The Political Church

Maybe like me, you’ve been watching some of the Republican and Democratic conventions. Part spectacle, part showmanship, part pep rally, and part democracy, it’s interesting to see who speaks at these events, and what they say.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the conventions is how they sometimes feel like church. You have a speaker “preaching” core elements of their party’s beliefs. You have enthusiasm, fellowship, music, and disagreement (just like church). And you have passion. You even have prayer – though, I gotta say, I wasn’t comfortable with this one (not least, because the minister seems to forget about Ephesians 6.12), or this one (not least, because prayer becomes just another opportunity for people to cheer or jeer a candidate they like/dislike). But most of all, these prayers concern me, because they seem to forget that the Church has its own form of politics.

It’s true. The Church has a specific form of politics. But it’s not Republican or Democrat, Green or even Independent. It’s something far different.

First off, the word “politics,” at its most basic level, simply refers to how we structure our common lives. Politics is what we do to find a way to live together. And so, every group or city, every organization or country, has a politics.

The Church is no different. What is different, though, is how we live out our politics. For the Church is not first concerned with government structures or policies, but in embodying the truth and life of a person from Nazareth. Believing that Jesus is the embodiment of God, we as the Church seek to embody his life and presence through our common life as the Church.

So, to be a follower of Jesus is to be political. But not in the way Republicans or Democrats have been embracing these past couple of weeks. But to be a Christian is to live out a politics that puts into practice what we say we believe.

So, what do the politics of the Church look like? Let me suggest it looks something like the following:

  1. We surrender our right to claim our own rights. Christians aren’t first concerned about claiming their right to live how they feel, but in picking up a cross and walking in the way of Jesus.
  2. We surrender our right to go at life alone. To walk in the way of Jesus is to bind yourselves to others on the journey. To follow Jesus is to follow him with others – it’s what we call the Church.
  3. Which leads to the next element of the politics of the Church that I believe is so often missed: we don’t leave when things get tough. Church isn’t something you “come to” until you get mad at someone, or you don’t like the music or the minister, or until “it just doesn’t work for me anymore.”
  4. And #3 is true, I believe, because we grow best when we join our lives with people who are just as messed-up, and grumpy, and selfish as we are. In fact, this is exactly why we need to find a church family, and settle in with them. If we bounce around from church to church, we take our mess and selfishness with us. But if we stay put, we are more likely to be shaped and changed by those we share the journey with over the long haul.
  5. By staying put, we learn to love each other, and to share that love with those outside the Church. And a core element of the politics of the Church is that we exist to share the love of Jesus with everyoneEvery one. Long before political parties were talking about equal rights for everyone, the Church was talking about equality for everyone. And when we haven’t been talking about this, we haven’t been the Church.
  6. That equality extends to the equal need we all have for a Savior. All are broken; all need restoration; all are called.
  7. The Church then believes that all who respond to walk in the way of Jesus are then called to use their gifts in service to others. The call of Jesus extends to everyone, as does the gifting of his Spirit to all who respond. All are called; all who respond are gifted; all who are gifted should then work out their giftedness for the sake of the Church and the world.

Imagine what the Church can look like when all 7 elements of our “politics” are on full display. Imagine what kind of gathering we can have on Sundays, and what kind of “scattering” we can embody Monday through Saturday.

So, yes, I believe in politics. And I believe in the Church. And I believe that when we get both of them right, we embody the very Kingdom of God. Not arrogantly, or perfectly, or completely. But when we understand the Church’s politics – that is, our very way of being – we become a living witness for the love of God, the presence of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s a platform I can endorse wholeheartedly.

SheepCam 360

Say you live on an island nobody’s ever heard of. Say you share the island with people, but not very many – around 50,000. But say there are 70,000 other neighbors you have – neighbors of the woolly, short-tailed variety. Sheep. And let’s say that these four-legged fellow-islanders have no natural predators, so they roam freely. How would you like to live there?

Well, you don’t have to imagine. It’s a real place, called The Faroe Islands – located just north of Great Britain, between Iceland and Norway. And you don’t have to hop a plane or a boat to get a glimpse of Faroe. Durita, who works with Faroese tourism, has come up with the idea of … get this: SheepCam 360. SheepCam is where you put a camera on a sheep, and watch where it goes.

As Durita points out, the word Faroe literally means “sheep” – and the Faroe Islands are one of the few places on earth where sheep can roam freely. Here’s Durita explaining the idea of SheepCam:

Here’s the first attempt at Sheepcam:

And here’s the latest episode:

So, why do I care about some sheep, a camera, and a faraway island? Well, because in a manner, we’re all sheep. We all tend to roam. We all need a Shepherd.

Some of the most-loved passages in the Bible remind us that we are sheep in need of a shepherd. Famously, Psalm 23 tells us this. As does Luke 15.1-7, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to go in search of the one lost sheep. There’s Psalm 100.3 (“We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture”); the majestic promise of Isaiah 53.6 (“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”); and the wonderful description in Ezekiel 34 of God Himself searching for His sheep. It’s truly an amazing passage. Trust me. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Didn’t I tell you Ezekiel 34 was good? Of course, there are also some powerful passages in the New Testament that describe our “sheep-ness.” There’s Matthew 9.36 (“When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”), and John 10. Like Ezekiel, you should probably pause and go read that passage, too.

In other words, of all the animals on God’s green earth, you and are most like … sheep. You don’t need to go to Faroe Islands to find them, just look in the mirror. You don’t need a SheepCam to watch them roam, just chart your day, and you’ll likely find out why the Bible tells us we are sheep. Sheep who roam, sheep you wander – sheep who desperately need a Shepherd.

Thinking about God’s Timing

I’ve had two conversations recently with friends who were facing real challenges, and both of them mentioned God’s timing – as in, I guess things will happen, all in God’s timing.

One of the comments had to do with a friend and a medical issue. The other had to do with a family member who is going through a particularly difficult time. In both cases, I sympathized with their concern, their hopes, and their dependence on God’s timing. As they talked about God doing things in His time, I felt with them the difficulty of waiting.

But here’s the thing: in the Church, there are a lot of phrases we use that sound good, but we struggle to pin down. The sense of God’s timing fits in here, I think. For, like many things we believe, there are dangers of going too far in either direction. Like steering a ship through a channel, you really want to be extra careful of getting too close to either side.

The twin dangers I see when it comes to using the phrase God’s timing are these: On the one hand, some would suggest that God is not involved in our lives or the details of our lives. God’s timing, then, is whatever is happening in your life – and what you choose to do with it. And, while I agree that we have to be careful to read too much into the details of our lives (not every flat tire is orchestrated by a Higher Power; not every decision is fraught with spiritual significance), we often do not know, at the time, what God is up to. Perhaps in hindsight, we can see more clearly how God was using the circumstances of our lives, but so often, in the moment, we can’t.

All of this means, to me, that we often don’t know right now what events are God-designed and what events are, well, just life. Now, that doesn’t excuse us from being faithful in every moment – flat tires, and all. But spirituality is not equated with being able to label everything with spiritual language.

The other danger, I think, is on the other side – and it’s seen in the belief that because something isn’t happening now, God isn’t ready for it to happen. The idea here is that things only happen when God wants them to – in God’s timing. Again, this isn’t to say that God doesn’t guide and lead events as He sees fit. He is, after all, God.

But specifically, there are a lot of things wrong with this world that, as I read the Bible, are not the will of God. And the reason that those things are happening isn’t because of God’s timing, but God’s patience. And God, in His endless patience, allows us, and our world, to make decisions that are contrary to His will.

For example, I have a friend who is concerned about someone in her family. And this someone is really having a difficult time, and having a difficult time with choices. And I told her, that in my view, this family member hasn’t come to the point of surrender, not because God’s timing is such that it should happen in the future. Instead, it seems to me that she hasn’t come to the point of surrender because of her timing.

Isn’t that what we read in Luke 15 in the story of the Lost Sons? A father lets his son leave with the son’s portion of the inheritance. The son then goes to a far country where, in the words of the King James Version, he “wasted his substance with riotous living.” Finally, the son “came to himself,” and realized his life, his choices, his timing, were a disaster. So, he heads home, only to find the father waiting for him, looking for him, running to embrace him.

In other words, God’s timing is now. God the Father waits for us to turn to Him, to return to Him. God’s timing is the moment we “come to ourselves,” and turn to the One who began waiting for us the moment we left home. God’s timing, it seems, is always now – in the moment, inviting, calling, waiting, looking, longing, ready for us to realize: the time is now to come home.

So, yes, I believe firmly in God’s timing. And His timing – for forgiveness, for grace, for hope, for rescue, for life, for new life – is now. And in that, God’s timing is always perfect.

A riddle (of sorts)

It’s something so simple a three-year-old child can do it. It’s something so daunting that someone who has done it her whole life feels like a three-year-old at it.

It’s as simple as opening your mouth. It’s as difficult as closing it.

You can do it with one word. Or a endless stream of words. Or even none.

It’s something you do when you’re happy. It’s something you do when you’re sad. And when you’re perplexed. Or angry. Or frustrated. Or just clueless.

It’s something many non-believers admit to doing. It’s something believers recognize they do far too little of.

It’s as basic as breathing, as essential as water, as necessary as having a good cry or scream, and it can be as refreshing as cool rainstorm on a muggy summer evening.

Have you figured out yet what I’m talking about? It’s prayer.

It’s something a child instinctively knows to do, but something so challenging that those who have been praying for decades still have days where praying something – anything – is a struggle.

Prayer involves opening your mouth and speaking your needs, your beliefs, even your un-beliefs, to God. But prayer also happens when we shut up long enough to hear God – through Scripture, or a friend, or the beauty of a foggy, spider-webbed morning.

Prayer is so central to life, that more than 1 in 3 “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) admit to praying at least monthly. There’s something innate in us that cries out in prayer. When someone we love is seriously ill, there’s something inside of us that wants to cry out in anguish to Someone. When that someone recovers, there’s something inside of us that wants to thank Someone. And if that person we we love doesn’t recover, there’s something inside us that wants to hurl our anger at Someone.

There’s a word for all of those reactions, for all of those voiced feelings and needs. It’s prayer.

Prayer isn’t just something we need to do; it’s something we must do. We were made to cry out at injustice. We were created to cry out in praise at the sight of beauty. We were made to cry out for help in our frailty. We were designed to cry out in gratitude for gifts of grace undeserved.

So, whether you are confident in your faith, confident in your “un-faith,” or somewhere in between – you were made to pray. And it really does start right where you are. With what you are feeling, questioning, experiencing – right where you are.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, or flowery, or even full of faith. It simply has to be honest, and real, and from the heart. With a hope, a trust, a longing for all of that to be heard by someone – by Someone, who hears our deepest cries, and sees our deepest needs.

So, what are you waiting for? Pray. Pray now.