“Not my president”; or, Words both reflect & shape realities

Donald Trump will be sworn in tomorrow as the 45th president of the United States of America, but it was the eras of Barack Obama and George W. Bush through which God taught me how to respond to both the celebrations and protests of today.

More than a decade ago, a younger me was still deeply convinced of the validity of the marriage of evangelical faith and conservative politics found in Christian neoconservatism. Put another way, God was going to take this country back and blessings would flow…as long as we the faithful-and-historic-moral-majority-yet-persecuted-minority did our part through activism, voting, lobbying, and the like. 2 Chronicles 7:14 was clearly meant for America. Bush was elected, flags and crosses were held on high after 9/11, and it was time to make things happen.

As we moved toward the 2004 Bush v. Kerry contest, however, my shouts of acclamation trailed off as I forced them from a weary throat. The “wins” of the neocon movement rang hollow and cold to my touch. My soul grew troubled, weeping almost imperceptibly at first, as I saw more and more instances in which the means (and even some of the goals!) of my political party did not match the teachings of Jesus, the man we claimed as motivation.

God Bless America

Thus began a tremendously difficult time for me as I wrestled with God and America. By the time I began to emerge, God had trashed my theology, I had changed career aspirations from law to ministry, and Obama was on the doorstep of being elected the first time. Now, this is the part of the story where you might think I joined the push for Obama along with many others exiled from the GOP, but you’d be wrong. Obama and the larger Democratic Party held and still hold many foundational distinctives with which I could not fully reconcile. No party offered the identity my soul sought, or ever could.

As now ironic precursors to today’s left-wing “not my president” sentiments emerged from the right in reaction to Obama’s election, I struggled with how to understand my station when my time of wandering and wondering had shaken me until neither the president-elect nor his opponents, my former allies, could offer me hope or home. I resonated with right-wing Christians who proclaimed, “No matter who is president, Jesus is my King,” but the temporary fallback for which it seemed to be used grieved me deeply. Why does the language of possession and the celebration of Christ depend on whether or not our candidate wins? It was then I resolved to generally avoid referring to Obama as my president but instead simply the president instead. Not just Obama, though, but any president ever again. Authority would be recognized but not ties of allegiance or possession in either direction.

Why would I make such a decision, inconsequential to some and horrifyingly radical to others? Because language matters, and the Kingdom of God matters even more. Words reflect realities, but words also shape realities. The words we choose describe things to others, but these same words also affect how we and the hearer conceptualize the thing described, creating a framework we carry with us into later decisions and discussions.

Consider the words Jesus used to describe his mission. During my time of wrestling, I kept coming back to the extremity of the New Testament’s claims. Jesus’ use of Kingdom language was not simply the toothless metaphor representing a disembodied heaven to which we often reduce it today; rather, it was and is an extreme claim of absolute authority here and now. You don’t just go around calling yourself a king over a kingdom when Rome called itself the only show in town. Using language reserved for the state was liable to get you killed, and Jesus went to his death still holding to the seriousness of his claims. The New Testament letters take up the same claim. The gentile believers in Ephesus are reminded that despite being born as outsiders, they have been joined as citizens in a nation which defies borders and ethnicities. Christ’s earliest followers would submit to Rome (distinct from complete obedience) and pray for Rome, but their allegiance and a citizenship deeper than anything a earthly government could ever bestow belonged to the Kingdom. Given Jesus’ claims and my past tendency to follow earthly kings, I chose to let my speech regarding the president reflect this reality while also reminding me who I am in relation to both earthly authorities and Christ in order to influence my decisions for the better. After previously straying so far into the various Babylons of this world, I needed the ongoing rejection of possessive pronouns to constantly call myself back to the wilderness, for I belong only to Christ.

Christians, the Kingdom is a timeless truth. It is not a now dead rhetorical flourish born out of how brutal Rome was, expiring once we find ourselves in a country with elections and “In God We Trust” on currency. We belong to the Kingdom. We have more uniting us with Christians overseas than we could ever have with those simply born inside the same borders we were.  We are resident aliens temporarily under the authority of those in whose country we find ourselves without giving up our allegiance to our true home, not unlike an American citizen living abroad. Christianity then is not a rejection of earthly powers’ existence or role but rather the decision to give ourselves over entirely to a different authority, a complete authority. One authority and one allegiance will inevitably override the other. Perhaps you don’t join me in using syntax as part of how to live out this truth, but the Kingdom is just as true for you as it is for me.

Maybe this all sounds overly harsh or divisive. What you’re feeling is the rejection logically necessary to choose instead something better, the best news that can be heard and the best path that can be chosen. In order to unite with your spouse, you have to choose not to join with other potential spouses. Some have used Jesus’ teaching on taxes to justify a Christian mandate for a robust sense of obligation to country. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” as many of us have heard. But consider Jesus’ wording when he asks what’s on the coin. Caesar’s image is on the money, so he gets to claim it. But God’s image is on us and the Lord has claimed us as a holy people. When we give to God what is God’s we are free from the whiplash of having our allegiance hinge on whether or not our electoral preference wins. We are free to live out our purpose as a blessing to all people without wondering if doing so violates our allegiance. We are free to live out a rich life of citizenship in and ambassadorship for a country without borders in which all immigrants are welcome and called, ourselves included. As John Piper has said, “One day America and all its presidents will be a footnote in history, but God’s kingdom will never end.” We are freed from worrying if history’s inevitable political turmoil can end our country and its purpose of love. Our faithful foremothers and forefathers, the patriots of God’s country, achieved changes and blessings for others the likes of which kings and presidents can’t even dream. Some of the greatest such feats occurred without the backing of worldly power with its marble halls and mic’ed lecterns. They, like Jesus, did so by acting politically yet doing so from outside the world’s systems, speaking truth to power. You and I are freed and empowered to do the same, imagining infinitely and prophetically without the constraints of a world desperately clinging to the status quo. The Kingdom in which we’ve found a home is not of this world but has come into this world, our King has promised to be with us always, and his Kingdom is without end.

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“Not my president”; or, Words both reflect & shape realities

Christmas is over. Christmas isn’t over.

No matter your tradition, we have by now arrived at the end of Christmas. Some take down the decorations just as soon as the 25th has expired and the family has left. Others let the light and fragrance (whether real or added synthetically) linger a few days longer before being claimed by the boxes and the attic for another year. Still others, myself included, refuse to let Christmas end until Epiphany on January 6th, the proper end of the twelve days of Christmas. Past this point, one risks becoming the butt of “permanent decoration” jokes which seem to haunt my Deep South homeland in particular.

Perhaps, however, there’s a little gospel hiding in those out-of-season lights and garlands. After all, some of the most famous entrants in our nativity scenes were horrifically late to the Christmas party. Matthew’s gospel tells us that magi, most likely practitioners of what many today would call astrology or even sorcery, learned of Hebrew prophecies concerning the expected Messiah and come to pay homage. Today, Epiphany, is the yearly celebration of the magi’s visit. Despite their (woefully inaccurate) inclusion in nativity scenes, the logistics of ancient travel and a few details afforded to us in Scripture indicate that the magi arrived anywhere between forty days and two years after the birth of Jesus. “Fashionably late” had long since come and gone.

The singular devotion of the magi fascinates and inspires me. They likely knew full well that they would substantially miss the “newborn” window,and yet they continued anyway because this Christ was that important. The celebration of the Messiah was so reality-img_3635shifting as not to be bound in by a calendar, warranting an arduous and possibly life-threatening journey long after Jesus was actually born. Though I have no clue where the magi stood on what we today call social justice issues, the magi seem to share the same heart as African-American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman in a litany found in his The Mood of Christmas. Thurman’s words and the magi’s journey both preach the same message: the expiration of Christmastide does not signal an end, but a beginning. Reality has shifted forever, and our lives must change accordingly.

It is at this precise moment where we will find ourselves in conflict with the world. This is why late Christmas decorations carry more truth than we know. The world is fine with Christmas as long as it stays in its bounds and doesn’t interfere with the status quo. Break out the tinsel all you want during the season but leaving it up in February is a swift ticket to a Jeff Foxworthy joke. Dabbling in divinity and studying the prophecies of a strange foreign people could lead to power and respect as a magi in a culture that celebrated such practices. But show up to actually pay homage to the King you’ve been reading about and innocents will be slaughtered in order to protect those in power while you take a different way home to avoid the same fate. Saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” will earn you the praise of culture warriors, politicians, and even the president-elect, but live it out the rest of the year and they’ll call you all manner of ugly things. But no matter, for the work of Christmas begins today.

Christmas is over. Christmas isn’t over.

The darkest night in 500 years?

img_3628In the lead-up to the winter solstice earlier this week, I saw social media chatter claiming it would be the darkest night in 500 years. This phenomenon would apparently be the result of a lunar eclipse occurring on the same night as the solstice, the longest night of each year. Great, I thought along with most of the posts I observed. Just like 2016 to leave us with the literal darkest night in a half a millennium.

That, however, isn’t the whole story. There wasn’t a lunar eclipse. The root of this rumor was found to be a story about the 2010 solstice. Furthermore, new moons are significantly darker than lunar eclipses. And even if it had been the darkest night in five centuries astronomically speaking, most of us wouldn’t experience it thanks to the developed world’s stifling light pollution. It was dark, sure. The solstice marked the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere as it does every year. But it did not remain so. The sun came up the next morning, and our little lights of tungsten and gas along with a slender crescent moon held back total darkness until the sun returned.

I couldn’t think of a better way to describe Advent and Christmas, both in their original iteration so many years ago and in our 2016 commemorations. In a lowly backwater under the permanent threat of brutal crimes against humanity, the light pollution-free night sky above a field of shepherds burst forth with light and hope. The scene makes no sense then just as now, but I believe the message itself made less sense than the supernatural messenger. These were men who lived a life of isolation and contempt, useful but utterly undesirable to polite society. They, along with everyone they’d ever known, were surrounded on all sides by poverty, corruption, oppression, and violence in ways most of my readers can only imagine. And yet the light shone anyway.

What I find fascinating is that the proclamation to the shepherds implicitly agreed that darkness was present and real; if it wasn’t, why would one need to announce the arrival of light and hope? Darkness surrounded the shepherds,  but it wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t left to those in darkness to find the light on their own, for the Light of the World came to them.

The darkness around us, too, is real. The president-elect is making casual comments about a nuclear arms race. An estimated 5,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year alone, fleeing body counts we may never fully know. Many of us are facing the kind of personal pain that defies words. The darkness around us is real; I can’t possibly say otherwise. But it isn’t the whole story. Even now, there are little spots, sparks, and reflections of something we can’t fully comprehend. When we are too far down to reflect light ourselves, others reflect that which holds back total darkness. We don’t have to grope for the light in our own pain, for the Light of the World has come to us.

Merry Christmas,
Geoff Davidson

The darkest night in 500 years?

What is love? (baby don’t hurt me)

This is the fourth in a series on the four Sundays of Advent. Click the links for the preceding three Sundays: Hope, Peace, and Joy.

b3cb585f-e7c5-47dc-8c94-2f55448f9871We’ve arrived at the last week of Advent, traditionally held as a thematic celebration of love. Though I preached on this topic Sunday, I’ve still struggled how to put this down into words to be read. I know it’s because, frankly, I’m still not sure what love is, and I don’t think I’m alone. As the years go by, Haddaway’s “What is Love?” can still get a crowd going. I can’t help but laugh when I hear Leslie Knope declare, “We’re just animals; we don’t know anything about love” to her friend Ann Perkins amidst an awkward situation over a guy. Brick Tamland’s admission of love for items around him (including a lamp) has remained a classic reference from Anchorman. We try to sing ironically or laugh at these follies but we fail, because we too don’t know what love is. And even when we think we do, we often summon up little more than a Brick-esque annunciation devoid of evidence.

On Sunday I preached from Isaiah 53. This text gives us a familiar Christmas message of love, but familiarity should not prevent it from shaking us to our core.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
I really struggle with this concept. Not the likelihood of suffering for love, as we often study in this passage, but the sheer plainness of Christlike love. Jesus, according to both the Messianic expectation in Isaiah 53 and what we know about Galilee in His time, came across as just some dude. Rough hewn, tempered by a rough existence in a rough, violent town and time spent with His earthly father in a rough line of work. Nothing to look at, and for many something from which to turn away. The God and very King of All, yet just another lowly life to ignore on the sidewalk.

We have no idea how to fathom a love like this. Tim Keller in his new book Hidden Christmas quotes a Christian speaker discussing a Blue Angel routine at a football game and adds his own complementary observation: “The speaker observed, ‘If I were God sending my son into the world, that’s how I would have done it—with spectacular special effects, a cheering crowd, and of course those silver flight suits. But that’s not how God did it.’ At every point Jesus defied the world’s expectations for how celebrities should act and how social movements should begin. The world cannot comprehend a God like Jesus.”

Look at the past year and a half of politics. Look at so many romance movies. Look at, irony of ironies, how we mark this season. We expect all good things, including love, to come from grand gestures in gilded rooms. We believe power emanates from cultural monoliths in their halls of marble. We claw so desperately to live out this expectation in how we love others, fail brutally, and live cut off as a consequence. But love, the greatest of all powers, came down as a little baby born in a smelly manger, fled as a refugee, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and lived a life of pure love while walking about as just some dude. We are free indeed this Christmas, for our imprisoning expectations of love have been forever ruined by the man Jesus Christ.

What is love? (baby don’t hurt me)

Krampus, angels, and joy

This is the third in a series on the four Sundays of Advent. For the 1st Sunday, Hope, click here, and for the 2nd Sunday, Peace, click here.

fdf14246-3a16-41c8-902f-494651ff63dfFolks, I’m here to tell you that American parents have missed out on a real opportunity. Every year, Christmas comes around and brings with it reminders to be good so that Santa Claus will bring presents. A few centuries ago in Central Europe, however, parents were warning their children about something much darker: Krampus. Every December 5th, so the story went, Krampus would come to visit justice upon deserving children. St. Nicholas would come the following night to visit those who had done well. But first, Krampus came to hand out punishment, delivering switches with which children could be beaten and even taking the worst offenders away. Somehow, an infernal goat-man bent on vengeance seems a more serious threat than an empty stocking or a handful of coal.

While the idea of risking childhood emotional trauma is admittedly harsh, I think many of us resonate with the overall concept of Krampus; that is, that those who deserve it, get it. Those who’ve hurt us or the ones we’ve loved, those who have taken advantage of others, and those we just don’t like. Call it karma, call it Krampus, call it whatever else, many of us hope for or believe in such a balancing of the scales.

Unfortunately, in our ostensibly noble thirst for justice, we sometimes read suffering as the visitation of justice in real time. If that person is hurting or impoverished or cast out, they probably aren’t blameless in this. “Well, they’re no angel,” goes the refrain. This isn’t a new problem. Throughout Scripture, we find people trying to reverse engineer pain to find what earned it, whether it’s Job’s friends looking over the smoking crater of his life or Jesus disciples asking who had sinned to cause a man’s blindness. As in our own time, those not in suffering reason that something done by the afflicted merited or even caused this.

Consider today’s Advent text. Today, the third Sunday of Advent, Christians around the world are right now focusing on the theme of Joy. Totally makes sense for Christmas, right? Joy. Three little letters convey the image of Christmas with surprising profundity. Isaiah 35 is a fantastic text for looking at joy. The desert blooming, the fearful encouraged, the hurting healed, and joy exploding all around.

But we, like our predecessors, have a problem living it out. This text of messianic expectation clearly ties joy to the hurting finding relief…and yet those waiting on Messiah (and even those who physically walked with Messiah!) dismiss their pleas with a calm, “Well, they’re no angels.” A Christmas that offers joy only to the successful and healthy, those we assume must have done something right to get there, isn’t good news at all. It’s not even news! Such a Christmas would be the same old world carrying on as it is. But the radical and good news of Christmas is that Christ came for the sick, not the healthy. In this season in which we decorate with and sing about angels, Christ is seeking those we’ve dismissed as not being angels, bringing joy rather than the spirit of Krampus. May we do the same.

Krampus, angels, and joy

Disruptive peace

This is the second in a series on the four Sundays of Advent. For the 1st Sunday, Hope, click here.

f7f455ba-8582-4be2-b4a6-27206b7aa4edIt’s easy to lose sight of the genuine profundity of World War I, the Great War, in our world off first-person shooters, militarized law enforcement, and perpetual military interventions waged from control rooms thousands of miles from targets. War had seemingly transformed its very nature over night. Gone were the days of spring campaigning and winter waiting; war could be waged at any moment of any day. Simpler technology, inadvertently inhibiting the scale of conflict, was replaced by machine guns, long-range artillery, tanks, aircraft, and chemical warfare which could all pave battlefields with lifeless bodies. War, rather than occurring in relative isolation, could now pull entire continents and civilian populations into its hell.

I simply cannot fathom how jarring this shift in reality would have been for all involved. How many mangled bodies or foxholes bombed out of existence must one see before realizing that this was the new world? But even there in the trenches, divine hope found a way to blossom in a graveyard, as it always does. In December 1914, as the first snows of World War I mingled with the ash, thousands upon thousands laid aside their arms. Men up and down both fronts, surely cautiously at first, emerged from the trenches and met in the middle in love rather than enmity. What brought British, French, German, Russian, and Austrian forces together? Christmas.

In celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, enemies came together to sing hymns, exchange gifts, trade services such as haircutting, and even play soccer. Though Death had claimed the pockmarked No Man’s Land as its domain, the radical love of Jesus for a time exploded like no bomb ever could, filling the middle ground with rejoicing and reconciliation. Though critics point out that many places observed no such truce, that the truces didn’t ultimately last, and that the following Christmas saw commanders plan offensives to prevent such fraternization, the gospel witness of the Christmas Truce stands tall, even finding its way into a century commemorative commercial for a supermarket chain in the UK (it is absolutely worth your time to click this link and see this miracle reenacted). The call for future offensives to prevent truces does not detract from Christmas 1914 but rather testifies to its importance, for Hell and Death had to redouble their efforts in fear of another victory for reconciliation.

What, other than coincidence of season, does the 1914 Christmas Truce have to do with Advent? Absolutely everything. Today, the second Sunday of Advent, many celebrants focus on Peace. Isaiah 11 gives us one of the most famous passages on peace in all of Scripture:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
What we see here is peace, Christ’s peace, not merely the absence of conflict. Christ’s peace is a rejection of the status quo in favor of radical reconciliation across enemy lines. Like Christ, we live in a time in which we can accept peace by way of war offered by the dominant political power of the time. But the Pax Americana does as little to heal as the Pax Romana. As in the days of Jeremiah the Prophet, the societal powerbrokers cry out for their peace, a weak peace that protects the evils of the status quo rather than healing them. The “peace” of this world is a fragile, pathetic thing in which the oppressed must stay oppressed and enemies must either stay away or stay dead. Thus the peace of Christ is by necessity distruptive. And for a few beautiful moments in the supposed “War to End All Wars”, craters and barbed wire gave unwilling witness to the one thing that can and will end war, disrupting our attempts in favor of something better: wolves and lambs, calves and lions, Allied and Central reconciled by a child born in a manger, leading them to God’s true peace.

Disruptive peace

Hoping for the McRib

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.-Isaiah 2:4

 
4ecebbc1-6bc0-4657-b354-5f0bf3066edeA week or so ago, I went in search of late night fast food. The undergrad in front of me was palpably excited about purchasing a McRib, declaring his intentions to all around him long before he got to the front. Unfortunately for him, he was quite drunk and we were at Whataburger, not McDonald’s.

As the commendably patient cashier tried to explain to him why he wouldn’t be getting a McRib at Whataburger, his look of pure befuddlement spoke to me because I recognize it. I’ve worn it before, at least spiritually, and I’m afraid the church in America has joined me quite frequently.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time the church has traditionally reserved for reflection, preparation, and anticipation of Christmas, mirroring the long wait for Messiah’s arrival. Many attribute certain ideas to each of the four Sundays, and today is set aside for Hope.

I’m not sure how to keep hope during centuries of oppression, but then again I’m not always sure how to keep hope in 2016. It feels like every new poll confirms we’ve set worse and worse record lows for trust in politicians, the media, and even each other. It’s a good and appropriate time to preach hope in Christ and Christ alone, as many on both sides of the political aisle did surrounding the election. But what if when we look to Jesus, we’re looking for things we won’t find in Him?

In Christ we find hope, but not necessarily the kind of hope we recognize at first. Hope takes our American expectations of glory, prestige, and respectability and flips them on their heads. Hope was born in a manger, not oppulance, fleeing as a refugee instead of enjoying what He deserved. Hope walked dusty roads with the sinful and dangerous rather than marbled halls of power with the important and respectable. Hope preached justice for the oppressed instead of singing the praises of their oppressors, whether they came from within the faith community or not. And in the end, the very embodiment of Hope was tortured to death, rose again, and invites us to do the same. The more time we spend learning from this Jesus, the slaughtered-yet-risen Lamb, the more our hope will look like the coming of the Kingdom He preached…and the more we’ll enact it as we wait for fulfillment.

Maybe we’ve decided that hoping in Christ means hoping for progressive social policies. Or the cutting of entitlements. Or globalism. Or the renewal of America as a global superpower. Or any of the other various things we think will restore our world. Don’t get me wrong, we all have our individual hopes and opinions on what will make life better (I was certainly hoping for a Bama win in the Iron Bowl yesterday), but hitching any of that to the expectation of Messiah will leave us looking as foolish as an inebriated McRib fan in a Whataburger.

Hoping for the McRib