Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Something Only Prayer Can Do

The South Carolina primary was pretty interesting.  Quite suddenly Mr. Gingrich is in the running again.  For some of those who are outraged over Mr. Romney’s 15 % tax rate this is wonderful news.  For some of those who are outraged at Mr. Gingrich’s marital infidelities it is depressing.

Outrage drives many of us during an election year.  It might be outrage over taxes or the decay of the family or abortion or something else.  But it rises as an expression of our hope that there really is, deep down, a moral order to things.  The cynics among us laugh at this.  For them there is no moral order, or (if there is) it is either not discernable or it is of no real interest to politicians, whose every decision (cynics say) is controlled by polls rather than principles. 

Should a Christian be a cynic or an idealist?  Probably a little bit of both.  I know I am both.  I am with the idealists when it comes to my confidence that there is an underlying moral order to things and that, one day, it will be fully vindicated.  But I am with the cynics in some ways as well (though I do think I am cynical)—for a couple of reasons.   First I sometimes share the cynic’s discernment problem—say for example when it comes to deciding about economic policies.  My second reason runs deeper.  I have my doubts about the lasting impact of policies or candidates—even really good ones. 

What our country needs most deeply can neither be legislated nor voted into office.  We need the sort of self-policing that comes from a widespread sense of accountability to a divine Person who sees and measures everything we think and do—what an earlier generation called an Awakening.   

Think about it.  Regulating financial behavior may have some value but there is no way of regulating greed out of the human heart: there will always be any number of financial wunderkinds who can find their way around regulations.   Let me put things positively.  When the people of a land genuinely fear God, they are less greedy (and therefore more generous), less predatory and promiscuous in sexual matters (leading to a diminished felt need for abortion), more faithful in their marriages (with happier and less wayward children), and more responsible towards the environment.  You can probably think of other benefits.

I am not suggesting we stop trying to write good laws or to get good people in office.      Nor am I encouraging us to be revivalist utopians.  No matter how broadly and deeply a genuine fear of God might reach in America, we will still have to await the return of Christ for things to be put fully right.

I am simply trying to persuade the church to keep praying.  As I said last blog, praying is something any Christian can do, a great consolation at those moments when we feel that the issues are beyond our understanding or control.  And praying is something we must do.  If the church does not obey Jesus and pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” who will? 

Praying is not ‘feel good’ behavior, a way to avoid the depressing fact that we have no real influence over the world.  It is obedient behavior—which should be reason enough to do it.  It is powerful behavior.  This we do not yet fully see—but one day we will.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Something we all can do during the primaries

Now that the field is beginning to narrow in the Republican race for the nomination, the gloves are off.  Claiming that Mr. Romney was brutal to him in Iowa, Mr. Gingrich has decided to answer in kind as the South Carolina primary approaches.  The cynic in me smirks and plans to watch the brawl from a distance—not a stance I am proud of.  The better man in me remembers that Jesus commands me to love my neighbor as myself.  This means for starters that I have to love Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney, whom I must labor not to turn into mere media figures—the incarnation of the few sound bites I manage to hear from them.  And then I have to move past them to the people in my neighborhood, and then the people of my country and the people that my country has an impact on.  When I start thinking this way, I begin to understand why it is so tempting to be cynical.  If I were to really care, I would be overwhelmed: The world out there is too big—the issues too complex—the forces at work too powerful—the personalities too subtle. 

I sometimes wonder if the ardent true believer among us is just the flip side of the cynic.  In neither case is there a willingness or an ability to deal with how complicated everything and everybody actually is.

What do we do?  There is no single answer.  We all have different callings—different gifts, different types of opportunities.  But if we are Christians there is one thing we all can do.  The shut-in who can’t get out to the polling station can do it, as can the twelve-year-old who is not old enough to vote, the conscientious citizen who has studied an issue carefully and is still confused about it, the civil servant who is dismayed by the corruption and inefficiency in the department where he works, the soldier on the battlefield, the official in the State Department struggling with how best to respond to an international crisis, the missionary who is being thrown out of an Islamic nation whose government has just turned radical, the national believer who is on trial for her faith, the young black who is pulled over on the highway for racial reasons.   We can all pray.

Not only can we pray.  We must pray.  If the church does not pray for “God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven,” who will?  Just how we pray is the subject for another blog.  Let me say this much here.  If the Bible is to be believed, praying is the most powerful and strategic thing we could ever do for our country. 

We may assent to this—but I don’t think we really believe it.  Question.  How much time (how many actual minutes—count them) did you spend last week praying for the country, praying for President Obama, praying for the candidates in the race for the Republican nomination, praying about whatever issue is really exercising you at the moment?

Some of the Freudians among us might say that politics (like everything else) is just sublimated sex.  I wonder if politics isn’t rather sublimated prayer.  We fight politically because we do not know how to pray politically.  Think about that.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A New Year's Resolution for the Church

This New Year is also an election year.  As I write things in Iowa are humming as Republican candidates face their first formal electoral challenge.  Interestingly enough for our discussion on this blog, the news media are reporting that the Evangelical opinion is divided on which Republican candidate is the best.  Does this promise, I wonder, even further fragmentation in the church—not simply between Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans, but even among the Christian Republicans?  Who knows.

Political disagreement among Christians is bound to happen—even among Republican Christians.  And to my way of thinking this is OK.  It proves that we are thinking.  If we are really wrestling with the complex issues before us, we will not all agree on the best strategy for nudging our country in the right direction.

But there is one thing I hope very much that Christians can all agree on--one thing I would like to recommend as a suitable New Years’ Resolution for the church during an election year.  It is this: That in the midst of all the important and valid political discussion of 2012, we will not be diverted from our essential tasks.

There are certain things that simply will not happen if the church does not do them.  They are (1) praying for God’s kingdom to come, (2) evangelizing and discipling the nations, and (3) caring for the poor and weak in Jesus’ name.  To do these things right calls for an enormous expenditure of time and energy—much of which can be siphoned off during an election year if we give the wrong sort of attention to power politics. 

Notice I say “power politics”—by which I mean the politics of election, and by which I mean to remind us all that “politics” in the broader sense (politics as the science and practice of learning how to live together) is a major concern of the gospel and continues whether or not we are campaigning in the narrow sense.   When the church stays on target—when she keeps her priorities properly—she actually contributes in the most powerful way imaginable to the improvement of politics in this broad sense.  And when the church allows herself to get politicized—pushing hard for this or that “man made” solution, she actually robs her neighbors of their greatest social and political need—namely the new heart that the grace of God at the cross alone can bring.

Let me put it this way.  Societies change most dramatically as people change, one by one, from the inside out, rather than by the imposition of rules and restraints from the outside in or from the top down.  Sometimes, of course, those restraints must be imposed. That is why God established our government, and why we respect it and the process we are engaged in this year: Without God’s rule through our government, our natural selfishness would reign uncontrollably and make living together impossible. But a greater glory shines, and a better society thrives, when people voluntarily come to bow with joy before the King of kings and this heartfelt allegiance spills over into all of life. Renewed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who writes God’s moral law on the heart (see Ezekiel 36:25–28), people need less and less the fear of governmental sanctions to make them live as they should.

Who is responsible for advancing this powerful and strategic solution to society’s woes? Clearly, it is the church.   So let’s stay focused.  Someone (was it Casey Stengel?) has said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  Let that be our 2012 New Year’s resolution.