Sunday, April 26, 2020

Test the Spirits

All throughout Trump's presidency, there's been a lot of division, with people on both sides just entrenching themselves in their political affiliations. Whether that's Trump's fault or our fault is sort of a moot point, but I suspect that it's a combination of the two, and the only thing we can control for the moment is ourselves. It especially bothers me to see Christians fighting among themselves, taking political positions that either supersede or downright contradict the message of the Gospel, just to support their "side." Voting for Trump or Republicans is not a sin - I can't find any word on that in the Scriptures - and neither is voting for Democrats, despite what anyone tells you. On the other hand, identifying yourself as a Republican or Democrat first and a Christian second, reshaping your faith and bending the Scriptures to agree with your politics, instead of the other way around, is a form of idolatry. It's okay to vote for Trump or to agree with his politics, wherever a clear understanding of the Scriptures allows you to do so, but I see Christians resorting to deception and delusion trying to make it seem as if the man never makes a mistake, never says anything wrong or stupid, never lies, and it's embarrassing. Equally embarrassing is the "blue no matter who" Christian, who is willing to ignore a candidate's personal history of immorality or their stances on subjects lie abortion or religious practices and freedoms. There's a whole new world out there that opens up when your politics flows from your Christianity and not the other way around, when you can support Trump, but also admit, "Okay, well, that was stupid or inappropriate," when you can support a Democrat, but also challenge them on their positions that violate God's Word.

When I see Christians so deep in the weeds trying to defend a candidate that they have to damage or abandon their Christian testimony, it reminds me of the chief priests right before the crucifixion. Pilate was hesitant to execute Jesus, but not so much that he would go against the mob. He tried to reason with them. John 19 tells us that he asked the people "Behold your King .... Shall I crucify your king?" and the people, even the chief priests, the ones who knew the prophecies, who were the protectors of the faith and the Scriptures, who just weeks before had been praising this messiah, but turned on Him when He didn't agree with their politics, all shouted back at Pilate, "We have no king but Caesar."

The American church had better be careful that we don't see Christ defamed and blasphemed by our political leaders and shout back, "We have no king but Caesar." Their words came back to haunt them when their temple was torn down by the very entity they pledged to and elevated above the true savior.

But maybe it's not deception mostly that makes Christians defend their political favorites to the point of absurdity; maybe it's more delusion, or maybe even a kind of voluntary ignorance. One thing I can say for sure is that along with this blind political obsession, I also see a whole lot of exclusion when it comes to sources of information. One side refuses to even entertain any information from so-called liberal sources, and the other side refuses to hear anything from a so-called conservative source. We even come up with clever (and stupid) nicknames for the sources we don't like, just to further entrench ourselves in our own beliefs, which may or may not be Christian or even reasonable.

This practice is actually a very dangerous logical fallacy called "genetic fallacy." Basically, this is dismissing information based on a disdain for the source. Like I tell my students all the time in evaluating sources, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Even a source that goes against your politics or beliefs possesses the truth sometimes, and that truth deserves recognition. I John 4 calls on Christians to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." The passage even gives us a test, that "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." There could be some debate about whether God also sends truth through people who do not confess Jesus Christ, although there is precedent in the Scriptures for exactly that. But I see Christians attacking other Christians, refusing to even listen to those who confess Christ, and looking to virtually excommunicate anyone who disagrees, not with the Scriptures, but with their politics.

Some people would say, but the Bible also says in Colossians 2, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ." Absolutely right. We have to be careful about what ideas we accept, and which ones we reject. However, can I just ask, in the way of a gentle rebuke, how can you be so sure that the politics that you're fighting so hard for, the philosophies that you are so unwilling to question, even some the ideas that are being preached in your church are not the "hollow and deceptive philosophies," especially when they are so obviously the product of "human tradition"? If you're so unwilling to even hear any other point of view that you get angry at the suggestion or call for the excommunication of anyone who disagrees with you, then doesn't it sound like you're the one who's been taken captive?

I know it's counter-intuitive and even scary to listen to sources and people that we have long thought of as anathema, but how can we "test the spirits" without engaging them? Paul wasn't afraid to reason with the Areopagus, nor Jesus with the pharisees. Peter engaged the opposition so well with his reason and his ability to listen that they ended up complimenting Jesus, because they remembered that He had taught Peter. When that same Peter had been fishing all night, catching nothing, and watching a whole day's work go down the drain, Jesus told him to cast his nets on the other side. Peter thought this man was crazy, that he knew better, that there couldn't possibly be anything of value over on that other side, but since he was out of options, he pulled up his nets and dragged them over. He only knew he was talking to Jesus when those nets came up so full he could barely move them. It might feel like that when we even consider listening to sources that go against our politics, but my experience has been that there's a lot of truth on the other side, if we would just have enough faith to drag our nets over there.

And listening doesn't mean agreeing. It means listening. It means trying to put aside biases and test the spirits, whether they are from God or not, whether they carry truth or not. It means even testing the spirits inside us. The Scriptures are clear that there is a spiritual war going on inside us just as much as outside. That means we have to test not only the spirits outside of us, but the ones within us as well. The next time you try to listen to an opposing viewpoint and that bile rises up in your chest and your instincts shout "heretic" and "heathen," take a second to test that spirit and ask yourself whether that instinct is godly or worldly. Is that animosity coming from a spirit of truth, from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that helps us to separate truth from falsehood? Or is it coming from the sinful nature that wants us to hold on to our hatreds, our false superiority, our lies, and our pride?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


This stay-in-place, work from home, social distancing lifestyle has taken its toll on us all. Even we introverts who either welcomed the excuse for social distancing or just didn't see much of a difference from their normal lives are starting to miss the occasional anxiety-inducing thrill ride that is interacting in groups of more than four people. For extroverts, it must be so much more of a loss, or so they tell me.
Early on, I went through a brief period of resentment and suspicion about the new normal. I was upset about the loss of congregational gathering for church services and other events with the body. I felt that the government told us to shut down our churches, and we complied without so much as a question. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't trying to buck the system, and I want to love my neighbors too by protecting them from the virus, but there was something about the quickness of it all that took my breath away and made me think about how easy it is to change the foundational traditions of the church.
I was venting at work, and one of the sisters graciously talked me back off the ledge. She mentioned all the ways that she sees church happening all over, just not in the sanctuaries, and how our American church is starting to look more like the early church, who, for different reasons, also operated out of homes, in small groups, and didn't dare make a show of their numbers to the world. Because of her words, it occurred to me that we've gotten so used to our large assemblies, our comfortable sanctuaries, our sound systems and air conditioning, that we've come to think that's what church is. I can't even count how many times I've heard someone say that the church is the people, the body, and not the building, and yet as soon as someone took away the building, I felt as if the church had been taken with it. All around the world, strong, faithful brothers and sisters have been doing real church without the luxury of beautiful buildings and without the safety of large numbers, making their bonds stronger through adversity. But the prospect of spending one Easter without colorful dresses and sharp suits, without top-flight musicians playing my favorite hymns and a crowd of people to sing them (so that I don't have to), and I'm sulking in my living room like Elijah in his cave. And just like Elijah, it took God whispering in my ear to make me realize that most of the church has had it a lot worse for a lot longer, and has grown closer to Him and each other other through it all.
Then Easter came, and it wasn't so bad. All the kids and the grandbaby were in the house for the first time since the lockdown. We watched our church service on the computer and had our own communion love feast. We hunted eggs and played games for the rest of the day. We called some of our church members that we hadn't seen in a while. 
We did church.
There was something about that image of the empty tomb that resonated with me this year in a way that it never has before. In that tomb, Jesus was locked away, cut off from his disciples, from his family, from his friends. It was only three days, but it must have felt like a lifetime. Before that, He was in jail, awaiting the sentence that He already knew was going to be the worst possible outcome for Him, and the best possible one for us. Before that, He had spent a long period of solitude in the desert, preparing His heart, mind, and body for the unthinkable task that lay ahead of Him. He knew what it was to lose His freedom, what social distancing was like. After all, when He needed support the most, none of His friends would even acknowledge Him, let alone come within six feet.
And then He rose. The angels opened the tomb, and He walked out into blinding sunlight, and the universe changed forever. After a short period of seclusion, now there was a church, there was a temple in each one of us, there was a path straight into God's very presence that hadn't existed before.
That's how it can be when we step out of our tombs, if we make it so. When we emerge from this quarantine and social distancing, we can keep this longing for connection with the body with us. We can shift the focus off the steeple and onto the people. With God's help, we can emerge as something new - an American church that worships and loves with the same kind of sincerity and devotion that the rest of the body around the world has taught us for the last century or so.