The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

The past couple of months have been an absolute whirlwind of cultural disintegration.  It seems like it was a year ago that Bruce Jenner had his Vanity Fair coming out party; so much water has gone over the dam since then.  From the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage, the $130K judgement against the Klein’s for being unwilling to make a cake for such an event, and the talk of churches losing their tax exempt status, to the latest horrifying videos of Planned Parenthood, it has felt like we are in the middle of a cultural free fall.  We all saw it coming for years now, but these past couple of months have brought the future rushing into the present and with the Obergefell  decision in particular, it seems as if a threshold has been crossed and American Christians are officially on the outside looking in and left to speak from the margins.  

While this may be slightly overstated, it has led some like Rod Dreher to push what he calls the “Benedict option,” as an approach for dealing with the cultural moment.  Named after the great Benedict of Nursia who established the structure for communal monasticism in the 6th century, it encourages Christians to establish communities to preserve the faith, batten down the hatches and ride this thing out.  All this to say, that we are not crying wolf, the situation is grim. While we still have some political capital in this country and should not fail in using what we have, there is now no question that we have lost the  political and cultural high ground.  With our government institutionalizing gay marriage it has put the orthodox teaching of Christianity in opposition to the law leaving us no legal grounds for our resistance and open to future persecution should the government will it.  This is something that Christians must not take lightly.  It is time to sit up and pay attention.  Ours is a culture so distracted by business and entertainment that we often fail to give very weighty matters like these the sustained attention and prayer they demand.

Of course many Christians have been paying attention and do not need to be told of the severity of the situation.  Many have grieved watching their nation so blessed by God, with freedom and opportunity, make conscious institutional and cultural decisions to untie itself from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  For, while this land was never a “Christian” country per se, it is beyond arguing that our culture and its values were rooted in and built upon the Christian worldview and so much of its great prosperity and success has been dependent on it.  That heritage also granted the Evangelical church great privilege over the years, which in many ways was mismanaged, and now we have watched that privilege not only disappear, but become something our culture wants to exorcise from its identity.  All this has left many Christians reeling.  Some, who too closely identify America with the Kingdom of God, think that these must be the “end times.”  Some have been down right depressed. 

But on the very important other hand, these times present the church with exciting opportunities for faithful service.  Christians are now being forced to think through what they believe and ask whether or not they actually mean it.  We are having our commitment to the teaching of the Bible challenged like never before and will no longer be able to hold to it with loose generalities.  The issues of our day demand precision of thought and sincerity of commitment because they will now cost us something.  But this is why these may in fact be the best of times.  Like a soldier that has spent much time in training, and looks forward to the time when he will be able to put his skills into real service and play for keeps, so Christians should look at our times as the opportunity to be what it once seemed only those Christians in far away places got to be. 

This is by no means to say that we should romanticize the situation. Like the naive young soldier who is excited to shoot with real bullets, we must be reminded of the real life dangers.  THIS IS GOING TO BE ROUGH and as stated above, it will cost us something.  It will cost some their jobs, others will lose friendships and/or family ties, and ministries may lose their tax status.  But it is this battle we have been called to.  Jesus said that we are not greater than He is.  If he was hated and persecuted, then so we will be.  Peter told his readers in 1 Peter 4, not to be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon them as if something strange is happening, but in as much as they suffer with Christ they were to rejoice.  

Of course, this is nothing new. The battle has always been as serious for us as it is anywhere else in the world. It is just that our adversary has taken a different approach here than in many of those of other regions.  Our enemy for the past century has generally taken the form of the seducing harlot portrayed in  the book of Revelation, wooing us to destruction by way of spiritual adultery with the idols of our culture.  The shiny prosperity of America has led many down the wide and easy way and  its relative peace with Christianity has allowed the church to let its guard down.  In fact, it might just be that the depression that many Christians feel over the current state of affairs is fed primarily by an unhealthy pining for “the good old days.”  But  we must not forget, those “good old days“ are what gave us these days.  Our current situation did not rise up out of no where.  Our times reveal that there was a cancerous seed latent in the thinking of those days.  As Jesus said, “wisdom is justified by her children.” The fruit of a tree reveals its nature in other words.  Those times were in many ways culturally comfortable for Christians, but they were also the days in which we were lulled to sleep and thought that we could make it work with the harlot.    

But now we are beginning to experience the other tactic of enmity against the church found in the book of Revelation; the beast.  Unlike the harlot, the beast does not seduce, it terrorizes and intimidates.  It demands absolute loyalty to its agenda.  We can see clear expressions of this type of attack occurring in the Middle East and in East Africa.  Here in America most sober Christians sense that the beast has got the scent of the church and is on the move.  Just ask the Kleins.  Of course I am not equating their situation to the devastating persecution of our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria or Iraq, but it is none the less the work of the beast and I believe that we can expect more to come. However, as we begin to experience the very nascent manifestations of beastly opposition, it would be incredibly foolish to pine for the harlot. Those days were just as deadly and perhaps more dangerous.  For, while the beast scares us and may cause some to apostatize out of fear,  the harlot encourages and allows us to destroy ourselves all while thinking we are being blessed by God. 

Therefore, while these times may be difficult, we would do well to consider how God is at work for the progress of His kingdom and for us in them.  For one, in these times, God will sober us and help us to recalibrate our loves and priorities. They will be smelling salts for the church. Yes we love America, but as its leadership and culture turn against us we must find our true love in the kingdom of God. This will be a difficult, but necessary adjustment for many well meaning conservative Christians who tend to confuse patriotism with Christianity. But like Augustine who watched the collapse of the Roman Empire and encouraged Christians not to put their hope in it but in the City of God, so many of us need a similar charge.  It must be the advance of God’s kingdom here and around the world that we long for, and not merely the prosperity and peace of America.  Whatever works toward that end is what we must train our hearts to desire.  

Secondly, as the darkness grows deeper, the light shines brighter. The glow of a flashlight is not noticed during the day, but as the night sets in its power and efficacy become obvious. Thus in these moments, the Lord is providing us with an amazing opportunity to shine the light of his truth and grace.  Therefore we must take our lamps out from under the bushel, set it up on the stand and let it shine within our workplaces, families, and neighborhoods.  And it is not just our pastor’s light that must shine.  The front lines of the spiritual war we are in are to be found right in our everyday lives.  It is Christian parents, bakers, photographers, school teachers, employees around the water cooler, and men, women, and children in every sphere of life that must intentionally shine.   Rather than bemoaning the darkness, let us see it as the perfect setting for the world to behold Christ more clearly than they have ever seen him. 

Thirdly and related to the second point, as the church is marginalized culturally speaking, be of good cheer.  Christ does His most effective work from the margins.  It is when the church is disenfranchised that Christ uses it to overcome the world.  Just ask the Roman Christians who saw the church being persecuted by the beastly Roman authorities, who none the less, by their faithful endurance outlasted and overcame Rome with the gospel.  After all, Jesus himself overcame the Evil one not by mighty displays of force, or by gaining the right positions of power.  No, he conquered by being led out to the margins of town and being hung on a Roman cross.  Yes, be of good cheer.  Be strong and courageous.  As Polycarp was told by the Lord in the moment of his great trial, “Play the man.”  God is on his throne and the slain lamb is standing with all authority and glory. This chapter of the story may be difficult but its ending is not in jeopardy.