‘The Response’ and My Response

It’s a tough thing to be challenged in church. It’s even tougher to be challenged on an issue where you’re certain you’re right, only to wonder whether you’re not as right as you thought.

Let me explain.

I visited our old church yesterday. We have some fond memories there, in part because we still have some great friends who attend, in part because I’m not sure where we’d be today without the family we developed there. We moved just two weeks after our younger daughter was born in late 2009, but we returned a week later to have her dedicated there, and I told the congregation we named her Grace because we had learned so much about that precious gift through our time fellowshipping with that incredible community.

But it’s an unusual congregation. In many ways, it’s like how I grew up, with no single preacher and a worship service without any published order that frequently changes depending on how the Spirit moves that day. But there was also a praise band (I grew up with a cappella worship), and once in a while someone would prophecy or speak in tongues (definitely not allowed where I grew up), but probably not often enough to please most people who really believe in that sort of thing.

The leader of the local Republican Party attended, and sometimes he would blend his day job with his faith from the pulpit to a degree with which I wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t terribly often, so I endured. That congregation ministered to us in a dark place, and through its members, God showed us what grace was, and how, whether we knew it or not, he was going to use his grace to transform our lives.

So I was excited to return yesterday, and it was with considerable dismay that I heard the pastor say he was going to devote “however long it takes” to some testimony time from a team that had gone on a missions trip to New Orleans (no problem there) and spent the day at The Response in Houston on their way back.

But, as usual, God had some things to say to me and, not surprisingly, they mostly dealt with judgment.

Principally, just because we believe something is out of line with our convictions does not mean God doesn’t have great things planned for it.

Now, I have some friends who have been saying the same thing to me for a few days, but I mostly dismissed their arguments as tantamount to the ends justifying the means. And I’m not ready to totally concede that argument.

But listening to the testimony of people whose faith I would readily describe as stronger than mine, people who said they heard God speak clearly that he wanted them to take a team to Houston and participate in Gov. Rick Perry’s prayer event … well, how do I respond to that?

I can dismiss them as liars or deceived, or I can recognize that God is using an event with shady origins to do great things anyway. In other words, God is taking an imperfect instrument of humanity and using it anyway. Kind of like he does with me.

Now I want to backtrack here and reiterate why I call the event’s origins “shady.” While it’s so easy for me to take my disagreements with something or someone and dismiss the potential for that thing or person to be used mightily by God, I think the tendency with some supporters of the event is to point out that prayer is good; that God can, does and will use the prayers of the event to work his will in the world; and that, ergo, this event is good in of itself. And I think that’s incorrect.

Here are my problems with The Response:

1. It is constitutionally suspect. I find it strange that so many self-described conservative Christians, who implicitly argue against the coercive power of the government when the topic is gun control or health-care reform or government regulation in general, so blithely accept the invocation of this power in support of Christianity. If it can be used by Rick Perry to speak the name of Christ, it can be used by a Muslim leader to promote the name of Allah. Would Christians be so sanguine about the comingling of faith and government then? I suspect not.

2. It is a political event. Several times yesterday, members who had attended The Response noted it was not political, by which they mean there were no calls to vote, no condemnations of policy or politicians, etc., but that betrays some political naivete. Consider:

At no time in his 11 years as governor has Perry ever called for an event like this. Not during the drought of 2000-01. Not after Hurricane Katrina flooded his state with refugees. Not after Hurricane Rita battered the Gulf Coast. Not after wildfires scorched the state last summer.

But he held this event one week before the key Iowa straw poll and two weeks before he is likely to enter the presidential race, the first two tests of which will be in states (Iowa and South Carolina) whose Republican voters are predominantly religious conservatives.

Further, for all the talk — and there was some of it in church yesterday — for how great it was that a sitting governor publicly declared the name of Christ, I have heard very little from Perry about his faith in the previous decade, despite covering two legislative sessions, interviewing him multiple times over my five years in journalism and following state politics for the entirety of his governorship. He would not be the first politician to discover the virtues of publicly declaring his faith as he considers a presidential campaign, and he won’t be the last; political use of Christianity is as old as Constantine and the Crusades, with similarly negative results.

3. It is a misplacement of priorities. As I discussed in my previous post, Perry’s policies as governor run counter to the explicit priorities of God as revealed through his prophets and his Son. They have exacerbated the plight of the poor in order to keep taxes low for the rich. He has refused to release money from the state’s rainy-day fund, requiring deep cuts to public education, which overwhelmingly serves the poor, and state programs such as electric-bill aid. To play the Christian card directly before a probably presidential campaign would seem hollow in any case; to do so after a decade of policies favoring the wealthy at the expense of the needy is simply egregious.

4. Who benefits? This is where it gets tricky.

Because clearly God is doing and will do amazing things with the imperfect tools we call humans and their clumsy efforts to follow him. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Perry’s faith, even if I doubt the sincerity of his event. And certainly the sincerity of the thousands who attended and poured their hearts out to God cannot be questioned.

But I’m still bothered by passages like the one found in Amos 5:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me grain offerings and burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the noise of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

I think of how much money was spent to put on this event, to rent out Reliant Stadium for the day, to bus thousands of people from across Texas to Houston, where within walking distance there are thousands of people who could have used that kind of money and effort expended directly on their behalf.

I think of all the simulcasts aired throughout the state; how many untold thousands of Christians spent the day inside their church buildings while all around them the needy looked on, begging for someone to step outside and minister to them?

But then I hear the testimony of people who not only attended The Response and felt God’s presence moving there, but felt that he had told them to go. Many of them had just spent a week ministering to the poor and needy in New Orleans, doing exactly what I feel we’re supposed to be doing.

And what did I do on Saturday that was any better? I wasn’t out in the heat either. Our big outing was taking the girls to the library and PetSmart, followed by lunch and a nap. Not exactly the stuff of self-sacrifice.

This is the problem with life: It’s complicated. It’s not black and white. God will use the ideas we think are terrible just as well as the ones we think are great, and ultimately we are all imperfect. He is making do with rebellious, stubborn, hard-hearted tools who think they know better how to do his work than he does. That includes Rick Perry, and it includes me. 

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6 comments on “‘The Response’ and My Response

  1. skincannon says:

    Great post. I also think of Matthew 6:5-8. “The Response” almost flies directly in the face of this passage. For me, my personal opinion, is not so much the theology of our politicians, as much as the ideology of our religious leaders. I do not know if your experience of the testimonies you heard attempted to favor a certain political party, implicitly or not, but my minister disappoints me when he takes shots at Democrats. Whether I am a Democrat or not and am offended isn’t my issue, but I would prefer the leaders of my church to not fall into that cirlce of subjectivity. I seek guidance from these elders in matters of faith, and biblical references…should the lines of this get blurry w/ them, I might as well get stock tips. I digress and once again, I mean this to be my opinion. Once again, I enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Matthew says:

    I find this post kind of frustrating. It’s like your truth-to-power circuits are all warmed up, and you’re ready to go all OT prophets on Perry, but then you recant and decide that, because Perry (and your church friends) call themselves Christians and say God told them to do X, God will magic all of their actions into sunshine. And there’s no reason — Biblical, experiential or otherwise — to think that’s true. If lots of people do ignorant things, crappy stuff will happen, regardless of how much God-paint those people slap on, and regardless of how you personally spent your Saturday.

    • Paul says:

      Hey Matt,

      I understand what you’re saying, and as much as I oppose a sitting governor of any state organizing an explicitly sectarian religious event (or even non-sectarian; I’d be just fine if the National Day of Prayer went away), I can’t say what God will or won’t use.

      I absolutely think God would be happier if Perry stood up and said, “I’m a Christian, and during this time of natural disaster and fiscal calamity, I’m asking Texas residents of all faiths to spend Aug. 6 in service to the poor and elderly who are most affected, whether that’s giving money to someone who can’t pay their electric bill or volunteering at a soup kitchen or babysitting for someone who recently lost their job while they drop off resumes.” That, as I said before, would be true leadership, and it would be true Christianity. Perry instead chose the kind of leadership that has exemplified his time as governor: lazy and divisive.

      But I’m also not willing to dismiss the convictions of people who feel they were called by God to attend, felt they were ministered there, and, who knows?, perhaps were convicted to serve in ways they wouldn’t have been otherwise. God can take our bad ideas and use them for good. If he can use me, with all my flaws, he can use anyone.

      • Matthew says:

        > But I’m also not willing to dismiss the convictions of people who feel they were called by God

        It seems good not to dismiss a person’s deep convictions, but it also seems good not to blindly accept any claim someone — even a pious someone — makes about what God did or did not do.

        > God can take our bad ideas and use them for good.

        I don’t think this adds anything to your argument. If we suppose, for the moment, that God can “use” any old person or action, then we quickly notice that saying “God can use event X” has nothing at all to say about whether event X was a good thing to do, whether God called someone to participate in it, or whether it was yet another despicable religious feast.

        I know it’s not popular, particularly in charismatic circles, to call into question someone’s feeling that God called them to do a thing — actually, I’m not the least bit charismatic, and my standard approach is to smile and nod — but if somebody really wanted to discuss whether I thought God had called them to go pledge allegiance to the power of Rick Perry, the Republican Party and Evangelical Christianity, I would tell them, “Hell, no. God called you to stay one more day in New Orleans.” But nobody really wants to discuss that sort of thing. We much prefer corroboration.

  3. Steve Jr. says:

    My main problem with the event is easy to explain: It’s opportunistic and self-serving for the guvna, plain and simple. Where was such an event three years ago when our country was on its knees economically? Or seven years ago when dozens of American soldiers were losing their lives every day in Iraq? No, the idea for this event was miraculously “given to Perry” at precisely the moment he was strongly considering a presidential run. (in a primary in which his success will largely depend on his ability to appeal to Evangelical values voters, no less) That’s my issue. I didn’t have a problem, for instance, when President Bush asked Americans to pray after the atrocities of 9/11. That’s a natural, human response, and many joined him in that response. But he had nothing to gain from that politically, in my opinion. With the success and media attention surrounding The Response, Perry has much to gain. And cynically, I’m afraid this was his primary motivation.

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