Separating Church and State: Confessions of an Idolater

In 2011 I was participating in an online Bible study group with some friends. We studied the Bible, prayed for each other, shared struggles and inspirations, and recommended extra-Bible reading.

It was during one of these sessions that one friend recommended the book Radical by David Platt. I downloaded the book to my Kindle and… let it sit there. For over six months. Why? I was put off by the subtitle: “Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.”

Why did that put me off?

That turned out to be an excellent question to explore.

My faith was wrapped up in the American dream. The two were so coupled that, to me, they seemed one and the same. I was, as I now describe it, an “American Christian.”

Being an American Christian meant that I:

  • voted for one set of candidates, from one party
  • was a consumer of christian culture
  • was a fan of Jesus

I read the book very cautiously. I kept waiting to find the flaw in the logic, the exaggeration, the false positive correlation, the peg on which to hang my reservations and cling to my old rugged ‘Merican dream.

Instead, through much angst, conviction, and (finally) repentance, the Holy Spirit used brother Platt’s words to change my heart. It was perhaps the most powerful transformation since confessing Christ in February 1982.

Now I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I’ve overcome all that now, that I have (finally) arrived. Rather, I want you hear my confession:

I became aware of my sin of idolatry. I was mixing Christian faith with faith in my nation and its government.

The movie The Usual Suspects opens with the line, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” It’s an interesting quote that’s applicable to my condition prior to conviction of my idolatry in this manner: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was simply unaware I’d coupled being a conservative American with Christianity.

But I had. It was a kind of blindness, denial, and lack of self-awareness.

In 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 Paul wrote: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (emphasis mine).

I’m writing this confession because some of you are suffering as I was. I promise I’m not judging you, any more than a physician who tells you that you have the flu is judging you. Like the physician, I want to help.

If you, like me, find yourself believing that your support of our nation is equivalent to following Christ, I challenge you to prayerfully examine that belief. Perhaps read the book Radical. Especially if you are a conservative. I submit for your consideration that it’s possible for American conservatism to become an idol.

Also, if you are not a conservative and you believe that your resistance to the current administration is equivalent to following Christ, I challenge you to prayerfully consider that belief. I submit for your consideration that it’s possible for American liberalism to become an idol.

This is a test. If you agreed with one of the preceding two paragraphs and disagreed with the other, that’s a strong indication you are suffering idolatry.

Many progressive brothers and sisters rightfully champion God’s attributes of justice and love. So do I. More now than ever. God is love and God commands us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God (emphasis mine). Although God is love and God is just, love is not God and justice is not God. I humbly submit that it’s possible to misunderstand God’s love (I am Exhibit A) and justice (ditto). It’s possible to put these awesomely good and cool attributes of God ahead of God.

It’s happened before.

In Numbers 21 we have an account of Israel in the wilderness becoming impatient. They complained about Moses and his leadership, and God punished them by sending “fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” At God’s command, Moses made an image of a fiery serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole. When people were bitten, they looked at the bronze serpent and lived.

Fast-forward 1,000 years to 2 Kings 18. Hezekiah, king of Israel, destroys the bronze serpent because “until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).”

The point? God commanded Moses to make something that was perverted into an idol.

Was the bronze serpent evil? Nope.
Did the bronze serpent become an idol? Yep.

I struggle with idolatry daily. When I pray, “Lord, today help me deny myself, take up my cross, and follow You,” I’m asking Jesus to reveal idols in my life, help me put them away, and help me recognize Christ as King of my heart, mind, soul, life, money, work, and everything that I am. My experience in 2012 made it abundantly clear to me how blind I can be to idolatry, and to how insidious a sin idolatry is. Kyle Idelman’s book, Gods at War addresses idolatry. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more.

Something to consider: Idolatry might just be the root sin of every sin.

I was a Jerk and I am Sorry

I want to share with you a part of my story, a painful part. But first:

I want you to say what you want to say. If you feel the need to vent or march or put on a ski mask and club people or pepper-spray them, I want you to vent or march. Clubbing and pepper-spraying people… not so much. I wore a uniform years ago and it was my privilege and duty to protect our rights, one of which is the First Amendment. The right to free speech predates the First Amendment, but that’s another post.

I complained about the previous administration. I disagreed with the policies of the party in power and I stood with my brothers and sisters who disagreed. I demonstrated my solidarity by sharing posts and pictures and clips on social media.

Nothing Changed.

Well, that’s a lie. “Andy Leonard is a liar.” Go ahead and post that and link back to this post (especially since comments are disabled). You may be thinking, “Andy, I’d never post that! You’re finishing the introduction of a blog post and about to make a point, I’m sure. Why would I post…”

Indeed. Why?

I posted and re-posted because I was angry. I didn’t like the direction our country was headed. I wanted it to change. Someone needed to do something, to stand up and be counted. By jivities, I would add my voice and be counted among them.

So, what changed? Three things:

1. I lost friends. In the social media economy, it’s easy to believe I’m so helpful that people would continue to follow and listen – even put up with my politics and maybe, just maybe be persuaded to take another look at the other “side.” It turns out that the social media economy behaves differently: People will un-follow you and instead miss the helpful stuff you share. It is way easier to irritate people enough so that they stop following you, regardless of how many books, free utilities, and helpful blog posts you write.

There is now a sign in my office:

Who is this helping?

2. At least one company stated they would never hire me or my company to do work for them. There were probably more than one, but I only learned of this one. You may think that’s awesome or terrible. It can be both at the same time, depending on which “side” you support and with whom you agree.

3. I built unnecessary barriers between myself and people with whom I may have been able to share the gospel. I type this with trembling fingers. The rest is nothing compared to this.

The gospel of Christ causes offense. I will continue to share the gospel on social media. I will continue to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and this will continue to cause offense. It will, perhaps, cause other companies to not want to work with me. It will, perhaps, cost me more friends.

My goal isn’t to stop offending.

My goal is to stop offending unnecessarily.

How Social Media Changed My Vote

Social media changed my vote in the 2016 US presidential election. If you ever want to post “‘A social media post changed my vote,’ said no one, ever,” you cannot. I ruined the curve. (Apologies…)

Until a day or two before the election, I was trying to decide which candidate would receive my vote. It wasn’t going to be Clinton or Trump. I was bouncing back and forth between 3rd-party candidates.

A friend who was a staunch supporter of Clinton posted pro-Clinton and anti-Trump comments on my political posts. While I didn’t support Trump for president, I didn’t like the overt anti-Trump bias in the media. I suppose my friend interpreted my posts about anti-Trump media bias as “pro-Trump.” I understand that.

I care about a handful of issues. One of them is abortion on demand. I viewed Clinton and Trump as pro-choice (I was fond of telling people, “Trump has been pro-life for about 15 minutes.”).

I grew tired of the online debate in October 2016 and began un-following people who I felt were being belligerent. Mind you, I was being belligerent. </HypocrisyAlert> My friend was not dissuaded. After I un-followed him, he continued posting anti-Trump posts and he began tagging me in them to make sure (I think) I would see them. I believe he was trying to get me to change my vote.

It worked. I read some of the links he posted. One of them played a clip from one of the debates in which Trump promised to nominate textualist judges for the federal benches. I’d missed that. What did that mean? It meant the judges Trump promised to nominate would not “find” rights in the US Constitution, they would interpret the text, to the best of their ability, as the founders intended.

Almost all textualist judges oppose abortion on demand. So I decided to vote for Trump for that reason.

There’s still plenty I don’t like about the man, personally and professionally. I voted for Trump because the president of the US can make a difference in the abortion on demand policies by nominating judges, and I believe he will keep his campaign promises. (I could be wrong. Time will tell.)

Lesson Learned

As for social media, my tone and frequency of political posts has changed. I post less frequently about politics. When I find myself about to comment or re-post something political, I glance at my office sign and ask myself, “Who is this helping?” If the answer is, “Just me,” I don’t post it. That happens about 95% of the time these days. Maybe more…

In the social media economy, unnecessarily offending those with whom I disagree is like a social media tax. I reduce the value of my thoughts and my sphere of influence, and that influence could be put to better use… like spreading the gospel. If I’m offended and I intentionally seek to offend in response, I’m doing the opposite of what a Christian is supposed to do.

This book – Unoffendable – helped me reach these conclusions. You might want check it out, especially if you find yourself stressed by those with whom you disagree.

Conclusion

I was a jerk. And I am sorry.

Mixing Faith with Life, Part 1

Mark 2:1-12 contains a story that is stunning. Jesus lived in Capernaum and he returned home. A crowd showed up and people who arrived later could not hear Jesus preaching. Four men showed up with a paralyzed friend. They couldn’t reach Jesus through the crowd, so they created a hole in the roof of Jesus’ house and lowered their friend.

Think about the scene for a minute.

What was that like for Jesus? He’s preaching – doing what God sent Him to do – and these guys show up and create a large hole in His roof! How would you or I respond? I think I’d be distracted by people tearing a hole in my roof while I’m trying to work. I’d probably holler at them, “Hey! What gives? Can’t you see I’m trying to get some work done here?”

What was this like for the people in Jesus’ house? They’d come to hear Jesus preach; to learn about God. And these idiots are trying to tear down His house!  How rude. I imagine some saying, “We showed up early enough to get a good seat, buddy. You don’t get to tear down the house because you can’t see or hear!”

Jesus had a different response. He didn’t see vandals, he saw faith.

Faith can be messy. Sometimes it’s loud and inconvenient. Faith bothers some people – even some people of faith! People complained, and they had some right and some reason to complain (we’ll cover that later).

Jesus? He had a plan. The hole in the roof? Part of the plan.

Faith is disruptive.

In an upcoming post, we’ll see Jesus Himself be disruptive. He disrupted my life, that much is certain. He wants to disrupt your life, too. I’m sometimes asked, “Why don’t you create separate social media accounts for posting your religious thoughts, Andy?” It’s because Jesus’ love motivates me to write and work and think and share. Someone reading this post will eventually be disrupted by Jesus, maybe that someone is you.

On Principles, Tolerance, and Offense

I moderate comments on my technical blog. I approve almost every comment submitted, even those that are unflattering (such as some of the comments in this thread).

Why? That’s a fair question. I personally believe in the two principles: freedom of expression and tolerance. I use the word “principle” deliberately. I believe much that is done in the name (or guise) of principle is in reality preference masquerading as principle. How can one tell the difference? Apply the thinking to all sides of an argument. Principles hold true when they work for and against one’s argument(s). Preferences apply unilaterally.

There’s nothing wrong with preferences. I have preferences; you have preferences. Neither of us need falsely elevate our preferences to the level of principle for our preferences to matter. The simple fact that one doesn’t like one thing or likes something else more or better – i.e. a preference – is credent.

…I choose to not take offense… because I am commanded, as a believer, to turn the other cheek.

Regarding tolerance and freedom of expression, I find these principles converge when someone engages in name-calling or labeling of any sort. Freedom of expression means nothing if it doesn’t apply to negative expression. We may disagree on where the line may and should be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable speech, or whether such a line even exists. I tolerate more than most, probably.

One reason for tolerance is I rarely take offense. I’ve learned taking offense is a decision on my part. And I own my decisions. I can decide to take offense or to not do so. Part of the reason I choose to not take offense is because I am commanded, as a believer, to turn the other cheek. Another part of the reason is because causing offense is one of the goals of the person posting such tripe. Why would I want to indulge them by being offended?

This book – Unoffendable – helped me reach these conclusions. You might want check it out, especially if you find yourself stressed by those with whom you disagree.

Jesus is the Answer

I’d like to tell you about my friend, whom I’ll call Tony (not his real name). Like me, Tony is a member of the body of Christ that meets at Piedmont Church of Christ.

Tony once believed and practiced Islam. Tony’s life hasn’t been easy or simple. He struggles. He works hard. Things don’t always go Tony’s way.

Tony and I don’t agree on everything. I’ve learned quite a bit from him and he’s learned some things from me. I love him and he loves me. Why? Because we’re brothers in Christ.

Tony and I are members of the body of Christ. As such, we are different.  Look at 1 Corinthians 12:

1Cor12 - 1

The Holy Spirit, inspiring the Apostle Paul, teaches us all about different gifts in the first part of 1 Corinthians 12. Verse 4 begins, “Now there are varieties of gifts…” We are different and that is according to God’s design. We have different gifts. This leads to different perspectives.

We are like a physical body with its different members. Each member of a physical body has a different function, a different purpose. Each member is specialized. Like members of a physical body, the body of Christ is made up of many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body. That’s what 1 Corinthians 12:12 tells us.

Tony and I are different. Tony is a black man and I am a mixture of German, Scottish, Irish, and Cherokee. Tony once believed in Islam. I once believed in something (agnostic) and eventually found Christ. We have different backgrounds and different perspectives.

We are members of the body of Christ. Why? Because we know God and obey the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8). We were baptized into the body of Christ (Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27).

How do people of such opposing backgrounds come to love one another? There is only one answer: Jesus is the Answer.

Why Feed the Birds?

Luke12_22-33

For the birds…

Winter weather is predicted for Farmville and I am out of bird seed.

But wait – Jesus told his disciples, “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:24, English Standard Version). God’s got this. It’s in the Bible. I don’t need to feed the birds. Right?

For the people…

No matter what you believe about the eternal destination of people, all followers of Christ believe Jesus knows who will spend eternity with him in heaven. So if Christ already knows, why evangelize?

Are we are Christ’s Body?

1Cor12_12-13

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, Paul writes that we are Christ’s body. We are his hands and feet.

Is it possible that Jesus is feeding the birds – and reaching those who will spend eternity with him in heaven – by using his body?