Relationships Can Change The World: The Letter To Philemon

What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about your relationships with other people?

That’s an important question, but don’t answer it just yet.

Answer this one first:

Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ primarily about going to heaven when you die, or is it about having every aspect of your life, both now and forever, transformed?

If you’re a Christian, how you answer that question will significantly influence how you live. More specifically, your answer will require you to evaluate decisions, finances, ethics, etc. by completely different criteria.

If the Gospel is simply about getting to heaven when you die, then this life is of secondary importance. So long as you check the boxes marked “heaven” on your final destination ticket, you’re free to live however you want, or at least however your culture pressures you into living.

If, however, the Gospel is about much more than that, indeed is about transforming everything about you, then its implications for the here and now are massive. Instead of filtering every decision through a “me” or a “culture” filter, you have to filter it through a “Jesus” filter. This means that you give Jesus shot-calling power in your finances, ethics, etc.

It especially affects your relationships.

So, back to the original question: What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about your relationships with other people?

Put succinctly: everything.

We see this comprehensive impact of the Gospel on relationships very clearly in the New Testament book of Philemon.

Whereas most of the letters in the New Testament are written from a leader to a congregation, Philemon is different: it is primarily written from a Christian leader to another Christian leader. Not only that, but it’s from a friend to a friend. Paul is the author and Philemon is the leader of a house church. It’s a very personal letter.

Paul most likely wrote the letter from Rome while sitting in prison. And Philemon was likely a well-to-do leader of a house church in one of the towns that Paul had visited on his missionary journeys.

He was also a slave owner.

That’s a shock to our 21st century sensibilities, so we need to understand what slavery was like in first century Rome before we can understand this letter’s impact on how we understand relationships under the Gospel. In first century Rome, there were so many slaves that they outnumbered the Roman citizens. It was not uncommon for a wealthy Roman citizen to own upwards of ten thousand slaves.

And then gospel gets introduced into this mix. And, frankly, the message spread very quickly amongst the slave community. The hope and grace and joy in the message of the Gospel gave new meaning and purpose to the lives of those who found themselves in bondage.

But the Gospel also began to reach those who owned slaves. And this was a new thing. Slavery was so common in that day it was just kind of the air they breathed, the water people were swimming in: people just kind of took it as a fact and never really examined it.

But one commentator on the book of Philemon said no other writing was more instrumental in the downfall of slavery than it was. Why? Because Paul says that just because something is culturally assumed it is not necessarily going to stand in light of the gospel.

Why does all this talk of slavery matter? Because Paul is writing to Philemon about an escaped slave, Onesimus. That may not mean a whole lot to us modern readers, but in Rome, where slaves outnumbered the citizens, there was constant fear of a slave revolt. Consequently, the punishment for any slave who disobeyed their master or who ran away from their master was very serious. The master could, at their discretion, beat as runaway slave. They could imprison them. They could even kill them. As a matter of fact, one of the means of death that was available to the Roman citizen who owned a runaway was crucifixion.

So, when Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus, he knows the seriousness of the matter.

He writes knowing Philemon’s rights as a slave owner.

But, he also writes knowing that the Gospel has the power to transcend the law and transform relationships.

He knows that because he has experienced it.

Paul is one of the most fascinating character studies in the Bible. When we first meet Paul, he is persecuting the new Christian faith. He was really focused on his Jewish heritage, he saw this new church that was starting, and he said, “absolutely not.” He began to persecute the church: he was there when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned. He threw believers into prison. He even got permission from the religious leaders to take the show on the road and begin threatening the church in Damascus.

But something changes. He has an encounter with the risen Christ.

Now you talk about an unlikely convert: that’s Paul! But he is changed: he goes from being a persecutor to being a preacher to being a prisoner for Christ.

When Paul writes Philemon, he starts by referring to himself as “a prisoner for Christ.” As I understand it, he’s giving testimony to the extreme power of the gospel to transform your life and your relationships. He was antagonistic to Christ and now all of a sudden he’s willing to suffer for Christ.

His relationship with Christ changed and that made a huge difference in his relationships with others. Paul was a pretty intense dude. Paul did not have any problems telling you what he thought.

Except in Philemon, he seems to hold back. Paul had the authority, as an apostle and the one who brought the Gospel to Philemon, to tell Philemon what to do but he softens it.

I would argue it’s the gospel that softens Paul’s words. Paul experienced the love of Christ in his own life and it drove him to demonstrate that love to others. He tells Philemon, “I’d rather appeal to you.” Why?

Love doesn’t demand and command: it encourages and transforms.

The gospel that transformed Paul was not something that Paul came to unwillingly: once Jesus showed up and Paul experienced the love of Christ he began to apply that to his life. There’s a transformation that takes place across Paul’s ministry.

The way Paul relates to people has been transformed by the power of the Gospel.

Paul’s not the only one who’s been changed by the gospel. Philemon has been changed as well. One thing we know about Philemon is that he is a rich guy. Anyone who had a house big enough for a church to meet in and who owns slaves is in the one percent: he’s the upper crust in society. People of his station were not supposed to be concerned about opening their homes up to what was likely a congregation of lower class people.

And yet the gospel has transformed him.

Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Good thing God works miracles. Because Philemon, the rich guy, is a Christian. He’s somebody who’s been transformed. He’s in the Kingdom of Heaven. Why? Because the Gospel transformed his relationship with his wealth. The Gospel took what had probably been the primary concern for him and makes it secondary to the cause of promoting the Gospel.

Philemon’s relationship with Paul is affected by the Gospel. Because of the Gospel, Paul knows that Philemon is someone he can trust. Philemon will listen to the Holy Spirit, he’s a trustworthy kind of guy now because the Gospels transformed him.

But there’s also a relationship that still needs to be transformed by the Gospel. There’s a blind spot in Philemon’s life. His relationship with his slave, Onesimus. Paul wants Philemon to see the implications of the Gospel in this area: Onesimus can no longer be a slave if he’s a brother in Christ.

This is where, if I was Paul Harvey, I’d pause and you’d just have to wait for the rest of the story.

I’m not Paul Harvey, but you still have to wait.

First, there’s a third character we need to look at: Onesimus. A slave who most likely stole from his master the resources by which he was able to escape. He ran away to Rome to hide from his master in the crowds there. And then he meets Paul. And Paul introduces him to Jesus. And Onesimus meets Jesus in the Gospel.

Onesimus, who was willing to risk death to flee slavery, meets Jesus. And what does he do? He begins serving Paul. He begins to willingly do the thing he was willing to die to avoid. The Gospel transformed Onesimus’ relationship with service. This is a guy who said, “I don’t want my life to be defined by serving someone.” Now, after the Gospel, he is submitting to Christ and he’s serving Paul. It’s interesting that there’s a little play on words going on here: Onesimus means “useful.” Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus was formerly useless as a slave, but now he’s useful.

Paul is not saying he’s useful because now he’s just a good obedient little slave. No, he’s saying he’s useful because he’s been transformed by the gospel. Onesimus has changed from wanting what he wants to get out of life to wanting what Jesus wants. His relationship with his very life has been transformed by Jesus coming in.

Note that Paul is not turning Onesimus over to the authorities and having them haul him back. Most likely, Paul is putting this letter in Onesimus’ hand and he is freely and willingly going back to Philemon. The master that he probably stole from. The master that he could not wait to get away from. And he’s going back.

That’s transformation. That’s what the Gospel does in our relationships.

How?

How does the Gospel transform us like that?

The Gospel gives us a call, not to self advancement, not a call to self-improvement, not a call for me to be the best me possible, but for me to be like Jesus. The Gospel transforms us not by giving us a list of things to do but by first and foremost having us see Jesus.

Jesus is all that matters. Jesus is the only one whose vision for your life matters. What you want to be, what you want to do, what you want to become in yourself are entirely and utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of God’s plan for the universe. God’s goal for creation is not that it would revolve around you but that Jesus Christ would be all in all.

But how does that happen?

Jesus becomes a slave.

Is that not the most counter-cultural counter intuitive way of doing things you’ve ever heard?

If we want to get ahead, we imagine that we’ve got to promote ourselves. Jesus example says, “No.”

Jesus is God. He didn’t need to come as a human. He didn’t have to give up the privileges that he had as as God eternal and come to earth as a human being. He didn’t have to do that but he did.

Because the fundamental truth of the Gospel is this: a life lived for yourself is a life that is not worth living. A life lived for others is a life that will endure forever.

Jesus comes and he dies on a cross not because it was good for Jesus, but because Jesus wasn’t worried about Jesus: he was worried about his Father, he was worried about us. That’s why Jesus came and Jesus died and that sacrifice opens up the hope for us to be transformed and for us to be redeemed. If we will submit to Christ, the Bible says we will be saved. If we confess Him as Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead we will be saved.

And being saved doesn’t just mean getting to go to heaven when you die. Being saved means that one day you’re going to look like Jesus. Getting saved means God starts remaking you, beginning the process of transforming you from a wretched rebel to a son or daughter who looks like Jesus.

Part of that process will necessarily involve transforming your relationships.

The gospel transformed Paul from a persecutor to somebody who was willing to be a prisoner. It changed his relationships with those called Christians and with the Christ they took their name from.

The gospel transformed Philemon from “that rich guy” to somebody known for being generous, loyal, and a disciple-maker. It changed his relationship with his stuff and how he used it.

The gospel transformed Onesimus from a runaway slave to a faithful fellow worker. It changed his relationships with those around him from what he could get to what he could give.

That’s radical. That’s change that everyone can see. That’s testimony to the power of the gospel.

So, how is the gospel changing your relationships?

Because here’s my fear: that we, as Christians, are so tempted to make our relationships about us that we miss the life-transforming power of the gospel in them. When we approach relationships saying, “what am I going to get out of this, what’s in it for me?” then we miss the heart of Jesus in the gospel.

Not only that, but the world misses a chance to see real, practical evidence for the truth and power of the gospel.

The gospel is not inert. It isn’t just a good story. It’s not about morality.

It’s about transformation.

You don’t know the ripples that will spread out in the lives of those who see the gospel transforming relationships.

And now for the…rest of the story.

We don’t get it from the New Testament, but there’s something very interesting that happened in the story of Philemon and Onesimus after Paul’s letter. A guy named Ignatius of Antioch writes years later about the Bishop of Ephesus. His name? Onesimus.

Now, it’s possible that there was another Onesimus, but the fact he is also referred to as the Slave Bishop seems to indicate that it’s the same guy. And, as we trace the story through various authors, we get the idea that Philemon took Paul’s hint and set Onesimus free. Then, Onesimus went back to Paul and serves with him. He serves the wider church faithfully and eventually becomes the bishop of Ephesus.

Some scholars also think Onesimus is the one who assembled Paul’s writings. That’s important. There wasn’t a printing press, so preserving the letters would have to be an intentional act. It seems Onesimus may have been the guy doing it. So, why do we have a New Testament that includes Paul’s letters? Ultimately, it’s the inspiration of the Holy Spirit but he could have been working specifically through transformed relationships.

That’s pretty cool.

So, based on the example of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, begin to think intentionally about how you can demonstrate the gospel through them. Start today by changing the way you think about relationships.

Don’t ask: “What do I deserve?” Ask: “How can I serve?”

Don’t ask: “What’s the least I’m required to do?” Ask: “What will show the most love?”

Don’t ask: “What do I want to do?” Ask: “What would Jesus do?”

When you change your approach to relationships, they are transformed. When relationships are transformed, its evidence for the truth of the gospel. When evidence for the gospel is seen, the gospel spreads. And when the gospel spreads, the world is changed.

How are your relationships looking in light of the gospel? Because they have the power to change the world.

A #NeverTrumper Repents On Inauguration Day

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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.

Three Things to Remember on Election Day

As I have watched this political season (all ten billion years of it) unfold, I have been guilty of getting wrapped up in the debates, the mud-slinging, and the hand-wringing over the candidates, the Supreme Court, and the future of our nation. However, while in a reflective mood this morning after a conversation with friends last night, I concluded that such embroilment is foolish at best and destructive at worst. Not that we shouldn’t be engaged, but that, as Christians, we should be careful in how we engage and to what ends. As important as the political process is, especially in a democratic republic like the U.S., it is not all-encompassing. Here, with encouragement from the Psalms, are three things to remember this election day:

1. Christ’s Sovereignty

No matter who is elected to sit in the White House, Congress, or any other political seat today, Christ is on his throne. Scripture is replete with reminders of this but Psalm 2 is particularly apt:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

We do not have to fret, we do not have to worry: God has set His King over His Kingdom and nothing that takes place here will ever change that. In fact, the mere suggestion that it might makes God laugh. Christian, do not fear what your Lord laughs at.

2. The Christian’s Hope

We are never told in Scripture to place our hope in political engagement or in political power. Instead, we are reminded time and time again that our hope is in Christ, in God’s plan for the ages, and in his love for his people. Consider Psalm 20:

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.

As Christians, we should recognize the absurdity of hoping for eternally significant results from temporally limited processes and people. We can be certain that the hand of God is moving in history, guiding, shepherding, and ultimately accomplishing his goal: the restoration of all things.

3. The Church’s Mission

Many, myself included, have rushed to speak our minds on politics. There’s a place for that. But not at the expense of declaring the gospel to the world. Stumping for a particular candidate, platform, or perspective has served, in large measure, to distract many American Christians from what matters: fulfilling the Great Commission. Just look at God’s vision for his people’s political declarations in Psalm 96:

Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods…Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.”

We are not called to “say among the nations (our particular political views)” but the good news that “the Lord reigns!” We can engage in political conversation, we can share our views, we can and should vote, but we should not do so at the expense of declaring the gospel. And we should not do so in a way that would harm our declaration of the gospel. Let’s keep first things, first.

After all, it’s just an election.

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The 2016 Election, Trump, and Conservative Christians

united-states-of-america-flag-1462903884fhxNo election in recent memory can hold a candle to this one for sheer spectacle. And that’s not a good thing. In Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the two major parties in American politics have given the American people a choice between the two most singularly unfit and disliked candidates in history. As an American citizen, as a Christian, and as a father, I have been deeply troubled by this situation. But as a leader in a local church, I have also considered what my responsibilities are for sharing my personal thoughts with others.

I have watched as many conservatives have thrown their hat in the ring for Trump. I have watched as Christian leaders have resorted to desperate contortions in an effort to defend the indefensible and I have lamented the fear-based rhetoric they employ to herd the masses into conformity. Assuredly, not all conservative Christian leaders took this path; some were vocal in their opposition from the beginning. But the simple reality is that many were not. Men like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr, and James Dobson and more all spoke in affirmation of Trump’s candidacy.

I don’t believe they did it in bad faith. Many of these leaders seem to have set out to marry Rachel only to wake up and realize Leah was in the bed. They endorsed what they thought was a conservative candidate for president only to suddenly realize that they were endorsing a misogynistic, race-baiting, narcissistic strongman who has no intention of respecting women, the weak, or basically any other person not named Donald J. Trump.

Recently, they were given another reason to regret their deal with the devil. Some have abandoned ship. It’s as if there weren’t enough warning signs, not enough evidence, and everything before this was just leftist propaganda. What brought this turnabout about? It wasn’t the race-baiting, the clear examples of inciting violence, the blatant disregard for Constitutional authority, the disability-shaming, or any of the countless examples of dishonesty, greed, and corruption. Instead, it was a leaked hot mic taped a decade ago in which Trump not only objectifies women but admits/brags about actions that are, by definition, criminal sexual assault. I guess that was a bridge too far.

Except it wasn’t for many.

Many still feel their hands are tied politically and that they have to support the Republican nominee. There is a sense of resignation in the air as Election Day draws near.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As far as I can tell, an individual Christian conservative’s support for Donald Trump hinges on one of the following rationales:

  • He’s not Hillary
  • He’ll appoint conservative justices
  • He’ll “Make America Great Again”

Each of these is given at various times and by various persons as a reason to vote for Trump, “no matter what.” Let’s look at them one by one.

He’s Not Hillary

First, an analogy. I hate hot weather. I am not one of these summer-fun and lovin’-it guys. Several reasons: 1) I’m whiter than a bar of Dove soap and burn quicker than gasoline. 2) I’m not currently in possession of a body that benefits from fewer articles of clothing – sub-arctic layers are more suitable to my form. 3) I’m genetically predisposed to struggle with the heat (not scientifically proven, but highly likely in my mind. 4) I just don’t like the heat.

Give me a choice between 100 degrees in Houston, TX and 120 degrees in Phoenix, AZ and I’ll be hard pressed to choose. Sure, they’re different kinds of heat, but they’re both miserable.

If such a choice were presented to me, I’d have several options.

  • I could choose 100 degrees in Houston, TX. I’d go and sweat. And sweat. And sweat some more.
  • I could choose 120 in Phoenix, AZ. I’d go and sweat and dehydrate and hydrate and sweat and dehydrate.

OR

  • I could refuse the artificially limited options presented and move to Jackson, WY with its annual average temperature of 39.7 degrees.

“But, but…that wasn’t one of the options!”

Only if you’re blinded by a map that insists Houston, TX and Phoenix, AZ are the only “viable” cities in the United States of America.

In other words, only if you ignore the literally thousands of other options available.

In the 2016 election, the two major party candidates are different but equally abhorrent. It was inevitable, I guess, that in a two-party system, this would happen eventually. And while there are those Democrats who will vote the party line, regardless of candidate, and Republicans who will do the same, the vast majority of Americans are in a quandary as to what to do.

That is because while voices from both sides are saying “hold your nose and choose one of them,” there is a nagging little thought that keeps creeping in: “is this what it’s supposed to be like? Is this what our government is supposed to look like? Choosing the lesser of two evils?”

That voice is pointing us to the reality that American democracy was never intended to be about choosing the lesser of two evils. It’s only ever been about providing the people with the powerful right to choose representative leaders who do just that: represent their constituents and lead the entire country towards mutual benefit and well-being.

The entrenched two-party system is partially to blame for this situation. But the voters, in turn, are to blame for the two-party system. Any lie, repeated frequently enough, becomes believable. And so, constituents have let themselves be duped into believing what they were told: “Don’t vote third-party, they’ll never win.” Why? “Because not enough people will vote for them.” Why? “Because they’ll never win.”

And they may be right. But, since when was “winning” the only acceptable goal? Since when did Ricky Bobby’s infamous dictum, “if you’re not first, you’re last”, come to define all of the American reality? It’s a false narrative that’s been bought wholesale by a pop-culture public.

What that narrative ignores is the times in American history that which two parties are in power have changed or the two major parties’ platforms have been significantly altered by third-party pressure.

If any election season is the right one to exert third-party pressure, this is it. Stein, Johnson, Castle, and McMullin are all there, all gaining in the polls, and waiting to be voted for. They may not win, but voting for the one whose views most nearly align with yours could get their platform enough attention to significantly shape future lawmaking, party platforms, and even new parties.

Donald J. Trump isn’t Hillary Clinton. But they’re not the only options we’ve been given. They may be the only ones with a statistically significant chance of winning the 2016 election, but the inevitable conservative reorganization to come needs to be influenced by third-party votes. We must avoid betting the farm on a lame duck in 2016 and start looking at 2020 and beyond.

Supreme Court Justice appointments

This is the Trump card (pun fully intended). This end, for many Christian leaders, justifies any means. (Here, here, and here, along with many others).

But pinning all our hopes on this single star is foolish, at best, and deadly at worst.

First, it is foolish because of a seldom-mentioned historical reality: there are no guarantees with justice nominations, whether they are appointed by Democrats or Republicans. In his resignation statement, motivated by Trump’s latest debacle, Brett Farley, who was the Director of Communications for the Oklahoma Republican Party, said this:

“Never before has our party so willingly turned a deaf ear to history and practical political reality until now. Even in our best days, Presidents Reagan and Bush, solidly conservative Republicans, managed to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who gave the deciding votes in some of the most egregious decisions in the Court’s history.”

There’s absolutely no guarantee that conservative appointed judges will make decisions that conservatives like. And that’s a good thing. The balance of power inherent in the Constitution means that the executive shouldn’t control the judicial or the legislative. I know, I know, there’s been a significant blurring of the lines in the last fifty years, but the bones are still there.

Farley points out the second problem with voting for Donald Trump because of justices:

“Yet these same colleagues argue that we can trust a man who has broken promises to customers, business partners, wives and God himself to uphold his tentative pledge to nominate conservative justices.”

When conservatives say that we should vote for Donald Trump because of the justices he will appoint, it’s often presented as fait accompli. It’s a done deal, right?

Ask Donald Trump’s first two wives about “until death do us part”. Ask the contractors and employees he has stiffed about “fair compensation for finished work”. Ask any Trump University alumni about “learning the secrets of personal success”.

Here’s a man who has demonstrated absolutely no integrity, no follow-through, no ability to keep his mouth from writing checks that his character can’t cash, and yet we can trust him on this one?

Nope.

There’s a third problem with letting justice appointments be the guiding rationale for a Trump vote and that’s the single-issue voter trap.

Conservative Christians have let themselves be painted into this corner before. I know that this will not be a popular opinion, but when we made abortion the only pro-life position we cared about, we lost everything. For example, prior to that moral majority decision, you could be a pro-life, conservative Christian and be a Democrat. You could be a pro-life, conservative Christian and be a Republican. Why? Because there was variety in the parties. Abortion was part of the Democratic platform but it wasn’t the main pillar. Then, in a fit of righteous indignation, the Moral Majority declared that the only issue that mattered was abortion. All of a sudden, pro-life Democrats were demonized for their party identification rather than their personal views and voting record. The Republicans gladly took up the mantle of the pro-life cause, but to what end? There’s been no significant change, no real effort made to reverse Roe vs. Wade, but Republican candidates could count on the pro-life vote just by tossing a few sound bites into their speeches and platform. Frankly, they duped us.

Had we not let that single issue define our voting patterns, we may still have had viable, pro-life Democrat candidates, we may have had continued influence on both parties’ platforms, we may not have ignited the rabid hatred of those who disagree with us.

Or not.

But we’ll never know because we let a single issue define us. And when a single issue defines you, you’ll excuse anything in the person who promises to represent you on it. And so, whoever controls that issue, controls you.

Donald Trump recognizes this. For all his faults, he’s not stupid. He knows that if he can pay lip service to the single issue that matters to us, in this case, conservative justices, he’s got us. Early in his campaign, he bragged that he could walk out in downtown New York, shoot someone in cold blood in broad daylight, and still not lose the conservative vote. And I’m beginning to think he’s right. That says a great deal about Donald Trump, but it says more about conservative Christians.

We’ve been down the single issue vote path before. Maybe it’s time we wised up. On the basis of history and character, we’ve got to wise up. It’d be great to have conservative justices, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think that voting for Trump will magically ensure them.

He’ll “make America great again”

 While the Supreme Court justices are the flag most conservative Christians fly for Trump, I suspect that there’s a much more prevalent if a much less quiet reason for the support of many. Much of the current rhetoric from the right, calling for support of the Republican nominee ultimately stems, I suspect, from a resonance with Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” There’s a hunger amongst conservative Christians for the power and influence we used to have. We, who hold the gospel, are held captive by a catchphrase that promises to fulfill our secret lust for lost prominence.

It’s a mirage.

Contrary to the huffing and puffing heard in many pulpits and places, there is no golden age of American greatness. There is no glorious American heyday that we can “return” to if only we could get the “sodomites” and “slaughterhouse doctors” back into the back alleys. The Great America that many want to return to is a myth, conjured out of the rose-tinted memories of a communal, conservative, white, wish-dream.

Lecrae, a Christian rapper, recently shared the following lines that sum up the problem of conservative Christians condemning our current culture in order to bring about a return to a glorious past.

They tellin’ us make “America Great Again”

I’m like hol’ up, when was America great again?

Was it when they took us from our native land?

Or maybe it was when they took the natives’ land?

Harsh? Maybe. True? Definitely.

So, America was great when we were at the forefront of industry, when we were leaders in manufacturing? Oh, you mean when bosses exploited their laborers in extravagant and ghastly ways for pauper’s wages? When a few magnates controlled the lives of their thousands of employees down to where they lived, where they shopped, where they worshiped, and how they were buried?

Or, America was great when we were a Christian nation? Oh, like when we used the Bible to defend kidnapping, buying, selling, raping, and beating human beings for economic gain? Or were you thinking of later when we made sure the children of those human beings, while technically free from chains, nonetheless understood their place and couldn’t drink from a white man’s drinking fountain?

Maybe America was great when we first started? Oh, by “we” you must mean white, European settlers who brought civilization to the savages? All “we” asked in return was their land, their health, their way of life, and their silence, that’s a fair deal, right?

Christians in America need to recognize this fact before they will ever sway from supporting Donald Trump: there is no Great American past to restore.

There are plenty of admirable qualities, there are lots of good ideas, but at no point in our history as a nation could we be called categorically “great”. We can’t make America great again in any comprehensive sense. “Again” is defeated by the non-existence of “before”.

What conservative Christians fail to recognize, is that we cannot tie the gospel too tightly to partisan politics and a narrow understanding of history. When we do so, we inevitably set the stage for the gospel being thrown out in the revolution that inevitably comes. Conservative Christians have spent so much time soaking the baby of the gospel in the bathwater of Republican politics and the American dream that even we’re confused as to where one starts and the other stops. In fact, at times, it seems like we’ve come to value the bathwater more. So no matter how much we protest, it’s at least partially on us when both get thrown out.

Rather than seeking to return to some kind of American glory day by any means possible, maybe we should recognize that the future, not the past, is where hope lies. We shouldn’t sell out our hope in Christ for cheap and temporary political “gains”.

On November 8th

The conservative Christian has four options: vote for Trump, vote for Hillary, vote third-party, or don’t vote.

So what do we do?

First, I’d suggest taking the fourth option off the table. Not voting as a protest makes about as much sense as preparing for retirement by investing all your money in Chuckie Cheese tokens. It may seem personally satisfying, but it doesn’t count in the real world.

So we’re left with voting for Trump, Hillary, or third-party. And it’s here that the rubber meets the road. It’s important. Don’t just rely on my word, on evening news soundbites, on the echo chamber of your Facebook and Twitter feeds: educate yourself! Each citizen needs to carefully examine each candidate’s character, their platform, and their history, including third-party candidates. If you’re not sure character matters in leadership and you’re a conservative Christian, read this resolution (it’s only a few years old). Take a quiz like this one to help determine where you stand on the issues relative to the candidates. Read as many articles, blogs, and candidate websites as possible to evaluate each candidate’s background and track record.

Finally, in an election year as crazy as this one, let me say that my intent is in no way to condemn anyone’s vote. If you choose to vote for Trump, I will assume you made what you honestly believed to be the best choice, even though I believe he is unfit for leadership. If you vote for Hillary, I will assume the same even though I believe the same about her as I do Trump. But for myself, I cannot do either. So I will vote for Evan McMullin and pray that vote demonstrates a commitment to a different vision for the future of American politics, one that can shape not just 2016, but beyond. A commitment to true representative leadership, a commitment to character and values, and a commitment to hope.

*photo from publicdomainpictures.net

7 Reasons for Christian Confidence (No Matter Who Wins the 2016 Election)

ConfidenceOne of the most unfortunate byproducts of the debacle that is America’s 2016 is the hand-wringing epidemic that has swept through Christian circles. This condition seems to have several sources, but a particularly significant one is the political situation. Evangelicals are being asked to choose between a lying, manipulative, untrustworthy nominee on one side and a lying, manipulative, untrustworthy candidate on the other. Then there’s a significant splinter group lambasting those who choose one of these candidates and being lambasted for copping out (Full disclosure: I’m with them. #NeverTrump, #NeverHillary, and #GiantMeteor2016). This political angst fomenting in the Christian community combined with the continued spiritual and numerical decline of most churches, the corresponding rise of secularism, and the constantly looming specter of domestic terrorism is a recipe for despair.

If you forget to include the Sovereign Lord of the Universe that is.

As much as the current context would lead Christians to doom and gloom, that is the last place we actually should go. I recently explored the book of 1 John with the church that I pastor and in chapter five God gives us at least seven reminders of the basis for Christian confidence, confidence that is the antidote for the plague of despair over current events.

1. Jesus has already won. (1 John 5:4-5)

And he invites us into his victory! That’s what faith is: living in light of Jesus’ universe-altering triumph over Satan, sin, and death. When we wring our hands, tremble at the polls, or allow the nervous tension of uncertainty to rob us of joy, we are willfully ignoring the fact that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, victory won.

2. Our faith is grounded in historical reality, not emotionalism. (1 John 5:6-10)

This is a crucial point. How you feel will change, often, precipitously, and without warning. The emotive response to crisis is strong but, as Christians, we ought to remember that emotions are not reality: Jesus is. Jesus’ sojourn on earth, his birth, his baptism, his commendation by the Spirit of God, the real blood he shed, the real grave he was placed in, the fish he ate, and the real clouds he ascended into are all reminders that what matters is what is real, not what we feel. If we ground our response to negativity in the historical reality of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we will find no cause for weeping, but for rejoicing!

3. We will live forever. (1 John 5:11-13)

Sometimes I think we forget this. Eternal life is a kind of safety net for the Christian life. This life neither contains nor completes us. So Christian, your political party nominated a lying, hateful, untrustworthy candidate for the most important political office in the land? That’s ok, you’re going to live forever! Your church might lose its tax-exempt status? You’re going to live forever! There’s a people group who’s never heard the gospel but they might kill you if you go tell them? You’re going to live forever! Eternity flips the script! Instead of needing peace, security, and comfort in this life, we just need to remember that we get those things forever in the presence of God.

4. God hears our prayers. (1 John 5:14-15)

But let’s not just wait for the great by-and-by. Christians ought to be supremely confident because God hears our prayers. How unfathomable is the privilege of barging into the throne room of the King of Kings who oversees all the intricate workings of a UNIVERSE to pray about the specific details of your life? To pray for lost car keys. For church decisions. For mere elections. And we’re not interrupting; we’re invited to come! That’s a confidence booster if ever there was one.

5. We are being sanctified together. (1 John 5:16-18)

Another reason for confidence is that as much a wreck as the world may be, we are part of it. We’re all tangled up and we’re messes in the mess, but that’s not how we’re going to stay. The assurance that as Christians we can get untangled is a beautiful thing. And we are in it together. There is no lone ranger, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps vibe here. That doesn’t build confidence, that brings discouragement. Instead, we are assured that when we fall, brothers and sisters will be there to pick us up. Or if they fall, we’re there to pick them up.

6. God is our Father. (1 John 5:19)

The image that comes to mind here is of kids on a playground. The bully swaggers over to the nerd and threatens to take his lunch money. But just at that moment, the nerd’s 6’6″, 300, All-Pro lineman dad pulls up. When it comes to confidence, there’s not much in us to inspire us. But our Dad is awesome! We walk in this world as a bunch of puny shrimps, but we’re puny shrimps whose Dad can beat up their dad. Confidence!

7. We’ve been set free from ignorance, death, and idols. (1 John 5:20-21)

Often what I’ve found is that when I fail to live confidently and give in to the worry that can consume me, it’s because instead of placing my confidence in God, I’ve mistakenly placed it in what I know, how I live, or in an idol. But I don’t have to stay there. I don’t have to constantly barge up against my ignorance, I don’t have to live in fear of death, and I don’t have to go to those things that I think will protect me but really will slowly kill me. I can, in faith, in confidence, look to Jesus, who is the only truth, the only victor over death, and the one who has overcome.

Christian, walk in confidence no matter what is going on in your life, what happens in the world, or who wins the 2016 election!

Responding to Injustice

freely-10085-preview-973x1309Washington DC. Lies and injustice. Minnesota and Baton Rouge. Ignorance and injustice. Dallas. Terrorism and injustice.

In addition to the travesty of a public election process that we have been subjected to, we were reminded again last week that we are not as civilized as we think. The difference between living in a Third World country and living in the greatest nation is supposed to be measured by dollars, by food, by convenience, by freedom. But how much freedom do we really have when the second a tragedy occurs it is instantly made into a political agenda item? How convenient is it for a black man to be tried with a bullet instead of a judge? How much food will it take to fill the hole at the family table when five officers never make it home for dinner? How many dollars does it take to paper over the fact that there are cracks in the foundation of our national narrative of greatness?

I understand that we don’t have all the facts yet. I understand that we must be patient with the investigative process. I understand that many don’t want to think about these things. But I do not understand any believer who is unwilling to face the facts that we are living at a time of incredible injustice and incredible pain in our nation.

A candidate for the highest office in our country was revealed to have broken the law and yet will not face charges. And there are those who will say that I am being overly political for calling that injustice. Two men were shot, one for reaching for a concealed carry permit and another for carrying in an open-carry state. And there will be those who say I am anti-police for saying that a black man should expect a chance to at least explain himself. 12 policemen were shot by a terrorist sniper. There are those who will say I am anti-blacks for grieving their deaths. Why does everything have to be political or racial? Have we lost the ability to simply be pro-human? Has the church been so influenced by the political narrative that we cannot mourn injustice, whichever side of the aisle it affects?

But let’s not stop there. Recently, in pulpits and in papers, there have been calls for social activism. There is a deep sense, amongst believer and unbelievers alike, that we have to DO something. So people jump on Facebook and rant about corrupt politicians, all while supporting the opposing, also corrupt, politician. There are staunch defenses of the right to bear arms, a “you can take my gun when you pull it from my cold dead fingers” tirades. There are subtle and not-so-subtle racial epithets thrown around. There are all kinds of words spilled out of the desire to “DO” Something, to SAY something, or, more likely, to BE SEEN as doing something or saying something.

Is our response to the latest injustice governed more by our political affiliation or our Lord’s salvation? Are we seeking to dedicate our lives to a 240 year old document or to the God who reigns from everlasting to everlasting? Are we proud to be a Americans but failing to live as Christians? I spoke with someone this week who said, Americans love their rights, but what rights does a slave have? And that is the issue. To be Christian is not to be a more sanctified American: it is to be a slave of Christ. It is to gladly forfeit rights in order to serve the cause of a master. It is to not seek a city that can be shaken, but to seek one that cannot be shaken. It is to reject reliance on any source of security (guns, politics, rights) other than God.

I preached from Isaiah 59 this past Sunday in response to the events of the week leading up to it. Isaiah 59 tells us…

…that God is not unaware of what is going on.

…that we are not any better than the liar, the racist, or the terrorist.

…that the proper response to injustice is not political posturing but lament and humility.

…that one day all wrongs will be made right by the mighty hand of God.

As Christians, our primary responsibility is not cultural crusading. The Moral Majority tried and failed. Our responsibility is to share, declare, and live the good news that there is a kingdom that looks nothing like this one, an eternal kingdom, ruled by a righteous king. But in the course of that declaration of the gospel, we need to recognize that sin has warped not just individual hearts, but national hearts as well. We need to proclaim the gospel far and wide because no one else but a Righteous King can restore an unrighteous slave and nothing but a Kingdom of Righteousness can overcome a kingdom of darkness. We have to trust in the triumph of God’s righteousness, the establishment of His justice.

Our trust is not in ourselves, not in political change, not even in fixing every injustice of this world. Our trust is in the Coming King who will set everything to right. The Redeemer. Who will mete out justice and mercy, who will squash rebellion and restore the broken, who will break the proud and raise the humble. What is required of us, Christians?

To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

To be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to anger.

To declare the infinite glory of a King who is Righteous, to speak of a Kingdom that is faultless, and to revel in the joy of your Master.

To love God, love others, and make disciples.

Come Lord Jesus and rule our hearts, our lives, our kingdoms…fix us, because we sure can’t fix ourselves.