The End of Stubborn Piety, and a New Beginning.

“[R]ising anxiety, suicide, and deaths of despair speak to a profound national disorder….”

Donald Trump with Jerry Falwell, Jr. at Liberty University in Virginia

I just read Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why? By staff writer for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson. I find The Atlantic to be full of insightful articles, even when I don’t wholeheartedly agree with them. This article is no exception.

Thompson recalls those enlightened 19th century pundits who predicted the death of God and advances in “scientific discovery and modernity” that would lead to widespread atheism. Thompson is a skeptic, himself. While Europe has largely gone the way the pundits predicted, The United States has resisted that prognostication – at least until recently.

Thompson blames “America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship” and “stubbornly pious Americans” for the United States not going with the flow of the Enlightenment ascent of man from the superstitious dark ages into the light of science and reason.

While the rest of the western world has been drifting away from religious affiliation, and religion altogether, the United States seemed impervious to those forces working on the rest of the western world – until recently. Things began to change in the United States in the 1990’s, and that trend continues.

The article borrows heavily from Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, for figures and figurings of the reasons why. The shift is clear, though, and the statistics bear it out, that religious affiliation and interest in religion in the United States is waning and going the way of the rest of the western world.

“According to Smith, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” Smith goes on to provide some explanation for how these “events” have triggered the change. He says,

“The marriage between the religious and political right …. disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”

Thompson’s article got me thinking. He is right about the trend away from religion in the United States. We don’t need data to tell us that. The “nones” are increasing while the committed believers are decreasing. That these observations come from “outside the camp” doesn’t make them false.

Thompson’s explanations for the reasons why this is may be more of a mixed bag. He (naturally) views the changes through a naturalistic lens. He may be right about some of the cause and effect, but he (naturally) isn’t likely to see the more spiritual side of those things.

I “grew up” spiritually during the mid to late 80’s when the marriage between religion and the political right was consummated. I fell out of step with it, and lost track of it, when I went to law school in 1988. Apparently the honeymoon went well.

I count myself (even today) as an evangelical (though I search for a different label). My spiritual upbringing included the experience of the courting of the religious right of the Republican Party. (Or was it the other way around?)   

Law school, however, challenged even my most sacrosanct connections, and the cares and concerns of fatherhood and providing for a growing family distracted me from other relationships. It was all I could do to hold onto God during this time, and the truth is that He mostly held onto me.

Perhaps, that was a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t grow into the religio-politico affiliation that seems to characterize a large segment of the evangelical church today. I am a more distant observer of that relationship today, so I think I have some objectivity left.

I agree (partially) with Thompson’s assessment that the congruence of the religious right and the political right changed the political landscape. It also changed the religious landscape. Perhaps, more than we might care to acknowledge.

Continue reading “The End of Stubborn Piety, and a New Beginning.”

God’s Plans Are Bigger than We Often Perceive, and He is Working Them Out Sometimes Despite Us

God promised Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.

In the service this morning, the message was about Joseph. As often happens, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The depth and nuance and intricate tapestry that is Scripture often works that way.

I will get to the point, but first, I need to build the backstory. Most readers know of Joseph, so I will be brief. Joseph was the youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the famous son of Abraham. Abraham was the man of faith to whom God gave the following promise:

“Go from your country [land] and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)

I added the emphasis and will come back to it. In the meantime, we need to recall that Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, who were jealous of him. They plotted to kill him and left him for dead in the bottom of a well.  He was “rescued” by a passing caravan that sold him into slavery in Egypt.

We could say much about the story of Joseph, but I want to fast forward. Joseph’s life teetered on the edge of utter desperation. He experienced a series of very high highs and very low lows. God ultimately blessed Joseph and elevated him to the second most powerful position in Egypt because of Joseph’s faithful use of the gifts and wisdom God gave him.

Many years after his brothers left him for dead, Joseph superintended a massive grain storage plan for Egypt that positioned his “adoptive” country to weather a long, severe famine and provide food for all its people and other nations besides. That same famine prompted his brothers to travel to Egypt when they were on the verge starvation and desperation.

When they arrived and got inline to buy grain, they had no idea they were appearing before their brother, Joseph. Joseph asked them to go back to Canaan and bring his father, Jacob, back down to Egypt with them.


Joseph’s brothers, his father and the whole tribe returned to Egypt. When they returned and finally realized the powerful man who sent them for their father was Joseph, they were ashamed, and they feared retribution against them for their betrayal, but Joseph was gracious, and he gave them favorable living conditions until Jacob died.

This is the point of the story that was addressed in the service today. Joseph’s brothers were fearful that he still held a grudge after Jacob died and would pay them back for their betrayal. (Gen. 50: 15) They didn’t immediately go to Joseph. Instead, they sent a message to Joseph containing instructions to them from their father to say to Joseph: “’I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’” (Gen. 50: 17)

Much could be said about the fact that they sent their father’s instructions to them, rather than their own, heartfelt message to their brother, Joseph, but this story isn’t about them. It’s about Joseph.

Joseph wept upon receiving the message. When his brothers finally come to him in person and offered themselves as slaves, Joseph said this (which is the launching point for the real import of what I have to say today);

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” (Gen. 50:19-21 ESV) (Emphasis added)

Continue reading “God’s Plans Are Bigger than We Often Perceive, and He is Working Them Out Sometimes Despite Us”

Justice, Mercy, Sin, Forgiveness, Jonah and the Cross

“Correct me, O Lord, but in justice; not in your anger….

“Correct me, O Lord, but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing.” Jeremiah 10:24 ESV

This is my cry today. At some level it is the cry of everyone, or should be the cry of everyone, because we are sinners. We are saved only by God’s grace.

Sometimes, like today for me, we are keenly aware of our sinfulness. Some days we aren’t.

Though I gave myself to God as my Lord and Savior many years ago, I still find myself climbing onto that throne in my heart and taking back control. I may be mindful and submissive in the morning. By evening, I have taken back that position I promised to God in the morning.

Like a bird caught in a snare, I find myself entangled by the old, sinful threads of my life that tangle easily around my feet. I gave them to God once for all time. Only I find myself going back to them, like a moth to a flame. Then, I must turn to God… once again… and again… and cede control again.

I am 61 years old. I have been a believer for 40 years. I know better.

Shouldn’t I be further along in the process of personal holiness and sanctification? Why am I so weak to deal with these things that have plagued me since I was young?

How many times will I fail? How many times will I repent? How many times will I fall? How many times will God forgive me?

I ask myself. I ask God.

Continue reading “Justice, Mercy, Sin, Forgiveness, Jonah and the Cross”

On the Willows There

One of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written and recorded is On the Willows from Godpsell, the musical. Take a moment to listen to the song and the words.

The song lyrics are found in Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Psalm 137:1‭-‬4 ESV

The Psalm is a communal lament of the exiled people of Abraham’s ancestry in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem in their homeland. The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates and their tributaries.

As I meditate on these things, I find it ironic that the region of the Tigris and Euphrates are thought to have been the location of the Garden of Eden. When the Psalm was written, the area was governed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, who had sieged Jerusalem, captured its inhabitants, and driven them to Babylon.

The song captures beautifully the sorrow and longing of a people who had recently lost their homes and all that was familiar to them. Not just their homes, but their way of life, their safety and security, their community, their culture, their ancestral roots, and their spiritual sanctuary – the Temple. Everything they valued most highly was lost in the exile, even their purpose and reason for living.

Jerusalem was the gem of the land God had promised to their ancient father, Abraham. Abraham had wandered from Ur, not far from Babylon, at the direction of God over one thousand miles to a “land God would show him”, a land God promised for his descendants.

Several generations after Abraham, his descendants were forced by famine to find refuge in Egypt where they were initially welcomed with open arms. They were eventually enslaved there for the ambitions of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They labored there, captives in slavery, for approximately 400 years.

Through a miraculous series of events, Moses led them out of Egypt and out of the grasp of their captors. They wandered 40 years through desert regions between the land of their former captivity and the land God promised many, many generations earlier to Abraham. God lead them by cloud during the day and by fire at night.

When they finally arrived in the land God promised so many years earlier, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was a homecoming of epic proportions. They lived and flourished there for many generations and centuries.

They were able to fend off the surrounding threats and to establish an Eden of sorts for themselves. Their safety and security that allowed them to construct a grand Temple where they could commune intimately with their God who rescued them out of slavery and delivered them to the promised land.

But all was not well in this Eden. Much like the first Eden, choices were made that ran counter to the designs and intentions for their wellbeing.

Through the Prophets, we learn that they became complacent in their comfort and abundance. They forgot the God who rescued them and delivered them into the land and gave themselves to idols. They stopped doing justice among one another, and they became as corrupt, wicked and evil as the nations that were driven out of the land before them.

This cycle of Edenic living, exile, longing, deliverance, redemption, Edenic living, exile and longing is the story of humankind. The exile is long and the yearning for Eden is great.

Continue reading “On the Willows There”

The Borderlines: A Place Called Earth

When we stand at the borderline and understand the limitations and futility of our lives, we have begun to see as God intended for us to see.

Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth
Where every son and daughter will know their worth
Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy
Oh how I long for heaven in a place called earth

Song writers have common themes and images that run through their work. Jon Forman is one of my favorite song writers because he resonates with a theme that has run through my thinking over the last decade: the transience of this life and the transcendence of the life to come.

In the song, A Place Called Earth, he focuses on the “borderlines” between the transience of our lives and the longing for transcendence. It’s an age-old theme. It’s a theme that has been the subject of some of the greatest writers in the history of world from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare.

The video embedded above was a recent live performance of this song off the new EP, Departures. Linked below is the studio recording of A Place Called Earth that was written by Jon Foreman with his brother, Tim, and Lauren Daigle. I encourage you to listen to it in all of its orchestral fullness.

The hope of the Christ follower is the longing for heaven, a place where everyone knows their worth through the eyes of Jesus who will greet us face to face. We have this hope, however, this treasure, in earthen vessels. (2 Corinthians 4:7) We long for heaven in a place called earth.

Oh, the wars we haven’t won
Oh, the songs we’ve left unsung
Oh, the dreams we haven’t seen
The borderlines

Jon Foreman’s plaintive voice captures the angst of these lines perfectly. We try to notch our belts with victories, but what of all the defeats? The songs we have left unsung? The great dreams we dared to dream that we haven’t seen?

All our victories are hollow trophies at the end of our days. Memories of them begin to fade from the moment of victory. Like the entropy to which our universe is subjected (Romans 8:20), those memories will fade into utter obscurity long after we have taken our last breaths.

We see this on the borderlines. On the borderlines, where we peer out over an endless expanse yawning out into a far distant future, and beyond it into an eternity we can’t even fathom, we realize our utter insignificance…. if we can see that far.

Continue reading “The Borderlines: A Place Called Earth”