When the Democrats get religion…

…the Democrats get religion. A friend sent me this link to a blog post about Obama. I’m a bit torn by the whole Obama faith factor. On the hand I find it inspiring that a progressive candidate isn’t embarrased about his faith, but actually feels comfortable and confident speaking about it. Compare Obama to John Kerry or Al Gore. The difference is remarkable and its a change that I think bodes well for Democrats heading into the general election. There’s been loads of ink spilled of late regarding the increasing number of evangelical swing voters. Perhaps a third of that constituency is up for grabs and they might be more inspired by the young, hip candidate who is actually a convert to the faith than by an old school Protestant who likely considers religion to be more of a private affair, something not to be discussed at cocktail parties, let alone on the stump. But after reading Book XIX of Augustine’s City of God this week with some folks from Church of The Holy Trinity my feelings about the Democratic party’s newfound religious fervor is more mixed. Augustine is writing in the wake of Rome’s assault in 410 C.E. Pagans saw the assault on Rome as punishment for turning from the Empire’s traditional deities. Some Christians saw it as a sign of the apocalypse. But Augustine was more measured in his response. He reminded his readers that Rome was not the Heavenly City, the hope and telos of God’s elect. It was just part of the earthly city, another Babylon in which God’s people find themselves exiled.

Rome’s status as Babylon ought not to discourage Christians from political activism. This is hardly the case. Augustine quotes Jeremiah’s words to the exiles in 29:7.:

Wherefore, as the life of the flesh is the soul, so the blessed life of man is God, of whom the sacred writings of the Hebrews say, “Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord.” 1302 Miserable, therefore, is the people which is alienated from God. Yet even this people has a peace of its own which is not to be lightly esteemed, though, indeed, it shall not in the end enjoy it, because it makes no good use of it before the end. But it is our interest that it enjoy this peace meanwhile in this life; for as long as the two cities are commingled, we also enjoy the peace of Babylon. For from Babylon the people of God is so freed that it meanwhile sojourns in its company. And therefore the apostle also admonished the Church to pray for kings and those in authority, assigning as the reason, “that we may live a quiet and tranquil life in all godliness and love.” 1303 And the prophet Jeremiah, when predicting the captivity that was to befall the ancient people of God, and giving them the divine command to go obediently to Babylonia, and thus serve their God, counselled them also to pray for Babylonia, saying, “In the peace thereof shall ye have peace,” 1304 -the temporal peace which the good and the wicked together enjoy.

The peace of the earthly city is fleeting but real, temporary but of value, to be esteemed but not excessively extoled. When one takes Augustine seriously, one will be a good neighbor and a good citizen, seeking the welfare of the earthly city for the sake of believer and non-believer alike. But one will never confuse the relative good that comes from the earthly city’s welfare for the ultimate good that can only come from the welfare that is our inheritance established by God. When one believes that one’s city (or country) is more than just a manifestation of the earthly city, when one confuses it with the City of God, then one will use any means, including torture, to protect it. The freedom the Christian has is the freedom which comes with the realization that all goods in this life may be enjoyed, but must be held loosely. Such freedom, which allows us to loosen our grip on the goods of this life comes through being grasped in the grip of grace.

The Spiritual Significance Of Church Rennovation

Tuesday I heard my friend and colleague Tony Jones speak at Princeton’s Institute For Youth Ministry. Tony began with some reflections on the story of the Transfiguration found in Mark 9. When Peter suggests that shelters ought to be built for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Jesus ignores his comments. Tony pointed out that this is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus flat out ignores a comment or request. I think he’s right about this. Tony went on to suggest that the problematic aspect of Peter’s suggestion is rooted in the familiar desire to take a moment in time and capture it. Peter wants to capture and hold on to a revelatory moment that really can only be gratefully received, but never owned. Tony likened Peter’s desire to the universal human desire to cling to the familiar and fear change.

Before Israel inherited the promised land, it worshiped in the tabernacle, not a temple. The tabernacle was portable and could be packed up so that the Israelites could follow wherever God’s glory cloud led. This wasn’t the case with the Temple. It was fixed. It was permanent.

The last words of Jesus in the Gospels and the Book of Acts are “GO”. He sends his people into the world as witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be a tabernacling people ready to go where God is leading and calling. Tabernacle spirituality allows for this. It allows the church to be flexible and discerning. It allows the church to go. Temple spirituality on the other hand makes the church’s watch word “come”. The church invites the world to come to where it is because its way of life, its traditions, its structures are fixed and not always flexible.

My church just did some rennovations in the sanctuary. Although the process was a relatively short one, it caused frustration, anxiety and sadness for some as any change can do. Some people love the new sanctuary, others are less enthused. But what I really am coming to value about the work is that it serves as a sign to us that nothing is everlasting except the God who alone is worthy of our worship. Visible change like the one that recently occurred in our sanctuary can serve as an ever present reminder that we are called to be a tabernacling community that goes where we’re sent rather than a mere temple which bids people to come. Thank God for change.