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Category: Kingdom work

Is there any hope for America? Should that even be our focus?

Over the last several weeks, I have wrestled with a question that just will not go away: is there hope for America?

I taught high school history and government for almost twenty years, and I have always concluded that the idea behind the United States was a good idea.

The United States was by no means perfect. There are several black spots on our history: slavery, the relocation and/or slaughter of the American Indian, the internment camps of Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor, McCarthyism, Jim Crowe…

The list goes on. I am not naïve enough to pretend we’re perfect. No nation is.

However, what makes the American idea unique is that it is based on an accurate understanding of human nature. The framers of the constitution knew human nature is fallen.

They were aware that power corrupts, so they made sure to instill a system of divided government and checks and balances, using the strengths of different forms of government while heading off the weaknesses.

It can feel clunky at times, frustrating at others. But I truly believe it works.

No form of government can or will establish utopia. Human nature is by default greedy for wealth and power. That default must be kept in check.

In a word, human nature is sinful.

There was only one utopian kingdom, and that existed only in Genesis 2 when God (the Creator) co-ruled with humans (created in his image) in the Garden of Eden.

Then a serpent, a piece of fruit, and a bad decision wrecked all of that.

Now, a fallen humanity needs a fallen human government to meet objectives that individuals cannot do alone.

Over the course of history, several different forms of governments have been tried.

Monarchy, or power in the hands of single individual, has usually been regarded as the most stable form of government. However, monarchs easily become arbitrary and corrupt. A tyrant might be able to solve a national problem, but then must turn his or her attention to keeping their power.

An oligarchy, or rule by a few, can be used  slow down reckless legislation through careful debate. In the United States Congress, only roughly 3% of all proposed bills even make it out of commitee and onto the floor for a vote. In other words, there is a lot of stupid bills purposed. However, oligarchs can also become corrupt through bribery and looking out for their own self-interest.

Even democracy, or rule by the people and hailed as the most noble form of government, is terribly flawed. Of course, the people must have a voice in their government. The power of government must come from the people. However, democracy has regularly been deemed the weakest form of government going back to the early Athenian philosophers. A pure democracy will establish “a tyranny of a majority,” where 50.1% of the citizens can force their will on the other 49.9%, who won’t simply roll over. A simple majority could declare stealing legal.

So, essentially, every form of government is corruptible and far from perfect.

For me, this is what makes the American experiment work. It utilizes the strengths of each type of government while putting a 3 on its weaknesses. No one branch can have too much power, and the people ultimately have the final say.

This works.

That is, with one caveat.

The second President of the United States John Adams once wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People.”[1]

And therein lies the problem.

Sadly, we a no longer a moral people.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not making this claim from a holier-than-thou, hypocritical throne. If you think that, then I assure you you’ve missed my point.

I don’t see myself as better than anyone. I am a sinner saved only by grace. I struggle with my sins daily. I am ashamed of my sin and, were it not for the cross, I would be lost.

I am saying that the collective we are no longer a moral people because our moral compass is gone. No longer do we see ourselves as fallen short and striving to be a more perfect union. Instead, we demand our sin to be accepted lest we risk being called hateful and bigoted.

We have no apprehension toward speaking out of both sides of our mouths, redefining commonly held definitions, moving goal posts when it suits us, and spouting excessive rhetoric that we would find offensive and demand heads roll should those same words are used against us.

This last week alone, in a girl’s locker room at a public school in Wisconsin, an 18-year-old male identifying as trans showered with four Freshmen girls in–let’s just say–all his glory. To criticize this taking of the girls’ innocence is to be slapped with the label homophobe or bigot.

Then, hundreds of teenagers went on a rampage in downtown Chicago, smashing windows and beating up tourists. One six-year-old boy was even shot in the arm. The newly-elected Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson condemned the attacks for making the eyebrow-raising claim: “It is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

This national loss of our moral compass appears at levels of our country, whether in the individual or the highest levels of office (I am still reeling from the White House’s idiotic response to a trans person shooting up a Christian School in Tennessee). Washington, D.C., is little more than a clown show, and given the potential leading presidential candidates, I truly fear the clown show will likely continue after 2024 no matter the winner.

Of course, this begs the question: can America come back from this?

I would love to say yes. We came back from a civil war. Anything is possible.

However, upon completion of the temple in Jerusalem, God tells the people of Israel, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). So, there is always a chance.

Yet, sadly, further reading of the Old Testament shows that Israel split into two nations, wherein the kingdom of Israel disappeared following an Assyrian invasion, and then the kingdom of Judah was sent into exile by the Babylonians.

Further, history has shown that superpowers generally crumble from within. Countries come and countries go, and there are no guarantees.

It would take a miracle of God.

I would love to yes but am just not sure. History doesn’t give us good odds.

However, I wonder if that should be the Christian’s primary focus. The body of Christ has a mission and saving one’s country from itself doesn’t seem to be it.

The Christian church has to recalibrate and see our battles are against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) and not against each other. It’s not Democrats or Republicans, or the left or right, the wealthy or poor, or even socialism or Big-Whatever.

Satan and Satan alone is our enemy.

For Christ-followers in the USA, our primary objective is not the American ideal but the kingdom of God. The North American continent could look very different in the coming years, but the kingdom of God remains constant.

That is what we should live for.

That is our mission.


Navigating a national tragedy through kingdom eyes

It is a twisted world we live in when, during the unfolding of a horrible, tragic event, the first response many of us have is not horror at the events unfolding before us, but dread of the asinine rhetoric that is about to erupt.

I followed closely the unfolding events at Covenant School in Nashville when a transgender woman shot and killed six people—three adults and three nine-year-old children. I am a teacher in a Christian school. This tragedy hit close to home. Like most hearing the story, it sucked the air right out of me.

Sadly, and all too frequently, we no longer have time to process the tragedy, to grieve, to be angry at the evil in the world.

The narrative became political almost immediately. Within hours, it was no longer about the victims.

This is nothing new. I have come to expect it even though it continues to break my heart to see how fast the victims get thrown aside.

I braced myself for the typical responses: We don’t want your thoughts and prayers. Your prayers don’t work. Guns are the problem and they must be banned. If you don’t agree, you’re a member of an NRA gun cult who enjoys killing children.

I usually just try to avoid social media for a week or so until the next big thing pulls America’s short attention span to something else.

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the contortions our leaders and media went through in twisting of the narrative to make the shooter the victim.

This came not from the media, but directly from the highest levels of government.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre actually stated during a press conference, “It is shameful, it is disturbing, and our hearts go out to the trans community as they are under attack right now.”

Wait. What?

She actually said that.

And she said it with a straight face.

Now I got angry.

How can people harbor so much hatred toward a group of people strictly because of their beliefs, that they can’t put their ideologies aside in order to mourn with fellow humans? I don’t think anyone in the White House used the term “Christian” once in regard to the attacks.

I usually chuckle at irony of watching those who think Christians are hateful and judgmental display their own hate to a seething degree.

This time, I wasn’t enjoying the irony.

Does Jean-Pierre know it wasn’t a nine-year-old Christian child shooting trans people, right? I am fairly certain that this was one of dumbest, most inappropriate statements to come out of the White House. Even considering comments from the previous occupant.

In 2016, following the tragedy of the Orlando nightclub shooting, Evangelical theologian Albert Mohler tweeted, “The Bible honors weeping with those who weep. A lot of out LGBT neighbors & their families are weeping now. Christians must weep with them.” Then-Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren released a statement, “Heartbroken by what happened in Orlando. Join me today in praying for the families and victims of this tragedy.”

Yet the White House—the very symbol of a united states—couldn’t release anything close to that without bringing up politics or twisting the narrative?

How have we sunk so low?


…Take a deep breath…

I literally just noticed how much of my anger seeped into the previous paragraphs.

I started to edit out my own animosity in order to emulate a calmer persona.   I realized I likely alienated half the country, convincing no one. Further, I have been likely shoved into the category of right-wing gun nut. Or perhaps transphobic.

I have become used to the endless ad hominem attacks in response to my beliefs. I don’t enjoy them, but I come to expect them.

Nevertheless, I chose to not edit out my rant above. This was deliberate. Why?

As I realized the direction I was going in this essay, I had a little bit of an epiphany.

I realized I am not above the frenzy. I am not a cooler head. I wanted to write a piece about a kingdom response to a tragedy, trying to stand above the idiocy, and I wound up joining it.

My fallen heart took over and the rant began.

I am just as susceptible. I realized how quickly my anger took over.

I struggled deeply with this bizarre response. It only added to the pain.

All week, I have been reacting to news with rage and sarcasm. I couldn’t count the number of times I angrily posted something on social media responding to some perceived idiotic statement only to take it down seconds later.

Even though I believed I was not wrong, the question gnawed at me that this wasn’t the appropriate kingdom response.

The kingdom of God is not about being right. As Jesus stood trial, he could have spoken out. If anyone was in the right, it was him. All he needed to do was say something—correct the frenzied misconceptions and bogus charges against him–drop the mic and walk away.

But he didn’t.


Because there was something greater he was accomplishing than merely being right.

The kingdom is not about guns, gun control, mental illness, untwisting bizarre narratives, transphobia, calls to action, and political mic-drops. None of that will work. At best, it is a tiny band-aid on a severed jugular vein.

So, what is the greater objective than being right?

The kingdom is about proclaiming Jesus has come to correct a millennia-old problem—sin.

The kingdom is about unreciprocated love. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Easy enough. But he takes it a step further: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

Though my anger continues to flare up, those words would not stop ringing in my ears. My head—even my heart—knows they are true.

As I re-read Jesus’s commands, I could still feel the anger welling up inside of me: I just wish Christians on the other side of this debate would get off their high horses and do the same thing.

But that’s between them and God. I am not a part of that equation.

I should just focus on Jesus helping me navigate the darkness and chaos.

Next week is the Passion Week culminating in the hateful murder of the Savior of the world.

The love shown on the cross is unconditional and has nothing—nothing—to do with anyone’s definition of who is us and them. That love does not expect anything in return. There isn’t a political stance that could achieve that level of justice.

We must cling to that love, reflect it the best we can—especially in the face of suffering—and rely on God’s grace when we fail.

Your kingdom come, Lord. Your will be done.

My heart is broken over the events at Covenant School in Nashville this last week.

But so is his.

Over those twelve innocent lives lost. Over the trans killer. Over the hatred we all spread against each other while trying to score political points.

Jesus the resurrected Savior is the only answer.

Instead of stating my opinion, I have to understand how I can show the world the answer without engaging in the chaos.

As a member of the Kingdom of God, that needs to be my only objective.

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Final thoughts: Jesus, his kingdom, and predicting the end of the world

Apparently, in a matter of hours, we’re all going to die.


According to a Christian Numerologist—whatever that is—September 23, 2017 is the day when an unseen planet known either as Planet X or Nibiru will come crashing to earth, creating tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, flooding, and—far worse—the widespread release of the movie mother! to a frantic public.

This will result in wide-spread panic, confusion, and other levels of mayhem.

There is already evidence of this: The Great Solar Eclipse, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the flooding in Houston, and the Mexico City earthquake.

Even the Bible backs up this claim, Luke 21:25-26:

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Clearly, if you omit the last total eclipse in 1999, the next one in 2024, the lunar eclipse/blood moon of 2015, the four blood moons, as well as Hurricanes Katrina, Hugo, Inike, Camille, Andrew, Ike, Patricia, etc., the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, the 1993 and ’27 Mississippi River floods, how can one not see these verses are referring specifically to September 23, 2017?

To my knowledge, the world ended in 2003, 2011, 2012, 2015, in addition to the coming apocalypse on Saturday. That’s just the twenty-first century.  And who can remember all the times the world ended in the last? I am still suffering from the doomsday apocalypse of Y2K. And these are just the Christian predictions.

As I count down my final hours before Nibiru appears as a fiery sphere in the sky, a couple of thoughts come to mind. Why are we in Christ’s body so obsessed with the end of the world? And is all this effort within the body of Christ to predict the end of the world doing anything to further the kingdom of God?

Make no mistake, I believe that Jesus Christ will come again. I believe the prophecies of Revelation will happen, although I am unsure exactly what they will look like. But I also know that Jesus states that no one knows the day or the hour of his return (Matthew 24:36).

So why haven’t Jesus’s words stopped us from trying?

It would be easy to simply blame the writers, speakers, and promoters of popular eschatology (the study of the last days), taking advantage of a multi-million-dollar industry. Who wouldn’t want a cut of those profits? The cynic in me could just stop there.

But I think there is more to it. These end-time entrepreneurs wouldn’t have a market if we, the Christian body, weren’t so obsessed with it.

So why the obsession?

One wouldn’t have to look too far beyond the headlines for the answer. Every day for the last couple of months, there seems to be yet another catastrophic hurricane out in the Atlantic, another forest fire, another earthquake, another incident of mindless violence, another reminder of the deadly stare-down with North Korea, or another terrorist attack. Humans no longer talk to each other; we scream, degrade, and if those don’t work, kick the snot out of each other. It is overwhelming. In the words of singer Randy Stonehill: “It’s a great big stupid world, and I’m feeling kind of queasy as it spins around…”

What is most troubling is the realization that all of this is completely beyond our control. We simply don’t know how to fix the universe. We look to science, reason, and government to stop it but to no avail. There is simply nothing we can do. There are powers far greater than the human mind. These horrible events are daily reminders of our helplessness.

For us Christ-followers, we look beyond the natural for meaning to the chaos. We search the darkness for something to cling to. Obviously, we turn to Jesus. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I highly recommend it. He is, after all, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is the Savior of the world, the lighthouse in the storm, the loving shepherd and protector. Jesus is exactly to whom we should turn.

The problem comes when we turn our focus more on Jesus’s return than we do on the Jesus himself.

We don’t do this intentionally. We know that good wins over evil. The book of Revelation and the second coming point to an end of the suffering and chaos, an end which results in victory. And this focus brings relief. Knowing this, the next logical step is to turn our attention to when that will be. The when becomes the point of emphasis.

The when, however, is intentionally ambiguous. If the Son of Man doesn’t know, then how can we? Yet we continue to look at the Bible as a code, a numbers game, a treasure map. The Bible is the Word of God, the answer to all; therefore, the when just has to be in there somewhere. It is there simply for us to discover.

So, we scour the Bible for new clues. We read books that look to the sky claiming to have unlocked said clues. We attend seminars meshing current events to the Scriptures to understand.

I can’t help but to wonder if this is our attempt to run toward Jesus, to cling to someone bigger than ourselves.

The truth is, we are burning too much of our energy and resources trying to unlock the details about the end of the world. Instead, we should turn that energy to being the kingdom of God in the face of great suffering and chaos.

Whenever I see a headline of yet another Christian predicting the end of the world, I cringe. The truth is, end-time Christians who make bold, specific predictions about the end have never been right. After their predictions turn out wrong, they don’t reform themselves. They simply let enough time pass before they can figure out and write about the next celestial event that will most certainly spell the end.

But every time a failed prediction passes, the body of Christ loses a little more credibility. After all, if Christians are so wrong about predicting the end of the world, couldn’t they also be wrong about the deity of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection? Why should the world accept the message of the cross when its followers get the end of the world so wrong so frequently? Why should we even be trusted?

These failed predictions do little more than affirm the world’s stereotypes that Christians are nothing more than superstitious buffoons. They put the Christian faith on the defensive and cheapen the message of grace the cross brings.

And the cross should always be our focus.



With the world coming apart, the church still must be the church

I haven’t said much during this week following the violence in Charlottesville. I have followed the rhetoric on social media and have been saddened by what we have become. But I felt it unwise to say anything, even if it meant not expressing sadness. In truth, I really don’t know what to say that wouldn’t merely contribute to the growing cesspool that is social media. I have no idea how to fix this ugliness.

But my heart is churning.

Although I lean conservative, I am finding it impossible to take sides. I cannot, in the name of Jesus, stand with the white nationalist groups. Their ideology is repulsive and un-Christlike. Any attempts to hijack the name of Christ to their cause is an abomination. And nothing could justify the violence done.

On the other hand, I have watched the violence, intimidation, and hate perpetrated by the Antifa movement over the last several months, and also despise what they stand for. Using violence and silencing people who don’t agree with you isn’t the best way to persuade. Oppression used in the name of fighting oppression is still oppression.

Both groups are two sides of the extremist coin, one that historically never goes well. If either side truly gets their way, freedom ceases to exist. There seems to be no heroes, no “good guys.” Both sides effectively dehumanizes the other so successfully that when one group physically attacks the other, it becomes nearly impossible to express any kind of grief or outrage—even when an individual’s life is tragically snuffed out.

It is imperative to remember the person who was killed as a person and call out the violence against her for what it was—evil.

It is also imperative, as Christ-followers, to not allow ourselves to take sides. Both the Evangelical Right and Progressives are making the exact same mistake: instead of calling out the evil of the extremes for what it is, we are minimizing, justifying, or ignoring the evil if it comes out of the narrative with which we identify. We sacrifice our prophetic voice in the name of what we consider the “greater good.”

Karl Barth once said, “When the church weds itself to the spirit of the age, it will find itself a widow in the next.” Our nation, and even our church itself, is experiencing a serious identity crisis. We don’t know who we are anymore. We must not give in to the temptation to side with one extreme or the other.

Church, in the name of Jesus, be the church.

We are not the church if we allow our prophetic voice to fall under the submission of a political cause or politician. We are not the church if we justify or minimize evil acts from either extreme of the political spectrum. We are not the church if we are selective in our outrage. We are not the church if we liken the kingdom of God to any political cause. We are not the church if we take any side to the left and right extremisms for the cause of the “greater good” no matter how we define it.

We must be the church. We are the church when we are a church of love, loving and showing that love in the face of all forms of extremism. We are the church only when Jesus is our cause, not a political side (note: there is not a single political cause worth fighting for can fully represent the Kingdom of God). We are the church only when we are a church of prayer. We are the church only when we sacrifice our political voice at the expense of conservatism or liberalism. We are the church only when we look to Jesus as the answer and not some political cause.

We don’t know what this nation will look like if or when we ever solve this identity crisis. But rest assured that no matter how it turns out, Barth’s warning is accurate: if we allow our churches to wed to the spirit of the age—whether political conservativism or progressivism, then the entire body of Christ will be a widow in the years to come.

That is something we cannot allow to happen.

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How the church lost our prophetic voice in 2016 (and how we might get it back)

On Friday, our next president will be sworn in.

The 2016 election ended the most bizarre, unsettling campaign season I’ve ever seen. Afterward I felt great relief, not because my candidate won (I couldn’t vote for either major candidate) but because it was finally over.

Thankfully, mercifully, happily over.

Then the protests and riots began—the most violent of them in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. The losers threw tantrums while the winners gloated.

My heart hasn’t stopped aching about the 2016 election season. However, what troubled me most was not the candidates, but the body of Christ. I consider 2016 to be the year the church lost its prophetic voice.

Both progressive and conservative Christians took their eyes off God’s simple requirement: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Each side seemed to have a sickening case of tunnel vision, condemning vile behaviors in the other candidate while overlooking equally vile behaviors in their own. God’s people could have called for justice and repentance without scrambling down into the mud with everyone else. But we didn’t. So we lost our prophetic voice.

What do I mean by prophetic voice?

Consider King David.

In 2 Samuel, David had just committed a string of terrible sins. First, he sleeps with the wife of Uriah, one of his top warriors. Then, when she gets pregnant, he craftily calls Uriah back from the battlefield for a little—ahem!—“R&R” with her, to hide who the father is; but Uriah won’t enter his own home because doing so would dishonor his fellow warriors, who are still fighting and can’t enjoy such luxuries. Thwarted, David resorts to premeditated murder. He commands his general to put Uriah on the front lines and then withdraw the troops, leaving Uriah to be killed.

The plan works; David gets away with both adultery and murder.

Until the prophet Nathan shows up to tell the king a story:

“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him” (1 Samuel 12:1-4).

Hearing this tale of injustice, David rages: “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity” (12:5-6).

Only then does Nathan close the trap: “You are that man” (12:7).

This story can help us understand the prophetic voice, and also how we lost it.

The prophetic voice speaks truth to power. Nathan had to deliver a stinging rebuke to a king. Although David’s kingdom was ruled by God’s law (the Torah), in a monarchy the king is the arbiter of the law, and can essentially do whatever he wants. Though David was considered a man after God’s own heart, he did not hesitate to commit sin and then hide it.

I admit I can get pretty starry-eyed around “kings” (people who have wealth and fame – like when I used to do on-air interviews of musicians, politicians, and other celebrities at a Christian radio station). In fact, who doesn’t? For some reason, most of us want rich, famous people to think we are cool. However, if God so instructed, would I have the courage to speak God’s uncomfortable truth to power? Nathan did, even knowing it might cause his political downfall or possibly his physical death.

It took great courage for the prophet to deliver this rebuke to a king. But the prophetic voice must speak God’s truth to whomever God instructs, no matter how powerful and no matter what the potential consequence.

The prophetic voice must transcend our own political agenda. Nathan could have convinced himself that maybe he didn’t hear God correctly, or that David’s sin wasn’t all that bad. After all, David was doing some great things: establishing a beautiful capital in Jerusalem, bringing the ark of the covenant back home, and defeating some pretty bad enemies of Israel. He was a good king overall, so why care about his personal life? Why bother with his sins (or “mistakes”)? After all, bringing him down would d– evastate not only the palace and royal family, but the entire nation as well.

When my alma mater’s president posed next to then-candidate Donald Trump with a Playboy cover on the wall behind them, I cringed. I know he didn’t pick where he stood in Trump’s office, but that photo seemed representative of what was going on among Christians at that time: we were more than willing to overlook sin if it benefited our political agenda. Maybe Trump was our guy because he preached pro-life, so we didn’t care about his playboy lifestyle; or maybe Clinton was our gal because she preached benefits for all, so we didn’t care about her unethical practices; or maybe Sanders was our guy because he preached social justice, so we didn’t care that he doesn’t even really believe in God.

So we lost the moral high ground. Or, as Judge Judy says, we accused without clean hands. We found that we cannot call out the splinter in our opponent’s eye when we have a plank in our own.

The prophetic voice should lead to a repentant heart. Nathan approached David not just to spew vitriole or delegitimize his kingship, but to call David to repentance. And David immediately responded, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13). Psalm 51 beautifully expresses his repentance:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain m
(Psalm 51:10-12).

True, David was a true follower of God who cared deeply about God’s opinion, while many of today’s politicians and pundits aren’t. Still, we don’t even try to do what Nathan did: confront them directly and call them to account, led by God with the purpose of effecting repentance. Instead we confront them indirectly on social media, led by our own silly passion—pointlessly mocking them, repeating wild rumors about them, and insulting their followers. That’s the world’s methodology, and we are not being God’s prophetic voice when we imitate it. Our objective must be repentance—which, by the way, always includes our own.

So, under a new president, can the church regain its prophetic voice? Or will we keep practicing the world’s ways of jeering, rejecting, and tearing down without building up?

I hope we’ll do the former. But we’ll have to look within. Will we try to speak God’s truth, in love, to everyone or just to those with whom we disagree? Will we seek justice for all, or only for those we personally deem oppressed? Will we pray for our president, not for him to grow a brain or roll over dead but to humbly repent, seek reconciliation, and lead our nation with wisdom and grace?

Nathan’s gentle, truthful approach softened David’s heart to hear God’s words. We too must maintain a gentle spirit of repentance for ourselves, our opposition, and our whole society. God’s kingdom must come first; no political party, preference, or agenda is more important.

To regain our prophetic voice, we must be brave, loving, and consistent, or else remain silent.

I am pretty sure silence is not an option.

We must do better.

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Seriously, what is going on with this presidential election, and what do we do now?

hillary_clinton_vs-_donald_trump_-_caricaturesIn the last few days – amid yet another outbreak of scandalous news items and a second debate involving the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates – traditional and social media continue to warn us that if the “wrong” candidate wins, the sky will fall, children will starve, and the Yellowstone caldera will erupt.

Then there are thoughtful commentaries by Christian writers and leaders, trying to present biblical reasons why Christians should vote one way or the other. Theologian Mirasolv Volf says the policies of Hillary Clinton best represent Christian values; theologian Wayne argues that Trump is the better choice.

Christian progressives wag their fingers at Christian conservatives for being single-issue voters, without admitting that they themselves often are too. And don’t get me started on the old argument that “if you don’t vote, then X will win and the sky will fall, children will starve, and the Yellowstone caldera will erupt.”

If I am for anything in this election, it is for hitting the reboot button on 2016 and trying again.

I am pretty sure that as Jesus watches this election, he is slowly beating his head against the pearly gates.

Of all the presidential elections in my ever-lengthening lifetime, this one is the most bizarre, frustrating, and insane. If nothing else, it is a commentary on the level to which we the American people have sunk.

As an independent who leans right of center on most issues, my struggle is not which candidate to vote for, but whether to vote at all. I know, I know – in a constitutional democratic republic such as ours, voting is a privilege and a duty. I agree. But this time, it feels like a choice between being buried alive and being burned at the stake. How can I vote for either?

Honestly, as an evangelical Christian, I have serious problems with both of the top two candidates. Equally.

I know it’s un-Christlike, but I have trouble seeing either of them with the compassion of Christ. I would prefer that neither one be my president. Neither exhibits the moral compass or the character traits I desire in my nation’s leader. Both seem corrupted, out of touch with ordinary people, and willing to say anything to get votes. And in truth, one cannot—absolutely cannot—point out the character flaws in one without pointing out virtually the same flaws in the other. (The conspiracy theorist in me can’t shake the uneasy feeling that we, the people, are somehow being played.)

No matter who becomes president, I am not optimistic about the next four years.

So as Christ-followers, what do we do? Here is my advice to all Christian voters, which I really hope to follow myself.

Vote your own personal conscience. If, unlike me, you have a preference of one candidate over another, by all means vote. Even if you simply feel led to choose one as the lesser of two evils so the other doesn’t win, then cast your ballot. But don’t delude yourself that your candidate will advance Christian values. In politics, Christians – like most other segments of our society – are just a voting block to be patronized or demonized every election year. No matter what is promised before the election, Christian concerns are unlikely to carry any special clout afterward.

Pray for the candidates and other leaders. It looks like either Clinton or Trump soon will be elected president. Yet neither seems to be seeking God’s perspective. That’s all the more reason to follow the biblical mandate to pray for them, and for our other leaders. And our prayers should be not cynical (“Lord, help this idiot to get a clue”) but sincere, seeking God’s wisdom, discernment, and protection over the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court as well. We must pray with a pure heart for the occupants of all three.

Remember that God’s kingdom is greater than earthly governments. The kingdom of God never has been, and never will be, represented by any secular government. It begins in our hearts, not in Washington, D.C. – and is carried out through our own actions, not through the actions of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of government. No matter who wins this election, things can change, rights can be taken, and Christians can be pushed further toward the margins. But the kingdom of God has outlasted countless forms of government in the last two thousand years. We can be pretty sure it will outlast a Clinton or Trump presidency. It will even outlast a shift in the Supreme Court.

In less than a month we will have a new president, and the winning side will wrongly claim that their win is a mandate. (I say wrongly because when a majority of voters see both candidates unfavorably and blindly vote for the one they find slightly less despicable than the other, that’s not a mandate.) Then the losing side will vow cooperation with the new administration, while at the same time planning its demise.

Many voters will be filled with gratitude that this surreal election is over – but also filled with fear and anger at the outcome. Maybe, instead of railing against the new administration, we should spend the next four years reflecting on how the winner was able to channel that fear and anger into votes by tickling our ears.

And each Christ-follower should spend the next four years being the church to his or her own little corner of the world. Doing so will bring change far better and faster than any bloated bureaucracy ever could.


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Reclaiming my identity in Christ, not politics

Especially during election season, politics make me crazy – and Facebook is the first place I show it.

Usually, it begins with news of some political action or position I find untenable. I sink into a funk and share witty quips to expose it – but too often I take personal aim at its supporters, devolving into biting sarcasm. Since my ultimate goal is to be loving, not biting, I’m constantly asking God to save me from myself (and constantly thanking him for the “delete” function).

One recent funk started on a Tuesday, the day of the Oregon primary election. All morning I tried to ignore my ballot on the corner of my desk, debating whether it was worth the effort to turn it in. I have never been so unexcited about voting in my life.

political_partiesLike millions of other voters, over time I have felt more and more beaten down by politicians from both major political parties – specifically by their tone-deaf disregard for us, their constituents. However, our current choices, specifically for president, seem no better than those of the past; in fact, to me they seem much worse. In most elections I am concerned that my candidate might lose, but this time I am horrified that one of the remaining choices is actually going to win.

They’ve ignored us, lied to us, insulted us, and promised us a fantasy so far beyond the Constitutional powers of a president that no president could legally deliver on it.

But we don’t seem to know or care; we just keep crying out, “Gimme! Gimme!”

It seems Paul’s ancient warning about theological pandering could apply almost equally to political pandering today:

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3, NIV).

Sadly, there are a lot of teachers, leaders, politicians, academics, and even ministers willing to tickle those itching ears. It is amazing how quickly we will abandon critical thinking in our quest for identity and security. Like a barnacle on a boat, we’ll latch on to anything – including any leader, no matter how crass, dishonest, or delusional – just to hear what we want to hear.

However, as I stared in depression at that ballot, I realized something which brought me great hope.

identity1It is this: I haven’t lost my identity at all. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I identify with the kingdom of God. I don’t have to fight or campaign for it because it has been given to me. My kingdom identity cannot be taken from me in an election, nor is it represented by a political party. This identity does not need to be affirmed by a fickle candidate or cause, and its existence is not contingent on popular support.

Further, I realized that the church has an opportunity to re-establish its identity within the culture. No matter who wins the election, we may have lost the culture wars in America – but we can still be spiritual warriors in God’s kingdom.

How? To do so, we must wrestle with three important questions:

1) What is the church’s most important role in our society right now? Is it to champion a cause or a belief, or is it to serve people in Jesus’ name?

Currently, in the U.S., I believe it is the latter. The Christian right correctly believes we are to be a moral voice in our culture, telling the truth about sin and repentance. The Christian left correctly believes we are to be advocates for “the least of these,” helping the poor and oppressed. However, in both cases, we as Christians should be doing those things ourselves – not trying to get the government to do them.

2) Are we ready to submit all of our political agendas to Jesus as King? After all, when the presidential election is over, the “winners” will herald utopia while the “losers” will proclaim disaster; but the new administration will last only a few short years before another will take its place. Do we truly believe that God’s very kingdom itself depends on the outcome of human governments?

Newsflash: No political party – conservative, progressive, or socialist – can claim exclusive rights to the kingdom of God, which is far greater than Trump, Clinton, or Sanders. His kingdom will outlast this election and all future elections.

3) Are we willing to lose our place in society in order to gain Jesus? In the U.S., we Christians struggle with the idea that our faith is becoming marginalized. One could argue whether we were ever a “Christian” nation, but even if we were, we are quickly becoming a secular one. We are now on the outside looking in, living in the margins. The question is, what should we be doing in those margins?

Maybe, instead of working to reclaim America as a Christian nation, we should be working to surrender America to God.

No matter who wins the election.


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The outsiders: Faith and exile in America

5130991619_5f2a3bd38d_zLately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live as an outsider, marginalized by society.

Being an outsider is the focus of a chapter I am currently working on for my next book: when I am not researching, I am writing and reflecting on the topic.

I have always struggled with a feeling of “outsiderness,” but the feeling has been getting stronger recently. I really don’t “belong” anywhere. Academically, I wear the scarlet letter of a failed PhD. Philosophically, I am a small-town Montana boy whose beliefs and values go against those of my city (Portland, Oregon). Temperamentally, I am an introvert in a society which prizes extraversion. And politically, I find the most popular candidates for president to be either childish and vulgar, or lacking in credibility, or both. So even in my own country’s political process, with “outsider” candidates capturing huge numbers of votes, I feel like an even bigger outsider than they are because I don’t understand what their supporters see in them. I don’t get it; I just don’t fit in. I keep thinking, Why am I so out of step with everyone else? What am I missing?

For most of my life I have been “on the outside,” but like most people I have never wanted to be – and I have wasted much time and energy fighting to get “in.”

I wasn’t always an outsider. In grade school, I was the “it” kid (whatever “it” is); my house was the happening place. I reached out to everyone, and every prepubescent person in our neighborhood congregated at the Hochhalters. At church I won every “bring-a-friend” contest, and each summer they sent a Vacation Bible School bus directly to my front door to carry all of the friends I invited (true, the bus did make a few other stops, but not many).

But after my parents’ divorce, everything changed. I became bitter, shy, and fat. I definitely wasn’t popular anymore. Kids no longer came over because I had “it”. They only came over because I had a BB gun.

I flunked sixth grade and started my journey as the reject, always dreaming about what it would be like to be cool again.

4268300971_baf56e495d_zAnd then I added yet another undesirable “outsider” trait to my already-long list: gradually, over time, I decided that I was serious about being a Christian. This choice has only increased my “outsiderness”. Culturally, I long to be accepted and live in the center; but—especially in Portland, one of the most “unchurched” cities in the U.S.—I am marginalized. The harder I resist being rejected for my faith, the more society insists that Christians like me are outsiders, relegated to the margins.

Yet as much as I dislike my “place” on the outside, at the edges, in the margins, I see that it is here where God is the most comfortable—the most intimate and redemptive. It is here where grace shines the brightest. It is here where Jesus lives.

Jesus is the epitome of an outsider. At his birth he is laid in a manger (Luke 2:4-7), certainly not the hippest choice for a crib. He grows up in Nazareth, a town held in low regard (John 1:45-46). He lives to upset cultural and religious norms (Mt 10:34-39). He dies as a reject (Isaiah 53:3). And he says that, in this world, his followers will experience the same. Instead of status and prestige, he promises us hostility, saying: “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matthew 10:22).

Not the strongest recruiting line I’ve ever heard.

Throughout scripture, God is always working in the margins. In Genesis, he chooses as his people a bunch of nondescript nomads who become slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14) and, to lead them, Moses – a fearful, stuttering individual (Exodus 3:11, 13 and 4:1, 10, 13) with anger issues (Numbers 20:9-12, 27:17). After Moses dies, the people inhabit the Promised Land and eventually grow into the great nation of Israel, led by a succession of three great kings – Saul, David, and Solomon. But their golden age of wealth and expansion as a superpower lasts only a couple of generations; then Israel fractures into a divided kingdom and ends in another form of rejection and outsiderness: exile.

While the Israelites are living in exile, as outsiders in pagan Babylon, God does not promise immediate rescue but instructs them to embrace their “outsider” status for the long haul:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7, NIV).

During this time, God never tells his people to seek recognition or acceptance in the center of society. He never tells them to fight for their rights – not even the right to worship him. In fact, he almost seems to prefer the times when they live as nomads, slaves, and exiles. If so, I don’t know his reason, but it could be that those are the times when his people are the most humble, teachable, and dependent on him.

In our time, God’s people are again being pushed to the margins. Many previously “Christian” countries, including the U.S., are now post-Christian; Christians have lost the culture war. More and more, we are in exile. We are outsiders.

This reality, though painful, is not necessarily a bad thing. Like the Jews in exile, maybe we are meant to accept and thrive in our outsiderness – because it is on the outside, in the margins, where the church really thrives.

Political pundit and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes:

Pagans have been trying to kill Christianity for two thousand years, and each day it dies, and each day it rises. Force it underground and you empower it. You draw rebels, real rebels, the kind society doesn’t acknowledge till half a century later, but powerful people nonetheless. The faith will not only endure but flourish, and, as it does in times of adversity, produce real saints.[1]

110631988In fact, the most powerful periods in Christian history are not when Christians are in the center, but when Christians are on the outside looking in – or better yet, looking up.

So we must develop a higher worldview – a kingdom worldview. Our instructions are actually quite simple, but somehow very easy to forget: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27).

It’s only natural to try to avoid rejection if we can; I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But I am saying two things: First, we must stop confusing hurt feelings with real persecution (for example, stop complaining about losing our “right” to say “Merry Christmas” – while Christians elsewere are losing their heads). And second, according to Jesus, we should expect rejection and persecution, and face both as he did – with grace and courage (Philippians 2:5-8).

So being an outsider, much as I resist it, is part of the terms and conditions of my faith. Therefore, instead of fighting so hard against my outsiderness, I believe it’s time for me to start embracing it and trying to understand God’s purposes in it.

Following Jesus is not primarily about winning court cases, getting the right politicians elected, or being accepted by the culture. It’s not wrong to care about those things – but it is wrong to make legal and political victories our primary goals, because those things are not what matter most; Jesus is. Instead of raging against our post-Christian world, we should be loving it as he did – yes, even if it hates us.

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Advent: Lighting the darkness, one dim bulb at a time

Advent-Light2The first week of December, as I sat on my couch untangling Christmas lights, I saw the breaking TV news of two active shooters in San Bernardino.

It was terrible. My first reaction was shock. I saw the confusion, the horror.

But as the news unfolded, my second reaction was dread—dread of what I knew would follow. And sure enough, instead of a focus on compassion and support for the victims, their families, and the first responders, immediately there sprang up arguments about how to fix it.

As the victims bled, pundits began talking on every network, while ordinary folks started blowing up the Internet. All were commenting from comfy remote locations; none were in the path of danger, surrounded by death and destruction or risking life and limb to help. Yet—while police cleared the site, helped the injured, and searched for the shooters—these people who weren’t there, who didn’t hear the screams or see the blood or feel the bullets, promoted sure-fire solutions on TV and shouted each other down in social media.

I kept wishing we could take a moment to feel the shock and truly grieve together, before we started destroying each other with zingers and blame.

Then it got worse. The next day, the cover of the New York Daily News blared, “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.” In other words: Screw God; either he doesn’t exist, or he doesn’t care. We must fix this ourselves.

The problem is, we can’t.

As the aftermath played out in San Bernardino, my growing frustration was that we truly don’t have a solution to the terror. No matter how many laws we pass or therapists we hire, determined criminals and mentally ill people will still make deadly choices. From the moment Cain killed Abel, violence has been and will always be a tragic part of human nature.

And I feel helpless to stop it.

Deep down, I think we all do. In the big picture, we know there are no permanent, failsafe solutions that will end all violence and killing – so, instead of letting ourselves feel deep sadness and grief, we immediately jump to anger, frustration, and debate.

However, in my own small way, there is something I can do. And, no matter how trivial it may sound amid mass killings (and believe me, there is nothing trivial about that), it is a symbolic gift to the world.

I can hang Christmas lights.

Jesus told his followers:

“You ar­­e the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, NIV)

My house is not “built on a hill.” In fact, it is hard to see—it’s off the street, behind other buildings. But it does have two stories. So I climb up there and hang the lights as high as I can, where they can be seen over the other rooftops. My lights are mostly the standard ropes and icicles –but at the very top, I hang a silhouette of the star and the Holy Family to shine out in the dark, watching over the neighborhood.

Compared to other light displays I have seen, mine is nothing extravagant—in fact, it’s quite modest—but in the darkness of a long December night, it shines very brightly. Its light can be seen from far away throughout Advent.

It’s no mistake that Advent occurs during the darkest time of all. In the northern hemisphere, late December has the least light and the shortest days of the whole year. For many, the lack of light is most depressing. But Advent means “coming.” So Advent is a time of hope, anticipation, and waiting in the darkness—a time which reminds us just how helpless we are. The world is broken and, contrary to humanistic Enlightenment thinking, there are some things humans just can’t fix. So, in our darkness, we groan and cry out for God to step in and save us.

In my neighborhood, there isn’t much light. Instead, there is brokenness, abuse, and addiction behind covered windows. Very few homes sparkle with Christmas cheer. Although there are many good people here, there is also a lot of darkness.

Yet it is only in the dark that light has value. Christmas lights can barely be seen in the brightness of day. They only dazzle in darkness. And the deeper the darkness, the more the smallest pinpoint of light attracts the eye. Likewise, in the darkness of our world, I am called to be a pinpoint of light that will draw eyes to my Savior.

Advent-Light3So, as I untangled my light strings and crawled out on my roof with a staple gun, thinking of San Bernardino, I realized that although I can’t undo that tragedy, I can add light to this messed-up world—both literally and figuratively. My Christmas lights may be somewhat dim and crooked with a few bulbs missing, yet they still shine through the dark to all who pass by. In the same way, my reflection of Christ may be flawed and spotty, but to the best of my ability, I can still shine his light into this dark world.

No one can fix everything. In fact, most of us can’t fix much of anything.

But each of us can do something. We can light the darkness. Individually and in our faith communities, we can engage with the needs all around us. Feed the hungry. Befriend the lonely. Clothe the threadbare. Comfort the broken.

And above all, we can pray. There is power in prayer and, despite headlines to the contrary, prayer is the primary action we should take before anything else.

During Advent, as God’s people have always done, we groan and cry out for our Savior to enter our darkness.

Our greatest need is not political solutions.

Our greatest need is Jesus.

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The gift of “angry eyes” on Halloween

I love fall, and that includes the guilty pleasure of Halloween.

When I was a kid, Halloween was a great community event. I have fond memories of trick-or-treating on crisp, windy nights in a town where every home was filled with light and candy, ready to greet small visitors whose costumes were mostly covered by winter coats to block the Montana chill. The coats weren’t in character, but then again, neither were shivering zombies.

So, a few years ago, I decided to get in the spirit: I turned our house into a “monster house,” with two angry eyes to watch over the neighborhood at night.

Our house has two upstairs dormer windows, so I illuminate each one with an orange outline, a red iris, and a scowling purple eyebrow. This year I also outlined the garage door below them in a clumsy attempt to make a mouth. Then I replaced our two white porch lights with red ones, right about where the dimples should be. (Do monsters have dimples?) The resulting monster face is crude and unrefined, but I enjoy it and so do the trick-or-treaters.

Here’s my best photo, as an amateur photog, of our Monster House. 🙂 The reflections below the eyes are unintentional.

However, this year the project turned into a headache. I was swamped by other household chores and business matters, and frustrated because my well of possible blog topics had run dry. The last thing I wanted to do was to feel the October sun beating down on the rapidly-expanding bald spot on the back of my head as I crawled around on my roof with cords and tools, wrangling strings of lights and screwing them into place.

And on top of that, this year the process did not go well. I had forgotten the cardinal rule of plugging in and checking the lights before attaching them to the roof. After I got them all up and plugged in, I saw that one eyebrow and half of one iris wouldn’t light. So I took them down again, only discover the problem: I had not plugged them in correctly. After fixing that problem, I put them up for a second time and everything was fine – until I learned we had to caulk all of the windows and doors before winter. Once again, the lights had to be taken down and then put up for a third time.

I really was not thrilled about my Halloween decorations this year. And every time I had to crawl out onto the roof yet again, my grumbling about it became more and more pronounced.

So why do it? What’s the point? Aren’t there better things I could be doing?

I never asked that question until this year. And this year I asked it many, many times – each time with more, shall we say, gusto than the last.

I didn’t have an answer until I finished the job for the third time, all sweaty and cranky and sore.

I called my wife outside to look.

As we stood in the dark, looking up at that silly, cartoonish monster face, she commended me for choosing to put it up three times and then said, “You’ve brought a gift to the neighborhood.”

That’s when it suddenly made sense why I went through all the trouble.

You see, we live in one of the many neighborhoods, more and more common these days, which has earned the nickname “Felony Flats.”

Far from the hip, trendy parts of Portland, this neighborhood is dotted with junk cars, drug houses, shouting matches, and occasional police raids. In fact, shortly after we moved in, just after Halloween and before we got an alarm system, our own house was robbed of whatever the robbers could carry, including that year’s leftover Halloween candy. Ironically, though, I don’t feel unsafe here – partly because the drug dealers (whom we greet by name as we get the mail or take out the trash, and who may or may not know that we have observed their drug dealing) try to keep the neighborhood crime and disturbances to a minimum since they don’t want the cops coming around.

So Halloween is different here than it was where I grew up. Here, most houses remain dark and unwelcoming, with the occupants turning in early or going elsewhere to avoid the constant doorknocks. Yet despite my dream of living someplace less crowded, noisy, and stressful, I am coming to the conclusion that—at least for now—this is where God wants me. And when I get beyond my own selfishness, it is not hard to understand why: Jesus loves the people here. He died for them. He is the light in their dark world.

And that is why I climb up on the roof every year to hang the lights. Despite my constant  complaining, even in past blogs, about living in this neighborhood, I choose—in a moment of spiritual enlightenment—to be a gift to our neighborhood. The local kids don’t have much, but our house is one of the few which deliberately invites them in. Families escort their children from blocks away to trick-or-treat here. Under the glow of the eyes, they waddle up our driveway in a long, comical parade. The rule is, no candy until after they show us their costumes, so we can “ooh” and “ahh” over them, and ask them to tell us their names and where they live. After many smiles and much laughter, they and their parents grab handfuls of chocolate eyeballs and other body parts from our big candy bowl, and go happily on their way.

We’ve been told that visiting the “monster house” is an eagerly anticipated event, for kids and parents alike.

In the entire scheme of things, decorating my house doesn’t seem like much. Some people do much greater things to serve others. However, in God’s kingdom, any gift to others – no matter how small – can be used.

When my wife reminded me that this effort is a gift to the neighborhood, I realized that it is an act of love. Jesus wants us to be a gift to our neighbors

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