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To Find a Fire Poppy

As the West Coast deals with an unthinkable amount of devastating fires, my heart has been praying for fire poppies, both literal and figurative.

The California Poppy, our state flower, is rightly nicknamed the fire poppy because these brave little flowers are the first to push through charred ground after a wildfire. They are the first fruits of new life, floral harbingers of hope after the devastation of wildfires.

As you well know from the news, California experiences more than its fair share of wildfires. Hiking yesterday through the drought-ridden, crunchy chaparral of our regional park, there was ample evidence of burning. Charred branches, black ground, devastated landscapes. Bleak and black, the earth seemed so tired and barren.

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The trials of our lives, like raging wildfires, leave evidence long after the flames are snuffed out. Prolonged sickness, the death of a loved one, unemployment, stubborn seasons of depression, infertility or the myriad of other wildfires in our lives this side of Fall scar what used to be green places of life and vitality, leaving them much like the earth here in California.

Walking along what remains after trials in our hearts and lives, it is natural to feel hopeless, to remember with sadness the lush life that once was there. But, as is often true in the natural and spiritual realms, things are not as they seem. Much more is happening than the naked eye can gather. Fires, although devastating and dreary, leave nutrient rich soil and clear out space for life that would otherwise never thrive.

Life will emerge from the charred remains. The courageous little fire poppies, all naked and stalky will push their way through the crunchy crust. And when they come, the barren landscape will be the perfect backdrop in which to enjoy the welcomed pop of color, ironically the same color as the flames we once feared. Fire red.

IMG_6693After a prolonged season of trial and testing, the landscape of my life feels tired and sensitive. My heart’s habitat leaves much to be desired these days. Much of the green beauty that I love has been cleared out and it feels like only charcoal and soot remain. I truly am thankful, as I know that God clears away to recreate. I know the nutrients are there. I know that soon enough, when bounty returns, I will barely remember the burned earth.

But right now I am eagerly waiting and actively looking for the fire poppies. Every time a  strange stem of new life emerges, I celebrate. Little signs of life that I would normally never notice have become sources of profound peace in this post-burning season.

To my friends who feel like their souls are sensitive habitats of late, today is a good day to find a fire poppy. Happy hunting.

Inheriting the Wind (An American Empire)

When I hear the word empire, my mind immediately runs to historical Rome or China; however, something I read this week has had my mind and heart considering adding our nation to the mix.

While our nation began as a democratic republic with a shared, though often fought over, vision of the common good, some historians argue that sometime in the past fifty or so years, America made the shift from a republic to an empire.

In her address to a symposium of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Catholic worker and scholar Mary Jo Leddy said the following about a subtle shift that has taken place in our nation.

“Many historians will argue that the transformation of the republic to an empire has happened over the last fifty years. It has not been merely a transformation in size but in orientation as well. The republic was held together by an overarching common vision of a good and just society. It was an incredible political vision, which sought to balance the sometimes conflicting values of freedom and justice with a truly original political system.”

According to Leddy, after the Cold War, America no longer had a common, clear enemy which had been so clearly delineated through Communism. With the Fall of the Iron Curtain and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, our nation has desperately fought to define its new enemy. Leddy astutely claims, “Unless we reclaim some positive vision as a nation, we will be engaged in war upon war. A perpetual state of fear and conflict.”

She couples this fading of a common shared vision with a gradual decline in our nation, one that is not immediately obvious. She likens the slow disintegrating of our national empire to the gradual fall of another empire, Rome, after the attack of the Vandals in AD 410. While the Vandals did not succeed in destroying Rome, their attack altered the empire, which for the first time seemed mortal rather than eternal. Some historians say that 9/11 provided a similar moment for America. With the collapse of two iconic buildings and the unexpected attack which killed so many before the watching world, suddenly, the American empire seemed mortal.

While Rome left an indelible mark on modern history through its law, politics, architecture, and concept of citizenship, it is no longer the center of the known world. America seems to find herself in a similar place, fighting to hold on to her former central place .

Certainly, America still stands and has an incredible amount of influence and power; however, we find ourselves in tenuous times as a nation.

In-fighting and political partisanship have reached dangerous levels of vitriol and toxicity; it seems the only enemy we can identify are those other Americans who think differently, vote differently, or worship differently than we do.

While Leddy wisely pointed out the problem, her solution seemed lacking. According to her, Americans must reclaim a shared vision for the common good. While that sounds easy enough, without a clear standard of good and evil and right and wrong, both parties put themselves on the good side and their counterpart on the evil side.

This is exactly what is happening right now, as I write and as you read. Liberals are propagating their own version of good and evil through CNN while conservatives claim the exact opposite on Fox News. Without a straight edge by which to rule itself and others, our nation will remain in such a plight.

To our credit, this generation inherited a system that moved away from absolute truth hundreds of years ago. We followed the ways of Hume rather than the Rock from which we were hewn; we left the Scriptures as the standard of good and evil and opted for right and wrong which were intuited by feelings and common sense. However, we did not recognize that we had borrowed our ideals of justice and goodness from the foundations laid by biblical truths. Now we find ourselves experiencing the logical end of wrong presuppositions.

When feelings, experience, intuitions, and preferences guide our morality, we end up at loggerheads. After all, what happens when one person or party’s intuitions are at odds with another? We need not answer that question, we are living in it. Division. Strife. Hatred. A nation tearing itself down.

Our nation is at a crossroads. Our generation and our children’s generation are reaping what was sown hundreds of years ago. Now that we see the infected crop it has produced, we have the opportunity to plant something different for the coming generations.

“Whoever troubles his own household will inherit the wind, and the fool will be the servant to the wise of heart.” Proverbs 11:29.

As a nation, we have many great questions to tackle. And many wiser than I are attempting to tackle many of them. However, my concern is that we are not starting asking the questions far enough back.

Will we trust in the wisdom of man and philosophies which start with man at the center, attempting to make sense of the world? Or will we trust in the wisdom of the God who stands outside of time as its caring Creator?

Wildfires

Our state is on fire in more ways than one. As multiple wildfires rage across California, my heart is heavy on multiple levels. Heavy for those evacuating homes once again. Heavy for the families of firefighters who leave everything, drive to the epicenter of flames, and risk their lives to protect both the land and the people of our state.

But the actual wildfires serve as a visual picture of the political and spiritual reality of our state. Hardship heaps on top of hardship, question upon question, crisis upon crisis, leaving a confounded people.

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Thankfully, the Scriptures serve to remind us that we are not unique in our plight. The Bible is set in the context of broken, desperate circumstances and includes a cast  of broken, desperate people.

The poet who penned Psalm 104 prays that God would come to renew the face of the the earth. He recognized the helpless, hopeless state of God’s people and God’s place without the help and hope of God’s presence and power. Having painted a beautiful picture of the dependence of various created things upon their Creator, he writes the following.

These all look to you to give them their food in due season. When you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath,  they  die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground  (Psalm 104:27-30). 

Creation mirrors recreation. Just as the breath of the Spirit creates organic life in the first two chapters of Genesis, the Spirit’s breath renews and recreates spiritual life, as Jesus stated in his conversation with Nicodemus about spiritual birth in John 3:1-8. Both our physical and spiritual states show our deep dependence upon our Creator and Sustainer.

California needs renewal both spiritually and physically, as do I.

Wildfires

Our state is on fire
In more ways than one.
Hearts and homes burning,
The season only begun.

Our need for water
Is similarly stratified.
Internal and external ground,
Neglected, withered, dried.

Fight flame with flame.
Meet fire with fire.
Pour out your Spirit.
Point to our true desire.

Disruption, while discomforting,
Reveals our deepest needs,
Shows us the deep beauty
Of One who for us pleads. 

Breath once again, Lord.
Renew the face of the ground.
For where your Spirit blows,
Life begins to abound. 

 

An Antidote for Control

Three trips to Home Depot. Two trips to Ikea. One trip to Big Lots. Over the past few days, my handy husband and I have been in all-out task mode attempting to speedily make desk spaces for our children. The obvious felt need to make conducive learning spaces for each of our boys covered a less overt deeper need in my soul: something I could control.

My desire to order and shape what feels chaotic is not in and of itself a bad thing. On the contrary, such desires to order the private and public places in which God has placed us stem from the desired end for which we were created: to image and glorify God. After all, God spoke order and structure into the unordered world created by His words. He set boundaries for the seas, telling them where to stop. He separated the light from the dark, creating the earth’s sun to rule the day and the moon the night (along with the countless other suns and moons of our galaxy and those in the countless other galaxies beyond our own).

In the Garden of Eden, the Father gave his first human creations the compliment of joining him in his ordering work. He invited them to tend to the garden and name the plants and animals of the freshly-minted world. In the gospel of Christ, our Triune God gave us the means to begin to live ordered spiritual lives that begin with right-standing with God. The Holy Spirit continues His ongoing work of integration (making whole) in a world deeply influenced by an enemy who is constantly disintegrating (pulling apart). Much to our surprise, He does this primarily through indwelling and reshaping the hearts and minds of believers in Christ. 

The desire to order our private worlds is not wrong; however, sometimes this desire becomes inordinate and idolatrous. While the desks turned out beautifully, they were not able to deliver the peace and reassurance that I was subconsciously demanding of them. Lest you think me alone in being crazy enough to think that inanimate objects of my own making could satisfy soul needs within me, the prophet Isaiah repeatedly spoke of similar trends.

The desks were more an attempt to control a world that feels increasingly out of control. On top of the pressure cooker that is pandemic living, we have friends who are losing loved ones and relational and financial stressors of our own. There are far more questions whirling around in my head and heart than there are anchored answers. With mounting fears, comes the growing need for control, as fear and control create quite a feedback loop. When we are afraid, we grasp for control. In our grasping for control, we stir up more fear.

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What the desks could not deliver, the Word of God did, offering an antidote for my need to control. While reading one of my favorite Psalms, the Spirit opened my eyes to fresh insights.

“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (Psalm 31:5). 

David, who penned this psalm, often had very little control over his circumstances. Though he had been anointed to be the future king of Israel, he spent many years being hounded and harmed by the presiding and precarious King Saul. In the midst of circumstances he could not control, he committed his circumstances and his very life to the blessed controller of all things. The Hebrew word pagad, translated commit above, can also be translated to appoint, to point in charge, and to give oversight. Thus, David appointed God to be in charge of the things that he knew he could not control. Rather than grasping for control, he gave it over to the One who could far better create, sustain, and restore all things.

When we face fearful circumstances without and conundrums within, we have a similar choice: to commit or to control.

Thankfully, we have one who did this fully and completely even in the gravest circumstances that led from a cross to a grave. The One who perfectly ordered and arranged all things took on himself all that was dis-ordered about ourselves and our world. And while he suffered in doing so, he actually quotes from this Hebrew Psalm, crying out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

May this week finding you seeking to commit more and control less.

Reigning in Unruly Thoughts

My mind has been a mob of late with untethered thoughts running amuck. From fears of school scenarios and flagging finances to stubborn lies I thought were long-defeated, my brain has been running internal marathons for weeks. I am old enough to know that I am not alone in this battlefield of the mind. I am familiar enough with the Scriptures to know which verses talk of this very battle (Romans 12:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 being chief among them). However, these realities alone cannot make my thoughts kneel.

When mobs of unruly thoughts disturb the peace Christ has purchased, we need to look more at him than them. This concept of growing by indirection is nothing new; it has helped believers in Christ since the days of the early church. We cannot directly become more and more like Christ, not can we directly order our thoughts. The more we focus on them, the more unruly they often become. We need God to soften our hearts, order our minds, and sanctify our lives.

However, that does not mean that we sit around and twiddle our thumbs. There is much work we can indirectly. We can choose to focus the beam of our attention outside of ourselves or our circumstances onto him who ordered the galaxies and established gravity.

Paul told the often unruly church at Corinth, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge  of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The idea here is that our thoughts must kneel before the Lord.

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Many of us know that we are called to take our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. I know this verse and have studied many of the Greek words in which it was originally written. I desperately want ordered thoughts that kneel in the presence of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords; however, in the trenches of my day-to-day life, I wrestle with getting from point A to point B. And rightly I should wrestle, because I cannot get myself there. There is no road that gets me there, no train that runs between those two points.

The only way that I have ever experienced success in seeing stubborn thoughts kneel before my Savior is by being early and often and long in his presence. There I begin to forget those thoughts because I am thinking of him. His softening gaze and His tender tones (tender even when his living and active word cuts me like a knife, as per Hebrews 4:12-13) melt my frozen fears and slowly chip away at chiseled lies.

Last night, my mob of unruly thoughts were keeping me from sleeping. I tried reading to divert them. It didn’t work. I squirmed in bed, attempting to outmaneuver them. As such, I ended up having to quietly sneak out of my room and wrestle with the Lord.

My thoughts still have not fully kneeled, but I am thinking more of the tender one who knelt to bless small children and who rose early to bend his own knees in dependent prayer on his heavenly father.

Kneeling Thoughts

My thoughts like to run,
But they d not like to kneel. 
Catching one that is racing
Is always quite an ordeal. 

Changing shape and speed,
They don’t like to be still. 
If I can barely catch them,
How can they bend to your will? 

I need stronger, smarter help
If your truth is to prevail. 
I’ve tried reasoning with them,
But my efforts are to no avail. 

They run amuck with feelings,
But they must be held liable.
In your warming presence,
Rigid thoughts are pliable.

Help me sit before you
Early and often and long-
Then thoughts will kneel
At the beauty of your song. 

He who knelt with children
Also knelt in lonely agony.
My thoughts will yield to him
Who bore the curse for me. 

 

Preemptive Weariness & a Ready Refuge

Is there such a thing as preemptive weariness? If there wasn’t, I am fairly certain that my thought-patterns of late have created such a thing.

Normally back-to-school season is my solace. I love the ordered anticipation, the list-checking, and the label-making that it affords.  I love outfitting my boys with new  (or new to them) lunch bags, book bags, and first day of school clothes. However, this pandemic has been raining on everyone’s back-to-school parades.

I keep find my masked-self roaming school supply aisles in nostalgia and confusion. Should we buy the pencils and order the new lunch boxes?  Do they even need spiral notebooks? The surface-level supply confusion is nothing compared to the storms that rage deeper in my heart throughout the day. Do I have what it takes to challenge my children? What are they missing developmentally and emotionally right now? If can barely keep myself on task, how will I keep three different children in three different grades on track? 

If I feel this weary, I cannot imagine the potential and/or proven weariness of teachers and administrators, single parent families, and those who are treading water already. I  wake up with a weighted heart every morning, mentally tired from playing out potential scenarios before eating my Cheerios. This morning, after the initial wave of preemptive weariness came over me, the Spirit was so gracious to remind me of an old favorite hymn, “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul.”

“Dear Refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee when sorrows rise,
On Thee when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies.
To Thee I tell each rising grief
For Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief
For every pain I feel.” 

Anne Steele, the English hymn writer that penned these words, was no stranger to the storms of life. She lost her mother at age three, and then, at the early age of 19, she became an invalid. Some stories say that she was engaged until she lost her fiancee to a drowning accident; however, historical research seems to say otherwise. With or without the loss of a fiancee, Steele’s life sent her regularly running to the refuge of weary souls.  She remained single all her life, working alongside her father doing ministry. Her regular visits to the safety of the Rock of Ages seemed to prime her heart to write prolifically, as she wrote devotional poetry and hymns that have led other souls to her same refuge.

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It is likely that she had Psalm 46 in mind when she wrote these sweet words about her sovereign refuge.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,  though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling”
(Psalm 46:1-3).

The Hebrew word machaseh, translated refuge above, can also mean a place of safety, hope, and trust. It is derived from the Hebrew verb chasah meaning to run for refuge or  to flee for protection and safety.

However, the word I found most interesting in this verse was matsa which is translated “very present” above. This word literally means to attain or to find. A more literal translation might read, “a much found” refuge or a “well-proven” refuge.

The Psalmists implies that there is a well-worn, often-trod path to this sure refuge in the Lord. It has been sought out, found, and proven countless times. He has been found sufficient, spacious, and steady as a refuge for weary souls.

If preemptive-weariness exists, we can take great solace in the fact that a ready refuge long preexists it.  There was a day when the perfect Son of God wanted to run, as was His custom, into the refuge of the Father. He was not received. He was left refuge-less and ravaged on the cross. He endured this literal mountain-shaking catastrophe so that we would have constant access to the well-proven refuge.

In this season, may our feet better learn the path to the refuge of our weary souls. If this season continues to elongate, may we also elongate the list of God’s proven faithfulness to us and our children.

A Word to Would-Be School Marms

While walking around in my mask on a rare trip to Hobby Lobby for sanity crafts, I saw something that arrested my attention.  A precious little chalkboard plaque that was meant to charm me but paralyzed me, reading, “The future of the world is in my classroom.”

I might have been likely to buy something just like this for a cute beginning of the year present for my children’s new teachers, only this year, for all intents and purposes, I am their teacher.  

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There are moments when I have visions of being the next Mrs. Frizzle who wildly catches the curiosity of my boys and incites them to passion in the lanes of their giftedness. In those moments, the thought of the future of world living in my home/classroom/ restaurant/ spiritual greenhouse fills me with courage and hope. 

But there are many more very different moments when I remember that I often cannot remember why I walked into my kitchen or realize I haven’t fed or walked the dog by dinnertime. In those moments, the cute little plaque paralyzes me. After all, I should not be entrusted with educating the future of the world if I cannot be faithfully entrusted with the future of the week’s meal planning and bill payments. If the fate of our pet turtles and fish from the past are any indication of the future in my hands, things look bleak, friends. Very bleak. 

I don’t think that I am alone in these pendulum mood swings. As such, I feel the need to remind us all that the future is, in fact, fully secured and utterly ordered by the God of the Universe who has proven Himself good, kind, and capable. 

He is at the center, gladly usurping the usurpers of myself and my children who take turns stealing that seat. He who created my boys with full knowledge of their unique foibles and frailties stands outside of time (Psalm 139:13-16). As such, He fully sees and secures their future. He knows the passions that He has planted within them  (Ephesians 2:10). While I am beginning to see tiny threads of their gifts  and driving desires, He sees the finished tapestry (Hebrews 4:13). 

While my year (or dare I say more?) of schooling them will certainly be shaping and significant, it is not central. He is (Colossians 1:17). And His will and ways will no more be thrown off by my mistakes and missteps than a tiny pebble would throw off Mount Everest. 

Neither Saxon nor Singapore Math will secure my children’s future; their Savior has done so. 

While I want to nourish their minds through classic novels, it is far more significant that they  and their mother be nourished by the promises and presence of Christ. Zoom calls may suck the ever-living life out of them, but we are promised the refreshing zephyr of the Holy Spirit who  will refresh and renew us as we go. 

The burden of schooling can feel crushing, especially when everyone is doing at the same time mostly involuntarily. This unique situation leaves ample space for the additional crushing weight of comparison and competition. “She made a cute chart and bought old fashioned desks for her kids, but my kids are sitting upside down on their heads and the dog just ate the chart.” 

Rather than buying an alphabet carpet for the future school room that we don’t have space to make, I need to set myself squarely in the center of the portion that God has allotted for me and for them. 

He who has entrusted me with these particular children in this particular time has already become my portion and my cup. The lines He has drawn up for us are secure (Psalm 16:5-6). 

He knows already the days where they will soar and the days when we will sink. The Lord has made one day as well as the next (Ecclesiastes 7:14).  

While Hobby Lobby’s plaque may not be wrong, it is incomplete. The future of the world is most certainly in my classroom, but their future has been long secured by the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). As such, this future school marm has some planning to do in the presence of Christ. Godspeed, fellow mommas!  

Mercy Prevails

Our culture tells us in a thousand ways that money and might prevail. In an election season, we are being given highly politicized polls from both political sides promising that each will prevail.

While studying Psalm 65 this past week, my soul gravitated toward one word in one particular verse: prevail. Since then, I have been unable to unravel my thoughts from it.

“Praise is due to you, O God in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed. O you who hear prayer, to you all flesh shall come. When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions” (Psalm 65:2-3). 

The English word prevail literally means “to prove more powerful than opposing forces.” The Hebrew word gabar, translated prevail in the verse above, literally means to exceed or to put on more strength.

The image that comes to heart and mind is that of a mounting, rising wave of sin and its consequences of guilt and shame. I have never experienced a tsunami, but I have been boogie boarding with my boys and watching what felt like huge waves growing before my eyes, filling me with fear.

In this season of unknowns, many of us feel anxiety, fear, shame, and the sins that they tend to spawn mounting up around us, seemingly ready to prevail against our hope, our perspective, and our faith.

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When Mercy Prevailed over Prevailing Waters

The same word gabar is used repeatedly in Genesis 7 in which the sins of humanity have become so pervasive that God decided to mostly start over by cleansing the earth through a massive flood. As the unprecedented flood is described, the writer the phrase “the waters prevailed” four times. The waters exerted themselves, rose, grew strong, and seemed to prevail. The situation seemed utterly hopeless. Until the beginning of chapter 8 when the writer pivots on two powerful verses.

“But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:1-2). 

God showed mercy to Noah and his family by warning them, by commanding them to create a floating zoo of sorts. They humbled themselves under the Word of God and believed His promises of restoration despite the odds and all the evidence of their senses. God’s mercy prevailed over the prevailing waters.

In a similar way, in Psalm 65, David senses the mounting power of his sin and its consequences exerting themselves against him, threatening to drown him in guilt and despair. But then David records that God atones for the mounting sins. The Hebrew word   kaphar translated atone here literally means to cover, to pacify, or to make propitiation.

When sin, guilt, and shame seem to be so strong that seem invincible, when they seem to prevail against us, we have the Cross that reminds us that God’s mercy prevails. The wave of the wrath of God against all that is unlovely, unfaithful, and unjust in and around us crested and crashed on the perfect Son of God. It overwhelmed him. As he laid wrapped in death linens, the enemy seemed to have prevailed.

But our Christ rose and walked out of the tomb. He prevailed over the shadow of death that had prevailed over humanity since the tempter prevailed upon our foremother and forefather. He pacified the roar of death. He covered our transgressions.

Mercy Still Prevails

The once-barren Hannah who felt that infertility would always prevail against her knew something of the prevailing mercy of our God. After years of pouring her heart out and feeling hopeless, God provided her a son. In her song of thanksgiving that mirrors Mary’s Magnificat about another promised child, she penned the following verse.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail” (1 Samuel 2:9). 

Because the One who was fully faithful had his feet bound to the cross, our feet our now guarded. We prevail, but not in the ways world prevails. We prevail through the presence and power of our merciful God.

 

The Pressure on Politics

Politics cannot handle the pressure it is being asked to carry these days.

As Neil Postman spent his life powerfully proclaiming, our nation is in a narrative crisis. We are lacking a unified, agreed-upon over-arching story or aim that orders appetites, brings purpose, and gives significance to our lives.

Hyper-individualism, while it offers incredible freedom, also crushes any chances of a coherent society. With the gradual shift from a modern society where absolutes are assumed even if they are not agreed upon to a postmodern society where self and its subsequent choices reign supreme, society has been atomized into tiny particles of sovereign selves.

With millions of self-appointed sovereigns and a suffocating sense of isolation, it is no wonder that as a society our rates of depression, malaise, anxiety, and suicide were sky-rocketing even before a global pandemic.

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David Brooks describes tribalism as one of the outcomes of such mass existential crisis in his book The Second Mountain.

“People who are experiencing existential dread slip into crisis mode: ‘I’m in danger! I’m threatened! I must strike back!’ Their evolutionary response is self-protection, so they fall back on ancient instincts for how to respond to a threat: us vs. them. Tribalists seek out easy categories in which some people are good and others are bad. They seek out certainty to conquer their feelings of unbearable doubt. They seek out war-  political war or actual war- as a way to give life meaning. They revert to tribe.”

Brooks goes on to give words to what so many of us are getting caught in on our newsfeeds, at our dinner tables, and in our cities and churches.  While disagreement has been part of humanity since Adam and Eve agreed to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, the entrenched, vitriolic environment of present politics goes far beyond basic disagreement and civil debate. While communities are built on mutual affection (whether that is the love of a hobby, a cause, or a place), tribalism grows community on mutual hatred.

“Community is based on common humanity; tribalism is based on common foe. Tribalism is always erecting boundaries and creating friend/enemy distinctions…Politics is war. Ideas are combat. It’s kill or be killed. Mistrust  is the tribalist worldview. Tribalism is community for lonely narcissists.” 

When vacuums of truth and community press isolated individuals deeper and deeper into different tribes, tribal warfare is the sure outcome. The deeper the trenches are dug and the darker the us vs. them lines are drawn, the chances for transformational, relational discussion around disagreements become more few and far between.

“Once politics becomes your ethnic or moral identity,  it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor. Once politics becomes your identity, then every electoral contest is a struggle for existential survival, and everything is permitted.” 

Politics was never intended to give us our life’s purpose; it was intended to be a vehicle towards an end, not the end in and of itself. It cannot carry the weight of human existence and purpose.

Brooks’s explanation of tribalism helped makes sense of the crossfire I feel caught in currently. Two entrenched sides unwilling to even listen to the other side because they so villainize each other.

For the believer in Christ, the lines are drawn up very differently.  As Solzhenitsyn  discovered in prison, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every  human heart- and through all human hearts.”

We were enemies of God, and in our fallen nature were children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3); we were without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12). We were set on our own destruction, deeply entrenched in our patterns of sin.

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:4-5).

We need not be sucked into political tribalism when we are the loved members of the family of God. Politics need not become our ultimate purpose because we know the end of all things and are invited to join God in His kingdom work and purpose. Rather than putting the weight and affirmation of our existence on to a political party or system, we know that such a weight can only be placed on the One who created us, redeemed us, and currently sustains us. As such, we ought to be the most free of all people to engage in politics without crushing it or others with it.

Lord, help us to that end as we approach even more vitriolic days ahead. Be our purpose, be our vindicator, be our identity. Amen. 

Politics & the Primary Language of Individualism

‘Tis the season. Political season is upon us (not that it ever took a break). If I am completely honest, I dread election seasons more than I dread just about anything. I think I would rather walk a mile on Lego pieces than dance the delicate dances that will be required in the upcoming months.

Under normal circumstances, election seasons are exposing; however, the stakes and the tensions in our nation are higher than they have been in decades. Our patience is already worn down from the pandemic. Anger and confusion are boiling in our blood as conversations around racism seem to grow more and more polemic. What used to be funny caricatures of both sides are becoming scarily realistic as the ideological delineations become more and more entrenched.

Our political leanings will be questioned, cornered, and cajoled. As much as I want to run away from these conversations, I know I must engage.  I long to be prepared to chime in to the chaos, but to to chime into as a citizen whose primary citizenship and hope is another kingdom led by another king.

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In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his associates use Tocqueville’s seminal study on democracy as a loose guide to studying the the role of individualism in American culture. He rightly claims that the first language of every American is individualism, though that individualism can come out in different forms, namely expressive utilitarianism and utilitarian individualism. Utilitarian individualism most prizes the capital gains, power, and status (all rolled together into the complicated term success), while expressive individualism tends to highly prize feeling, emotion, and freedom of self-expression. While on the surface these two seem to be completely different camps, they share in common a base of individualism: I have the right to go after what I deem to be success and/or freedom in my eyes and government exists to secure that right.

While both sides tend to vilify the other, they share a primary foundation of protecting that individualism which is inherently and intentionally laced into the American spirit. They just define freedom and rights differently and go about seeking them differently.

The upcoming political season will expose more than our political affiliations; it will expose the idols and hopes of our hearts, the longings and rights that wake us up in the morning and keep us up at night. As much as I don’t look forward to this exposure, as a believer in Christ, the discomfort can be more than something to survive. While everyone else might be frantically or fanatically doubling-down on party lines and their respective idols, Christians are invited to double-down in dependence upon Christ.

For the believer in Christ, primary citizenship has been shifted and a new primary  language is learned. Devotion to and dependence upon Christ slowly uproot deeply engrained patterns of individualism (see 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Short term hopes shift from our own increase to the increase of the kingdom (see John 3:30 and Philippians 3:7-9). Long-term hopes are lengthened to converge on the consummation of the kingdom of God in the New Heavens and the New Earth (see Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:10, Hebrews 11:14-16).

This primary citizenship does not extinguish our earthly citizenship, but it does right-size and inform it. It allows us to engage in politics but to do with loosened grips and increasingly humility, knowing that we do not know all things but our Heavenly Father does.

Within the body of Christ, both at large and in our local expressions of the church, there will be those with very different political leanings. We do not need to pretend otherwise. To do so would be naive and dangerous.  We do not need to attempt to manipulate and convince people of our leanings. To do so would be narrow and narcissistic.

We are, however, called to ensure that our primary leaning is into the person of Christ and our primary allegiance is to His Word and His ways. May we guard our hearts which are the wellsprings of our lives (Proverbs 4:23) more than we guard our political stances or positions. May we be more concerned with a humble and obedient posture to Christ than we are with the way parties are positioning themselves for power. May our deepest allegiance be to the One to whom all allegiance will ultimately given (Philippians 2:10-11).

May election season only deepen our dependence upon Christ. See you on the other side of November.