America and the Second Great Divorce

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My Dear America,

President Abraham Lincoln predicted America’s first divorce before it became official. President Lincoln knew that a great crisis would come, but he also believed that the Confederacy and the Union would unite again when the trial had passed:

In my opinion, it [slavery] will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Surely, I am not the only American who recalls President Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech when she observes the present state of our Union. It is obvious that we are divided. And given the chaos that erupted during the election season and the protests that followed the inauguration, it is clear that these are the birth pains that precede the unpredictable crisis that will split us. It is not necessarily the seemingly inevitable split that scares me. Rather, it is the mystery of the lines along which we will split and the fear that we will not get back together.

I worry that we will not remarry because times have changed and our Union has become more complex. America is far more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse than the United States that President Lincoln led, and the ideologies that divide us today are not as few as states rights and slavery. We also navigate the added complication of technology that relocates war from the farmlands and countryside of America to the strangely invisible yet accessible battlegrounds of social media and twenty-four-seven news coverage. It is on these battlegrounds that the lines that divide us emerge. These lines are called but not limited to terrorism, immigration, abortion, gun control, racism, and sexuality.

I think there are additional, and perhaps more critical, lines that divide us, but they are less tangible than a weapon used at a school shooting or an immigrant’s paperwork. These lines are the malicious words and actions we direct towards people who are different from us and people who do not think the way we do. These lines are called hatred, disrespect, anger, and prejudice. Combined, they create the volatile tension that separates one man from another. That tension extends beyond the micro-relationships in our families, churches, schools, and jobs to the very top of our government and from one end of the country to the other.

Simply stated, we do not know how to be kind and choose not to be kind. That extreme lack of kindness has become so severe that our country is having trouble functioning at personal, local, state, and national levels.

There is a large map of the United States that I hung above my desk at home. I put it there almost three years ago with the intention of praying for each state and the representatives who lead it. Now, I wonder who will lead us during these times.

Where are the successors of President Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where are the leaders who will speak prophetically about our nation and stand for goodness, truth, mercy, and kindness no matter the cost? The cost of adhering to Gospel truth ultimately cost President Lincoln and Dr. King their lives, but the outcome of their convictions and sacrifices were radical. I pray that leaders who want to stand up will not attempt to preserve themselves by blending into the chaos. I pray that they will arise, come what may.

Get Off Facebook and Pray

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Photo Credit: Facebook Newsroom

On Saturday, January 21, I turned on the news and saw hundreds of thousands of people marching in Washington, D.C., to protest the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. I called Mom immediately.

“Hey, girly,” she said. “I’m watching the people march. Except there’s so many people that they can’t march.”

“Is this normal?” I asked. I was pretty sure it was not normal for millions of people in major cities across the United States and the world to protest after an inauguration, but I needed confirmation.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life.”

This was not the first time someone called an event  unprecedented. In America alone, there have been many unique events in the past two decades: September 11; the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina;  the Orlando nightclub massacre; the Boston Marathon bombing; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; the mass shooting in San Bernardino; the peculiar and violent altercations between police and civilians; the craziness of the 2016 Presidential Election; and now, the diverse reactions to the inauguration.

As time passes, these events become consumed in a haze of chaos that becomes thicker and spreads further. They are linked with topics that we have very strong opinions about: religion, racism, gun control, sexuality, classism, abortion, immigration, and terrorism. People become angrier, more verbally aggressive, and more violent as they act out their beliefs. Strangely, we can’t remember how we got here. We ask, “What is happening to us? Why are people posting such insane opinions on the Internet?”

But, if we sit for a moment in the best form of silence we can muster in these noisy times, we will see that the past lingers, and all along our nation was quietly dividing itself for years because we never resolved our issues over gun control or racism or abortion or sexuality or terrorism when a national tragedy struck. As a result, the haze thickens, and we are stuck in a violent storm spewing violence at our neighbor about our beliefs and rights without any knowledge of how to end the storm. We only make it worse.

Some of the worst storms are on Facebook, where I spent far too much time reading reactions to the inauguration. I could hardly believe the awful things people I know wrote about black people, white people, people who support abortion, people who don’t support abortion, people who supported Hillary Clinton, people who support Donald Trump, people who marginalize women, and all the other issues that are far too numerous to mention here. The most tragic news is that many Christians sounded just like everyone else, and their voices were lost in the storm.

I remember James 3:5-12, which clearly tells us to watch our mouths, to be quiet, and to speak in a manner that brings peace and wisdom rather than contribute to chaos:

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

It is natural to have opinions about what’s happening in America, but rashly broadcasting those opinions is not the first thing we should do. Rather, we should stop and pray, asking the Lord, “How do you want me to respond? I know there is a specific role for me in these times. What do I do?”

When the Lord answers, we are free to speak or act, confident that our response aligns with the Lord’s mission for these chaotic and unpredictable times. Until then, we need to be quiet because we’re only contributing to the evil that’s brewing and are quickly losing our ability to speak into the haze and help unite our country.

The 2016 Election Season in Two Words: “Jesus, help!”

american-flagWhen circumstances beyond my control mount, I say, “Jesus, help!” My friend prays this handy prayer, and I, too, have come to rely on these words when language falls short. During the election season, I prayed this prayer far more than I did before.

On Election Day, I was excited to vote. I pictured millions of Americans waiting in long lines. The thought made me feel connected to citizens living thousands of miles away. I smiled to myself.

Though I was excited, I was anxious. “Jesus, help!” I prayed. “Jesus, please keep us safe at the polls. Let the rumors of terrorism be rumors. Bring wisdom as my countrymen cast their votes at the local, state and national levels.”

As I stood in line at my polling station, I prayed again. “Jesus, help! I love my country, but I am scared. What’s going to happen to us? Forgive us for our sins! Please don’t leave us!” I thought about the gravity of the election and listened to strangers talk among themselves. The line crept forward until I reached the voting area. I was nervous. Voting meant the campaign season was officially over. What would happen tonight? The next day? I was not confident my countrymen, the world, and I were ready.

I handed a polling officer my driver’s license. He waved me forward, and I stood near another polling officer who impatiently told me it was my turn. “If you see an open booth, move up.”

Outside of prayer, my main role in two years of a volatile campaigning would conclude in a moment. I walked to a voting booth and inserted my voting card. I checked boxes for the president, local officials, and amendments to the Virginia Constitution. “Jesus, help!” I prayed to myself. “These are the best selections I know to make. I can do no more. Help, please!”

I continued to pray these two words as I sat at my desk on Tuesday afternoon. As I answered emails and worked on projects, my mind wandered through the different time zones. I thought of the voters living in those regions and of the people waiting in line. I thought of the people who chose not to vote. “Jesus, help!”

That night as the votes were counted and reporters analyzed, predicted, and announced results the way sports anchors recount once-in-a-lifetime games like the one between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, I prayed, “Jesus, help!” I knew that no matter who I voted for and no matter who our nation chose to represent us to the world, only Jesus could help. Only Jesus could bring peace and restoration and hope where there are none. Only Jesus could restore the division that seems to be present in nearly every corner of America.

I didn’t stay up until the early hours of Wednesday morning to see the outcome; I went to sleep because I quickly grew tired of obsessing over something I could not control. I woke up far earlier than I normally do and immediately checked my phone. I had a record number of news notifications from every major news outlet.

“Jesus, help!” I prayed. I sat on the edge of my bed and prayed for our country. Then, I got ready to go to early morning prayer at my church.

Since Wednesday, I continue to pray this short prayer because I do not know what else to pray. When I am confused, I pray. When I worry, I pray. When I cannot believe what I read and hear, I pray. When I feel myself get sucked into the black hole that is social media and the news, I pray and turn the news off.

The aftermath of the election that reverberates throughout our country indicates that we will experience some changes that we did not expect in the coming months and years. I imagine that many of these events (whatever they may be) will test our faith. But one thing that will not change is the faithful prayer I learned from my friend: “Jesus, help!” No matter what people say, what the media reports, and which choices are made, these are the words in which I trust.

The Spider and Hurricane Matthew

A few weeks ago, a spider stung its web outside the window that separates the kitchen from the backyard. When I washed my hands, cleaned dishes, or prepared a meal, I admired this spider. His size and color made him quite impressive. He sat on his web day and night. He didn’t move much, but on occasion, I found him snacking on small insects.

About a week ago, we learned that Hurricane Matthew may come to Virginia. I became worried. “What will the spider do to survive all that wind and rain?”

My roommate shrugged. “I don’t know.”

I washed my hands and stared at the spider. He didn’t know what was coming to him. “It’s going to rain a lot little guy. It’s going to be windy! Take cover!” The spider didn’t move; he treated each day like the one that came before.

When the wind and the rain came on Saturday night, I remembered the spider and stared through the window, hoping to see the spider hanging onto his web.

“I see him!” I told my roommates. It is rare that we are all at home at the same time. “We’ve got to give him a name.” He seemed to deserve one.

“Jonah? Noah?” I asked. We agreed on Jonah.

I squinted into the darkness and watched the dark blob move back and forth in the wind. I pitied him, but I was glad the spider was out there and not me.

The storm lasted about twelve hours. The next day, I saw him outside our window, and I thought about the strength it takes to weather storms. To hold on for your life. And in the end, you make it through. Though, you’re a bit surprised to be alive and in one piece.

Today, I looked for Jonah. I found him attached to his web, but his body was contorted in a manner that reminds you of death.

“He’s dead!” I said. It was chilly for the last few days. Combined, the storm and the change in temperature must have killed Jonah. I wondered if I should knock him off the web so that I wouldn’t have to stare at his misshapen form until a bird ate him or the wind knocked him off his web.

I was sad for a moment because he had been through so much. And I wondered if my metaphor about storms and how you make it though, beat up and weary, but whole, was actually true because the spider was not alive but dead. For a moment I felt discouraged. What if there isn’t as much hope as I believe there is?

An hour or two later, I walked back to the sink, and I saw Jonah there, not contorted, but sunning on his web with legs tucked under and beside him just like he had before the storm. Except for the web, which was hung somewhat haphazardly, a passerby would not know a hurricane had come.

“He’s alive!” I said. “He is alive!”

 

The Process

OceanII Corinthians 3:18

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, reflecting like bright mirrors the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same likeness, from one degree of radiant holiness to another, even as derived from the Lord the Spirit.”

On Labor Day, I went to Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. A few days before, Hurricane Hermine made landfall in Florida and traveled north. By the time the storm reached North Carolina, it had decreased to a post-tropical cyclone, but the impact it had on the coast days after the storm had left was impressive.

The surf at the Outer Banks was the most intense I had ever seen. Toward the horizon, large waves crashed into the sea, and closer to the shore, waves rolled in one after the other, folding in on themselves long before they reached the shore. Other waves emerged after these and pummeled the sand.

I walked along the shore for a mile or two. From time to time, a gentle wave stretched its fingers as far as it could reach, expressing a quiet greeting. But more often, several waves attacked the shore at the same time. Combined, they threatened to knock me over even though I was at the edge of the surf.

As I walked along the shore, watched the waves, and looked for shells, I thought about what the consistent power of the ocean accomplished. The sea churned up large shells and tossed them onto the shore. I picked up many of these shells; whole ones were uncommon. More often, I found chunks of shells that were probably broken by powerful waves like these. I tossed these shells back into the Atlantic. For some reason, they didn’t seem ready for me to take home. They had ragged edges and an abrasive look about them.

Instead, I kept the shells that reminded me of Chiclets gum because they were so polished that they had a distinct shine. I knew they had a story to tell about their time in the ocean. They had started out as a part of a much larger shell, and when whatever creature that lived in the shell died, the ocean or a predator broke the shell apart. After an unknown amount of time spent being tossed around by hurricanes, tropical storms, and the incessant pressure of the tide, I found the shells tucked in the sand, admired them for the smooth, colorful pieces they had become, and took them home with me.

The smoothing process for seashells reminds me of the sanctification process in the Christian life. We all have rough edges that need to be smoothed. Some rough edges may be a short temper, worry, using explicit, four-letter words, gossip, or lack of submission to authority. In order to smooth out these edges, we experience the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Many times, the Holy Spirit’s work occurs through trials. Day in and day out, we are refined. Sometimes, we are aware that our roughest edges are being aggressively smoothed, much like the shells that were tossed at Cape Hatteras. During times like these, we may cry out in frustration because the pressure is too intense. Perhaps waves even carried you to the coast, and you crawled to the shore only to be tossed back into the sea because the refining process was incomplete.

In times like these, we must faithfully endure the process until the day arrives when we are mature and complete (James 1:2-4) like the polished shells I took home from the Outer Banks. Each shell was perfect in its own right, and the smoothed edges conveyed a history about each shell’s time in the ocean that I would never know.

When we withstand the winds and the waves, and make it to the end of a storm, we will have a story of how we were once rough and ragged, but through endurance and yielding to the Holy Spirit, we now have a polished character that radiates a new degree of holiness (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Wait

When you wait for the Lord to direct you in what to say or do, and you have been waiting for His direction for some time, you learn several things.

First, you learn not to daydream; you stop imagining and predicting the ways in which He will appear. You no longer expect Him to come in the same manner He arrived before. You stop applying former signs of His arrival and former confirmation of His direction to your present situation. Instead, you look for Him to come and do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), and you lay the past manifestations of His presence (though good reminders of His faithfulness) in the past and keep them there.

When I find myself predicting His appearance, I remind myself of what Oswald Chambers says in My Utmost for His Highest: “Do not look for God to come in a particular way, but do look for Him.” So, instead of convincing myself that He waits behind a particular door that seems to be wide open, I walk toward that door, seeking the presence of God, which confirms to me that He is there and that this is the way and I should walk in it (Isaiah 30:21). If His presence is not there, I return to the path I know and keep looking.

The path reminds me to keep living life. To stop putting things on hold because I don’t want to begin anything new just in case the Lord comes along the next day and switches things up. While I wait, I plan and prepare for the future as best I can, but I also remain engaged in the things the Lord has set before me right now because He is not done yet even though I am.

Those times when the wait is longer than predicted, I learn to submit everything to His plan, saying, “Lord, I do not know, but you know. I do not know if this is the right thing to do, but I submit the outcome to you as I take a step. Even though I’m moving, I am listening for your word that will cause me to stop in a moment.”

When I wait with as much patience as I can muster, a smile on my face, and diligence for the days ahead, waiting is less painful. It even becomes a bit exciting because each day holds the potential of a present housing the untapped presence, power, and promises of the God whom I love for His kindness, faithfulness, and goodness to me even when I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Did you learn to love?

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Photo by Ruddy Roye of Time.com

Did you learn to love?* The news makes me ask this question of our nation.

Did you learn to love your neighbor down the street who doesn’t look like you? Did you learn to love your classmate who has a lifestyle you disagree with? Did you learn to love your coworker who practices a different religion? Did you learn to love your friend who supports Donald Trump? Or your other friend who supports Hillary Clinton? Did you learn to love your spouse, cousin or sibling even though you were not at fault? Did you learn to love people at your job? Did you learn to love those who hate you? Did you learn to love yourself?

When the world explodes with violence, we must ask two questions, “Are we learning to love? Or, are we perfecting ways to hate each other?”

It seems that the latter question reigns. Hate manifests as mass slaughter accomplished in appalling self-righteousness, slanderous and condemning words are a volley of quips thanks to a plethora of social media outlets, and average people like you and me use the internet to post divisive comments about race, gender, religion, and any other sensitive topic. Collectively, we do not value each other, and that is a scary state because if we do not value life, we do not have much else.

We have learned to hate our neighbors with excellence, but we do not know how to love with humility.

Love–that verb encompassing patience, kindness, humility, forgiveness, truth, hope, and sacrifice–seems simple on paper, but it is difficult to achieve (I Cor. 13:4-7). As a culture, we are too lazy and prideful to love because sacrifice requires too much emotional and physical effort. Or, we don’t know how to love because culture educates us that love is a feeling and neglects the major detail that love is really about sacrifice.

Love requires that we lay down our lives for our brothers figuratively and sometimes literally (John 15:13).

It requires that we serve others humbly. It requires that we stop to help someone in need even if we are also in need. It requires that we give away our time, money, services, and even the coat off our backs because someone else needs these things more than we do. It requires that we listen to our neighbor’s pain and frustration even if we don’t understand or agree. It requires that we love those who hate us through their words, their deeds, and their apathy.

It’s easy to love people who are like us because we bond over the commonalities of politics, food, language, religion, and phenotype. It’s hard to love those who are different. A relationship runs smoothly until one person reveals he’s a democrat or Muslim. Suddenly, these wrinkles expose our prejudices, we are blinded by our differences, and the relationship disintegrates. Our prejudices dominate, and we neglect the wisdom Christ offers when it is time to navigate relationships fraught with differences.

We reject the opportunity to allow the love of Christ to mediate.

Choosing to love forces us to be introspective and examine ourselves for fear, hate and paranoia. Pride prohibits us from admitting the sin that we hate or fear our neighbor whom Christ loves. No one wants to admit he is wrong, but if we want to prevent this rapid decline into the flippant destruction of human life, we have to admit that we are wrong. We must approach our neighbors in humility and state, “I hated you, and I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”

Until Christians can do this, acting as an example, the devolution of our nation and world will occur at an alarming rate. To help curb this decline, each of us must ask ourselves, “Am I learning to love?” If we are not learning to love, we must cry, “Jesus help!” and allow Him to mend our broken lives with love.

*The title of this post was inspired by a song Jon Thurlow  sang during one of IHOP KC’s 24-hour worship sessions.