Yard Signs

It seems to me that there are at least 3 ways to separate yourself from your neighbors. Put up a fence. Plant tall bushes or trees. Or you can put up yard signs. Because, really – when is the last time you walked by a neighbor’s house, noticed their yard sign, and stopped to say: I see you will be voting for _____________ for president/senate/congress/judge/sewer commissioner. Tell me more about his/her electoral qualities.

Nobody does that. Except the guy who wants to argue why your candidate of choice is the worst choice in the history of American elections. It seems to me that yard signs are less about starting a conversation, and more about sending a signal. I am FOR this candidate. I stand on the right side of THIS issue.

Of course, it’s not just yard signs. Bumper stickers & t-shirts can have the same effect. I even heard recently from a friend that someone had pressure-washed the word “Trump” into the sidewalk in his neighborhood. Several days later, someone came along and pressure-washed the cross-out symbol over his name.

If flying the flag for our presidential or political preference tends to erect a barrier between us and others, I wonder if the same can be true of faith expressions, too. Recently, on a walk, I noticed a sign I’d not seen before. It simply said: Jesus 2020. Now, that’s a sign I can certainly appreciate. I mean, if anyone needs to be in charge in 2020, it certainly would be Jesus. But, of course, Jesus isn’t on the ballot. If I’m not mistaken, he’s not even an American.

Even so, I can’t help but wonder: have those “Jesus 2020” signs led to any meaningful conversations? Have neighbors stopped by to ask: So tell me, how DO I go about voting for Jesus? (The answer, of course, would have to be: With your life.) Wouldn’t it be more likely for these neighborly Christian folk to have a real exchange about real things that matter – and the One who is behind it all – if they struck up a natural conversation through the course of naturally getting to know their neighbors? Wouldn’t their witness be more effective if, instead of putting a sign in their yard, they let their lives be the sign?

Of course, I don’t know them. Maybe that’s exactly what they do. Either way, I’m confident that we as believers are better at living out our calling when we seek to demonstrate to our neighbors the power of a life being transformed – while also being honest that we face real issues & struggles that continually remind us how much we have a real dependence on a real God. In other words, there’s no slogan or saying that can communicate to our neighbors the depth of what we believe, or the nuances of the ways it affects how we live. True faith isn’t ultimately a slogan, but a life – lived out, with others, through the day-to-day challenges and opportunities that come our way.

But of course, it’s so much easier to put up a sign in my yard or slap a sticker on my car. It’s more satisfying to vent on facebook or keep a Bible on my desk at work. But for so many in our world today, those efforts merely confirm what they already believe they know about Christians. Instead of having the intended effect – of drawing them to Jesus, or even simply inviting them into a conversation – they instead can set up an unnecessary barrier. So, as we wrap up an intense political season – and potentially move into a more difficult transition – how are you showing your faith? How are you representing Jesus? Through what you wear, or what you post, or what people see from your sidewalk? Or are you showing them what matters most by the one thing that fulfills God’s desires for his people?

That, of course, would be love. For the greatest commandment, Jesus tells us in Matthew 22, is to love God. And the second, he says, is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. And in a difficult season, in what has been a difficult year – which will certainly lead into more challenges in the year to come – what do we as believers want to be known for? Our politician of choice? Our preferred political party? Where we stand on the hot-button issues of the day? Instead, let’s be known for the one thing that has marked the Church in all seasons, in all cultures, in all political climates – the sign that has marked faithful believers no matter the political climate, or how acceptable it is to believe. The one thing – the one thing – that has been true of faithful followers of Jesus for 2000 years, has been love. So, no matter how 2020 ends, or where 2021 takes us, let’s make sure that doesn’t change. Let’s make sure we show Jesus most clearly, by clearly showing his love.

What we desperately need right now is something any of us can do

We’re missing one thing in our culture today. In the America that we have become, there is one element that we’ve largely cast aside. More specifically, we have stopped showing this trait to those who are different than us. Democrats and Republicans withhold it from each other. People who disagree about hot-button issues of sex and gender and race and immigration and the Supreme Court all seem to be lacking in one key area.

Kindness. The ability to treat someone in such a way that isn’t based on the differences we have about the human condition, but is rooted in the fact that both we and they are human.

Kindness doesn’t require you to agree even one iota with another person. It isn’t about seeing eye-to-eye. But it does involve looking someone in the eye, and seeing in them a person who, just like you, has needs, doubts, hurts, struggles, fears, prejudices, convictions, questions — as well as things they believe passionately, and things they’re prepared to defend til their dying breath.

Recently, I have been listening to two podcast episodes that brought this to mind. The first is this conversation between Kate Bowler and Margaret Feinberg. Both women have been diagnosed with cancer, and they talk about the various responses they’ve received from others — like the person who wrote an extended email to Kate, describing her in the past tense, and the numerous folks who recommended Margaret try a coffee enema. Yes, you read that right. Coffee in reverse, so to speak, as a cure for cancer.

But those who are facing a complex diagnosis that defies simplistic solutions ultimately don’t need a oddball cure or a trite theological truth. What is most helpful for them is something that truly anyone can offer: simple kindness.

The other podcast is this interview Mike Cosper has with Rachelle Starr. Listen to the entire episode, and hear a powerful story of God’s grace — and of leading with kindness. Rachelle sensed God calling her to show that kindness to women who experience anything but kindness: women in the sex industry. After a decade of this outreach, Rachelle and her team have learned how powerful it can be just to offer a simple meal and a listening ear. In other words, kindness.

See, here’s the thing: you don’t have to understand someone to offer them kindness. You don’t have to agree with them to say a kind word. You don’t have to feel connected to someone to offer them the gift — the grace — of kindness. And in a day when it seems like we’re just yelling at each other in cyberspace or avoiding each other in real space, what a breath of fresh air kindness can be. In fact, what a breath of the Spirit it can be; for, as it turns out, the fruit of the Spirit is not arrogance, or debating skills, or even being right. No, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness….

Christians in America

 

As our country prepares for another transition at the top, what does it mean to be a Christian in America? How do we access our rights and responsibilities as followers of Jesus in the United States?

A good, basic principle is found in a helpful quote from the late Richard John Neuhaus. He reminded us that “Christians are called to walk not the road to political victory, but the way of the cross.”

I think Neuhaus is right. But what does that mean in practice?

I have recently been reading the New Testament Book of Acts, and I think we see, in two back-to-back episodes from the life of the Apostle Paul, a guide for how we put that principle into practice.

In Acts 16, Paul and his companions have come to the Macedonian city of Philippi. As was Paul’s custom, they seek out Jewish believers to share with them the good news of Jesus. Because Philippi had no synagogue, they find a group of Jewish women praying outside the city. Paul shares the gospel, and a prominent woman named Lydia answers the call to follow Jesus.

Paul continues on in Philippi, and continues to teach and preach. While there, he encounters a woman with a “spirit of divination,” whom he heals. This leads to anger on the part of her masters, and leads to Paul and his colleague, Silas, being thrown into jail. When an earthquake rattles them free (literally), they have an encounter with the jailer – and they lead him and his family to Christ.

The next day, Paul is told he is free. Great! Take your tunic and run, Paul.

But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he tells the police, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now cast us out secretly?” (Acts 16.37, RSV).

In other words: You guys can’t get off that easily. We’re not leaving quietly when you took away our rights. Paul claims his Roman citizenship, without apology, using it to stand up for his rights and their responsibilities. He is not ashamed to say: I am a Roman citizen; give me my due.

The leaders apologize to Paul, and he heads to Thessalonica, where there is a synagogue. Paul goes in and starts teaching. Many listen and believe. But still others hear and get upset – upset enough to start what is essentially a riot. And the mob goes looking for Paul at a house owned by a man named Jason. They can’t find Paul, so they drag Jason before the authorities. And notice what they say: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also … and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6-7).

Notice what got them so upset: Paul was proclaiming another king beside Caesar. Let’s be clear: Them’s fightin’ words. To say that, openly, in a Roman city is to invite yourself back into another Roman prison cell.

In Philippi, Paul is not afraid to claim his rights as a Roman citizen. In Thessalonica, Paul is not afraid to speak truth to the leader of the Roman empire. In one, Paul claims what is rightfully his. In another, Paul speaks clearly what is rightfully not Caesar’s. In both cases, Paul uses his voice to speak truth as a Roman citizen, in Roman cities. All while staying true to his calling to walk in the way of the cross.

It seems to me that there’s a message for those of us trying to navigate as Christians in America:

  • As Americans, we shouldn’t be ashamed to claim that reality. When our country’s pledge is “liberty and justice for all” – we should seek that, for others, and for ourselves.
  • But we must also remember that we are not first Christian Americans, or even American Christians. We are Christians who happen to live in America. As such, we must never be afraid to remind Caesar that he is not god. Lovingly, faithfully, and humbly, we must continue to pledge allegiance first to Jesus – and lift him up as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Like Paul, we who are Americans are citizens of the most powerful nation on earth. With that, come privileges – and responsibilities. Let’s wisely continue to use both, as we choose to bow to no other god but the One who showed us that the path of life goes straight through a cross.