Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Game of Thrones

Trooping the Colour

In case you haven’t noticed, the game is about power.  In many places this is simply obvious.  In Washington, DC, despite the fulminations about (pick your topic) the budget, the deficit, Benghazi, Obamacare, the bottom line issue is power.  In whatever horrific civil war currently underway, regardless of the lofty-sounding propaganda put forth by all sides, the bottom line issue is power.  In boardrooms and corporate offices across the globe, forget the idealistic made-for-advertising drivel about serving customers or even serving shareholders; the issue is power.  In each of these places, the struggle is intense, the stakes are high, the collateral damage is staggering, the casualties are real.  In this world of ours, there are winners and there are losers.  And the goal is not to be numbered among the latter at any cost.

The Kremlin

But even in less obvious places the same dynamic is in place.  In places of worship all across the globe, the spiritual ideals espoused might be truly beautiful, but the game played inside is simply about pure naked power.  At a mosque in Mombasa, Kenya a week or so ago, a prominent imam was gunned down by disgruntled attendees because he refused to take a more militant line.  Western Christian churches are not known for shooting (or burning) their leaders, in this century at least, but the power plays are no less intense, and the result is too often broken relationships, broken careers, even broken lives.  Imagine the mixed message that is sent when one Sunday, the pastor of a large congregation leads his people in the celebration of our communion as members of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and the next Sunday he is gone, forbidden to stand before the congregation again by a couple of rogue elders who, unhappy that they couldn’t make the pastor do their bidding, finally found a pretext to get rid of him.  This sort of thing is much more common than one might think.

Christians have a long history of being no different than the rest of the world in the way they do business, conduct their affairs, manage conflicts and look after their interests.  We just feel more or less obligated to mask our motives and behaviors behind an obscuring fog of Christian jargon.  I speak from experience, because I am that Christian.  So whether one is a Renaissance pope or a 21st century Televangelist, the issues are remarkably the same.  The only interest being served is neither Christ’s nor the gospel’s, but one’s reputation, influence, coffers and prestige and CV.

Tianamen Square

But if the issue of power and control dominates the world and its religions, power and control are the currency of individual relationships as well.  Just think of cliques of girls or boys in junior high school.  Think of the playground bully.  Think of the pecking order that exists on sports teams.  We all learn very early that the game is about power.  Some of us learn how to play it and stay on top.  Some of us want to be with the powerful, beautiful, cool people, but are cut out of the game.  Some of us become skilled at avoiding the issue.  But the game remains the same.

Sadly, power often becomes the issue in marriages and families.  One spouse is or becomes dominant, the other becomes subservient or accommodates.  The status quo is maintained by all sorts of dysfunctional behavior, from veiled (or overt) threats, verbal abuse, passive aggressive behavior, and physical abuse.  Given that half of all marriages end in divorce, and (as statistics indicate) half of Christian marriages end in divorce as well, this is no isolated problem.

Elysee Palace

Power is the only language this world knows.  That’s why the US builds aircraft carriers.  It is the only game this world plays.  Most lives are lived as if the old bumper sticker seen on the back of an old man’s Porche is the one incontrovertible fact of the universe: ‘The one who dies with the most toys wins!’  It is the soul-reverberating theme of advertising, the chorus of popular music.  Magazines trumpet the latest surefire ways to achieve ascendancy.  Health and wealth gospellers assure us they own and define the way to success.

I’ve recently been in long earnest conversations with a friend who was lamenting the state of American Christianity and how if we would just learn to seek first the kingdom of God, we would see God do dramatic things in our midst.  My friend is surely right in some of her observations:  the state of American Christianity is deplorable.  Churches are full of people who say one thing and do something else.  Few seem willing to listen to what Jesus says, much less act on it.  Churches have become auditoriums where one can come and listen and watch and then go back home, more of an opportunity for lifestyle enhancement than a community of intentional disciples.  Preachers preach messages seemingly full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, to paraphrase Shakespeare.  There are exceptions.  But the pull of our culture’s current is so powerful and the perceived costs of resistance so steep that most individuals, churches and Christian institutions have chosen to drift along under the unfailing banner of God and country, or at least the unthinking banner of ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’.

Japan's Parliament in session

But none of this should be shocking or a surprise.  Jesus himself and his apostles flagged at the very beginning of this movement that the dangers of hypocrisy and of conformity with the values of the world would be the chief dangers facing Christians – not opposition, persecution or even martyrdom.  One of the reasons the early churches did not grow and spread even faster is that the gospel, and Jesus’ call to discipleship, is inherently and fundamentally opposed to the surrounding cultures’ way of doing things.  Being a Christian sets one against one’s culture.  Being a Christian sets one against one’s family system.  Being a Christian is very costly.   

There are some who are attracted to Christianity; they like the perceived perks, they like being associated with these people, but they themselves want to have it their way.  They want to define repentance on their terms, they want to demonstrate love on their terms, they want to practice spirituality on their terms, they want to be involved on their terms.  These people may be ‘Christian’ by association and even membership. But they are not Christian as Christ and the apostles understand the term.
The Reichstag dome
It should come as no surprise that our churches, our staffs, our classes, our seminaries are all full of people who are busy defining Christianity according to their perceived needs and desires.  The reason one can say this is that the one marker given by Jesus and by Paul for genuine Christianity seems so totally lacking in our churches and (so-called) 'Christian' institutions.  Jesus says, ‘This is how everybody else will know that you are my follower if you love one another.’ (John 13:34-35)  Paul says, ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love’. (Galatians 5:22)  Without this defining our relationships and our interactions and our dealings and our priorities, we are clashing cymbals.  It really is this simple.
There is a lot of energy spent in Christian circles rooting out those who seem to threaten ‘Christianity’ as we define it.  Seminaries uncover and toss out professors who cannot sign this statement on inerrancy or that statement on justification.  Denominations toss out pastors who get divorced or who suffer from depression or who are gay, all in the name of purity.  But none of those issues threatens the movement started by the incarnate Son of God; what guts the gospel and the church in our generation and what has gutted it in every previous generation back to the time of the apostles is the lack of love.  Period.  We aren’t what we are called to be because we do not love.  And that is primarily because none of us are called to be professors or teachers or pastors or administrators or best-selling authors or successful megachurch hyperleaders or top-of-the-ponzi-scheme prosperity gospellers.  We are called to love, and to love in the same way Jesus has loved us.  This is what Christianity is.  This is what Christianity does.  This is what salvation actually looks like.  Anything less has missed the mark.
British Parliament

Jesus was firmly rooted in the world of his time.  He knew what the game was, amongst the religious leaders, amongst the Roman occupiers, in the lives of the men and women who made of the crowds who turned out to see if he might do a miracle.  Jesus didn’t come to give self-help tips to show us how to make it in this world.  He intended to turn the world upside down, and us with it.

What Jesus says, what Jesus stands for, is simply counter-intuitive to the way things are and the way things are done.  It’s no wonder that hardly anyone takes what he says seriously.  It is rhetoric to be ignored, just as we have learned to ignore the rhetoric of our parents, our teachers, our pastors, our politicians.  The disciples led the way in making this mistake.  The very ones who heard Jesus day in and day out and had a front row seat from which to view how he actually lived and what he actually did, they insisted on defining the ‘kingdom’ as best suited them, and proceeded to set up its administration in good first century style, with them in charge of course.  Or they went after each other over who was the greatest, and thus who stood in line to receive to top position of power and perks when Jesus got around to divvying up the inevitable spoils of conquest.  It would seem that nothing has changed.  Every generation of Christian since then has made the same mistakes, more or less, to the present day.  The results are, sadly, everywhere on display.

The 1976 Coronation of Emperor Bokassa, CAR

So in every home, in every church, in every denomination, in every religion, in every organization, in every movement, in every government, in every relationship it’s a game of thrones, to borrow the title from the popular TV show.  It’s a game that consumes our lives.  But our games are played detached from reality, because in actuality the real throne is already taken.  When understood, this sets me free from living my agenda at someone else’s expense.  I can instead devote my life to life according to the rightful king’s agenda.  I can take the posture of a servant, I can give my time and possessions without expectation of reward or return.  I can sacrifice my wants and even my needs for the sake of another.  I can do good to those who persecute me, love those who set themselves against me and are determined to be my enemy.

But for some reason, this is very, very hard.  The world has seen glimpses of this, flashes of ‘made in the image of God’ glory, has had foretastes of new heaven and new earth reality.  But the world has, tragically, seen no consistent evidence that Jesus’ counter culture kingdom is anything more than pious nonsense.  ‘You are the salt of the earth’?  ‘You are the light of the world’?  If this is it, if Christianity today is what Jesus had in mind, then we are in trouble.

The answer is not more programs, not more leadership, not more conferences, not more seeker friendly, not more miracles, not more healings, not more ‘faith’, not more studies, not more diversity.  The Christian answer is, simply, repentance.  History is an endless book of examples of how humanity has tried the same things and with the same results, ad nauseum.  History provides as close as one can come to proof that we are not dealing with an intelligent species after all.  The cycle of dysfunction, the endless climb towards power, the game of thrones, when all is said and done, is a road that ends in the middle of nowhere.  Such is the destruction and pain caused by this way of being, one would think men and women would be desperate to take the first possible exit off this highway to hell.  But it is the mystery and delusion of iniquity that the vast majority think any alternative would be worse.  And so we stay strapped into this roller coaster for a ride that actually will end in eternal freefall.

Jesus is the icon of what God intends for all of us.  He has reclaimed human life for its rightful purpose in glorious relationship with God and one another.  He has demonstrated that an alternative way to the world’s mythology and methodology is not only to be preferred, but is in fact the only way out of the mess that all of us are currently in. The church is meant to be God’s hospital where His regimen of healing and salvation takes place.  The sacraments are the medicines prescribed by Christ our Healer.  And prayer the measure of our love of God the holy Trinity.  All of us are congenitally oriented against the call and means of love, the bend towards power and control runs deep in us all.  But our fellowship with other Christians on the way is meant to be the place where we practice our call to be like Christ.  While I resonate with the image of the church as hospital, perhaps a better analogy is that of an emergency room.  All of us arrive in bad shape.  All of us need serious help. We have spent our entire lives treating symptoms.  The doctor is concerned not to give acetaminophen for a head ache; he finds us instead afflicted by an end-stage metastasized cancer. Without his intervention this patient will surely perish.

It is common to rail and whinge about the government, or the economy, or big business, or this or that conglomerate, or those rich people, or those drug addicts, or that teacher, or that pastor, or that neighbor or that husband/wife.  But the real issue lies with none of these.  Until we can look in the mirror and own our need and our dysfunction and our choices and our own game of thrones we are no different nor will we be any more effectual than any other human being who has been caught up in a similar version of what our broken humanity has become.  This, at least, is my current struggle.  I’ve awakened late to the fact that none of my exalted experience or education or long identity as a ‘Christian’ absolves me from my own desperate need to repent, and too often my repentance is hindered by these things, connected like a pernicious weed with runners from the controlling node of my pride.

The Mall

Only when my pride is exposed and pulled out can the gospel be good news.  With clearing mind and clearing eyes, we see death for what it is, sin for what it is, brokenness for what it is.  And we also see Jesus for who he is, and his cross for what it is, and salvation for what it is.  We become a sign to the rest of the world – to our spouses, our neighbors, our community, our churches our nation – that it need not be as it has been.  There is a different way, a better way:  ‘I am the way,’ says Jesus.

Power promises way more than it ever delivers.  ‘There is a way that seems right to a man, but it ends in death.’ (Proverbs 14:12)  Like the classic pre-GPS American male who would drive for miles refusing to ask for directions and refusing to admit that he was lost, it is long past time to admit that standard operating procedure is not leading us to our desired haven.  Asking directions and changing course may seem humiliating, but it is surely better than the alternative.

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