Last year, as the strains of the presidential election droned on for what seemed like decades and our country heard continual stories of racial conflict, there was a Sunday I remember leading our congregation in prayer and conversation about what it might mean to find stillness in the midst of chaos.  We spent two weeks — two Sundays — in these conversations.  Week 1:  We talked about God STILL being God.  Week 2:  We talked about a God who STILLS the storms of our world.  And I thought I had done a good job of handling our difficult times with grace and truth.

Today I think these talks are like a songwriter who walks away after writing lyrics and then goes back a year later still happy with what she’s written.  When I look at my teaching notes, they “hold up”.  I like what I said and I would teach these things again.

But there’s a problem.

In these teachings I gave as a pastor with my congregation, I spoke as if the events of those days were out of the ordinary.  I taught from the Scriptures as if the chaos of police brutality and the gross unraveling of the free voting process turning into reality television snippets were a hiccup — something that would eventually go away and leave us with America as it “normally” exists.

Of course, after this weekend in Charlottesville, I’m reminded once again that these events, these patterns of unrest and infighting, and at the most honest level deep-seated racism and HATE are and have been the norm for longer than I’ve had my eyes and my ears and my heart open to the reality around me.

A bit of my backstory

I grew up in my Christian faith primarily in the 1990’s as an adolescent who found belonging in a community of believers who instilled in me affirmation that I was a child of God and I had potential to work for God for the good of his mission.  I remember attending camps and conferences through my teenage and college years and being deeply transformed by those experiences.  To this day, these stand as the formative years for me in my vocation and journey as a pastor.  I would not trade them.

But, I also recognize in the midst of any journey there are hazy illusions that convince us they are concrete realities.  

For me, the underlying theology and nationalistic pride in the United States as a (perhaps the) beacon of light shining out of a truly Christian nation was the assumption of those to whom I listened.  I remember pastors, leaders, authors, and other speakers decrying the apostasy of our nation that came a few decades earlier because of the removal of prayer in schools or the acceptance of abortion.  I remember the passionate call to put God back in his right place in America because only then could we be rescued from our threat of abandonment by the God who was obviously the king of our nation.

My assumption in all of this as a young believer in my teenage years?

Christianity fit into the American dream like an oven-mitt over the baker’s hand.  The two were synonymous and our nation had been founded by Christian forefathers with the best intentions and a clear commitment to not only Christian morals but Christian living.  We were truly a Christian nation.

It didn’t take long to have my views of the U.S. expanded.  I remember several steps along the journey of life that unhinged my assumptions and broadened my perspective.  Little things to big things that forced me to assess the unspoken rules of my Christianity and begin to understand that the color gray that often overlapped and out-shadowed what I assumed to be black and white was actually a beautiful color.

I remember a political science professor at my tiny, evangelical college who confronted my assumptions with grace and rigidity and helped me understand that liberal/conservative, democrat/republican didn’t work as labels in the Kingdom of God.

I remember the first time a student in my youth ministry confessed to me she was struggling with her sexual orientation and wondered if God hated her and all the easy answers to these difficult issues I’d been handed suddenly became that much cloudier.

I remember working in a proudly liberal (theologically and politically) church and a proudly conservative (theologically and politically) church and walking away from both jobs humbled by the Jesus-lovers I’d met and shared life with in each congregation.

In these experiences, I never forgot that label given so often to the U.S. — a Christian nation.  I remember songs, quotes, sermons, and books, all espousing this proposition that part of the uniqueness of the U.S. should lie in our identity as a truly Christian nation.

It perhaps hit me no more clearly than a time I worked behind the scenes of a concert for one of the mega-stars of contemporary Christian music.  For an hour and a half, he led worship.  He sang amazing and powerful congregational songs about Jesus, about living faithfully for Jesus, and about caring for the world in the name of Jesus.  Then, in the next fifteen minutes he performed a series of patriotic songs and the intensity of “worship” in the room became electric.  The passion and zeal that had existed in singing for Jesus was elevated to a new level as images of the flag were displayed on the HD screens of the church.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

End the back story…

As I’ve watched and read the stories coming out of Charlottesville this weekend, the question I’ve been asking is simple.

Can we stop calling ourselves a Christian nation yet?

I know many reading this already have.  I know others who never did.  But I also know many, many Evangelical leaders and pastors, congregants and friends who still hold to this false theology that the word Christian can or ever should define an entire nation.  Friends, this is — if anything — a smoking gun of theological heresy.

The reality is God has never allowed himself to be co-opted to fit national agendas.  He didn’t allow it in Israel and he will not allow it for us in the United States.  In fact, at all points he seems to warn that the nationalistic desire to make God our biggest advocate and lobbyist (be it Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or whatever) will end with a failed attempt at divine power cornered in our own ambitions.

Can we stop calling ourselves a Christian nation yet?

So I’m asking this question as I’m watching the pictures and the videos of white supremacist terrorists spewing hate that says my black friends and my Asian friends and my immigrant friends do not belong in this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question as our president lives each day promoting and proclaiming his own excellence and infallibility across social media in the midst of this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question as we in small towns that are 98% white pretend these racial conversations do not affect us in this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question as those on the margins — the immigrant and refugees, the poor and homeless, the sexually disenfranchised, the beat down and worn out — continue to pass our church doors because we do not make them feel safe in this Christian nation.

I’m asking this question because I believe our nation is in desperate need of seeing Christ-followers truly act and live as Christians.

Those who incited the violence in Charlottesville this weekend moved in the name of God, claiming they represent Christ and the myth of a Christian nation.

But they do not represent me, and they do not represent my tribe, and they do not represent Jesus.

So I’m wondering, can we stop calling ourselves a Christian nation yet?  Because maybe when we do those who have been hurt, wounded, confused, and battered by the false representations of Christ… maybe then we could see an outpouring of love, unity, reconciliation, healing, lament, and forgiveness at every level to truly become the Kingdom God intended.

For my friends of color who are once again scared or angry, confused or broken, forgive us for believing this myth for far too long.  Forgive our silence.  Forgive our inaction.  Forgive me for not always knowing how to act or how to love more strongly or how to do anything.  But at least know this.  The myth has long ago been shattered for me… and I’m doing the best I can to piece together a new mosaic of truth.

This episode features two of my friends, Katrina McGhee and Nic Windschill.  Katrina and Nic are entrepreneurs and adventures, and they are learning what it means to redefine success.

Key links:

http://www.strivetrips.org

https://www.kmcgheecoaching.com/

attackedbyanatlas.com

 

Last night, our team of 8 who have traveled to Ethiopia for the week sat around talking about our first full day of time with the children at the Care Point.  As we talked, one of our team members shared that she had received the question leading up to the trip several times…

“Why go so far away when the money could be used better here in the U.S.?”

I listened.  And I fought the instinct to respond as I have so many times to that question over the years.  And I waited for her to follow up with her thoughts.

She grew a little emotional as she recounted our home visits yesterday and said simply…

“It’s not the same.”
This is my seventh time on the continent of Africa.  The summer before my senior year of high school, just a few years after the official “end” of Apartheid, I traveled to South Africa for three weeks.  Then, with a former church I visited the slums of Nairobi four times.  And now, our church plant has been in a partnership with Children’s Hopechest and traveled to Ethiopia twice.

In my mind, there is nothing like the smell and sights and sounds of this continent.  Though every country I’ve been to has been different culturally, geographically, economically, and socially, there are also themes that I sense when I come here.  To walk through developing countries, third-world communities, urban slums and rural farm villages paints a picture of a land that is far from what constitutes the everyday existence of my own life.  I never cease to have a moment here where I catch a glimpse of a child, a mother, or a family that is surviving in the harshest of conditions with the greatest of joy.  It is a powerful experience, and one I’ve grown to love.

And yet, there is also a harshness to these trips.  Coming off of a very difficult funeral I performed last week, it has taken me about 48 hours to feel as if I’m now “present” here in Ethiopia.  There was, in all honesty, a sort of deep breath in knowing what this week would bring–time spent with 90 sweet children living in vulnerable conditions and visits to homes where in our culture we might insist it was unacceptable even for our pets.

This is not easy, but it is beautiful.

This morning, I read in the book of Acts about the church at Antioch.  It was composed of prophets and teachers, leaders who constituted a multicultural blend of an African, an aristocratic noble, and Saul the great Jew of Jews.  It was an eclectic mix who became the model of the missional church reaching not only their own backyard but sending the Kingdom of God into different parts of the world.

So, about 2 years ago as a young church plant we had a desire to make international missions a core part of the DNA of our faith community.  And while we recognized the world is so big and needs are even bigger, we knew the call of the gospel was to do something that would help bring the Kingdom to life in the hearts of those who were vulnerable–physically and spiritually.  For us, the question has never been, “Why Ethiopia?”  Rather, the question continues to be, “Why ONLY Ethiopia?”

The world is massive.  But the Kingdom of God is infinite.  It is diverse and forceful and amazing.  And it is what we are called to.

Last week I had two very different experiences.

On Thursday I stopped in an office where I encountered a receptionist straight out of Monsters, Inc.

She sat behind her glass window with two holes–one for our voices and one for my money.  I began to talk with her and realized very quickly with the maintenance man and his industrial-sized vacuum running behind me it was going to be very difficult to hear her.  So, I expressed that… politely.

To which she simply gave me a flippant hand gesture and mumbled, “Well, then come closer.”

Then, on Friday, I flew from Pittsburgh to Detroit with a layover in Chicago’s Midway airport.  I took Southwest Airlines, who apparently have a large base out of Midway.  When I landed in Chicago I walked through the terminal to my next gate and saw a line of people parked in front of a table.  Just at their feet was a sign that said simply, “Free Face Painting – St. Patrick’s Day!”
As I grabbed a bite to eat in the airport these two incidents came together in my mind.  One very negative, and one very positive.  And you know what the reality was for these organizations?

The difference in my experience barely cost them anything.

Great service and great leadership are not a problem of lacking resources.  It’s a problem of lacking effort.

I sat on a plane recently and once it landed the beeps and clicks of cell phones and seat belts began to fill the space as passengers reconnected to the busyness of their lives.  Just in front of me, I watched as a man began to frantically respond to a text message.  I could see his screen and the feverish nature of his fingers typing away.  I couldn’t read the words (and as you’re thinking, shouldn’t have creepily spied out his conversation), but I could tell he was struggling to get the message out.

He would type a few words, notice an error, delete words, and then try again.  This went on for several minutes until finally I watched him grew frustrated, erase the entire (multiple paragraphs-long) message, and simply type two letter as a response.

“Ok.”

Here’s the point.

There are times where an explanation may help, but simplicity is better.

In every organization I’ve ever been a part of I’ve found myself and others at times bringing unnecessary complexity to situations that were much more simple than we wanted to let them be.  There were debates that didn’t need to happen.  E-mails that could have been skipped.  We all felt these things were entirely necessary at the time, but the truth is simplicity would have been much better.

I’m not saying there isn’t a need for complexity at times; there is.  But what I am asking you right now is what are you doing as leaders with complexity that would be much more effective with simplicity?

I have a 7-year old daughter who is fearless.  Fearless.  She’s already asked me if she can skydive with me.  Seriously.  She kills spiders when her mommy is too afraid.

Last week, we headed to bed and just before we laid down we heard her crying.  We walked in the room and quickly found her in that half-asleep, half-awake stupor of bad dreams.  I asked what was wrong and all she could say through her tears was, “I had a bad dream…”  We stayed for a few minutes and my wife asked her if she’d like to come sleep with us for a little while.

She did.  And she calmed down.  Complete and utter peace.

Now, it’s been probably three to four years since we’ve ended up with one of our children in our bed.  Our girls all share a room, so they are rarely afraid before falling asleep because they basically talk each other to death until they fall asleep.  But on this night, my seven-year old’s nightmare turned her back into a two or three-year old.

There’s this statement the writer of Psalm 4 makes that I’ve thought about, but never really experienced until this night with our youngest daughter.  It says this:

“In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.”  (Psalm 4:8)

I think if I’m honest I know exactly what it means to have so much fear that my heart goes backward in age.  I know, and I bet you do too, how invasive and pervasive fear can be in my life.  I know the nightmares that become realities and the tendency my body and mind have to shut down and leave me living life half awake.

And that’s where I think this Psalm starts to make sense.

For my seven-year old, the fear in her nightmare was only consolable by the presence of her parents.  And for us, in our fear, at times the only answer for our fear is the presence of our Heavenly Father.

That night, I held my daughter and whispered that she was okay until her heart grew quiet and she was able to rest.  And perhaps, in our fear at this very moment, our perfect Father is whispering the same thing to us.

 

Before last Friday I had no idea what boba tea was.  Turns out, it’s a thing.  Like, a big thing.

Last week my wife and I celebrated our 15-year anniversary (a couple months late) by taking a cruise out of California and then spending an extra two days in Los Angeles.  On Friday we found one of the coolest little farmer’s markets I’ve ever seen.

This market was an experience in sensory overload.  The smells, the colors, and the diversity of languages and cultures happening all around us were an overwhelmingly rich way to spend an hour.  From crepes made by a French family to authentic Italian pizza to fresh seafood hauled out of the Pacific that day, I was mesmerized by this place.

Then there was the tea shop.

It was a chilly morning, so I went looking for hot tea and found a sweet little Asian woman with over a hundred different types of tea.  I did the best I could to order two cups of what sounded good and this lady simply asked me the following question…

“Do you want boba?”

As with any legitimate Star Wars fan my mind immediately conjured images of a bounty hunter with a sweet mask and awesome gun, but that wasn’t who she meant.

Turns out, boba tea (or bubble tea) is a concoction of tea with “chewy tapioca balls and fruit jelly”.  At the point she asked if I preferred the boba(s)(?) in my tea, I didn’t know this.  All I knew was I was in the middle of one of the most diverse and eclectic places I’d ever seen and I wanted to show just how cultured I really was.

“Absolutely,” I said.

Boba tastes like I imagine fish eyeballs to taste.

I spent the remainder of my drink doing my best to siphon the liquid off the gelled tapioca and not let any of it touch my mouth.  The tea was good.  The other stuff, not so much.

About the time I finished my tea, I felt a tiny hand tap my shoulder.  I turned to see a boy of no more than 9 or 10 years old with skin a bit darker than my own looking in my eyes.  He asked simply…

“Excuse me sir, where did you find your boba tea?”

I pointed him in the right direction and watched as he was so excited to find the treat that I had been repulsed by.

This was just a moment.  A simple, nondescript instant in my day that really shouldn’t have stood out.  But for whatever reason, it did.  In fact, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.  That brief minute where I drank a tea I didn’t like and a little boy from a different culture than my own searched for a tea he loved keeps coming back.

It is next to impossible in recent days to access news of any sort without someone trying to convince us of which “side” is right, or more loving, or more just.  But, this constant cycle of shouting and persuasion is doing little except dividing and frustrating us as a humanity.

All that to say, this post has nothing to do with politics.  But it does have something to do with an understanding of God’s kingdom that, in the end part of Scriptures paints a picture of a land with open borders where the people of that land offer praise to Jesus the Lamb:

And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll

    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,

    and they will reign on the earth.”  (Revelation 5:9-10)

So here’s the simple conclusions this moment in a farmer’s market in California revealed to me:

My day was better because that little boy tugged on my arm.  And I didn’t agree with his opinion.
My day was better because of listening to the diversity of languages swirling in that place.
My week was better better because of the several staff I met on our cruise ship who had come from the Philippines, parts of Africa, Mexico, and Europe.
My week was better because I walked a street in Ensenada, Mexico and felt completely out of place.

And yes, my week was better because I even tried boba tea.

I guess I wonder what “better’s” we miss because we don’t feel comfortable with what’s around us.