February 3, 2017

Good afternoon, Donald

Photo credit: Geoff Hsu
Good afternoon, Donald.

I was thinking this morning that we have something else in common, besides being dads. You work for the government of a nation within which I am a citizen. I work for the Church of which, I hear, you are a member of (not the same "branch" but you know what I mean). What we have in common is that both of us work for institutions actively redefining their history, reality and future.

For example, your campaign slogan: "Make America Great Again." It alludes to an America that once was; an America that was Christian and white, an America with a fixed sense of ideals that were always there and never changing.

I've seen something similar in the Church. We talk about the past as if there was an era of Christian greatness long gone. We speak as if our understanding of Scripture, of God, have never changed, have always been the same. We act as if certain practices, architecture, songs and instruments-shaped by a particular culture, have always been the tools with which all worshiped. The images in our stained glass windows are as white-washed as your depiction of America. We often look askance at those that suggest things might need to change, that different tools are required in a different time and place.

Those we look sideways at, they threaten the agenda of what many believe once was. Often, when push comes to shove, it'd be better to demonize and marginalize those that would suggest deviation from the return to greater days. You know what that's like, right? You've done that to the countless "losers" who would dare defy your mission to return America to her greatness.

You've proven that fear works. Most of your speeches illicit images of a horrifying America. I feel the sense of urgency I assume you're hoping for whenever you speak; it will all fall apart unless we act now.

The Church can relate. We've been preaching doom for ages! I can't tell you how many Christian leaders bemoan congregation decline and the alarming culture around us. Like you, the message tends to point back to a past era of greatness, casting an image of the future that looks like a bygone time.

I'll hand it to you, it's a method that works. At least to a certain extent. I've watched it convince congregations to make decisions that do, in fact, change their future.

But let's be honest, the long ago era of Christian greatness is as much an illusive mirage as your myth of a great America of the past. We're both participating in institutions with high ideals and a history of failing to reach them. There's no shame in admitting this. Getting honest about this helps prevent making similar errors again.

This country and the Church have always been shaped by aliens and outsiders. I'm not equating the two to be the same. Far from it. But I am saying that I know the Church became what it is because people from all tribes and nations found the news of Christ's kingdom a winsome message, despite our frailties and bad methods. Similarly, immigrants far and wide have come to this country, overlooking this nation's shortcomings because of the opportunity, the freedom we have collectively projected for centuries.

We could both open our Bibles up to the New Testament and read Acts or any of Paul's epistles and read of the challenges a movement, an institution faces when cultures clash and try to re-articulate a shared community and identity together. The truth is, we've been here before. We've faced times like we're currently facing as the Church. Not only is inducing fear unnecessary, it's counter-productive and distracting. The same goes for the nation.

We were told that globalization would reap wonderful benefits for this nation. Yet, it has brought confusion and a loss of identity for many. Of course the merging of new cultures causes problems but we've faced these before. The Church has. This nation has. Denying such a past, behaving as if there was some sort homogeneity we can rekindle is delusion. Both of our institutions should be cautiously confident in an ideal that has drawn such diversity together. There is not a time when we have not had to revisit what we believe and how we believe about our central tenants. Each era has brought about contextual realities-cultural, economic and technological, that have demanded we ponder how to understand our shared convictions in this time and place. There is not a point in our converging yet distinct histories in which this has not happened. Our "founding documents" might be more elastic than either of our people would like to admit.
Photo credit: Geoff Hsu
Several years ago, my family and I had the privilege of helping Somalian refugee kids once a week with their homework (see the photos). After showing up once a week for a year, I finally began to understand the journey of the families we worked with. Inspired by the ideals of this nation, they spent years living in camps under terrible conditions, going to great lengths and cost to get to this country. Their devotion and conviction of this nation's ideals exposed a kind of patriotism most Americans don't come near capable of displaying.  The Church has always been the same. It can be seen in those New Testament books I mentioned above but it can also be seen in any new convert that comes into the Church. Their passion and commitment often far surpasses those that have sat in pews since the first Sunday after they were born. That's why we need them; they remind us of who we are supposed to be.

Obviously, I'm trying to relate to you. We both know that there are stark differences between the Church and the State, no matter how humans have attempted to commingle them in the past. My agenda is quite different than yours. I'm the guy trying to make the boundaries of the Church as porous as possible. You're the guy trying to accomplish the opposite of this nation. Of course, I think my notion is right and yours is wrong. I hope my parallels connect with you.

My allegiance is to the Church, the Body of Christ. I confess that I am not the most patriotic person but I am a citizen and I care.

Which leads me to the last thing I will say this week.

I'm praying for you.