“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” —Groucho Marx
Quite recently there has been an interesting clamoring of voices surrounding America’s political dynamics which gives rise to the question, “What is God’s role for the governed?” The Constitution is a significant document in American history to be sure, but it should never be more significant to a Jesus-follower than the Bible.
What does the Bible say? It is quite simple really, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Rom. 13:1). This was written at a time when all kinds of slavery was not only legal, but practiced by government and private citizens alike. Torture was a normal way of life and death. Women’s rights were not a thought in anyone’s mind. Animal rights certainly didn’t matter. Free speech was a laughable notion. And religion was regulated by the government. All of these versions of oppression are addressed in the outworking of the Gospel, but they did not hinder the author from making such a stunning proclamation about honoring the system’s leadership through obedience and prayer.
But wait, we’re not done.
A few sentences later the author says that followers of Jesus need to give four specific things to their government (Rom. 13:7):
- Taxes – Including all taxes levied on houses, land and persons
- Customs – Any indirect taxes on goods (apologies to American revolutionaries)
- Fear – Reverent behavior that considers a rank to be dignified
- Honor – Deference displayed by humble submission
These are not just “Four Steps to a Happier Life”. Obeying the law is compared to obeying God, “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise form the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister and an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:3-4, New King James Version). That stings and raises the question, “What about justice for the oppressed?”
A peripheral reading of the biblical text reveals that God so greatly cares for the oppressed that He will Himself hold the oppressors accountable for their actions (Is 42:1, 61:8, Zech. 7:9). And He calls His people to express His heart of compassion for the single mother, foster child, and refugee (Ps. 146:8-9, James 1:27). This is so strong that living a life of following Jesus (aka, the Gospel) is revealed in reverence shown to these vulnerable groups.
Remember these two things:
1. God calls us to honor our leaders. Honoring does not include slandering on social media (yes, I went there).
2. God calls us to care for the single mom, foster child and refugee. Care does not include making their lives more difficult (yes, I went there too).
There is no balance, there is only both.
“The Answer to the Great Question… of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,” (Adams). Though this answers the ultimate question, it falls woefully short of answering the question of how to do ministry. Deciding on a direction though does not need to be as complicated as building a super computer to run calculations for 7.5 million years in order to come up with the number “42” as in Douglas Adam’s classic book “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. All it takes is reading and applying a book written and compiled over the several thousand years. The ministry philosophy thus exposed is simple: love God, love neighbor. When these two thoughts are developed, worked out into a philosophy their application becomes shockingly clear.
How does someone go about loving God? The answer may vary based upon faith tradition, but within the Judeo-Christian, non-denominational viewpoint it is incredibly clear. Expressing love for God, means spending time with God, studying the Bible, praying, practicing being in the presence of God through prayer. Essentially the spiritual practices that have a vertical focus are the aspects that are how love for the triune God is expressed. Without loving God, it would be impossible as a minister to be faithfully providing ministry to those of a like faith. It would instead become a warped expression of that tradition rather an authentic pursuit. Thus, loving God deeply and well plays into being a competent minister. These practices, while important, should prove to be highly dissatisfactory if practiced without the second half of the philosophy, “Love neighbor.”
The practical expression of loving God is demonstrated by loving one’s neighbor. Against popular practice and belief, loving one another is not theoretical, impractical, unknowable, or abstract. Rather it is quite the opposite being practical, knowable, concrete and responsive. Perhaps the modern American icon Vanilla Ice summed up what this concrete love looks like in his vintage melody Ice, Ice Baby when he chanted, “All right stop, collaborate and listen!” The most universal expression of platonic love is listening. Pope Francis recently said in relation to the ministry of the ear, “It can be boring, crucifying even.” Listening is not limited to quietly sitting in the background essentially eavesdropping on a conversation. True listening is actively engaging in a conversation, seeking to see through the eyes of the other and draw out the truth of that perspective. This listening is selfless love of the other. Self-love does not breed greater care or wiser advice. Selfless love does that.
The ministry philosophy of loving God and loving others may seem obtuse, but it is the essential baseline for all ministry. As a philosophy for ministry it can be presented as a well-oiled strategy of how to care, facilitate, perform, and advise personnel by being present and available. It is the fuel for or the lens by which ministry is approached. Putting it to work will see the out working of pastoral care and support. It may not answer the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (or does it?), but loving God and loving neighbor prove to be the most workable baseline for ministry on any platform.
Adams, Douglas “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: Serious Productions LLC, 1979.
Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby”: The Best of Vanilla Ice, SBK Records, 1999.
Pope Francis. “Meeting Pope Francis” June 13, 2016. Accessed: July 17, 2016.
Over the past weeks, I am constantly asked three questions when I mention my chosen career path. “Why chaplaincy?” “Why military?” “Why Navy?” Each asked in predictable succession of growing, protective concern. I have been answering these questions verbally, and now I would like to share my motivation in a more formal statement.
The ministry of a chaplain is a ministry of presence. Over the years of my schooling I have always had a unique ability to be present and identify with the daily struggles of people whether it’s homesickness, familial unrest, loneliness or the constant struggle to find meaning. Many pastors and ministers within a specific faith context are uncomfortable “crossing the lines” in order to provide for someone of another faith’s spiritual needs. In this regard, I see myself as uniquely qualified. While I am entirely dedicated to my faith, I always love and embrace the opportunity to minister in a multi-faith context. I consider it the greatest privilege to serve each person, no matter what their faith background. To quote Chaplain Jason DiPinto, “I don’t care whether you’re Baptist, Buddhist or nothing, there is still a lot we can talk about before we talk about religion.” There is always common ground to be found especially in a ministry of presence.
Perhaps the most intimidating part of the military, for an outsider, is the culture. The gap between officer and enlisted seems to be too great a chasm to be crossed. I am inspired by this and embrace the challenge. To some my performance will be measured by my pushups, to others my preaching and pastoral abilities. No matter what unit of measure I am being judged by, I will find a way to adjust myself and exceed the expectations placed upon me. One of my greatest pleasures has always been reaching across the divides. When that means pushups, I will do pushups with a smile, when that means preaching, I will preach with conviction, when that means setting the precedent, I will do exactly that. Whatever it takes to earn the respect of my service members, I will do. Then when the time comes to bear their burdens with them, they will know they have someone they can trust. From the lowest enlisted seaman to the highest ranking admiral, every person needs to be heard and supported through the challenges of life in the military.
One of the Navy’s foremost missions is to project power in support of the other branches of the armed forces. In order to do that, every sailor needs to be mission ready when the time comes. Death, deployment and divorce have been and always will be the premier personal challenges faced by sailors, detracting from mission readiness. This is my calling. In the midst of life’s frustrations and heartbreak, I want to provide my sailors a sounding board, and a confidential place to be heard, so they are prepared when called upon by their chain of command. As a pastor, I would have limited access to members of the armed forces. As a Navy Chaplain, the barriers of where ministry can be done explodes beyond the walls of one church in one town. While I hope to be assigned to an aircraft carrier, whether I am chosen to support the Coast Guard in Astoria, Oregon, the Marines around the globe, or a fleet on Pacific, I am ready to give myself to these service people and their families. Ensuring that they are being ministered to effectively.
Since the very beginning of this journey, I have possessed an ever present conviction that I am moving in the right direction. Not just the right direction, but the only right direction. The challenge of being a chaplain in the United States Navy is the kind of challenge I want. This is what I was born to do and I will keep pursuing it until it is what I do. The challenges and mental exhaustion are inconsequential in comparison to being allowed to do what I have been made to do. This is not just my chosen career, it is my life calling.
There was a man who said he loved the Bible. He studied the original languages, spent years in seminary working out his theology and even translated entire books of the Bible into English. When he finished his schooling he opened a copy of the New International Version, and threw in across the room in disgust. “Not good enough! This is rubbish!” He ranted.
Another man said he loved the Bible. A friend of his had given him one many years ago and every morning he would sit down and read it, “I’m not good enough! I’m total rubbish!” he would pray. Then he would go to work and apply what he had read.
Who loved the Bible more?
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the tax collector, standing afar off would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, by merciful to me a sinner!”
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
There was a man who said he loved coffee. In the morning, he ground his own beans, brewed the grounds in a special machine at an exact temperature. He took a sip from his handcrafted cup and promptly spat it out, “Disgusting!”
Another man said he loved coffee. He went to the store and bought a popular brand of pre-ground coffee, put it in his electric coffeemaker, poured it into his cup, took a sip and smiled. Satisfied.
Who loved coffee more?
If the apostle Paul had been a fashion designer he would have beat Giambattista Valli to the punch in saying, “The hardest thing in fashion is not to be known for a logo, but to be known for a silhouette.” And he would have said, “Anyone can get dressed up and glamorous, but it is how people dress in their days off that are the most intriguing,” long before Vogue’s golden boy Alexander Wang.
Being known for cross wearing and Bible carrying is the equivalent of being known for a logo rather than a silhouette. Being known for going to church once a week (or once in a while) is the same as only being fashionable as required rather than as a lifestyle.
Unfortunately Paul’s fashion was demonstrated with a stylus not style so instead he made statements like, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts,” (Rom 13:14a, New King James Version) and many other things more difficult to understand than the bold collections presented at Paris Fashion Week.
In order to appreciate the sayings of Paul it is wise to look into why he wrote, his themes, his contexts, his theologies, his outlines, his vocabulary and all sorts of nerdy things. Diving into these areas helps readers train their ears to hear that his appeal for being set apart from the world is deeper than just a lovely level of behavior. It’s more than a logo emblazoned on a marked up handbag, it’s a silhouette, noticeable close up and far away. It’s the way Christians should dress on their days on and their days off. The trend setters of theology may sell their fashionable wares from the most popular pulpits, but Christians chose a style of living after the most iconic model of all, Christ Jesus crucified.
Let us be known by our silhouette rather than our logo, on our days on and our days off.