The Most Basic Political Practice for Primary Season

“The most basic political practice for us is not voting, it is not petitioning elected representatives. For followers of Yahweh, our most basic political practice is prayer.” —from The Politics of Praise

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With the Iowa caucuses, voters have rendered irrelevant earlier prognostications of which candidates will succeed. We have already seen a number suspend or end their campaigns. Citizens in other states will soon cast their own votes for candidates to become their party’s presidential nominee. Each voter will evaluate which candidate’s values best lines up with theirs.

Do we stop to ask what shapes our values and political commitments? I am challenged by this question when I consider how much time I spend to reading news articles and opinions about the candidates. I believe being an informed voter is essential, but I probably give more energy to political reportage and debate than I do to prayer.

For followers of Christ, ensuring our values stem from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vastly important. It is easy to acquiesce to the loudest voices and uncritically adopt the agendas of candidates or political parties as our own.

Prayer, reflecting on Scripture, and engagement in Christian community are essential practices to make sure our political values reflect the God we worship.

Last year I published a devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, that helps readers pray through these two very political psalms. Psalm 146 is a terrific prayer as we listen to candidates share their agendas. Praying this psalm allows us to see God’s agenda of creation, justice for the oppressed, and renewal for the abandoned. Psalm 72 is a prayer for governmental leaders, but it gives us an image of the kind of nation God blesses. This is a nation that prioritizes the weak and needy, the people on the margins.

I encourage you to pray through these psalms as you consider which candidate will receive your vote. May we use these psalms as guides to petition the candidates to, “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72.4)

The Politics of Praise is available in both the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.

“Do Not Be Afraid!” Luke 2.8-14

The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday in Advent at The Creek Covenant Church.

John August Swanson, Shepherds, 1985.

In the region of Bethlehem, there are shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. It is moonless and surprisingly warm. Three shepherds lay on their bedrolls around the dying fire. Down the hill, in the distance, only a few windows of Bethlehem are still lit. The town is mostly asleep. The fourth shepherd, Annas, sits with his back to the fire and looks out at the flock of sheep, as he has the first watch of the night. A few sheep bleat out, but mostly he hears them breathing deeply in slumber.

The other shepherds don’t speak and though they are tired down to their bones, sleep eludes them. Their minds are full of those worries that seem to only plague us at night when all is quiet. The deep fears we keep at bay most of the waking hours through busyness and distraction. But when there are no more tasks to take our attention, our minds can’t seem to stop the flood of worst case scenarios, existential doubts, and thousands of forms of the unanswerable question, “What if?”

Josiah, the oldest of the shepherds rolls onto his side, feeling each muscle as it aches. As a shepherd, he’s a peasant in his world. [1] Like his coworkers, he owns a little land, but not enough to feed his family. Each year he tends someone else’s sheep, spending weeks on the hillsides around Bethlehem away from his wife and children and grandchildren. The pay is meager, but enough. Taxes from the local governments and the Roman Empire are costly. If he can’t afford those, he will be thrown into prison until his family can pay up. Living on a hillside among filthy livestock is better than rotting in a debtor’s prison.

Josiah rolls again, unable to find a comfortable position. He knows these are not merely the sore muscles that come with his profession. Each pain is more intense, and they linger longer than last year. He knows these pains are a sign that he won’t be able to meet the physical demands of shepherding much longer. And then he will have to scramble to find work. Just when he wants to be falling sleep, his pulse quickens as he worries about his wife and family. His younger brother recently fell ill and Josiah’s family has started to provide for his brother’s family. If they are any more generous there won’t be enough to go around. They can’t sell off much more of their land. They live close to hand-to-mouth as it is. Josiah feels like he’s on a sinking boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. It’s too far from shore to swim to safety. If he stays on the boat, he drowns. If he jumps off, he drowns. His boss probably won’t hire him for many more seasons. But where else can he find work?

Annas, with his back to the fire, now stares at the sky bright with stars. As the youngest shepherd, he is lowest in authority, even among a group of men who are essentially nobodies in their society. Annas gets all the menial tasks, including the longest watch of the night. His mind turns to the Roman Empire.

He wants Israel to be free. Annas can’t stand the Romans and their oppression. He hates the soldiers ordering people around. He despises the political leaders who announce new laws and taxes on a whim. Annas sees through the cynical attempts of the Roman leaders to buy the people’s good will through building theaters and arenas—just distractions to keep the people of Israel from remembering that they live in exile in their homeland.

Annas is terrified of the Roman Empire’s violent power. He’s seen the bodies of revolutionaries hanging on crosses along the road. These invading foreigners might destroy him, his family, all that he knows. They have the swords, the numbers, the might—and they don’t seem to care one iota about the lives of the Jewish people. Annas knows the history of what happened when Israel tried to fight Rome and was decimated. His fear of the Romans manifests itself in two ways: sometimes his fear becomes hatred and he imagines joining a rebel group and killing Roman soldiers. Other times his fear causes him to freeze. Will he live his whole life under the thumb of an Emperor several thousands of miles away? Tonight Annas vacillates between fearful hatred that makes violence seem reasonable and fearful surrender to the awful thought that he has no hope of freedom. His parents want him to marry and have a family. But how can anyone think of having children in a hopeless world full of so much terror?

Hezekiah lies on his side, his eyes nervously darting from the embers of the fire to each of his coworkers. Earlier in the day he lost four sheep. He thinks they wandered into a ravine, but he can’t be sure. He didn’t tell the other shepherds about it due to his embarrassment. Hezekiah can only hope they won’t find out until the end of the season. Their pay is determined by the number of sheep they return when it is time for shearing and slaughter. Some loss is always expected, but this has been a tough season already. And Hezekiah has been responsible for most of that loss. The other shepherds barely spoke to him for three days when two sheep died under his care.

Hezekiah came to shepherding reluctantly. He grew up working in the grain fields. He is much more comfortable harvesting plants than herding livestock. But the pay watching sheep is better and he has a growing family. He has never felt secure in this role. He is afraid his coworkers think he is incompetent or a fraud. He fears disappointing his wife and children if he does not bring home decent pay. He worries his neighbors will see him as a failure if he leaves shepherding. He dare not speak any of these fears to anyone because he doesn’t want to appear weak. Hezekiah takes a deep, nervous breath, and pulls the blanket over his head.

The final shepherd, Judah lies on his back, eyes closed, lips silently moving as he recites prayers. The other shepherds know him to be the most religiously devout of their group. He regularly quotes the verses from the psalms that refer to shepherding and often reminds the others that the great king David was a shepherd. But tonight, as he prays, Judah feels no connection to Yahweh God. It is as if he is speaking into a void.

Judah opens his eyes and looks into the darkness between the stars. As long as he can remember he has prayed for Messiah to come. His parents prayed for Messiah to come their whole lives. His grandparents prayed too. And their parents and their parents, going back generations. Why has God not sent Messiah, who will lead Israel back into faithfulness, and who will establish Yahweh’s kingdom here on Earth?

Judah thinks about the centuries of waiting for the promised messiah and he wonders why does God delay? Maybe God doesn’t really care about the people of Israel. What if Yahweh has decided to leave the world alone to its own devices? Or what if the belief in God’s redeeming messiah is just a story the people of Israel made up? Judah grows afraid as he entertains this thought. What if all his hope, all the hope of the people praying in the Temple and synagogues, is placed on a figment of someone’s imagination, or worse, on a hoax? What other answers can there be for God’s delay? Either God no longer cares or the hope of Messiah coming to Earth is a lie. And if the hope of Messiah is a false hope, isn’t the whole Jewish faith false too?

Judah finishes reciting his prayer and he receives no comfort. He doesn’t feel God’s presence. His certainty in God’s goodness is not stronger. Instead his doubt has increased. The fear that he is alone in this world has strengthened. Judah looks at the fire, the brush, the rocks. He sees the silhouettes of the sleeping sheep. He looks at the stars and the dark, dark night, and he asks that terrifying question, “What if this is all there is?”

Four shepherds around a fire, ruminating on their doubts and fears. Fearful there won’t be enough to provide for their families. Frightened of the violence and terror in the world. Scared others might reject them if they are truly known. Petrified at the thought that God does not care, or God does not exist and they are alone in the world. These shepherds, who live on one of the lowest rungs of society’s ladder, lie awake unable to sleep and overcome by fear.

Then an angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them, and they are terrified. But the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there is with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” [2]  Continue reading

The Most Powerful Verb

Pick up a writing manual or style guide and you will find exhortations for writers to use powerful, active verbs. These guides usually list “to be” and all its forms as one of the weakest verbs writers should avoid. Writing littered with “to be” verbs makes the author appear lazy and unimaginative. Instead of writing, “This pizza is delicious,” one could write the stronger sentence, “This pizza tastes delicious.” In the first example, the sentence only implies the pizza encountering something other than itself. It merely states the pizza is. In the second example, the pizza affects the eater’s sense of taste. The pizza evokes a response from the person eating it.

We would say, “There is a rock,” is a far less interesting sentence than, “The rock plummeted down the canyon wall.” What a shame. In the reality outside the written world, “to be” is the most powerful verb we have. The fact the rock exists at all is far more powerful than its plummeting down a canyon. The rock’s ability to plummet or crush or sit depends on there being a rock in the first place.

All our actions for good or ill, all our successes and failures, depend on our existence. Your abilities to create music, swim in a lake, or hug your family are not greater than the fact that you are. Perhaps we do not consider the wonder of our being because it is not something we accomplished. You did not bring about your existence, you received it. But you are. And that is truly an amazing thing.

We take existence for granted by subordinating it to utility. The tree in my front yard shades our house and it looks nice, but it is not wondrous primarily because of what it accomplishes for my family. Its very existence is something to behold. The tree is at once both gratuitous and necessary. That one tree does not necessarily have to be, yet it does exist all the same. And the very fact that it is, leaves an indelible mark on all reality. The tree is a part of this world and this world would not be the world we know without it.

We unfortunately see the wonder of being rarely and usually when the major turns of life overwhelm us. The birth of a child awakens us to the gratuitousness of existence. This new child comes into the world seemingly out of nowhere and we see her existence as a gift beyond our powers of accomplishment. The death of a loved one reminds us just how necessary that person’s existence was. Their absence forever changes the world and no amount of healing will ever fully replace the gap they left. Birthdays can be annual reminders of the miracle of existence, if we take the opportunity to reflect.

Some languages don’t use the verb “to be” much—it is implied by the syntax of the sentence. But your existence is not a verb implied by the syntax of our world. Your being is both a gift and necessity. Further, your neighbor’s, friend’s, mother’s, co-worker’s, classmate’s, child’s, brother’s, and enemy’s existence is both a gift and necessity. “To be” is truly the strongest verb imaginable.

How to Pray for the Nation and its Leaders

Politics of Praise-page001This week Americans will celebrate Independence Day. The number of politicians who have announced their candidacy for President of the United States continues to grow. The Fourth of July offers us the opportunity to reflect on the history, values, and meaning of the United States. The upcoming national election in 2016 demands each of us reflects and expresses our vision for the nation’s future.

For Christians, it is easy to allow the loud voices of our nation and partisan politics to drown out the quieter voice of the Holy Spirit. If we are not careful we will confuse patriotism for America with Jesus’s call to seek God’s kingdom first. We run the risk of letting the platforms of candidates shape our political priorities rather than submitting our priorities to Jesus. In order to keep the values of God’s kingdom clear, and to ensure we are following Christ before a candidate or party, we must engage in that most basic Christian political act: prayer.

Until recently, Christians learned to pray by reading the Book of Psalms. In this collection of prayer-poems we find numerous prayers for the nation and its leaders. The psalms overflow with political speech. The writers show us God’s agenda and teach us how to prioritize it first. They teach us what kind of nations and leaders God blesses.

I published a devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, that helps readers pray through these two very political psalms. Psalm 146 is a terrific prayer as we listen to candidates share their agendas. Praying this psalm allows us to see God’s agenda of creation, justice for the oppressed, and renewal for the abandoned. Psalm 72 is a prayer for governmental leaders, but it gives us an image of the kind of nation God blesses. As we celebrate this July 4th, let us think of the kind of nation God desires. This is a nation that prioritizes the weak and needy, the people on the margins.

The Politics of Praise is available in both the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.

Worshiping with the Church Behind the Walls

I went to prison recently to worship Jesus Christ with the inmates. San Quentin State Penitentiary allows church groups to volunteer in their chapel services. I attended the Protestant Sunday night service with one of those groups. This was the first time I had ever been in a prison as well as the first time I worshiped with men serving their sentences. When I worked for the Salvation Army in a rehabilitation center, I would worship weekly with men on probation and parole.

I do not want to communicate that because I went into the prison for one night I am somehow an expert on the criminal justice system or the spiritual life of the inmates. If anything, my experience showed me how little I know, but it also gave me a desire to learn more. Take this post as a reflection of a first-time volunteer. Several of the people I went with have been ministering in San Quentin for many years. They have forged trusting relationships with the men there that can only come from consistent encounter.

California builds most of its prisons far away from major metropolitan areas, making San Quentin unique as it sits in Marin County, overlooking San Francisco Bay. I wanted to visit San Quentin when I ministered in Fremont, but was never able to do so. Friends in my current congregation began attending worship services last year. They shared their overwhelmingly positive experiences, giving me a small sense of what to expect.

I want to avoid the twin errors of romanticizing the experience and refusing to see the men beyond their legal status as convicts. In the orientation for first-timers, our leader said the chapel service would look and feel like a normal worship service. He said the congregation would be like any other Christian body, comprising devout Christ-followers, nominal Christians, seekers, and some folks who attend just to get out of their cells for a couple hours. The congregation would differ from churches outside the prison in two significant ways. First, the congregation would be entirely male. Second, the all the congregants would wear prison uniforms.

Our leader described what would happen as, “The Church beyond the walls going to worship with the Church behind the walls.” We were not bringing the good news to people who had never heard of Jesus before. Rather, the Holy Spirit has been active in that community for decades. Our ministry to the men was one of fellowship, letting them know through our presence that their brothers and sisters in Christ outside the prison love them.

We approached the first gate of the prison where we underwent another identity check. The prison has to clear all volunteers prior to arriving, but some folks have been turned back anyway. Then we walked across the employee parking lot to the main entrance of the prison proper. Again we signed our names and showed our identification. Guards waved a metal detector at us and ushered us through the sally port. Having operated since 1852, the prison is a hodgepodge of architecture and technology. It still appears foreboding despite also looking like something schoolchildren would tour on an historical field trip.

Inside the main courtyard our leader pointed out the buildings. In the distance were the main cell blocks. In front of us was the new hospital ward. To the left of us was the “Adjustment Center,” or solitary confinement. Off to the right were the chapels where the men began to gather in the sanctuary. (Services for Roman Catholics, Protestant Spanish speakers, and some non-Christians [Buddhists?] gathered at the same time in different rooms.) As we approached the sanctuary, the men began to greet us. I have not been to such a welcoming and friendly congregation in a long time. The men showed genuine interest in meeting me and knowing my name. As we entered the sanctuary, I was reminded of chapel services I attended when I worked in a Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, where most of the men in recovery were on probation or parole. We volunteers could not sit among the men, but had to sit together up front for safety reasons.

People will ask whether I felt safe. Guards were not in the chapel. I still felt safe, thanks in large part to the stories I heard from my friends who previously volunteered at the prison. To attend chapel services, the men must be on good behavior. Sure, I initially wondered for what crimes these men were convicted. As the service progressed, I found myself drawn into worshiping God with my brothers in Christ, not worrying about my safety.

The worship service did progress like any normal worship service, although no offering was taken. The inmate choir first led us in songs and then our group led a couple songs. There was a time of sharing testimonies and prayer requests. We read Scripture. A pastor with our group preached a sermon. Then we mingled for a bit afterward. I had some great conversations with the men, hearing a bit about their lives. One asked me to pray for him as his parole hearing was approaching. Another described his studies to me.

One of the inmates offered a prayer in the service. As he came to the pulpit, he addressed the congregation as, “Saints.” This word surprised me, revealing my prejudices about these men. But as we prayed, I realized he was right. We have deemed these men too dangerous to be a part of the rest of society, perhaps with good reason in certain cases. We have reduced them to the status of criminals and convicts. When our society looks at them, we can only see the crimes for which they are sentenced. The Holy Spirit sees these men differently. They are made in God’s image, people for whom Jesus loved so much that he died to set them free from their sin. They may wear the clothes of convicted men, but Christ is setting them free and changing them. Saints is right.

I went on Pentecost Sunday and while no one made mention of the Christian holiday, I couldn’t help but reflect on the birth of the Church. The author of Acts tells us the followers of Jesus were shut up in a house in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit burst through the walls and began speaking through the disciples in different languages. God truly is no respecter of persons or walls. The Holy Spirit climbed over the walls and made his home in San Quentin. Aside from some first-hand accounts I’ve read and heard, I don’t know what daily life is like in prison. I imagine that it often seems like a God-forsaken place to the inmates. And yet the Spirit’s presence was evident as we worshiped together on Sunday night. What is more, it was clear the Holy Spirit has been active in the prison for a long time.

As I reflected on my time in San Quentin I also realized that these men relate to God in ways I cannot. I wondered, what must it be like to read the story of Moses, who killed a man, when one has committed murder? I imagine the prison letters of Paul, like Philippians, ring true on deeper levels for those serving long sentences. A Bible commentary written by inmates would be a wonderful gift to the Church.

I cannot speak to the ethnic composition of the other chapel services, but the congregation of the Protestant chapel was almost entirely black. I could not help but think of Michelle Alexander’s argument in her book, The New Jim Crow, that the current criminal justice system—particularly, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration—has created a system of social control based on race that has led to a caste-like system. As I worshiped with my brothers, I was aware that even those who would one day be released would forever be disenfranchised in many ways. I wonder, when one commits a felony, at what point is his debt to society paid?

I was also struck by how bureaucratically difficult it is to minister to our brothers in prison. We had to undergo background checks. As volunteers we were not to foster friendships with the men beyond the chapel. I was not to give out my name and address, nor was I to take their names and addresses. That is, I cannot write to anyone I met. I cannot return to the prison to visit any of the men on an individual basis. The prison system distinguishes between visitors and volunteers and makes sure the two never mix. If I were to start writing to one of my brothers in prison, I would no longer be a volunteer and would become a visitor. I then could not attend chapel services. I am sure there are valid reasons for these boundaries, but it saddens me that our society makes it so difficult to share God’s love with prisoners.