Get It Out of His Face

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Sunday before the Fourth of July is my least favorite Sunday of the entire year.

Every time I start attending a new church, I dread it. I wonder what to expect: Will we worship God, or will we worship America?

On this weekend in July, many churches, several of which I have attended, hold a "patriotic worship service." They place the American flag on the stage, sing "God Bless America," and preach about how the United States is God's chosen nation, tasked with the responsibility to be the "city on the hill." They uphold America's messianic identity to spread freedom and Western-style democracy, claiming this is part of America's "Manifest Destiny" (which is in turn part of God's redemptive plan for the world). Military personnel are usually publicly recognized in some way, because killing and/or dying for our country is viewed as a sacred duty. And because the U.S. has been "chosen" and "blessed by God," devotion to our country is one of the highest religious practices. After all, she is "one nation under God."

Sometimes these themes accost me at the door. Other times, they're deeply embedded within the service: subtle, but still very much present, in a prayer or sermon illustration.

All of this is American civil religion; it's nothing short of idolatry.

Worship is a political act. Through worship, we acknowledge that God alone deserves our allegiance, our devotion, and our loyalty. Public worship is a declaration that the Church will bow to no other gods.

This becomes extremely problematic when we include something else in our worship. Suddenly, God alone does not have all of our attention or allegiance. Giving worth to something else while giving worth to God ultimately diminishes God's worth. We cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24).

In Exodus 20, Yahweh begins the Ten Commandments with the most important command of all: "You shall have no other gods before me." This translation from Hebrew is misleading. It seems to imply that I can still recognize America in worship and honor her, just as long as I keep God in the first place spot.

Here's what the first commandment really says in Hebrew: "You shall have no other gods before my face."

God wants other contenders vying for our worship out of his presence. He doesn't even want to see them. They should be so far away from his spot in first place that they aren't even visible. Period.

When we erect an American flag in front of his altar, we are putting another god clearly in his line of sight. When we honor our nation alongside God, we are rubbing an idol in his face.

We can't put politics aside in worship, because worship is by nature political. But we must decide to whom we will pledge our allegiance. Will we as the Church remain faithful to the Lamb or yield to the Empire?

Justice is Not a Spectator's Sport

Saturday, June 23, 2018

This week has been apocalyptic. And I mean "apocalyptic" in its truest biblical sense: an unveiling of truth or the uncovering of reality. If we didn't realize it before, we now know just how deep our country's anti-immigrant sentiments are. Our current events have drawn back the veil and exposed our culture's true values. I was shocked at the callousness, the excuses, and the idolatry. I was outraged at how frequently the statement, "But they broke the law!" was utilized to justify the incarceration of undocumented children.

The thing that shames me the most, though, is that I didn't start speaking up about the treatment of undocumented immigrants until the Bible was thrown into the mix as a tool to perpetuate the injustice.

I realize now in retrospect that, by misusing Scripture, Jeff Sessions was in some ways attacking me, a Christian who takes the Biblical witness seriously. Up until that point, the issue involved the "other." Suddenly, an allusion to Romans 13 had me all up in arms, ready to defend my faith and my God (as if he even needed defending at all). I deeply cared about how undocumented immigrants were being treated before a Bible verse came up, but I didn't say anything until I was indirectly involved in the argument.

It's easy to stand on the sidelines when my neighbor is being attacked. It's easy to disagree but then remain silent. In the name of peace, we might shy away from saying anything public. After all, we don't want to be accused of being too political or exceedingly controversial. We don't want to alienate ourselves from our friends, family members, or even parishioners. But here's the thing: justice is not a spectator's sport.

Keeping the peace does not lead to justice, but justice always leads to peace-making.

I repent of being a spectator instead of advocating for justice. I do not want to wait until my own values are attacked before I participate in speaking up and speaking out for others. Justice is not self-serving; it is all-serving.

Finding My Voice

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A month ago I severed ties to the abusive relationship I had with a church.

When I resigned from my position, I exercised my prophetic voice by speaking the truth in a gracious way. To say that I was shocked by the bullying I received is an understatement. Looking back on the pattern of dysfunction now, I realize that I should have been prepared for the backlash. It was a textbook example of a toxic faith system (literally – it fully encompassed the “rules” from the book Toxic Faith). But God met me in that moment. God’s Spirit empowered me to boldly declare why I was choosing to free myself from a system of abuse. I looked the leaders right in the eyes and told them that the system they had created was contrary to God’s intent.

You see, I am a freedom fighter, and free people are dangerous. Free people are not afraid to stand up to bullies and speak the truth. They are not afraid to decry abusive tactics of fear, intimidation, and isolation.

We glorify these moments of triumph and bravery, but very rarely do we talk about what comes after these brave stands for freedom. The frame fades to black right after the climactic event; the last chapter concludes before the dust has a chance to settle. So let me tell you what comes next: the enemy tries to take away your freedom again. Depression settles in. Doubts creep into your mind, and you lie awake at night, praying and asking God whether you did the right thing (no matter how many times he reassures you that you did). Hurt becomes a familiar companion and resentment lurks beneath the surface. You eat way too many brownies.

The victory is immortalized in song, but the aftermath is too ugly to be packaged in a beautiful art piece.

So I painted something raw. This painting represents the initial battle I had against the church’s tactics of fear, anxiety, and isolation. It also represents the current battle I have as I pick up all the pieces and heal from the abuse.

This church tried to steal my voice when I spoke out against injustice, but I wouldn’t let them.

As awful as that last showdown was between me and the leaders at the church, I remember walking out of that meeting and thinking, “This is me. This is my voice. Hello, old friend. Where have you been hiding?”

Now I’m raising my voice again. I won’t let the ugly aftermath silence me. I am a freedom fighter, and I will not be controlled by the past. I will not be shackled to resentment. I will silence the lies and control they tried to feed me. I will forgive. God has set me free and I will continue to fight.

Now that I have my voice back, I don’t want to shut up.

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