Blog Deep Thoughts

The Voice of God

There is a long-standing argument among thinkers, scholars, and know-it-alls online about whether or not the US was founded as a republic or a democracy. I go back and forth, and I think the best answer is that it was neither. It’s always been its own thing, a mutt government crafted from diverse and sometimes incongruous sources.

But all of that aside, the founders were clear in at least one aspect of this new government: the rejection of monarchy. The internecine system of checks and balances they created was intended to protect against the accumulation of power in one position, person, or party. (Sadly, they could not have foreseen the combined assault of increased partisanship and a diminished sense of personal shame.) Having left a society that was dominated by a distant legislature and a detached monarch, they wanted to build a government that was stable yet responsive to the people, impervious to mob-aucracy and autocracy.

We were free of kings, and we were supposed to remain that way, with a government made up of three co-equal branches of government. And yet, there is something in human nature that desires a singular authority, someone to look to for leadership and reassurance in a crisis, along with someone to blame when that crisis gets worse. When you combine that aspect of our nature with the history of the past century of major crises—world war, depression, war, nuclear power, etc.—it is no wonder that the presidency has been transformed and expanded, becoming “imperial” in the estimation of many.

Both sides of the political divide have contributed to this shift and benefited from it, so this isn’t about bad guys and good guys, your team or my team. This is about examining a growing problem in our system of governance, in which we continue to give more power and authority—governmental and moral—to a single person, returning ourselves to a time of monarchs and a potential loss of freedom for all citizens.

Which is why I am distressed by how we have turned politics into a cult of personality and elections into apocalyptic popularity contests. We campaign for our candidate with such ferocity and conviction, as if we actually believe that one single person can fix everything.

We’ve had forty-six presidents since we’ve started: if one of them was going to save us, we’d have been saved by now.

3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
5 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
Psalm 146:3-5

Politics is all about promises; governance is all about solutions. I really mean that. I don’t get too worked up about the potential of a politician to come through on their campaign promises—though I do worry about campaign threats—but I still do expect the government to at least attempt to solve real problems. And yet, I don’t put my faith in either princes or presidents. Our world is broken, and no person can put it back together. Sure, one or the other might make things worse, but none of them can save us.

So why do we act as if they will? Why do we so quickly turn to worship leaders who are just as frail and mortal as we are?

19 Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.

21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Acts 12:19-23

I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but that passage in Acts sounds like too many political rallies I’ve watched over the past two decades. I don’t blame people for getting swept up in the excitement of the moment and feeling excited about a charismatic leader, but I do worry about a trend in which we treat the selection of a national leader as a popularity contest, as a rock concert, as if a god were walking among us.

Blog Deep Thoughts

Blessed Is the Nation

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people he chose for his inheritance.
Psalm 33:12

I’ve seen this verse tossed around a lot over the past few years, usually in the context of “This is why God blessed us in the past” or “This is what we need for God to bless us now.”

And while I don’t think this is a terrible way to read this verse, I do think it’s too simplistic. God doesn’t give us formulas, magic spells, or spiritual leverage that we can use to force Him to do our bidding. So, rather than a “if-then” statement—”If we worship God, then He will bless us—I think this verse is saying something far more powerful. In part, the confusion comes from only reading the first half of the verse, which is how the verse is often disseminated. Thus, we can ascertain the truest meaning by carefully reading the whole verse. (We could even go deeper by reading the whole chapter, but this post will already be too long.)

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD…”
In the first half of the verse, we read that the nation who worships the LORD is blessed. Pretty straightforward. But what does it mean for this nation to be blessed? Does it mean they’ll be safe and prosperous, blessed by God with favorable conditions in this world? Or does it mean something even more simple: that to know and worship the LORD is a blessing in and of itself?

Could both readings be true? Absolutely! But of the two, it is the second interpretation of blessing that carries over into eternity. The blessing of a relationship with God is an everlasting blessing. Prosperity is temporal and so, ultimately, unimportant because only the eternal things truly matter.

“Nation” and “People”
Now, let’s talk about the word “nation” in the first half. In Hebrew, it’s the word gôy, which could translate as either “nation” or “people. “ The English word “people” in the second half is ʿǎm, which could also be translated as either “nation” or “people.” Why point this out? Because today we use the word “nation” as a stand-in for “country,” which adds a centralized, political connotation to the word that is almost entirely modern and Western. In the ancient, Eastern world, a “nation” and a “people” were the same thing. Thus, there is a more decentralized, organic, familial connotation. Essentially, we can think of “nation” in terms of “nationality,” which has more to do with family ties, culture, and history than politics.

“the people he chose for his inheritance”
Given all of that, since the words used to represent humanity in both halves of the verse are essentially synonymous, then it is highly likely that the second half of the verse isn’t conveying a separate message but is rather echoing and clarifying the message of the first half.

It’s not that the nation is blessed because it has chosen to worship God, but rather, it is blessed because the LORD chose it as His inheritance. He is the active party in this verse. The people/nation are the objects of His choosing and blessing.

If it is God who chooses and thereby blesses the people, then, we can stop stressing over how to make our country into a “Christian nation” so that God will bless it. That’s not where His focus lies, and so neither should ours.

God has chosen a new people, a people of His creation. The nation that is blessed to have the LORD as their God is the Church, the people of God chosen through Jesus to be blessed with eternal life. We are His inheritance now, just as the children of Israel held that place under the Old Covenant. And what a blessing it is to be chosen by God! To be loved and highly esteemed by the King!

We need to be careful to not read the Bible with a modern mindset, trying to fit the Scripture into our worldview and altering its meaning in the process. It’s a dangerous thing to do, and so very easy to do! I know I’ve fallen into that trap more than a few times—and I’m sure I’ve missed elements of that even in this piece.

In fact, you might think I’ve missed a very obvious element: “God did choose America! So we are blessed.” Where did God say He chose America? I think you’ll find that the only source you’ll find for this claim are in the writings and speeches of people trying to defend the conquest of the continent.

I’m not saying I’m not happy to be living in this country, but I’m also not going to ignore the fact that the “land of the free and the home of the brave” was purchased at the expense of others deemed unfit to be considered either “free” or “brave.” Verses like Psalm 33:12 have been used in the past to justify sins like this by pointing to the effect of the hegemonic power of a Christianized majority, which isn’t the same as being a “Christian nation.”

But more on that later. For now, I just want to remind you of the grace of God: He chooses, He blesses. He has made us his inheritance. Our chasing after some mythical national holiness doesn’t factor in.

Original American flag image from Unsplash

Blog Deep Thoughts

No Bullies in the Pulpit: What TR Really Meant

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
President Theodore Roosevelt to Lyman Abbott and others, circa 19091

This might be one of the most well-quoted things a president has ever said—if Roosevelt actually said it, since we only have Abbott’s account of it. In one compound sentence, Roosevelt very effectively summarized the primary power of the presidency: persuasion. Since the 1960s, fifty years after Roosevelt made this assessment, the presidency has been regularly referred to as a “bully pulpit.” Unfortunately, in the half century between the quote and its adoption into the political discourse, much of the original meaning has been lost.

About five years ago, I had to make a certificate for students who were doing exceptional work in our history classes. I chose to use a picture of Teddy Roosevelt with a cartoon speech bubble. Inside the bubble, I placed “Bully!” a catchphrase of the twenty-sixth president, which in his day meant “good job” or “well done.”2

But words change meanings over time, and now, “bully” only refers to someone trying to dominate, oppress, or harm another. Not the vibe we were going for.

We had to change the certificate. Not that big of a deal, in the end.

But…when it comes to discussing the presidency, experts should probably have a better understanding of what words mean.

And maybe they do. I should be careful not to assume, but it sure seems like many commentators, analysts, pundits, and even politicians think of the presidency as a pulpit from which one could bully his opponents, rather than as a terrific pulpit from which to inspire and persuade.

If we needed more evidence than the dictionary, we could examine the story Abbott told about Roosevelt’s coining of the phrase. The president was working on a speech and had a handful of people to sit and listen to a draft. Given that this anecdote appears in the February 27, 1909 edition of Abbott’s magazine The Outlook, it’s probably—I’d say likely—that Roosevelt was working on his final annual message to Congress. Today, we call this the “State of the Union” address, and the president delivers to Congress in person in January of each year, not counting inauguration years. However, a century ago, it was just the annual address, written by the president and delivered to Congress to be read by a congressional clerk. Thus, this whole scene described by Abbott probably took place in the White House before December 9, 1908, when Roosevelt sent his address to the legislature.

So, there’s the background. Now, to the immediate context of the anecdote.

Roosevelt had seemingly selected some individuals to listen to his address in order to get their thoughts on it, and as he read the address, he was offering his own commentary. Thus, after reading a paragraph that Abbott thought “of a distinctly ethical character,” Roosevelt himself interjected, predicting the criticism he might receive in response to it.

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

The accusation of preaching, or moralizing, clearly prompts the analogy of the presidency to a pulpit. We don’t really need to dig into that too deeply. It’s a fairly obvious connection, so our focus remains on “bully.” By using the phrase “such a” before “bully,” Roosevelt was remarking on the degree to which the “pulpit” was terrific, exceptional, amazing, etc., not oppressive or intimidating.

Let’s make this even easier: which sounds more likely?

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a great pulpit!”

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a thuggish pulpit!”

Having made a pretty strong case for what Roosevelt meant, I’d like the chance to explain the consequences of getting it wrong.

When we speak of the president in terms of bullying, of grabbing the opposition party by the lapels and demanding they hand over their lunch money/continuing resolutions, we’re tacitly acknowledging the increasingly fractious world of partisan American politics, and we’re adding to the violent rhetoric that has, over the past few years, resulted in actual violence.

When we talk about the presidency as a pulpit from which one can bully others, we are essentially redefining the job as one of intimidation, in which the president must harangue party members not in lock-step, shout down the opposition, all while holding the world hostage to our economic needs.

I don’t think anyone set out to recast the office in this way. No one sat down at a boardroom table and said, “We know why we’re all here: to conceptual transform the “leader of the free world” into an international thug.” No, I think that words have meaning, and, when we alter that meaning, we can unintentionally alter our history and politics.

In closing, having highlighted the historical meaning of “bully,” let me ask that we search for a leader who can use the pulpit of the presidency to persuade, to inspire, to convey the optimism of a “better tomorrow” that has helped to define the American people for centuries.

We don’t need a bully.

Sources & Resources
Here’s another, similar take on the “bully pulpit.”
LOC: Image of Pres. Roosevelet



Blog Deep Thoughts Showing My Work

Freedom (06-13-23)

Freedom Through Creativity

Teaching children how to do something creative w/o telling them what to create is difficult. Kids are used to concrete tasks, used to following the dotted line.

Of course, for some things, this is how it has to be, but when it comes to acts of creative expression, freedom must win the day.

Freedom is a wild thing, and so glue will be spilt and markers left uncapped. But the work?

Masterpieces made by tiny hands.

This is part of my Public Domain Derivation Series.

Hand holding a brush
Arthur Wesley Dow’s Floating World: Composition (1905 edition), page 8
Blog Deep Thoughts Showing My Work

Communication (06-15-23)


Communication has come a long way in the past few decades. It’s truly amazing how easy it is to communicate with others, even when miles apart.

Despite all of this communication—true sharing of the self with another and receiving [the same in return]—is more difficult. We have more ways to share and less to say. And if we we’re not careful, we get so wrapped up in ourselves that we communicate a lack of care.

Nothing could be worse than to tell someone you don’t care without even realizing it.

This is part of my Public Domain Derivation Series.

Giles Gilbert Scott's design for a telephone booth.
Blog Church Ideas Deep Thoughts

The False Enemy of Culture

“We have to be wary of the influence of culture.”

That’s what I heard an older gentleman say the other day in a conversation about how the Church should conduct its business. Culture, as he saw it, was a mental contagion that was poised to infect the Church and kill her from the inside.

Let me be clear that I’m not writing this to criticize this person. In fact, I’ve waited nearly four weeks to start writing about this experience and won’t be posting this for several more weeks. No, this isn’t about that particular person. It’s about the narrow view of culture that he expressed so clearly that I’ve heard others express as well, though less explicitly. And so, let’s discuss his perspective without judgement of his character.

Implicit in his assessment of culture as a threat to the Church was his belief that culture was an entirely worldly creation and was not already an aspect of his own Christian experience.

Culture is a false enemy. People often use “culture” as a stand-in for the ideology of their political or religious rivals. Combined with a flawed view of what is secular and what is sacred, we arrive at a perspective of culture as an evil force desperately trying to influence, infiltrate, or in anyway incapacitate the Church.

There is no such thing as a “secular” or “sacred.” All things belong to God, and so nothing, in that sense, is secular. However, some things are sacred in that we use them for God or to worship God and other things are “common,” which is to say that we use them as part of our everyday lives.

“Profane,” however, is what we call the treating of sacred things as common. When we take the name of the LORD and use it as an expletive, a word uttered to express anger or pain, we profane the Name. However, that doesn’t mean the we cannot use words to express our suffering, but rather, we should reserve some words, like the Name, for when we call out for an end to suffering.

The problem in that scenario wasn’t the language, but it’s use. The enemy isn’t culture; it’s the way it’s used, expressed, warped toward the common away from the sacred. Human beings are sacred creatures, and the culture we create out to reflect that. To the extent it doesn’t, we and our culture are profane. But that doesn’t mean culture is the enemy, and it doesn’t mean that culture is a foe or force banging on the door of your church, trying to force its way in.

Culture is already inside the church because it is part of every single one of us.

The fact that this individual in this meeting was debating an issue in English is an example of his culture.

The fact that we were meeting to discuss and debate is an example of culture.

Culture is an indispensable part of who we are, and like everything else, reflects our fallen nature while simultaneously being slowly redeemed.

In Revelation 21:10, the Apostle John had a vision of a heavenly city, a “New Jerusalem,” descending to the earth. This would be the capital of God’s eternal kingdom, Heaven on Earth.

But why wasn’t it a garden? In Genesis, when all of this began, God planted a garden and placed humanity in it as the crown jewel of all that He had made. The first cities were made by men, men descended from Cain. In fact, for most of the Old Testament, cities were places that represented the heights (or rather depths?) of humanity depravity.

And yet, at the close of this world and the opening of the next, God was founding a city, not planting a garden. Why?

Because Jesus died to redeem humanity along with the rest of creation, including what we have created. God has redeemed us, and one day, He will redeem our culture.