for this July 4th

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices
and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart
and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

Now this I know:
The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
with the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
Answer us when we call!

Psalm 20

Here in the United States today we celebrate Independence Day when officially our nation began. What this nation stands for in principle is good, even though we’ve never lived up to it. Such is the human enterprise. We can’t reach that goal entirely apart from God’s grace and enabling in Christ. And that’s really at the heart of the fulfillment of the psalm quoted above. Only when Jesus returns when heaven and earth become one will that be fully realized.

But in the meantime, the United States should aspire in humility before God to occupy its own space for the good of all humankind. Realizing that it’s not in its own might or weaponry that it will succeed. But only by God’s mercy. As we know victory resides only in the King of kings, and Lord of lords, Jesus. And the United States should always be ready to acknowledge wrongs done, and try to make them right and do better.

This should temper our expectations, and help form our prayers, even as we thank God today for the good of the United States.

what difference are we Christians suppose to make?

I wonder how we Christians who don’t always agree on political issues, nevertheless might be a mediating, healing, even redemptive influence on a nation being torn apart. I am reminded of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29). They were to settle down and seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which they were exiled, to pray for it. It was going to be temporary for sure, seventy years.

That reminds me of us Christians here in the United States, or in any nation in the world, for that matter. We are temporary here, yes citizens of these nations, but our primary citizenship is in heaven. We don’t exist for the good of any nation or government. But we do wish the best for them, for God’s blessing so that people might be blessed. Government and the state does have a God-given place in this world (Romans 13).

I think the more we take all the words of Scripture seriously, especially those directed to the church, the more we might be helpful in the current impasse and worse. The gospel, God’s good news from God actually does the work, we don’t. We are witnesses to it in how we live in deed and word. First of all by our lives, even if we say nothing more at all.

…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Note the passage (click link) is in the context of an emphasis on love for each other, so that Christians strictly speaking are not independent, but dependent on God, and interdependent (not codependent) on each other. We Christians are in this together. Even when we don’t agree politically. We might be poles apart that way. And unlike me, you may not see climate change as something serious to consider, and we may disagree on a whole host of issues, even including the history of the United States.

In spite of all of that, just how can we be the mediating, healing, and even redemptive presence needed, if we think there’s value in that. If there was value in captive Israel being a blessing to Babylon, then surely there is for us now.

Getting back to Jeremiah’s letter to those exiles, we need to listen to what it might be telling us today:

…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

Jeremiah 29:7

Prayer. If there’s nothing else we do, we should pray. Even shut our mouths and instead, pray. Not that there’s never a time to speak, as well as be silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). But there’s nothing better we can do than pray. When we do, we’ll find ourselves somehow in God’s working, what God alone can do. What we do apart from prayer and dependence on God will do more harm than whatever good it might do. We can be sure of that, as well.

And so on the eve of Independence Day here in the United States, let’s consider carefully just how we might be a blessing in the midst of a mess which is certainly well beyond us. Above all holding on to the faith of the gospel, lights to the world (Philippians 2:14-16) in and through Jesus.

 

the war we’re in, the Christian and violence

There is the “culture war.” And we know of actual wars, right now honoring the last of the veterans of World War II. What about the Christian? What warfare can or even should we be part of?

Jesus taught the way of the cross, that we’re to love our enemies and pray for them, that we’re to bless those who curse us, and when struck, turn the other cheek, as well as go the extra mile. There’s no question that Jesus resolutely refused all physical warfare. The Messianic way fulfilled in him would not become embroiled either in the world’s wars, or in physical warfare at all.

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 and Ephesians 6:10-20 are the two passages which come to mind when speaking of spiritual warfare. One also thinks of Daniel’s praying, and the angelic and spiritual forces behind the scenes as he did. For the Christian the gospel meaning good news in Jesus is the armor and weapon we’re to use  in God’s mighty power to resist the enemy. And particularly for those called to proclaim, but for all of us as witnesses, we do indeed have authority in Christ to share the life changing word, above all in how we live, in word and deed. And this must be a part of what we’re about as Christians, regardless of anything else, certainly including all who serve in the state.

I know devout Christians have served in the military and police force. Of course that in itself does not prove the legitimacy of such. I was raised in a denomination that teaches Christians should not participate in such. And I am empathetic to that position, and to this day read a portion of the Sermon on the Mount (or the Sermon on the Plain) as part of my daily Bible reading.

One needs to step back and consider war in general, the just war theory proposed by Christians, actually derived from another thinker. And the evil in the world. It is said that peaceful efforts which refuse any violence actually change the tide, whereas using physical force only keeps the chain going of retaliation going, essentially taking vengeance when God tells us that we’re to leave that in his hands. And directly contradicting our Lord’s words when he said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not what we’re to live by, but rather, love for our enemies.

There’s no question that we should love our enemies, and that we should be willing to give up our lives for Christ and the gospel. And that should be our heart and soul, that we love in the way of Jesus, even doing so in a way that might cost us our lives.

That said, my own position now is that as a last resort when there’s simply no other alternative, Christians can use weapons within the role of the state. I say this sadly, remembering the worthy witness and position of Martin Luther King, Jr. and believing that such a witness is not only needed, but indeed called for in the way of Christ and against evil. There’s no question that he faced death both as a threat to himself and his family. And of course in the end was assassinated.

For me it’s an open question with no answer which completely satisfies. But I have to side with Miroslav Volf, insofar as I actually understand his position, that given the brutal, incorrigible evil present in the world, which as a matter of course kills and rapes and brutalizes, that there is a place for force. And that such measures lie with the state (Romans 13), not that there’s a given outline of what the form of government is to be in Scripture. There isn’t.

For me there’s no easy answer to either defend Christians ever using violence as part of the state, or never using such under any circumstances. I just don’t know.

My position now is that we’re to take the way of the cross in following Jesus. That just like the Amish have received protection with thankfulness, we too can receive such from the state. And that we can serve in such positions in the state. But always with the hope to resolve all matters and conflicts peacefully, or with as minimal force as possible. And that where need be, we can and should conscientiously object when what the government is ordering us to do is unjust.

Above all, and always, we need to be those who are marked as belonging to Jesus, taking the way of the cross. That even if we do participate in the force of the state, that we do so with the same gentleness and meekness, that of the Lamb. Realizing that we’re in a broken existence within the already/not yet continuum when peace won’t occur until the Prince of Peace returns. In and through Jesus.

why I’m not much worried about the election, or upcoming elections

I will participate in the election tomorrow, and I do have opinions, some of them strong. And I have expressed concern over the incivility nationally on both sides, beginning in the White House. And not good in many places.

I think what the founding fathers of the United States struggled to put in place is strong enough to withstand the problems today, as long as citizens, and particularly those in governmental leadership continue that struggle. There is a good overview, well worth the time, on that. Although the subject matter may not seem to be directly applicable, I think it does get to the heart of what the American democratic republic is, never tried before in the separation of church and state: First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.

I do share a concern over the United States, but my own biggest concern by far is the witness of the church in all of this. Yes, for the good of the nation, but above and beyond that, in view of God’s kingdom present in Jesus through the gospel. The church, and Christians should not be seen as either Republicans or Democrats. We are Christians and follow one Lord, Jesus. Because of that we’re going to run counter to prevailing thinking on a number of issues nowadays. And maybe considering the big picture, on some issues which likely won’t ever change. Though over time some may. And even Christians will disagree at times. One example: I’m for government mandated healthcare for all, but others are not. At the heart of that is the role of government, a debatable issue in itself. Christians are certainly not opposed to healthcare for all, the question is how to get there.

Whether we agree with what is in place or not, we’re to be in submission to such (Romans 13), and even to honor the office I take it, even if the one in place is not entirely honorable. We are to pray for all those who are in authority (1 Timothy 2). We may have to make appeals to such, and because of the democracy which the United States is, we can participate by lobbying for change, and voting.

Though God gives humans responsibility, God is ultimately in control (Psalm 75, etc.). We can and should participate insofar as our conscience dictates. But we should not be alarmists, nor should we think the world is on the line. At the same time, we need to be sensitive to real life issues out there, which are impacted by government, where perhaps laws are needed for the common good, and particularly for those who are marginalized. And we need to avoid readily taking on some kind of martyr complex, even if a political party or ideology is trying to force their will against us in a way which violates religious liberty. We should press for freedom in the public square for all, those religious as well as those who are non religious. In the midst of all of this, our final appeal is to God. As Christians and the church we live as Christians who happen to be American, along with those who are British, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean, etc., etc., etc.

And we need to remember that the power of God for salvation is only through the gospel, never through politics. The change needed will come only when people’s hearts are changed through the gospel, and by common grace. So that there’s a new standard in place for people of the world, including everyone. Christianity through the centuries, along with grave errors at times, has brought a world of good, such as hospitals, stands against slave trade and racism, protection for the unborn, etc.

I will vote, and will lose no sleep over the outcome. God is God. Our trust is in him, not in any president, any government, nor in ourselves.

 

 

the death penalty

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death yesterday for his horrific, murderous act at the Boston Marathon of 2013. There is no doubt that he deserves such a sentence. The question remains, what position are we as followers of Christ to have and advocate on such matters? Many of us claim to be “pro-life” in our opposition to abortion. But are we pro-life across the board?

The state has its God-given place in the mess of this world, to keep a necessary, provisional order in place. It invariably exceeds its bounds, but death may occur in its just function, even as it tries to avoid such. Execution is an entirely different matter.

What place does the cross of Jesus have in this discussion, with reference to his death? What role did that death play? And with reference to what happened yesterday? I would say (and I said it on Facebook last evening): Death penalty, no, period. Jesus’ once for all sacrifice is for the sins of the world, all sin, including the terrible act of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He should be confined, hopefully redeemed through Jesus. Jesus’ death ends the need for execution.

We say that something new is in place in the world through Jesus’ resurrection. Nothing less than new creation, but still in this old creation which eventually is to be made brand new. Old things, not just in personal lives, but systemically are passing away now, new things are being set in place in and through Christ.

The church doesn’t have to apologize to the world for the new face in Jesus it brings to the world. Which contradicts so much that the world stands for. We have the better way, yes indeed, the best way in and through Jesus, a way that comes not from this world politic and order, but is for this world politic and order. But a way that can never be co-opted into this world system. Yet at the same time bringing accountability and ultimately judgment.

Jesus bore the sins of the world as well as the guilt of the world on that cross. While murderers may well have to be kept in prison, their lives should be spared with the hope that they will have a change of heart and life through the redemptive work of Jesus on that cross.

Perhaps the Apostle Paul should have turned himself in to authorities for at the very least his complicity in the death of Christians such as Stephen. He could have had his day proclaiming the gospel he had embraced before his just excecution. By and by Paul was executed, tradition says beheaded, for his witness to the gospel. Should the Auca Indian (I don’t have his name) who appeared to us in chapel at Our Daily Bread Ministries where I work turn himself into authorities for execution? He was among those who with their own hands murdered Jim Elliot and company, missionaries who were there to share the gospel with them. Afterward their wives returned to continue that witness of the gospel and nearly the entire tribe was converted to Christ. Today the grandchildren of those who were murdered call him grandpa, and God’s love and joy radiate from his being.

No. Abortion is wrong and so is capital punishment. We advocate mercy over judgment even for the state. Because in and through Jesus the possibilities of his redeeming work know no bounds. Even while in this evil world we await the day when final judgment and salvation comes at King Jesus’ return.