All the Titles I Came up With for This Looked Like Click-Bait

Priority

Gentle Reader,

I ache for the Church. My heart pounds within my chest, bouncing off my ribs in a thudding rhythm that fills my ears. I am distraught over the mess that she has gotten herself into. The Bride of Christ is dressed in dingy clothes. She is distracted. She hasn’t brought along enough oil to light her lamp through the long, dark night (Matthew 25:1-13). She does not watch. She sleeps, complacent.

The Church is my people. Much as I’d like to shake free at times, I can’t. I know that. You want Jesus, you get the Church. That’s how it works. I own my part in this. I admit to my flaws, imperfections, and straight up rebelliousness. But I believe that the time for shrugging shoulders and saying, “What can you do?” is over. It never should have been in the first place. The Holy Spirit’s hand of conviction is heavy upon His people everywhere you turn.

I wonder if we will respond.

“Where is this coming from and where is it going?,” you ask.

On June 29, I posted this paragraph on my personal Facebook page:

I often get into trouble for saying this, but patriotic displays have no place in worship. None. Zero. When we gather corporately, or when we engage privately in the spiritual disciplines, the focus is to be God and God alone. There are plenty of other times and places to talk or sing about our appreciation for whatever country we live in.

Most of what I post receives little attention (often none), so I was not expecting the controversy that followed. Because the above is not a controversial statement. I did not say that a patriotic person cannot be a Christian. I did not say that a Christian can’t be patriotic. I did not say that I hate anyone and everyone in the military. I did not say that I hate anyone and everyone on the police force. All I said was…well, what I said.

I have gotten into trouble for sharing this thought (or a variation thereof) before, which I guess should have given me some clue, but, again, I really expected this to go unnoticed. It didn’t.

Before you join those I angered and unsubscribe, let me give you just the newest in a long list of a reasons why I hold fast to this opinion, unpopular as it is: Robert Jeffress, the “pastor” of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, hosted a “Freedom Sunday” campaign rally (definitely not a church service) on June 24. This is the second year he has done so. Last year, the choir sang a brand-new composition: “Make America Great Again.” The “sanctuary” was draped in red, white and blue. The audience waved little flags in the air. Jeffress talked about how amazing America is and how wonderful President Trump is. I refuse to provide you links to the church or the song because you have Google and I won’t funnel traffic to either.

Because it’s disgusting.

I am the LORD, that is My name;
And My glory I will not give to another,
Nor My praise to carved images.

– Isaiah 42:8 (NKJV)

…I will not give My glory to another.

– Isaiah 48:11c (NKJV)

Do you suppose that God was joking around? Do you think His views have changed?

That rally was nothing less than an exercise in foul idolatry. On a Sunday, in a church, instead of preaching the Gospel, instead of digging into Scripture, instead of singing praise to God, this man led the people in the singing of praises to the country and the president. That is wrong. At least it was all very blatant and in-your-face, though. Have to give Jeffress credit for that. Congregations around the country routinely mix politics and patriotism with faith, engaging in the syncretism, largely out of ignorance, that ancient Israel was destroyed by. Many drape the Cross in the flag, literally and figuratively, assuming, perhaps unconsciously, that they belong together.

Do you think that God is pleased by this?

I wish that you could hear me speaking this aloud. I wish that you could hear the passion in my voice. This isn’t about anger or making people feel bad. I don’t think I’m better than you. What I am is desperate for Christians to understand this: The United States of America is not special. This is a country, like any other a country. A geographic location. A piece of earth. No American citizen is amazing or wonderful or exceptional by virtue of being an American citizen. Those of us who live here are the same as everyone else on the planet. Our history is just as checkered.

Additionally, Republican does not equal Christian nor is Donald Trump the second coming of Christ. So many behave as if both those things are true. They are willing to defend and justify anything this party or this man does because…I genuinely have no idea at this point. No Supreme Court justice appointment is worth the wrangling and compromise (nor should the court be politicized the way it has been, but honestly that’s always been an issue, to greater and lesser extents depending on who was president at the time, from the beginning). I guess people think they can get something out of it? That the GOP will make them rich through the not-miracle of trickle down economics? It’s a mystery to me.

Please, don’t object via soundbites such as “What about the Democrats?!” or “Her emails!” That’s not good argumentation. Believe me, I clearly see the corruption in politics as a whole (which has existed since the Continental Congress), and I am aware of the issues within the Democratic Party, but, objectively, neither the party nor Hillary Clinton is (or would have been) any worse than what we have now. If the Democrats were in power, there would be problems, no doubt, albeit different ones. (And I’d be writing about that if the Church had shackled herself to those leaders). But stubbornly folding your arms and declaring, “They did it, too,” wasn’t a good excuse for your parents and it’s not a good excuse now. Evil on one side does not give anyone license to promote or protect evil on the other side. I don’t know why this is difficult for anyone to grasp. Wrong is wrong no matter who does it.

We Protestants like to get on the Catholics for elevating Mary to a salvific position (which, for the record, they deny and really depends on the individual Catholic’s grasp of doctrine), but what about our own elevation of country? What about our own beliefs of exceptionalism and superiority? We can be thankful for the good in this country (and others can be thankful for the good in the countries in which they live) but that thankfulness is not blind, uncritical or unquestioning. Even the most casual, cursory reading of history reveals the rot that has always existed in the United States. And that thankfulness most certainly is not to be blended with theology to create some bizarre civic religion. This conflation goes directly against truths revealed in Scripture, truths about idolatry, about the make-up of the Kingdom of God, about the universality of the Gospel.

We have got to let go of this idea that we live in a “Christian nation.” We don’t. We never did. Yes, Christians were involved in the founding of this country, but they didn’t establish a theocracy. (Except the Puritans, who sort of tried that in Massachusetts, but they really aren’t the best example because they liked to burn, hang and otherwise harass people who didn’t agree with them, i.e. Quakers and a bunch of people in Salem). We have no hemeneutical leg to stand on in believing that we have replaced Israel, that we live in the “promised land,” and can therefore apply promises made to that nation to ourselves, here and now. We have no reason to think that we occupy a unique place in God’s plan beyond that of any other nation that He has allowed to rise and fall.

God says He won’t give His glory to another. He’s super blunt about it. Thus patriotic displays and songs don’t belong in our worship services. The “Star-Spangled Banner” and other songs that celebrate the nation should be expunged from hymnals. The flag doesn’t belong in the sanctuary. Pastors should not use the pulpit for anything other than preaching the Word. There are plenty of times and places for us to discuss and celebrate what we appreciate about this country. Corporate gathering for worship is not one of those times or places. How is this controversial? How is this offensive?

We need to check ourselves at all times, though. Beyond Sunday morning. As I said above, idolatry isn’t often so blatant as that at First Baptist. What are our priorities? Upon what are we focusing? Do we find ourselves arrogantly thinking, “Oh, thank God I’m not from an African country”? (Note that I said “arrogantly thinking,” as if we are better than those elsewhere, as if we are entitled to the prosperity and privilege in which we live, because reasons. It’s okay to be thankful that you don’t live in a country decimated by civil war and extreme poverty, though that thankfulness should lead to compassionate action toward those who do suffer in those conditions, including those who are impoverished here). Do we think that we have the right to traipse through the world, demanding special treatment?

Just as Christianity should not be tied to man-made plans or means, so it is not spread through societal dominance or political institutions. The world will not be saved by our allegiance to the temporal. People will not come to Christ by our smearing a thin veneer of ultimately false morality over the culture. The “city on a hill” from which the light shines (Matthew 5:14) is not this specific place, but all places, among all those who know the Lord. Our job is not to force a fake post-millennial utopia that will last approximately one minute until all hell breaks loose. Instead, our job is to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly (Micah 6:8). It is to care for the poor, oppressed and marginalized (1 John 3:17-18). It is to preach the Gospel of grace and restoration, mercifully supplied by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 21:15-17).

That’s the thing about following Jesus, though – it means you’re rarely going to have a cultural army on your side. Jesus Himself was born into a world rocked by culture war, and he never really embraced the cause of the conservatives (Sadducees), or the liberals (Pharisees), or the radicals (Zealots), or even the…Benedict-option-types (Essenes). Instead He called them all to the same thing: “Repent and follow Me.”

The Fake Kidnapping Scandal That Almost Destroyed a Megachurch Pioneer

We can do better. We can be better. I know we can. The Holy Spirit will enable and empower us. It will take humility and repentance from us, which is extremely painful, but that pain is worth it. Because being American ultimately doesn’t matter. National distinctions disappear in the Kingdom, as our adoption by God through Christ makes us one global family. Our thankfulness and celebrations must always be tempered by this greater reality. Our brothers and sisters, our literal brothers and sisters, all of whom we will not meet until the culmination of this state of existence, are beautiful and entirely equal to us.

As for those who do not know and love the Lord: How can we go out into the world and preach the Gospel to them if we are not their servants, as the Savior modeled?

Dear God, help us to choose. Help us to release the white-knuckled grip we have on wrong notions and treasured positions that run contrary to Your will and way for us. We have been stupid and selfish. We have swallowed flattery and falsity because it makes us feel good. We have remained babies, refusing to grow, refusing to cooperate in Your work of sanctification. Help us to bend our stiff knees and necks to You. The hour is late. The harvest is great. It is time for us to get up and do the work that You commissioned us to do. In the glorious, saving, mighty Name of Jesus, Amen.

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Stumbling Servants

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

It is a privilege and a pleasure to serve, even in the chaotic and frustrating moments, because it is a privilege and a pleasure to do as Jesus did. It is an honor to be a vessel for His truth, grace and love.

Took an unplanned break last week. I joined my church family in a large community service project and just ran out of time and energy to sit and let the words flow.

There were some tough spots. I butted heads with people I love. It’s a rough-and-tumble and often dysfunctional family, this one that Christ has bought and created by the shedding of His blood. We’ve got sharp edges and soft spots and somehow always manage to ram our sharpness into another’s softness. Our ideas and ways of doing things don’t always align. Sometimes we get derailed in disagreement, forgetting what the goal really is.

That goal? To serve God by serving others. No strings attached.

This little family of faith to which I belong has had a bumpy year. We could have easily imploded over this event. Instead, as I reflect on the last month, I see a quiet, gentle work of God. We are in no way, shape or form perfect people. Far, far from it. But He used us. He prodded here and pushed there to move us beyond the sticking place. We learned some much-needed lessons. We pressed into some difficult conversations. In the end, we worked as a team – maybe a team that doesn’t always win the game, but a team that makes the plays.

Truth is: The people with whom I worship with week after week can frustrate me like no other. But isn’t that how it is with family? They drive you up the wall, but you love them. You don’t always understand the choices they make. You give them side-eye sometimes. But that love is never in question.

We know that God says we are His children. So I wonder if He looked upon us – sweaty and stumbling and maybe a little crabby – with the kind of expression that crosses a father’s face as he watches his toddler learn a new skill. It’s messy. It’s hard. But when that toddler finally makes progress, hair flying every which way and hands covered with peanut butter – the father beams.

There’s always those little spots in our minds, those unevangelized places, that don’t grasp and rest in the kind of love God has for us. We can recite the verses and say the right things. But there’s a part of us that remains scared. What if I don’t do this right? Holiness, sanctification, submission, obedience – all commanded, all Christ-enabled. Perfectionism? Not so much.

Meditate on this verse with me –

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

– Romans 5:8 (NKJV)

While we were still sinners.

The people with whom we, church folk, interacted at that event did not speak, behave or dress the ways we thought they should. They haven’t always made wise choices. They may have had addictions or come from chaotic, broken backgrounds.

Guess what?

They’re just like us.

Jesus didn’t require us to clean up our acts before He offered help.

Again, holiness gets a big “yes and thumbs up” from God. He doesn’t save us so that we can keep on doing whatever we want. We don’t get to bend the definition of sin or remove certain cherished activities from the category. That’s cheap grace. What Christ did for us certainly wasn’t cheap. It cost Him everything. Nor does He save us so that we can spend the rest of our lives under the tyranny of perfectionism. The Bible is full of stories of regular people who loved God but messed up – and God remained steady in His love for them.

Just like us.

We cannot hoard this treasure. The homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the sick, the broken – God loves them, just as He loves us. We don’t need to fear them. We need to listen to them, then tell them. Tell them of the God who made the stars, of the atom-splitting choice in a garden, of sin and struggle, of grace and resurrection.

Then we need to turn around and remind ourselves of these things.

Onward, stumbling servants. Get back up when you skin your knees. Resist the urge to retaliate with someone slaps your face. Seek forgiveness when you need and grant it when asked. Beg God for wisdom. Beg Him to make you gentle. Lace up your boots, gird your loins, roll up your sleeves.

We may not do it perfectly, but the work awaits.

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Steady Mind, Stirred Heart

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2)

Gentle Reader,

A high-church gal lurks inside this woman who has really only worshiped in low-church settings. (Aside from a handful of visits to Saturday night and Christmas Masses, back when I was working out just what it was that I believed). I love carved marble, colored glass and incense. At the same time, I am an admitted iconoclast; statues and shrines are distracting. I can buy into the idea that plain surroundings enable one to “think plain,” meaning that all focus and attention is upon God. If I lived in England with my ancestors back in the day (always a Wednesday), I would have been some odd mish-mash of Quaker and Anglican; a mind devoted to the simple, plain truths, a heart stirred by mystery and beauty.

That intersection is where I live today. Rejecting popes and extra-biblical revelation. Rejoicing in rigorous study and meaningful conversation. Longing for the quietness of sacred space. Wanting candles and stained windowpanes.

Really the longing and the wanting is focused on something more than the outward trappings of a building. I’m fine with simple surroundings (though I think artists and woodworkers often miss out in using their talents to glorify God in adding unique flourishes to our sanctuaries), but I’m not fine with the casual attitude that most Protestants display when gathering together. It’s loud and chaotic. Flippancy masquerading as worship.

Yeah, I said it.

We lean too heavily on Hebrews 4:14-16, reading into it a meaning that we shouldn’t:

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

(NKJV)

We are the children of the Good Father. We swim in the grace-river. We claim a royal position, a holy inheritance. All who are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8) can enter into the presence of the King without fear of reproach.

Still, we must know that this is no Buddy Jesus, no Cool-Guy God that we deal with.

This is the One whom we approach:

A voice came from above the firmament that was over their heads; whenever they stood, they let down their wings.

And above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness with the appearance of a man high above it. Also from the appearance of His waist and upward I saw, as it were, the color of amber with the appearance of fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. …

I watched till thrones were put in place,
And the Ancient of Days was seated;
His garment was white as snow,
And the hair of His head was like pure wool.
His throne was a fiery flame,
Its wheels a burning fire;
A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened. …

I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed. …

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” …

Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. …

Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean,[f] followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written:

KING OF KINGS AND
LORD OF LORDS. …

…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

– Ezekiel 1:25-28; Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:8, 12-16; 19:11-16; Philippians 2:10-11 (NKJV)

Does it seem right to take a casual attitude toward God?

To sing mindless, repetitive, human-centric songs and call it worship?

To complain about studying the Bible?

To get bored during prayer?

To look at the clock and become irritated when the service “goes over?”

Of course we’re all human and of course we all fall into these very human patterns from time to time. We go through dry spells and rebellious phases and seasons of complacency. There is, to our everlasting benefit, an always-extended mercy from God.

The God who sees.

The God who knows.

The God who is nothing like us and yet planted something of Himself inside us.

The God whose very existence demands the singing of the doxologies, the glory sayings. Mouths open, words spilling over lips, voices raised in blessing the Name of the Lord. Joy rising, the kind of soul-expanding tingle that washes over us when, for just a second, we get our eyes off of ourselves.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

– Thomas Ken

Yes, praise Him. Praise Him with head bowed, heart quaking, knowing that He is holy.

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.

– Colossians 1:16-18 (NKJV)

We have lost something in adopting a fast-and-loose approach to faith. In our rejection of liturgy, our banishing of silent reflection, our fear of beauty and our quest to package the full expression of faith into a neat two hours on Sunday morning, we have lost the knowledge that worship is not about us.

Do we honor Him when we fail to quiet ourselves, when we enter the sanctuary as if it is just another room? Do we honor Him when we treat our meetings as just another thing to do, another social time, another check mark to make on the list? Do we honor Him by running, running, always running away from stillness, quietness, order, reverence?

God made the world and all things in it. He said it was good. He could have made it flat and ugly. We wouldn’t have known the difference. Instead He made His presence known by giving us waterfalls and sunsets and dew and a dog’s happy panting and a baby’s high-pitched laugh. He made it all unique and intricate and beautiful. The masterwork all around us reveals the creativity, the heart, of the Master.

Simplicity.

Beauty.

Reverence.

Shouldn’t our worship have these elements?

 

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Photo credit: Matt McLean

Five Minute Friday: Play

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Apropos of nothing, a little poem I wrote the other night:

Mountain and meadow,
Sunlight and shadow,
All made to glorify Thee

Birds here, beasts there
Fauna tall, flora fair
Every one singing of Thee

Child’s laugh to old man’s sigh
Calendar pages flying by
Humanity aching for Thee

It’s the five-minute flash write with the fabulous people. We: play.

Go.

All these pretty happy shiny people with their pretty shiny happy Instagram posts, loving summer.

My disdain for you knows no bounds.

That’s not really true. There are people for all seasons and seasons for all people. This isn’t mine. Which is odd. Because I was born in August. The hottest month of the year around these parts.

Summer is the time for extroverts, I think. They get to go out and play in all the groups with all the noise and all the mess. Me? I’m sitting inside, by my air conditioning unit, sulking. Waiting ever-so-impatiently for late September and the slide into non-tortuous temperatures. For rain and boots and scarves and crisp mornings that beckon one out into the glorious, changing expanse.

I hate summer. People get depressed in winter; me, I feel low in the haze and the heat. Yes, I’ll go play with you for awhile. I’ll swim or enjoy a ride in a boat. I’ll certainly eat ice cream. I do love to garden. But after an hour – I’m done. It’s over. I’m sweating and sticky and my facial expression is involuntary, major side-eye. The great she-crab just wants to retreat into her shell. (Do crabs do that? Probably not).

How glad I am, as Anne Shirley was, that we live in a world where October exists.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m gonna do
‘Cause there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

– Cochran & Capehart

Stop.

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