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.

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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.

for Memorial Day

We are thankful for all who put themselves in harm’s way for the good of others, and really for the good of all. Of course we recognize and acknowledge the limitations of any nation state of this world, and regret that all too often what is decided is the best for national interests does not necessarily have the best for all in mind, and actually often ends up detrimental to the national interest it professes to protect.

At the same time, even given the inevitable limitations of the state, we are thankful for all those who serve in the military and police for the good and protection of others, and especially for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in doing so. We want to remember them on this day.

May God give the governmental leaders of this world the wisdom to look to him, to be reticent, even wary of violence except as a last resort. A deep respect for the life of all, beginning with those under their command. And all of those serving a heart to be present for the welfare of their own nation. As prayers are offered that all conflict will end once and for all in the petition, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

dealing with difficult people

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-24

If you live, you’ll have to deal with difficult people, who at times can make life more difficult. As Christians, we turn to the pages of Scripture for help. And I find Paul’s words here in Romans (click link for fuller context) helpful.

In a nutshell, Christians are simply to do their part. I think we can confront or challenge others, but we’re never to repay evil for evil. I think that includes using violent means, though if someone were attacking someone else, then I think you should do what you can to stop them. The Christians’ dependence on the state as a God-given institution against evil is in play here (again, click link above to see that).

To go into much detail beyond what is written here for me becomes murky. As Christians we should simply try to stick to the basic words of Scripture. But inevitably differences will arise as to whether “if it is possible, insofar as it depends on [us]” means that Christians could ever resort to any kind of violent resistance. I personally have changed my view in leaning toward the position that the Christian can participate in the state, and thus bearing the (small) sword as a police function. And in that, violence should be used sparingly, only as a last resort. There’s no question in the text, that the state in its God-ordained role, does end up resisting evil for the good of Christians and of all society.

The big watchword for me here is simply the directive to live at peace with everyone insofar as that depends on us. That means we might have to put up with things that are not helpful. We’re to leave any vengeance in God’s hands, instead of seeking to exact it ourselves. The state actually ends up being part of God’s exacting of justice, so it seems, when they function correctly. Although sadly to say in too many places in the world Christians and even society in general is left with corrupt governing officials.

The directive is clear whether we like it or not. We’re to do good to our enemies, or to those who make life difficult for us. But I’m not for a minute referring to cases like a woman being beaten by her husband. She needs to separate from him, seek protection from authorities, and I believe she can divorce and remarry on the grounds of desertion, because in effect that’s what he’s done.

This is not a nice comfy part of life. We’d rather avoid all such things together. But it does happen. We do well to go back to the words of Scripture, God’s word, and seek to live by that. To even bless those who persecute us, as the text tells us just before what is quoted above. At the same time, living in peace with others doesn’t mean letting them run roughshod over us. We need wisdom from God to know what that will mean in any given situation, as we seek to remain wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves. In and through Jesus.

more than a persecution complex

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’

John 15:18-25

Couched in Jesus’s Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17) the eve of his crucifixion, is some words of warning to his disciples. In our own culture we’re hard pressed to make much sense of them, but in the world at the present time persecution of Christians is as bad as ever. We do well to keep track of it and help by prayers and giving (see Open Doors).

In this present age we live in the realm of the world, the flesh, and the devil. All are directly opposed to Christ, often subtly in my own context. Oftentimes what can happen is a kind of getting along which amounts to compromise and a watering down of the message of the cross. If the ideal of the separation of church and state is maintained, then neither will interfere with the other. The church strictly speaking is a separate entity, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). At the same time the church is a people in exile from the heavenly Jerusalem, and wants to see the nation blessed in which it resides (Jeremiah 29:7).

So like life itself, it’s complicated. But straight up, as followers of Christ, we should expect persecution. In my own context again, more or less subtle. Though we who are blessed to live in a space in which significant religious freedom remains should be aware of other Christians who do not, and are more or less suffering real persecution, perhaps in the loss of property, and even life.

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Hebrews 13:3

We dare not carry around a persecution complex, ready to jump at the slightest provocation, always thinking the worst. But as followers of Christ, we need to remember that our lives are to be a small picture pointing to Jesus and his cross. We’re to take up our crosses and follow. In the love of God for the world. 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 idolatry of the cross with the flag

While there may well be a subtle critique going on in the New Testament of the idolatry of the state in light of the gospel, and the kingdom that brings, I think by and large the Christian faith was meant to be planted in a way that transcended any nation or government, internationally, and yet not tied down to any one nation or all of the nations put together, but very much on its own, in our American terms today: independent. The church was to be submissive to rulers and authorities, or at least those making up the church, but only insofar as that submission is faithful to the lordship of Christ. We bow the knee in the end to one Lord, and are submissive to those placed in authority insofar as they remain in their place.

In the beginning America was kind of a breakaway from the old world of church and state, but in another way, not. Yes, many people came here to have religious freedom from the state which imposed on the church much of its will in the old world, in fact we might say all of it. The roots of that is back to the Constantinian shift which began what was called the Holy Roman Empire in which only Christians could serve, everyone else essentially excluded. The Reformation in large part was responsible for this shift, though it was the Anabaptists and Baptists who pressed that. Infant baptism, except for Jews was required in the old world and was part of what it meant to be a member not only of the church, but a citizen of the state. In the complexity of that time, many came over with no axe to grind on that score, but to put their roots into the new world. Many of them were of the Church of England, Anglican, called Episcopalian here. While the new world in theory would hold to religious liberty, it was not practiced until the 1830s except for the Quaker state of Pennsylvania. This was a huge shift from the old world, yet almost the same allegiance of the church to the state remained in place. Of course with all kinds of varying understanding as to what that meant depending on the tradition, but except for the Anabaptists who were surely a relatively small minority (Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, and the like), the state in some measure and degree could be considered Christian.

Fastforward to today. There are many who find no problem at all with pictures of the US flag draped over the cross, maybe with an image of Christ hanging on it. And even for Christians who would be uncomfortable with that, there is little or no hesitation to see the United States in its best version to be a Christian nation. Of course the US always had both believers and nonbelievers in its mix, and while scripture was pointed to as part of its original understanding of what is right and wrong, there was never any pretense on the part of the founding fathers (except for a very few) that the United States was to be a Christian nation, but quite to the contrary. They more or less invoked, or wanted the blessing of the church and of Christianity on and in their endeavor, but this was wholly another experiment entirely, steeped in the Modernist Enlightenment which was still relatively new and fresh at that time.

We have those today on the left and on the right as it’s called, who both make the case more or less of what the United States ought to look like, yes, as a Christian nation. And neither vision is the vision we find in scripture, and specifically in the New Testament in which we read of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus, and what form that takes through faith and baptism in the church, and instead of what place that has in the world, how the nations and the world should be seen in light of that. One might say the place the state has in the picture in which the gospel and Christ’s kingdom is the main point of it all.

And so the idea of draping a flag over a cross, or for that matter even having the US flag to be understood as basic to the identity of any church, or of course any other national flag for that matter, is idolatry at its core, or at least in danger of bowing the knee in worship to something other than the Lord Jesus. Due respect, honor and submission is one thing. But amalgamation is quite another. Churches, denominations, and individual believers have to make difficult decisions related to this, like whether or not one can be Christian and serve in the military, or in the political arena, and to what extent. But there should never be any question in all of the due submission to the state just who is lord. It is never ever the state, and never the state with the church. Christ is Lord over all, King of kings and Lord of Lords. The gospel is at the heart of our existence as Christ followers, as Christians, whether we recognize that or not. And nothing else can be a part of that.