Not being American, it’s pointless to a degree my expressing a preference between John McCain and Barack Obama. Except that the winner will be so influential on the UK and the world that it matters.
So I was pleased to read this open letter from James Emery White to whoever the victor is. It is the measure of a Christian attitude. It is so different from what I have read elsewhere from some Christians. Take Focus On The Family Action’s hysteria-inducing hypothetical letter imagining what the USA would look like in 2012 after the first term of an Obama presidency. (One reaction has been a bipartisan Facebook group opposing it.) Or whole blogs like Ohnobama. Or the incredible nonsense that Sarah Palin prophetically is Esther.
Now I’m aware that all the stuff I’ve denounced above is from one particular camp – the religious right. I know that filth exists on the left, too. Certainly Palin (while she cannot be a modern-day Esther – who was the king and who were the other concubines? :)) has been the victim of misrepresentation of her faith. One article on Huffington Post comes to mind. It is a mixture of genuine research and tangential ‘guilt by association’ insinuation.
And I know too that none of this should be surprising. It exposes the gulf between claims that people want high office in order to serve others and the reality that it is a grab for power. If you want power for yourself or whoever you support, you’ll adopt a ‘by any means necessary’ approach.
Nor is this about a Brit wanting to have a go at Americans. Whatever our more reserved characters, we know enough about aggressive politics. PMQ, anyone? And neither Biden nor Palin have ‘done a Prescott’:
And my complaint isn’t about wanting to treat politics as if it doesn’t matter. It does. Christians can’t disregard it. Just concentrating on evangelism and dismissing a so-called ‘social gospel’ is sub-biblical.
Surely as Christians we can model something different for the world, where we are passionate about what we believe, even when we differ among ourselves, yet do so with humility and love. It seems to me that James Emery White’s tone models such a spirit.
I can sympathise with some of the reservations about Obama. I find his stance on abortion awful. (Although if I am to be pro-life – and I am – then that extends after the womb and takes in issues such as war and poverty, too.) I also have concerns about McCain. His tax proposals appear to favour the wealthy. (Yet on the other hand I think his stance as a Republican on green issues is noteworthy.) So it’s easy to see why Christians with particular areas of concern gravitate strongly for or against a particular candidate.
What, then, has made many Christian voices so indistinct in tone from secular ones? We have a regular problem in the church of being squeezed into the world’s mould, as J B Phillips put it. But are there particular factors either causing or exacerbating the situation?
I suspect that at least as far as the religious right is concerned, we ought to take a look at the ‘prophetic movement’. It’s been in play for several years, and led to the view that George W Bush was God’s anointed, and woe betide any Christian who disagreed. A British Christian friend of mine who works in the States with a charity that is developing drug treatments for people with AIDS couldn’t believe just how true the picture was of evangelical alignment with the Republican Party.
Yet that wasn’t going on so much a few months ago in this campaign, if I understand correctly. Disgruntlement with how McCain viewed certain issues dear to the Christian right’s agenda meant was surely a major reason why evangelical and fundamentalist churches weren’t holding voter registration drives with such enthusiasm this time. My hunch, watching from a few thousand miles away, is that it all changed when McCain announced Sarah Palin has his running mate. Not seeing that McCain surely thought of her for pragmatic reasons: he needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat so as to bring a major Republican constituency into the voting booth, suddenly Palin was the person God had kept everyone waiting for. No wonder ‘prophetic words’ began to flow. (And, please note, I believe in prophetic words. But I also believe in testing them.)
Is it part of a lust to believe we are living in times that are comparable to biblical ones, and therefore they have to be graded as such by prophecies? Are these things some kind of sign taken to mean that we are in some sense more faithful to biblical spirituality? Are we just not content to get on with days of small things (Zecharaiah 4:10) and be faithful in a few things (Matthew 25:21, 23)?
Put this approach together with the ‘grab for power’ I mentioned earlier and we have a flammable combination that leads Christians to spend more time ‘praying against’ rather than the ‘praying for’ which White exemplifies.
I don’t wish to make it sound like White’s is the only sane voice around. That would be arrogant and ignorant. It didn’t take too long to find this sane post from Rob Harrison, a Christian Republican, arguing moderately in favour of the Grand Old Party, expressing deep reservations about Obama and explaining why he thinks Hillary Clinton would have been a better Democratic candidate. From a different stable comes Jim Wallis’ post, ‘My Personal ‘Faith Priorities’ for this Election‘. (Wallis has also called on James Dobson to apologise for the ‘2012 letter’.) I know Wallis is technically independent, but most of his faith priorities lean in Obama’s direction.
So it’s galling to keep hearing the nonsense when there are thoughtful voices in the debate. Somewhere a big section of us in the church has lost a grip on servant leadership and that we see through a glass darkly, not clearly.
even if I don’t share what sounds like a cynicism in the lyrics towards all politicians. Nevertheless, it is a timely warning for all those who offer Barack Obama semi-messianic adulation or who see John McCain (but really Sarah Palin?) as God’s anointed.
Is it too late to hope for more Christlike tone as well as content to Christian contributions regarding the election, both in terms of an increase in quantity and a greater prominence to the careful voices that are in danger of being drowned out? It’s so close to the end of the campaign that for anyone to say this now is humanly a forlorn hope. I’d like to think it might be different in four years’ time. For that to happen, the church will have to have been chastened. That might mean a whole run of failed ‘prophecies’, but it would take a lot for even that to lead to repentance in some circles. My fear is that even something that goes against the grain will just lead to a reframing of them.
But you never know. We might learn humility one day.
This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.
At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.
But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.
And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.
How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).
‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?
But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.
‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.
She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.
When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.
‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:
Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)
Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.
‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.
There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).
Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.
In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.
So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.
This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?
We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.
But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.
In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.
In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’
And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.
One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’
If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.
Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).
This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.