Worshipping in the Paradox

Of note: last month, when it seemed that Twitter was about to go under, I started a Substack account. I think the place has potential, especially with new chat features, etc., but as yet, I’m not…um, finding a lot of readers there. So this and the next few posts will be re-shares from Substack, most of which were first re-frames of old Tweet threads. So it goes. Reflecting and refining is writing. Not everything I post there will come over here, so feel free to follow there, too.

In the afterword to Fundamentalism in American Culture (1980), historian George Marsden challenged readers to observe the way the church moves through the world (past and present) with both eyes open:

We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role in this history…. It is crucially important then, that, by God’s grace, we keep our wits about us and discern the vast difference between the real forces for good and the powers of darkness disguised as angels of light.1

He elaborated that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.

It seems to me that for most of us out here in the wide world trying to follow Jesus, the task of both theologian and historian are set before us each day. Every choice, every conversation, every worship service, every news article, every election, presents a challenge of evaluating our next right move in light of both Scripture and culture. Every moment is a little dance of deconstruction and reconstruction in real time.

Of course, we are not left to our own wits in this dance—the Lord is with us, directing our steps, teaching us to walk humbly in His path—but the paradox does hit us between the eyes with astonishing regularity.

As my friend Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt put it:

“There is a lie that says our delight must be unadulterated in order to be real, that we are only truly happy when we are only happy. But I am convinced that joy and grief are less like pigments that mix together and more like the warp and woof of a textile. They are threads that weave together into a profoundly human experience.”

In the dance of real-time church history, we can be filled with sorrow & anger at the shortcomings of God’s people and the wickedness the church perpetrates in God’s name, and yet long for its restoration from a deep place of love given by the Spirit.

Multiple things can be true at once.

  • The visible church can be a hive of consumerism, apathy, abuse, callousness, nationalism, and pride and yet still administer the means of grace each week to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for God’s sake.
  • The church as an institution can be entangled down to its bones with corruption, the cancer of pharisaism metastasizing through its leaders and members and yet bear within it a remnant of faithfulness, even in denominations or associations that reek of sin and self-righteousness.
  • A local congregation may take no public action and make no public statements on the brokenness and violence and sorrows in the world and yet be full of members who are, in Jesus’ name, weeping and praying and serving those who are ground up by a hard and cruel world.
  • A Christian can experience Sundays when it is hard (or even impossible) to muster the courage to go to church, and yet long to be in the fellowship of believers, to praise the Lord, to taste the bread and wine. 
  • A Christian can hate what the church becomes when it worships power and cultural norms rather than Christ, and yet love the church enough to cry out to God in lament that He would cleanse and reclaim and restore it as His own.

We long from our deepest guts for these contradictions to cease, and for the church to fully do justice and love mercy always in every place, but the place of contradiction is the place of work and of prayer.

And so we cry out at every gathering: 

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

And so, we who know the pain and the joy of the church at the same time pray fervently that God would:

Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, 
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

We are those who know all too well our own hearts. We know, as Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and so we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
A sinner. 

We can long for these things, pray these things, and yet be moved to righteous fury by those who try to hold the word of God and the people of God hostage to systems that devour the weak and prop up their power. Zeal for the Lord of Hosts does not make contradiction between fierce love, fierce lament, and fierce anger necessary. For our God is with us in our concern for His house, with greater zeal than we will ever muster.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:22-23). 

And yet the promise that God makes from His holy zeal is not the abandonment of his people, but our complete repentance and rebirth in the midst of recognition of our deep brokenness.

In the rest of Ezekiel 36, God promises:

  • To gather us in (v. 24)
  • To cleanse us from impurities and idols (v. 25)
  • To give us a new heart and a new spirit (v. 26)
  • To put *His* Spirit in us to enable us to do His will (v. 27).
  • That we will be His people and He will be our God (v. 28)
  • That he will save us from all our uncleanness and provide for our needs (v. 29). 
  • To bless us abundantly and remove our disgrace (v. 30)
  • To cause us remember our evil ways and grieve over them in repentance (v. 31).
  • To allow us to experience the shame of our wickedness for His sake. (v.32) 
  • To rebuild our ruins, to re-cultivate our desolate places, that life may again be found among us (vv. 33-36)
  • To hear our pleas so that all will know that He is the LORD (vv.37-38).

Again, all these things God does for His own sake. We pray with lament and anger and sorrow at our own failures knowing that God will not ultimately allow His name to be profaned by those who call themselves His people. We know that He delights in justice and mercy, and that He is still working out His glory in us.

At one level, this restoration is a gift freely given in spite of our wickedness, but never without rooting out and despising our wickedness. God will restore and judge. God sees the evil, and He knows our love and longing. He has woven it through His word, and given us cries of anguish to deliver back to Him in prayer.3

Cole Arthur Riley sums this up better than I can:

Those who refuse or neglect to tap into the sorrows of the world may find joy elusive. There is so much that is worthy of lament, of rage. Joy doesn’t preclude these emotional habits—it invites them. Joy situates every emotion within itself. It grounds them so one isn’t overindulged while the others lie starving…joy says, Hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.4

As we take our daily steps in that dance, may you be strengthened to hold on to the tension and see that joy and sorrow don’t have to fight each other to be true. May you pray like prayer matters, with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.

Notes

  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 259-60.
  2. Ibid., 260.
  3. “Whenever I dig into the Psalms I have this thought: how could I give up on Christianity? I have barely even tried Christianity.” — Andy Stager
  4. Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us (New York: Convergent, 2022), 165-65.

Image: Slot Canyon, Washington County, Utah. October 2016.

Well-Regulated

On the day we got the news
Of yet another shooting—
This one not too far from home—
I went for a walk at dusk
To ask God and the trees, “Why?”
The half moon peered through clouds
Strung behind a line of storms,
As fireflies synchronized
With streetlights at 9:03;
Embers in the post-rain mist.

A bat dived to swallow one,
Turning away at the last
From a bitter, poison pill.
But all the hosts of summer
Assembled here this evening
Know the steps and move as one;
Birds sing, cicadas back beat,
And the waning day cools air
Just enough to invite small
Restoration to tired lungs.

The world in all its glory
Even here on suburban streets
Speaks of dependence, rhythm,
And attention to detail.
But my country still looks down,
Away from what doesn’t fit,
Turning the dead into pawns
Moving without agency
In a dance that keeps peace
At the expense of the living.

New Morning Mercies

After Anthony Bourdain, after a fashion.

On the day my next-door neighbor died
I went to breakfast in a hurricane.
The water ran through the floor of Waffle House
As waffle batter ran dry in the kitchen.

While I sat, deep in conversation,
Trying to imagine how to remake the world,
A home-health nurse brought a man with his walker
To a corner table for weekly worship.

A family from out of state sat down
And got up after twenty minutes waiting
To have their order taken, unwilling
To further delay progress to Florida.

I shouted across bad coffee for hope,
Over the drone of a country jukebox
And the pleas of hungry addicts, but this—
This—is the world as it is, more or less.

What is the life of a saint but suffering—
Patiently, daily, not in crucifixion
Or being drawn and quartered or burned at the stake,
But simple, faithful endurance through each day?

What is the life of a saint but living
In the tension between having one’s cake
And eating it, with holy disregard
For the contrast between spirit and flesh?

The next day was the first crisp morning of fall,
Broken only by the first southbound monarch,
Bearing the indignity of migration
For the joy set before him with foreordained poise.

When he gets to Cerro Prieto,
He’ll be welcomed as an ancestral spirit
Together with multitudes lighting
In sacred firs, echoing resurrection.

Image: Getty Images

Salt and Light in a Political World

About 35 minutes into Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019), we see Austrian dissident Franz Jägerstätter assisting a fresco painter in the small alpine church he serves as sexton. As he works, the painter muses:

I paint the tombs of the prophets. I help people look up from those pews and dream. They look up, and they imagine that if they had lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did. 

They would have murdered those whom they now adore. I paint all this suffering, although I don’t suffer myself; make a living of it. What we do is just create sympathy. We create, we create admirers. We don’t create followers. 

Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it, so we don’t have to see what happens to the truth…I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture; I have not yet. Someday I’ll, I’ll paint a true Christ.

Several reviewers have seen the director himself in the Painter, with Franz’s holy suffering as his “true Christ.” Whether or not this is Malick’s intent, the scene is a turning point. From this day forward, Franz has set his face toward obedience to Christ’s hold on his conscience—he cannot, will not, swear loyalty to Hitler.

Jägerstätter resisted not simply the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime, but the very idea that he could be compelled to swear an oath of complete loyalty to a human being in the place of God. He attacked the foundation (the führerprinzip) on which others based their trust in Hitler to bring prosperity and protect cultural “Christian” values. As a result, he endured the scorn of erstwhile friends and even family long before he faced the wrath of the state. He is today regarded as a martyr.

His life reminds us that action doesn’t always look the same as activism, but quiet, honest faithfulness in deliberate resistance to the spirit of anti-Christ is often the profoundest political act. His story, as told in Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness is said to have inspired resistance to the Vietnam war in Muhammad Ali and Daniel Ellsberg among others.

A Costly Witness
Jägerstätter’s example provides a starkly drawn case, but whatever worldly system you find yourself in will eventually come into conflict with the grace-filled (chesed) system of God’s kingdom. The world, under the sway of Satan, doesn’t have a category for the covenant love of God (cf. Ex. 34:6-7) that He pours out on His people and its outworking in their community ethics (the Mosaic law, especially as exposited in the Sermon on the Mount and New Testament epistles). In this conflict, the way of life of the people of God is designed to contradict and convict the world’s systems so they could be transformed by the witness of the church.

Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

More often the powers that be will demand that the church bow to them. Whether the demand to bow down comes in large ways (like Nebuchadnezzar’s image and furnace), small ones (the proverbial pinch of incense to Caesar), or the trivialities of being misunderstood and questioned by your neighbors and coworkers, it will come. The world forces the issue of faith. You can never isolate enough to avoid the confrontation.

The church’s call is to stand out enough that the confrontation is clear, living together in such a way as to silence the ignorance of evil men (1 Pet 2:15), and if we are called to suffer for the name and way of Jesus, we are to suffer as He did (1 Pet. 2:20-25).

But we do not like to suffer.

The Compromise of Christian nationalism
Not only do we dislike suffering, but we dislike getting anywhere near it. Wealth is attractive because it promises to insulate us from discomfort.

The slide starts with an implicit deal—the promise of peace and prosperity in exchange for silence about the violence against God and man inherent in the system. We grow accustomed to the prosperity, and before long, the church is willing to bless the violence so long as it gets to partake of the benefits. This is the shift at the heart of Christian nationalism.

If we find membership in any political party or allegiance to any government to be a more pressing concern than our adherence to all of Jesus’ teachings, we are well on our way down a dangerous road. When we find ourselves justifying our comforts and our political positions when the Spirit, through conscience and prophets, coaxes us to see and reject our idolatries, digging in our heels, we are in grave danger indeed.

Christian nationalism is a ready temptation for all of us, as it bubbles up from conflating God’s kingdom with our comfort, wealth, and power—even Jesus’ disciples were banking on it, after spending 3 years listening to His teaching and witnessing the clarifying events of his death and resurrection! As he prepares to ascend to the Father, their burning question is “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

The temptation will call out to us from any political direction, from the left and the right, in moderate or extreme positions, from imperialism, monarchy, republicanism, democracy, communism, oligarchy, anarchy, etc. The church of Jesus Christ can (and has, and does, and will) exist and even thrive under each of them. It cannot, however, fully and faithfully *co-exist* with any of them. Absolutizing any political position—even in the name of justice—makes politics an idol, not a tool. And a politically empowered idol becomes a cult.

Politics is Downstream from Desire
Christian nationalism doesn’t come knocking with a tract or appear on the street corner with a poster outlining its explicit aims (well, it did not used to). It is a subtle enemy, attacking from within—more like the favoritism condemned by James or the heresy of the judaizers than the wholesale persecution endured by our brothers and sisters in many countries.

It can sneak in because our politics is downstream from our desires. Political allegiances masquerade as righteousness, but are usually just emblematic of our idols. And our idols are always outworkings of our pride and greed—we follow after that which promises power & wealth. Our economic dreams are inseparable from our political actions.

See, for example, Solomon. He was supposed to be the great king, the promised Son of David who would build God’s house and reign in the promised land with wisdom, justice, and peace under the blessing of God—a picture of the coming, perfect, glorious reign of Jesus Christ over all the earth. 

But Solomon longs for a more tangible “secure” blessing, something that has cash-value among his peers on the thrones of surrounding nations. While building the temple—which was designed to speak God’s glory to the nations (1 Kings 8:43)—he builds his own house to be even more magnificent (1 Kings 7). Against God’s commands (Deut. 17:14-20) he pursues military power (1 Kings 9), gold (1 Kings 10), and the lust of the flesh (1 Kings 11). These pursuits lead him to idolatry, and even enslavement of his fellow Israelites (1 Kings 9:15ff). 

The Lord judges Solomon, in part by having the northern tribes rebel against him and his son Rehoboam. But the lesson continues—the rebellion could have been a righteous confrontation, exposing and addressing injustice. Indeed the separation is accomplished somewhat peacefully, with Rehoboam heeding God’s instruction not to fight through the prophet Shemaiah. Instead of resolution, though, the rebel leader Jeroboam decides he would rather hang on to his newfound power, setting up idols to keep people from going to Jerusalem to worship (1 Kings 12). The people of the Northern Kingdom never look back, doubling down on Jeroboam’s idolatry, and chasing after Ba’al and all manner of wickedness. 

Lusting after wealth & power always leads us to sacrifice faithfulness. It’s a predictable progression. Lust leads to idolatry (spiritual failure) which leads to injustice (ethical failure). Injustice seeks justification, furthering idolatry, but in greater blindness. “Those who make [idols] will be like them” (Ps. 115:8). Idols demand sacrifice, but offer no blessing in return. In the same way, we demand ever-increasing sacrifices to our pride, which eventually comes out in political action to gain what we want from others and keep it.

Our Present Apocalypse
None of this repudiates legitimate petition of powers and authorities to do what they are called to do (to preserve the good and punish evil—Rom 13, etc.), but seeking to wield the worldly power of the sword under the aegis of “the people of God” is always going to go poorly. We need to cultivate a political theology of humility that recognizes that various temptations of Christian nationalism are always knocking at our door, hoping to be let in by our pride and overconfidence.

It will result, in the long run (and sometimes in an astonishingly short one) a church that looks less and less like Jesus, the embodiment of God’s mercy and provision, and more and more like the cutthroat, corrupt systems of the world. 

In America, most churches are pretty deep into this ditch. My prayer—and it is a prayer not, sadly, a hope based in any empirical evidence—is that the current crisis (of Covid-19 and its disastrous economic effects) can catch us in our tracks, and lead our churches back to being communities that demonstrate God’s love in all our social and economic arrangements. I pray it may be a moment to take stock, to repent, and to rebuild in ways that show just how distinct the church is. I pray for a spiritual revival in our country, and with it a revival of justice and mercy in our churches, and how we interact with politics. This time is an apocalypse—unveiling the depth of cultural depravity in ways that I hope will not be allowed to ignore any longer.

The church needs to re-assert its distinctiveness from the world, boldly proclaiming an alternative witness against the status quo. This, I think, is precisely what Jesus speaks of in his statements about salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). We are to season the world, to preserve God’s image & likeness in how we live among one another. We are to illuminate the world, to reveal injustice & light the path to restoration. 

The salt without savor is a church in which the character of God has been pushed aside in favor of the characteristics of the world. The light under a bushel is a church that is not doing justly and loving mercy and so has nothing to offer to those seeking hope in the midst of oppression. If we think we’re upholding Christian values but see no conflict with worldly political power, we may already be worshipping the false god of Christian nationalism. That’s what Franz Jägerstätter was trying to teach us.

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)—or as another John (Prine) sang, “your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”

Image: The church of St. Valentin in Seis am Schlern, Italy, used in filming A Hidden Life. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.