The Intersection of Faith and Politics

I am really not interested in this blog space becoming a forum for ongoing political conversation. The name of this site is “Talkingfaith.org” and so it seems that issues of faith would be our primary focus. This is a conversation ministry of our church and I am a pastor. I guess I should be sticking closely to those areas and topics around which I have some expertise. Sounds reasonable.

Last week I posted about my frustrations with politicians who seem content with “thoughts and prayers” when our country is struck by another mass shooting. Most of the feedback I heard was positive, even when we disagreed. We can have serious disagreements and still have positive conversations.

But I have to admit my frustration when someone says to me, “Jim, you need to keep the politics out of faith conversations.” Over the years I have heard this comment a lot. Most of the time, it seems to come from a distorted view of the separation of church and state. I strongly support constitutional provisions that restrict governmental intrusion into the life of the church. However, that is a limitation of government not personal self-expression.

To suggest that faith has no voice concerning politics is to somehow suggest that there are areas in our lives where God is not sovereign. To suggest that the church should not be addressing political concerns of the day is to relegate the church to the cloudy margins of irrelevancy. Faith is a worldview, a way of ordering priorities and values. As a result, faith inevitably addresses EVERY area of our lives – personal and corporate. Faith can – and should – shape our politics, not the other way around.

Thoughts and Prayers

I am so tired of the politicians, on BOTH sides of the aisle, who respond to mass shooting tragedies with the offering of “thoughts and prayers.” Now I am a pastor, I am all for reflection and prayer, but I have to wonder what they are praying about. I am sure they are praying for a strong sense of God’s presence to surround the families of victims. I am sure they are praying for healing for those wounded. But they clearly are not praying for wisdom because, once again, we have thoughts and prayers offered but no action. They are not praying for courage because they exhibit none.

I was raised in a gun home. Our family ate game meats for a significant part of the year. Our father loaded his own ammunition and so that also meant that, in addition to guns and pistols, we also had a significant amount of ammunition and ammunition components in our home. All were stored responsibly. With four children in the home they had to be. No one could simply open the gun cabinet, pick up a weapon, and fire a round.

I have brothers who own both rifles and handguns. Both hunt. If I could afford it, I would have a handgun myself – not for protection – but simply because I enjoy target shooting. I am supportive of responsible gun ownership. I recognize that we have a second amendment right to keep and bear arms.

However, and this is where I am going to get in trouble, I do not believe that our second amendment right to gun ownership is absolute. Just as we do not have the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, just as children do not have a right to purchase guns that are legally sold to adults, so also our constitutional rights are boundaried by reason and common sense.

I do not need a 100 round magazine to either target shoot or hunt. They are large, bulky, and serve no purpose other than to facilitate a massive expenditure of rounds on a target in the shortest possible time. It is time that large capacity magazines are outlawed.

When I was a teenager, I had to undergo a significant driver education course to get behind the wheel. That course included classroom education, practice driving on an enclosed range, and supervised driving on the open road. That education was designed to maximize not only my personal safety, but also the safety of those around me when I was driving. The idea that someone can walk into a gun shop in some of our states, or a gun show, and walk out with a weapon with no demonstrable safety training is stunningly ignorant to me. It is time to mandate appropriate shooting education courses prior to the purchase of any weapon. Just as driver’s licenses need to be renewed with appropriate testing, so should shooting licenses.

Background checks should be mandated, thorough, include mental health, and perhaps some kind of screening for social media presentations. The delivery of the purchased weapon should only be finalized once the thorough background check has been successfully completed. The gun show loophole for purchase should be closed.

Ammunition not used for target shooting or hunting should not be available for purchase. No one has a need for armor piercing rounds. Rounds designed to fragment or tumble upon impact serve no recreational purpose. With no reasonable common use, ammunition purchases should be limited to recreational or hunting rounds.

These precautions seem reasonable to me. They should be federally mandated. They provide for responsible gun ownership. Will this end all mass shootings? No, but it will help. I am open to reasonable compromises. What do you think?

I’m Just Asking – A Recap

What do you do with a congregation that is unafraid to ask the really tough, core questions of our faith?

What do you do with a congregation that is willing to accept a variety of responses to those core questions of faith, understanding that we won’t all accept the same answer?

What do you do with a congregation that is unthreatened by honest emotion and passion expressed with integrity by its pastor as the pastor seeks to address their questions?

Here is a very practical question……What do you do when your typical sermon ranges between 1600 and 1900 words and your attempt to answer significant questions from the congregation goes well over 3000 words? That is the difference between a 22 minute sermon and a 35 minute sermon. Will the congregation accept it? Will there be mumbling in the pews and people pointing to their watches as the sermon time goes long? What about our lunch reservations?

What do you do? Well I don’t know about you, but I can only give thanks for the spiritual hunger, patience, and grace of Laguna Niguel Presbyterian Church today in worship. We had absolutely stunning music offered by Timothy and Nathan Le as they offered violin and cello pieces in worship. Singing was great. But for the first time, we experimented with the teaching offered during the sermon slot in worship.

Borrowing an idea from Dr. Chris Atwood, senior pastor at San Clemente Presbyterian Church, we solicited questions from the congregation and sought to address them in worship. I tried to first give the congregation some sense of the variety of responses to questions posed about the interpretation and practical takeaways of the book of Revelation, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and then how one can be faithful and still struggle with Scripture.

I don’t know if the answers given were any good. I gave it my best shot and the congregation seemed genuinely appreciative. Most importantly they seem to embrace the idea that church should be a place where we are unafraid to ask questions – ANY question!

I am so thankful for the saints of LNPC. I am thankful for their honest, open, inquiring minds. I am thankful for their unwillingness to accept trite historical clichés and formulas. I am thankful for the freedom to say, “I am not sure.” I am thankful for the grace that covered the entire experience.

I think we will do this again. Thanks Chris for the idea. Thanks LNPC for the freedom. To God be the glory!  

Worshiping While on Vacation

It is always interesting to go attend worship while on vacation. Depending on where I am, it either gives me an opportunity to worship with one of our daughters or visit a completely new church. Both are great.

This summer I was worshiping in a large, dynamic, and growing church. I have known of this church for decades and have always viewed it as a great church with wonderful people. It still is.

Recently the leadership team of the church has changed. They brought in an exciting new head of staff who is a dynamic preacher and also a charismatic, visionary leader. A part of that new vision was the complete remodel of what was once a beautiful, traditional, stained glass filled Sanctuary. The new “Worship Center” – they don’t have a Sanctuary any more – is filled with stackable chairs, wonderfully crisp flat screens, and large screens that make it possible for any number of different images and backdrops to be seen behind the unadorned stage.

Ok. I fully acknowledge that I am powerfully moved by beautiful worship that pays careful attention to creating sacred space. I like stained glass, but I don’t need to have it. I like flat screens that allow us to display text and images that get us out of our books and into worship. I recognize that there is nothing “sacred” about pews, and stackable chairs that allow you to reconfigure the worship space for any number of different events is incredibly convenient. I recognize that to livestream a service requires careful attention to lighting and so maybe a darkened space is preferable. I get all of that.

But when our space planning becomes so utilitarian, when our architecture is deliberately “warehouse light”, when our concern is non-believer accessibility at the expense of sacred space, I have to wonder what we are doing. Isn’t there some middle ground?

We entered to worship and immediately had twenty minutes of singing, a brief prayer, more singing, a sermon (excellent by the way), and we closed with singing. Okay, the praise team was good and the singing was great. But I noticed one exuberant individual who was very demonstrative in his singing. That’s fine. He was clearly caught up in the spirit of worship as he sang. As he did, it was almost as though he was praying. But when the singing was over, so was he. He quietly picked up his bulletin (really just a short newsletter) and he left. Worship was over for him.

This happened to occur at an overwhelmingly contemporary church. But it is not unique to contemporary churches. What leads us to pick and choose our worship experiences? When did worship become so much about personal choice and satisfaction that we feel free to pick up and leave at any point in the service? When did worship become about our preferences versus God’s delight? What is the trade off between newcomer accessibility and sacred space?

I have thought about that worship experience quite a bit. I still am, and I imagine I will for awhile. What do you think?

Transformation

Rather than calling us to the latest change fad, rather than calling us to some kind of religiously blessed conformity or right behavior, let me instead suggest that what God is calling us to is nothing more, and nothing less, than a full embrace of the Gospel. It is moving from death to life, from brokenness to wholeness in Jesus Christ. Godly change is the embrace of the best expression of who we were uniquely created to be.

Change then is not a mindless call to conformity or obedience, the transformation called for is not a complete rejection of who you think you are. Instead, change is the embrace of the unique person that God created you to be. It will be different for each of us. While we share the incredible privilege of being created in the image of God; each of us are unique, one-of-a-kind combinations of gifts, talents, abilities, personality, and possibilities.