A Cord of Three Strands
A Congressional Chief-of-Staff, a CIA analyst, and an administrator for US Citizenship & Immigration Services walk into church. No, this isn't the opening line of an admittedly wonk-y joke. This is Sunday morning at The Washington DC Christian Reformed Church. Joining those already listed are life-long DC residents, retired from government service or school teaching. There are graduate students, employees for the EPA, FDA, DOD, DOJ, DOT, NIH, NASA . . . LOL, JK. We have more than our quota of lawyers and an inspirational handful of folks who work for non-profit NGOs. Each week they show up and I am their pastor. The job of shepherding a flock provides no guarantees in this department, but I am blessed to find my congregation genuinely fascinating.
I do sometimes wonder: What keeps them coming back every week? Of course, the answer ought to be—and I suspect it is— Jesus. But which Jesus? Jesus in his mercy or his majesty? Jesus of Kingdom or of personal salvation? The Jesus of creed or the Jesus who lives in my heart? What part of Sunday morning worship still matters when my congregation members enter the wide world to do some good on Monday morning? When my congregation fills the sanctuary on Sunday, how are they being prepared for the moment they flash their government ID badges and get to work?
This question is especially loaded of late, when so much of our public life seems so polarized. What does it look like to pastor these people when that polarization shuts down the government, as it did recently? What does it mean to be faithful to Christ in the midst of congressional gridlock? How can worship shape those who are then sent into those environs of ideological encampments? How is a Christian uniquely a reflection of the image of God in the halls of Congress, working in the defense department, or mediating diverse opinions somewhere in the middle of a chain of command?
The current trope is to lament the failure of "the government" (that monolithic bogeyman so obviously the creation of people too far away to see the beautifully diverse trees for the vast forest). More specifically, the complaint blames "government" for a failure to compromise. What is a Christian response to that claim? What is faithful compromise, if, in fact, such a thing exists at all? These are important questions. So I asked a CIA analyst, a Congressional Chief-of-Staff, and an administrator with the USCIS. I asked them first to describe the work they do. Then I asked:
What I discovered was an old truth put to work in a new arena. God's people, and in particular those associated with the Reformed tradition, have always had more than one way of pursuing Christian faithfulness, whether by integrity to the creed or by charitable eyes straining to find the Kingdom of God or by Gospel-driven piety. There is wisdom in each of these three cords; braiding them together might be just what we need to cultivate faithful compromise.
The Voice of Integrity
Now retired from a career as analyst and senior manager for the CIA, with an academic and experiential focus on Eastern Europe, Russia and the Balkans, Steve acknowledges, "Many young CIA analysts come into the job believing you are the one person who can change the world. We grew up quickly." Once the dream of Jack Ryan or James Bond fades, what is left? If you can't single-handedly change the world, what does it look like to play your part with integrity?
For Steve, the compromise necessary between a sense of what is right and what is expedient is often a uniquely difficult call in the world of intelligence and security. This work is a front row seat to the realities "on the ground." Real life and real politics are messy. Often intuition and habits form the basis of better responses than textbooks. One example of the messiness of intelligence work is when higher-ups in the chain of command want the truth to conform to political agenda, rather than the other way around. Similarly, if a Christian were to blatantly pursue a religious agenda within their analysis, such work would ring as shallow as intel culled for political ends.
But Christians in the intelligence field can set themselves apart by "developing the habit and reputation for honesty, challenging authority where they see dishonesty and always having a sense of and burden for life." With these base-line principles set up as an operative creed, integrity is the practice of knowing where to draw the line and then the courage of conviction to stand there no matter what. At the end of the day, realizing that, "There will be times when you might be denied promotions or other work benefits—but that is the risk one takes. Keep good records, defend your position, and very often you can carry today for what is right."
The Voice of Charity
Rick's thirty-six years on the Hill, the last twenty-five as Chief of Staff for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), has led to an insight often forgotten by those who decry "the government" behemoth. "Christians do more than 'inhabit' large systems such as markets and government agencies in North America, we dominate them. . . . Christians constitute an even higher percentage of Members of Congress than we do of the general population."
Similar to Steve's perspective, faithfulness in compromise and vocational integrity requires knowing your basics, your rubric for determining right and wrong. Compromise is neither a good nor an evil in itself but must serve policy objectives that have been previously determined not to conflict with one's Christian convictions. That said, Rick issues this generous reminder: "I believe that the public policy goals that I pursue with my boss are faithful, consistent with Biblical and Reformed teaching, as well as being for the good of my country. A former member of our congregation who is a top advisor to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi believes the same about the often opposite policy goals he pursues with his boss."
The implication of this observation is that, far from a hermeneutic of suspicion that roots out our political adversaries as "godless" or "immoral," we recognize that the person on the other side of the aisle, casting the opposing vote, is also behaving according to convictions informed by reading the same Bible—perhaps even the same Christian theologians. Rick summarizes his comments, "Thus the political fights and compromises we hear about in the news are generally between groups comprised mostly of Christians who have different visions of what constitutes 'faithful' public policy."
The Voice of Piety
When Greg joined the civil service, it wasn't with grandiose aspirations. It was, instead, with the noble goal of providing a steady paycheck to support himself and his two daughters with food and clothes and a home of their own. This, too, is faithfulness to a calling. But, for Greg, it set up a dichotomy between the work that must get done—serving the earthly, temporal kingdom of nation—and the discipleship that honours God's Kingdom through evangelism and righteousness. "There are occasions," he points out, "when the temporal kingdom does what I think is right from a heavenly kingdom perspective, but it's just by chance (and rare) that the two intersect."
Following the teaching of the Gospel and Jesus's own example, Greg's focus is the discontinuities between goals that serve salvation and goals that serve nation. Therefore, in the workplace (and here the context is not limited to government service, although it perhaps screams louder there than in other places) compromise may be necessary but it is not, ultimately, faithful. Greg muses, "I'm not sure I even know what 'faithful compromise' is or what it would look like. I wonder if God would honour my choice to accept the compromises I've described."
For Greg, faithfulness to the Gospel is a mandate to care deeply for the spiritual well-being of others. So, although evangelism is disallowed in the workplace (again, not unique to government work), there is still a good to be found, Greg emphasizes, in influencing "'large systems' to operate as morally and ethically as possible and focus on the micro—the individual— within the system." Ultimately, he says, "I see the Christian goal being to help as many people as possible get to our eternal home." To this end, living with peace and joy in an often chaotic and sobering vocation is a way of seasoning the workplace with salt. Caring deeply for colleagues is lighting a lamp on a stand, giving light to everyone so that they may ask questions that facilitate conversations that may lead to eternal life.
The Prophetic Witness Of Disparate Voices
Every person who shows up for worship brings with them the gifts of their own life experience. So the first thing we preachers need to do is ask questions, listen, and let the faithful discipleship of God's people change us. Similarly, every person brings with them weaknesses as well—often the flip side of their strengths. So perhaps the second thing we can do is tie together these various cords for the common good.
Although we are a Reformed congregation, strains of Anabaptist piety run through our fellowship. With the current cross-pollination of denominations, we receive gifts, from those like Greg, who come to us from other traditions. We also recognize theological kinship that is often overlooked. We can remember, for example, that Abraham Kuyper was deeply influenced by the pietistic teaching of the sixteenth century scholastic, Gijsbertus Voetius, who taught the importance of personal piety and the practice of godliness in advance of civil discourse and engagement. Similarly, Greg gives his expectation of Christian community: "The primary thing I need, whether it's communicated verbally or otherwise, is assurance that I have a community that supports me in my effort to be otherworldly. It's hard enough to maintain an eternal focus when you believe you have a team behind you; thinking that you're alone in the struggle increases it exponentially."
Greg's strength and contribution to our congregation is in reminding us that there is still a "not yet" to be factored into our Kingdom vision. Without voices like his, we easily fall into the temptation of living out an over-realized eschatology, believing that the work of this next week might, in fact, inaugurate Jesus Christ's reign. As a preacher, I may be tempted to forget—or fail to instill—the basic truth that, no matter our titles in the world, in here we are all still wretches saved by grace. This is a necessary reminder that our sanctuary is filled, on any Sunday, with folks who limp in, soul-weary and battered from attempts to live for Christ in a world that, Jesus himself warned, would resent us for the effort.
At the same time, I cannot send people back into the world week after week to live bi-furcated lives—work and worship. For, ultimately, I do not believe, as D.L. Moody taught, that our only objective as Christians is to pull souls out of the water into our lifeboats. As Christians, we can be busy about the Father's business by building better boats, engineering better life preservers, creating policy that enhances our rescue efforts. Are there opportunities in worship for Christians to reflect on vocation, to think out loud together about what it means to pursue justice, mercy, and peace in their jobs in such a way that God does not begrudge them for the forty hours a week they must spend working? It is by drawing those connections that we instill people's whole lives—not just the time they spend at church or with other Christians—with the intentionality of Christ's Kingdom.
Along with returning to church weary after the week, folks who work in high-accountability positions (here I think not exclusively of government employees but also of those in health professions, people making hard calls in the business and finance sector, parents who feel cooped up and inadequate to the demands of small children) need to know they have a purpose. They are heading somewhere and there is something guiding them in the way they should go. Living with integrity is making the daily decisions to walk toward the good, which necessitates recognizing the good. Sunday morning, then, needs to re-animate the imagination to find the beauty, the sufficiency, the victory, and the nearness of that good. It is pointing toward our north star and saying, "Look! There it is. I think we can find our way home now. Let's do it together!"
And then, for all that my parishioners need to "get it right" on the job, one of the great joys of serving in this context is watching them share in life, such as it is, together. To hear them talk trash about fantasy football with the teenagers, to lead children in worship with a curiosity and playfulness that belies their multiple advanced degrees. For all that they need to "get it right" out there, this is a place where it is okay to fall apart. People who wear suits five, maybe six, days a week show up in jeans. And that is their right and proper Sabbathkeeping. Vulnerability and (heaven-forbid this talisman of "edgy" ministry) authenticity are allowed and encouraged here through testimonies, through life-long friendships, through care for one another.
In fact, it is friendships, like the one referenced by Rick earlier, that help us to see the distinction between the good to which we are constrained—a creedal good, so to speak—and the intermediate applications of that good with regard to public policy, to workplace procedure, to legislation. The implication of this is a generosity of spirit toward others that would, indeed, be a welcome affront to partisan politics. A distinction between the good we agree upon and the course of action required to get us there allows us to read another person's behaviour with kindness.
Such a result in the public square must begin in the communion circle. Once a month at The Washington DC Christian Reformed Church, we gather in one large circle around our sanctuary. The elements are passed and we can see the faces of every other member—those who struggle to stand upright from arthritis pain, and those who struggle to stand still from an abundance of toddler wiggles. You see that person across the room who, Monday through Friday, lobbies directly contrary to your policy position. We see that we are not alone in our struggle to live with integrity. We see the faces of all those people who have our backs. And, in this circle, we are all nourished by the same bread and the same cup.
The Reformed tradition has always been made up of distinct voices, labelled in various ways. We are people of Kuyperian, Kingdom-of-God-sized hope. We are people of creedal conviction. We are people shaped by obedience and striving for personal godliness. In the communion circle, we make room for one another. We make room to be all of the things we already are. Perhaps this is just the meal we need before we are sent to be faithful in our vocations, even when we have to compromise.