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State of Our Union
Tonight the President will deliver the delayed State of the Union speech to Congress. Its every word will be analyzed. Pundits will tote up the number of times the speech was interrupted by applause, how many times only the Republicans stood, how many times Nancy Pelosi stayed seated while Mike Pence stood up. Some will call Pelosi names for staying seated (conveniently forgetting how seldom John Boehner stood up during Barack Obama’s speeches—this is just how this game gets played). Hopefully the President will receive the warm welcome all Presidents deserve and there will be no breach of decorum such as when someone shouted “Liar!” to President Obama.
But despite all the distractions and the noise, at some point the President may invoke the line most Presidents since Kennedy have done, and it’s always a fill-in-the-blank moment: “The state of the union is _______.” Past speeches have filled in that blank with the following: “strong,” “getting stronger,” “strongest ever,” “sound,” “not good,” “free and restless, growing and full of hope,” “good,” “will be better if we summon our strength.”
I have no idea if President Trump will speak this line, much less how he will fill in the blank. Rest assured that no matter what he says, half the country will disagree. Vehemently. And if so, there you have it. The state of the union is fractious and getting worse.
Unsurprisingly—and this has been reflected in other blogs here at The Twelve the last few years—this fractious spirit runs right through the church as well. We could wish the church would be better, that the Body of Christ would be immune from being infected with the secular viruses out there that have made our Body Politic so ill. But it’s not true. Posts on Facebook and Twitter reveal as much.
Recently we held our annual Symposium on Worship at Calvin College and Seminary, this year drawing just over 1,400 church leaders, artists, musicians, and pastors. Maybe it was because we had chosen to focus on the Minor Prophets for our five main worship services. Maybe it was because what we started to hear from pastors in January of 2017 has only gotten worse in the two years since. Whatever the cause, one thing we heard consistently from pastors and others at this year’s conference was a desperate cry for help in navigating the sometimes fierce partisanship that is now more than tugging at the unity of congregations in many places.
When it comes to the state of our union as the people of God (at least in America), I think we may have to fill in the blank with “not strong,” especially on the “union” part.
As a pastor myself—though I have not served in a congregation for over thirteen years now—I feel particular affinity for pastors/preachers who feel stuck, who feel anxious. Upon reflection with some of these pastors, it has become clear that what we could call the “acoustics” of the church have been altered the last dozen or more years. In some ways I began to feel this in the final years of my pastoring following 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.
By “acoustics” I mean how things are heard. Pastors now testify that words spoken in pastoral prayers or in sermons are received differently than was once true. What might have sounded like a mere whisper in the late 1990s now sounds like a shrill scream to some. The words from then and now are the same in many instances. But suddenly those words are passed through the filter of what people have been saying on social media, on CNN, on Fox News. Words that once seemed to many like a standard bit of typical “church talk” or prayers that are built on the chassis of any number of Bible verses are now received as grinding a partisan axe and so are words meant to inflame.
Try praying about the need to welcome “the alien within our gates” today and suddenly it’s all about a border wall, about ICE practices, about what the President says on strangers versus what Democrats may say. Never mind that welcoming the stranger is a Bible-wide theme that extends from Leviticus to the parables of Jesus to Paul’s words about the need to practice hospitality. Now a pastor cannot even broach the subject without any number of people being offended on one side or the other.
True, there are pastors in some churches who are overtly political to the left and to the right and they shouldn’t be. And also true, location makes all the difference in terms of the challenges preachers and worship leaders may face. A couple weeks ago I spoke to one pastor from the Pacific Northwest who said he has to work overtime to convince his congregation that you can actually be a Republican and a Christian at the same time. Another pastor from Iowa had exactly the opposite challenge: he has to convince his members that Democrats can be sincere Christians and are not all abortion-crazy socialists.
Most pastors and church leaders, though, are somewhere in the middle: their congregations are a mix of people who long for a common vocabulary by which to talk about the Christian faith and faithful discipleship. Yet these pastors keep finding that more words and phrases than not act as de facto trip wires that inflame fellow members of the same congregation.
I wish I had answers but I don’t. I think all we can do to make the state of our union (with Christ and with one another) stronger is to do what the church has always done: gather around the Word of God, read that Word honestly and with the recognition that the Word challenges all believers not just some (and certainly God’s Word does not challenge only those with whom you might disagree politically). Maybe if we keep our focus on the text, on specific passages, on the Word that confronts each one of us, then our common humility before God’s Word may break down some barriers and open up a fruitful dialogue.
The state of our union in the church is not strong. Surely the Lord of the Church desires otherwise. And so we join together in prayer to find a better way to talk, to disagree, but to do so in love and by making it clear that all of us are fiercely committed to God’s Word above all. It may be a place to start.