Sanctuary in the Wilderness

God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You.
I thirst for You;
my body faints for You
in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.
So I gaze on You in the sanctuary
to see Your strength and Your glory. (Psalm 63:1-2, HCSB)

These words from David convict me. My prayer is far more often, “I eagerly seek from You. …I thirst for what You can give me.” I wonder if I will ever be satisfied with God rather than constantly longing for what God offers.

I wonder, too, how David went from the wilderness of the first verse to the sanctuary of the second. This may be poetry, but the dry and desolate land is no mere metaphor for David; he was in an actual wilderness, most likely running from a blood-thirsty King Saul—and yet it is not water he craves, but God. He needs water; he thirsts for God. He needs food; he faints for God. I, on the other hand, need God; but I long for a job. I need God, but I crave security, stability, income.

So… A simple word that suggests the answer to a problem, the satisfaction of a need. David is thirsty, fainting for God, so he “gazes on God in the sanctuary.” But wait—David was in the wilderness, not the temple; he was in a cave, not a house of worship. Was the sanctuary a metaphor? Maybe both yes and no. David seems to have cultivated a life of worship, much of which was likely experienced in the temple (actually, probably the tabernacle at this point—sort of a mobile, portable tent-temple). So as a poet, David could probably simply close his eyes and imagine himself there, worshipping God in the company of the people and the presence of the priests.

But as a shepherd he had also spent countless hours and days outside, bearing the sun’s blazing heat, the bitter cold of wilderness nights, the bone-drenching winter rains. He had worshipped God there, too, alone in the company of his flocks, coming alone to his God without the benefit of a priest; looking up to God not through the cloth and skin ceiling of the tabernacle, but in the canopy of space and stars and clouds.

Here, alone again and fainting from thirst in the wilderness, David again looks to the sanctuary of space and finds God’s strength and glory. And he worships. And he is satisfied. And…

My lips will glorify You
because Your faithful love is better than life.
So I will praise You as long as I live;
at Your name, I will lift up my hands.
You satisfy me as with rich food;
my mouth will praise You with joyful lips.

When I think of You as I lie on my bed,
I meditate on You during the night watches
because You are my helper;
I will rejoice in the shadow of Your wings.
I follow close to You;
Your right hand holds on to me.

Praise. Glory. Meditate. Rejoice. In the wilderness sanctuary.

What Do You Do When God Says “Wait”?

red light

Photo courtesy of freefoto.com. Used by permission.

One recent afternoon, road construction turned a ten-block drive in downtown San Diego into a thirty-minute adventure in impatient frustration. The following Sunday our pastor mentioned a smartphone app that not only guides drivers from point A to point B, but also suggests the best route given current traffic conditions. I readily downloaded the app. You see, I don’t much like waiting; anything that will keep me moving more and waiting less is worth trying because unless I am feeling particularly patient, I would rather keep moving then sit at a stop light. Obviously, any movement is progress, right?

The same rule tends to guide my life outside the car: movement equals progress; sitting still is bad. But sometimes—and probably more than I realize or would admit—moving forward merely gives the illusion of progress. Sometimes, in fact, it is impeding the progress. And that principle, too, applies to life outside the car as much as it does to navigating congested streets and highways.

For a while now I have been living at a stop light, waiting for it to change. I don’t like it. I have had a couple opportunities to turn but that didn’t seem the right thing to do so I just sat here, waiting. I have also tried to inch forward a bit—you know, like you do in the car when the light seems to be taking too long; you think if you move the car forward, it will be sort of like raising your hand to an inattentive waiter at the restaurant…you will catch the light’s attention and it will change. That works better with waiters than with red lights, by the way.

I tried mapping a different route, too; not much different, just a parallel street a block over. But the light stayed red and then I noticed the “no turn on red” sign. So I just sat here, waiting. If I only knew what God was up to, why he has me sitting at this red light, then all would be well, I could wait in patient peace. At least that’s what I tell myself.

God, in his grace, has given me with an uncharacteristic sense of peace at this light, but it’s being tested. He’s convinced me that he is trustworthy, but I still don’t want to be here anymore, I want to move forward. Or left or right. I just want to move. I want to move on. I’m tired of waiting. I am fairly certain I have learned everything I could possibly have learned from this recess! Yet a good friend and mentor—one who has been by my side over these months—reminds me: “The wisdom of the ‘wait’ often comes in the following season. But, the depth of the wisdom is earned IN the wait.”

And so I sit here, waiting.

Dad Skiing 2014

Hanging Up The Skis

My Dad sent out an email to the family a few days ago saying that he was hanging up his snow skis for the last time. I was sad to hear that; I’d hoped to ski with him again, even though I knew how hard I’d have to work just to keep up. My Dad took me skiing for the first time at Mount Baker in northwestern Washington when I was ten years old. It seems like forever ago. The next year we skied Whistler in British Columbia. When our family moved to Germany a few years later, I skied with my Dad in the Austrian Alps, and once in the Siebengebirge (Seven Hills) not far from our home. After my stint in the Air Force, our whole family got together for Christmas and went skiing at Mammoth Mountain, California. It was probably the best powder I’d ever skied—and the last time I was on skis for over twenty years.

Skiing with grandsons

Skiing with grandsons

But Dad kept skiing. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and then Colorado. I remember him telling me about riding a chairlift with a 70-year-old man and thinking to himself, “I hope I can still ski like that when I’m 70.” Dad was 60 then. Nine years later, Breckenridge Ski Resort opened the highest chair lift in the U.S. The bottom of the lift is at 11,901 feet; the top is at 12,840 feet. Yup, Dad skied it. That was ten years ago…when Dad was 69. In 2010 he took his two grandsons skiing (I think the boys may have snowboarded.) Last year (2014), just a few months shy of his 78th birthday, Dad set a personal record: 28,899 vertical feet in one day, with runs on five mountains at Breckenridge. That’s nearly 5½ miles of skiing, by the way.

So Dad has hung up his skis…after a forty-year run that spanned at least four states and provinces in five countries on two continents; countless miles of downhill, hundreds (thousands?) of lifts, dozens of different runs; at least one taxi ride back to the hostel after ending the last run of the day on the wrong side of the mountain! I wonder how many men, women, and children my Dad regaled with his stories as they rode together up the chair lifts. (By midway through one day of skiing with my Dad at a resort with a triple chair, I could tell his stories for him because I’d heard them so many times!)

My Dad—my nearly-79-year-old father with a four-year-old pacemaker and a leaking heart valve—has finally hung up his skis. He’s pretty amazing. I’d love to be like him. And I’m pretty darn proud of him. Way to go, Dad. I love you.

IMG_0088.JPG

Power, Purpose, and Priorities

They have just witnessed the most incredible of miracles. Three years of walking with him—with Him—witnessing miracle after miracle; of seeing lame men walk, dead girls rise, blind men see. And now this: the Man they’d watched beaten to a bloody, unrecognizable pulp; the Man whose ribs had been laid bare by the whips; the Man whom they had seen die a horrendous, agonizing death…is alive.

If you have seen The Princess Bride then you know that Westley was only “mostly dead, and mostly dead is a little alive.” And you know that Miracle Max’s chocolate-covered miracle pill took at least 15 minutes for full effect, and even then, Westley could only manage a weak nod and a stumbling step. But his was no resurrection, it was at best a resuscitation.

What the disciples had seen was a resurrection—not from mostly dead, but from all dead. Even—according to some traditions’ understanding of Peter’s words—so dead that “He descended into hell.” And now He is all alive.

Still, they didn’t get it. Somehow, they still didn’t understand the purpose and the power of this resurrection. And now, as He promises them that same power, their own priorities take over. “Now does Israel win?” Jesus has just been raised from the dead and they’re concerned about who’s going to run the country. Satan’s eternal grip has been broken and they’re asking Jesus who he’s voting for in the next election.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that we’re last than two weeks away from election day. The highways, byways, and airways; front yards and side streets are nauseatingly plastered with signs telling us who we need to vote for in order to turn around our country, state, or community. Vote Yes on this, No on that. And if you hang around with Christians, you can be sure to hear how your vote will make an eternal difference for our nation; who will lead us to hell and who is the next Moses or Joshua or (dare we say) Messiah.

Whatever you do, whoever you vote for, don’t get sucked into the lie of political salvation. Remember Jesus’ words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) His power is greater, his purpose is grander, and his priorities are higher than anything we will fully comprehend. Like ancient Israel living in exile in Babylon, we ought to “seek the welfare of the city” where God has sent us (Jeremiah 29:7); but our great hope is for a new heaven and a new earth, not merely a new president and new Congress.

Are Local Churches Truly Autonomous?

Very seldom do I venture into the realm of church politics and leadership failures, especially when it involves naming names. I greatly prefer to write about what I’m learning and how theology applies to our everyday lives and I recognize that talking about specific individuals must be done with extreme care if it is to be helpful, hopeful, and grace-filled. Yet the reality is that church politics and leadership do apply to our everyday lives, and they are—or ought to be—rooted in sound theology. We also can and must learn from both the successes and the failures of specific individuals. So here goes….

On Tuesday, October 14, Mark Driscoll resigned as Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. Much has been and will continue to be written about this; unfortunately far too much of that will be unhelpful, lacking grace, and downright caustic. And that’s just from those who call themselves Christians. But Aaron at Blogging Theologically had some good things to say that spurred my own thinking. (Please take some time to read his thoughts, then add to the discussion.) I want to take something Aaron said and (gracefully, I hope) disagree with it. Mars Hill church, Aaron said, needs to evaluate their [leadership] structure. (I agree.)

The model they’ve been running on—with an outside board of accountability—simply doesn’t work, nor is it biblical. If they’re serious about getting healthy, they need to put in place a model of governance where every leader really is one vote at the table, and are held to account. They need to become autonomous churches with elders who are biblically qualified and capable of preaching the Word.

I grew up basically Baptist, and almost exclusively in the Free Church tradition. In those worlds, local churches are viewed as autonomous; that is, they are self-governing, and although they may choose willingly and voluntarily to associate with other like-minded churches through conferences, conventions, or associations—i.e., denomination—they do not sit under the authority of those organizations or the other affiliated churches. The past fifty years has seen a growth in “non-denominational” churches; that is, churches that have taken autonomy one step further by choosing to not affiliate with a denominational organization…even one within the free church tradition. When a local church is substantially healthy, this autonomy can a good thing. The church can make its own decisions on leadership, vision, strategy, and activities without having to submit those to an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. When problems arise, however, autonomous churches are left to struggle on their own, often crumbling under the weight of leadership abuses, failed structures, financial mismanagement, or devastating moral failure.

Aaron’s post over at Blogging Theologically raised two questions for me. First, are outside boards of accountability unbiblical? Second, should churches be autonomous? Aaron’s post seems to suggest that the answer to both of these questions is yes. I would argue not.

Outside Boards of Accountability. Some local church structures rely on boards comprised primarily of men (or men and women) who are not connected to that church in any other way. It is a model learned from the private sector in which corporations are overseen by a board of outside directors. The Microsoft board, for example, includes a college president, the CFO of a food group, the CEO of a credit card company, and the former chairman of a German automaker. There are many advantages of such a structure, not the least of which is an outside perspective that can help a local church keep its eyes on God’s kingdom instead of its own. But is such an external board unbiblical? Certainly not. The apostle Paul was a church planter throughout the Mediterranean region. In each area where he started a church, he also planted a pastor or commissioned some other leader: Timothy, Titus, and Lydia, to name a few. He instructed them to appoint elders (also known as overseers) for those churches, which gives us a clear example to follow: churches need to have local leaders exercising authority. But does that discount the benefit of external authorities? Or, more significantly, does it render external overseers unbiblical? By no means! Paul himself exercised authority over the churches he planted, both by instructing the local leaders to appoint elders and by intervening in matters of practice (e.g., circumcision), doctrine (e.g., the resurrection), and sin (e.g., sexual impurity). Further, Paul and Barnabas, Peter, Silas, and Luke, among others, all seem to have exercised such external authority over the growing number of local churches. This leads to the next question: ought local churches to be autonomous?

Local Church Autonomy. One of many results of the Protestant Reformation was the growth of the Free Church tradition; that is, local churches coming out from under the overbearing authority of The Church (namely, the Roman Catholic Church headquartered in Rome). My roots in the Baptist world plant me firmly in this Free Church tradition. I believe it is good and right…but neither biblical nor unbiblical. There is great freedom in the structure; not only freedom of outside authority (which is what the name truly reflects), but also freedom of movement and vision and strategy. Local churches that are unencumbered hierarchical bureaucracies are far more able to adapt their ministries to the ever-changing needs and cultures in which they exist. When a local church is substantially healthy, autonomy can be a good thing. Yet good things can also have negative side effects. Antibiotics fight infections, but they also reduce the body’s natural infection-fighting abilities, so that a person who has had to take antibiotics for a long period of time actually becomes more susceptible to future infection. In the same way, autonomy can lead to disastrous consequences when a church faces a crisis such as a moral failure, an overbearing pastor, or a leadership power struggle. In these types of circumstances, the church is no longer the doctor but the patient; and the patient is rarely in the best position to either diagnose the problem or prescribe the treatment. This is when an otherwise-autonomous local church must submit itself to others: an external board, the denominational or association leadership, or some other external, biblical source of authority. This is what the Galatian church did when they appointed Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision debate (Acts 15).

When we elevate the autonomy and independence over mutual submission—whether as individuals or as local churches—we have a recipe for arrogance and failure. We are giving Satan the foothold he needs to forestall the church’s attacks on his fortress. But when we humbly submit to the wisdom of those with a different and broader perspective, we demonstrate the grace and unity that Jesus prayed for and that will draw people into His kingdom.

Believe – Obey

I grew up in a church world that stressed, with the Reformers, “solo gratia” – grace alone. That is, salvation is possible only through God’s grace, which we receive through our faith. That’s pretty much what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8. Also stressed was the corollary from two verses later: salvation is not attained through “works;” that is, by what we do (going to church or helping old ladies across the street) or by what we don’t do (swearing, smoking, drinking). I never heard that what we do doesn’t matter or isn’t important, only that it doesn’t impact salvation one way or the other.

While in the Air Force I studied, with help, the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s views and James’, who said “You see that a person is justified [read, saved] by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). It was fairly easy for me to reconcile the two: Paul never argued that works are unimportant and James never said that faith is unimportant; James simply emphasized that faith—real, living, saving faith—would be marked by what we do.

What does it mean to obey?

A few years ago I was asked that question. It has stuck with me; not exactly like a popcorn kernel stuck between my teeth, which is simply annoying; it’s more like my wedding band: a quiet but ever-present reminder of something profoundly important and significant.

The question stems from Jesus’ “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:20, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Some translations read obey in place of observe; in context, I think it’s a fair translation.) In the ensuing discussion and over the years since, I have noticed how much obedience is commanded in the Bible. And it’s not just in the “Old” Testament:

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;
whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life….”
(John 3:36, ESV; emphasis mine)

These two complementary statements are both critical; they cannot be separated. Just as we cannot live without both food and water; just as we require both blood and oxygen; so eternal life is dependent on both belief and obedience—both of which, let us not forget, are possible only by God’s grace (cf. Philippians 2:13).

The persistent battle between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day was against their legalism—they overemphasized obeying the rules. The evangelical church in America sounded like those religious leaders for much of the 20th century (and, in some cases, still today). But there has been an equally misguided—and misguiding—trend over the last three or four decades. Born, I think, out of the phenomena of mass evangelism and mega-churches, this is the trend toward calling for a “decision” or “profession of faith” separate from obedience. We say, in effect, “pray this prayer of faith, but don’t worry about how you live; that will come later.” The problem is that most of us, having purchased the insurance policy, have precious little motivation to change our behavior.

That was not how Jesus approached would-be followers. He did not shy away from the hard call to make a change first. Think of when he called the first disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). It sounds simple, but it wasn’t; following meant drastic change: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (verse 20). The simplicity of that sentence masks the true impact; these were fishermen by trade who dropped their tools, walked out of the business, and gave up everything.

Or when the rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life; first, Jesus said to obey the rules, which the man said he already did. So Jesus upped the ante: “sell everything, give it to the poor, then follow me.” Unlike the fishermen, this man couldn’t do it; Luke 18 says he was “extremely rich” and a “ruler,” and although it made him said, he nonetheless found it easier to walk away from Jesus than to walk away from his lifestyle.

One of our troubles in the western church is that we do not want people to walk away sad. To avoid that, we lower the bar. We praise God’s grace, we call for faith…but we do not call for life change. The result is churches filled with people “who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (see Matthew 7:21). And those of us who are pastors will be held to account for our messages that call for decisions and professions, but not for obedience.

Solo gratia? Yes, by grace alone are we saved, But it is a grace that brings both faith and obedience, and we need to call for and live out both.

Sabbath Trust

Christ on the Sea of Galilee - Delacroix

Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1854) Eugène Delacroix

Rare have been the quiet, slow Sunday mornings when I have had a chance to sit, relax, read, listen, pray…all before leaving for church as a family. As a pastor for the past five years, I’ve been the first to wake, the first to shower, the first out the door…usually all before the rest of the family is even out of bed. Now, for a time, I have the luxury of the slow and relaxed Sunday morning—something of a Sabbath, even. It is a mixed blessing, for the reason I can move slowly these days is because I am between pastoral ministries. One has concluded, the next is yet to be located. And the Between is uncomfortable on the whole. It is a time of wondering and wandering, a time of searching and not (yet) finding, a time of waiting and questioning.

The Between is a time of trusting, and if you have ever trusted someone, then you know the dichotomy of trust: it can offer both comfort and discomfort. We look for answers, for signs, for Presence. Too often, we find none of these. And yet we are called, still, to trust.

On this Sabbath day of listening, God spoke. First, through the opening minutes of a message from Psalm 73 and, of course, through the psalmist. “Truly God is good…. But as for me….” How often have I lived that reality of knowing (in my head) the goodness of God, but not feeling or experiencing or realizing—or trusting—his goodness? The psalmist (an ancient worship leader) confesses his envy of the wicked and their prosperity; he complains of their ease and folly…their arrogance. It is too much for him to understand on his own…until he goes “into the sanctuary of God.” And there he finds answers. Not, perhaps, answers to the questions of why evil men prevail or why bad things happen to good people (like worship leaders); but answers to the bigger question: “Will it always be this way? Will evil win in the end?”

And so, in my own wondering (“Will I ever find a pastoral role? Will God ever give us our dreams?”), I load up the family in the car and go “into the sanctuary of God.” (That, by the way, is Hebrew for, “we went to church.”) And there, in the presence of God and his people, he spoke again. This time, though, it was not through the sermon from Nehemiah 3, but through a song I’ve heard dozens of times over the past few years:

Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever you would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior1

As I listened to the words of this song, I began to realize the depth of what it asks. And I began to be afraid. Not the “I’m about to get mugged” sort of fear but the awesome God sort of fear. The song should scare us. It is a big, awesome, prayer that—if God really answers—will take us to places we can’t even imagine; places of fear, danger, threat; places where we are totally out of control, relying on a God we can’t see, can’t touch, and too often can’t hear. It is a prayer that demands trust…declares trust, whether we feel it or not.

And that is the life to which I am called; to which we all are called, if we want to follow this Jesus. it is a life of dichotomy: of trusting when we don’t feel trusting, of listening when all we hear is silence, of giving up control to one whose only appearance may be in clouds and fire. It is a life, at times, of walking on water; and at other times, in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, it is not waking the one who can calm the sea, but laying down next to him and sleeping.

For whether the wicked are prospering or the ocean is churning or the bills are piling, the Sabbath of trust and understanding is found in the mere presence the Savior.

1 “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”, by Joel Houston, Matt Crocker, and Salomon Ligthelm. © 2012 Hillsong Music Publishing (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)

God in the Trash

Think God doesn’t care about the trash in our lives? Think again.

Today was the second day we woke up in La Mesa, in the condo that will be our home for at least a few months. Eiley (my wife) just returned from taking Grace (our dog) for a walk, came to me and said, “I just dropped the keys down the trash chute.” The only keys we have to get into the condo, along with the security fob. Now, I know some homes have laundry chutes and I expect some have trash chutes; but we’re in a condo. On the third floor. With two levels of parking below. It’s our second day. Saturday. I don’t even know where the trash goes, other than down. Or who to talk to to find out. But down I go, in my dumpster-diving shorts and shoes, in search of trash and keys. 

The trash area is easy enough to find, on the first parking level, public parking for the stores below us. Behind locked doors. But God provided two appropriately-attired trash men walking from their trash truck parked just outside the garage entrance, toward those locked doors! (I actually think they were angels, a la Abraham’s visitors; see Genesis 18.) When I told them what happened, they just said, “Seriously?!” “Yes,” I replied. They opened the secure trash area to reveal two large, barely-filled dumpsters, and there were our keys – right on top of a bag, below the trash chute exit. One of the guys even climbed in to retrieve them for me. (“He does it all the time!” said the other.)

If Eiley had dropped the keys five minutes earlier, or if I’d gone down five minutes later, then we wouldn’t have found them. (Or, I suppose, God may have orchestrated some other ending to the story!) So, you think God doesn’t care about the trash in our lives? Think he doesn’t have humorous side to him? Think again!

Teaching Children to Lie

Have you ever stopped to consider how often and in what ways we may be teaching children to lie? I’m not talking about birthday surprises; you’ll have to work out the ethics of that on your own. I’m also not talking about corporate espionage or political campaigning; those, too, you’ll need to figure out on your own. The lies I’m talking about fall somewhere between those two points of the spectrum; between, “don’t tell your sister what we got her” and “if I’m elected I will….” The lies I’m talking about are subtler, and they actually sound good—morally good, that is. We want them to be true, and they could be true, and maybe they even should be true. But….

Let me start with what I think will be the easier one, both to admit and to do something about: “Say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Go ahead; tell your brother you’re sorry.” You’ve heard that, haven’t you? Chances are you heard it from your parents and maybe you’ve even heard it from your own lips. It sounds so good; we desperately want it to be true, to be a genuine admission of sorrow. And it seems that it should be so easy to say, especially when the offending child hurt her sister entirely on accident! But kids don’t do sorrow and regret well—it is, for some reason, too closely linked to shame and guilt—and so to say “I’m sorry” means to admit guilt, and kids don’t want to do that. All we want as parents is to train our children to feel sorrow at someone else’s pain, and so we ask them to say, “I’m sorry.” And sometimes we compel them to say it…even when it really is a lie. After all, if I don’t feel sorrow, isn’t it a lie to say that I do?

Now, I understand that sometimes words must be said before the truth of them can be known and felt by the speaker. That is, sometimes saying “I’m sorry” will lead to, rather than spring from, genuine sorrow. In my own marriage I have often needed to express forgiveness before I felt forgiving; and in that statement of faith and obedience I begin to experience the freeing power of real forgiveness. But ritual for ritual’s sake seldom accomplishes that. Teaching our children to feel and express genuine sorrow when they have wronged another is far more important than teaching them to utter a lie. It’s also much harder.

The other lie we teach our children came to my mind today and I expect I’m going to get into trouble with some people for saying this, because it’s not in the realm of parenting but politics…and faith. And the intersection of those two is a hazardous one, wherein lies the wreckage of many an ideal of one or the other, each claiming right of way where neither is granted such right. But first, some background:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? At least not for those of us born after World War II. But those twenty-three words comprise the pledge originally penned by Francis Bellamy in August 1892 as part of an effort to stir up patriotism among schoolchildren in a nation whose patriotic fervor had waned since the end of the Civil War. It is a compelling story, which deserves to be read in the words of the Pledge’s own author. [1]

The pledge has been changed three times since its original writing; the first change, two months after writing, belonged to author and was the addition of the word “to” before “the republic.” Thirty years later, over Bellamy’s objections, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution led a campaign to change the Pledge’s words from, “my Flag,” to “the Flag of the United States of America.” Another thirty years later, in 1954, the Knights of Columbus led the charge to add the words, “under God.” [2]

It sounds good, doesn’t it? At least for a Christian, and perhaps for some of other religions who appreciate the reminder that we live under the sovereignty of a divine being. Yet the Pledge of Allegiance to our nation’s flag contains, for many, a lie; and in seeking to compel the ritual recitation of the Pledge, we are teaching those children to lie in the same way as when we compel them to say, “I’m sorry.” Many children—especially immigrants (legal or otherwise)—have not shifted allegiance from their homeland to these United States. Perhaps they have escaped with their parents from a tyranny they do not even understand; all they know is they left in the middle of the night and can no longer see their friends or their relatives, and they are alone and strangers in a land where they do not even speak the language.

Those two simple words, “under God,” were added more than sixty years after the original writing of the Pledge of Allegiance? The Pledge’s author (according to his granddaughter) would have shuddered at the addition, having left the church the year before writing the Pledge. [2] As a Christian I’m fine with the words, in part because I grew up with them and in part because I willingly and knowingly submit to my God and pray that my nation does, as well. Yet the phrase does nothing to unite us as Americans, which was a primary intent of the Pledge when written. Rather, the phrase serves more to divide. After all, though more than three-fourths of Americans identify as Christian, there are also millions of Jews and Muslims, not to mention adherents of other faiths—many of which are polytheistic—as well as an increasing number of people claiming no religious identity.

I felt some of this discrepancy myself in elementary school, when my family moved to Canada. For five years, my school days started not with the pledge, but with the singing of “O Canada.” It always felt a little odd to sing, “O Canada! Our home and native land!” Home was true, but native was certainly not. Nor was I ever sure that I would “stand on guard for thee.”

The last line of the Pledge of Allegiance is perhaps most important of all, for it claims that in this great Republic we hold fast to the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” If we truly believe that, then why do we insist on the divisive words, “under God”? Let us instead live humbly—as did the Lord we proclaim—and in that humility attract others to what it really means to live under God.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Bellamy, Francis, “The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag”, University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. VIII, Winter 1953. 13 July 2014. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=3418>.

[2] Baer, Dr. John W., “The Pledge of Allegiance A Short History”. 13 July 2014.<http://www.oldtimeislands.org/pledge/pledge.htm>.

 

In the Between

Something is happening. I’m not sure what—or where—but it seems to be the quiet before the storm. The house is quiet; power outages have that effect. Coming on the heels of a week of activity, a sixty-guest dinner party, and a morning-after of cleanup, there is a quietness that goes beyond the silence of a powerless refrigerator and an air conditioner that cannot condition the air. And the blank stare of the TV screen—even blocked as it is by its closed cabinet doors—offers a reflective bliss. A nap, an hour of Maya Anglou, and a never-tired daughter lost in outdoor play. Silence. It is good.

But there is an expectant wondering in the silence, too. There is a question: What’s next? Beyond the momentary silence of the afternoon is the silence of change, the silence of death before life, the silence of the birth canal – between the in utero struggle of the now-but-not-yet life and the shocked and shocking cries of postpartum new birth. Our life is in the between….

School is done. Not just the kids’ school but mine, too. Eight years of constancy, of moving from class to class, semester to semester. Eight years of theology and christology and ecclesiology and school-ology; of hermeneutics and homiletics and escaping heretics. Eight years of study for a degree that, in someone’s mind, should only take two. But that someone didn’t, I think, have a wife, and three children in school. That someone didn’t have to balance declining Greek verbs with helping his son figure out quadratic equations. He didn’t have to decide between studying for a pneumatology exam or attending his daughter’s first band concert (the squeals of the clarinets winning out over the groans of the Spirit). He didn’t have the pleasure of escorting his Girl Scout to a daddy-daughter dance when the 1,500-page text book in 8-point font cried out for a double date. But whether two years or eight, school is in the past. There is no exam to study for, no textbook to read, no next-semester schedule to balance with a family vacation. All that is left is to walk in a ceremony, shake a hand, thank the family, and receive the hard-earned diploma. Silence.

Work, like school, is all but done. A few transitional tasks, handing over duties and keys, striving to finish well. But no new work, no inbox; only an outbox. The last messages have been preaced (and, I think, well preached. Oh, so much better than that first one with all the love song titles!) There are some reflective tasks (which I enjoy): what did I do well? What do I wish I’d done better? I enjoy the reflection, but not so much the evaluation; I’m very hard on myself. And, of course, there’s the packing. The books are in boxes, but the thought of defurnishing the office is a bit unnerving. Empty rooms once so full of life and thought are somber places, as if haunted by the ghosts of what was and what might have been.  Silence. Yet how different was that empty room the first time I opened the door? Then it cried out the hopes of all that would be, that might be. Perhaps this time when it is emptied it will again give voice to those hopes—hopes that not I, but another, will see. But for now, in the between…silence.

This home, too—so alive with guests and decorations and party not 48 hours ago—today stands quiet. And over the next weeks it, too, will be defurnished. The chalkboard finally filling the frame we have carried empty for 1,500 miles will be off the wall and boxed. The couches stored, the shelves emptied, the rugs rolled. This house, barely a shell when first our romance with it began, has become our home. We have, in a sense, become one with it. The fingerprints of my wife’s heart are forever embedded in its walls and windows and cabinets. How can we ever leave? How can we ever live in another house? It would feel almost adulterous! (But not quite.) This home, like my schooling, has been part of us, part of our lives, even if only for three years. My dear, creative, beauty-loving wife gave it her all and she deserves for her creation to fill the pages of magazines! But for now, only silence.

And so the silence of the power outage, this silence of the between times, so aptly suits our lives now. We are between the certain and the unknown, between birth and life, between womb and room. And in the quiet, pleasing stillness there is yet an unpleasantness in that unknowing. There is a confidence in God’s call yet a tinge of fear in the absence of direction. Silence.

And in the silence we listen for God.

In the silence we look for God.

In the silence we cling to God.

In the silence we hope in God.

In the silence we rest in God.