Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Missional Politics: What is Truth?

Kevin Drum, of Mother Jones magazine did some data crunching of results from Politifact's fact-checking service (How Honest is Your Favorite Candidate?). The actual ranking of specific candidates is irrelevant for the purposes of this blogpost. My goal is not to tell you who to vote for, or even which party.If you want the details, you can click and see for your self.

What is most interesting to me is this little nugget:
"Among Republicans, honesty is the exact inverse of popularity. Jeb Bush is the most honest, and he's got the lowest poll numbers among the serious candidates. Donald Trump and Ben Carson are the least honest by quite a bit, and they're also leading the field by quite a bit. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are in the middle on both honesty and popularity."
As Drum says, "It's almost as if the Republican electorate wants to be lied to, and the more you lie, the more they like you."

If you distrust something published by the left leaning Mother Jones, a Fox News poll in November polled people on which candidates are honest vs. not honest. Ben Carson scored highest, at +34.  Hillary Clinton, who came in at negative 28.

The question then arises: When someone talks about honesty, what do they mean by that word? Obviously the folks at Politifact have a different definition than the "1,230 randomly chosen registered voters nationwide" who responded to the Fox poll.

As I've read and listened to what's being  written and said about the candidates, two distinct concepts of honesty keep popping up. They couldn't be more different.

The first approach to honesty is one I've heard over and over during this presidential campaign season, summarized succinctly in this quote:
“His honesty, he’s blunt, he tells it like it is...” (a Trump supporter, quoted at
That sentiment is spoken often about Donald Trump, but similar comments have been made in reference to other candidates as well.

At the other end of the spectrum is a comment made by Ashe Schow, on Schow is ranking the candidates after one of the GOP debates last October, and says this about Jeb Bush:
"Where he excelled: His answer to the very first question about his greatest weakness was more honest than any of the other candidates. He actually gave a weakness: He’s impatient, and the presidency calls for patience."
Whatever you think of Jeb Bush or of that answer in particular, it certainly is an example of a much different definition of honesty. It was blunt in the sense that it didn't hold back. He did indeed "tell it like it is". But he was being blunt and to the point about his own weakness, not bluntly rude and scathing in pointing out the weakness of an opponent or a policy.

I'm not here to talk about the accuracy of either of those statements about the candidates' character, nor am I trying to build up or tear down any specific candidates.

My concern is about the definition of honesty, from a biblical point of view.

I've heard (and read on social media) several Christians use phrases "he tells it like it is" and "blunt" and "he really lets them have it" in describing the honesty they see in some candidates.

If these same Christians were preaching or teaching about Jesus as the Truth (as in, "I am the truth, the way, and the life"), would they use those words to describe Jesus' honesty? For that matter, even if you don't think of yourself as a preacher or teacher, but just a "regular Christian", is that the concept of honesty you talk about when you're sharing your faith with your friends and neighbors and co-workers?

One biblical character famously scoffed at the idea of a perfect standard for truth.  "What is truth?" he famously asked. The words were spoken, of course, by a politician.

Some will (and have) objected: We're not electing a preacher-in-chief. We're electing a commander-in-chief.

Yes, that's true, but I would counter: There's only one definition of truth and honesty, and it should apply in your fishing boat on Saturday, in church on Sunday, in the office on Monday, and on the campaign trail, no matter what day it is. In season and out of season.

Many people fail miserably and many more fail occasionally to live up to the biblical concept of honesty. Many of those who fail are believers, like me.

The biblical concept of truth and honesty is defined by Jesus himself, the perfect example of honesty.

Was Jesus direct? Did he speak the truth even when it was unpopular? Did his honesty sometimes offend and upset people? Yes, yes, and yes, you'd better believe it.

Was Jesus ever rude or vulgar? Was Jesus sarcastic in his truth-telling, ridiculing people? Did  he shade the truth in order to gain popularity? No, no, and no again.

Fellow believers, support whomever you will. Vote for whichever candidate you think will make the best president.

But please don't destroy your witness and lay down a political stumbling block for seekers by using the word "honesty" to describe any politician's dishonesty. Let's not praise the ones who practice deception by putting a self-serving spin on everything they say. And let's not praise the alternate flavor of deception, the ones who try to pass off rudeness and sarcasm as honesty.

Missional politics means always being more concerned about winning people to Christ rather than winning them to a political candidate or viewpoint. As I said in the current issue of Christian Standard magazine (Theology in the Public Square),
Have you considered whether your freedom of political expression might interfere with your ability to be heard when you talk about Jesus?
When it comes to honesty, the mature Christian will avoid the craftiness of deceitful leaders and will instead speak the truth in love, just as Jesus did.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:14-15)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Missional Politics: What tree would you be?

Barbara Walters once famously asked Katherine Hepburn, "What kind of tree are you?"

Take a look, if you would, at the picture accompanying this blog post, and consider the same question: What kind of tree are you?

Admit it. You're also asking yourself, what does this have to do with missional politics? That depends upon your answer about the tree.

I took this picture out the window of the building where my office is. Every Autumn this tree turns a brilliant red before any of the other trees have even begun to notice the days are getting shorter. As I wrote when I posted the picture on my Facebook timeline, "There's always that one tree that just has to be a show off and be the first with the fall fashions."

Maybe that's how you see yourself when you look at the picture. You're the kind of person who is a bit ahead of your time. You're an "early adopter" of new technology. You're a dedicated consumer of news and information, from both traditional and new media, so you often know what's trending and what's coming up next in culture and in politics.

Or maybe you may see yourself as the tree that dares to be different, standing up tall for what it believes. Whether it's religion or politics, you're not afraid to speak your mind and be seen as the different one.

Or perhaps the tree makes you think of how you're on fire for Jesus. You're always eager to represent Jesus' point of views about religion, culture, or politics, .

Actually, none of those metaphorical descriptions fit this picture.

This tree turns earlier than the neighboring trees every fall because it's not healthy.

I'm no tree expert, but I suspect there's something wrong with the roots, or with the soil around the roots. This tiny forest is wedged between a large industrial park and a four-lane divided highway in the middle of a mid-sized city. No telling what's in the ground and in the little creek that trickles next to the road bed.

I know that's why it turns early every year because the tree next to was previously the one that was always previous with its changes. As you can probably tell, it's now dead. Really most sincerely dead.

Which is where missional politics comes into the picture.

My definition of being "missional" is that in whatever you're doing, whether you're having a cup of coffee with someone, watching a game with the guys, or discussing politics, the Christians priority should ALWAYS be to bring glory to God and to be planting or nurturing seeds aimed at drawing others toward God.

I use the term "missional politics" to describe an approach to politics that is driven by a strong commitment to pursue God's mission first, with politics kept subservient to that mission. Theology drives the mission and the mission drives everything else, including politics.

Over the past couple of decades I've watched the rapid growth of the Christian community losing perspective in regard to politics. The political tail too often is wagging the gospel dog. I see Christians - from national church leaders to personal friends - becoming so obsessed with their political point of view that whenever the subject du jour is politics, basic Christian virtues are forgotten.

Truth is spun, kindness is overwhelmed by insult, and peacemaking loses out to polarization.

I've spent a lot of time talking to people, researching, and just plain thinking hard to understand what is at the root of Christians taking an un-Christian approach to politics.

As it turns out, the root is exactly where the problem is.

Starting in the 1980's with the advent of cable news networks and talk radio, there has been an information glut in America. Easy access to the internet has multiplied that flood of input exponentially.

With that flood has come competition, and the best way to compete for the eyes and ears of the information consumers is be emphasizing the extreme, the radical, the loud and eye-popping.

With that radicalization has grown an increasing compartmentalization of news sources.  If you're ears are tickled by salacious celebrity gossip, there are channels and sites and apps for that. If your antennae are attuned to conservative ideas, or liberal ideas, or libertarian ideas, or alternative paranoid alarmist ideas, there's a whole constellation of sources to feed your preconceptions.

As a result, here we are in 2016 with more information at our fingertips than we ever dreamed possible, but most of us are choosing to our consumption to nibbling at only a few select dishes on the smorgasbord.

Like a tree being feed an uneven diet of toxic nutrition, the average Christian's powers of discernment are being slowly poisoned. We're consuming so much of a limited range of information, we can no longer recognize the validity or existence of alternative ideas.

Like the beautiful red tree in the picture, we're proud to be the oddball in the crowd, the one is getting the good info and possesses all the right opinions about every topic.

Worst of all, with constant feedback from our favored sources, continually reinforcing our confidence in the rightness of our views and our cause, we begin to listen to those voices more than we listen to that other voice inside us. The Holy Spirit voice. The one that keeps trying to pull us back to the Bible, back to our purpose as Christians, back to the fruit of the Spirit and humility and mission.
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. (Psalm 1:1-4)
It's a radical idea, I know. It's a radical approach to politics, one that isn't always easy to stick with. I have plenty of personal opinions about politics and issues and politicians. But I work hard to keep from being a pundit, someone who always has to comment or tweet or blog about the latest news and my hot take on the proper political perspective.

It's losing perspective that has been the problem. People are more interested in being right than in being righteousness.

The word "radical" comes from radix, the Latin term for "roots." Radical righteousness and truly radical politics comes from having the right roots.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Exchanging the Old Rugged Cross for a Crown

Wayne Ward, 1932-2015
I'm listening today to a Southern Gospel Radio collection on Pandora, in honor of my father-in-law, Wayne Ward. He loved listening to southern gospel and bluegrass music. He wore out countless tapes during his years riding the gravel roads of rural Pike County, Illinois, delivering the mail to his neighbors in snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night.

When his two oldest kids were teenagers, he organized a family band to travel all over, performing the music he loved. It was during those years that Karen, my wife, his daughter, polished that rousing southern gospel piano style she's still known for.

Among the songs Pandora queued up for my listening enjoyment today has been more than one version of the venerable standard, The Old Rugged Cross. In just two hours of listening, I've heard the song three times, by three different artists.

I have to confess I was not fond of The Old Rugged Cross for many years. This was entirely due to hearing it played and sung at a funereal pace. I've known it to take 15 minutes and more to make it through the entire song.

This is really a shame, because it's a brilliant song of celebration. Try to wipe your embedded memories of the song as you've heard it, and take a look at those lyrics. It's not intended to be a sad song, but a song of joy and celebration.

We think it's supposed to be somber because it talks about the cross as an 'emblem of suffering and shame.' But doesn't Paul say 'we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance '(Romans 5:3)? Songs about glorying tend to be rousing, not drowsing.

The songwriter says, 'and I love that old cross where the dearest and best, for a world of lost sinners was slain.' I suspect the traditional dirge-like pacing of the song has much to do with its topic of a cruel death on the torturous cross. But Paul, again, has a different perspective: 'May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)' When's the last time you heard a boasting song that didn't have some swagger and attitude?

The words of the song itself belie the somber treatment it seems to engender in so many. These are not regretful, weepy words:
'Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, Has a wondrous attraction for me'

'In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, A wondrous beauty I see'

'Its shame and reproach gladly bear'
The only reason to sing those words with mournful regret is if we don't actually believe what we're singing. It's a song of love and a song of triumphant victory, as the chorus affirms:
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it someday for a crown.
Let me tell you, when I exchange the cross for a crown of victory, I'm going to be dancing and pumping my fists into the air.

When the ladies in our Monday night congregation request 'The Old Rugged Cross', as they often do, some of them are a bit surprised at the pace and rhythm I set with my guitar, but they should know that I'm actually holding back. I'd love to sing that song with the same vigor and excitement we reserve for 'I'll Fly Away' and 'Awesome God' and 'Rockin' in the House of God'.

I don't know how my father-in-law preferred to hear and sing 'The Old Rugged Cross.' I suspect he enjoyed it no matter how it was performed, as he certainly must have heard it presented over and over again at all those concerts and festivals he attended.

On Sunday night he joined my Mom and Dad on heaven's front porch. I picture my Dad playing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ on the piano, playing it by ear in his usual ragtime/swing style. Wayne reaches up and tilts that crown jauntily to one side of his head and harmonizes with my Mom as they sing the words of the song, knowing the day has come and it is even more wonderful than they ever imagined.
Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

Originally posted January 20, 2015

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Meditation Metaphor: Let it Snow

There's nothing quite like a big snow to capture my attention. Assuming I don't have to drive on the streets in a bad snowstorm, I love a snowy day.

With a toasty fire in the fireplace and a warm cup of coffee (decaf for me, please) in my hands, I can stand looking out the window for a long time, watching the snowflakes as they drift down from the sky and then drift into piles on the ground.

It fills me with a sense of peace and comfort, along with wonder at the intricacy of the seasons' clock. The clockmaker is a true craftsman. He has assembled a clockwork that not only has kept the seasons progression on schedule for thousands of years but also is capable of producing such beauty.

As the hours pass I realize that I can't just huddle in the warmth of my home and watch the snow fall. There's a snow shovel calling my name and a driveway to be cleared.

Once I'm outside the snowy scene takes on a whole different character from the one I was watching through the window.

The snow is cold and stings a bit when it touches my face. The wind and the air is also quite cold, sending a chill into my body that even my boots, overcoat, stocking cap, and gloves can't entirely ward away.

While each snowflake is barely heavier than the air itself, the drifted snow in my driveway has significant weight to it. I'm careful to slowly reacquaint myself with the proper body mechanics required for extended shoveling without extensive pain.

The physical exertion in the cold and snow is actually energizing. My blood gets to pumping and my muscles come alive with the effort.

Beyond the physical effects, there's a more elemental reaction that always comes from actually being out in the snow. No matter how old I get (I'm 57 now), being out in the snow makes me want to play.

The neighbors' kids have already given in to that urge. They're building a massive snow fort in the yard and offer to help me shovel if they can tote the snow over to their ramparts and battlements.

The youngest kids are more interested in catching snowflakes on their tongues and making snow angels.

When I need a break from the shoveling, I'll see how well their half-built fort can withstand a snowball attack. When they gang up on me and fell the giant with their return fire, I may indulge myself in  making a giant snow angel myself.
My flesh trembles in fear of you;
     I stand in awe of your laws.
(Psalm 119:120)

I delight in your commands
     because I love them.
(Psalm 118:47)
Those two verses paint a picture of two sides of the experience of meditating on the Word.

I've gained a great appreciation of God's character and his wisdom by spending time looking at the scriptures. His Word gives me comfort and inspiration.

What I would miss out on, though, if all I ever did was to stand at the window into His Word and observe from a distance.

My greatest joy in the Word comes when I go deeper, letting God's truths surround me and sting my heart with their startling intensity. What joy there is in flinging myself wholly into the teachings of the Bible and making snow angels in the precepts.

And what greater joy still when I suit up and go out into the world and make use of His wisdom in the work He has puts in my path. It energizes me through and through, and helps me to appreciate the beauty of His Word even more when I'm at rest, observing what He has done through the window of my Bible.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Now in Print: Strategy Sessions with Jesus

From my latest article in the current issue of Lookout magazine:
For anyone who, like Jesus, is active in doing God’s work on the go, prayer becomes a natural part of life, like it was for him. The more I’ve been involved in doing God’s mission, working with a team that includes leaders, apprentices, and the Lord himself, my prayer life has grown stronger. Seeing prayer as a natural extension of ministry-minded conversation replaces “I have to pray” with “I need to talk to my ministry partner.”
Link: Strategy Sessions with Jesus