Killing it: How overwork leads to underperformance

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Have you ever been really tired? As in, barely drag yourself out of bed, wonder how you’ll make it through the day, dog-tired?

Have you ever been discouraged, depressed, or anxious?

Are you any of those right now?

Jesus lets us in on a spiritual practice that research says increases work performance, reduces anxiety & depression, increases energy levels and happiness, and will even help you live longer.

What is this great catalyst for human thriving?

It is Sabbath. That’s right – a simple practice taken for granted for 3500 years.

We don’t sabbath much these days. We go, go, go. 24/7. We brag about the number of hours we work. If we do “take” a day (Did you notice we use the language of theft?) it is to shop, do home projects, plan the week, or acquiesce to the tyranny of Sunday children’s sports. That isn’sabbath! The Hebrew word for sabbath means “cease.” Sabbath is about ceasing – about rest!

Easier said than done

I had breakfast with a friend last week. As we left he asked if I was on my way to the office. I told him, “No, it’s my day off.” He asked what my plans were. I replied, “Writing a talk on sabbath taking.” I am so bad at taking a day off that I used my day off to write a sermon on taking a day off!

If you were born before 1965 you have, in the recesses of your memory, Sunday go to meetin’ clothes, dinner with cousins, sitting on the porch, naps, ball in the yard, reading with your family…and being bored because all the stores were closed. The sabbath was a day to “cease.”

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In Mark 2:23-3:6 Mark records Jesus being followed and grilled by religious leaders for improper sabbathing. Jesus was well-acquainted with the sabbath. Keeping sabbath is the fourth of the 10 commandments. The exhortation to “remember the sabbath” is repeated 150 times, more than the other 9 commandments combined. One example illustrates the sabbath’s place in the biblical narrative: When Moses is about to leave the mountain from God’s presence, tablets in hand, to take the commandments to the people (Exodus 31:12-18), God’s parting words are, “Above all, remember the sabbath.

What’s the big deal?

Sabbath is God’s primary mode of spiritual formation. It is the marinade of the spiritual life – a secret sauce that, when it soaks into us, flavors our lives. Which means that getting rid of the sabbath is a great way to insure spiritual blandness. Joseph Stalin actually tried this. The Soviet Union went to a 5-day week in 1930. It was a trick to get rid of religion by eliminating the sabbath.

What happened when folk worked hard and didn’t balance work with rest, community, and worship? Productivity plummeted. When the Nazi’s invaded Russia in 1940, the Soviets immediately went back to the 7-day week. All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy, it makes Jack an unproductive one.

How does overwork lower productivity?

When we go 24/7 it raises the stress hormone, cortisol, that our bodies make for short term fight or flight. According to Psychology Today, elevated cortisols are public health enemy number one. When cortisol levels remain high it interferes with learning and memory, lowers immune function and bone density, and causes increases in weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. High cortisol is also linked to depression, anxiety, diabetes, and heart disease. In other words, skipping the sabbath is bad for both your physical and emotional health.

In 2005 National Geographic did a cover story on the five places on the planet with an abundance of people living past 100 years of age. One is in the U.S. – Loma Linda, California. Loma Linda is unique for a high percentage of Seventh Day Adventists, a group whose defining characteristic is…wait for it…keeping the sabbath. Keeping the sabbath is associated with lengthened life expectancy.

Over our lifetime, a regular sabbath adds up to a decade with God. Imagine, where would you be if you took a decade away from your education? Working through the sabbath means we will end our lives a decade less wise than our forbearers.

Let’s summarize: Skipping the sabbath lowers work performance, is harmful to our physical and emotional health, shortens our life expectancy, and exacts a high price on the truest, deepest part of us – our spiritual life. Conclusion: We really ought to sabbath.

How does one sabbath?

Keeping the sabbath is as simple as trading 24/7 for 24/6. Whatever is “work” for you, “cease” it one day a week.

Sabbath suggestions

  • Stay off the phone. Email, text and Facebook can wait.
  • Do something fun.
  • Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Do less. Scratch activities from Sundays to create margin-like those kid’s sports leagues.
  • Be with family and friends.
  • Worship God.

In Mark 2:23 the religious leaders hassled Jesus about the disciples noshing on grain as they walked through a farm field. We think of that as petty theft. Snacking wasn’t stealing, though, it was expressly permitted by the law…unless they pocketed food (Deuteronomy 23:23-24). By Jesus’ day, however, the importance of the sabbath had led religious leaders to make a bunch of strange rules to prevent work. One such rule was against walking more than 2/3 of a mile on the sabbath. 2/3 a mile broke their arbitrary “work” threshold. To get around the rules folk would build tiny little 1’x1’ houses 2/3 a mile from home, then they could walk twice as far.

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The religious leaders were hassling Jesus because picking grain was “work.” Notice that they wanted the disciples to violate the 8th commandment against stealing in order to keep a made-up rule to avoid work. Jesus gently corrected their made-up rule with scripture, then irritated them by calling himself the “Lord of the sabbath.” Then Jesus walks right into a synagogue and demonstrates his lordship over that sabbath by healing a guy. Jesus wasn’t disrespecting the sabbath, he was placing it into perspective. “The sabbath is made for you!”

How is the sabbath for you? 

The sabbath isn’t just a mechanism of rest, it is a tool of identity. We were created in God’s image and given vocations. God shares his dazzling vision for the future in order to use you and me to bring it about. That vision soaks into us as we participate in the weekly rhythm of sabbath. So, take that day each week. Rest. Worship. Study. See if you don’t begin to view you, your work, and God’s world through new eyes.

The original American dream of the freedom to pursue happiness has been written down like a bad debt. Our culture’s new mantra is that we work to live: get as much money possible, as fast as possible, with the least effort possible, in order to get off work to go do something else.

Frankly, it’s a lame way to live.

We were, all of us, whether artist or barista, therapist or teacher, oil exec or equity guy, spiritual beings. We were made for God’s presence to seep into, to awaken us to the God-saturated world where you can work and rest and play as designed, both for your benefit and to the honor of the One who speaks his purpose over and into you.

That is why Jesus sabbathed, by the way; to keep his connection with his Father deep, strong, alive. Sabbath empowered Jesus’ work. “Sabbath was made for man,” not for you to be fresh for an 0500 Monday wake-up, but to connect us to the one true source of life, God himself. Our NEED for rest is a constant reminder of our NEED for a Savior. Without Christ, we will work without purpose, without wholeness, and without a break.

In Jesus, God welcomes us to rest, marinating us in the wise, joyful presence of our heavenly Father. God made us with spiritual ears to hear His still small voice whispering to our hearts. But we only hear that voice when we pause to listen…when we sabbath.

So go ahead, keep killing it at work. But kill it 24/6.

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Narrative and Metanarrative: John 3:16, your story, and your place in the cosmos

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We experience life as story.

This seems hardwired; the way we assemble our discrete experiences as plot devices in a coherent narrative. And we continue to do this even when our stories ultimately leave us wondering, “Is this all there is to life?”

And it isn’t just story on a micro level, we look for story on the macro as well: interpreting the world through metanarratives; grand, overarching, shared stories. Our current metanarrative is postmodernism. Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Our previous shared story was modernity – the belief in human progress. Lyotard pointed out that the shared belief in human progress failed. We did not “make the world safe for democracy.” Dr. King’s, “arc of the universe” did not bend towards justice.” Progress did not solve the world’s problems. We may have “boldly gone where no man has gone before,” but we have a sense we were going the wrong way. Modernism just didn’t pan out. In response, postmodernism posits the death of the metanarrative.

And yet…we cannot stop seeking meaning personally, and we cannot stop seeking context to our place and role in this massive world. Whether it works or not, we continue to instinctively assemble narratives for ourselves and search for metanarrative to explain our place in the cosmos. We are convinced we are both part of something larger and also, paradoxically, free to write our own story…even in light of the evidence that neither is working.

John 3, Nicodemus, and the Narrative and Metanarrative of God

In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus did the same thing. Nicodemus came to Jesus attempting to figure out how Jesus fit in his culture’s metanarrative and to understand Jesus’ place in his personal story. Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for the religious festival. Perhaps they were camped in their favorite olive garden enjoying the spring breezes along the ridges of the Kidron valley. Nicodemus, a respected teacher with a lot to lose if he were found to be talking to a rabbi disrupting the status quo worldview, came at night.

Nicodemus greeted Jesus with pleasantries: “Teacher, we know anyone doing the things you do must be from God.” Jesus swept the compliments aside. Sympathetic interest was a waste; “A new birth is what you need.” Nicodemus approached Jesus as a teacher. Jesus teaches: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The expression has two meanings. Born “from above” and “again.” Both are implied. Jesus is offering Nicodemus’ a new master narrative – the Kingdom of God. Assume for a moment this metanarrative actually does come from the creator and redeemer of the cosmos. If that is true, by definition, it is different from every other worldview in its’ objective truth. And like hunger points to the existence of food, our human desire to understand the big picture points to a true metanarrative. (Have you ever wondered about how unhelpful it is on an evolutionary level for humans to sit around contemplating our place in the universe while saber tooth tigers awoke from hibernation looking for lunch?)

But although our hearts point us to a true metanarrative, Jesus says that neither Nicodemus, nor you and I, are free to find the metanarrative of the Kingdom on our own. It comes from above. We cannot accomplish it ourselves. In fact, Jesus says (John 3:3) we can’t even “see” it on our own.

Nicodemus, cannot make heads or tails of this. (John 3:4) “Can you return to your mother’s womb?” 

Now that Jesus has broached the topic of seeing new birth, he pushes past seeing, (John 3:5) “I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is not meant to be viewed from a safe distance. It is to be entered personally. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” One can imagine the evening wind rustling the olive branches. “Spirit” in both original biblical languages, suggests breath or wind. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus said. Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, commenting on this passage, said, “Don’t wait until you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you. Or wait until you know its destination before you spread sail to it…Trust yourself to it.”

Jesus places his coming in the context of the scriptural metanarrative (3:13-14). He refers to the last of the prophets, Daniel, with his vision of the messiah as the “Son of Man,” then connects his story even further back, to God’s ancient Law. In Numbers 21 Israel was in the wilderness, grumbling and snake-bit. The children of Israel were told to look upon a bronze serpent lifted up to live. Jesus, who elsewhere said the entire Old Testament referred to him, gives this as a small taste, “so must the son of man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” With a single reference Jesus points both backwards and forwards in history by equating this with his impending passion.

Now comes the central declaration of the Christian faith: John 3:16. The heart of God’s metanarrative, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “God is love” is a precious truth, but God being loving necessitates no divine participation. “God so loved that he gave,” declares God is active, invested…getting his hand’s dirty for his creation.

And what object is sufficiently large for God’s self-giving love? Christianity is more than another world religions offering individual salvation. Oh, it contains that, but Jesus tells us, God’s scope is much more expansive. God’s object is the world itself. God himself redeemed the entire cosmos as Jesus was lifted up. The salvation offered by Jesus Christ has a vast, grand sweep. John 3:16 tells us that God’s love is:

  • Active: “God so loved…he gave.”
  • Personal: “his only begotten son”
  • Available: to “whoever believes”
  • Specific: Centered “in him
  • Purposeful: giving “eternal life.

In Jesus Christ, we see and enter God’s grand Kingdom metanarrative. We discover our narrative as well – that our purpose is bound up in God’s purposes.

St. Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord; And our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.”

The stories we believe matter.

Only one metanarrative explains human history. Only one fulfills scriptural prophecy. Only one makes sense of our universal experience of destiny. It is the story of God; who, in Jesus Christ, is activepersonalavailable… specific…and gives purpose to our lives.

What Jesus was effectively saying to Nicodemus is this: “What you think about me is only as helpful as it is accurate. You think I’m from God. That’s nice – but nice won’t get you new birth. Release yourself to the moving of God’s Spirit. Allow yourself to be refreshed by, to spread your sail to, God’s Spirit. Allow yourself reborn by the explainer of history, the fulfiller of prophecy, and the one who makes sense of our stories. Don’t entrust your life to narratives that don’t satisfy. Don’t surrender your life to a metanarrative that will end up on the dustbin of history…

God has told us his overarching story. He designed you and I for a place in that story as we are born from above and anew. He can do this because of who He is and what he has done, defeating death on Calvary. More than “a teacher sent from God”, Jesus is God himself, offering a new birth from above to all who believe, rewriting our stories in his, and allowing us to see, and enter the grand story of eternity.

 

Dissing Christmas: The Church Fathers Pile On

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Starbucks. Target. City halls refusing to put up nativities. This relentless attack on Christmas must stop! Who is going to do battle with our cherished celebration next? The early church fathers? Say what? Listen to a “Justice League” of early fathers ruin Christmas by pointing out that, outside of the holy family, pretty much everything in your nativity crèche is based in fiction rather than biblical reality.

Assumptions v. Reality: The Church Fathers straighten us out on Christmas Night

Let’s contrast our modern version of the Christmas story with the perspective of the early Fathers who stood far closer, both chronologically and culturally, to Jesus’ birth than we do.Justice League Christmas Dis.002

  1. Not Announced by a star

We assume a star over the manger announced the King’s arrival. Like many of our beliefs about the Christmas story, we get that idea from Christmas carols. “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay…” Reality: The star came later (See assumption 3). The heralds were angels, who, as Cyril of Alexandria said in the 5th century, “never oppose the will of the one whose message they bear.”[1] God’s personal messenger service brought the news. For God, when it comes to salvation, it’s personal.

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  1. No Wise Men

Regardless of the school nativity play or the crèche on your mantel, the wise men were not even present at the birth. They arrived a year or so later. (Which explains Herod putting a hit on anyone under two years of age[2] and why the church celebrates the coming of the wise men as Epiphany on Jan 6.) In reality Shepherds were the first non-family to greet Jesus at his birthIn the 200’s Origen wrote, “the host of heaven brought the message of humanities’ good shepherd.” Bonus: There is also no indication from the text that it was the shepherd’s status on the peasant rung of the working-class ladder that amazed the public. What amazed was the message: “peace on earth.” From the divine perspective, “peace on earth” is only possible if there is peace with God – the enmity brought between humanity and God by sin removed. When the ones raising lambs for the temple system were sent to find a baby swaddled the way they swaddled their lambs to keep them spotless for the atonement sacrifices, everyone heard an implication: This baby would be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[3]

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  1. Not an Inn

In the pop culture version Mary and Joseph were rejected, turned away from a packed Inn In the Greek New Testament, the word for “Inn” is pandocheion, a place travelers paid for a common kitchen and dormitory, like a hostel. But that word isn’t in this text. Joseph and Mary instead went to a kataluma, “the spare or upper room in a private house…no payment was expected.”[4] A kataluma is where the disciples ate the Last Supper, not an “inn,” an “upper room.”[5] Joseph, seems to have done what Middle Easterners do to this day: showed up at a relative’s so that family could extend hospitality. Presumably, coming from a distance with a pregnant wife, other family perhaps already have the guest room for the census. Although despised and rejected by men[6] as an adult, Jesus was welcomed on his arrival. In the 3rd century Chrysostem wrote, he was “not in some small room but in the home before numerous people.”[7]

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  1. No Stable

Regardless of what your mom said, you probably weren’t born in a barn and Jesus probably wasn’t either, since animals were not kept in barns in 1st Century Palestine. They were kept in the lower level of the main house. The manger is on the main level so that the animals could put their faces in and eat.[8] Jesus was born in the main room and, as Gregory of Nazianzus said, “bound in swaddling bands at the manger to release humanity from the swaddling bands of the grave at the resurrection.”[9] No wonder his mother named him, Jesus, meaning, “God saves.”

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  1. Not on Christmas.

Jesus’ had a Christmas birthday, right? Wrong. Because the shepherds were in the field, scholars conclude Jesus’ birth was in Spring or Fall. How did we get Dec. 25? A common theory is that we co-opted the Roman feast of the Unconquerable Sun. However, the church, long before it gave a rip about the holidays of Rome’s pantheon of gods, believed Jesus was both conceived and crucified on March 25. They counted forward 9 months from conception, giving us, viola, Dec. 25. In reality, it is the era rather than the day of Jesus’ birth that is important. Jesus was born during the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, allowing the news of him to spread. 7th century historian Bede wrote, “Jesus was born at the time of utmost worldly peace to lead the world back to heavenly peace.”[10]

Conclusion: When Jesus arrived and God dwelt among us[11] he didn’t just, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased, “move into the neighborhood,”[12] he moved into the front room. As Athanasius wrote in the 3rd century, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.”[13] That is the point of Jesus entering what pagan philosopher Celsus called, the ragtag and bobtail of humanity.[14]

What do we learn of Christmas from the Fathers? It would be good to learn our Bibles and our story and defend our faith against shallow thinking and ministers who lack the training to teach the scriptures rather than simply critiquing the culture. The truth of Christmas we learn from the scriptures is that angelic messengers let us know that, for God, “it’s personal.” He may have been a helpless baby, but more than a helpless baby, Jesus would be the spotless lamb of God to be sacrificed, shattering the separation of sin. Jesus was at home in the world he had made,[15] in the midst of the stuff of life. His name means “God saves” and his birth is an invitation to that salvation: God joined us “in the fullness of time” to bring peace to the world, that we might be united to him eternally.[16]

Your crèche might be bogus, but the incarnation most certainly is not. Christian, reclaim Christmas by worshipping the manger-born King, walking with God rather than expecting non-believers to, learning our scriptures in the context of historic teaching, and bear witness to the power of that babe to bring “peace on earth, goodwill to those in whom he is well-pleased.”  

*And yes, I do know Perpetua isn’t a “Father,” but someone had to be Gal Gadot.

[1] Commentary on Luke, Homily 2

[2] Matt 2:16

[3] John 1:29

[4] ISBE, 2004

[5] Luke 22:12

[6] Isaiah 53:3

[7] Against the Anomoeans, 7.49

[8] There are a plethora of references on this one. Google it.

[9] Oration 29.19

[10] Homilies on the Gospels, 1.6

[11] John 1:14

[12] The Message,

[13] On the Incarnation

[14] Contra Celsus,

[15] John 1:1

[16] Galatians 4:4

 

Loving Houston from a distance

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Snark MeterrealMID.003A week ago, while boarding a plane to lead a retreat in Maryland, I naively commented that I was sad to be leaving Houston before my first hurricane. After all, one is not “Real Houston” until you have been there and done that.

That was ignorance speaking.

A week later Harvey has moved on. Behind is the devastation of 50” of rain pummeling one place for four days. Friends and colleagues left their homes with nothing but the drenched clothes on their backs. Friends floated their families out of their neighborhood on air mattresses and pool toys. A few, people with lives and loved ones and stories, didn’t make it out at all.

My wife and teams of our young adults have spent this week gutting homes that were knee deep in flood waters and backed up sewage in a race against the mold that will turn those homes toxic. And all the while, I remain in Baltimore due to airport closures and having booked with an airline that has a single daily flight to Houston. So, like most of you, I have had to love from a distance.

From a distance I worry about those who will spend months in shelters and hotels and friend’s spare bedrooms. I worry about those unable to work and pay bills and buy groceries and gasoline to get back to work when (or if ) their jobs reopen. For thousands, Harvey’s aftermath will mean a second move: the move into poverty.

Knowing that I am on staff at a Houston church that sends more than 1/3 of every dollar directly out our door to others, and that I have some experience serving “the least of these,” many have asked, “What can I do?”* Here is how you can provide helpful help right now:

  1. Pray. Really. (James 5:16) “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.” (Ps. 29:10) The storm is never the last word!
  2. Stop. Don’t load up a flatbed with blankets and bring 100 of your closest friends next week. That day will come. Right now, shelters, hotels and churches are filled. The last thing Harvey hit areas need right now is more bodies. Don’t send the flatbed with the blankets either. The list of what shelters needs changes daily. If you send it, chances are good your generosity will end up not being used.
  3. Give money. Money is flexible. Money can be used to buy kids groceries and clothes. We spent $1200 today on supplies like masks and gloves to help teams tear out carpet, drywall and cabinets. Thousands of workers will need Hep C and tetanus shots. People (church parishioners and church’s local mission partners with folk in dire financial positions) will need help because people on the bubble will not be able to work hourly jobs, but their expenses won’t stop.

How to give cash? Find a charity you trust. Give some to small local charities…local charities do good work with real people. Give some to church-based national charities. National charities have broad experience. Lots of large secular charities pay huge salaries and have large advertising budgets that church-based charities usually do not have. (For example Episcopal Relief and Development sends 84% directly to programs rather than admin or fundraising).

Here is one place I trust: http://www.sjd.org/harvey/

Thank you for loving from a distance. The Gulf Coast needs you!

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Tuesday clothing collections at St. John the Divine

*If you count the staff necessary to accomplish that, it is more like 50% of the budget of the Church of St. John the Divine goes outside our doors.

What should Christians do the day after an election?

(Originally posted four years ago today. Still appropriate.)

Imagine my surprise to wake up today and be informed by my Facebook feed that for slightly less than 1/2 of America the apocalypse is upon us. While, at the same time, for ever so slightly more than 50% of America, we have just insured our temporal salvation…at least for four more years.

My 2300 Facebook friends are mostly Christians. How did we, the followers of a messiah who repeatedly refused to be a political deliverer, decide to look for salvation through the vote? How does a group, whose original identity was the anti-empire exclamation: “Jesus is Lord!” end up equating our political system with religious truth? Our original creed was a stark rebuttal to the “Caesar is Lord” mandated to be shouted as the emperor was carried through Roman cities. And yet today we look to the empire for our salvation.

We would do well to remember the message that Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no other name under heaven.” (Acts 4:12)

We have a missio-dei, a mission of God that transcends any secular mission. It is a mission of thought, and mouth, and hands and feet. Imagine this: What if every Christian invested the dollars we spent on campaigns and candidates on the poor, the downtrodden, the alien and sojourner…the unborn and the young single girl carrying them?

What if we borrowed a page from the playbook of the early Christians? In 362 C.E. the commitment to society by Christians was so obvious that when Emperor Julian launched a campaign to revive paganism he realized the enormous challenge he faced in trying to win people’s affections back from the devotion of Christians. “When the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by our priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” [1] The church nursed the sick, cared for widows, orphans and elderly. We even buried the dead, both Christian and non-Christian alike.

Even the beneficiary of yesterday’s vote, the President himself, realizes that we are placing too much either on him or opposed to him when he pointed out that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” I would say that actually is another. A Nazarene carpenter.

But what should we Christians do the day after an election? Go back to being his hands and his feet. Live, serve, preach, pray, give, go and grow.


[1] Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. New York: HarperOne Publishers. (2006), 31.

Distorted Mirrors: What Our Candidates Tell Us About Ourselves

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Photo credit: cnbc.com – Getty Images

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I’m doing it. I am adding to the word count on the two people Americans are most tired of talking about. Fret not, though. I won’t bore you with my opining on their political positions, policies, or personal lives. I just want to ponder for a moment what our candidates’ very public moral and ethical question marks might say about where we are as a nation.

Consider a few previous presidents…

  • After a historic religious revival[1], a revolution, and inventing government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we picked a leader of self-restraint. One who stood for virtue and honesty. George Washington reflected our values.
  • In 1860 a single injustice cast a pall over America. We elected a single issue President with the resolve to oppose that injustice. Abraham Lincoln reflected our values.
  • In the 1930’s, with the economy crippled by the Depression. America chose a president who was crippled, yet courageous. Franklin Roosevelt reflected our values.
  • In the 1950’s, wanting to stand up against the spread of communism, we elected the general who won WWII. Ike reflected our values.

Many have fretted about what so and so’s beliefs and leadership will do to our future. But it seems our leaders don’t shape our beliefs as much as reflect them back to us.  If so, do you like what you see when you look into our collective mirror? While this may be cringe provoking, especially considering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings, is it possible that our candidates are simply our values and our behaviors staring back at us?

Perhaps we need to ask some hard questions about our ethics…how morally upright is our thought life and media usage? What about our conspicuous consumption…and fears…or the effects of millions of us cutting corners and winking away little dishonesties. What about the anger? Moses told the people, “Your sins will find you out.”[2]

Perhaps our candidates are just the public face of our private selves being found out?

We are fooling ourselves to think our candidates are “them.” The cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Surely our candidates moral peccadillos are, at some level, a reflection of our own weak moral knees and the fact that we no longer seem to spend much time on them.

What should one do when looking into a mirror and not liking what is looking back? Surely the answer is not to try to alter the mirror, but to fix what the mirror is reflecting. Perhaps the place to start is in the privacy of the voting booth. When you go into that booth Tuesday, I encourage you to see the candidates for what they are: Flawed humans who are a little too much like you and I for comfort. Say a prayer for each of them. Say a prayer for your nation. Then cast yourself upon the mercy of God. And when you leave that booth, go and love and serve, nurture and nourish each and every person you meet. That way, when we look into the voting booth shaped mirror four years from now, we might feel a little better about what we see looking back.

*“Where are we?” Link to Sermon containing this idea. Text: Hebrews 11:1-11

[1] The Great Awakening

[2] Numbers 32:23

 

Watching our Culture Die: Where the secular culture went wrong and what Christians can do to help. 

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We have all become spectators of our culture. It is fascinating and disturbing – like the accident you cannot avert your gaze from.

Are things as bleak as they appear?

One way to get perspective on a culture is to look at the stories that society tells its’ young adults…

  • In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the story we told was the Western. The Western featured a universe in which one moral man in a white hat stood strong against evil.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the world became more complex. Our best-selling story was The Chronicles of Narnia, featuring a magical alternate universe where children escape evil, and goodness wins out.
  • In the 90’s, Harry Potter flew in with his magical parallel universe. In Harry Potter’s world, evil may be around us, but we are being defended against the dark arts.
  • In the 2000s a new tale was in vogue: Vampires. In the vampire narrative the evil is us, and we live by sucking life from others.
  • And, just when you thought it could not get worse, today’s popular narrative is zombies. There were 8 zombie movies in 2015. 11 will be released this year. In the cratered civilization of the zombie, The Walking Dead pursue us in order to violently compel us to join them.

Consider the dystopian psychological projection of our culture and ourselves that we are buying and feeding to our young when our national narrative is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Cultures survive on shared narratives: common language and worldviews, well-established purposes. In America at this moment our “shared narrative” has been lost. One evidence we have lost our story is our social outrage. Everyone is angry. Consider the catchphrases of the summer: “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.” The reason we shout, “lives matter” is because they don’t. Our shared narrative is so broken we can’t even agree on so fundamental an issue as who “matters.”

The Story we Used to Share

Western civilization was once undergirded by a single coherent and widely accepted story – the Christian story. The narrative is that God, sovereign over all, created the world and everyone in it as a special and unique creation – The Christian narrative is that each of us, by definition, matters. Humans, in the Christian story, have the freedom to walk in the revealed truth of God’s providence, or reject the truth and live in a false-self of our own creation. It is a profound story: A God so good and wise and strong, that he dared give humans the gift of freedom…even if that gift would need to be redeemed at the cost of his own son. That son would then offer himself, as the Prayer Book says, “a full, perfect, and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Our Story has Become Nonsense

Unfortunately, as we have systemically and legally purged God from our narrative, our story makes less and less sense – without the foundation our house crumbles in the storm. Our vacuum of narrative leaves us with two options: We may substitute the story of our place in God’s kingdom for another world-view. Unfortunately, most competing world religions simply do not place the same value on the dignity of the human person. Or, following current fashion, we may construct a narrative of our own invention. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen label the picking and choosing of religious bits and pieces to manufacture a world-view, “Sheila-ism” after Sheila Larson, a woman they interviewed who followed “her own little voice.” The only problem is that being the captain of our own destiny didn’t work for Adam and Eve. Eventually it didn’t work for Sheila either. And, as we can’t help but notice, it is not working for our friends and neighbors.

Why not create our own narrative?

First of all, my right to fashion my own story presumes a responsibility on your part to approve of my invention. And, when we remove the authority of God, we have no place to appeal for what is good except majority rule. Morality then becomes the tyrannical bullying of whomever has the votes – making the individually constructed stories inherently coercive. Second, our rage screams that narratives of our own invention simply do not provide lasting satisfaction for the human heart. We were not designed as discrete moral agents. The one who is perfect love, and made us for himself, woos and wins our hearts to union with Him. Once captivated, we look back to find God has made straight the paths of our lives as we have entrusted ourselves to his mercy.

This story explains the way things actually are: That God is for us not against us. That we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. That, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are always restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Occasionally those sharing the story of God become confused and mistake the enemy of the story to be those who would silence the story. But if you notice in the New Testament, the enemy is not other humans, even those who persecuting and killing God-followers. The enemies to human thriving, the Scriptures tell us, are the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three war against humanity by creating alternative false narratives.

The Struggle is Real

The key is to put down the binoculars and get involved. The secular culture will ask for more of what you are already doing. They will ask for reparations and labor. The church is already giving money and effort far in excess of any other group in the culture. And we will continue to do so in gratitude for the grace we have been shown by God. But when they ask for “more” you have permission to remind them of the old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing but hoping for different results.” However, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, though, I would encourage you to build relationships with those outside of our bleacher seats and find those you can share the story with. As the relationship grows you will hear them say, “The sky is falling.” Look them in the eye with confidence, and with great mercy say, “No, it is not, but your story is – You are watching the death of the story of the self-made life. There is another story, friend. A more sensible one. A story that has transformed everyone who has ever received it.”

Friends, if we change the narrative, we will change our culture. But we have a much more pressing matter: eternity itself hangs in the balance. When we share the Good News of Jesus, when we bring friends to church to be immersed into Christ and learn to feast at the table of Thanksgiving, we change more than our culture, we change eternity itself. And that is the task the followers of Christ can least afford to leave unfinished.

Story Bearers

The call to the bearers of the story, the Church, was summed up nicely several years ago in the movie trailer to the first Lord of the Rings. Over exciting footage appear the words, “Fate has chosen him.” More exciting action, then the words, “A fellowship will protect them.” Yet more footage and the words, “Evil will oppose them.” All three are true of the church: Fate has chosen us. A fellowship will protect us. And evil will oppose us.

…But then the trailer closes with the spoken voice of the princess Galadriel, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

The cultural collapse shouts the dire need of the great narrative of God in Christ. Our unique contribution is to be a band of merry Gospel proclaimers, joyfully singing the story of the goodness of God to our friends and neighbors. As Galadriel said, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”