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Becoming a Christian Nation 

Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

– Romans 10:1-4

If you read the Christian biblical narrative, it’s easy to miss how weird it is that the scribes and Pharisees were the bad guys. Think about it: they fasted more, gave more, prayed more, sacrificed more than others did. They were diligent in creating laws that they felt reflected the commandments of God and scrupulous about observing them. They set high standards of behavior and did their best to ensure the community reached them, ruthlessly punishing those who stepped out of line. The scribes and Pharisees wanted nothing less than to use the law to bring their society into harmony with God’s will.

Doesn’t this goal sound familiar? It should: it continues to animate activists to this very day. How else to describe the impulse to ban abortion and resistance to the very concept of same-sex marriage? When pushed, many who espouse these views would tell you that the actions they are resisting “go against God.” And let us not neglect the liberal end of the spectrum: substitute “God’s will” with “truth” or “progress” and suddenly views supportive of – for instance – using the weight of the law to force religiously orthodox bakers to cater same-sex weddings become nearly inevitable.

It is an impulse intrinsic to the spirit of the political activist to use the law as the primary tool in aligning the world with his personal conception of moral order. And laws do have a role in restraining the worst impulses of the human heart by promising punishment for certain acts or, occasionally, omissions. But the political activist sees potential beyond the minimal standards of fairness and decency: he sees in the law the pathway to a new world order, a bridge to a future of harmony and justice and righteousness.

And yet when has the law ever accomplished such a lofty goal? The law desegregated America’s schools over half a century ago, but public schools are less racially diverse today than they were when Brown v. Board of Education ended official school segregation. The law criminalizes sexual harassment and assault, yet sexual violence remains a threat for a disturbing number of children and adults of both sexes, as the horrifying proliferation of MeToo hashtags demonstrates. Laws against murder are perhaps the most ancient and widespread, yet mass killings, gangland massacres and even police shootings persist.

The sad fact is that even the most just laws cannot make a just society unless the people love justice. Even the most protective laws will fail to protect unless the people see the vulnerable as objects of care rather than targets for predation. Even the most righteous laws will fall short unless the people hunger and thirst for righteousness. If the people are wicked, the law can punish and, hopefully, deter – but the law cannot transform. Its only power is coercion, its only persuasion the threat of violence.

Does that mean we should give up on seeking just laws? Of course not! But if what we want is not just an orderly society but a flourishing one – where God is revered, families are strong, human life is cherished, the natural creation is protected, and justice and mercy share a place of honor – the law won’t get us there.

What will? Love, which is the mark of the true follower of Christ. I’m not talking about a weak, wishy-washy love that puts up with anything, but a love too strong to abandon a friend and too pure to be silent in the face of sin. This is the difference between our current practice of either cutting off or silently accommodating people we think are wrong and the assertive, godly approach of using loving, authentic relationships to share the good news of God’s truth and love. To paraphrase my dear friend Brandon Zicha, if we would truly see America become a Christian nation, we must put our highest efforts into honoring God’s Word in our hearts rather inscribing it in our laws.

You show that you are a letter of Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

– 2 Corinthians 3:3-6


When a Quaker’s Convincement Meant Being Found Guilty

In seventeenth-century England, convinced meant proven guilty. It was a term used in the courtroom, similar to “convicted.” A person became a convinced Quaker after being shown the errors of his or her ears, admitting them, surrendering to God’s judgment, and becoming liberated for a new kind of life. The Light reveals all the internal thoughts, mental patterns, and fantasies that resist the work of God. Although it is painful to see one’s internal conflict, continuing to face the Light and to see what it reveals in one’s own mind, heart, and behavior allows God to refine, or melt away, the inner impediments to the Light.

– Marcelle Martin, Our Life Is Love, p. 62

The Cross of Fellowship

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

– Philippians 2:1-8

For all of the celebration of friendship and togetherness that we see in our culture – is it an accident that one of the most popular shows of the last 20 years was called “Friends”? – abiding in the spirit of Babylon leads inevitably to a sense of isolation.

This should not surprise us. Indeed, how could it do otherwise, when the watchword of Babylon is It’s All About Me? As a result, supervisors use up their underpaid workers, then toss them aside when they cease to produce. We see generally intelligent people arguing that expecting obedience from children is oppressive. We have otherwise reputable newspapers celebrating the “love story ” of a man whose happily-ever-after happened when he abandoned his wife and children. Reneging on promises and failing to meet commitments is so common, it’s hard to even get hurt or offended when it happens, knowing as we do that we regularly do the same and worse to others.

This focus on self – my wealth (versus my duty to employees), my fulfillment (versus my duty to family), my appetites (versus my prior commitments) – makes true fellowship impossible. When I know that others are unreliable – because I myself am unreliable – I can’t afford trust. When I know that others will take advantage of me – because I myself stand poised to take advantage of others – I can’t afford vulnerability. When I know that others feel no duty to me – because I feel no duty to others – I can’t afford obedience. I can’t afford these things, that is, as long as I, too, am focusing on myself and my sense of security.

Jesus shows us another way: instead  of focusing on himself, he focused on God. To obey God’s will, Jesus abandoned divinity – the ultimate bling – for a smelly sweaty human body. He abandoned his throne for slavery. He was willingly tortured and killed. This is the faithfulness to which Paul encourages the church. This is the degree of sacrifice required for true gospel fellowship.

The only way to stand as the Body of Christ in a culture that is unparalleled in its narcissism is to throw away the playbook that says, “My wants, my needs, my comfort,” and take up the one that says,” Not my will, but yours, Lord.” When faced with our real flawed brothers  and sisters who hurt us – usually accidentally, but sometimes on purpose – the world says,”I deserve better,” but the follower of Christ says, “As I forgive, so will I be forgiven.” When faced with a decision that vexes us, the world says, “I’ll find a better church, one that does what I want,” but the follower of Christ says, “I am more concerned with our unity in Christ than with having my own way.”

It is a hard thing to willingly suffer for the sake of God and imperfect men and women. Yet this willingness to empty ourselves for the love of God and neighbor makes of us a sacrifice fit for our king. We must be willing to take up the cross of fellowship, which spells death for the ego and suffering for the will, if we would be friends of Jesus – or of each other.

Man’s Sin Problem 

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

– Romans 7:21-25

We all want to be the hero of our own story.  The hero courageously fights against villains to protect the vulnerable. He stands up for his principles. The hero is always good, his anger always righteous. The hero is consistently honest, diligent, generous, patient, wise, strong and kind. Being a hero is a wonderful thing.

There’s only one problem: none of us is that kind of hero.

The most patient person among us may occasionally snap at his parents, spouse or children. The bravest person among us may occasionally face situations that paralyze her with fear. The most scrupulously honest people may occasionally, in the heat of the moment, exaggerate or leave a misconception uncorrected. And so on. None of us perfectly embody all of the traits that comprise virtue. We all want to do good, we all want to be good, but each and every one of us must face our failure to live up to our own standards.

As far as I can tell, this is a uniquely human problem. My poodle has zero anguish over his failure to sit on command. He feels no regret about eating a fallen piece of fruit even though I told him to leave it alone. Through training, I can shape his desires to fit my lifestyle, but fundamentally he does precisely what he wants to do without agonizing or chagrin, whether it is promptly obeying my command to lay down, utterly ignoring my command to fetch or eagerly sniffing another dog’s hindquarters. Humans are uniquely capable of aspiring to moral standards we don’t meet.

There is a term for this failure to do what we know to be right and this persistence in doing what we know to be wrong: sin. And despite sin’s having become unfashionable, we all know in our heart of hearts that it is part of our lives, that we can’t will ourselves into being the heroes we want to be. Oh, we try to soften the blow by telling ourselves that we aren’t sinful, just human. Or that we aren’t that bad, after all – at least, not as bad as Republicans or Democrats or White supremacists or Islamic terrorists or your bogeyman of choice. We learn mantras and self-affirmations and tell ourselves that fixating on our harmful actions and impure motives is unhealthy. But the reality of sin remains, and the fact that it seems universal and inescapable doesn’t make it any less pathological.

Thankfully, our sin problem has a solution: Christ. Did you know that Christ wants to fix your sin problem? He wants to show you God’s forgiveness for your past sins. Even more, he wants to show you a new, righteous way of living, where compassion, patience, justice, integrity and holiness are as natural as breathing. He wants to welcome you into the revolutionary reality of the Kingdom of Heaven – not in some distant life after death, but now, today. Are you ready?

A Sneaking Suspicion of My Own Badness

I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and [his stepdaughter turned wife] Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.

The psychic theater of the public condemnation of monsters can be seen as a kind of elaborate misdirection: nothing to see here. I’m no monster. Meanwhile, hey, you might want to take a closer look at that guy over there.

– Claire Dederer, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”, The Paris Review Blog

Who’s Your Daddy?

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me.Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

– John 8:42-47

I don’t know the origin of the notion that “we are all children of God.” It doesn’t seem to come from the Jewish tradition, which, as far as I can tell, either rejects the idea of being a “child of God” entirely or reserves it for the Jewish people. It doesn’t seem to be from the Islamic tradition, which I believe would deem the notion presumptuous, in light on the Quranic view that the claim that Jesus is the begotten son of God is not merely incorrect, but blasphemous. Claiming divine parentage, even spiritual parentage, does not seem to square with that perspective. Could the idea be a Christian one? Surely not: Jesus himself says that some people are children of the devil.

I have a hunch that the idea that we are all children of God springs from the intuition that we are all somehow connected to God, that we all have a sense of his will in our hearts and that we are all made for wholeness and for harmony with him.

This intuition is so true. Our creation in God’s image is proclaimed in Genesis. Christ as the universally present Light, who connects every person to God, is testified to in the Gospel of John. And the whole earth – humans included – groans for freedom and for God.

But it is just as true – as testified by both scripture and experience – that most people regularly ignore the right for the easy and prefer the expedient to the excellent. Children usually resemble their fathers. Does the amoral self-interest and the active pursuit of vice that characterize so many of our lives resemble the character of a holy and righteous God? While Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees shows us that even very high standards of behavior are void without a living and obedient relationship with God, the warmest devotional feelings are meaningless if they don’t bear fruit in our behavior. If we persist in sin, selfishness and callous indifference, we reveal ourselves to be not children of God, but of the devil.

I struggle with this sometimes. While I know that none of my efforts can earn God’s love, I also know that, if I claim to believe in him while living just like the world, I’m lying to myself. A sterile faith that doesn’t bear fruit in our actions is no faith at all. So while virtuous actions aren’t what make me a child of God, failure to live a righteous life would be proof that I’m not one. It is difficult to simultaneously celebrate God’s grace and hold to this hard truth.

So who’s your daddy? The Lamb or the Adversary? Here are some questions that I am using for reflection as I “work out my salvation with fear and trembling“:

  • In the past month, how much money did I spend eating out – including at the office cafeteria? How much did I give to charitable causes? Is the first number larger than the second?
  • Who is the last person I made a negative comment about? When is the last time I prayed for that person?
  • Do I give to everyone who asks, without deliberately avoiding those who may ask for help?
  • Do I enjoy hearing or repeating disparaging stories about others? Do I give silent approval to gossip?
  • Do my eating, exercise, sexual and recreational habits build relationship and virtuous habits of the heart? Or do they encourage isolation, self-indulgence, violence or vulgarity?
  • Am I open to ideas that challenge my view of myself? In conflict, do I resort to insults and withdrawal? Or do I seek understanding and dialogue?
  • Am I proactive about seeking and offering forgiveness? Or do I prefer the corrosive thrill of wounded self-righteousness?
  • Do I actively seek out injustice and consider how I participate in that injustice and how I might act to change it? Or do I indulge in apathy, resistance to change or cheap talk?

Quakers have historically maintained that God saves us from our sins, not in our sins. Let us be humble and honest in seeking to manifest the character of a holy and loving God.

The Judgment of a Loving God

Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind; therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth.

– Jeremiah 19:3-8

When faced with the promises of judgment regularly uttered by the God of the Old Testament, many modern readers, including Christians, recoil. “That’s not my God,” they say. “My God is a God of love, not judgment!” That used to be me, actually. I would skim over passages of punishment and breathe a sigh of relief that, for whatever reason, Christ had inaugurated a new covenant with a transformed God who had put away his smiting stick.

After spending a recent weekend at Powell House reflecting on prophetic ministry with Jonathan Vogel-Borne and Debbie Humphries – an experience I was blessed to share with some friends from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship – I now understand two huge reasons that this view is hopelessly wrongheaded: the testimony of Jesus and the intimate connection between judgment, justice and goodness.

One of the key elements of following Jesus is trusting his judgment. I can’t claim to “take up my cross and follow him” while simultaneously disagreeing on where we are going. Faith in him may sometimes take a bit of prodding, but it isn’t optional. Jesus treasured his relationship with a God he described as tender, loving and patient. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, it would have been ridiculous to distinguish between a wrathful Old Testament God and a merciful New Testament God: the New Testament hadn’t been written yet! So if I perceive a difference in God’s fundamental character between the Hebrew scripture and the Christian one, either I’m wrong or Jesus is. I know whose perspective I trust more!

In any event, pitting love against judgment is a false dichotomy. Consider the recent events in St. Louis, for example. A police officer said of Black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith – on tape – “I’m going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it,” then proceeded to pursue the motorist in his car for a while before indeed fatally shooting Smith and, from all indications, planting a weapon in his car. Though the officer explicitly stated his intention to take Smith’s life and took his life without apparent justification – the standard for first degree murder – and did it all on tape, he was acquitted by a judge. Rather than experience the weight of judgment for what had every appearance of a serious crime, he was given a pass to continue in wrongdoing. Is that what love looks like?

It is not – especially since the officer made no confession of guilt and no commitment to treating those he has promised to serve and protect differently in the future. It is not – because officers in St. Louis are literally bragging about slaughtering Anthony Smith, even as they brutalize and intimidate the men, women and children who dare to protest. It is not – because, without repentance, the false judge and the corrupt official have no place in the kingdom of heaven.

If you believe this is how God acts – if you believe that the comforts of faith rightfully belong to those who revel in evildoing, if you believe in a God who saves us in our sins by confirming wickedness rather than saving us from our sins by teaching us a righteous way of living – then please consider the possibility that maybe you are the one worshiping a monstrous God, not the ancient Hebrews.

None of this makes those promises of judgment – including those uttered by Jesus himself – easy to read. Thinking about the pain and suffering of our fellow man should never be easy. But the alternative – a God who does not care whether we try to do right or celebrate doing wrong, who does not distinguish between the man who suffers for the sake of righteousness and the one who cheerfully inflicts suffering – is too terrible to contemplate.