Refugees, Romans, and Trusting God

Now that we’ve thankfully moved past the Starbucks Christmas cup debacle, the American Church is facing a new and actually pressing crisis: the Syrian refugees.

Without getting into the politics of it all, the question I keep seeing hashed out is simple. Should America accept Syrian refugees?

My answer (and this is my opinion) is that America should accept Syrian refugees through the same process and channels as always used. After all, we’re the home of the huddled masses, yearning to be free. Security is a built-in concern these days, so let’s trust the system to work.

But for many, it’s the follow up question that gets complicated — how should American Christians answer the question about refugees?

I would start by pointing to Romans 13 (quoting The Message translation):

1-3 Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

3-5 Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

6-7 That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.

The second sentence is the one that seems pertinent to me. “All governments are under God” is a significant statement; too often, we act as if government is out of God’s control, when the truth is much uglier: government is out of our control. And that’s what scares many American Christians.

Because we live in a democratic republic, it’s easy to understand how we get things mixed up. We vote for our government officials, so that means we have a say in who represents us and what values they bring to the table. We expect our vote to carry a certain weight with our representatives because without it they couldn’t hold office. As a result, we feel like the government is ours to control. Lobbyists feel otherwise.

Here’s the Apostle Paul, however, setting us straight. Government is not ours to control. It’s God’s. End of story. Paul spends seven verses explaining just how God uses the government to His purposes, and how Christians should trust God to work.

And Paul was writing under the rule of Rome. When they crucified Christians. And used them for bloodsport in massive arena games. And blamed them for the downfall of the world.

Yet we get pissy over coffee cups. But whatevs.

The heart of the issue is one of faith and trust. Some people don’t trust the government. Given the history of American politics, that’s not unreasonable. Some people don’t trust individual politicians. That makes sense too. Some people don’t even trust the system by which we elect our government — again, I understand.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust God.

Because that’s what this boils down to. Plenty of American Christians don’t trust the God they worship. Having grown accustomed to the ease of living afforded by our country, we cannot fathom that God would ever test that ease. That’s right – I’m throwing myself in the mix. I struggle with the Syrian question because I know in my heart taking care of the poor and oppressed is a Scriptural command from God.

In my head, however, there’s a filibuster going on about national security, vetting processes, and the fact that I don’t want a potential terrorist moving into any of the rental properties in my neighborhood. (Because suburban Atlanta is a hot target these days.)

I think a lot of us are feeling this way and we’re pointing towards politics as the source and expression of the tension when it’s really a spiritual battle.

And it comes down to the question of do you trust God or not?

I don’t want anyone to harm my country. I don’t want helpless people to suffer at the hands of evil ideologues. There’s a paradox at work, and that just so happens to be the place where God shines brightest.

So, I’m going to trust God, who put my government in place, to use that government to His will and purpose. I’m going to trust God that if we let Syrian refugees in, it’s for His will and purpose.

I’m going to trust God, because, in the end, there’s no one else worth trusting.

Fear Is Our Native Tongue

ImageYesterday, someone blew up the finish line of the Boston Marathon. What once was a foreign thought – the idea that anyone would dare attack our country and its citizens – has become commonplace. Once again we turn on the news, or log on to our favorite website, and we see images of horror, bloodshed, chaos and fear. People rush to speculate; people rush to pontificate; people rush to say something about the events of the day because that’s what we’re trained to do. And amid all of this rushing and saying and thinking and debating, one thing becomes as crystal clear:

Fear is our native tongue.

We speak fear fluently. We are well-versed in the hushed tones of terror. We flawlessly recite the levels of warning, the various ethereal connections that may or may not be behind this bombing or that shooting. We can converse the existence and depth of human depravity and violence with the best of them. It is as natural to us now as breathing, and it’s been this way a long time.

Sure, the outpouring of violence over the past two decades seems staggering, but the vocabulary of fear was ingrained long before Oklahoma City, long before Columbine, long before the towers fell. We began speaking fear when someone realized it was a great way to sell products. We began speaking fear when someone realized it was a great way to get someone to walk an aisle. We began speaking fear when we realized that the single greatest weapon in the hands of fallen men is the uncertainty of this life and our place it.

We began speaking fear in Eden. And we’ve not stopped since.

It sounds hyperbolic, doesn’t it? I’m taking things over the top to make a point, aren’t I? No. This is the human experience – we live in fear. Fear that our lives will be too short. Fear that our lives will be too long. Fear that our lives will be meaningless. Fear that our shampoo isn’t doing its job, fear that our car says the wrong thing about us, fear that our jeans make us look fat, fear that our ice cream is made from hormonally charged milk. We worry about everything from our choice in toothpaste to our choice in partners; from where we live to where we vacation; we are afraid, either consciously or subconsciously, for almost every waking moment of our lives.

And when things blow up, when bad things happen, we no longer truly sense that they are aberrations; we no longer believe that the good guys will find the bad guys and the good guys will win; we’ve been conditioned by fear to believe that there’s more to the story, that the rabbit hole runs deeper, that sometimes the bad guys not only win, they win big. We feel that way because that’s what we think of the world. We live in fear, and we follow it blindly.

But what about the people who courageously ran into the face of danger yesterday? What of the brave men and women, both in and out of uniform, who put themselves in harm’s way to bring order into the chaos, to shine the light of hope in the midst of the smoke and rubble? We point to them and say, “They weren’t afraid! They refute your point!”, only they don’t; they actually make us more keenly aware of how steeped we are in fear, because their bravery is seen as exceptional – which means that it’s against the grain. Which means that the grain is to run away in fear, which is exactly what I’m suggesting we’re conditioned to do.

I mean, look at the lives we’ve willingly surrendered to: we have less freedom now than ever before, and we’re okay with it because we’re afraid of the alternative. We’re okay with a government that can tap our phones and search our homes and send unmanned drones over our heads because they protect us. We’re afraid of what’s out there so we’ll take the devil we do know over the devil we don’t, and we’ll hope that things don’t go south. The illusion of protection is now our greatest security, despite the fact that the world keeps rupturing that illusion with evidence that it doesn’t exist.

Fear owns us. Lock, stock, and double-barreled shotgun.

What’s the alternative, you ask? What choice do we have but to live in – embrace – our fears and do what we can to mitigate them?

We choose to be free. We choose to let go of the things of this world, the things that are temporary and always passing away from us, and grab hold of the one thing that is eternal and never changes. We choose Christ and His Kingdom. We choose the infinite, immutable God and we rest in Him. We commit ourselves to His character, His goodness, His love, His mercy, and we drive out the fears that consume us and we learn a new language.

Hope. Not the stuff of dreams, not the wishful musings of an uncertain people, but the confident assurance that what He says is, and always will be.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Because fear has to do with punishment, with punitive measures, with loss. We fear losing the things around us because those things are temporary – our fear is not meant to the posture of our lives, but the signpost that points us to the existence of the Perfect Love that gives us the certainty, the security, we all crave. We are not meant to embrace fear; it is not meant to be native to our souls; it was and is always meant to be foreign to us, a discomfort that we shed when we turn to God and Christ.

So let’s shed it. Let’s lay aside our fears. I’m not suggesting we live as Pollyannas, but we cannot live as cowards. If we wish to conquer evil, then we begin by recognizing it has already been defeated. If we wish to slay fear, then we begin by embracing the One who has already slain it. 

Today, as our nation continues to exhort its citizens to pray for Boston, let us really do so. Only let us stop to consider exactly to whom we’re praying, and let us not stop with mere platitudes for healing and restoration, but instead let us be bold and pray for the final eradication of the fear and evil that surrounds us. Let us pray that His “kingdom come, [His] will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

And let us agree with the Apostle John: “Even so Lord Jesus, come.”


The Sad Truth of November 7th

I usually try and do a journalistic-style lead-in to my blog posts, but today I’m going to cut right to the chase: November 7th is going to be just another day.

There will be no bells ringing, not massive parades through the streets. Taps won’t suddenly flow wine and your food will still taste the same. Despite the heavy rhetoric being tossed about during this campaign season, this election is not going to be the game-changer that many are suggesting. It’s not going to be a referendum on the soul of America, or a statement of our decline. We will elect a president on Tuesday, and on Wednesday life will be just the same.

Because the truth of the matter is, it doesn’t matter who sits in the office of our president. Obama, Romney – it’s all the same. Strip away the policies and ideas, the politics and the branding, the raw mechanics of how our system of government works; take away their distinctives, their histories and their visions, and you arrive at the truth of why the occupant of the Oval Office is of little consequence.

They are human.

Therefore, they will disappoint.

I have been slow to respond to some of the things I’ve seen and read because on the surface it has seemed like so much pointless debate. We can argue policies and points-of-view all day long, and the average person isn’t going to be swayed by all the braying. People vote in their best interests, and will align themselves accordingly. So unless I see an inroad for a little levity, I usually just let things pass.

But the more I read, the more people on both sides seem to be ratcheting up the value placed on this election’s outcome. The clamoring for one side or the other is veering away from the normal political passion and into something deeper, something primal. People are hailing Obama/Biden or Romeny/Ryan as if these men will somehow rescue our nation from a horrible fate, and they are proselytizing for one or the other as if their lives depended on it.

In a time of crisis and confusion, people are looking for someone to set things right. They are looking for the man in the white hat, the hero, the one who can put right what’s been set wrong.

People are looking for a savior.

Here’s where a normal pastor would say, “Now, let me tell you about Jesus, the One True Savior…” Here’s where a normal pastor would tell you about your sinfulness, your inability to set things right by your own effort, your need to accept that atoning death, burial and resurrection of Christ; then a normal pastor would close with a nifty little anecdote to make the point stick in your mind.

But there’s a problem with our need for a savior, and it’s this: too many of us want the savior to do all the heavy lifting. We’re into the idea of being saved as long as we don’t have to change. That’s what makes politics so appealing – we can acknowledge our faults, confess our need for change, throw ourselves at the mercy of a savior, and then sit back and do nothing. We’re into salvation without sacrifice, rescue without repentance.

So we install empty saviors onto the thrones of our hearts, and when they fail us, we shout and scream until the next one comes along. We’re Israel, circa the anointing of Saul. We don’t really want to be saved from our messes; we simply want our messes to not be so messy. We don’t want to live better lives; we simply want our lives to hurt less.

That’s why, when so many people wake up on November 7th, nothing will change. No matter which candidate takes the election, the people of our country will expect them to do the heavy lifting. We’ll sit back and demand that they balance budgets while we keep adding to our credit card bills; we’ll scream for them to fix the healthcare system while we continue to abuse our bodies with food, drugs and inactivity; we’ll rage against the political infighting that prohibits progress from being made while we hold a grudge against our neighbor.

We don’t want salvation. We want a free ride.

And that’s why November 7th will be a sad, empty day: because we’ll delude ourselves into thinking that one little decision will outweigh all our other, destructive ones.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” – Luke 13:34 (NIV)

Whither PBS?

Like a lot of folks, I watched parts of the presidential debate last week. I say parts because most of my viewing came during commercial breaks of “Restaurant: Impossible”, a show I can’t get enough of. I love the concept of someone with skills and expertise being given the opportunity to come in and fix something that is systematically broken.

You know, the inverse of the presidential debate.

Anyway, because I was busy during the opening moments of the debate, I missed Mr. Romney’s line about PBS, Big Bird and death squadding Jim Lehrer. As a member of Generation X, I can’t say I was surprised when people starting smack talking Romney.

I grew up on PBS. I was reared in part by Big Bird, Oscar, Bert and Ernie, and – back when the Street had some real grit to it – Alistair Cookie. I also happened to love Reading RainbowThe Electric Company, and Bob Ross. The random documentaries about foreign countries weren’t really my cup of tea, and I think I forcibly removed any awareness of the news programming from my adolescent brain, but on the whole, PBS was a significant shaper of my childhood.

Apparently a lot of people feel the same way. I know my Facebook feed has been filled with “Save the Street!” postings, and I’ve had a good chuckle over the explosion of Big Bird Twitter accounts. I even enjoyed seeing Bird on Weekend Update with Seth Meyers, despite that disturbing fact that Big Bird seemed less of a puppet than Meyers.

I read with great interest LeVar Burton’s piece on CNN about the value of PBS as well as a piece in Forbes about why PBS would be just fine without any funding.

On the whole, like a lot of PBS stuff, it’s been informative and entertaining.

It’s got me thinking, though, about the value of a public sphere, a place where ideas and inventions are held for the general populace to consider. In a world where many ideas are privatized and maximized for profit, is there any real benefit to a publicly accessible trove of material?

Or to put it another way, should we have to pay for everything?

Granted, PBS runs in part off of public funds, so technically we’re still paying for it, despite the fact that it comes into our televisions without subscription. But as Burton points out in his CNN piece, part of the benefit of PBS is the free-flow of educational ideas into homes where education might not otherwise get priority. It might seem counter-intuitive that a child who is not in school might benefit from watching TV, but studies have shown that educational programs of the sort shown on PBScontribute to academic progress in kids that consume them.

As several of my friends have pointed out, and as the Forbes piece affirms, PBS could survive purely on foundational grants, private donations, and licensing of products, especially since government funds only account for 16% of the total PBS budget anyway. So it’s not like PBS has to go away without funding.

The question is more this: should the government make investments into the education of our children when private funding is readily available?

Is the government responsible for providing a public service in this area?

Education is always a hot button issue during any election season, and even though it came in the context of a debate on the economy, it’s come to the front again this year. While there is always someone to contend otherwise, many people see a decline in the US education system, and there seems to be no easy way out.

Personally, I would rather see all elected officials relieved of their pay and health care benefits before seeing PBS get a funding cut, but realistically, that ain’t going to happen. Strangely enough, sacrifices for the public good always seem to be someone else’s problem.

If foundational money and private donations and other revenue streams could be secured, and we could get a guarantee that the programs and services offered by PBS wouldn’t be infected with marketing detritis, then I wouldn’t have a problem cutting the funds and letting our public square be truly public.

But part of me is very afraid that, left to private methods of funding, PBS would fall victim to the same forces of commerce that drive every other television channel out there, and would lose its educational distinctiveness.

Whither PBS?

I don’t know.

What say you?

Presidential Promise Keepers

Let’s be honest. It’s an election year. People are grumpy. People are anxious. We’re in the midst of uncertain (if not unfamiliar) times for our country. Folks are looking for someone to give them reassurance that everyone is going to be okay.

Unfortunately, that message isn’t exactly coming across.

Recently we’ve had the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, hurt by a covert viral video that reveals he doesn’t think much of the people who vote for Democratic Party candidates. (It also reveals that he’s pretty savvy when it comes to TV, but that’s another story entirely.) The video has become a sore spot for the GOP hopeful, and many folks on the other side of the political aisle have been high-fiving over their perceived good fortune.

Well, watch out for the Karma train, now arriving on Track 9.

Early this morning, the Associated Press released a story stating that almost 6 million Americans, most of whom are considered middle class, will be hit with a tax penalty under the Health Care Reform Act. That number is roughly 50% higher than the Congressional Budget Office’s 2010 estimate that 4 million citizens would have to pay the tax in 2016, the first year the tax is fully in effect.

The news is being hailed by Republicans as proof that the President broke his promise to not raise taxes on the middle class, and that the reform will ultimately do more harm than good.

I’m not here to hash out health care reform again, as my family has benefitedmightily from the pre-existing condition reform. I’m also not going to debate whether or not a presidential candidate speaking to a room full of supporters should be strung by his toes for playing to his base. Those are issues that could be (and have been) discussed ad nauseam without any hope of resolution, and we have the Patch archives to prove it.

What I’m more interested in, and it’s really more of a question than an opinion, is do you – yes, you, the individual person reading this – really believe presidential promises anymore?

In other words, when Mitt or Barack stand up and say, “This is how I plan to lead America back to greatness!”, do you really believe that they will execute that plan?

Basic knowledge of our government (or at the very least, a cursory knowledge of civic lesson cliches) tells me that the President is one part of a system, intended to check and balance authority and influence within our nation’s power center. Thus, the President can’t just declare that he’ll lower taxes, or create more jobs, or give everyone unicorn food and rainbow pellets in order to make things better, and then go out and just do those things.

He has to work with Congress. Congress has to work with him. And then the Supreme Court has to be down with things too.

For some reason, it seems like people forget that in a presidential election year. We spend so much time focusing on the candidates for president that neglect the other positions of power. We fall in love with a personality that promises us the things we want to hear, and cast our vote as if in a vacuum. Then, we sit around amazed when, two years later, the president isn’t able to deliver on those promises because the Congress he was given to work with wouldn’t work with him.

See Obama, Barack over the last couple of years as an example.

For that reason alone, I’m not buying any of the presidential promisory notes. Not any of them. I’ll read to see what their plans are, but I’m not basing my vote on the plan alone. Instead, I want to read and watch and listen to the two men vying for our most prestigious political post, and I want to see if I can get a feeling for which man won’t sell out our country’s best interests for their ideological gain. I want to see which man might be willing to erase the party line and focus on solutions that improve the lives of people. I want to see which one of these flawed but able candidates might not just be the man people hope they’ll be, but be better.

I want a leader, not a politician. I’m not sure I’ll get that. But I’ll spend the next few weeks really considering Mitt and Barack’s character as much as their promises. And in the end, I’ll vote for the man I think will do his best to do what’s best for the American people – especially if it means breaking rank with his party.

What about you?