An Open Letter to Donald Trump

Preface:

I have been considering James Dobson’s recent announcement that Donald Trump is now a Christian. Certain segments of the evangelical right seem to think that this is a mark of his suitability for the Presidency. Leaving this aside for now, I find myself burdened with a thought. What if he really is? What if he really has given his life to Christ? This train of thought (certainly hypothetical, and I think an unlikely fact) led me to write the following letter.

Mr. Trump

You’ve never heard of me, and you likely never will. I am nobody; an unskilled factory worker from Ohio, with no credentials to my name, no accomplishments to speak of, and of little repute. I do not say what I am about to say because I think I have some special wisdom to offer, or some argument that will change your world. I doubt you will ever see this, and if you do, I have nothing but hope and faith to assure me that it will reach you. Nonetheless, on the millionth millionth chance this reaches you, and the millionth further chance that you are truly facing the decision I hope and pray you’re facing, I have chosen to write to you as though I am truly addressing you. Rest assured, I would say every single word to your face and quite a few more besides.

I speak not with my own authority (I have none), or my own wisdom (I have even less of that), but I present to you the Word of God. May I be forever accursed if I misrepresent even a single thing.

I am so glad to see you come to Christ, and I bitterly repent my initial scoffing. I rejoice along with the angels in Heaven if you have truly come to Him. Stranger things have happened, and He is wondrously strange. He can call anyone to follow Him, and in His wisdom, He can show anyone their need for His grace.

I have a warning for you, however. You. Must. Repent. You must be broken by the weight of your sins, and understand the horrific price He paid for YOU.

“But I have” I hear you protest.

No. You haven’t. You cling to worldly power and wealth, the things that made you who you are. Do you understand that you’re a caricature of the bad guy to most people? I can’t even take you seriously. And you think THAT is Christlike behavior? Your sin is on display before the entire world – you CANNOT simply claim the Name of Christ and imagine that the whole game is over.

Here’s where we get down to the nitty-gritty. There are two types of Christians out there – those who call themselves Christians, and those who are Christians. In a world where claiming to be a Christian is fairly normal, it costs nothing to claim you’re a Christian. Many of the “Christians” you hear people complaining about aren’t actually Christians at all. You cannot just say some prayer like an incantation and magically get to be a Christian. God changes you. He does it in both drastic and subtle ways, but He does not leave you the way you are when you come to Him. He destroys EVERYTHING that is not from Him. The Bible is quite clear on that. It is similarly clear on the merits of wealth and worldly power. They mean NOTHING, and they consume you. Your pursuit of worldly gain has turned you into a hollow shell, an automaton mouthing the most provocative thing he can think of for a momentary cheer from an audience of hollow automata. And you act like it has meaning. You act like it matters. Nothing. Matters. But. Christ. Not to the believer, it doesn’t.

He becomes your all in all, and replaces your heart of sin with a heart for Him. He renews you, and gives you new life, restoring you for a new role in His Kingdom.

This means Christ’s character becomes evident in you (and oh, what a glorious thing it is). Do what Christ did. Don’t just vaguely follow his teachings, and sorta-kinda tag along with some vague morality tales remembered from Saturday morning cartoons. Really look for yourself. Read the Bible. Start with Romans, or if that’s too dense (and it IS dense), Mark. Let the thirst for the Word carry you onward to new understanding and new depth of faith every day.

“Well, the Bible…”

No. Stop. If you claim to be a Christian, you accept the Bible as the Word of God. This does not mean slavish imitation of every various Old Testament story, or endorsing a literal 144-hour period of creation, or anything so silly, but it does mean trying to understand it. The Bible is a deep and complex document that does not submit to naive interpretations (such as the unfortunate literalism that is so often found in today’s churches), or to cursory skimming (such as the cherry-picking you find men like Creflo Dollar or Joel Osteen doing). It holds together remarkably well, however, when you read it like a grown-up. Read the Word for what it is, read it trying to understand what the author meant, rather than what it looks like he meant. It’s deeper than it looks (although the genealogies are generally fairly skippable), once you begin to let go of your own prejudices.

Understand this; you are wretched, Mr. Trump. Until you understand that, until you accept that your worldly power, your wealth and leverage, your cheering crowds mean less than nothing in the eyes of God and in the light of eternity, you cannot truly repent. Take heart, however – you’re not alone. We’re all wretched, we’re all worms, not ONE of us has the slightest good thing to hold up to God to say “Here, look at my righteousness.” He gives us goodness. He gives us righteousness. He covers over our sin and brokenness with His own blood, and brings us to rest in Him.

If you truly are my brother (and a lump rises in my throat and tears stand in my eyes at the thought that you might be), if you truly have become born again, then set aside your grasping, set aside your seeking after glory, and follow Him. Walk away from your treasures; sell all you have and give it to the poor. He will provide – your new family will provide. I don’t have much, but what I have is yours if you will only repent.

Your humble servant in the holy Name of Christ

Jesse L. Fennig

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Sing, sing, sing

I like so-called contemporary worship styles, generally. I enjoy an enthusiastically strummed acoustic guitar as much as the next guy, and quite a bit more than some. I’ve even been known to keep my snarky remarks about the worship leader wearing his girlfriend’s pants mostly to myself, no matter how probable it seems. I like the style.

But I also like to sing. I know, I know, bizarre notion, enjoying singing along, but I do. Here’s the problem, and it seems to be almost exclusively a problem of contemporary worship services – I can’t, a lot of the time. I’m somewhere in the baritone/bass range, and I’m not an especially skilled singer, both situations exacerbated by a number of years of smoking. I can carry a tune, but I’m no soloist. In short, I’m a pretty typical churchgoer, as far as my singing ability goes. And I simply can’t sing along to a lot of contemporary worship services. I’ve seen a few worship services in my life (admittedly, not as many as an adult as I saw as a child, but still quite a few), and it seems more and more that the music isn’t intended to be accompanied by the congregation. It’s a performance.

Whether it’s because of modulating into a key that is intended only for operatic sopranos and certain varieties of dog whistles, or unexpected complex melodies that take unusual turns (I’m looking at you, David Crowder Band), choices of song that challenge the congregation’s singing abilities are neutral at best, but seem far more likely to be a distraction. The classic hymns are songs of doctrine, of instruction, and of prayer, and they’re intended to be easy to remember, and yes, easy to sing. Isaac Watts wrote many of his hymns in ballad meter, without tunes designated. Have you ever sung Amazing Grace to the tune of the theme to Gilligan’s Island? Same idea – the tune wasn’t the point. The lyrics were.

Now, honestly, there’s nothing wrong with performance. There’s certainly joy, and I’d even argue that there’s merit in stretching your capabilities. If you’re a singer with a five octave range, by all means, use it. Use it to the glory of God. But if you do, let that be your whole purpose. Don’t play “worship leader” and modulate the song up three times just because you can. The congregation will become the audience halfway through. If you go up in front of an audience to perform, to demonstrate a gift that you have, and you bring some portion of them to worship, awesome. If, on the other hand, you are planning to lead songs of prayer and thanksgiving and adoration, and you are planning to minister to a congregation, why would you do something which accomplishes nothing except to jar some portion of the congregation out of that state and to bring attention onto you?

Again, I want to say that I ENJOY this sort of music. In the following video, Steve Green modulates out of my physical capabilities after the second verse (and from note 1 is already singing in a range that I have no business attempting). This is probably my favorite rendition of this classic hymn. And it’s unsingable, for me.

There’s nothing wrong with performing an unsingable song. There is definitely something wrong with using an opportunity to lead congregational worship to perform. I’ve been guilty of it in the past, although thankfully very few people notice the antics of a bass guitarist, except perhaps other bassists.

I speak of this as though it is an intentional choice, and as though conscious pursuit of attention is the sole motivator for choosing such songs. This is deliberate, and also incorrect. I understand that a worship leader might choose a song that is difficult to sing because it is relevant to the service, or because it’s part of a set that works particularly well, or any of a hundred excellent reasons. I do not deny that there may well be quite legitimate reasons to have a song with which some part of the congregation cannot sing along in the service. I would just caution all worship leaders to be intentional and careful in their choices of songs. You may be professional (or at least, professional quality) performers, and it may feel as though you’re never stretching your performance ability in the weekly service. For the people that you’re leading, however, this might be the only time this week that they have sung. This might be the only time in their LIVES that they sing for fifteen minutes straight. Why do you expect us to be capable of following along with a trained voice?

While it may be that familiarity is the reason that I think that O God Our Help in Ages Past is far more singable than O Praise Him, as one friend suggested, I think that there are some fairly objective ways to examine singability. For example; I picked up a hymnal while I was working on this article, and you know, the overwhelming majority of songs are verse-refrain, or simply verse. This is not to say that I suggest only playing old songs, mind you, but I do suggest avoiding POP songs. A pop song is written with lots of melodic changes, and will probably be pitched too high – for whatever reason, the trend these days favors that.

I suppose that the likely fear is one of irrelevance – it’s awfully hard to force one’s listeners to downshift from the constant stimulation of contemporary music into the stately, almost staid world of the classic hymnody. This is not an invalid fear – there is much to be said for keeping one’s instruction tools relevant to the culture, and I’d be the first to admit that an enthusiastically overwrought organ performance of How Deep the Father’s Love for Us is one of the more effective soporifics on the planet, when delivered by your average church organists. It’s an invalid dichotomy, though.

God With Us or Grace Like Rain or The Power of the Cross or 10,000 Reasons, or any of a dozen others offer contemporary musical style, but they feel more like hymns. And this brings me (finally) to my point – there’s a LOT of good stuff that’s eminently singable out there in the contemporary Christian market. Music leaders need to spend time listening to music critically – don’t ask “do I like this?” or “does this interest me?” but “is this saying true things?” and “can the congregation sing this?”

I wish I had more answers than simply just noodling around, but really, that’s what I’ve got. I’m not a music leader, and I haven’t been a performer for some years, so any solutions I offer would likely miss something. I think, however, that this is one of the major failings of the contemporary church. We either cling with manic determination to a worship style that belongs to a prior century, or we throw ourselves into the dopamine-rush world of pop music, playing the pop game ten years behind the pop world.

 

One of “Those Guys”

I’ve become one of those guys. You know the ones – the guys who can only talk about their cars, or their guns, or whatever their personal flavor of obsession is. One of those guys whose identity, strangely, seems to revolve around a Thing. And I think I’m cool with it.

I bought a Jeep Wrangler recently. Ain’t she purty?

Isabel topless. She's a Jeep, perv.

I swear, I had a good reason to take a random picture of my jeep. I was giving a friend a hard time about the weather – he’s from the frozen north, where apparently there are still mammoths roaming around from January.

Yeah, she’s a bit beat up, and yeah, there are some mechanical issues, but what you have to understand is that she’s the first vehicle I’ve ever really taken any pride in. Until fairly recently in my life, I was really, really bad at being in the world. I was thoroughly of the world, however. Astute readers will note that there is a problem with that particular combination. She taught me how to see it.

And now we divert for some vague theoretical bloviating! You knew what you were getting into when you clicked the link.

As I’ve found myself growing more attached to Isabel (by now you may have guessed that Isabel is, in fact, a jeep), I’ve grown a bit worried, from time to time. Historically, possessions have had very little hold on me in one sense, while mattering very, very deeply in another. At one point in my life, it would be quite accurate to say that nothing, individually and as such, mattered in particular to me. It could most accurately be described, I think, as a sort of bland apathy towards any specific item. On the other hand, I had a certain dragonish possessiveness about me – these things are MINE. All of the impotent greed of Smaug or Eustace, without the core of real desire that they had. Mine was like an emulation of desire, being masked by an emulation of a lack of desire. I was an automaton pretending to be a dragon pretending (very badly) to be an ascetic.

Then I bought a vehicle that was, admittedly, an impulse buy. In high school, a good friend of mine had a jeep, and I had always wanted one. By the time I got home from picking her up (a story in itself), I was in love.

As the first flickers of real attachment started to show up in my mind when I thought about my vehicle (this was about halfway back home from purchasing her), they were immediately followed by a stab of what can only be described as terror. You have to understand – one of my most insidiously deceptive habits of thought is to model God like I do anyone else. That is not to say that I attempt to predict His actions or anything so silly, but I try to come to some sort of understanding of Him which allows me to actually think about His relationship to reality, not just to some fuzzy sort of feelgood universe inside my head. So even though I consciously try not to be so presumptuous as to say to myself “God would want….” in any given case, I occasionally find myself doing so. Here’s the hazard of that – you begin to apply human patterns to it. In my case, those human patterns are the patterns of logic, specifically of formal logic. So I had and have a tendency to think of God in extremes. My first thought, the one that caused that stab of terror, was “If I get attached to this, God will take it away.” I wouldn’t have said that I thought of God as malicious, but it’s possible that capricious would be pretty close.

I don’t know what it is about that drive, but that moment of terror (I think it’s that moment, at least – there are a few other candidates) began a process that I have generally described as a phase change.

When he hits the bottles, he is creating nucleation sites – places for the water to start to change into ice. If the water is cold enough (and it’s more complicated than just “cool to zero C”, but that’s pretty close,) a single nucleation site is all it takes to start a chain reaction that engulfs the bottle in moments. That is a phase change.

Whatever moment began it, all I know is that before it, I saw God as being a capricious master, who knows best but only by definition. In daily life, your actual happiness is more or less irrelevant. After the phase change, I learned how to trust.

After that moment where I looked at my life and at God and could only come to a place of fear, I began to consider life, and how it has all worked together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everything has come out for the best, but that’s because I don’t know what the best of all possible worlds is. Honestly, I’ve only just begun to learn to trust God – an epiphany and a few months of thought do not a saint make, but for the first time in my life, I know what it actually MEANS to trust God. That trust is immensely liberating. Now, when I consider possessions (even Isabel, though I have no hesitation in saying that she is precious to me,) I know I can let go. There would probably be… distress associated with letting go of a few things, but I know I could, and I could do so in full faith that my needs will be provided for. This is not, of course, the moment of testing, but I’m more sure than ever that I could withstand the test.

And now we’re coming full circle – as I began to understand how to trust God for material things (and yes, it really did take me this long in my life. I’m not very bright sometimes) I began (quite rapidly) to trust Him for immaterial things. I began to understand that I could enjoy the world He has given us, without anchoring myself in it. I began to understand… a lot of stuff that would mostly come off as either mystical or obvious, depending on where you stand. In short, I learned how to tell the difference between “in the world” and “of it”.

I realize that I’ve just spent two posts in a row talking about my feelings. I promise that we’re going to be getting back to subjects that actually affect the real world soon, but bear with me a bit further – I still have a story or two to share about the jeep that changed my life.

So, yeah, I talk about my jeep a lot. Sure, it was God who taught me the lesson, but in His infinite grace, He decided to use a 99 TJ to do the last part. For that I’m grateful – He could have given me this epiphany with an El Camino.

Isabel and the Hypocrite

There is something pompously ghoulish about the public confession of shortcoming. I don’t speak of sin, necessarily, since the confession of sin is vital to the renewal of spirit that goes with forgiveness, nor do I speak of telling someone who deserves to know that you have failed them in some way. I’m talking about the kind of ostentatious public humility that can sometimes be seen in otherwise entirely prideful figures, when they point to themselves and talk about how terrible they are, in ways that often may seem fairly trivial. They may be quite correct in their confessions, and even motivated quite properly, in that they confess as a step towards repentance. Nonetheless, I always find that it has a tinge of macabre voyeurism about it.

I keep having to admit all sorts of ironic things about myself these days, for I have come to a place in my life where the only appropriate next action is a public confession of shortcoming.

I am a hypocrite. I am a hypocrite in a way that I never understood could exist until I acknowledged it about myself. Here’s why: some months ago I began to write a column for an opinion site. Being the humble man of modest pretension that I am, I decided that my first endeavor would be a working definition of virtue, which I termed arete, drawing on an Aristotelian understanding of virtue. I wrote several articles (I have not yet decided if I will repost them here, although I might), which were well received within the relatively limited circulation I had.

Then I came to the time of writing the article that would tie the entire series together. As I shared my thoughts on virtue, I was developing towards a specific point. I had discussed the interplay of tolerance and courtesy, judgment, and duty as civilizational virtues, and I had given fairly broad instances of what they might look like, but I knew where I was going with this entire series. First, however, the confession.

I sat in front of my keyboard, and I couldn’t make a single word come. I didn’t know how to start, I didn’t know what to say, so I spewed drivel for an hour or so. After three attempts over five days, I accepted that I simply needed to back away from the topic for a bit and think it through. I started to think about a filler article. I emailed the editor and told him that I was having trouble finishing my piece, and that I would send it to him in the next couple of days. Those days passed, and then became a week, which became two, which has since become… well, at this point, it’s safe to say that that bridge is fairly thoroughly burned. And possibly bombed.

The irony and the hypocrisy of the whole thing is that that final article was supposed to be on the core of virtue, which I referred to (in a phrase that I’m quite sure I stole, but I can’t recall from where) as a discipline of choice. It’s not the external discipline of schoolmasters, nor yet of the monastery or the military. It’s the internal discipline that is self-reinforcing, self-defining, and self-motivating. It’s the discipline to return to doing one’s work, despite doing it poorly or having some other thing that one wants to do more, in the sure and certain knowledge that good work will bring about good results. It’s the discipline, in fact, to choose to be disciplined, and it’s the discipline of understanding that virtue is chosen, not born, not inculcated, but it must be chosen in a deliberate, eyes-open fashion.

So, in attempting to write about this idea, I found myself incapable of demonstrating it in myself, as I ignored emails first from embarrassment, then what can only be termed humiliation, as I considered the idea of submitting that article first a week late, and then two, and then four…

I return to writing for public consumption now, chastened and taught a significant lesson in personal humility. I was considering creating a new blog (and still might), but I think that this, at least, deserves to be here, and for now I shall continue to write on this blog.

Why I still attend church

Read this.

“John” as shown in the article is where I was a couple of years ago. I stopped attending services, and distanced myself from the visible church. I made a mistake. Fortunately, I was required to start attending again because of a ministry that I wanted to be involved in. This ended up revolutionizing the way I thought about the Body.

John is tired. John feels frustrated. John is in a place where he does not feel needed, useful, or like he is part of the Spirit’s ministry to the world. I get where John is coming from.

John made a mistake in leaving the Body behind.

I exhort you, if you’re finding yourself to be exhausted by churchianity, and you feel yourself ready to walk away from organized religion, to reconsider your modes of action. Far and away the easiest thing to do is to start meeting at the local Panera with six other people on Sunday mornings, and discussing the Bible for a few hours, but you’re not addressing the problem. At the end of the day, we’re still called to be salt and light, and if that means that we need to be salt and light to our home churches when they have lost their way, then WHY ARE WE WALKING AWAY?

The harder path is to address the problem. So what if you’re not an ordained pastor or a member of the board or if you’re fighting entrenched power structures? Start a small group. Gather together people who can form a group that is ready to change the worldly way we do things now. If you can find even one other member of your local church that objects to the way things are done, you have a core of people who can fight. Use the system if you can, but don’t be afraid to stand up to authority. Be salt and light. If we don’t fix the rot in ourselves, we surely won’t fix it anywhere else.