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Occasionally, Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a biblical commentary or discussion of a contemporary topic, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Love Your Republican/Democrat Enemy

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the most crucial issue for the American church must be to stop demonizing members of the other political party and begin showing respect.

By respect I don’t mean liking the other political party, or agreeing with the other political party. I mean giving them a fair shake, understanding their point of view, walking in their shoes long enough to have some sympathy for their concerns, rejecting stereotypes, refraining from exaggerated claims, and treating those of the other side with the essential care and dignity owed to all human beings.

We need to wake up to the fact that we are being used by social media, cable media, foreign enemies, and our own political party. “If it bleeds, it leads,” has long been the mantra of the media. But there is a new mantra: “If it outrages, it leads.” As Ezra Klein says in his new book Why We’re Polarized, “loud gets noticed. Extreme gets noticed. Confrontational gets noticed. Moderate, conciliatory, judicious–not so much.”

To make money and stay in business, much of the media has turned to the loudest, angriest, most sarcastic, one-sided and simplistic voices, giving them a platform of legitimacy. Nothing motivates energy like the belief that one’s group is under attack. For this reason, political parties purposely demonize the other side as the enemy of America. They do not want us to think rationally, but to respond emotionally. The only critical and consistent thinking they want us to engage in is to be consistently critical of the other side. Russia and other foreign enemies have taken advantage of this manufactured outrage, and the public’s gullibility, to spread conspiracy theories and fear in our social media. The more divided we are, and the more we distrust our institutions (e.g. law making, law enforcement, courts, elections), the weaker our democracy becomes, and the less effective in promoting justice in the world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began its spread in the United States, the public and the two major parties briefly came together in a nonpartisan way to shelter in place and pass legislation to bring massive relief to businesses and the unemployed. But working together does not serve the purposes of those who feel they may be gradually losing power, or the other side gaining power. So the consensus fell apart, replaced with grandstanding, protests, doublespeak, and conspiracy claims. The mutual attacks and lack of a common approach hurts all of us, risking both our health and our economy.

But what is most tragic is that many churches, and their leaders, are being used in the front lines of this process of undermining democracy. They are encouraging the divide, constantly sending signals that the other political party is morally reprehensible and must always be opposed. This then legitimizes whatever tactics are used by one’s own party. The ends justify the means.

Can we not see that this is the opposite of Christian values and spiritual transformation?

The apostle Paul says, “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 12:2). What does this transformed behavior look like? “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. … Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. … Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. … If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:10, 14, 16, 18).

At the heart of Christian transformation is overcoming division with love, respect, and making peace whenever possible. What would that mean in the midst of our political polarization? I think it would mean the ability to take the concerns of other side seriously and affirming what we can affirm.

Some of the concerns I hear among Republicans are these: that individual and family responsibilities are being undermined by a too-broad approach to social welfare; that government regulation and bureaucracy has gotten out of control, hamstringing sensible and timely action; that Christian faith (but usually not other religions) is targeted for ridicule in television and movies while atheism and paganism are promoted; that secularism is driving religious values and thought out of the public square as a valid basis for social discourse; that we are making rapid changes to public policy regarding such things as gender identity without having sufficiently broad discernment about consequences; that we are sometimes undermining the rights of the accused in public settings by shortchanging due process.

Some of the concerns I hear among Democrats are these: that many businesses are not being held sufficiently accountable for jeopardizing public health and safety; that the effects of global warming and ecological degradation are not being sufficiently addressed; that the economic system is favoring the already rich and connected, resulting in an ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor; that racial poverty and healing will require systemic societal changes and economic re-balancing and opportunity; that money now dominates political and legislative processes, undercutting democracy; that legal immigration needs to be increased, and those here illegally need an avenue to become legal, for the sake of filling needed jobs and bringing millions of people out of the shadows.

It seems to me these concerns, whatever we think of them personally, are not without merit. It also seems to me that we are not actually as divided as we think we are. Our political parties are trying to drive a wedge between us, but actually we hold many common values and concerns. We are allowing ourselves to be convinced that the other side is accurately represented by their most extreme and obnoxious actors. But the truth is that underneath our partisan labels, we mostly believe in being decent and reasonable and fair.

It is time for all Christian leaders and churches to stop participating in and actively denounce the dishonest partisan carnage that is destroying our nation.

Preparing for the Long Haul

This past week the elders and the worship commission agreed that we should not try to resume in-person worship services. Following social distance rules, we would not be able to get more than a third of the congregation’s usual attendance in the sanctuary. With masks on, we would not be able to sing (or not very well). And after the service, conversation with friends would be much more limited and unsatisfying than it is using Zoom breakout groups. So even if we could do in-person services without the risk of spreading COVID-19 (something we can’t guarantee anyway), our current online services are a superior alternative.

Which means that until a vaccine is available for everyone, or the coronavirus somehow disappears, it is unlikely that we will be resuming in-person worship services. And that means we are not likely to have an in-person worship service until late fall or sometime next year.

That is sobering and sad.

Virtually every state is now taking steps to gradually reopen certain businesses and recreation areas. If this can be done without causing a second wave of infections and death, this will be a great benefit to our society. More people will be able to work and receive an income, as well as eat out and enjoy nature. But no matter how successful this gradual reopening may be (I’m not very optimistic), many activities will remain off-limits for many months, such as concerts and stadium events … and our in-person worship services.

So now is the time to prepare ourselves for the long haul. Now is the time to prepare ourselves for the fact that we will not be receiving our spiritual and emotional and social nourishment through physically meeting together to sing, pray, learn and share.

How can we continue to meet our spiritual needs over such a long period of physical separation? Certainly our online worship services and classes are helpful. We are quite fortunate that we are going through this pandemic during a time when we have widespread online capabilities. We can have Zoom meetings. We can create videos. We can make music, combine it with others in creative ways, and share it electronically. I have no doubt that in the weeks and months ahead we will continue to see amazing innovations in online ministries–innovations which we will continue to use even when in-person ministries resume. But as wonderful as these innovations and online opportunities are, they cannot fully make up for the loss of face-to-face interaction.

So we need to intentionally and openly grieve. We cannot pretend we are not going through a debilitating loss. We are. So let’s name it, feel it, and cry about it.

Let us also name what we have not lost, and be thankful. Be aware of the simple gifts we have been taking for granted every day. Be overwhelmed by the abundant generosity of life.

Choose a skill to develop. If you find yourself with more time on your hands, don’t fall into the easy path of just watching more entertainment. Learn an instrument or a new language; sew or carve wood; write stories. Broaden and deepen your talents.

And finally, persist. Ask for the gift of persistence, because we will need to persist in doing our daily work, helping others, trusting in God, and growing in strength. These enforced restrictions on our life present us with the opportunity to turn our flabby faith into well-muscled hope and service. We can come out of this with greater determination and stamina for living simply, courageously, creatively, and compassionately.

A Lesson About Loss

For many years I have been collecting quotations that strike me as particularly wise. Someday I hope to publish my collection of quotations of wisdom, with a little bit of commentary on each one. The latest one I just added to my collection is this one from Leonard DeLorenza, theology professor at Notre Dame, writing to students about the pandemic and its impact on their academic programs and plans:

“There is no silver lining here, but there is a lesson. It is not the kind of lesson that anyone can merely teach someone else, as if it were a matter of having the right information. No, this is a lesson that must be absorbed. The lesson is that life, in the end, is about loss, and suffering itself is the teacher.”

When I first read this, it shocked me. I rebelled against it. I do not want to believe that life is about loss and that suffering is the teacher. It sounds so bleak and hopeless. And yet, I have continued to ponder these words, and the more I think about them, the more true they seem to be to me.

I don’t think DeLorenza’s purpose was to drive those students into despair. Life obviously is filled with grace and delight; there is much for us to do with the generous abundance all around us. But for each gift and each joy there will come a day when we will need to let it go. Each parting will cause us great sorrow, because our grief is a measure of our gratitude. And then, one day, we will need to release our own life and take our final breath.

It is wise for us to realize that each present gift is temporary–and to accept that. Accept that gain must be followed by loss and joy with sorrow. I would simply add one more sentiment: And then be thankful for what had been given. It was indeed a gift. We can take that gratefulness all the way to our own ending, and trust God to turn that ending into the next beginning.

Twelve years ago today, my mother visited me and told me she was dying. She spent a couple days in my home; we said our goodbyes, and then she left and I never saw her again. The sorrow has hit me again.

I think about what it must have been like when my parents suffered the loss of their parents. They too must have walked for years in a silent grief. My grandmothers (I did not know my grandfathers) must also have borne this lonely weight. I never saw it then; but as I look back in my memory, I see now the grim set of the lips and the wisdom they were hiding from me.

We are now in a time when death is taking more than its normal toll, and our grief is compounded by isolation. For many there is no holding the hand of the loved one until the last breath is taken, and no funeral. This loss is particularly painful. But remember it is the inseparable twin of gratitude. Your sorrow is your acknowledgement of the gift, and your deep debt of thanks.

The Good Place

Like many who are sheltering in place, I have been binge-watching various TV shows. One that I recently completed was “The Good Place.” This is a delightful show about a group of people who have died and are trying to get into heaven. It combines inventive comedy with serious discussions about philosophical ethics (thanks to one of the characters, Chidi, who is an ethics professor). I recommend it highly to everyone who wants to laugh and think and live a better life.

There is, however, one glaring weakness to the premise of the show: that one can be morally improved through philosophizing about ethics. The data that I’m acquainted with does not support this assumption. According to Jonathan Haight in The Righteous Mind, professors of ethics, on the whole, demonstrate no better moral behavior than the rest of the population. Indeed, the books that are most often stolen from academic libraries are books on ethics! It is a common but mistaken belief that we are morally transformed by education. As Haight points out through his research, we usually make moral choices intuitively, and then we use our reason to justify what we have already decided.

Does this mean that moral reasoning is a delusional and pointless game? Not entirely. Reason helps us understand how morality actually works, and with enough mental effort we can sometimes override a purely emotionally intuitive response. Nevertheless, lectures on ethics do not have a track record of producing moral people.

So what does? How do we become kinder, more self-giving, and cooperative? I would suggest that it is kind, self-giving, cooperative communities that do the best job of fostering those behaviors in individuals. We learn by seeing, experiencing, and belonging. Perhaps unwittingly, “The Good Place” recognizes this through having a group (not just individuals) gradually become tightly knit and committed to each other. They get to “the good place” together through their mutual compassion and self-giving actions.

Jonathan Haight argues that religious communities are more successful at binding people together in altruistic ways than secular communities. The downside is that religious communities often blind us from extending that same compassion to groups that do not share the same convictions. It seems to me the solution is obvious: belong to a religious community that believes in and practices equal love for all.

Once the group of friends in “The Good Place” finally make it to heaven, they encounter another problem. (Spoiler alert: I am about to give away the ending of the series. But even if you know the ending ahead of time, I think you’ll still enjoy this series.) They discover that everyone in heaven is so bored they can no longer mentally function in a meaningful way. In heaven everyone may fulfill their every desire and dream; but after thousands of years there’s nothing new to think about or feel. Everyone is literally bored out of their minds.

Chidi, the ethics professor, realizes what the solution must be: death. He argues that it is death that makes life meaningful. It is limitation that makes our choices and accomplishments and even relationships important. So the friends devise a gate that, if passed through, will end one’s conscious life. People may stay in heaven as long as they want. But if at any point one wishes to bring one’s own life to a close, simply walk through the gate. The show ends on a note of peace. I found it very moving.

Recently this notion that we need death in order for life to be meaningful has been popping up in various places in popular culture (for instance, Star Trek: Picard, another series I binge-watched). I think this idea is gaining traction because it is a way of coping with death without being religious. (By the way, I would add to the argument for the need for death by pointing out that immortality on earth would be a nightmare: it would lead to running out of space and resources, thus making more babies and new life eventually impossible.)

“The Good Place” is right: immortality is boring and would drain life of its meaning. But that’s only true for earth as we know it now. It is at this point that the TV series fails to understand the heart of faith. Heaven, in its Christian (and presumably Jewish and Muslim) understanding, is not just more earth; it is not an everlasting theme park or an unending bucket list. That would indeed be boring. Heaven is life centered on God. It is not the endless pursuit of desires, but the end of desires. It is the end of being self-centered; it is the joy of belonging completely to God alone, the source and fulfillment of all goodness, love, and meaning.

We have no adequate way of imagining this. The Book of Revelation tries in its final two chapters, and the older I get, the more impressed I am with its symbolism. But we simply cannot comprehend the really real and the fulfilled.

“The Good Place” has no God, no ultimate goodness or purpose, so it inevitably has to settle for either boredom or death. But for those who are willing to trust in ultimate love, we may see an empty tomb that gives us hope.

Holy Week

For me there is no time of the year more meaningful than this week. For five days it marches inexorably toward a cruel death, followed a day and a half later by a half-lit mysterious morning.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem in a victory parade as a nonviolent conquering king announcing the reign of peace. It is presumptuous in the extreme. He goes to the temple, but instead of making a sacrifice, he makes a mess. He overturns tables, protesting against blind religious hypocrisy. It is only because he is surrounded by a huge crowd of supportive pilgrims from Galilee that he is prevented from being arrested right then. But  these actions cannot go unpunished.

Jesus knows he’s in grave danger. One night at dinner a woman pours an entire bottle of perfume all over his head. The massive waste offends his homeless disciples, but Jesus views it as his anointing for burial. One of his closest disciples is so upset–or afraid–he goes to the authorities and begins giving them information about Jesus’ secret whereabouts at night, when he is least protected and most vulnerable.

Egging on the authorities, Jesus goes into the temple courtyard each day to teach the crowds and debate the scholars. Various verbal traps are set for him: questions that have only lose-lose answers. But Jesus manages to give sufficiently vague but high-minded responses so that the crowd remains on his side.

On Thursday night he eats supper in Jerusalem at a secretly arranged location. The meal is sad; his disciples are on edge and expecting disaster at any moment. Jesus even accuses one of them of betraying him. Seeking to give his impending death meaning, and to bolster the courage of his disciples, Jesus reinterprets the bread and wine as his own body and blood. If they eat and drink this, they will remain in solidarity with him, trusting in the presence and coming victory of the reign of God.

They then creep out of Jerusalem in the dark, heading for a garden on the slopes of the Mount of Olives where they will camp for the night. Jesus posts his closest disciples to be on guard, but they fall asleep. Jesus himself is agonized by his impending death. He prays repeatedly for God to rescue him from the torture that is sure to come; but ultimately he accepts whatever must happen.

The disciple who had previously consulted with the authorities, betrays Jesus’ location, leading a band of soldiers to the campsite in the middle of the night. One follower of Jesus tries to put up a fight, but Jesus tells him to put away his sword. He is arrested, tied up, and taken away.

The religious authorities quickly find him guilty of blasphemy and them turn him over to the Roman political authorities. The Roman prefect has no care for prophets, and no tolerance for civil disobedience or talk of another kingdom coming. He orders Jesus whipped and crucified.

By the time on Friday morning when Jesus is led by soldiers to the place of execution, he is so weakened by beatings and whippings, he is unable to carry the crossbeam on which he will be nailed. A passerby is forced to carry the crossbeam for him. Outside a city gate, at a place called Skull, he is stripped of his clothes, nailed to a post and the crossbeam, and left to die. He is laughed at and taunted by various officials. He cries out to God in abandonment; and then in the middle of the afternoon, after a loud wail, he dies.

I am shaken by the willingness of the Gospels to depict this powerless humiliation. And I am numbed by the pitilessness of injustice and the banality of evil. The same man who told poor peasants not to worry about food and clothing because God cares for them is tortured to death. The same man who urged his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who abuse them is given no care. Jesus is one in a long line of naive idealists, dreamers and fanatics who are buried by those who hold the power. Their graves are everywhere and forgotten.

Is there anyone we should pity more than him? A passionate, inspired, but deluded fool who wasted his life.

And then darkness. An empty tomb. Fearful women. Doubting men. And a story that just won’t end.

A Silver Lining?

Last night a small group of friends met online. I asked them, “What has been the hardest part of this pandemic for you personally?” I followed that with a second question: “When this pandemic is over, what is one positive thing that you think may come out of it either for you or for society?”

The challenges and pain caused by this pandemic are enormous–from lost jobs to family members dying in isolation. We should always remain aware of the widespread repercussions. But now that our enforced isolation has been going on for two weeks (or more), and will be continuing for many more weeks, it may also be time for us to consider how this pandemic might have some benefits. Based on that conversation last night, I’d like to share a possible silver lining.

Families are spending time together. Yes, this can lead to increased squabbles and even a rise in domestic violence, but overall I think it is positive that families–especially families with young kids and teenagers–are spending more time together. When I was growing up, my large family had supper together every night. No one was ever missing from the table. It was a warm and wonderful time for bonding as a family. This practice has become rare in our culture of sports and clubs and events that are always taking family members away from a shared table. But now families can once again gather at the table and have the opportunity to talk at length and share feelings. A lot of families are also taking advantage of this opportunity to play games and take walks together. Years from now, families may look back at this time with good memories.

More attention is given to friendships. We may not be able to meet face-to-face, but this pandemic is leading us to increase our connections with others through phone calls, online meetings, and social media. We are more focused on encouraging and supporting one another and sharing our love.

Low-wage service industry workers are valued instead of taken for granted. This pandemic is waking us up to who are the indispensable people in our economy. We rely on those millions of invisible people who process food, manufacture basic items, stock shelves, make deliveries, and provide essential services. Many of these occupations are minimum wage. This pandemic may result in raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and giving those workers greater appreciation.

We are increasing our understanding of the role of government in preparing for, coordinating, and providing for critical services in an equitable way. Over the past decades, frustration with the federal government has risen to the point where many people wanted to get rid of most of it. But this pandemic is helping us understand the role that government must play, and perhaps following this pandemic we will have a greater social consensus as to how our government should operate. Specifically, I think we may have more openness to a public option for healthcare insurance so everyone can be covered. I also think we may see greater international cooperation.

The environment is getting a breather. Pollution and the release of greenhouse gases have dropped considerably during this pandemic. This is, of course, temporary. These environmental gains will be challenged once the global economy gets going again. But might our many walks in the woods and our appreciation for cleaner air result in a stronger desire to become more energy efficient and reduce emissions and trash?

We are experiencing an increase in personal resilience. For some people, these anxious and isolating times will result in more depression and addiction. But for many people–including those with emotional challenges–this is a time for discovering one’s inner strength and resilience and creativity. We do not know what we are capable of until we are put to the test. This pandemic is a social and psychological test, and I predict that many people will come of it amazed at what they can do.

The concept of sabbath is central in the Bible. Every seventh day, one is supposed to rest. Every seventh year, the land is supposed to rest. This pandemic is enforcing a time of rest on many of us. Perhaps we needed it. It is teaching us a different rhythm to life. It is also teaching us that much that we thought was important and essential is not. Learn from this enforced rest. Take advantage of the grace that is in it. And come out of it a better person than when it began.

The Secret of Contentment

The fourth chapter of Philippians is an especially rich treasure house for what we need during this time of pandemic.

Paul provides us with this simple yet profound guidance: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I have always longed for “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” It sounds like a state of transcendent bliss. How does one attain such a condition? Paul’s answer is simple, though perhaps difficult to carry out.

First, stop worrying. Easier said than done. When I was a child I worried a lot. To help me stop worrying, my mother gave me a “worry bird”–a sort of piggy bank in the shape of a goofy bird. She told me to pay the bird a nickel or dime each time I had a worry and let the bird worry for me. Crazy as it sounds, it worked. If I paid the bird to worry, then I didn’t have to and I got on with my life. The extra bonus was that at the end of some months I had a bank full of money. What I learned is that worry is pointless and that it is possible to set it aside.

Second, trust God with your concerns. Do this by regularly speaking to God, naming each person or situation that requires help, and then trusting that God will provide what is needed. Of course, what God may provide is your loving action! Prayer makes us more sensitive and aware of others and changes our own hearts. Prayer gives us an attitude of patience, calm, hope and compassion–the ingredients needed to truly help another.

Third, combine those prayers with gratitude. Gratitude is the foundation of peace. Gratitude recognizes that everything–absolutely everything–around us is pure grace. Gratitude lifts our hearts and re-frames all of life. So every day, in every prayer, and even in every instant, name the things around you for which you are grateful.

Do these three things and the result is resting in God in surpassing peace.

Paul is able to say this despite being imprisoned and facing possible execution. Indeed, he goes on to say: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

When we let go of worry, trust God with our concerns, and cultivate constant gratitude, we already have enough, no matter how little we have.

In the weeks and possibly months ahead, many of us will indeed find ourselves with very little. But with this faith we will discover that our contentment was never based on physical and financial security; rather, we are content when we have the peace of God and we are part of a community of compassion. As Paul says, In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.