Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

American flag and Christian flag

How’s that for a divisive post title?

Here’s the thing though, it really shouldn’t be divisive (and I did not intend it as clickbait). From both a US political history perspective and a Christian perspective, it should be acknowledged as both historical fact and a good thing. Nothing I’m going to say in this post is new, but I hope it can provoke some reevaluation on our parts, as I believe we’ve gotten way off course.

Let’s take a minute to review the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This was important. The founders reviewed history and recognized what happens when the government enforces a state religion – contrary to the peaceful teachings of most religions, the result was essentially always bad. We see that even with some of the first Europeans coming to America: although we severely sanitize the story, we all remember the pilgrims and Puritans coming to the New World to escape religious persecution. They were Christians seeking to escape persecution in their Christian nation.

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Hand tossing a rock

There’s a three-word declaration that is almost impossible for us to say. It contradicts human nature, which seeks to deny fault for a mistake (or even to deny there ever was a mistake). This declaration requires an effort that is counter to that nature and a humility to accept responsibility.

It’s much easier for us to say, “It’s not my fault!” and point the finger at someone else. If we trace back to the story of the first humans in the book of Genesis, that’s basically how humanity began. I ate the fruit, but it’s her fault for giving it to me. She made me do it!

Our culture hates signs of weakness, and it despises what it considers to be step-backs. If you make an inflammatory claim, you stand behind it. If someone factually disproves it, you attack them personally and turn the mob on them. Don’t ever suggest you made a mistake. Don’t ever flinch. Keep attacking, regardless of the fight.

I believe this approach is entirely unhealthy. I also believe that change starts with the individual, and I can only control myself. So here’s my confession.

I was wrong.

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Woman in busy street surrounded by people

Life can be really challenging. And you’re not alone in that.

I know, those statements seem obvious. But so often we get caught up in our social media whirlwind, where we see only what people want the world to see. People post only the highlights from their job, their marriage, their families. Aside from some potty humor, people don’t usually post about how many blowouts they’ve dealt with from their newborn child today.

It’s not just social media, though. Our culture’s been this way for a long time. We see it all around us in movies and television, where things just seem a bit more idyllic. Even with some of the more recent shows that have delved into tougher topics, they still simplify them in a way that make them seem either easily solvable or not actually something many people deal with.

That’s a problem. We see that, and then when it happens to us, we think there aren’t really many others going through it. We also think if it takes us more than 22 minutes to resolve it, we must have serious issues.

But it’s not true. Life can be really challenging. For all of us. You’re not alone.

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Sparkler firework and American Flag

Today we celebrate our country and the great experiment that began nearly 250 years ago.

It is a good thing to enjoy time with friends and family and commemorate important events in our history. That’s something we’re pretty good at with Independence Day.

However, it’s also vitally important to reflect on the shortcomings in our history and see how we can strive to do better. That’s something we’re not quite as good at.

The big tagline of the past several years, both positive and negative (depending on your perspective) is “Make America Great Again.” This tagline assumes two things: America was once great, and it’s not anymore.

Now at the risk of people immediately refusing to read the rest of this piece and branding me as unpatriotic, I would like to humbly suggest that America has yet to actually achieve the greatness for which it was built to strive. However, for those who want to immediately brand me as unpatriotic, please consider this: I’m merely stating my belief that America is not currently great. By definition, so are the people who adhere to the tagline Make America Great Again.

This does not mean we haven’t seen glimpses or experienced fragments of greatness. This country has become the most powerful nation on earth, so if we measure greatness simply in terms of might, then we’re there. We have been for a long time, and we will likely continue to be.

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“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” –Luke 9:25

This question (also found in Matthew 16:26 and Mark 8:36) has been constantly in the back of my mind over the past several years. I believe it is one of the most powerful questions of self-reflection we’ve ever had, and it’s taken on even more importance recently. It’s time we ask it of ourselves.

One of the clichés of history is that it repeats itself, but we see it every day. If we read the gospels, we see an era when the people of God were desperate for a savior. And they knew what their savior looked like: a political hero. Their idea of a Godly kingdom was very worldly-focused.

When Jesus showed up on the scene, he dismissed all efforts to politicize his message. At least, he refused to apply his message to worldly politics. His message is actually incredibly political.

His followers wanted him to overthrow Rome and restore Israel to its former glory. They wanted him to Make Israel Great Again, so to speak. But here’s the irony of such a suggestion: if we read through the history of Israel, it’s hard to find a time when it was truly great in the way God called it to be. The times when the people were following God’s call on their lives were very few and short-lived. Greatness in the eyes of God is radically different from greatness in the eyes of the world.

Instead, Jesus stepped into a world where the Jews felt persecuted. They were the minority, and the Romans around them engaged in lifestyle choices and belief systems that the Jews couldn’t possibly support. They were threatened.

Thank God, Jesus showed up. He was the promised savior, ready to restore Israel’s greatness! And if you’re a follower of Jesus, you believe that’s exactly what he did. In fact, you believe he did something far more than that: he fulfilled the old covenant and created an entirely new one that wasn’t exclusive to Israel. This new structure allowed anyone to be part of this Kingdom of God. He didn’t Make Israel Great Again, he Made the World Great (Again?).

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Chain link fence

Note: I actually wrote both this and the previous post last week before the latest graphic image and news of the man and his daughter drowning in the Rio Grande while attempting to cross to come to the US. Countless pieces have been shared specifically about this image and what it represents, including an excellent one by The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott.

My last post went in-depth on what the word “Samaritan” actually means and how we should consider it for today. That focused on the parable of the Good Samaritan and applying it on an individual one-on-one basis.

Now I’d like to look at what that means on a larger scale. Dehumanizing groups of people has always been a part of human history, and if anything, it is stronger than ever today. When the most powerful person on earth has spoken repeatedly of groups of people as “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists,” due only to their nationality, saying “these aren’t people. These are animals” about anyone (even gang members), and professing entire groups of people as “the enemy of the people” simply because they report things he doesn’t like (even if provably true), we need to reevaluate.

I mentioned in the previous post about the need to try to place ourselves in tragic moments to better identify and empathize with the victims. It forces us to actually reckon with issues rather than claiming “that would never happen in my community.” It forces us to really evaluate what matters most. Continue reading

Stained glass window image of Good Samaritan

We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of those stories that we learn in Sunday School, VeggieTales, or even just as a brief religious example of a non-religious truth: love your neighbor.

But I think we need a few reminders that are often sidetracked within the story. First, how the parable is introduced. You see, it doesn’t start with a hypothetical man going from Jerusalem to Jericho. It starts with an actual man asking Jesus a question.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” “What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?” [The man] answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” -Luke 10:25-27

First things first, the man is testing Jesus. It’s not an authentic question. Let’s continue:

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But [the man] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” -Luke 10:28-29

The man wants to justify himself. He’s not really looking for “eternal life” or anything beyond praise for being such an awesome guy who is already doing what Jesus is telling people to do: love God and love others. But this is where Jesus goes into the parable, undermining the man’s superior self-image by revealing his hypocrisy.

It’s problematic how well we know this story, and how often we sanitize the term “Good Samaritan.” Anytime we pass someone we don’t know in need of assistance and offer the most minimal of aid, we consider ourselves Good Samaritans. That’s not what Jesus described.

To summarize the text (Luke 10:30-32), the traveler is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a journey that was historically extremely dangerous due to the presence of thieves and robbers. Sure enough, he is stripped, beaten, and left half-dead on the street. Then two people pass by, and these are the two people you’d most expect to help: a priest and a Levite. Levites served alongside priests with special duties to assist them.

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