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Month: June 2014

Ahh…political! Relief from earthly politics

elephant-donkey-boxingAs my blog evolves, I often reflect on experiences in my life and how they relate to my overall life message.

One area I have consciously worked to avoid is politics. It’s not that I don’t have political opinions; I do. And sometimes I can get passionate about an issue. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out when I don’t agree with local or national politics in our country.

But politics can deeply divide people into pro vs. con, us vs. them, progressive vs. conservative, or—in Christian-speak—God’s prophet vs. Satan incarnate. I’m sad to think public discourse can be so polarizing, but unfortunately, divisiveness is a part of our fallen nature.

There was a time when I truly believed that the implementation of God’s kingdom on earth depended upon the victory of a particular party. Honest. If “my” candidate won, all was well in the world. If he or she lost…well, pass the Prozac. So, as a follower of Christ who sincerely desired God’s will for my nation, state, and town, my “kingdom work” revolved around leaving literature in screen doors and encouraging people to vote – which, especially if I believed in a particular cause or candidate, I did with conviction. (And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.)

But it never happened – the implementation of God’s will through political means, that is. Politics is too wobbly. Whenever a particular party actually got in and held the majority in government, it seemed to result in either a scandal or the collective governmental IQ falling to the level of bean dip – mainly because whenever one party has a strong majority, especially for a long time, the opposition becomes too weak to check them, challenge them, or counterbalance them.

My kingdom view began to change as well. As I sought Jesus’ direct support for my cause, I quickly realized the difficulty of that task. I found that Jesus was apolitical, and no political philosophy can lay sole claim to his teachings. Despite popular implications that he was liberal, conservative, or anything else, he refused to be categorized as anything other than God. His enemies constantly set him up and baited him, but each time they thought they had him pegged, he skillfully twisted out of their grasp. And despite being wrongly accused and executed as a revolutionary king (so in a way, you could say politics killed him), he steadfastly resisted citizenship in any earthly political system, demonstrating again and again that his citizenship was in the kingdom of God.

And so is ours. I wonder how the world might change if we, as Christians, focused our time, money, and energy less on politics, and more on prayerfully living out the kingdom of God on earth. While I do recognize that some Christians are called to serve as elected officials, committee members, lobbyists, or other participants in the political process, I don’t believe our primary allegiance should ever be to any earthly political party. Instead, it should be to the Lord.

JesusVotesRepublican-1The idea of being apolitical is somewhat new to me. I graduated from a conservative Christian college in the 1980s. At that time, Christian conservatives were a powerful and sought-after voting bloc. They identified Christianity with conservative party politics and believed Jesus would have agreed. They pursued family values as their primary cause and worked to get conservative politicians appointed or elected to office, including Ronald Reagan twice, in order to pass and enforce laws supporting this vision. They believed God’s will could be actualized through political avenues. So they sought to gain political influence. And they got it. Conservatives came into power, and conservative Christians were appointed to presidential commissions, invited to serve as spiritual advisors to those in power, and consulted on national policies. If a scandal involving conservatives broke out, the conservative Christian voting bloc tended to overlook such indiscretions in order to keep its people in power.

jesus_donkey300Fast-forward thirty years, and Christian progressives began making the same mistakes as Christian conservatives did in the 1980s. Christian progressives became a powerful and sought-after voting bloc. They identified Christianity with progressive party politics and believed Jesus would have agreed. They pursued social justice as their primary cause and worked to get progressive politicians appointed or elected to office, including Barak Obama twice, in order to pass and enforce laws supporting this vision. They believed God’s will can be actualized through political avenues. So they sought to gain political influence. And like the conservatives before them, they got it. Progressives came into power, and progressive Christians have been appointed to presidential commissions, invited to serve as spiritual advisors to those in power, and consulted on national policies. If a scandal involving progressives breaks out, the progressive Christian voting bloc has tended to overlook such indiscretions in order to keep its people in power.

Each side can make a case for a biblical basis.

But neither side is completely correct. Neither side fully represents God’s perspective. And even in their political successes, neither side is capable of accomplishing God’s will on earth. Only God can do that.

The church is called to a higher vision than current political systems. We are called to be a countercultural example of the kingdom of God (not preach it, but be it). We are called to oppose sin as conservatives remind us, and work for peace and justice as progressives remind us. Note that I said the church should do these things, not elect politicians and pass laws to do them for us. The money we invest in political causes would be better invested in kingdom work. Instead of working through political systems on the left or right, what if we reached out to people directly with the power of the gospel? Some Christians have already caught this vision and are doing great work, not for any earthly political party or kingdom but for the kingdom of God.

In seeking to become apolitical (that is, less political and more kingdom-minded), I have found a greater sense of freedom – and relief. According to Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the LORD; he guides it wherever he pleases” (NLT). So, no matter who gets elected or which laws get passed, God is always in charge, always working to accomplish his good purposes. Our primary job is to follow and obey him, and to work and pray for HIS kingdom to come to earth.

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Pile it on, part 2

Recently a friend asked me a two-part question. In Part 1 she asked whether, given my new book deal, I am now grateful for the painful road that brought me here (see my post,  Pile it on, part 1).

But then my friend asked Part 2: “Does it take something really big or really good to make us finally thankful for a difficult road?”

To be honest, compared to the first question, this one was even tougher. It forced me to think harder to get past the spiritual clichés.

Because, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty. It seems superficial to look back after a big God-event and say, “Yeah, now I see God’s hand in the hardship.” I mean, if someone gets canned from a job and then finds one that pays oodles better, it doesn’t take a whole lot of spirituality to “give God the glory” for losing the first job. Giving glory to God in the windfalls is just too easy.

But what about those who never get a big God-event in which all the pieces seem to fall neatly into place? What about those who lose good jobs and never regain anything similar for the rest of their careers? What about those who get blindsided by life, and the magic rescue from heaven never comes?

A common Christian answer is, “Well, God’s timing is perfect. Maybe the time hasn’t come yet.”

Perhaps. But in some cases, the time never comes at all.

In the book of Job, Job experiences terrible disasters in which he loses all of his earthly wealth, then his health, and finally his ten children. After all of this, he wants to know why he’s had to suffer so terribly. But he never gets an answer. All he gets is a voice in a whirlwind giving the most beautiful non-answer – essentially this: Who died and put you in charge that I must answer to you?! (Job 38:2ff)

Yes, eventually Job regains his wealth and health and has more children; but as any parent knows, any child who dies can never be replaced by a new one. Like most of us, Job never knows the reason for all of his sufferings. In fact, had he known that the reason was a little bet between God and Satan (Job 1:8-12), he might have drowned himself in a whole new flood of theological issues.

So I don’t believe the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” It doesn’t. Catastrophic events can affect how we view the world, and ourselves, throughout our lives. Time alone doesn’t provide the same healing as a redemptive event.

But time can bring perspective and growth. Because God’s redemption seldom drops into our lives as a single event. If it did, there would be no need for us to wrestle with God, no need to seek out his mystery and his grace. And without wrestling and seeking, our spiritual challenges become stale, bland, lukewarm. After all, if I experience a great event that alleviates all the pain of my difficult road, then I’m set; I have everything I need. So why bother wrestling with God or trying to understand him at all?

Yet with time, though we may never receive the answers we desire, we are driven to seek out and draw closer to the Creator.

And occasionally, we might get a big answer which calls for a big celebration.

But even if not, I think God wants us to develop a deep thankfulness through the search itself—a thankfulness built as we continue to “pile it on,” one painful memory at a time, turning each stone of pain into a step of thanksgiving.

For example, over the past six years of struggling with employment issues and broken dreams, I have become truly thankful that—with careful planning and despite a brutal economy—God has met my physical needs: a car that runs, food in the fridge, an affordable little home when many were losing theirs, and even the ability to attack and finally, after many long years, get my indebtedness ratio moving in the right direction. I am thankful he created my two little wiener dogs, whose antics drive everyone crazy but also bring great joy and laughter. I am thankful he brought me into a church which makes him very real to me and encourages me to cling to him. I am thankful he shoved me, an introvert, into a home community of other broken people who have poured out grace and healing prayer on me; I absolutely fell in love with these folks. Finally, I am thankful for the love and commitment of my wife, who has stayed by my side through undoubtedly the worst years of my life so far. I know she has struggled, but she’s still here. And I am deeply in love.

Such lessons of thanksgiving can be learned only in the desert. Now that I have a book deal, thanksgiving seems almost too easy. But when I didn’t have a book deal – or anything else to hope for – that’s when thanksgiving became a true sacrifice of praise for me. That’s when it really meant something, really cost me something, to learn to give thanks anyway.

These emerging areas of thankfulness don’t come superficially through a single big event, like a book deal. Instead, they come gradually, over time. They are hard-won by persevering through the wilderness, one step after another, like Joshua and the Israelites.

Although most of us would prefer a big “something” to drop immediate clarity into our laps, the deepest moments of growth and thankfulness seem to come only as we travel those winding desert paths.

Like Joshua, we can build our painful memories into a monument of praise. We can pile up the painful moments, one by one, as reminders that God is always good, even when things look very dark. And yes, we can be thankful for the blessing of each painful memory – even if the big fix never comes.

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Pile it on, part 1

pile-of-stonesRecently, for the second time this spring, I got The Question again. Knowing my trauma since losing the PhD and my joy at getting a book deal, a close friend asked me: “Dan, standing where you are now and looking back, do you find yourself grateful for the road that brought you here?”

I hesitated.

I didn’t want to look back, didn’t want to remember the times when God really seemed to “pile it on” – the pain, the agony, the humiliation. However, after hearing that question twice within a few weeks, from two different people, I realized God was doing the asking—and he is unrelenting. So I knew I had to answer.

Yet why the hesitation?

After all, I have a book scheduled for publication this summer—and that’s great news. If my dry, narrow-focus doctoral dissertation had passed rather than failed, there’d be no book; instead, there would be only the dissertation, gathering dust on a back shelf in a remote university library, with virtually no chance that anyone would ever read it. In fact, if my dissertation had passed I’d have no hope of redemption—because without pain and failure, there is nothing to redeem.

Shouldn’t I be able to see that by now? Shouldn’t I be thankful for my story—for all of the heartbreak God has brought me through, and for everything he’s done since? Sure, I’ve carried grief and regret so searing, so mind-numbing, I felt like I barely survived. But in hindsight, wasn’t it worth it?

My head knows the right answer. My head knows I should be grateful for all that has happened, including the wretched road that brought me to where I am. My head knows, and even believes, that “all things work together for the good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

My heart, however, has wanted to kick in the teeth of every person who spews that verse as if it were an instant fix. My heart still feels the shock of hearing my examiners reject my dissertation. My heart still remembers the torment of lying in bed like a corpse, telling myself to breathe. My heart still knows the disgrace of leaving England as a failure, having to face everyone back home, and losing my job just a few weeks later.

In hindsight, yes, I can see that those dark times may have had a purpose—yet my suffering felt so great, so overwhelming, that my stubborn heart doesn’t want to let it go.

But maybe we’re not meant to let it go—at least, not in the way we sometimes think. Maybe it means more than that.

Our society loves to get past pain as quickly as possible. We relieve our physical ills with fast-acting painkillers, so we want to relieve our emotional and spiritual ones the same way. We do everything we can to avoid and deny anything that hurts. But such avoidance and denial is not scriptural—and it does not produce spiritual growth.

Like us, the Israelites wanted to dodge pain. Their trek from Egypt to Canaan was filled with heartaches they would have preferred to avoid. It was a two-week journey which, due to detours caused mostly by sins and failures, they somehow managed to cram into forty years. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Forty years of uncertainty, misery, and death. Forty years of conditions so bad that they actually begged to go back to their former life as Egyptian slaves.

It wasn’t a good time.

But that period was bookended by two miraculous water-crossings: First, before those forty years, God had parted the Red Sea and the Israelites crossed over from being slaves in Egypt to being free people in the wilderness. Second, after those forty years, God parted the Jordan River and they crossed over from being nomads to being a true nation, settled in the Promised Land.

And during that second water-crossing, something different happened. At God’s instruction, each tribe carried a stone from the middle of the riverbed to the opposite bank and Joshua built the stones into a memorial (Joshua 4:7), saying:

“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” – Joshua 4:21-24 (NIV).

Make a pile of stones? Really? Seems like an odd request. Why did God have them do that?

I think it was because he knew the Israelites, like all humans, had short memories. Sure, he had delivered them from Egypt by parting the Red Sea; but then came forty years of wandering in the wilderness. By the time they were ready to cross the Jordan River, virtually everyone who had been an adult during that first miraculous parting was dead. The children born afterward had only heard about it. Maybe it didn’t sound real to them. Maybe they didn’t even believe it had happened.

So God gave a repeat performance: he parted the Jordan River, just for their generation. New generation, new miracle. And in the future, when their descendants would see the pile of stones and ask, “What do these stones mean?” – then the people could tell about all of their failures, all of their pain and suffering, and how God had brought them through.

The purpose of these events was not to show how cool and special the Israelites were, but to show how powerful and merciful God is. If there hadn’t been any difficulties, there couldn’t have been any deliverance. Just as in my own story, without pain and failure there can be no redemption.

To me, the river stones can represent the pain in our lives—memories so raw and sharp-edged that we wouldn’t wish them on anyone. These painful memories break the water as it rushes around them, and they break us too. They crush us, even grind us to powder. Though we shouldn’t dwell on or obsess over them, we should remember them. In fact, we must remember them. Because, piled together, they attest to God’s salvation. Each painful memory becomes part of our monument of remembrance – a monument to God’s work of mercy and grace.

My friend’s question still makes me hesitate, because my heart still remembers the pain. But my painful journey is now a part of my story. It’s a part of who I am. So when people ask, I can say: Yes, despite the pain, I can still be grateful.

So go ahead…pile it on.

Because there’s one thing that is always true about a pile of stones: It always points toward heaven.