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Monday, July 4, 2011

The National Day of Prayer and the Kingdom of God

[Note: This letter refers to a National Day of Prayer event held in one county.  It is not intended to insinuate anything about the parent, sponsoring organization known as The National Day of Prayer or NDOP events held in any other localities.]

Dear S,

I was honored to be asked to participate in the National Day of Prayer service [on May 5], and I appreciate your patience with me as it took me a few years to make good on your invitation.

However, at present I can't say that I'm interested in discussing how to increase the attendance at the event, because I am personally conflicted about the event.  On the one hand, the unity of the Church is of great importance to me, and to gather with other believers to pray is a substantial step toward the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17 that glorifies God and testifies to the world about the truth of the gospel.  But on the other hand, there were some assumptions in prayers, comments, and songs at the last event that I do not share and in some cases strongly oppose.

(I should interrupt myself here and affirm a few things.  First, I am convinced that your desire to please the Lord is pure and that your service is a fragrant sacrifice to him.  I have nothing but warm gratitude and admiration for you.  And I have faith in the integrity and desire to please the Lord of everyone involved with the event.  And if at all possible through the flat medium of e-mail, please hear that I'm baring my heart here, and this has more to do with what that heart beats for and bleeds for than anything else.  I'm writing because I think you deserve to know what I'm really thinking, and you don't deserve for me just to dance around things and blow you off.)

Perhaps I can explain where I'm coming from best by stating what I strongly stand for, much of which I put into words in our prayer circle at the end of the event.  I am convinced that all believers' truest, most basic, most important citizenship is in the kingdom of God, the heavenly kingdom that has broken into this world in Jesus Christ and that will transform this world fully and finally when he appears again.  (Relevant Scriptural references include Phil. 3:20-21; Dan. 7, esp. vv. 13-18; but there are many more examples.)  This kingdom includes members of all nations, and when it comes fully it will replace and eliminate all earthly kingdoms, including the United States of America.  Until that day comes, we live as aliens and strangers in this world that is not our real home.  We American believers actually (should) have more in common with citizens of God's kingdom of other earthly nationalities than we do with our own countrymen who don't believe.

Nevertheless, for as long as we live in these bodies we are also citizens of these earthly kingdoms, in our case the United States.  Like the Jews who were exiled to Babylon and were aliens and strangers there, we are urged to "seek the welfare [peace, shālōm] of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to Yahweh on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare" (Jer. 29:7).  So asking God to bless America, working hard for its good, and sacrificing for its safety are entirely appropriate things to do.  But even those things must stand in light of the ultimate promise that God "will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you . . . and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile" (v. 14)—the kingdom of the Son he loves.

The bulk of my problem with the thrust of the National Day of Prayer service was my sense that the assembled group desired to save something that won't be saved (and presumably shouldn't be saved)—namely, the United States as we know it—on account of confusing it with the kingdom of God, which is eternal.  The confusion between America and the kingdom was most evident in some of the songs, one that compared the flag flying "forever" with Jesus' sacrificial death for sins, another that promised that "America will bow, and the eagle will soar."  The passion of the event seemed to be toward recovering or propping up the health, strength, and permanence of America, because obviously (so the reasoning goes) America is God's people and that's what God wants.  The passion was not for the triumph of the kingdom of God that will take the place of America (and all other governments) when Christ returns.

At least some of what drives the zeal for America to be restored seems to be (for some, at least) the story that once upon a time all Americans were Christians, and America itself was Christian (whatever that means), and we've lost that, and that's why we have problems, and we're asking God to get it back.  I think that's what people mean by "revival."  Probably due to a combination of my generation, my understanding of history, and the fact that I haven't lived most of my life in a culturally Christian place like this county, I'm not really interested in revival.  I want "vival"!  I mean that I'm not looking for our community and nation to go back to the good thing that it once was.  I want us to become the followers of Jesus that we've never been!  The Church needs revival.  The world needs to be saved for the first time.  And that's what I care about.  I really don't care much about saving America.  I care a great deal about saving Americans.  And whatever is truly good about America will live on in them for eternity even when America is no more.

So if I'm going to gather with others to pray for America, what I want to pray for like our lives depend on it is that spiritually dead Americans will be born to new life for their own sake and for the sake of the kingdom of God.  I want to pray that Satan will be vanquished across the full sweep of the Bible's moral vision, which is far broader than just abortion and other social hot-buttons, important though those are.  And I want to pray that the Church globally, not merely in America, would live up to the full measure of the stature of Christ.  And if I quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 ("If my people, who are called by my name . . . ") then I'll mean it in New Covenant terms, by which I mean that if all believers in Jesus Christ around the world (God's new people) pray, then God will heal the entire earth by sending his Spirit to renew it and his Son to re-create it.

S, I'm not writing this to preach at you or haul off at you.  I just believe—passionately, as you can see—that despite the good intentions at work in the National Day of Prayer event, it seems to prioritize this age and this nation at the expense of the age to come and the holy nation that God made from all those who believe, which is where our heart belongs.

I truly hope that this explanation actually builds you up and doesn't tear you down, even if it makes it more difficult or impractical for us to work together.  Thank you for reading, and be blessed.  If you'd like to dialogue more, please call.

Grace and peace be yours.

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