Let’s Not Be Afraid of Refugees Because There Might Be Terrorists Among Them. Let’s Welcome Strangers Because There Might Be Angels Among Them.

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I’m so very grateful for Mill City Church today, for a variety of reasons. When the pastors charted out the current sermon series we’ve been working through, Going Public, they decided to end it this week and next with a service of Lament today, the first Sunday after the election, and a service of Thanksgiving next week (which just happens to the Sunday before Thanksgiving). As Pastor Stephanie described it on Instagram when she posted the photo above:

This has been a heavy week to be a human in America. It’s also a heavy week to be a leader and to figure out how we move forward and make changes. Many of the problems many face in our country I know I’ve contributed to. Every story I hear this week has been breaking my heart. For thousands of years, the followers of Yahweh have followed an ancient tradition in times like these… it’s called Lament-Todah. Lament is best translated as complaint and todah can be best translated as thanksgiving. So for the next two weeks at @millcitychurchmpls I am going to lead our church through Lament this weekend and Todah next weekend as we respond to the division, confusion and pain erupting in our country over the last few months. The Kingdom of God is our aim, but we must not neglect the need to stop and engage the pain and suffering and bring it to a God who loves us and who knows the deepest depths of human suffering. Jesus chose to know this first hand. Join us for worship at Sheridan School at 10am. #kingdomcome

Obviously, this was planned long before the election results were known, but long after the rhetoric in this election season had devolved in a way that few of us had ever seen. I was so very grateful when I found out that this was the plan, as my heart has been so very heavy of late, but especially since Tuesday. It should come as no surprise that I did not vote for Trump. His hateful rhetoric and actions made this a bit of a no-brainer, for me at least. Look, I know well-meaning Christians disagree about the proper role and size of government. Well-meaning Christians disagree about economic policy and even economic systems. Well-meaning Christians even disagree about political systems, as some of us suspect that something like democratic socialism might work a little better, and better serve the needs of all, than what we in the U.S. have now. Well-meaning Christians disagree about many things in the sphere of secular politics.

What we should not disagree about, though, is that the primary, fundamental responsibility in our public lives is to love and serve our neighbor, whether we find them on our street or in Syria, in our neighborhood mosque or desperately trying to cross the U.S.’ southern border. We ought not disagree that there are two kinds of people in the world, according to Jesus, and they’re not conservatives and liberals, not Republicans and Democrats, not globalists and nationalists. Rather, the two types of people in the world, according to Jesus, are our neighbors, whom we are to love, and our enemies, whom we are to love. These are Jesus’ actual words in Mark 12:31 and Mark 5:43-48. Sure, we can disagree about how to do this, but never that we should. We are not called to protect ourselves. We are not called to store up treasures for ourselves here on earth whether within our home or within our “country,” and then shut out, exclude, and marginalize anyone we think might possibly be a thief who could break in and steal our stuff. In fact, quite the opposite is true. So what has been most painful about this election season is the overwhelming number of self-identified “Christians” who seem to have forgotten this. It’s jarring to hear large crowds of mostly European descendants chant “build a wall” around land they have no right to control because their ancestors stole it from one people group and committed genocide against them while kidnapping another whole people group from another continent and enslaving them in their ill-gotten country. For those in such crowds who claim to be “Christian,” though, it’s especially jarring, for this runs so very counter to the clear thrust of the gospel. There are many, many verses in Scripture that tell us to love our neighbor and specifically to welcome strangers. Here’s one such passage from Hebrews 13:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.[a]

It’s almost as if someone in the Trump campaign leaked his platform to the writer of Hebrews!

Trump says we should either stop all Muslim immigration or engage in (even more) “extreme vetting” out of fear that there might be terrorists among the strangers. Scripture tells us to welcome strangers, because there might be angels among them.

For profit prison company stocks soared after Trump’s election because he “has called for increased deportation of undocumented immigrants. Implementing that plan would heighten prison demand by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).” But that’s not all, his call for a national “stop and frisk” policy would likely increase the disproportionate arrest and mass incarceration of people of color (if they survived increased interaction with law enforcement at all). Meanwhile, Scripture tells us to “remember those who are in prison” as if we were there with them.

Trump has said he wants to “bring back water-boarding,” and even worse! Scripture tells us to remember those who are being tortured as if we were.

I can’t help but think that somehow all of this was lost on all those “Christians” who voted for Trump. As Brian Zahnd said in the wake of the election:

It will, indeed. Don’t get me wrong, please. I can imagine a scenario in which I’m sitting here writing a post calling President-Elect Clinton to task for her lack of openness and accountability and for her lack of being consistently pro-life (to her credit, she wants to increase the social safety net and provide healthcare for all, factors which are known to reduce abortion; on the downside, she’s for war, and, to the best of my knowledge, has not called for a repeal of the death penalty). That said, for too long Christians have been more interested in their Christianity than in actually following Jesus. For too long white “Christians” in the U.S. have been more interested in a very comfortable civil religion that has much more to do with ‘Merica, Mom, and apple pie than with the good news of the gospel. As Rod White of Circle of Hope recently said, “we (would be Jesus-followers) need (to be) evangelized!

I see this tendency to settle for a “Christian” (civil) religion that is all too accommodating to/conflated with USAmerican (white) culture in ways too numerous to count, and I’ve written about this many times. Take, for example, this worship song by Rend Collective that I’ve previously written about. Here are the lyrics:

Come, set Your rule and reign
In our hearts again
Increase in us we pray
Unveil why we’re made
Come, set our hearts ablaze with hope
Like wildfire in our very souls
Holy Spirit come invade us now
We are Your church
We need Your power in us

We seek Your kingdom first
We hunger and we thirst
Refuse to waste our lives
For You’re our joy and prize
To see the captive hearts released
The hurt, the sick, the poor at peace
We lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause

We are Your church
We pray: revive this earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Win this nation back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Unleash Your kingdoms power
Reaching the near and far
No force of Hell can stop
Your beauty changing hearts
You made us for much more than this
Awake the kingdom seed in us
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ

We are Your church
We are the hope on earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Win this nation back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Win this nation back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

As I said when I wrote about this song before:

Talking about winning the nation back sounds a lot like winning “our” country “back,” for starters. And when you say you’re winning it back, even if you mean for Jesus, you imply that somehow he once had it, and now doesn’t. Is this what we really mean?

Readers of this blog may recall that my family and I were part of a church plant in OH that I’ve alluded to before, the one that we were so very hopeful about at first, that seemed to really get that the church is a people, not a place, and that even was trying out some fledgling missional communities. I think in their first public worship service, they sang this song, and I couldn’t help but ask questions about it after the fact. I just knew in my heart, in my spirit, that while the overall gist of the song was good there was something amiss in “building God’s kingdom here” by “winning this nation back.” Perhaps if that church had launched in the midst of this election season with all the talk of “making America great again” and “taking our country back” the mixed message of winning “our nation” back would have been more obvious. I don’t know. At the time, in that OH church, my concern was shrugged off and the song stayed in the worship rotation as is. I don’t know what exactly I expected them to do; I just know I didn’t feel very heard or understood. As I’ve also said, our experience with that faith community ended badly, with much, much pain, and sadly quite similarly to another traumatic ending there not long before then as I left my long-time job under similarly painful circumstances. There’s no small degree to which I’ve been trying to figure out “what God is up to” in those circumstances ever since, even as they played no small part in our move back to MN.

You see my confusion about those lyrics, right? Not only do they imply that ‘Merica used to be “Christian” in a way that it isn’t now and that we need to get it back to being that way, but they also imply, I think, that the U.S. even can be “Christian” in the first place. Again, this is well-trod ground for me, but I do not believe this to be so. If we really pray, as the song suggests, that God’s kingdom is unleashed to the point that there is healing in the streets and in “the land,” there would be little room for the “American dream” in the hearts of our fellow citizens any longer. If folks were gettin’ healed in the street there’d be no need for Obamacare or for the profit hungry capitalist medical industry. If we started living like the Church is supposed to, and were known for our love in the transformative ways that we might be, many of the institutions of U.S. society would collapse not because of unrest and rioting in the streets but because there’d be no need for them. There’d be no need for our criminal justice system if we loved our enemies and turned the other cheek when confronted with violence (of course, there wouldn’t be much violence in the first place). Capitalism, so dependent on self-interest, whether “enlightened” or not, would collapse if we starting sharing all the possessions we had, knowing they were God’s, not ours. I could go on. The point is that to the extent that we really start living as if God’s kingdom has already come among us we represent a grave threat to the powers and principalities that be, including the U.S. and all other secular governments. That’s why I struggle with that line in that song.

So you might imagine my consternation when Mill City Church sang the same song not all that long into our experience with them. Gratefully, there was enough grace and goodness in what we were discovering in this faith community that I felt I had the capacity to overlook it. It grieved me, just a little, and as I already mentioned I couldn’t sing those words when they come up in the song, but I considered it adiaphora. I was able to do so hopefully because I’ve grown a little but mostly because of all the other clear evidence of God’s work in these people and this community. It was just so clear to me that they were working extra hard to discern what God might be already doing in the community they felt called to serve and then respond faithfully as best they could to join him in that work. And the ways that they were responding, the things that they were doing, deeply resonated with me. My spirit could wholeheartedly say “yes” to what I saw God up to in them.

So, in the wake of this terrible election season and the election itself, my spirit again said yes! when I learned that today’s worship service would be one of lament. We gathered for it today and Pastor Steph led us in a powerful exercise, following the pattern in most of the psalms of lament:

-The Address – usually directly to God

-The Lament Proper – a description of the occurrences for which the people are requesting assistance or rescue

-Confession of Trust – a statement showing belief that God will hear their prayers

-The Petition Proper and Motivation – a usually very specific statement of what the people want God to do

-Vow of Praise – portion of the lament where the people promise to offer thanksgiving once seeing God’s intervention

After each part, we sang. The liturgy was heartfelt and captured our collective yearning that God draw near, that he hear the cry of those suffering from oppression- that he see all the ways they are being oppressed and may be even more so in the days to come- that he hear our cry on their behalf, and that he act. The liturgy should be posted on her blog soon. I encourage you to check it out when that happens. During the “petition” part, I believe, we had a chance to come forward and place our own handwritten petitions in a glass jar:

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This was mine:

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I lament not just over the hateful rhetoric in this election season and the danger that a President Trump poses not just for the “least of these” here and around the world but in a host of many other ways. That is lamentable, to be sure. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, though. ‘Merica is not the Church, after all. It does not represent God’s kingdom come. ‘Merica, especially these days and in the days to come, is basically Rome in Jesus’ day. It is the empire that God’s actual kingdom of love and peace and justice stands in stark relief against. Why should I be surprised when Rome does “Roman” things? Why should I be surprised when a worldly empire pursues its own gain and good to the detriment of its people and those around the world? No, what is most lamentable is that we would-be Jesus followers who live in that empire look no different than its most selfish, power-hungry denizens. What is most lamentable is that our lives look so little like that of our leader, Jesus, who was executed as an enemy of the state for showing the state to be the sham that it is, for showing that God’s kingdom was worthy of our sole and true allegiance.

The service this morning was thus a very emotional experience for many of us, and many tears were shed throughout. Near the end of the service in the auditorium of that elementary school that Mill City Church has had such an amazing relationship with for all these years now, we stood to sing a few last songs:

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Can you guess what song we sang next? It was “Build Your Kingdom Here,” of course. I had been very moved throughout the service as I alluded to above. I felt like I had connected with God as I, as we, cried out to him on behalf of the least of these, on behalf of his children, and asked him to intervene, to move to save them. We had declared our trust that somehow, in spite of it all, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he would act. Rightly, then, we were moved to praise him, to declare that he is our King, he is our President; it is to his kingdom that we pledge allegiance. Some of that sentiment is present in “Build Your Kingdom Here;” so we sang, but I braced myself for those words I knew I could not sing (“win this nation back”).

You know what?

They never came.

Here are the lyrics as we sang them this morning:

Come, set Your rule and reign
In our hearts again
Increase in us we pray
Unveil why we’re made
Come, set our hearts ablaze with hope
Like wildfire in our very souls
Holy Spirit come invade us now
We are Your church
We need Your power in us

We seek Your kingdom first
We hunger and we thirst
Refuse to waste our lives
For You’re our joy and prize
To see the captive hearts released
The hurt, the sick, the poor at peace
We lay down our lives for Heaven’s cause

We are Your church
We pray: revive this earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Bring revival back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Unleash Your kingdoms power
Reaching the near and far
No force of Hell can stop
Your beauty changing hearts
You made us for much more than this
Awake the kingdom seed in us
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ

We are Your church
We are the hope on earth

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Bring revival back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

Build Your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show Your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set Your church on fire
Bring revival back
Change the atmosphere
Build Your kingdom here
We pray

We sang “Bring revival back,” not “win this nation back,” and in that moment I was broken yet again this morning. That’s a sentiment I can get behind. The spirit of God within me yearns for revival, not merely the Billy Sunday altar call variety, but the kind in which “Christians” give up their religion and start living like Jesus followers. If that happens, I have no doubt that we’ll see healing of many varieties in the streets. Lives will be changed. Swords will be beaten into plowshares. Racial reconciliation will occur. Lord, let it be so.

In that moment this morning when I realized the lyrics had been changed, not only did I feel broken, I felt healed. I don’t know why they changed the words. Maybe someone read my post that touched on those words and they heard me and agreed that the lyrics sent a mixed message. Maybe not. Maybe they changed them because they’re always working so hard to listen to God’s spirit anyway and as a result they discerned that the words could be better. I’d like to think at least in some small way it is God’s spirit in me that leads to my discomfort with those lyrics. Either way, I felt heard, and more importantly, I felt healed. I felt as if all that baggage I’ve been carrying around since leaving that OH church was suddenly gone. I was and am grateful.

Therefore it will be with a glad heart that I gather with my Mill City Church family next week for a worship service of Thanksgiving. Prior to that we’ll gather for Mill City Church’s annual “Thanks. Give. Serve” event. Then once the (vegan/faux) turkey is eaten on Thanksgiving, it will be with joyful expectation that I move into the season of Advent. I am hopeful that Christ will come. Again. I am hopeful that God-with-us will be born, that God’s “secret rescue plan” for his children will be started anew. I am hopeful that Jesus will be born, again, that we, his hands and feet, his body, will be made new as we redouble our efforts and rededicate ourselves to being the church in the most profound ways. I pray that we will gain notoriety not for our political power but for our willingness to give it up so that we can better serve those who don’t have it. I pray that our zealous pursuit of love, of God’s peace-with-justice, of God’s shalom, will quite simply make us dangerous. Jesus promised us persecution, and most white “Christians” in this country have never seen it, not really. We aren’t persecuted, after all, when we are criticized for refusing to serve a gay person in our place of business or government office. We might be, though, if we do serve them, if we refuse to see them in terms of their sexual identity but simply as fellow children of God. We aren’t persecuted when we get called out for harassing women entering abortion clinics. We might be, though, if we relentlessly pursued living wage ordinances and robust healthcare for all and more importantly if we so thoroughly and scandalously loved and mentored and supported all the vulnerable and at-risk young women in our lives (and if we actually had them in our lives!) that there was seldom any need for abortion.

Lord, let your kingdom come, in us. Bring revival back. As advent approaches, let us watch and wait expectantly for you to come. Be born into the world anew, through us. Amen.

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