A #NeverTrumper Repents On Inauguration Day

Image from CNN

There is a great deal of excitement today within my tribe, the evangelicals, over the inauguration of President Trump. Many evangelicals, a significant majority of them in fact, voted to make the businessman/reality TV star/politician the 45th president of the United States. Admittedly, many voted with their nose clenched firmly between their thumb and forefinger. But some did not. There were reluctant evangelical Trump voters but then there were also his embarrassingly ardent cheerleaders among the evangelical camp. These advocates downplayed allegations of sexual assault, wrote off clear character defects, and defended race-baiting and unprecedented ignorance from “their” candidate. Nothing Trump said could dissuade them. Nothing he did could dampen their enthusiasm.

Now, to be fair, evangelicalism is a pretty broad camp, with some even calling the label “meaningless” because if anything can be evangelical, nothing is. But the term seems here to stay, however, large and unwieldy its referent. One would expect there to be some wackos around the edges of such an extensive and varied group. But Trump’s cheerleaders were not squatting in mildewed tents at the edge of the evangelical encampment mumbling to themselves: they were sitting in the center, atop some of the most storied institutions and laying claim to some of the most illustrious names in the movement. They were the elites, the special forces, the kings and kingmakers of the movement. They wore the crusader’s mantle, proudly, handed down to them by their Moral Majority forebears. Their evangelicalism was as assumed as their Republican voter cards were well-worn. And nothing, not even a candidate as unfit as Trump, was going to dissuade them. So bearing the flags of both the Republican Party and Evangelical Christianity, they shouted, they whooped, they hollered for their man. And, lo and behold, they got him.

Frankly, it sickened me. That’s why I was #NeverTrump. It sickened me because I knew, I just knew, that the entire evangelical movement would get slapped with the Trumpite label. Efforts to engage in racial reconciliation would be chilled, outreach would become freighted with suffocating political baggage, and an increasingly liberal society, election results notwithstanding, would have further cause for pushing Christians out of thoughtful engagement in public square. The entire cause would be blacklisted because of the trumpeting of a few: the proud, the wilfully blind remnants of the Moral Majority. If ever there was a case of guilt by association, surely this would be it. In what would be a hilariously ironic, if not so tragic, twist, a minority of voices still waving that banner would co-opt the evangelical name in the public consciousness and it would be said that it was evangelicals who elected Trump.

And so it has been. Over and over, in the lead-up to today and in live broadcasts this morning, multiple references were made to the “essential” role “evangelicals” played in electing Trump.

But, in my mind, the truth is that it wasn’t really evangelicals who brought about Trump. Instead, the Grand Old Party and the Moral Majority, having consummated their relationship so many years before, found themselves the proud parents of a foul-mouthed, unprepared, unscrupulous, nepotistic, narcissistic, authoritarian President-Elect. Evangelicals got caught up in the prop wash of being told by their political and religious leaders that they had a moral obligation to vote for the man with no morals. And it worked. Mission accomplished, movement destroyed. The triumphal shouts from those Trumpian cheerleaders at the center of evangelicalism have been deafening. They’ve been so loud, so ebullient, and now are even more so.

Because Trump is now, officially, their president.

But he’s more than that: he’s now my president.

Why? Because I’m an American citizen and he’s the American president. And that’s the rub. That’s the problem with having been #NeverTrump. A staunch marcher in the #NeverTrump parade throughout both the primaries and the general election, I watched the election results and the ensuing spectacle of a transition in a dumbfounded stupor. The best I could manage was an infrequent grunt of confusion and disbelief. But, for all my opposition through the election, the peaceful transition of power has, for the most part, occurred. What do I do now that we’ve got #PresidentTrump?

I repent.

I repent of the pride that too often lead me to write and speak, dismissively and condemningly, of well-intentioned evangelicals who felt there were no good options in this election and pulled the lever for Trump. I still believe that Trumpian cheerleaders within evangelicalism were wrong, but I was wrong to conflate the two groups together.

I repent of failing to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in this election. I don’t believe, as some do, that Trump is God’s man in the sense that he will save America and the American church. But he is God’s man for God’s purposes. And it is arrogant for me to claim knowledge of what those purposes are or to refuse to submit to the president God has placed in power.

I repent of allowing politics to distract me from my task as pastor. Many of my conversations were pastorally-motivated, begging fellow saints to not give in to fear, to place their hope in Christ instead of politics. But along the way, I got distracted by the prideful desire to be right. I pray Trump is the president many think he will be and that I will be the pastor my people need me to be.

I repent of #NeverTrump. It worked during the primaries. It worked during the general election. But it doesn’t work now. The word “Never” in #NeverTrump made a strong case for joining the ranks of the #NotMyPresident crowd. But God brought me back from the brink of that prideful rebellion. As any counselor will tell you, the words “always” and “never” are not conducive to healthy dialogue. And I want to see healthy dialogue amongst Christians in this nation regarding our relationship with the power of the state and to continue waving a #NeverTrump flag after he is now #PresidentTrump would prevent that conversation.

My views of Trump’s fitness for political office have not changed. But God in his mercy is changing my understanding of how to express and live those views (see John Piper’s article, “How to Live Under an Unqualified President”). I still grieve the moral apathy of those who were supposed to be moral leaders. I lament the authoritarian, misogynistic, racist overtones of Trump’s rhetoric and actions. If I were not so recently renewed in my affirmation of God’s sovereignty, I would fear for the future of not just this nation, but of the world. America has pulled the pin on a grenade without knowing if it’s live or a dummy: either could be devastating.

Repenting of #NeverTrump is not affirming his actions or words or those who would sacrifice biblical truth for the privilege of bending President Trump’s ear from time to time. I still believe that Christians have a responsibility to hold President Trump accountable, to stand up for minorities and the weak, and to speak boldly against any Christian, evangelical or otherwise, who would dismiss, downplay, or redefine sin for the sake of a place at the political table. But I believe as well that my Christian faith demands I repent of imagining myself blameless in the pursuit of these things.

Repenting of #NeverTrump is submission to the authority of God in Christ which insists that I “submit myself to every governing authority.” For Christians, that doesn’t mean being political doormats, but it does mean being faithful. It means praying for President Trump, not hypocritically, but honestly. It means applauding the peaceful transition of power. It means thanking God for the freedoms we have even as we seek to protect them for those who cannot protect themselves. But it also means living as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven even as we walk amongst the kingdoms of earth. We can’t put our trust in a president, but neither should we move in rebellion. Yes, we should speak truth to power, but we should never do so in a way that seeks power for ourselves. Yes, we should be engaged politically but as humble sojourners because, no matter who is president, God is still sovereign on his throne, Jesus is still Lord, and the Holy Spirit still is at work.

Sit and Savor the Word of God

I have spent the past week sitting in a classroom studying the book of Philippians. 

Five days. 

9-5 each day.

Listening to lectures.

Honestly, I didn’t want to take the class.

Not because I hate school or because I hate Philippians or because I’m unaware of what a privilege it is to study, but because I was busy. My blood family is getting ready to close on a house and I am preparing to lead my church family through a season of vision-casting. That’s in addition to the daily, weekly, ongoing process of loving and leading a them both, building relationships in the community, and serving wider, kingdom-focused ministries and purposes as well. 

I didn’t want to take the class because I was busy. I didn’t want to take the time “off” from “real ministry” to go sit in class, struggle to recall Greek parsing and syntax rules, and “waste” a week away from the field. 

But I was wrong. So wrong.

Far from being a waste of time, the class was a time of rejoicing in the Word and being spiritually refreshed. I am exceedingly grateful for the time spent in Philippians, for a congregation that gave me the time to come, fellow leaders who covered my responsibilities, and a family who sacrifices so I can continue my education. To borrow from Paul, I am rejoicing, and even again, I rejoice! 

And to think I didn’t want to go!

Sometimes I think I am too American to be a good Christ-follower. Time and time again, I fall into the trap of equating frenetic activity with kingdom productivity. I measure my worth by the amount of widgets I produce in a given day. I assess ministry by applying measures of productivity borrowed from the heartlessly corporate culture of my country instead of the relationally-focused commands of Christ. 

By my culturally default measures, this class came at the worst time. By productivity assessment, I’ve wasted my week. By leadership principles, I’ve squandered the build-up to an important, culture-setting opportunity. By social standards, I’ve unduly stressed my family during a transitional time. 

And I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong. Wrong about my feelings before the class, wrong in my cultural evaluation, wrong even about my general approach to ministry. 

I have always been a passionate advocate for the centrality of scripture in Christian ministry, but this week I have been reminded of why: because nothing else can ignite the flame of Christian imagination like the fire of God’s Word applied to the Christian mind and heart with joy. I was unaware that in the busyness of life, I had let my fire die down. It wasn’t out, but it was smoldering. I paid lip service to it, structured my sermons with it in mind, but the heat and light were fading. 

But this week I have seen again the fire that burned a bush but didn’t consume it, the fire that fell and did consume, not just the bull but the stones and the water as well,  fire that flashes in the eyes of a King on a white horse. My petty efforts to produce a spark have been revealed for what they are: infinitesimally small and utterly inadequate. 

I didn’t need to be busy: I needed to sit, silently, unproductively, before the Word. I don’t need to be in control: I need to pledge allegiance again and again to Christ, submitting myself to his revelation. I won’t need to worry: I will need to worship the Lord who holds past, present, and future simultaneously.

I didn’t want to come to class before, but afterwards I couldn’t wait to leave. Not because I am ready to get back to being busy, but because now I remember what I should never have forgot: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” I am not called to complete tasks, I am called to be completed by the Word. I am not called to perfect disciples, but to point them to the perfect Word. Leaving class, going back to the real world, is not an opportunity for me to get back to doing stuff, but for me to see again that the Word is doing stuff, in me, in my family, in my church. 

I don’t want to ever see time spent digging into the Word as wasted again. 

To sit and savor the Scriptures, to dive into its depths and drink deep, to go with God through this incredible revelation of grace…this is not a waste of time. This is the only means by which the dry twigs of my efforts can be ignited into a flame that welcomes all, family, friend, and enemy, to come and be warmed. My effectiveness in ministry, my productivity, are not tied to time-management, but to this alchemical process by which the base metals of my thoughts and emotions are transformed into wealth immeasurable by the Word of God. Only what is transformed by the Word will be worth anything towards transforming the world.

Fellow pastor, fellow Christian, let us not waste time on busyness! Instead, let us learn to sit and eat and savor the Word of God! 

A New Year, A New You, A New Reality

happy-new-year-1912680_960_720Happy New Year! In what is surely one of the most arbitrary rituals known to mankind, one second last night fell in 2016 and the very next second fell in 2017! A whole year changed over in the space of one second! And millions of people around the world stayed up to witness this temporal transformation.

I didn’t.

I can count on one hand the years that I can recall staying up to actual midnight to greet the New Year. So for me, the transformation from 2016 to 2017 wasn’t even enough to pause my snoring. I woke up, as it were, in a new year, a new reality, completely unconscious while everything around me changed over.

That’s kind of what it’s like in the Gospel of Matthew watching the Jewish religious leaders interact with Jesus. It’s like they are sleeping through the most transformative events in history, completely unaware that the world has changed around them.

And Matthew wants us to know that he knows it. He wants us to see that there is a clear distinction between the old reality and the new reality. Jesus coming has changed everything and that includes how people relate to God and one another.

Israel was God’s people. They were the chosen ones. But instead of that status giving them humility and a willingness to share the good news of a relationship with God with others, they looked down their noses at everyone who wasn’t like them. God had given the law to help them demonstrate his love and holiness, but they had taken it and used it to demonstrate their own pride and self-righteousness. And if they didn’t wake up to the new reality of what God was doing in Christ, they were going to miss everything.

And I’m afraid that sometimes we do the same thing. We turn the corner of a New Year expecting it to bring change even as we keep on doing the same things we have always done. We make resolutions that don’t make it through January let alone December. We need to understand that if we want something different for our lives in 2017, we need to start doing something different with our lives in 2017. Instead of making 2017 resolutions that focus on ourselves, let’s start making resolutions that focus on loving God, loving others, and making disciples.

I’ve been walking through Matthew on Sunday mornings and as I’ve done so, taking large chunks of text at a time, I’ve begun to see that once we widen our field of vision, moving from words, to sentences, to verses, to chapters, to the big idea behind the whole book, things begin to make more sense when you zoom back in. And that’s helpful because in Matthew 21, we are introduced to a passage that can be troubling apart from the wider context.

Matthew 21:18-19  In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

We read this story and think, “Man, Jesus, eat a Snickers! You’re not you when you’re hungry!” And it does seem strange that precious Jesus, meek and mild, would throw this little temper tantrum just because the fig tree didn’t have fruit on it right when Jesus wanted it to.

But Jesus didn’t do anything by accident. This wasn’t a fit of selfish anger at not getting any fruit: it was a living parable. In fact, it was a parable many years in the making. See, throughout the Old Testament, Israel had been associated with fig trees. (Figs were listed as one of the good fruits in the promised land, the blessing of God would be evident when every man of Israel was sitting under his own fig tree, and those in Israel who had faith in God were called good figs, while those who did not were called bad figs, etc.) So when Jesus curses the fig tree, he wasn’t mad at a tree, he was mad, symbolically, at a nation. The nation of Israel that had failed to produce the fruit God intended. And it wasn’t for lack of effort on God’s part: no, he had given centuries to Israel, years and years for them to produce the fruit the was proper for the people of God, and yet they continually failed. Why? Because they tried to do it on their own. They thought that God would be pleased if they worked harder, kept the Law more closely, gave more sacrifices next year. But God had told them what he wanted:

Hosea 6:6 “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

But it is easier to kill a lamb than to forgive a debtor. It is easier to give up your grain than it is to give up your desires. And so Israel failed.

But Jesus signaled to his disciples what would produce the fruit he desired: faith. Faith that led to service not self-righteousness.

Matthew 21:20-22 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

The way that Israel thought they would accomplish fruit production was through works of self-righteousness. But self-righteousness cannot produce the will of God. But Jesus signals here that the people of God were to accomplish the will of God through faith, working in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What is the will of God? I’m glad you asked. People spend a lot of time trying to answer this question: what is the will of God for my life? Books are written, Bible studies are undertaken, all trying to answer this question. Let’s just stop.

Romans 8:28-30 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

1 Peter 2:15 “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”

1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification”

So, in 2017, the will of God for your life is that you would look more like Christ, that you would be sanctified, that you would be so committed to doing good, in faith, that people have no reason to speak evil of you.

And if you’re going to see the will of God accomplished in your life in 2017, you need to pay attention to what Jesus says in Matthew 21-22:

Seek truth more than self-preservation

Matthew 22:23-27 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

The religious leaders wanted to trip Jesus up. They wanted him to claim that his authority was from God so they could accuse him of blasphemy. Jesus turns the tables and asks the same question, but of John the Baptist’s ministry. Why? Because John’s ministry was all about pointing to Jesus. If the religious leaders answered “from heaven” then they were answering their own question about Jesus’ authority as well. But if they answered “from man” then the crowd would have rejected them for that stance as well as for their stance on Jesus’ ministry. So, instead of seeking the truth, they sought self-preservation and said, “We don’t know.” And in that, they sowed the seeds for their destruction, because everyone who rejects the truth of Jesus Christ will be destroyed.

How about with us? Will 2017 be a year in which we seek to save ourselves? Or will it be a year in which we seek the truth of Jesus?

Strive for the right actions not the right words

Matthew 22:28-32 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

Even the Jewish leaders get this one: saying you’ll do something and not doing it is always inferior to refusing to do something, repenting, and doing it after all. But their lives didn’t back up the truth of their answer. The Pharisees had developed a unique talent for saying all the right things and doing all the wrong ones. They would commit their possessions to God, but only so that they didn’t have to provide for their parents. They would claim to be seekers of truth, but when he showed up, they rejected him.

Instead, the people who said the wrong things, tax collectors who declared Caesar to be Lord, prostitutes who hawked the bodies God had given them as property for sale; people who had rebelled against God and his word, were now repenting of their sin and trusting in Jesus. And in repenting of sin and trusting in Jesus, they were living lives that cared about the poor, that served the weak, that fed the hungry. They were doing all the things that the Pharisees talked about doing but never did. And they weren’t doing them because they were such good people, they were tax collectors and prostitutes. No, they were doing these good things because they believed the truth of who Jesus was and the reality of the kingdom that he proclaimed.

So, in 2017, will we be like the Pharisees and say all the right things? Or will we be like the tax collectors and prostitutes, well aware of our sin, but striving to please the Lord by doing the things he commands, things like loving God, loving others, and making disciples?

Submit to Jesus instead of trying to succeed without him

Matthew 22:33-46 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

            J[42] Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

            “‘The stone that the builders rejected

                        has become the cornerstone;

            this was the Lord’s doing,

                        and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.

Jesus reminds the leaders that by rejecting (and soon, killing him) they were merely being consistent with how Israel had treated God’s prophets throughout history. God established Israel to be a light to the nations, to demonstrate the fruit, as it were, of God’s cultivation. But they failed to produce the expected result. So God sent them prophets to call for it. One by one, Israel rejected them. So God sent his son, we just celebrated this at Christmas, and here they are rejecting him.

But their rejection of the son would actually be the catalyst to establish the kingdom of heaven. By rejecting Jesus, the leaders of Israel would fulfill the prophecies about the kingdom, to the joy of those who see the Lord’s work, and to the destruction of those who miss it. Israel’s problem wasn’t that they weren’t trying to do good things, it was that they were trying to do them apart from God’s plan. Jesus is the fulfillment of that plan.

As we enter a new year, my prayer is that we will not be like the religious leaders who tried to do good things apart from Christ, but that we would only be content so long as Christ is doing good things through us.

See who Christ is making you to be rather than who you are today  

Matthew 22:1-10 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

The leaders of Israel thought they were the honored guests at God’s table. But Jesus challenges that thinking by saying that they lost their place at the table by rejecting God’s summons. God had indeed prepared a feast, but they had failed to come. So now, Jesus says, God will fill it with whoever will come, bad or good. And the wedding hall was filled!

And that phrase, “both bad and good,” is the best possible news for us in 2017. Because it reminds us that God’s invitation is not predicated on how good we are, it’s predicated on how good he is. He invites all to come and everyone who comes is welcomed in. And in this new year, I pray that you understand that God doesn’t need your resolutions, he doesn’t need you to try harder, no, he is already inviting you to come, to sit with him and to feast. To enjoy the blessing of the wedding of the son. The invitation is free and wide, “come and be filled.”

But the invitation is not enough: the question is, how will you respond?

Stop pretending and start submitting

Matthew 22:11-14 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Here, I think Jesus is extending his warning of the fig tree, the warning of the parables, that Israel has been rejected, to those of us in the church. I believe that in this man standing with no wedding garment, we are meant to see that it is possible to come to church, it is possible to walk an aisle, it is possible to pray a prayer, and to not truly belong in the kingdom. Are you pretending to be a part of the kingdom? Then nothing you do in 2017 is going to matter for the kingdom. Not until you stop pretending and start submitting to the Lord.

Only then can 2017 be your best year ever.

Only then can you truly be a new you in the New Year.

Happy New Year!