Xanax, Please

Trust

Gentle Reader,

The United States is engulfed in a collective panic attack, leaving few, if any, members of the population untouched. Hearts racing, fists clenched, eyes darting to-and-fro, sweat pouring down our faces, the awful sense of dread and death. We consume the news (that changes every minute), wondering if we’ll ever be able to keep up with or figure out what is going on. What is this place? Who are these people?

In our anxiety, we allow our desires greater freedom. Not the desires we usually think of – food, sex, shopping, sleep – although they are certainly tempting coping mechanisms. Instead, we indulge in the desire to label. To draw lines. To cast others as the villains of the story. To rationalize, justify and defend our preferences, to the death if need be, even if those preferences are wildly out of line with the ethics and worldview laid out in Scripture.

I am not immune. For over two years I have been swept up in the political chaos. Burned in the dumpster fire. Politics has always interested me; all the movements, personalities and philosophies are part of history, the studying of which is second only to theology in my list of passions. I can still remember the “I’m Just a Bill” song from School House Rock. I once asked a teacher how Thomas Jefferson could write “all men are created equal” when he owned slaves. Theodore Roosevelt (who, yes, was problematic in some areas; I get it) became my favorite president in high school and I love him still for his trust-busting and his desire to preserve and protect nature. I have never, ever understood “strategic voting” or “straight ticket” or party loyalty in general, choosing instead to remain staunchly unaffiliated and doing my best to vote for the best person for each job, which I freely, honestly confess to you tonight has resulted at times in a sense of smugness. Why can’t everyone just be smart like me?

See? We’re all in this together.

It’s all fascinating. The debates, the processes, the great speeches. But this interest has become a sickness. I see it in myself. I see it in everyone else, even those who really do try to steer clear of the swift and churning currents. In this hyper-connected age, our suspicions and tensions are inevitably heightened, the fires of fear stoked by Executive and Congressional branches that want…power.

All of them, even the best of them, are dazzled by the allure of authority. Those who sit in seats of command may begin their careers from a place of service to the country, but few remain in that place for long. When Senator Lindsey Graham thunders, “All you want is power and I hope you never get it!,” he condemns himself along with all the rest, for the clear meaning in his words is: “We, my party, my people – me, myself, I – deserve that power.”

This isn’t new. Skim a history book. George Washington warned against the formation of political parties and believed that the president should stay above partisanship – he’s the only one. As soon as he was gone, the bitterness began. Seriously; John Adams, second president, was generally hated, especially in the Southern states, and served only one term. Andrew Jackson, seventh president, planted the seeds of modern campaigning in 1828, complete with negative advertisements and fake news. Down the timeline we roll, past inspiringly great and truly awful politicians, through great national moments and genuinely depressing ones, until we arrive here, now, in the Age of Nasty.

This is part of our DNA as both people living in the United States and people warped by sin. We fight because, well, that’s literally how the country came into being and we fight because that’s what we’ve been doing since Cain murdered Abel. We want to be on the winning side, with the ones in charge, because that’s how and where we believe we will find fulfillment, peace and safety.

Dominance, at all costs.

That is the way of the world, the hazy society that chooses to turn away form God.

For the Children of God, this should not be so.

This cannot be the way we operate. That hazy society looks at us right now and scoffs, telling us that we are no better than they are. And they aren’t wrong. They really aren’t.

What do we do?

I don’t think we can answer that question until we sit and face reality for a good, long while. We’ve all heard that the first step in conquering a problem is admitting that there is a problem in the first place. Tonight, let’s admit that. We have a problem. We have placed our trust in something and someones other than God. Pause and ponder the confession. Feel its weight.

Then meditate upon these words:

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
But we will remember the name of the LORD our God.

– Psalm 20:7 (NKJV)

We’re going on a journey, you and me.

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Brothers and sisters who do not live in the United States: Please, go on this journey with us. I know that you are not in the thick of this situation, but we need you. We need your prayers and we need your outsider’s perspective. We need you to remind us that we who have been redeemed by Jesus are part of a global community, brought together by His blood and grace.

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And so the Balance Shifts

Rage

Gentle Reader,

What better way to come back from an unscheduled hiatus than with something that will press the hot button of the day?

#thatshowIroll

The title of this post is taken from “Guns and Ships,” a first-act song from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award winning Hamilton. The Marquis de Lafayette has just returned from France with money and materials necessary for the very rag-tag Continental forces to engage in (what would be) the climactic battle of the American War of Independence. The balance, the characters sing, has shifted in their favor. A greater arsenal must equal victory.

That idea was imprinted upon the psyche of a young, new nation. We have yet to shake it – to our detriment.

It’s not about political parties. It’s not about philosophies regarding the role and function of government. It’s not about what the Second Amendment does or doesn’t mean.

It’s about us operating out of fear and anger.

I have to protect myself. Nothing and nobody is going to get me. They can’t tell me what to do. I know best. This world is scary.

I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t own a gun. While I don’t see the sense in it, I recognize that people have to make that choice on their own. Gun ownership is an issue over which reasonable people can disagree. I am here to implore you to take a step back and consider the frantic rhetoric that crackles through the air – especially if you claim the title “Christian.”

See, I know what it is to wake up and immediately be on the defensive. As soon as my eyes open, my mind begins to wonder what dangers await in the coming hours and attempts to devise plans to keep me safe. When my feet hit the floor, the sense of unease, connected to everything and nothing, pulses through my body. Therapists call this Generalized Anxiety Disorder and there’s nothing rational about it. Of course we must eschew recklessness and keep ourselves safe, i.e. you don’t pick up a rattlesnake for funsies, but there’s a difference between living within logical boundaries and paranoia.

Over the last couple of years I have watched my fellow countrypeople move toward paranoia. Neighbors aren’t simply neighbors anymore; they are potential enemies. Some find it impossible to be in relationship with those who may vote for a different candidate. Everyone is suspicious. Everything is a conspiracy.

Groups like the National Rifle Association fan the spark of fear into full-fledged flames of idiotic anger. Advertisements paint a picture of near civil war, with the “liberals,” whoever they are, out to “take your guns” or “trample your rights.” Their picture appears to be legitimized when some, perhaps well-meaning, perhaps not, call for a ban on all weapons, believing that the Constitution is more flexible than it is. Meanwhile kids get shot at school and cry out, begging the adults in charge to do something, but their voices are drowned out by the sound of large donations spilling into campaign coffers.

Nothing changes.

Fear and anger grow.

We who say we follow Christ have to get off this crazy train. How can we possibly go out into the world and preach the Good News, as we are commanded to do, if we see everyone around us in terms of friend or foe? If we are obsessed with being “right” in political, temporal terms? If we won’t learn how to listen to those with whom we disagree?

Paul tells us in the famous “Armor of God” passage (Ephesians 6:10-20) to put on the shoes of peace. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are meant to leave footprints of grace. While none of us is perfect, those whom we encounter should have at least some sense of us being different. That there’s something about us at marked contrast with the world at large. More than the things we oppose, more than the things we don’t do. When we come into a room, others should sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.

This is not something we manufacture. This comes about by daily, momently, submitting to His lead. Fact is, He doesn’t lead us to territorialism, tribalism, politicism, or any other -ism you can think of. He doesn’t goad us to anxiety and rage. He doesn’t teach us to see people as obstacles or enemies. The Holy Spirit is the fresh, clean, cool air that untangles the knots in our souls and expands our hearts to love as He does.

This past Sunday my pastor preached on hospitality and how it is so much more than having a nice meal with friends or family. At its root, hospitality is the love of stranger, the willingness to open doors and arms to those who are different – which is exactly what Jesus did.

We have to recognize and accept the role we have played in both creating and furthering divisions in this country. I am under no delusion of utopia. This, right now, is not Eternity. Nothing is as it should be. I am, however, under a strong sense of conviction. We – I – cannot waste time building fortresses, living in echo chambers or believing the lie that one man-made, man-led political party is more “godly” than the other. The world watches us in our pursuit of power and they don’t like what they see.

We can’t blame them for that.

Let’s decide, you and me, today, to remember that people are people. We don’t have to be afraid of or scorn someone because they vote differently, believe differently, dress differently, etc. God loves people, wherever they are in relation to Him, and it’s our job to be about the business of sharing that love. The way we live must align with the words we say, otherwise we truly are blatant hypocrites and can hardly be angry when someone points that out.

In our spheres of influence, however large or small they may be, let’s work to shift the balance toward peace. Toward a living out of “God so loved the world.” Let’s step out from behind our walls and break them down, brick by brick. Let the light shine and the grace flow.

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Herod or Amos

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

I’ve made no secret of my disgust over the current state of politics in the United States of America. A casual browse through social media will tell you all you need to know about that. I also haven’t tried to hide my growing distaste for the way Christians across the country are responding to the situation we find ourselves in. (A situation we made for ourselves, if we’re choosing to be honest today). Clearly we (very much in the general sense of the term) have chosen to prioritize fleeting political power over preaching the Gospel. What other conclusion can be made when pastors waste their breath defending sexual predators and some who should know far better compare the President to Jesus? Worse yet and outrageously, we have the gall to act surprised and upset when someone calls us on our blatant, transparent hunger for power and disregard for the morality we claim to live by.

We love to cluck our tongues and shake our heads when reading the Gospels. Those Sadducees, we think. All they wanted was money. And, oh, those Pharisees. They just wanted to control people. Jesus was so right to put them all in their places.

We shouldn’t be so smug.

And we’d do well to read the book of Amos.

The LORD roars from Zion,
And utters His voice from Jerusalem;
The pastures of the shepherds mourn,
And the top of Carmel withers.

– Amos 1:2 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. The Lord roars. He’s not happy. He’s not smiling. He’s not cute. He’s not something you can hold to the side.

The dominant message of the book of Amos is the proclamation of judgment upon Israel by Yahweh their God because of their oppression of the poor. The book of Amos accuses them of “sell[ing] the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6); of crushing the needy (4:1); of abusing the legal processes held in the town gate for the improper acquisition of large estates (5:10-11); and of indulging in merrymaking, all the while taking no responsibility while the community was breaking apart (6:1-7). …

Amos criticizes his hearers’ confidence that the sanctuaries and their sacrificial cult would gain them Yahweh’s approval. Amos uses the very language of the cult itself, but with satirical tone, to poke fun at his hearers’ reliance upon the sanctuaries, to show that Yahweh desires justice and righteousness more than sacrifice, and to proclaim the end of the cultic centers (see 4:4-5; 5:4-7, 21-24).

Asbury Bible Commentary, emphasis mine

Look at us, all fat and happy. Sitting up in our clean little church buildings, quite content with ourselves. Raising our voices neither in praise nor repentance, but in clamor, railing against the “liberals” or “conservatives” (whoever they are and whatever those terms mean) and how they are “destroying this country” and “we need to take it back.” We shake our fists to the rallying cry of “what about…?!” We turn blind eyes to sin and excuse failings of character because that politician might just give us whatever it is that we want in this moment.

…they sell the righteous for silver,
And the poor for a pair of sandals.
They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor,
And pervert the way of the humble.
A man and his father go in to the same girl,
To defile My holy name.
They lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge,
And drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god.

– Amos 2:6b-8 (NKJV)

We like to think that we’re so much better than the people we read about in the Bible.

We’re exactly the same.

With few exceptions, the prophets were sent to the people of God. To the people who knew better. Their messages, from the mouth of God Himself, were meant to slap them across the face. To shake them out of their self-indulgent stupor. To cause them to look up instead of down. To grab them by the hair so hard that they couldn’t help but notice the pain.

This is a side of God that we like to ignore. We like to focus on His gentleness and love. So we fail to realize that the hair-grabbing and face-slapping are acts of love. He is broken-hearted. He is justly angry. He wants His people to wake up, to get over themselves, to move beyond this whiny, annoying, petulant phase.

Because they have work to do. Because they are so much more.

Ancient Israel was meant to shine the light of God out into the dark world, just as the church is meant to do today. Just as they did, we have forgotten our purpose. We are so focused on achieving societal dominance through laws and slogans and slick marketing that we fail to tell people about Jesus. We fail in the one mission we have.

For behold,
He who forms mountains,
And creates the wind,
Who declares to man what his thought is,
And makes the morning darkness,
Who treads the high places of the earth—
The LORD God of hosts is His name.

– Amos 4:13 (NKJV)

Let that chill your bones for a second. How is it that we can possibly be so small-minded as to believe that God, who spoke all there is into existence, won’t notice that we’ve gotten so far off course as to be in another country entirely?

In two weeks we celebrate Christmas. We pause and again reflect on the miracle of God Come to Earth. In our reflections, let us consider this commentary on Matthew 2:

The contrast between Herod and Jesus centers upon the question of kingship. Matthew introduces the theme of kingship at the outset of the chapter: The wise men ask Herod where the king of the Jews has been born (2:2), Jesus is indirectly identified as a ruler (v. 6), and Matthew repeatedly refers to Herod as the king (vv. 1, 39). Matthew thus directs our attention to two types of king and two types of kingdom: the kingship of Herod versus the kingship of Jesus.

The kingship of Herod is presented in harsh terms. His tyrannical rule is characterized by an all-consuming desire to preserve his own status and power. Herod will stop at nothing, including the murder of innocent children, to realize his self-serving goals.

The nature of Jesus’ kingship, on the other hand, is defined by the word from Micah quoted in 2:6: He will be “the shepherd of my people Israel.” He is the gentle and loving Ruler of his people, who, like a shepherd, saves his people from destruction. Specifically, Jesus reigns as King over his people by dying for them (27:11, 29, 37), thereby saving them from their sins (1:21; cf. 20:28). The contrast with Herod could not be more pronounced: Jesus gives his life for the sake of others; Herod takes the lives of others for his own sake.

This tension between the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Jesus points to the conflict between the kingdom of this world (i.e., the desire for power and self-rule on the part of evil persons everywhere) and the kingdom of God. The passage challenges readers to reflect upon the character of their own lives in order to determine whether the spirit and attitude of Herod (an attitude of militant self-rule) is present to any degree in their hearts. Those readers who see a bit of Herod in themselves will soon encounter a word of challenge and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2; 4:17).

We get to choose: Herod or Amos? The kingdom of this world or the Kingdom of God?

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Photo Credit: Pawan Sharma

Not a Troll (Perhaps a Hobbit)

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

We live in the age of trolls. The internet allows us to maintain a certain level of detachment, so we go for it. We noisily air our opinions and blast those who dare to disagree. Through the relative anonymity afforded by the keyboard, we say the words that may never actually vibrate in our vocal chords and exit through our lips. We demand, cajole, proclaim the things that we may never actually have the courage to say out loud.

Am I one of those trolls, those vaunted keyboard warriors?

Why do I write about politics? Theology? Mental and physical illness? Why do I write about the things that make you angry? Why do I fail to adopt a soothing, socially-acceptable voice? Why do I persist in making you uncomfortable?

Because I care.

A lot.

I may not cry often, but I am incredibly passionate. I am tenderhearted. If I write about something that makes you squirm, I don’t do so for the sake of making you squirm. I do it because I can’t stand what’s passing for Christian teaching and living throughout our country. Of course that’s generalized. Of course there are people who are doing their absolute best to love God and others. Still, the overall trends toward prioritizing temporal power over Gospel preaching and fluffy, gunky, crap “doctrine” over thoughtful doctrine and study…ugh! Blergh! Argh!

Cue Darth Vader:

For real. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out.

Sharon Hodde Miller says it best:

The pressure to be nice competes with the calling to be prophetic. … For every article about making money with your blog, or having a better marriage, we need leaders who are leveraging their authority with their particular audience to call people to rugged faithfulness. We need teachers who are targeting the idols of people-pleasing and politics and worldly success, and helping us to be the actual people of God. And we need pastors engaged in the kind of spiritual formation that resists cultural influence, and prepares believers for loving self-sacrifice.

Last year Brueggemann summarized our prophetic failing this way: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3).

…we are witnessing the fruit of inadequate spiritual formation. When our spiritual formation winks at, or embraces, cultural idols, we will produce individuals who are totally unable to resist the culture. That is why we are in dire need of prophetic leaders with the courage and clarity to name our adulterous loves. It’s hard work, and humble work (since ranting should not be confused with prophetic teaching), but we need it now as much as ever.

No, I’m not saying I’m a prophet (and neither is Miller). “Prophetic” here is used in a way that points to challenging the status quo because it needs to be challenged. It’s John the Baptist in his camel-hair dress shouting, “Repent!” in the wilderness. It’s Jesus quietly telling the woman at the well that He is indeed Messiah. It’s Ananias taking his life in his hands and approaching Paul, who’s just been knocked off his donkey and struck blind. It’s thousands of men and women around the world today who dare to praise God in cultures that would see them dead for it.

I love you, dear reader. I do. Again, perhaps not in a way that you would quickly recognize. If we were to meet, I probably wouldn’t give you a big hug. I might ask you some random, weird question about your favorite historical era because I’m awkward like that. But I want so much, so desperately much, for you to know Jesus. I want you to really follow Him, even if it costs you something – and it will. I want you to embrace the cost, knowing that this life is but a breath and far greater things are up ahead.

I’m not perfect. I don’t always get this right. I have, in no way, “arrived.” I’m right there in the middle of this thing with you, tugging your elbow, hoping you’ll tug mine when I get distracted by the shiny stuff. Because we all get distracted. And that’s why we need the gruff voices, the ones that don’t fit into neat boxes, to call us back and keep us moving forward.

There’s a time for gentleness and a time for bluntness. The one is not more loving than the other. James wrote some harsh things in his epistle, but he was not uncaring. He was not mean. He wrote them because he loved his readers. He wanted the very best for them.

If you are challenged by me (or others), if you find yourself clicking away from this site (or others) because you feel anger, pause for a moment. Take a step back. Getting your toes smashed is never fun (I’ve had mine stomped on plenty of times), but it’s often necessary. Let’s learn to accept that discomfort. Let’s learn to sit with things that challenge us. Let’s learn to listen to the hoarse voices.

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