“The Politics of Praise,” Book Excerpt: Day 1 Readings and Prayers

Politics of Praise-page001My new book, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, contains thirty-two daily readings and prayers. Readers slowly meditate on one verse a day and ponder questions designed to deepen their relationship with God. Here is a sample of the readings from first day’s meditation on Psalm 146 .

Psalms 72 & 146 -- Day 1

The Politics of Praise is available in both eBook and paperback at Amazon.

“The Politics of Praise” Excerpt: Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.

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Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

Some years back I took a tour of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The religious nature of the place struck me. I do not mean Christian, but religious. The giant buildings, the beautiful architecture of the monuments, the larger than life sculptures of national figures all evoke awe and wonder from visitors. When I stood in the Capitol Rotunda at the east end of the Mall, I looked up at the giant fresco Constantino Brumidi painted on the inside of the Capitol’s Dome. In “The Apotheosis of Washington,” George Washington, representing America as a whole, sits in the heavens, surrounded by goddesses and figures of ancient mythology as he becomes a god. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial people mourn and pray for loved ones who died in that war. The area around the black stone wall is as hushed and solemn as a church sanctuary before a funeral.

At the west end of the National Mall the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln sits on his throne gazing out over America like the Greek god Zeus. Consider the epitaph, dripping with sacred terminology, inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The National Mall’s architecture and sculpture are as religious as the Vatican’s. The buildings and statues urge us to revere the nation and the government they represent. Being at the National Mall reminded me religion and politics inhabit the same space. Politics will adopt religious language and symbolism and religion has its own political agendas.

Many people find the idea of mixing Christian faith with politics troubling. We worry religion will force itself on the state and seek to establish a theocratic dictatorship, or the state will co-opt religion for its own purposes, confusing patriotism for our commitment to God’s kingdom. To be sure, we have historical examples of these negative outcomes happening. Thus we hear voices telling us not to mix faith and politics, to keep faith out of the seats of government, and to keep politics out of the pulpit.

Eugene Peterson addresses our hesitation to mix religion and politics:

The people who warn that “religion and politics don’t mix” certainly know what they are talking about. The mix has resulted in no end of ills—crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, exploitation. All the same, God says, “Mix them.” But be very careful how you mix them. The only safe way is in prayer.[1]

For followers of Jesus, keeping religion and politics separate is a dangerous move that relegates faith to the private sphere where we reduce prayer to mere requests for personal comfort and blessing. We also reduce Jesus to a self-help guru whose only concern is our fulfillment. Despite the serious malfunctions of Christianity’s political involvement, we also see magnificent benefits for the common good when Christians have brought their faith into the public square—the Civil Rights movement in the United States under the very religious leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. being an obvious example.

Readers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures cannot escape the deeply political nature of these texts. God does not deal only with the private lives of the people of Israel and the Church. We see God shaping and clashing with people groups, including nations and governments. Neither does God use political terms like justice and peace as if they are empty containers void of any concrete meaning. Rather, God defines these concepts. We read about Yahweh’s expectations for neighbors to peacefully interact with each other. The Bible brims with God imploring people to act justly toward the most vulnerable people in society.

The majority of God’s people throughout history have learned to pray using the psalms. If we mediate on them they will teach us how to pray for our civic life, that is, how to safely mix religion and politics. This devotional will guide readers through praying Psalms 72 and 146, two psalms that shaped the political and religious life of the people of Israel. These psalms offer us a vision of God’s political agenda and give us the means to hold our leaders accountable. They do not exhaust all the Book of Psalms or the Bible say about politics, but the pictures of justice and wellbeing found in them are consistent with other political passages in Scripture.

Readers will pray through Psalm 146 first. This brief hymn minimizes the importance of government leaders, praises Yahweh for being eternal and powerful, and describes God’s political agenda. Praying Psalm 146 will correctly order our relationships with God and our political leaders. The psalmist reminds us of the transience of government officials and their agendas. If we were to only pray Psalm 146, however, we might think God says governments are unimportant. Therefore readers will then pray through Psalm 72, a prayer for governmental leaders. The psalmist describes the kind of good governance that God blesses. This prayer becomes our measure for how well our leaders do their job.

How do we maintain our focus on God when we stand before those majestic statues on the National Mall? How do we keep our commitment to Yahweh first even as other powers, especially our governments, demand our allegiance? How do we pursue God’s agenda in public and hold our leaders accountable to that agenda? I believe the answer to all these questions must start with prayer. In this devotional guide I will not offer a comprehensive vision for how Christians are to engage in public and civic life. I do know, however, that a comprehensive vision of mixing faith and politics will be anemic if it does not begin and remain saturated with prayer.


[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) Kindle Edition, locations 103-105.

New Book Release, “The Politics of Praise”

I have published a new daily devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146In the book readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146, meditating on one verse at a time. These prayer-poems formed the political life of ancient Israel. If we pray them we will also find God shaping our values and political agendas. The writer of Psalm 146 minimizes the importance of governmental leaders as he recounts Yahweh’s acts of great power and commitment to justice for people on society’s margins. Psalm 72’s author offers a prayer for the king to rule justly, care for the oppressed, and have God’s blessing. Paired together these psalms exhibit a dynamic picture of God’s political agenda.

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When we face the temptation to confuse our commitment to the kingdom of God with our commitment to our country, the writer of Psalm 146 reminds us hope and salvation come from Yahweh alone. When we want to write off governmental leaders as useless at best or obstructions to God’s purposes at worst, the writer of Psalm 72 gives us words to pray for our leaders so that they might be held accountable to God’s political agenda.

Along with thirty-two daily readings and reflections, The Politics of Praise also contains brief essays on Yahweh’s political agenda and how praying these psalms aligns our priorities with God’s. Other essays explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. Two appendices at the end of the guide describe some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalms, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.

The Politics of Praise is available at Amazon.com for $3.99 on the Kindle format, or $7.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.

I have written three other self-published devotionals on various psalms: Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145. Eddy Ekmekji and I co-wrote an Advent devotional, Embrace the Coming Light. All these books are available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author pages at Amazon and Facebook.

Want to be Generous? Join a Generous Tradition and Community

In a recent Slate column, Brian Palmer, writing about Christian missionary doctors working in Africa, asks, “It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?”  Palmer is an atheist and in the column he publicly wrestles with his distrust of religious motivations and admiration for those working among the poorest of the world’s citizens, often receiving little compensation for their efforts. Palmer cannot shake his skepticism that Christian missionary medical workers are practicing a poorer form of medicine than their secular counterparts, but in the end arrives at a begrudging respect for the missionary doctors and nurses since they do the work few others seem willing to do. Still, he clearly sees the missionary medicine as an unsatisfying placeholder until better, secular medicine can pick up the slack.

Palmer seems to claim medicine is best practiced when it is free of religious thinking. He merely applies to medicine the old Enlightenment fantasy that all human endeavors — from the physical to the political sciences — would be better off if they freed themselves from theological traditions. But religion has long played a role in Western medicine. Most American medical students still take the Hippocratic Oath in which they swear to Apollo and “call all the gods and goddesses” as they commit to practice medicine ethically. The Christian commitments to love one’s neighbor and care for the sick not only aided in the faith’s expansion in the Roman Empire, they have also given rise to medical schools and hospitals. To remove the theological influence from medicine would be to create a whole new tradition of medical work that would be foreign to the system we have today.

But I do not intend to give an account of the historic theological and religious roots shaping modern medicine. Rather, I want to reflect on the phenomenon that Palmer illustrates — namely, the great amount of medical missionaries in the developing world. He writes:

[W]e are deeply reliant on missionary doctors and nurses. The 2008 ARHAP report found that in some sub-Saharan African countries 30 percent of health care facilities are run by religious entities. That system is crumbling due to declining funding, possibly motivated in part by growing Western suspicion of missionary medicine. We have a choice: Swallow our objections and support these facilities, spend vast sums of money to build up Africa’s secular health care capacity immediately, or watch the continent drown in Ebola, HIV, and countless other disease outbreaks.

A doctor need not be a Christian to sacrifice her own wellbeing in order to help those most in need. Plenty of atheist and areligious doctors work to save lives in rural areas and slums. But it would seem one is much more likely to engage in philanthropic activities if she is rooted in a tradition that encourages such behavior. If we, like Palmer, think it a good thing that doctors and nurses are making sacrifices to help others, we have to begin to ask how are such generous people formed? From where do those values and energies emerge? A tradition that teaches the good life is found in giving away oneself for the sake of others, that doing good works is what we are made for, that in serving others we serve the creator and source of reality (i.e., God), is much more likely to produce altruistic behavior than a tradition that teaches, say, radical individualism and self-gratification are the highest forms of good. It is not a mistake that people who are a part of a community that believes sacrificially loving others is essential to what it means to be human will help their fellow human beings, often at great cost to themselves. That so many Christians are working to help the most vulnerable in the world is to be expected given the God they worship.

Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Church Risking Irrelevance to the Gospel

Many evangelical Christian writers have responded to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer and the subsequent protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. I appreciate how they let the gospel of Jesus Christ inform their views of these events. The African American leaders of my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), wrote a response emphasizing their commitments to reconciliation and to standing in solidarity with those who suffer. Dominique Gilliard, a pastor in the ECC, gave an interview to Amy Julia Becker on Christianity Today’s “Thin Places” blog in which he offers some broad strokes advice on how Christians can be agents of reconciliation. He says, “To foster reconciliation and healing within churches and the broader culture, Christians must be humble, repentant, and longsuffering. This process begins by having candid conversations about race, history, and injustice.” Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, offers some other steps Christians can take to address the reality of systemic racism in our nation with the truth of the gospel. Christians need to educate themselves, listen from those who suffer, stand in solidarity with them, and act for justice. Morgan Lee of Christianity Today reports key findings from research on white and black evangelicals’ views of race. The results sadly show their views are moving further apart, with 69% of white evangelicals now believing, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” But we should be careful not to think all talk of racial reconciliation is a white and black matter or the events in Ferguson only effect white and black people. Eugene Cho, another ECC pastor, writes churches cannot ignore what happened in Ferguson and must instead address it head-on, for, “The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me, it’s a Gospel issue.” Thabiti Anyabwile, writing at The Gospel Coalition, also argues the costs for churches to ignore these matters are extremely high. He challenges evangelical churches—really, white, conservative evangelical churches—to respond to racism or face becoming irrelevant. It is not the irrelevance to the larger culture that concerns him, but irrelevance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anyabwile writes:

Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.

Looking through the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul and the book of Acts, we see two great themes: the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus Christ and the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant. In other words, the majority of the New Testament concerns itself with grace and race. In Ephesians 2, one of the great chapters of Scripture, Paul describes the power of the gospel to take people who were dead in their sins and make them alive again in Jesus Christ. The first part of the passage contains one of evangelicalism’s favorite statements, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2.8-9, NRSV) But we often stop reading around verse 10, even though the argument continues. Paul goes on to show how this new life affects the relationships among Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Ethnic and cultural distinctions, while still important, are no longer barriers to fellowship. Just as Jesus Christ made reconciliation between God and people possible, he also makes reconciliation between ethnic groups possible.

Ephesians 2 is not unique in the New Testament. Rather, it fits well with other passages that show the good news affects more than just our relationship with God. Paul does not see reconciliation with God and reconciliation between races as separate objectives—they are the same mission. Notice how explicit Paul is when he talks about ethnicity and race. Paul does not believe, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” He seeks to improve race relations by bringing the tensions and conflicts into the light of the gospel. The New Testament does not discuss race relations in the abstract. Rather, the conversations are very real, very earthy. The New Testament contains passages on how we share a common table, what ethnic markers we place or do not place on our bodies, how we worship God together, etc. The discussion of racial reconciliation in the New Testament assumes many of the early congregations comprised different ethnicities.

How can we white evangelicals say our congregations are faithful to the New Testament witness if we do not discuss and pursue the dual themes of grace and race? I wonder if we don’t give as much attention to the second half of Ephesians 2 because we do not worship in diverse communities and our privilege in the larger society means we don’t have to think about race on a daily basis. Perhaps we white evangelicals don’t pay attention to the biblical emphasis on ethnicity not because we find that topic uncomfortable, but because we find the New Testament’s teaching on the subject irrelevant to the issues our congregations face. The real issue is, however, that our congregations risk becoming irrelevant to the New Testament. If our faith communities do not wrestle with the challenges that come from diverse people groups sharing life together, whole swaths of the Bible will not make sense to us.

As the events in Ferguson show us, we need racial reconciliation not merely so we can enjoy one another’s musical traditions in a worship service. The gospel places demands on us to stand with those who suffer and seek justice on their behalf. Racial reconciliation cannot take place only within church walls, though we obviously have a long way to go on that front. The gospel compels us to take risks and walk with those who seek justice. Anyabwile is right to offer the challenge to let go of our membership statistics for faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus, which stands beside the oppressed.

I appreciate Anyabwile’s post because he reminds us having uncomfortable conversations about race is not enough. Christian communities cannot be satisfied with honest, gracious dialogue. Those conversations are absolutely necessary, but not an end to themselves. If our conversations about race do not lead us to prayer and to, “further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights,” then our conversations are merely theoretical exercises. Theoretical exercises will not help establish the vision of the African American Denominational Leadership of the ECC of “a church and society where reconciliation and justice are indispensable norms.” These leaders rightly remind us it is the cross of Christ that will break the wall of hostility. That is, Jesus’ actions and not merely his words create peace and justice. As followers of Christ, we must remember Jesus’ example and allow our theological reflections lead us to action.

We have to ask how have our communities of faith addressed the events in Ferguson? What has been the conversation? How have we prayed for peace and justice? What actions have our congregations taken? How has this event catalyzed our commitment to stand with those who suffer?