Immigration, Executive Orders, and WWJD

I was at work on Friday evening when I felt my phone go off in my pocket. It was a single, simple vibration, and thus I hadn’t the faintest idea what it could be signaling, as I have somehow, and quite unintentionally, given a plethora of apps (many of which I hardly even use anymore) a direct hardline to my phone’s alert system.

In attempt to be a good employee, I waited until I was on a break before I checked to see who, or what, could be trying to get my attention. I took my phone out of my pocket to find not a text, or Snapchat, or missed call, but a single alert from ABC news, which read as follows:

 

“Pres. Trump signs executive order to ‘keep radical Islamic terrorists’ out of the U.S.”

 

Now, I’ve been paying enough attention to the political world in the recent months to know that there’s a lot going on behind that headline, and I as clicked the link and began to read the whole article, I began to see exactly how much. Temporary bans on all immigration from specified countries, an indefinite ban on immigration from Syria, suspension of the Refugee Admissions Program, tightened refugee quotas…there was a lot to unpack in that one, tiny little headline. (Disclaimer: I am not a news agency, and in light of the “fake news” debacle, I suggest looking at reputable sources like NPR, ABC, or the New York Times before quoting anything I have to say as “news.” The full transcript of President Trump’s executive order can be found here.).

And of course, perhaps no president in recent memory has been scrutinized as much as Donald Trump, and so the reactions in support of and against this executive order rapidly blew up my various social media accounts as columnists, political analysts, and laypeople offered up their thoughts on the development. Discussions turned to arguments, arguments turned into mudslinging, and pretty soon I began to feel as though I was about to witness the whole internet implode from an overdose of polarized ideology.

One of the greatest sources of ammunition that I saw in this social media-driven War of Words was misunderstanding. And not misunderstanding in the general sense, but a very specific kind of misconstrued argument, relating to the use of scripture as a defense for immigration.

I’m sure you’ve probably been beaten over the head at this point with verses about the “foreigner among you” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” so I won’t waste time trying to yet again beat you over the head. To summarize briefly what I’ve seen floating around the last few days, it seems to me that verses of that sort present a pretty strong case for an ethical issue regarding immigration, namely that it is undeniably biblical to place yourself in harms way in order to care for and love another child of God, especially one who doesn’t yet know Jesus, giving their well-being and your decision to show them the love of Jesus, quite literally, cosmic significance.

There. Case closed. It’s settled. Putting the health of another’s soul over the health of your own physical body in the name of Jesus is firmly grounded in biblical tradition.

That’s all well and good, but that argument is precisely the cause of the misunderstanding that I’ve witnessed. I think we’ve just settled the wrong ethical issue. What seems to be on the minds of many American Christians regarding this new immigration policy is not the question of self-interest (although I happily welcome discussion regarding that issue as well). The real ethical question that I think so many are wrestling with is this: Is it biblical to put others in harm’s way in the name of Jesus? Do we have the authority to make that decision for someone other than ourselves?

That, to me, is a very different ordeal.

I’d like to say, right off the bat, that I am no ethicist (at least, not in the professional sense). I’m no Kant, or Mill, or Lewis, but I’d like to attempt to engage that ethical question all the same, since after all, isn’t it the laypeople who really have a stake in that question’s immediate implications?

When I first began to ponder this question, my mind, in it’s haphazard way, was thrust back to 8th grade, and, oddly enough, to Battle of the Bands. The name of my band, The Nothing (which, I’m sad to announce, broke up shortly after our first and only performance back in 2010), had been inspired by the idea that to follow Christ means giving up everything. It means having nothing of your own. We drew from a passage in Matthew in the pursuit of our band name, and the specific verse we relied upon said as follows: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life,” (Matthew 19:29 ESV).

I understand the nightmare that is biblical interpretation, and the struggle of sifting through different translations, or different readings of the same passage born from differing doctrinal positions, and I’m happy to engage that debate as well, but for now I’ll give you my take on this passage (which is remarkably similar to my 8th grade understanding of it). These words, spoken by Jesus to Peter in response to his wondering about the worth of being a Christian, carry a lot of weight. They are few, but they are heavy. Jesus is demanding, not requesting, demanding our whole selves. He decrees that we must absolutely, totally, and completely devoted to Him above all else.

This is probably nothing new to most Christians. Maybe the gravity of that demand isn’t something that everyone has seriously meditated on, but the fundamental idea is something that is widely circulated in nearly all Christian communities. However, as I read this passage, I notice that this demand, though it is made specifically of me, and only requires action of me, is not limited to solely me in its consequences. Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Devote yourself totally to me.” That would put me in a vacuum, ignoring the reality of the world I live in and giving me room to interact with that world as I see fit. Rather, Jesus says to abandon my family, abandon my house, abandon all that I have in this world for His sake. My devotion to God does not live in isolation, and it does have very real consequences for the world around me, and the world close to me, an idea that we see also in the Gospel of Luke.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:26 ESV).

If I love Jesus, I love Him more than my parents. I love Him more than my brother, or my sister. I love Him more than myself. My service to Him, to following in His Will, supersedes my service to myself or to anyone or anything of this world. And this passage in Luke puts service to myself on par with my service to other people. My abandonment of my own life is equated to the abandonment of those I love, because in the same way I must put Jesus in front of myself, I must put him in front of others as well.

These are some pretty intense terms of service, and immediately following this statement, Jesus recommends that, unlike we are prone to do, we read all the way through and consider them carefully before clicking “Agree”, before concluding with “So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:33 ESV).

Well then, what does this mean for our ethical question? Are we to lay down the interests of other people in the same way that we would sacrifice ourselves in the service of Jesus? I would argue that yes, that’s exactly what we are commanded to do.

Now, before I go any further, hear me out on that. Any ideology, when taken too far, often leads down a rabbit hole of harmful extremism, and this is no different.

Here’s what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that, should you be on your way to church, you ignore that homeless guy you pass on the street because, “Jesus comes first!” The service of Jesus often, and I’d dare say always, includes the service of others. By sacrificing a trip to church to serve a homeless man, you are serving Jesus. He commands that we love the least of these, and that command is what makes this immigration question so tricky. We all want to serve the least of these, for in doing so we serve Jesus. The question is, who are the least of these?

And this is where those Gospel passages truly begin to carry weight with me, because they tell me how I am to answer that question. They tell me that Jesus determines what constitutes the least of these, not me. If I had my way, I’d tell you that the least of these included my mom, my dad, my brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, etc., because I love them, and I want the best for them. But Matthew and Luke tell me that to serve Jesus means letting Him dictate my service to others, and sometimes that may come at the cost of serving who I want to serve. Because the unfortunate fact of my existence is that I cannot serve everyone all the time. The Lord can, but if I want to see the whole world served, I have to get out of His way, serve where He tells me, and trust that He’ll fill in the gaps my limited human capabilities leave.

So then, do I think the now barred refugees make up of the least of these? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is if Jesus thinks so, and I am of the position that there is a lot of biblical precedent telling me that He does. Over and over in the Bible we hear that the soul is of more worth than the body, that the reason we should be willing to die for our faith is because our bodies are expendable, but the souls of those who might come to salvation because of our bodily death are not. And right now, do you know the few people who are NOT barred from entering the United States from the list of banned countries? The executive order says that only those who are being persecuted for their religion, and only those whose religion is a minority in their home country, are allowed safe passage to the U.S.

Christians. That means Christians. Religiously persecuted minorities in largely Muslim nations are mostly Christians. Which means that under this order, in areas of the world where there is mass suffering and death, we are allowing Christians to leave, to escape, and sending Muslims back.

We’re saving the body at the cost of the soul.

It’s not an easy thing to swallow. Heck, it’s not an easy thing to write, to say that the fact that most of these refugees are Muslim is the exact reason we should bring them in, when much of the rhetoric surrounding this issue states that that’s exactly the reason we shouldn’t. But like I said, we have to trust God to fill in the gaps we leave. Yes, to bring in so many refugees from countries fraught with terrorism is a scary thing, and there are people that I dearly love here in America that I would go through Hell or high water for to ensure that no harm comes to them.

But God would do the same.

In fact, He already did exactly that, and so I have to trust that He is looking out for them, no matter how scary things may seem. I believe that the darkness and the horror that we are condemning so many unsaved people to with this executive order shows a lack of trust. We are called to spread the Gospel to all corners of the globe, and sometimes the globe comes to us. Are we to turn them away for fear of harm to ourselves or others? Or are we to trust that God has brought them to us for a reason, and seek His Will over our own longings?

 

So ends my spiel in favor of immigration. However, I’m an equal opportunity offender, and I’d hate to leave without addressing the opposing view, so I’d like to turn for a moment to those that felt their stomach drop, or had their heart skip a beat, or even cried out in anger when they heard about this executive order.

Did it make a difference?

Did the halting of immigration from certain countries have any impact on you, other than to give you a reason to deepen, or maybe even challenge, your own ideology? In other words, are you interacting with these sorts of people in a way that is hindered or affected by President Trump’s executive order? I’ll admit, I most certainly am not. When I take a step back and look at God’s-eye look at my life, I realize that, theology aside, I have no right to protest the new presidential decree, because up until now I’ve done absolutely nothing to help, or even hinder, the cause of refugees. I’ve been apathetic towards the issue. Obviously, I have been plenty of thoughts regarding what it means to serve Jesus in this sort of situation, but I haven’t actually been of service to anyone when it comes the ethical question I’ve raised such a fuss about. Jesus knew this, of course, and, as He is prone to do in our relationship, he recently made a “holy fool” out of me to shake me of this complacency.

A few days ago, my car broke down (for those of you that know my car, affectionately called Scout, this comes as no surprise). While I was stuck in the middle of the road waiting for a tow truck, a man pulled of to the side of the street, got out of his car, and approached me to see if I needed any help. I told him that there really wasn’t much to be done, that I had called for a tow, and that it was just a waiting game at this point, but thanked him for the offer. He handed me a business card and said, “Well, my office is right down the street. If you need anything, just give me a call, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.” I asked him what it was that his office did, and I’ll admit to a childlike giddiness as I prepare to type his response.

“We work with refugees,” he told me with a smile. “We help them learn English, get established in the area, get connected to the community, and basically just try and help them make a life here.”

Two days later I’m sitting at work when I feel my phone go off with what I would later learn is the ABC news alert.

So here I am, with an address, a phone number, an email address, and a face-to-face conversation with a man who has dedicated his professional career to resettling refugees. It was as if God was preemptively asking me, “So, are you going to take up your cross and follow me? Are you going to live out the service you so passionately talk about?” For all my talk, it’s definitely time to walk the walk, both on my part and on the part of Christians as a whole. If we want to have a right to disagree with the executive order, we have to put ourselves in a position of service. We have to be intentional about going to meet the needy. Sure, sometimes God puts things right in front of us, and (to borrow a phrase from a pastor friend of mine) we encounter the least of these in the natural intersections of our lives. But other times He calls us to step out of naturalism. To be unnatural. To pursue the supernatural. And that doesn’t have to be with refugees here in the United States.

As I mentioned, one of the things that horrifies me about this immigration crackdown is that we are sending so many unsaved back to unbearably broken places. So then, if we can’t meet them here, why not pursue them there? Why does my pursuit of the unsaved have to be limited to those I encounter here in my own homeland? Jesus went about as far as anyone can go in His pursuit of me, forsaking the eternal for the mortal, the perfect for the broken, so I why can’t we cross a few political borders in our pursuit of His children?

I say this as a challenge to myself just as much as to anyone, as my default setting is selfishness and comfort, and I think this whole ordeal is one way that God is seeking to break that habit in me. I have to recognize that I am the church. It’s not up to my next door neighbor, or my pastor, or my political leaders to initiate service of the least of these, service of Jesus. I carry that responsibility and that calling as much as anyone else, and I can’t depend on a presidential directive (or lack thereof) to do that work for me.

Whether or not we agree with this executive order, whether or not we voted for President Trump, or whether or not we support his ideology is irrelevant. Is he someone willing to step outside his comfort zone and do something radical in the name of service? I don’t know, but that’s not a question I’m able or willing to answer, because the real question is…

Are you?

Am I?

 

 

 

 

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Love, No Matter What

They’re drawing lines in the sand

While these tides rise above their heads

But these blurry visions keep reminding me

I have no enemy in men

 

I want to be the salt in these oceans

I want to be a guiding light

These scars you have aren’t the whole of you

Let me be the stitch that heals the spite

 

Even a hardened heart carries a beat

The part of you that moves this part of me

We can’t go back now

And this fight can’t be outrun

But I will show you love no matter what

 

I’ve seen the heat become a part of you

A wayward match struck alight

But these torches burn the hands that carry them

So lay down your weapons here tonight

 

With every stone we build a prison

We lock ourselves inside our hearts

But I waiting for the day the sunrise comes

And every cell is torn apart

 

I’m still carrying the scars from my defeat

The open wounds from where you cut too deep

But we can’t go back now

And the past can’t be undone

But I will show you love no matter what

 

You’re the child of a past that I can’t see

The parent pain that molded you and me

We can’t go back now

‘Cause these scars are where we’re from

So I will show you love no matter what

160302005451-trump-and-hillary-exlarge-169

 

Music is such a funny thing. It’s never static, and it doesn’t live in a vacuum. It exists outside of ourselves, our culture, our society. Sure, those things play a huge role in the creation of music, and every song is born from someone with a unique worldview, and so it can’t help but be influenced by society and culture, but once that song is completed, once it’s played, it’s free. It is no longer bound to the understanding of the writer, but is at liberty to speak to the individual listener free from the restrictions of time and culture.

I finished writing a song several months ago that began as an address to a divided nation. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling regarding gay marriage, I saw my various social media feeds filled with posts telling me that “Love Wins,” but it was clear that the real winner was the wedge that had been driven between two polarized stances. On both sides of the issue stood a great many things: anger, fear, depression, offense, isolation, marginalization, but not love. I began to wonder what it would look like if love really had won, if people sought understanding rather than the satisfaction of being right. What would a country ruled by humility and the “turn the other cheek” mentality that Jesus taught resemble?

So, like any good musician, I wrote about it. I tried to articulate what it was like to recognize that “I have no enemy in men,” but that my real Enemy had a capital “E” and was the force behind the divisiveness surrounding me. I tried to address the national scope of the struggle, the fight, that was taking place.

It’s difficult, though, to put into words something so massive. How, in a four-minute song, do you tackle an issue that’s literally plaguing 300 million people? I found the answer not in the macro, but the micro. Not in the nation, but in the individual, in my own personal struggle, when I came face to face with the fractured state of my country. Division in my own life came not between two political parties or two grand ideologies, but between two people, and through this micro-level division I came to understand the macro-level battle that was taking place. At the end of the day, political parties, Supreme Courts, and protest groups are all made up of individuals, and the nationwide division that we see in the news and on social media is caused by those individuals wrestling together with that same kind of personal struggle that I had fought through.

So the song changed. It was no longer about America, but about the people that make up America, the individuals fighting through their own personal conflict that just so happened in this case to be affecting 300 million individuals at the same time. I didn’t write this song about the 2016 election. I didn’t have a clue that our nation would be where it is today when I penned these words and these notes, but, like I said, once the ink hit paper, this song became free from my narrow-minded intentions, and it resonates more with me now than it did when I first wrote it.

In light of the recent election, and, more importantly, the fallout of that election, I am challenged by own words now more than ever. When confronted with opinions and ideologies that I may personally take great issue with, I am challenged to recognize the past that molded my fellow man in a way I can never fully understand. I am challenged to lay down my own torch, to cross my imaginary lines, lest my stubbornness causes me to drown. I am challenged to put down the stone I want so badly to cast so that I may not contribute to the construction of the prison that has barred so many hearts already. I am challenged to be salt, to be light, to be a suture, not a scalpel, and to show love, no matter what.

There and Back Again, Part 2

There and Back Again, Part 2

 

A note before I begin…

 

The second post regarding my time in Tanzania is coming a noticeably long time after the first. I had intended to write and post this “part two” quite soon after the publishing of the first piece, and was actually very nearly done with a rather lengthy chronicle of my experience in Arusha when I decided to take a step back and read through my progress so far. Though it was not easy to admit to myself after investing so much time into its creation, I realized that I hated my writing.

It was not that I was unhappy with the sentence structure, or the flow, or the organization. The problem was deeper than that, tugging at the heart behind every word in front of me, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that was bothering me. I wrestled with the discomfort over my own work for a while before a conversation with a trusted friend finally helped me to articulate what it was that I was feeling.

I was dissatisfied with the words I had written down because they were my words. I had taken a trip halfway around the world, watched God do amazing things, then come home and decided on my own that I was more than qualified to decided what it was that needed to be said and to say it a coherent, meaningful way without any help from the same divine entity that had allowed me to go on this trip in the first place.

It was not one of my finer moments.

Upon reaching this realization I decided to scrap everything I had written so far and wait (semi-patiently) for God to tell me exactly what it was that I needed to say. Thus, the long break between parts one and two of this post.

Now, I recognize that this is making a pretty big deal out of something so simple as a blog that I admit not many people will see, but I also think that any word spoken apart from God and born from my own will, no matter the medium, is dangerous, and so the only things said should be that which God is saying through me.

This is not to say that every word I write is infallible. As much as I would like for it to be otherwise, I am still a flawed human being simply trying to clearly articulate the things that God is saying to me. I may not always be able to perfectly accomplish that task, but you can at least be confident that everything that follows stems not from an attempt to push my own ideology, but a desire to be a vessel for the work of the Holy Spirit.

So, after a lot of waiting, a lot of prayer, and just a few very obvious neon signs from God, I will try to put into words those things that He has put onto my heart.

 

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

 

            “I went on a missions trip to Tanzania.”

The more people I talked to about my three-week stay in Arusha, the more I realized that this was the statement they either wanted or expected to hear. Often the first words out of their mouth when I began to speak about all the time I spent teaching music or the people that was I able to meet were, “Now, was this a mission trip?” A perfectly reasonable question, and I always replied with a simple, “Yes, it was,” before launching back into my unnecessarily long spiel about my trip that the poor soul before me was definitely not prepared for. But what did that exchange mean?

What was it about the term “missions trip” that facilitated a different understanding of my time in Tanzania than if I simply called it “a trip”? That one word definitely carried a lot of weight to many of the people that I spoke to, but where did it come from, and what purpose did it serve? (I was one of those kids growing up that annoyed their parents with the constant asking of, “Why?” in case you couldn’t tell).

In my quest for understanding, I thought through what a normal trip, one that didn’t have that title of “missions” in front of it, looked like. For lack of a better word, a vacation. What did a typical vacation (for me) look like (I understand that not everything is either a vacation or a missions trip, but I don’t think that anyone was wondering if I was on a business trip to Tanzania, so these are the two categories I’m going to use for now)?

Well for starters, a vacation is an intentional break from my routine in every sense. I go to a new place, throw off any responsibilities I possibly can (although I’m often trying to do that even when I’m not on vacation), get time away from the normal pressures of my life, and, I will admit, mostly live for myself. I do things that I want to do because I find them fun, relaxing, or enjoyable in some way. A “trip” with no preceding label is often one that I do for me, to please myself and escape all the things that others want me to do so I can focus on what I want to do (not necessarily a pleasant thing to admit about myself, but I’m also not too fearful of being the only person who does this).

In contrast to that stands my trip to Tanzania. The “missions trip”. So what did I do in Tanzania that I would not have done on a typical vacation? Well, the thing I did most often was teach music. I did that nearly every day for the duration of my trip. I also built Godly relationships with friends new and old. I looked for opportunities to serve those around me, and spent a lot of time talking about Jesus. True, I took the occasional trip around town (or went on a safari) to sightsee and do the things I wanted, but my primary focus was outward, looking to better know and serve the people I met.

So far none of this should really be a big shock. I think the majority of people asked me what kind of trip I was on was so that they could have a basic grasp of the things I did while in Tanzania. Did I serve myself or others? “Vacation” and “missions trip” help the average person to make this distinction pretty clearly. But, as He often does, God had even more planned for me and this train of thought I had found myself following.

As I reflected back on the things I had done in Arusha, a startling pattern began to emerge. As I said above, I had participated in the following:

 

  • Taught music (I did that quite a bit in America before my trip)
  • Built Godly relationships (Anyone who knows me knows that this pretty much all I do in America)
  • Looked for opportunities to serve (This is something that Christians are encouraged to do pretty much 24/7, so yes, I had done this, too, in America)
  • Talked about Jesus (Definitely do this in America)
  • Took the occasional self-serving trip (I go to the beach, I go hiking. Heck, I just wrote a whole paragraph about all the self-serving trips I take in America, so this one definitely isn’t unique to Tanzania either)

 

Not a single thing I did while in Africa was something that I had to travel halfway around the world to do (well, within reason. There aren’t very many safaris available in Richmond). In fact, most of what I did was just a continuation of the life I currently live, I just packed up and moved to Tanzania for three weeks to live it. I didn’t take a break from my daily life or my responsibilities, I just kept them up in a different place. The only thing different about those three weeks was that I was far more intentional about the third bullet on the above list. It’s not that I didn’t look to serve in Virginia, but I definitely looked harder in Arusha.

Knowing this, I think that maybe my “missions trip” to Tanzania is undeserving of that name. Or, at least, every other aspect of my life is just as deserving as that trip is. To call my trip a “missions trip” is to say that here in America I go “missions grocery shopping” or to get a “missions haircut” (which I admittedly haven’t done in a while). Every single thing that I do in my life here on Earth should serve to glorify God, to elevate the name of Jesus, and to show love to my brothers and sisters. That’s the stated goal of a missions trip, but it should be the stated goal of everything I do

Missions isn’t an action, or a trip, but a state of being, one that I was simply more conscious of in Tanzania because it carried with it the explicit title of missions, a title that exists implicitly before every breath I take in this life. Missions isn’t a strategy, or a tactical game of “How I can I get this person to believe in Jesus?” Missions is an existence.

My missions field while I was in Tanzania was not Tanzania. My missions field while I was in Tanzania was the same as it is everywhere; my life is my missions field. There is no geographical area where I am limited to glorifying Jesus through every part of my being. I exist to bring him public praise through my words, deeds, thoughts, and every other thing I could possibly do (that is a radical thought, I know, but Jesus was a pretty radical dude).

Now, this does not mean that I am condemning or discouraging international missions. Quite the opposite actually. This world is in desperate need of people to travel the globe intentionally seeking to give the Holy Spirit room to work in the hearts of both believers and nonbelievers alike. And I am not trying to condescendingly point out any flaws in our current vocabulary and use of the word “missions.” That’s unnecessary semantics that doesn’t really get to the heart of anything.

Rather, I am simply trying to encourage a change in our mindset. To think that anyone who lives in a foreign country for the expressed purpose of sharing the Gospel is a missionary and anyone who doesn’t is not is simply not biblical. Jesus’ Great Commission was not targeted at a specific group of people, but at all of his followers. My every day, no matter where I am, should be as intentionally focused on glorifying Jesus’ name as is was in Tanzania. During that trip, I spent three weeks in a mindset that I should have my entire life.

I am not an expert on missions. I recognize that there are people who spend years becoming educated in exactly what that word “missions” means and what its implications are for followers of Jesus. My love for Jesus is still infantile, and my understanding of his commands and his Word is likewise, so I know that my interpretation and exploration of these missional themes may be rough around the edges, but God placed these thoughts on my mind and heart to be shared.

I know there’s not necessarily any earth-shattering revelations present here in my writing, but after my time in Tanzania I desperately needed this word from the Lord and this newfound understanding of his commands, and if I did, maybe someone else did, too.

 

There and Back Again, Part 1

IMG_1872How do you quantify missions? What sorts of data points do you collect and analyze, examine and reexamine, to assess the validity or success of a missions oriented undertaking? Can the totality of an experience associated with a mission’s trip be simplified so much as to be summarized with words such as “good” or “bad”?

I recently returned from a three week trip to Arusha, Tanzania, and I certainly could not express my summation of my experience with such simple, or so few, words. My trip was not all good. But my trip was not all bad. Our journey through life and with God is a constant cycle of ups and downs, and that motion does not stop just because we pack up and travel halfway around the world in the name of service. To ask me how the last three weeks have been is like asking where I currently lie on the sine wave of my existence, while factoring in, of course, the added complications of being in an unknown foreign country and right in the middle of an atypical spiritual journey brought about by an atypical three weeks. It’s a far from simple question, and its answer is likewise (so brace yourselves, this might take awhile).

If you had asked me before I left what this trip was about, I would’ve said, “Music.” After all, that’s what I was going to Tanzania to do: teach music. I realize now how naïve it was to think that God would stick to my script. In all honesty, as I look back on this trip, the images flash through my mind seldom involve my stated purpose for being in Africa. I don’t remember much how my classes went every day, or what it was that I taught most of the kids. Instead, what I remember are people: Max, Rhoda, Frank, Japhet, Paul, Josh, Adere, Vernon, Mary, Baba Pendo, Abraham, Dickson, and so many others who each deserve pages upon pages all to themselves. I left Tanzania with a host of new relationships (and a few more Facebook friends), some of which rival the strength of my relationships here in the United States. In less than a month I built bridges that often take years to complete. But for what purpose? What did these relationships mean? What were these bridges crossing, and where were they taking me to?

Well, on one end was another person. Someone outside of myself, who isn’t me, who hasn’t lived the life I’ve lived or experienced the things I’ve experienced. Someone who’s entire life will consist of the day to day existence that I only spent three weeks living. They were born, grew up, and will spend their last days in Africa. It’s such a simple concept, that a relationship consists of two people: one that I know better than anyone, and one that I cannot hope to possibly understand entirely. And yet, it took the forming of quite a few relationships for that truth, and its implications, to sink in. It wasn’t until people invited me into their homes, asked me to share meals with them, or pointed to the place where they grew up that I recognized that I was just as much a foreigner to the Tanzanians as they were to me. I had come to Arusha with the pledged purpose of teaching, and yet, in order to form these relationships, to work to try and understand another person, I was having to do a lot of learning. I was learning all sorts of things about the people I was meeting (their favorite foods, where they grew up, how they met their spouse, why they applied for their current job, etc.), and, in doing so, I was learning a lot about Tanzania. Likewise, by learning more about the country I was staying in, I came to better understand its people.

Now, that in and of itself was quite a realization for me to come to, and it would have been great to stop there, but of course God is not one to be satisfied with such a mediocre epiphany. No, He had something a little more…convicting…in mind.

Here’s the thing about a relationship: it involves a lot of learning and understanding. Half the conversations you have with people when you first meet them are really just glorified Q & A sessions. A majority of the time spent building a relationship revolves around getting to know someone. But do we ever spend any of our time trying to change someone? Do we ever say, “I can’t continue to invest in this person unless they change their favorite color, start dressing like me, and adopt my mannerisms”? Of course not. Part of the process of building a relationship is coming to accept a person as they are, as someone who is not you, because no one else could ever hope to be you. This other person has a life that is wildly different from yours, and there’s something so beautiful about that. They have a perspective on everything, from the physical to the spiritual, that you are incapable of appreciating unless you can first come to understand it, and the understanding of that perspective can only be gained through the understanding of the person who holds it. There is value, then, in difference. God gave us relationships partly so that we might come to know Him and His creation better by looking through a myriad of different lenses. To force someone to contort their lens to match ours is to cheapen that experience. Why, then, do we think that missions should be any different?

In Tanzania I experienced firsthand an attitude towards missions that, while I recognize is not a conscious state of mind adopted by many missionaries, lurks in our subconscious and has the potential to color every missions motivated action. I think it’s very easy for us to try and contort those lenses of the people we come into contact with in the name of evangelism, but (hopefully) almost never intentionally. After all, for as much learning as we do while building a relationship, we also do a lot of teaching. In getting to know another person, the hope is that they are learning just as much about us. A huge part of a relationship is reciprocation. The problem is when the concept of relational teaching is misconstrued as a call to ethnocide.

Now, I certainly introduced many Tanzanians to a lot of Western (specifically American) culture that they had never experienced before while I was in Arusha. I answered questions about all kinds of things, from college to crime and, oddly enough, even a few on American funeral traditions. I relished the opportunity to share my culture with another group of people, and they felt the same about sharing their culture with me. There should certainly be an exchange of customs and traditions as a part of the relationship building process, and I think that in any other given situation there wouldn’t be any obstacles in the way of that exchange. However, once you preface any interaction with the stated motivation of evangelism, things have the potential to take on a totally different light.

Jesus, obviously, is a central part of the Christian culture, but there is a very big difference between the American Christian culture and the Tanzanian Christian culture. While faith in Jesus stand as central pillars of each, things like the role and type of worship, or what prayer looks like for an individual are each their own entities that can be constructed only after that central pillar has been established. I think we sometimes have a hard time recognizing that while the beliefs of Christianity should certainly be universal, the culture surrounding those beliefs is anything but, and while the word “evangelism” should carry with it only the stated purpose of spreading of the gospel of Jesus, we confuse that gospel with the culture surrounding it that we’re familiar with, and we preach both as eternal truth, when in reality only one of those things is deserving of that title. We subconsciously feel that when someone else adopts our Christian culture, they are adopting Jesus, when in fact the only way for someone to adopt Jesus is Jesus. The early church was not American or Tanzanian, and the Christian culture they created was vastly different from either our current American or Tanzanian cultures. The beauty in that is that we are all united by our faith, which is something that has the potential to transcend temporal and cultural barriers. Max (a man I met in Tanzania), Paul, and I all share the same faith, and are thus united as one in the body of Christ, if we share nothing else in common besides that faith. That then, should be our conscious goal in the mission field: to facilitate the building of relationships, both with other people (and thus other cultures), and with Jesus. Thus, the burden of uniting wildly different peoples rests on the shoulders of God, the only one capable of accomplishing such a feat, and our responsibility is simply that of allowing him to build His relationships through ours.

So, that’s one side of the bridge that was built during my time in Tanzania (if you still remember that metaphor from the beginning of this post). On one end of a relationship is another person, united to me through faith, able to teach me through culture. On the other end is, of course, me. There is certainly no shortage of material to pull from in regards to how I was personally shaped and changed through my trip to Africa, but I think I’ve written quite enough for today.

I assure you, I intend to address the roller coaster that God took me on during my three weeks in Africa, but I think perhaps that is a story for another time…

God’s Not Dead 2 and the Theology of War

Major Spoilers Ahead!!

 

Over the last few years, in the wake of seemingly unending social and political controversy and their associated “culture wars,” I’ve watched my mom become more and more fond of the phrase, “We have an enemy, and people aren’t it.” She’s referring, of course, to a spiritual enemy (I assume she means the devil, but I can never be entirely sure what’s going on in her head). The point she’s always trying to make with that phrase is that we all, whether skinny, fat, tall, short, blonde, or brunette, are made by God in His image and are loved equally by Him. No matter what side of any of a host of issues we may stand on, every single human being is connected on a deep, metaphysical level as valued creations of God, whether they love, hate, or are indifferent to Him. No matter how hateful, how cruel, how malicious a person may seem, they, too, are a child of the Maker of the universe, and so he is my brother, and not my enemy.

Apparently, the makers of God’s Not Dead 2 don’t share my mother’s view.

Now, I understand, God’s Not Dead 2 is not made for a secular audience. None of the filmmakers likely expected that any non-Christian would turn up for this movie, and I realize that in any given theatre showing this film there was about a 0.00269% chance that a nonbeliever was there, so there were no pulled punches, no diluting of Christianity to try and drown out a bitter taste. This was a no-holds-barred, knock-down-drag-out Christian movie, made by Christians, for Christians.

And that’s what worries me.

I’ll admit, I was already very biased walking into the theatre to see this movie. I had some strong opinions about the first God’s Not Dead, and I expected that I would have similar opinions about this movie before the opening credits had even begun. As much as I want to say that this movie exceeded all I could have hoped for and left me feeling encouraged and inspired, I instead left the theatre rather upset.

For those that don’t know, God’s Not Dead 2’s plot centers around a high school teacher who, upon providing an answer to a simple question from a student regarding the teachings of Jesus that even the strictest separationist would likely agree was perfectly reasonable and warranted, is swept up in a legal battle waged by the school board and the ACLU to get her fired and prove once and for all “that God is dead” (as said by the ACLU’s lawyer).

God’s Not Dead 2 suffered the same great failing as the first film, in that it was nothing if not divisive, and not in the righteous “set apart” kind of way. If the only things I knew about atheism and Christianity were what this movie taught me, I would think that all atheists are evil, arrogant, scheming snakes whose entire purpose in life is to seek out and crush any possible hint of Christianity in the world (not religion, mind you, Christianity). Conversely, I would think that Christians are helpless, tormented people that bravely put up with endless persecution by a society that wants nothing more than to see the fire of God snuffed out. Every scene is full of sneers, half-smiles accompanying evil-genius type sideways glances, and haughtily delivered lines on the part of an atheist, which is often followed by some kind of “Gotcha!” moment by a Christian which leaves the atheist looking foolish and feeling ashamed. And the fact that all of these moments are being played out in a courtroom where the two sides are literally battling against each other serves only to enhance the “us vs. them” mentality that this movie thrives on. What’s more, the credits at the end of the movie list a series of court cases that apparently inspired the plot of the movie. It’s like the filmmakers are standing there screaming at the audience, “Remember all those atheist bad-guys from the movie you just watched? Well, guess what? People like them are really out there, and they’re everywhere! Go fight them!” There is most certainly a war being waged in this film, and it’s between atheists and Christians. This war ensues despite characters in the film quoting both Ephesians 6:12 (For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places) and Matthew 5:44 (But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you). Everything this film is telling me is directly contrary to what Paul and Jesus are saying in these verses. The movie tells me that my war is against the atheists, that I should learn all the apologetics Lee Stroble and J. Warner Wallace (both of whom appear in this film) can teach me so I can make those darn atheists look like fools when they dare persecute me!

Look, as a Christian, I understand there are many things I cannot compromise on. I will not back down from a belief in an absolute ethics, or in the existence of an afterlife, or that the only way for me to reach eternal salvation is through the faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I get that. So no, I will not tell an atheist that they’re doing just fine how they are and they’ll get to Heaven so don’t worry about it, but if I follow this movie’s advice and try to make every atheist that challenges my faith look like an idiot because they’ve upset me, I am condemning them to eternal torment because I want to feel good about how right I am. I’m telling them that my pride is more important than their soul, because if I really loved them, I would listen to them, not for the sake of responding to them, but for the sake of understanding them, no matter how hateful they might be.

Now, I do have to give this movie some credit for one major character: the high school teacher’s lawyer, an atheist (or, at least, in his words, “not a Christian”) who passionately defends this teacher (named Grace Wesley) despite their theological differences, which pleasantly surprised me. However, many times I almost forgot that he was an atheist because he didn’t fit the atheist mold that the movie had laid for me. After all, he didn’t yell at high school football coaches for having team prayers or forbid students from even speaking to their Christian teacher for fear of conversion. That was, I think, the most frustrating part of God’s Not Dead 2. There were fantastic elements, like this atheist defense attorney, that had the potential to send a message that Christianity desperately needs, but were simply overshadowed by the myriad of tropes (including atheist parents who treated the death of their son like he had been the family hamster) that served only to push Christ-like love into a closet and hide it from the audience.

The film only furthered its inflammatory nature through its portrayal of the persecution (and also victory) of its protagonists. The whole premise for the plot was ridiculous and catered to a paranoia within Christianity that every Christ-like act will be harshly attacked by any nonbeliever, and yet the (apparently) implausible victory at the end simultaneously sent the message that no matter how big the problem, if you believe and pray, God will take it away. I’m all about God doing crazy things that live in the realm of the impossible, and that He loves to bless his children. But I also know that we don’t always win on this earth. Just because you are a Christian, that doesn’t mean you will get everything you want. Despite what this movie says, your cancer may not be cured, and you may not win that court case, but victory is guaranteed for us in the life beyond this one. Paul didn’t have his thorn taken away, yet he was “content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Cor. 12:10), and even Jesus didn’t find relief from his suffering until he died up there on that cross.

There was one beautiful moment of this film where that message seemed about to burst forth, where two young people both suffering in their own way, tears in their eyes, simply sat next to each other in a pew in silence. It was heart wrenching (the man sitting next to me in the theatre cried). It was like watching Job and his friends sit together, pondering the pain of this world. Yet all too soon this moment passed in order that this subplot would take a backseat to the plight of the teacher, Grace.

Grace, the innocent schoolteacher at the center of a plot by what seemed like all of secular society to shut her up forever. Now, I won’t deny that persecution happens to Christians both in the United States and all over the world everyday. But, when the plot of your multimillion dollar budget movie that gets released in almost every theatre in the country whose seats are filled with hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of perfectly free Christian moviegoers and features a hit Christian band performing at a sold out show revolves around the conspiracy of society to take down the whole Christian faith forever, my suspension of disbelief is admittedly lost. I know that persecution of any kind isn’t fun, whether it be in the form of the government telling me I can’t preach at school, or being crucified upside down, like Peter was. However, as much as we might want it to, persecution isn’t going to end until this world does, and if all I’m facing is the former persecution, then I feel as though my energy is better spent elsewhere besides making a big budget Hollywood film that tries to convince me that the persecution I’m facing warrants a war on atheists and everything that they and their secular culture stand for.

 

 

Though I would like to pretend that I’m writing all of this as someone whose eye is clear of any unnecessary lumber, I know that I have very large and conspicuous plank sticking out my face. I’ve tried (sometimes with success, other times with failure) to come up with a witty remark to put some snarky atheist in their place, oftentimes driving them further and further away from the love that I claim to represent. I’ve cried out indignantly when I thought there might even be a sliver of a chance that I might be facing some kind of persecution, forgetting that God has placed where I am, which is a very fortunate place to be, to do more than complain about the culture around me. I have failed to meet the ideal I’ve set in this post in every possible way. I’m not trying to say that I am a perfect example of what I preach, only that there should be such an example to strive for. God’s Not Dead 2, in my opinion (which I understand is no more valuable than one else’s) sets an example for what Christianity looks like that is contrary to that which Jesus set. It goes against the very scripture it quotes, and I think it encourages a dangerous brand of Christianity, one whose focus is on pride and comfort, rather than humility and love.

Whether you agree with me or not, you’ve probably heard most of what I’ve had to say before, either from your neighbor or some obscure movie reviewer, and I’d wager that, like me, you’ve got some strong opinions about this movie as well (and probably about myself), either for or against my above words.

This post is not meant to be an end, but the beginning of a conversation. Maybe tomorrow I reevaluate everything I’ve said, all because of the discussion that ensues here. Maybe I learn something more about you, or about myself because of something that is said. Maybe we both do. So write, or text, or talk away. Yes, there may be disagreement and confrontation, and it may be uncomfortable, but sometimes the most difficult conversations are the ones most worth having.

Me, Part 1: Concerning God

Nearly all of my earliest memories place me in someone’s church. I remember going to church with my parents, my maternal and paternal grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, and nearly everyone else I can call my legal relatives. I went to Awana, I was a part of numerous bible studies, and most Wednesday nights found me engaged in the typical youth group activities. Simply put, my family was a church-going family.

Suffice it to say, by the time I could read I was about as well versed (no pun intended) in the Bible as I was in the standard kindergarten literary canon. I could quote John 3:16 on command and rattle off the books of the New Testament in order without batting an eye. I was an upstanding paragon of a moral Christian 7-year old, and I held on to that faith through much of high school.

Now, here’s the thing about faith. It’s not supposed to be static. In kindergarten, I learned to read books like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. In elementary school I was reading The Magic Treehouse. In middle school they gave me the shorter works of John Steinbeck to work through, and by the time I was in high school I was able to read, comprehend, and analyze literary classics like The Scarlet Letter and The Sun Also Rises.

But my faith? Had it grown, evolved, matured, and adapted in the same way as my ability to read? Had I explored more of the Bible and critically evaluated its message and its content? Could I write or verbalize a full exegesis on Abraham’s test of faith, or on the transfiguration of Jesus?  Had I ever confronted any of my doubts or questions about Christianity and allowed myself to wrestle with God for the sake of spiritual growth?.

No. Instead, I had memorized John 3:16.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with memorizing or studying that verse. John 3:16 is a wonderful part of the Bible, as it basically summarizes the entire Christian faith in a single succinct, easy to comprehend sentence. It is essential to the understanding of the rest of the story. But then, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie does a pretty good job of introducing the fundamentals of literature, and you can’t even begin to read something like The Scarlet Letter if you can’t first make it through If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, yet it’s expected that by the time you’re 17 you’ve mastered the basics that that book introduces and are able to tackle more nuanced, complicated pieces of literature.

When I was 17, I was still reading religion’s version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. I had read it again, and again, and again, and again, never picking it apart, never looking at it in the greater context of literature as a whole, never thinking that there was something beyond this simple book, yet I thought I grasped everything that literature had to offer.

I could proudly stand up and tell you what John 3:16 said, but I couldn’t even begin to explain to you what it meant. What does that verse reveal about the love of God? What does it mean that God has a son? What does belief look like? How does that belief translate into a redeeming faith that secures eternal life? Imagine asking these questions to a kindergartener and expecting them to have any sort of answer for you. Imagine their confusion, their perplexity. Now translate that confusion onto someone who had been going to church every week (often more than once a week) and reading the Bible every day for nearly two decades. At 17 years old, I was still in kindergarten.

Thankfully, there are people out there with the patience to deal with a spiritually immature high schooler like me, and I was lucky enough to find them (although “lucky” is perhaps an inappropriate word). I’ve spent the last few years (with their help) trying to make up for what should have been about 12 years of continuous spiritual growth, and it has been quite the journey. I’ve learned a lot about God, the world, and myself, and while not every lesson has been necessarily enjoyable, I’m grateful for each one.

Here, I’d like to take a moment to recognize that there is one fundamental failure in my metaphor regarding literature. Once most of us graduate high school (or, if you really love literature, college), things stop. Or, at the very least, they slow down. There is no more classroom instruction, likely only a fraction of the reading that was done in school, and no more teachers or professors to guide us. As Christians, we do however, have a teacher we can’t ever lose, who will never retire, and for whom there is no concept to concept too lofty to address (I don’t care how old or wise your pastor is, I’m definitely talking about the Holy Spirit). So keep questioning, keep learning, and keep growing. You’ll never peak in the depth of your relationship with Christ, or with the maturity of your faith. Take it from someone who knows, 15 years from now you’re going to want to be able to say you read more than just If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

 

For God so loved the world

that he gave his one and only Son,

that whoever believes in him shall not perish

but have eternal life.

(John 3:16)