For a long time now I've listened to followers of Jesus give voice to passionate hopes that a particular political outcome will usher in a wonderful day for God's purposes in our world. This hope is not unique to any specific political party or viewpoint; it pretty much covers the spectrum. Most of us seem to be desperate for the election of a certain candidate, the elevation of our party, a pronouncement from the Supreme Court that will settle something important, or the passage of some law that will pave the way forward. As naive as it is, we seem to believe that once "our side" is in power, we will have all that we need to usher in a new day of peace and morality and (of course) prosperity.
That hope, it seems to me, is utterly bankrupt. Even more, that misplaced hope denies the power of the gospel and it calls into question God's ability to accomplish his purposes on his terms. Throughout history, the church has done just fine regardless of the political landscape. In fact, the church seems to do better when it finds itself in conflict with the powers that be. On the other hand, when a government attempts to help the church do its work, the church tends to become lazy, careless, and too eager to compromise. Despite what you may have heard, the church is thriving today -- and it is thriving most dramatically in places where it faces oppression and persecution and opposition.
Our dream of a political structure that will uphold and undergird the mission and purpose of the church is misguided and dangerous.
I know that it was a different day, but I'm intrigued by Jesus' attitude toward the political powers of his time. His land was ruled by Rome. I'm amazed by how little Jesus talked about Rome. In fact, many people rejected Jesus as the Messiah specifically because he did not have a political agenda! It was assumed that the Promised One would come and confront the enemies of God's people, but Jesus had interest only in the kingdom of God. And get this: he wanted even those so-called enemies of God's people to be part of the kingdom of God too!
His devotion to Rome was rather tepid. "Give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor," Jesus said, "but make sure that you give God everything that belongs to him." (See Luke 20:20-26.) I read Jesus' comment this way: "Do whatever you need to do to keep Rome off your back, but never forget who you really belong to!"
Jesus had even less interest in the political squabbles of the Jews. Surely, it would have been easy for Jesus to take sides and address the political issues of the day. Instead, he was consumed with a different kingdom altogether. He refused to get distracted by lesser things.
I know. Our New Testament tells us that government is ordained by God. But the same New Testament makes it clear that we answer to a higher authority and that we are compelled to obey God supremely. The clearest political command for followers of Jesus is that we are to pray for our leaders, and even that small thing is a challenge for most of us.
Clearly, this all gets jumbled in our minds and hearts. If our candidate wins, we take that as an indication that God has gotten what God wanted. But if our candidate doesn't win, we can't imagine that God is okay with that -- and yet we're troubled because God somehow let that happen. "God is in control!" we chant (perhaps to convince ourselves), but sometimes we say those words with victorious pride and sometimes with a sigh of confusion.
Well, is God in control or not? And can God accomplish his purposes even if the wrong candidate wins and even if our country goes in a direction that we don't understand?
What silly questions! Of course he is. Of course he can. Most surely, he will.
And all of that brings me to our world today. Who's your candidate? Unless you really are a single issue voter, you have a quite a dilemma these days.
Let's see, what would Jesus say about abortion, about carpet bombing, about character, about honesty, about poverty, about income inequality, about care for the environment, about immigration, about health care, about gun control, about education, about child care, about women's issues, about people with no voice, about justice, about integrity, about violence, about racism, about homosexuality, about torture, about mercy, about military spending?
Yeah, it kind of ruins the conversation to bring Jesus into it. But that's exactly where he needs to be.
And if we think that Jesus agrees with every one of our political views (whatever they are), we are only kidding ourselves.
Do you really think Jesus agrees with you about everything?
I've always been told that one of the clearest expressions of Christian citizenship is the act of voting. I always took that claim at face value and I simply accepted it as true.
Today, I'm not so sure.
You want to vote? Go for it. But hold that ballot very lightly in your hand -- and hold it even more lightly in your heart.
Followers of Jesus are never required to choose the lesser of two (or more) evils. So maybe it is better that we simply tell the truth about the emptiness of our political world and redirect our focus to what God is doing.
Let Rome be Rome.
And let the church be the church.
Let the church be the church regardless of what Rome does. If Rome passes laws that help us do our work, great! And if Rome passes laws that inhibit our work, let's choose to do our work anyway. We don't answer to Rome. What's more, the Rome that helps us out today is the same Rome that will break our hearts tomorrow.
Honestly, when has God ever been threatened or controlled or limited by something as small and insignificant as a government?
I realize that this goes against conventional wisdom and that it probably contradicts common sense. I realize that this will likely cause you some discomfort. But I'll say it anyway: it really doesn't matter who is elected President. And it really doesn't matter which direction our nation goes.
What truly matters is that, as followers of Jesus, we make certain that we are following Jesus. The political realm is neither our salvation nor our downfall; it simply provides the environment in which we get to serve God. And we can serve God -- and we must serve God -- no matter what is happening around us.
We are free to worship. We are free to serve God. We are free to share our faith. We are free to pour out our lives. We are free to follow Jesus.
We are free . . . no matter what the world says.
There is only one thing worse that putting all of our eggs in one basket -- and that is putting all of our eggs in the wrong basket. Let's make sure that we don't put our eggs in the political basket. Politics is never going to be our answer.
God has something much bigger than that going on.
I'm not sure if it was something I was taught or if I came up with it on my own, but for years I believed that life was like a map that was marked with one of those yellow highlighters. The presumption was that there was one path that had been laid out for each person, and that the goal of life was to find and follow that one path.
On the one hand, it was terribly reassuring to know that there was actually a way to go. On the other hand, it was scary to think about what would happen if you strayed from your particular path. Even a small wrong turn would surely carry immense consequences.
I devoted great energy trying to follow my specified route. Whether it was articulated or not, I thought that staying precisely on the right road would bring success, an easy life, and (best of all) the pleasure of God. At the same time, I lived in dread fear of making a wrong turn. I knew that God could use even a wrong turn for his purposes - but I also knew intuitively that, with a wrong turn or two, life would never be as good as it could have been.
I don't see things that way anymore. I certainly believe that there are good paths to follow and that some decisions are clearly better than others. But I also believe that God sticks close even when we stray. Even more, it seems to me that God sometimes puts several options in front of us and invites us simply to follow our heart.
When I say that, I think of my optometrist. Instructing me to look through that funny contraption, he says, "Which is better? Number 1 or number 2?" And that leads to a whole series of choices: 2 or 3? 3 or 4? 4 or 5? Eventually, I get to a place where I can't tell the difference between two lenses. "They look exactly the same to me," I sheepishly say. He only sighs, "They aren't the same at all; surely you can see the difference." But I can't see the difference, and he is forced to settle on a prescription that will do the job. And maybe it isn't the perfect prescription. Still, it will allow me to see.
Of course, we all want to make the right choices. Hopefully, we do that from time to time. How much better, though, to live secure in God's love that is bigger than any choice we make: good or bad. How much better to know that his companionship is certain even when we have lost track of the highlighted yellow line.
Read carefully - and maybe read more than once - this stunning word of Margaret Silf:
God comes to us not where we should have been
if we had made all the right choices in life;
not where we could have been if we had taken
every opportunity that God offered us;
not where we wish we were if we didn't
have to be in the place where we find ourselves;
not where we think we are because our minds
are out of sync with our hearts;
not where other people think we are
or think we ought to be
when they are attending to their own agendas.
God meets us where we really are.
We can spend so much time thinking about where we should be, where we could be, where we wish we were, where we think we are, where other people think we are, or where other people think we should be.
How much better to find deep joy in the fact that God meets us exactly where we are.
I've been watching my yard closely over the past few days.
It's a regular spring ritual for me. I'm hoping for lush, green grass even as I dread the intrusion of those confounded yellow flowers. So far, things look pretty good this year, but I know that I can't relax. I am well aware that the dandelions can appear in an instant . . . and I am well aware that they probably will. All the same, I act as if my watchful gaze will prevent their annual invasion.
Out by the road, I have some other yellow flowers. These flowers, however, are different. I actually planted them and I enjoy seeing them grow. They are called daffodils and they herald, I'm told, the arrival of spring. I once believed that spring started around March 21, but that was before I moved to Michigan. Now I know that spring starts whenever it wants to, and I know that it can come and go in an instant.
What intrigues me tonight is the difference between those two yellow flowers. One is dismissed as a weed and the other one is cherished for its beauty. One is loved and desired and the other gets blamed for ruining a lawn. I'm sure that it could be done, but I've never heard of anyone intentionally planting dandelions. On the other hand, daffodils would never simply grow on their own.
I'm trying to imagine how great I would feel about my yard if I could value both the dandelions and the daffodils. At least as far as my lawn goes, I'd be a happy man.
A change in perspective makes everything look different.
Two years ago this week, I was wrapping up an adventure in Ethiopia. I didn't know at that time what was about to happen. From that two-year-ago vantage point, I was about to embark on the most grievous two years of my life. I would travel to depths that I could not have imagined. Many days, I wondered if I would even make it to the next day. From that place, I was about to enter two years of dandelions.
Today, however, I look back on the last two years and it looks completely different. Today, I realize that those dark valleys were shaping, enriching, even life-giving. Today, I see that my wilderness was a great place for solitude and growth and healing. Today, I celebrate beginnings that I would have dismissed as impossible just two years ago. Looking back today, I see lots of daffodils.
So what do I make of these past two years? Well, they were filled with the lowest lows and they were filled with the highest highs. They were terrible and they were wonderful. To be sure, I'd rather not go through the last two years again - ever. At the same time, as hard as it was, I was remade and I found life again. I wouldn't give that up for anything. It was beautiful, productive suffering. And it turned out to be a really good thing for me.
I think it's easy for us to believe that nothing ever changes.
And then we look up one day and we realize that everything is completely different. And we had no idea that anything was even happening.
I don't know exactly why things happen the way they do. I'm not sure exactly why life can be so hard.
But one thing I've learned. God doesn't waste anything. He uses even our deepest heartache for his purposes. And he uses even our deepest heartache to change us in ways that we'd be wise to embrace. It doesn't really matter who intended it for evil; God fully intends to use it - whatever it is - for good.
All that to say that tonight I'm not sure which yellow flowers are the most beautiful - the ones that I planted or the ones that are creeping in on their own.
I think I'll just enjoy them all.