What I Wish Evangelical Pastors Would Say… about July 4th


 

To quote the great Bill Pullman in that wondrous July 4th / Will Smith spectacle, “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day.” Don’t get me wrong I like July 4th. I like the fireworks, and the BBQ. I like the baseball, the popcorn, and the cracker jacks. I like Mom and the apple pie. I’m just not thrilled with a lot of the emotion that was come with it (at least since 2002). And I have long cringed at how a lot of our churches choose to celebrate the day during that week’s service. It’s interesting that no one is putting on spectacles for Thanksgiving (which has a far more religious beginning); yet the big churches down the street seem to be competing in a competition for most flags on the property. Last weekend and the next there will be discussions of independence in many Evangelical churches, and over the airwaves there will be the ever looming discussion about how America has gotten so dang evil.[1] In years past it was the reflexive, we’re Americans and aren’t we great that bugged me. Now it’s the just as un-reflected we’re Americans and we used to be great[2], but we can be great again.[3] This bipolar ride from election to election is exhausting, and more than a little annoying. From cloying sweetness to bitter recriminations, I wish the public discussion of this day would, well, leave a better taste in my mouth.

One of the best bits of my life has been the opportunity to meet wide groups of in many states, and quite a few countries. Working in the ministry in general [4] can actually be an amazing exercise in multi-cultural, pluralistic community building.  Last summer I had the chance to sit in the office of a man who had just returned from Libya and was in charge of training missionaries to go all over the globe. As often happens we were comparing notes and talking about our experiences bringing the gospel to the far ends of the world.[5] The conversation turned to our returns to the South. “I was amazed,” he said, “I came back here and everyone here was so angry. There was a powerful feeling of despair that we had lost the home-field advantage, and were just mad about it.” He went on to discuss how he had seen these “impoverished, third world” countries transition from modern Christianity to one that fit the post-modern time; yet in the supposedly betterAmerica that very transition was not just lagging, but the site of blazing conflict. We shook our heads in wonder at why some many of our friends, heroes, and loved ones were so upset, and so adamant about resisting any changes in the church that might enable us to continue to relevantly proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Now to be fair, the situations in North Africa and the Middle East are different than the ones inAmerica. Despite the origins of the faith in those lands, the message of Christ had been at low ebb for a century, before Western missionaries returned with a “new and improved” Western version of the faith. While a Western faith was presented in modern terms, it struggled against the more endemic religions (be it paganism, Islam, or some form of tribal faith). Yet as the locals were able to adapt the seed to best fit the soil of the land, Christianity has flourished in many unique and even post-modern ways. In their ingenuity and ability to make the story of Christ their own story, we in the West would be wise to pay attention and learn something. There were factors aiding the change, and where the ground was most fertile our faith has grown.

This of course has not necessarily been the case forAmericain general, or my beloved South in general. Here we have 200 to 300 years of history stacked up, and built into the landscape. Two weekends ago I happened across an article about the Knox County (TN) commission preparing a report on their practice of praying before meetings. Near the end a commissioner was quoted as saying, “prayer before meetings is our tradition, it’s what we do before meetings.” His complaint was not, “I don’t know what I’m doing and need divine help.” His complaint was “hey, this is what we do, someone says some words, then we get on with the important business.” I would be more supportive of this effort if the commissioner was more concerned about seeking God’s guidance and blessing, and less concerned about doing what we do. I would be more sympathetic if prayer was more than just our beloved tradition.

Maybe it is, and the guy misspoke, but in listening to many Evangelicals I have begun to wonder if my friend was not correct in his assessment that all this hand-wringing is less about the actual morality and spiritual condition of our land, and more about concern that we may be losing our power, our dominance, our ability to set the traditions, and establish our rule. Several years ago I was in charge of bulletin design, and for that year’s July 4th I included some artwork and a quote from the Rich Mullins song linked at the top:

“Nobody tells you when you’re born here / how much you’ll come to love it / and how you’ll never belong / so I’ll call you my country / and still be lonely for my home / I wish that I could take you there with me”

This is the message I wish we would take into our pulpits this time of year. We love our country, but this isn’t us. Being Americans is a great privilege and an honor, but being American does not define us (not in our totality). In fact being American is just a small part of us. We do not belong here. We are people of another country, another place, another time, another ethic, another belief system, another God. We are citizens of another Kingdom who happen to be expatriated here in this land.Americais not ours, it does not belong to us. We are stewards, yes, we will try our best to do right by our adopted home, but it is still the land of our sorrow. We do not call it our land of sorrow because of anything wrong with it per se, but because it is not the place to which we long to return. It is the land of our sojourn. Home lays on the other side of the journey.

Maybe if we can regain this sense of our true identities, then we can get over some potentially harmful ideas. Americais not divine. It is not sovereign. It is not some sinless beacon of all that is right. Americais just another country in the world.[6] Our constitution is not sacred. It is not some divinely inspired and authored document which holds absolute truth and the authority to save its believers.[7]

There is an apocryphal saying inAfricathat I have heard quoted from more than one African Christian:

“When the Western Missionaries came here, we had the land and they had the Bible. They told us to close our eyes as was their traditional in prayer; and we opened them, they had the land, and we had the Bible.”

Far from a swindle many of the men I have heard use this story use it with pride. They see it as one of the best trades they ever made. The dumb Americans got something they could not possibly maintain, while they got something that cannot be destroyed. At the end of the Medieval Era, our forbearers came to this strange land as the abused outsiders kicked out ofEngland, andEurope. We came. We saw. We conquered this land, and made it anew. Yet one might ask those first settlers off the boat; just what was lost in the accumulation of power.

Towards the end of the Modern Era, the Evangelical community rose up from the ashes of the Scopes Trial, and we embarked on righteous crusade to take back the land. We won elections. We gained the power.[8] Yet one cannot help but wonder what we have lost along the way. Did we gain the land, only to lose the Bible? And if so how can we get it back?[9] So perhaps a ‘lost’ election or two is not the worst that can happen. Maybe we need to lose the land. Maybe we need to get back to just having the Bible. Maybe we need to get back to speaking Truth to Power, and stop worrying about being the Power. Maybe we need to reclaim our identities as Christians and stop worrying about being Americans. Maybe we need to get back to welcoming the weary. Binding up the broken-hearted. Releasing the captive. Healing the sick. Doing it regardless of party affiliation, or concern for status.

These are the questions, I wish Evangelical Pastors would ask from their pulpits this week. Because this is the discussion we need to be having, because while America has never saved anyone, the Gospel always can.


[1] … in the past four years.

[2] … before the Liberals ruined everything,

[3] … if everyone would just do as we say (which may be vastly different from what we actually do).

[4] … and planting churches in specific…

[5]  He had spent 15 of the past 20 years in the Middle East, and I, well, was recently returned from Illinois (which for a good Southern boy was close to a foreign country, I had to use many of the same CQ muscles).

[6] Albeit a good country, perhaps one of the best in the history of the world. A spectacular place with truly amazing freedoms and the greatness to allow all people of all faiths to seek the blessings of their god in openness and charity.

[7] Albeit an amazing document which grants landmark freedoms and creates the culture needed for true greatness.

[8] … back, sorta.

[9] … leave the land, take the Bible.

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