Thursday, June 22, 2017

To Sell Your Soul

What does it look like to sell your soul?  Maybe you can picture it from movies or cartoons.  Maybe you imagine the musical Damn Yankees, or recall the story of bluesman Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, or when the devil annulled Spider-Man's marriage to MJ.  But what would it look like today, in real life?  What would it take for a stranger, or a friend, or a cause to convince you to give up everything you believe?

Last month, on the eve of the National Day of Prayer, President Donald Trump hosted his evangelical advisors for a dinner to celebrate his election victory and to discuss the religious freedom Executive Order he would issue the following day.  A blogger I follow posted a picture from that dinner and speculated that was what selling your soul looked like.  I replied that I found it ironic their dinner was lobster (eating shellfish being an "abomination" according to Leviticus 11, just a few pages before the popularly quoted Leviticus 18).  But in the picture I didn't see money changing hands, or souls being wisped away.

During my Sunday school class this week, I reminded everyone that the "antichrist" according to John wasn't a specific person, rather anyone who denied that Jesus was the Christ.  More specifically it was directed towards the Gnostics, who believed that since the flesh was inherently sinful Jesus could not be both human and divine.  Yet we like to throw that word around to describe anyone we think opposes our particular worldview (Christian, or not).  George W Bush, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump... you get the idea.

We do this because we are convinced the antichrist is a specific character in the end-times.  He or she is the ruler of the "one world government" that comes before the rapture, Jesus' return, or whatever other eschatological interpretation you may have.  But Revelation never mentions the antichrist.  Rather there are two beasts in Revelation 13- one, a political leader and the second, a religious leader -who work together in service of the dragon.

Nearly everyone agrees the dragon is Satan.  But there is more debate about identifying the beasts.  The first is often described by terms like "new world order" and can be interpreted as the United Nations, NATO, the global economy, the G8, et cetera.  The second is popularly the Catholic Church or the Pope.  It is sometimes interpreted to be Constantine giving rise to Christendom.

Regardless, the narrative of Revelation describes the beasts as religious authority ceding to political favor.  In other words, selling your soul for the sake of politics.

Later on Sunday, President Trump's new lawyer, Jay Sekulow, made the rounds on cable news to defend that the president was not under any investigation.  Jay Sekulow, in case you didn't know, used to be lead counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a counter-organization to the ACLU specializing in religious freedom cases.  But over the years the ACLJ has become more and more political.  And now Sekulow finds himself on the president's retainer.

In one of the many articles describing his news-tour, someone commented that it was clear President Trump had God's favor because Sekulow was representing him and therefore no powers of evil can defeat him.

That, right there, is what selling your soul looks like.

It's not the dinner evangelical leaders have with presidents.  It's not paychecks received to appear on the news and advance a political narrative.  It's not even the political maneuvering that is done by religious leaders every time there is an election.

No, it is the common person, the sincere believer, who is deceived because someone they considered a spiritual authority takes a political stance signifying such politics as godly.

After the beasts are introduced in Revelation 13, their followers are then described.  These deceived can be recognized by a physical sign- the mark of the beast.  It's not the politician or the religious leader we have to worry about selling their soul, rather it is you and me being deceived, being marked.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

And He Loved Them Too

"I'm so angry I wish I were dead."  What a ridiculous statement from Jonah (Jonah 4:9) after not getting his way while God got his.  The temper tantrum of a toddler because God did what Jonah knew he was going to do.

As ridiculous as it sounds, this is my favorite part of Jonah's story.  Maybe because I relate so well.  You see, I have a self-righteousness problem.  I think I know it all.  I think my interpretation of the Bible, my doctrine, my church is better than yours.  So I always have to check myself when I'm tempted to be critical.

Jonah thought his interpretation of God's will was better than the the God who gave it, that his faith was better than the Ninevites.  So he ignored God's instructions.  Actually, he did more than ignore it, he ran as far away from it as he could.

But God's will couldn't be ignored for long; a great fish had other ideas.

The stories seemed to come on top of each other- the trial of a church trying to beat the homosexuality out of a man and a congressman declaring holy war on Muslims.  My instinct was to ask, "do these people actually read their Bibles?"  Even today I saw an article at Christianity Today on how we can pray for Muslims during Ramadan.  Yes, the headline was click-bait, but the comments are appalling.  So when I heard the news about a man arrested on his way to shoot doctors, my first thought was "abortion".

Turns out that wasn't the case.  But what does it say when that's what we expect?

You've probably heard the saying, Christians are known more for what they are against than what they are for.  While that usually invokes images of protesters in front of abortion clinics or at a funeral holding signs saying, "God hates fags", we usually don't think of such exercises of 'free speech' as violent.

Until an abortion clinic is bombed.

Or until the son of a famous evangelist and president of a prominent Christian college encourages Christians to carry guns so that they can "end" Muslims.

Or until a gay youth is driven to suicide by family, friends, and a church who reject her.

These types of Christians are so angry they wish others were dead.

And darn right I'm critical.

You see, what made Jonah so angry (besides the heat, because c'mon who isn't short-tempered in scorching heat) was that God had the nerve to forgive.  It wasn't up to Jonah to decide who was worthy.  Jonah admitted, "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." (4:2)  And that graciousness, that compassion, that love extended even to Jonah's enemies.

I wonder if the folks at Word of Life Church, or Congressman Higgins, or Jerry Falwell Jr have ever read this story and asked,who the Ninevites are in their lives, because God loves them too.  The homosexual.  The Muslim.  The liberal.  The woman.  The sinner.  God loves them too.

So these headlines make me angry.  Angry because the hatred and the violence is what some people think Christianity is all about.  It makes me so angry at times I was I was dead and didn't have to deal with it.

Because God loves them too.

The Christians who don't look like Jesus.  The pastor who confuses nationalism with faith.  The angry crusader.  The homophobe.  The self-righteous.  The face in the mirror.

God loves them too.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Choose Lives

I shouldn't be alive.  That sounds dramatic, I know, but statistically it's true.  In high school I remember debating a girl on the topic of abortion.  Her succinct argument was that I didn't have a right to speak up because I was a male.  But I think I have more of a right than most, simply for the fact that I am alive to say something.

You see, I was given up for adoption at birth.  My biological parents were unwed teenagers; I don't know their names or really anything else about them.  I was thankfully adopted at two weeks old; my adoptive family is the only family I've ever known.  I know many who haven't been as fortunate- being shuffled between foster families, never feeling settled or ever having a sense of 'home'.

So I should be militantly pro-life, knowing that adoption is always an option.  I was part of a youth/campus ministry for a time that had "life" as a top priority.  We would pray daily for the unborn.  I even participated in a march or two.  I got in a fight with a friend in college who refused to eat the Domino's Pizza I ordered because its owner donated to pro-life causes.

But I'm not.

Shortly after the debate mentioned above, a good friend became pregnant.  She was salutatorian of my graduating class.  She was allowed to walk, but she couldn't speak (our school was small enough both the valedictorian and salutatorian gave speeches).  She was vice president of our student council, but had to step down.  She was rejected, shunned, and made fun of (I confess to participating in the latter).  And when graduation day arrived, I could see the pain in her face as she held back tears.  My politics had a face.

This wasn't some Christian school in the bible belt.  This was just a small town, rural high school that remembered a time when a pregnant teenager would be sent away to stay with an "aunt" to save her family from embarrassment.

You might've seen a similar story in the past week, or maybe you read the young woman's op-ed in the Washington Post.  To say I relate is only partly true- I haven't felt that rejection, I haven't carried a baby to term, I wasn't afraid of what my future had in store and how every plan and dream I had now had to change.  But I've witnessed it.

I've witnessed it as an adult too.  I witnessed it as a young girl in the teen ministry I was helping lead became pregnant and was effectively, though not officially, disfellowshipped.  But my wife and I kept our door open- severing her dinner, babysitting while she looked for a job.  Around the same time, a good friend also got pregnant (must've been something in the water, as they say).  She was single.  She too was rejected by the church.  So the door to our home opened wider.  Then a friend of my wife returned from deployment in the Middle East and needed help, as a single mom, getting on her feet.  Another women had the exact opposite need, her husband was deployed and needed help with her kids as a functionally, though not technically, single mother.  All of this happened within a couple of years.  I look back at times like these and can see that God was at work, even if I didn't feel like it at the time; we had our own kids to deal with, after all!

A friend likes to quote the DJ/artist Moby, how Christians care more about the woman entering the abortion clinic than the woman leaving it.

This is how I feel about the pro-life/pro-choice debate.  My politics have done a complete 180 in the years since my Young Republican and College Republican days.

I wouldn't say I'm pro-choice however.  I just want to say that I understand.

Despite my politics leaning right, I appreciated the (old) Democratic platform with respect to abortion: it should be available, but rare.  Sadly they removed the "rare" qualifier during the last election cycle.

But a child isn't a right/left, life/choice dichotomy.  A mother is not a political football, being thrown downfield in either direction depending on who is on offense for the next four years.  There must be a "third way".

Yesterday, I listened to the latest Phil Vischer podcast with their guest Angie Weszely.  Angie was representing the ministry Pro Grace.  And she expressed everything I feel.

Check out the podcast.  And check out the ministry.  To say we are "pro-life" but only care about one of the two lives (really three, the men responsible are seldom considered in the debate) is only being half-honest.  We should be "pro-lives", plural.  And that is Pro Grace.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Gospel According to Bono

Last week I watched U2 perform their album, The Joshua Tree, live at the Rose Bowl.  They are on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of their breakout release.  While I like U2, I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a huge fan to the point of saying, "OMG, I have to see this concert!"  (Although I do admit regretting not taking the opportunity to see them live on their PopMart Tour back in 1997, after hearing how elaborate and technically advanced their show was.)  But I do remember one summer listening to that album on a seemingly endless loop while painting a house with the campus ministry I was involved with at the time.  We would take breaks from the heat and discuss the spiritual themes in the songs we were listening to.  Those discussions planted seeds that grew when I read about how and when the band was baptized early in their career and how seriously, if unorthodox, Bono took his faith.

On the one hand I admired Bono's boldness on the global stage- meeting with world leaders, advocating for the poor and hungry.  But on the other hand I found his politics and sanctimony tiring- there are times when it seems like Bono is everywhere with a solution for everything.

So a live concert celebrating the milestone of an album that played an important part of my own spiritual development seemed like a perfect excuse to see and hear the man himself.  (That, and the added bonus of taking my wife out for a rare time without the kids)

U2 wrote The Joshua Tree as a love-letter to America.  Their songs reflected the landscape they encountered while touring for their previous albums.  Bono describes their album as describing not just the physical aspects of the United States, but also the emotional and spiritual (a point he made during the concert and referenced in just about every article written about the album).  And the titular tree, standing alone in the desert, symbolized hope- reaching heavenward out of desolation.

The "gospel" that Bono preached that night was one of hope.  Prior to one of his songs, Bono proclaimed, "it's Saturday night but let's sing like it's Sunday morning! Lift up your hands!"  He didn't shy away from politics, and yes he was heavy-handed at times.  But that sense of hope permeated the concert, from his on-stage antics to the videos playing behind him (including at one point lyrics from Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech).  The album is described as celebrating not what America is, but what it could be.  And that is the good news of U2.

Regardless of political platitudes and playing up to the climate of the time, Bono gives hope for a country that his once-nemesis Ronald Reagan described as a "city on a hill".  There is hope for a country that claims to be over 70% Christian, despite our politics and policies betraying such statistics.  There is a hope for a country with more resources than most of the world combined.  There is hope for a country to overcome systematic racism and what Pope John Paul the Second described as a "culture of death".  There is hope for thousands of concert-goers who feel energized by current events to just do something to make this world a better place.

Maybe music isn't the appropriate means to deliver such a gospel.  Perhaps Bono's ego makes him a self-serving messenger (his sit-down with Eugene Peterson would suggest otherwise).  But that doesn't invalidate the message.  We should be striving for better- better politics, better relationships, better stewardship.

Maybe we should listen as Bono admonishes us to "take it to church"