be found here.  If you're on Facebook and want to join in the project, please join this group (I've already added those I have been able to find on Facebook).