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Politics and the Kingdom of God Part 3

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My Facebook feed today has, not surprisingly, been filled with responses to last night’s results. I have to admit that I was more caught up in the event itself than I ever thought I would be. It was about 10:30 p.m. when I realised that Trump might actually pull it off that I decided what the hell, I haven’t slept well lately anyways and they should have this figured by 12:30 a.m. or so and why not stay up for it? Trump actually winning would be something to see, regardless of personal views on the man himself. By 1:00 when they still hadn’t called it I gave up and went to sleep. Anyways, back to the post at hand. In all of those posts and comments on social media (and I apologise in advance for adding yet another one to that particular multitude), I noticed a couple of things I wanted to comment on.

First of all, I am fortunate enough to have friends with views right across the political spectrum. I have also, in my desire to reach out to people of differing views, been following news pages from a wide variety of backgrounds. The end result is that on Facebook in particular I’ve seen reactions to last night from both sides of this thing. Some are ecstatic that Trump won, some are terrified, and others (like me) are cautiously optimistic. What caught my eye, however, was that these comments and responses represent not only differing opinions but also differing worldviews and narratives. The directions from which both sides approached last night’s results are so different as to not even be on the same compass. Even more alarming is that neither side has seemed all that willing to step outside of their own viewpoint to see things from the other direction. Take for example the divisiveness that characterises this country at present. One comment I found from the Republican view was that this was a product of the Obama era and something that Trump will now have to deal with. The corresponding Democrat view is that this divisiveness is a direct result of how Trump ran his election campaign. The crazy part is that neither view can be totally dismissed. I’ve seen arguments for both, and they are both somewhat credible. The bottom line is that we seem to be divided not just in our opinions but also in the narratives we ascribe to and the basis we use for making judgement calls on events like last night

Church for Misfits has always been a place for people of all backgrounds and viewpoints to interact in a dignified and respectful manner. If you’re reading this and in the near future you find yourself engaged with someone who disagrees with you, reach out to them. Try to understand. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find that we’re not that different after all, and who knows, we might be able to put some of this divisiveness to rest. Please hear me when I say that, although I am a conservative myself, I am not writing this solely for Republican supporters to “win over” Democrats. This kind of respectful interaction goes both ways.

The other thing I wanted to comment on is that there a lot of people out there right now who are very afraid of how things will look going forward. If my understanding is correct, this administration will see a Republican President, a Republican majority in the Senate, and a Republican majority in Congress (at least for the next 2 years). What that boils down to is that Trump can accomplish a lot if he wants to and this is what has people terrified. Those posting on LGBT pages in particular are singularly freaked out by this. Trump has, as I’ve written elsewhere, raised the possibility of reversing the legal position on same sex marriage in this country, effectively stripping that right from those who fought so hard to get it. This community is genuinely frightened at this prospect, and rightfully so. What’s even more upsetting is that Christians in general have fought to oppose these rights, and now we are seen largely as the enemy. The very people we should be reaching out to see us as the enemy. I know I’m hitting the same points over and over again in these political posts, but for me at least it’s a major concern. They will be watching us as Christians as the coming weeks and months unfold, and I’m not at all sure what they will see. Will we reach out to them in love and respect? My own experiences with Christianity tell me we probably won’t, but I’m still hopeful.

At the very least, this is not the time to become guilty of the things we are already accused of being. Are there political developments from the last few years I’d like to see changed? Yes. Obamacare tops that particular list. I grew up in Canada, where we have a universal healthcare system that isn’t perfect but which gets the job done far more effectively (and cheaply) than that hot mess. I’d like to see it replaced by something that doesn’t hit my paycheck so hard. That being said, I don’t want to see us fight to restore a Christian culture in the U.S. while totally missing out on the fight that we should be focusing on. We will, I expect, fight to put traditional marriage back in place as the only legal definition of marriage. We will do so despite the fact that more than half of these marriages end in divorce and there are, in reality, gay marriages that outlast traditional ones. They will see that, and they will judge us, and the God we serve, accordingly. What if, instead, they could see us reach out to a broken world and truly engage with those around us? What if we offered hope, respect, and love? Imagine how they would see Jesus then.

 

Never Again…?

Robert Carlyle as Rumplestiltskin and Emilie De Ravin as Belle on Once Upon A Time S01E12One of the joys of going back to Season 1 of Once Upon a Time is that, having missed this season the first time around, I get to learn what actually makes everybody tick. How did people meet? What happened to drive those two apart? What makes him who he is? These are all questions I’m getting answered finally, albeit slowly and with great joy on the part of my wife (who’s seen all this before and knows the answers to all those questions).

One of my favourite ones to wonder about is Rumplestiltskin, who if you haven’t seen the show is in love with Belle yet when faced with choosing between her and having power he always, always, always chooses power. Even when he knows he’s hurting her, without fail that’s what he chooses. My question in watching the more recent seasons has always been why. Why does he do it?

Turns out the answer is simple. Again, without giving away too much, early on in the first season Rumple is placed in a position that emphasizes just how powerless he truly is and long story short, having been there once before he refuses to go back again. Even if it means losing the one he loves, he refuses to be hurt that way again.

We may curse him for a fool (and fansites have done so many times), but if we’re honest we’d have to admit that we’re more like Rumple than we’d care to admit. Just ask yourself how many times you’ve been hurt by someone in a relationship and then sworn to yourself you’ll never put yourself in a position to be hurt like that again.

And it doesn’t have to be a relationship that causes it. It can be work, a hobby, or any other part of life. For example, growing up, I was smart. I grasped concepts quickly and I loved to learn. When I excelled I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel any pressure to keep it up. I just had fun with it. In Grade 4, late in the year, one incident in particular happened where another student who witnessed it kept telling me over and over again “Mike, you are so stupid.” In hindsight I’d made a foolish mistake (emptying out a fish tank by pouring it down the sink, where the gravel could have gone likewise but thankfully didn’t), but the words hurt a lot worse than the mistake ever did. From that point on, I didn’t just enjoy being smart. I excelled at everything academic. I graduated high school with a 95.4 % average. (My Canadian high school didn’t have the GPA system.) Never again would I give someone the opportunity to call me stupid.

All it takes for us to end up like Rumple is getting hurt and then vowing never to be in that position again. And just like Rumple, I hurt those closest to me. I spent so much time on my studies that I didn’t have time for of anyone else.

In Matthew 16:25, Jesus tells us, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We might think He’s referring here to ducking martyrdom or something similar, but He’s actually not. “Life” here in the original Greek refers to that which makes you who you are. The sense is that in trying to protect that which is most valuable to us we actually end up losing it. Giving that which is most valuable over to Christ, however, means He can actually protect it. In losing it, so to speak, we get to hold onto it.

Think of it this way. If Rumple had someone in his life he could trust to protect himself, he would be free to choose Belle over power. An act like that, whether in his life or in yours or mine, requires a supreme sort of vulnerability, and that’s the kind that you only find when you have someone around you trust enough to be that vulnerable with. Jesus gives us that freedom, if we’ll only trust Him enough to see it.

The ironic twist to all this is that if we don’t trust Him with it, losing our life in the sense of Matthew 16:25 can entail missing out not only on what makes us who we are but also on whatever it is we’re turning to in order to protect ourselves with. The story of my grades ends that way. I had the highest average in my class for 3 of my 4 years in high school, and I enjoyed being in that spotlight. It became part of who I was. The one year I wasn’t on top was Grade 12, the year that really counted. I missed out on it by 0.1%, and all the spotlight went to someone else. In an instant, that part of me was gone. I left high school having been so focused on grades that I’d left my heart behind, and I ended up with precious little to show for it.

What part of yourself are you trying to protect? Will you trust Jesus enough to lay that down in His arms? Like Rumple, you’ll only hurt yourself and those around you if you don’t.

Who gets you?

fe6366597c4316037f88237ea38d0730When I first moved from Canada to South Carolina, I had just gotten out of the Canadian Armed Forces after spending almost 6 years in uniform. (And by just gotten out, I mean that I was officially released one day and flew down here the next.) One of the things about being the military, which may seem obvious but is worth stating for what I want to look at here, is that you give up a lot of who you are. We looked at the issue of our appearance a few weeks ago, and that is one of the more visible areas where this is true. Being at the Royal Military College of Canada, where regulations cover after-hours appearances as well, I didn’t have a lot of say at all in that area of my life. This is one of the things that I found, as a military member, you learn to adjust to and to live with. There came a point in those 6 years where I don’t remember even dwelling much on that lack of say in much of who I was.

What I do remember is the contrast between that last day in the military and those first few days out of it. I went from having very little say in areas of my life to having a lot of say in most areas of my life. In many ways, I had to get to know myself all over again. When you throw into the mix the other part of the transition, from one country and culture to another country and culture, the process got even more complicated. I had been the product of one culture, and now while I was in essence reinventing myself, I found myself dealing with what is in many ways a completely different culture. There are a lot of traditions and expectations when one lives in the South, and some of these I’ve adopted while others I’ve resisted and while likely continue to resist. All this is to emphasize that it was a very lengthy, very involved process for me to get to know myself again and at the same time find a me that I can live with. There has been a lot of conflict and frustration and tears, both on my part and on the part of those around me, and at times the whole process has felt like a battle with no end.

I’ve brought you in to this chapter in my life in hopes that you’ll understand my reaction when I read Scripture passages like Romans 12:1, where the Apostle Paul tells us, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” (I know the King James Version is kind of old school, but I love how it translates this particular verse.) As one might expect, the term “bodies” used here in the original Greek refers to our physical bodies; however, it can also, depending on the context, symbolically refer to everything we are. It’s referring to yourself, for lack of a better phrase. Everything that makes you who you, well, you. “Present” is somewhat of a military term, meaning to make something available to someone for a particular service. If you’ve ever been in the military, think of when a leader asks for volunteers to step forward. If you step forward, you’re “presenting” yourself in the sense that Paul has in mind here. “Sacrifice,” the other important term as far as we’re concerned right now, basically means what it says. Presenting yourself in this way will cost you.

My reaction to this passage, where Paul is, in essence, pleading with us to put all of who we are at God’s disposal for whatever service He sees fit, is one of rejection. (I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels this way, either.) I spent so much time and effort figuring myself out again that to give it up feels like dying. (Before going on here, let me also just state that I’m NOT referring here to giving up who you are just to fit in with those around you, or to conform to the expectations of the society or culture in which you find yourself. As I’ve discussed before, the you who you are matters, and I would NEVER tell you to give that up just to conform or fit in.) And yet giving myself up to Him is exactly what Jesus, through Paul, is asking of me and you.

We need to address two other details here before coming to some sort of conclusion on this subject. The first is the term “beseech.” The Greek word which the King James translates as “beseech” has the sense of someone who’s already done something pleading with another to do the same. Think of when you were younger, and you went to a public swimming pool. Maybe you were afraid of going into the deep end, and so your dad jumped in to show you that it was OK and then tried to coax you to join him out there in the water. That’s the sense here. This act of presenting is something Paul’s already done, and that gives me a little comfort in the midst of this request. This is not a shot in the dark we’re dealing with here. (It’s also comforting to note that Paul is not writing to unbelievers here. In using the term “brethren,” he addresses those who already know Jesus. The request Paul makes is therefore done in the context of a relationship.)

The second detail is the question of why. Why would Jesus ask this of us, and why on earth would we say yes? To answer the first why, we need to look at Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” Notice the steps there? First you get Him, and then you get the desires of your heart. This is not to say that the so-called prosperity Gospel is right and once you become a Christian you get wealth and happiness forever, but rather to point out that the end of knowing yourself and figuring yourself out, like I had to do, is not just to have yourself. If all you have is yourself, then you’ll never be truly satisfied because your were made to be a part of so much more. We were made for Him, and anything less just won’t do. Jesus knows this, and so this request is there to get us away from what we think will satisfy us to what will really satisfy us.

The answer to the second why question comes from the preceding eleven chapters of Romans. Paul says in 12:1, “I beseech you therefore…” and any time you see “therefore,” it’s significant. One of the keys to understanding the New Testament letters is to follow the author’s train of thought. From beginning to end, Paul and the other writers have a message to get across, and each paragraph follows on from the ones before it. When Paul says “therefore,” what he’s saying is basically “in light of what I’ve already told you, now consider ______.” This particular “therefore” is a big one, for as I’ve said it refers to everything Paul has already covered. In short, Paul makes his request in light of everything Jesus has already done for us. Jesus has brought us from death to life, redeemed us and, as Paul tells us in Romans 7, paid the full price for our sin once and for all. At the cross Jesus gave us everything, and in view of that, describing this act of presenting as our “reasonable service” doesn’t seem like too far of a stretch.

What it comes down to, in the end, is the question of who gets you? To whom do you belong? The way this comes to us is neither a demand nor a commandment, but rather a request made in the context of a relationship, and done through the words of one who’s already taken the leap and implores us to do likewise. I’m not saying it’s an easy decision; it can and does feel like death to present yourself in this way. I am saying it’s worth it in the end.

The You who You Are Matters

This time last month, my wife and I had the chance to see one of our favourite Christian comedians perform in person. I’m not going to mention him by name specifically, which I hope will make sense here in a minute, but I will say that we’ve seen him before and he is hands down one of the funniest people I have ever seen. We went for our date night, expecting to relax and enjoy the show, and we weren’t disappointed. Thing is, the whole performance, including the church which served as the venue, felt like that just that. A show. And as we left, I couldn’t help but feel, well, disappointed.

Here’s why. As I found out later, the church serving as the venue has an $11 million sanctuary. We parked in a lot that features what must be, in summer, a very well maintained and well landscaped parking lot where the church parks their not one but four church buses (including a coach bus). The sanctuary itself was huge, and featured a sound system that would have outdone a small theatre. The whole thing served to make me feel insignificant and lost in the crowd, and if it made me feel that way, as a Christian coming to see a comedian perform, how it would make someone feel who was coming to church for the first time? Someone who’s lost and looking for answers? For connection? For love?

I should note here that it’s not just large churches that have left me feeling this way. I’ve had the same impression in small, country churches as well. As Christians we seem to excel at defending the establishment, such as it is. Whether it’s excluding a certain group of individuals, or prioritizing a program over the hearts of the people that program is meant to serve, or only looking to have people in our congregations who can actually pay to support our $11 million sanctuaries, we do a bang up job of overlooking the individual in the name of honouring Jesus.

The sad part is that when we do such a bang up job of overlooking the individuals around us, in reality we’re excelling at little more than missing the point entirely. Think of Zaccheus the tax collector in Luke 19. Jesus puts his whole day on hold just to have lunch with one man. And don’t forget the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus went out of his way just for a meeting with one woman. Finally, there’s the demon-possessed man in Luke 8. Here Jesus goes all the way across the Sea of Galilee to rescue (you might see a pattern beginning to form here) one man. Jesus valued individual people.

So what? Well, this leads me to two things. First of all, if you’ve ever found yourself in a church like the one I described above, and left feeling the way I did, I’d like to apologize. It’s not supposed to be that way. You matter. You really do. You, with all your quirks and eccentricities, matter to Jesus. Secondly, well, you matter to Jesus. He’s the one who made you, and He loves you for you. He doesn’t love you for the money you can bring to the church, or for how you being there can justify a particular program, but for who you are as an individual. He made you to be you, and that you matters.

Public Service Announcement

Alright, so I know that as busy as I am, posts here can be few and far between at times. This little announcement is just to let you know that until the end of November, posts are going to be even fewer and farther between. Why, you ask? After many years of thinking about doing so, I am actually going to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. (Their site can be found here.) I’ve been meaning to put together the second novel in my planned trilogy (volume 1 may show up on here sooner or later), and this is the perfect opportunity. As it means writing 50 000 words in a month (and volume 1 took me 2 years to do 90 000 words), I’m not going to be on here much. Wish me luck, and I’ll see you back here in December 1st!

The Humanness Of Christ

Over and over again Scripture reminds us that Jesus is God. (And He certainly is, don’t get me wrong; there’s a point to where I’m going with this.) If we dwell on that at the expense of His humanity, however, we will miss so much. For Jesus was both God and man, one and both at the same time. How exactly that works is a subject for theological debate, and therefore beyond the scope of what I want to do here. What’s more important here is that Jesus, as the One who took on flesh, can understand and relate to the struggles we face in our own lives. That being the case, rather than get into deep theological debate, I want to present an example of this reality that I stumbled across while reading through Luke earlier this week.

In Luke 12, Jesus is in the middle of an “us and them” sort of speech, prompted by yet another run in with the Pharisees. The parables and illustrations in the speech all fit the context until we get to verses 49 and 50. Here we read, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” What’s odd here is not the first part of verse 49; the whole context in the larger section here is, as we’ve noted, one of division. What’s odd is the second portion, “…and would that it were already kindled!” It almost seems here as if Jesus is impatient. The sense in the end of the verse is one of “Let’s get this over with!” And we get the same sense in the following verse. “Baptism” in verse 50 refers to His coming death on the cross. Jesus is God, yes, but He’s also a man, and this brief picture implies, He knew what was coming, and although it was the reason He came and the act that would secure salvation for millions, He still dreaded it. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Passion of the Christ, you’ll have a good idea of what that experience was like for Him, and He knew it was coming and He dreaded it.

Jesus knows what it’s like to fear, to worry, and to dread. He’s been there, too. He’s walked that road before, and He’s walking it again with each of us now as we go through the difficult times in our lives. He can relate. The writer of Hebrews takes this a step further when he says in Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Whatever it is you’re dealing with, whatever struggle, whatever fear, whatever temptation, Jesus has dealt with it, too. And He knows, He understands better than anyone ever could how you feel. He’s the One who created you, the one who loves you more deeply than any other ever could, and He gets it. He gets you. There’s a reason they call it “Good News.”

Not Too Small of a Thing

“He (an overseer) must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how well he care for God’s church?” 1 Timothy 3:4-5 (ESV)

When I began my journey through seminary, I read through this passage and saw it as sort of a check list. If I’m not doing too terribly with my marriage, then I can check that one off the list and go into full-time ministry. Looking back, this was more than a little naive, and now I see that there’s more to it than that. Much more. (And if you’re not religious at all and somehow found your way in here, there is a point to all of this if you’ll stick it out to the end.)

Keeping in mind that Paul’s letter to Timothy is a product of a culture and a time far different than our own, it’s safe to say that not everyone who follows the call to minister will find full-time employment in that role. In the Baptist Association in which I was ordained, there are, as of the last time I checked, something like 30 ordained ministers on the association’s supply list, and maybe one open position. (The case throughout South Carolina in general seems to be that there are far more qualified applicants for the positions that do exist than there are positions for them to apply to.)

So what of Paul’s advice to Timothy regarding pastors (or bishops, or ministers, depending on how exactly you want to translate “overseers”)? Could it be that, far from being a check list of sorts, this is the main ministry for us as men and women?

In Ephesians 5:25-33, Paul says,

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Speaking as a man here (no offence ladies), as husbands we’re meant to come through for our wives. We’re meant to protect them, nourish them, and support them, to “give ourselves up for them” just as Jesus did on the Cross for us. Please here me when I say that I’m not trying to negate the role of women here. Any successful marriage is a team effort through and through, and the gist of this passage goes both ways. Neither am I trying to say that, as men, our wives are the report card on us, so to speak. We will still fail and fall short and screw up and disappoint, and if we believe that how our wives react  in those situations reveals the truth about us, it will destroy us internally. Only God gets to tell us who we really are. (I should also point out that I’m not trying to put your spouse on a pedestal here, either. You have needs of your own, and you matter, too.)

What I’m really trying to say here is that, if we find ourselves in a situation in life where all we can do is minister to the needs of our spouse, then maybe that is enough. By all means chase your dreams, and don’t settle in life. I’d be the first to admit that the job I currently have doesn’t always fit with my calling, and I would gladly change it if I could (especially if I could find my way into ministering full-time). (On a separate note, if you’re ever calling into AT&T for help with your service, try to be to nice to whoever’s on the other end. We really do try our best to help.) But maybe, just maybe, if you find that all you can do is minister to the needs of your spouse, then maybe that’s not too small of a thing.

Tomorrow is Never Guaranteed

Two weeks ago, on August 25th, my father-in-law was involved in a serious car wreck. We had just seen him the day before, when my parents, who were down here from Canada to visit, had left to go to Charleston for a few days. My wife and I were sleeping in, enjoying the last day of our vacation, when we got the call and we drove the hour to see him in the ER. As things turned out, he had some bruising in his neck and was in A LOT of pain when we got there, but other than that he was OK.

I mention this because, as we learned more of what had happened, it turned out that things could have been a lot worse, and it is a miracle that he came away with only the injury to his neck. He had been forced to slow down, and then stop, by construction on the interstate. The tractor trailer travelling behind him, which was hauling steel blocks and for whatever reason didn’t stop in time, rear-ended him with sufficient force that his little Nissan truck went airborne into the car in front of him. The truck was a write-off, but when we saw it later in the day, instead of being a crunched accordion like I was expecting, you would have hardly known it was in that serious of a wreck just by looking at it. Now the frame was bent, the driver’s seat broke, and the radiator shot, but the point is it’s a miracle he wasn’t killed.

Psalm 139:16 (ESV) tells us, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Jesus knows the days we will have, and when our last day will be, but as I was reminded on the day a few weeks ago, we don’t know when that last day will come. We have no way of knowing when our last day will be. It may sound clichéd, but it’s true. We are not guaranteed tomorrow.

So that thing you’ve been meaning to do, that thing that’s been nagging you but you never seem to have time for, well, make the time. Make the time for your family and for the people you love. Make time for that thing you’ve always wanted to do but have always found excuses for. I can’t imagine getting to heaven some day and saying, “If only I’d had more time.”

And if you’re not a believer in Christ, don’t put it off another day. Look into the claims of Christ. Go to the Bible. Talk to a minister. Send me an email (mike.shewfelt@gmail.com). If you look into His claims and His message and still decide it’s not for you, that’s one thing, but don’t let it pass you by and risk your eternity simply because you feel you can’t make the time. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.