Rejoice. Make Merry. Exchange Presents!

crumpledpaper

These few words strung together out of context would fit most holiday greeting cards and would dress up and adorn any wreath or ornament hung around the house this December. However, their association in Scripture is not a happy one.

My heart stopped when I read this passage in preparation for our Sunday evening Bible study on Revelation 11. I read them again. Yes. This verse (Revelation 11:10) says exactly what I think it says… “and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents” Without too much detail for this post it suffices to say what the people of the earth are rejoicing over is the gruesome death of martyrs who were witnesses for Jesus Christ who had delivered the very message Christmas brings. That is, that Jesus is God in the flesh who came, lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death, and rose from the dead, in order that we might have peace with God through faith. This they proclaimed, for this they died, and the people of the earth rejoiced, made merry, and exchanged presents.

In meditating on this my mind and heart flooded with all the times I have participated in these activities with little or no thought to Jesus. It then extended beyond myself to the overt commercialization (which Charlie Brown has been complaining about since the sixties) secularization and democratization of “Christmas” particularly in the United States. We should be stunned as we are left with an unavoidable conclusion: It is entirely possible to celebrate Christmas the way the world celebrates Christmas without Jesus. In fact, it is entirely possible to be “merry, rejoice, and exchange presents” entirely opposed to Jesus. This should at least give us pause in what we are doing. Even better, it should motivate us to share good news of great joy for all of these people that the many will be made children of God as they receive the gift of His Son. Let us be so bold as to not let our relatives drink the egg nog or crumple the paper on the floor without sharing Jesus. When the song comes on over the sound system of the department store don’t miss the opportunity to ask the cashier or customer if they know what “veiled in flesh the Godhead see” or “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” means.

The Best of Thanks in the Worst of Times 


Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday on October 3, 1863. President Abraham Lincoln wrote with the cadence of an Old Testament prophet and the urgency of an Apostle. Elton Trueblood rightly called him a “theologian of American anquish.” His deep brow and frowning eyes tell of deep sorrow. The lines of his face are chisel marks of resilience. His almost grin is a testimony of his quick wit. His words of proclamation setting aside the 4th Thursday in November as a day for giving thanks to our Creator remind us that even in the worst of years (i.e, 1863) we have much to be thankful for. 

His words of proclamation appear in part:

“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

And He Gave Thanks

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you,  – Matthew 26:27

Many of us have held the hands of loved ones while the hours they had on this earth were waning fast. Here we see the steady hand of the Son of God holding a cup.

That Same Hand

– That grasped Mary’s finger
– That reached out and touched the man with the withered hand
– That touched his frightened disciples at the mount of transfiguration.

– That calmed the storm and lifted Peter from the depths
– That touched blind eyes and made them see

– That unstopped deaf ears and made them hear

That Same Hand
– That in just a few hours will replace the ear of a temple guard
– That will be bound tightly

– That will be nailed to the cross
– That will be folded in death

That same hand – is holding a cup – full of crimson wine symbolizing the blood now running hot in his veins soon to make wet the dust of Jerusalem and atone for the sins of His church.

And He gave thanks… 

Comfort for Consistent Kingdom Citizens

billybarack2In the wake of the now historical 2016 Presidential election, many have written and will write much more poignant and helpful words than what I share here. These are just a few words of reminder, caution, and encouragement for myself as a pastor and others among whom I minister and serve alongside as we reflect on the changing of the guard in this American experiment of Democracy.  These words will make little sense unless you are coming from a Gospel proclaiming, Christ-centered worldview. If they in any way intrigue you and cause a longing in you then I invite you to know and worship the same King I do.

Comfort in the Sovereignty of God

21 He changes times and seasons;     he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise     and knowledge to those who have understanding; – Daniel 2:21

God knew how this election would turn out before the United States, let alone the world, existed. Really. He knew and He knows. For whatever reason, He has permitted this moment on the stage of the history of the world. There must be comfort in that.

Let us not seek security in the ballot box but in the promises of the Bible. If we feel more peaceful today with Mr. Trump headed for the White House in January more than we felt comforted yesterday in longing for Jesus’ return on the white horse, then we are guilty of idolatry and our hopes are misplaced. On the other hand, if we are more frightened today with his coming to the White House than we are fortified in knowing Christ will return on the white horse, then we are also guilty of the same thing.

Convictional Sensitivity to our Neighbors

We are to love our neighbors. All of our neighbors. Not just the ones we like either. We are even to love the ones who are our enemies. For some, our enemies are strawmen caricatures of individuals from a different background we have never spoken to before. For others of us, it is a stranger with a huge “Make America Great Again” sign next to their “Trespassers will be shot” sign.

The neighbor who is Christ-like must recognize today we have many hurting people in this country with a different point of view on just about everything. We must also recognize that many if not most of our non-white and non-native born neighbors are justifiably leery (if not livid) in wondering how someone who has talked like this candidate can be so overwhelmingly voted for by the people surrounding them.

There are deep divides in this country along racial, cultural, and ideological lines.  Frankly, they will not be healed apart from the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. One day before the throne, we will all be gathered from every tribe, nation, tongue and background. The closest we can come to Heaven now is to reach out and work for that sort of  gospel-driven unity in spite of ourselves and for the glory of God.

Christ-like Submission to Governing Authorities

This is a tough one. Americans are allergic to the term “submit” – it would seem other than when we are telling other Americans to submit. We may also note it could not have been easy for Jesus. He readily admonished the paying of taxes and modeled what it means to literally carry a Cross. However, before we rush too quickly to understand this as meaning we are primarily obedient to any earthly governing authority, note what Jesus says to the Roman Governor responsible for His capital punishment: “Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” – John 19:11.  Jesus was submissive to governing authorities because He was submissive to His Father.

Consider Peter’s admonition:

1 Peter 2 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Simply, there is an end in view to a Christ like submission to authority – and that is that those in authority would know our Father in Heaven.

Consistent Sincerity in Prayerfulness

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” – 1 Timothy 1:1 – 2

If we prayed this morning for President-Elect Donald Trump then I sincerely hope we also petitioned God on behalf of the President of the United States, Barack Obama. If we have only prayed imprecatory prayers for the current President of the United States, then we have been disobedient to the commands of God and should repent.

For many, it will be difficult to pray for President-elect Trump, but if we are followers of Christ then it is our mandate. What any head of state should be able to count on is the fervent prayer of Daniels, John the Baptists, Pauls, William Wilberforces, Frederick Douglasses and countless other common ordinary Christians who sincerely seek the good and welfare of the home which God has given us. John the Baptist prayed for Herod. Paul prayed for Nero. William Tyndale prayed for Henry the VIII. Just think about that.  Let us pray for peace and transition of power and God’s blessing on President Barack Obama. In the same way, inthe words of my brother Max Lucado, let us pray that President-elect Donald Trump would have the “heart of David, the vision of Daniel, and the wisdom of Solomon.”

Confidence in the Singularity of our Mission

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. – Matthew 6:33

Last, but not least, in the words of Russell Moore, we have “higher priorities.” Our business as citizens of the United States is trumped by our business as Kingdom Citizens. Certainly the two go hand in hand, but inevitably one must outweigh the other. Our business is to be salt and light to a dark and unsavory world, and we must be about our Father’s business of spreading the light and fragrance of Christ everywhere to everyone – urban, suburban, rural, male, female, citizen, immigrant, refugee and countless other categories – that are all one in Christ Jesus.

Spotlight on Race & the Gospel 

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak… James 1:19
Last night I got to take another step in a lifelong journey that started the first time I listened to a John Piper sermon on race and realized I was in the depths of my heart a racist. I would further be confronted by my coming to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where I still remember the first time I saw an “interracial” couple in a Christian setting (I’m from Mississippi…). That moment (not immediately) was the end of racism for me. At least of an active willful kind. Then there was Russell Moore and all the things he said to play my heart strings because he knew where I was coming from. Everything from his theological approach to adoption to his resounding, “Black and White and Red all over” at The Gospel Coalition a few years ago have had me hanging on every word Dr. Moore has been willing to spill ink over on this and other topics.

 
So last night I went to a faith and culture forum led by two African American rappers (not only of course. Propaganda and Sho Baraka are image bearers, artists, faithful teachers, winsome articulate communicators – I’m just painting the picture in contrast to my white nerdiness and my inability to rap). All I knew for certain I had in common with these guys was our understanding of the Gospel. In anticipation, I expected to be uncomfortable, humbled, and wanted to listen and learn. Frankly I was only uncomfortable twice. In the first couple of minutes there was a piece played by a comedian in which white people were the butt of the joke (my being uncomfortable came in that I wasn’t sure where it was going). I finally started laughing. I also needed to relieve myself of a shot of Cuban coffee, which I opted to do during a song so I didn’t miss any dialogue. Other than those moments, I felt as if we were in a family discussion that was graciously and fearlessly pursued (this framework was very well laid out and followed by the artists). The earlier video would be woven in to the tapestry of the night populated by intense and poetic dialogue, humor, poignant and pointed videos, powerful illustrations, and engagement. Topics ranged from partisan politics to Black Lives Matter to family dynamics to the church (just to name a few).

I did not learn anything new necessarily but I did learn nuances that are building blocks of a sure foundation in understanding, namely the articulation of interlocking systems of injustice and of compassion (not power) as the necessary and proper vehicle of a forward moving culture.As to this way forward, Christ permeates this. It’s gospel. It’s gold.

I now want to gush out all sorts of thoughts and review what I think I’ve learned, but that is part of the problem. We really were part of a family discussion last night and that is how these issues and systemic poisons are addressed. Frankly (this is my opinion and wasn’t said last night but possibly inferred) blogs and social media have often done a grave disservice to this conversation that needs to be had face to face.
In conclusion, I’m aware it would be naive to say, “now we’ve got it!” but it would be perilous to say, “we’ll never get it.” Something must be done and the drivers must be listening, compassion, and constructive gospel drenched action.
As a thirty something white southern baptist who is young and restless about many things, I’m certain when it comes to racial reconciliation it is not something that can be accomplished in an annual sermon or a convention vote – it’s something that has to be lived and voiced, as we pick up our crosses daily. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to start walking. I’m grateful for Prop and Sho. Thanks be to God.

The Glory of Pigtails

lutherkatie“I would not exchange Katie for France or Venice, because God has given her to me and other women have worse faults.”

Among Luther’s most permeate contributions to the Reformation was his teaching on the marriage of clergy.

Over and against the mistaken conclusion of sixteenth century ascetics and even the teachings of his theological forbearer, Augustine (who relegated the one flesh union of marriage to a necessary function),  Luther concluded and convincingly taught marriage is not a lower estate but a gift of God to be enjoyed.  He came to these conclusions early in his objections to Rome and would eventually follow his own advice in marrying the only person on the planet that could check Dr. Luther, Katherine Von Bora.  She and eleven of her sisters had escaped a convent by way of herring barrels.  (Word has it, these women were quite a catch!)  One student reported, “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all the more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest the worst befall!” As they were married off one by one, only Katherine remained. Their mutual  attraction is evident between the lines but Luther shied away from marriage because of his daily anxiety of suffering the fate of a heretic. Finally, as awkward as a middle school dance where there is only one boy and one girl left not dancing, the two finally joined and the resounding affect sounds louder than a mallet on the Wittenberg door. Often touted a marriage of convenience or simply to “spite the Pope,”* Luther’s marriage to “Katie” awakened in him a tender love that bleeds gushing ink all over his record and the letters between them. He affectionately referred to her as his “rib” (an allusion to Genesis 2) and humorously at times as kette (German for chain). Perhaps his greatest compliment came when he referred to the book of Galatians as his “Katherine Von Bora.” The progression of his personal endeavor in marriage can be seen in these statements:

“There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage, one wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.”

“The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love.”

“Union of the flesh does nothing. There must also be union of manners and mind.”

Katie ran their household, managed their finances, ordered their daily lives, reared their children, looked after his health, and was a welcome addition to his famous “table talks.” This marriage of “convenience” was actually a cornerstone to the Protestant parsonage.

Even in the elevation of marriage and the fruit enjoyed thereof, Luther also struck matrimony from the list of Catholic sacraments of which there were (and are) seven. This allowed marriage to stand as it is, on its own, as a creation ordinance. He highly esteemed the family, the role of the father, and considered children a blessing. This perhaps is his most lasting contribution to Gospel driven Christianity.

*Luther himself reputedly remarked his marriage was to please his father and the spite the Pope and the devil and that it would be like the “betrothal of Joseph”.  Luther was in denial. Evidence to the contrary, it seems Luther rather enjoyed his marriage in every aspect.

Bibliography:

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A life of Martin Luther. 1955.

The Stench of Legalistic Voting

holding-nose-while-voting-gif_93960_20141106-107There is an unpleasant smell adrift in American evangelicalism. It goes unnoticed by those who are willing to look the other way or knew to pinch their noses before our ship came in to harbor. It reminds me of a scene in the film Amazing Grace which tells the story of the great evangelical British politician and abolitionist, William Wilberforce. He and sympathetic members of parliament charter a vessel for an exquisite luncheon and concert which eventually docks beside a very recently emptied slave vessel. The stench is horrific. He tells them to “breathe it in” and to never forget that smell. You see, the key to “holding one’s nose” is that he or she must clinch his or her nostrils before the stench reaches the olfactories. If we haven’t, then we will recognize what we smell on 2016’s campaign trail is the rotting corpse of American democracy. And as Wilberforce famously stated, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Wilberforce himself exemplified what it means to be a gospel-driven evangelical who is politically engaged and especially what it means to do the right thing even if you are in the overwhelming minority. He would spend his life fighting a vile institution that was dying a slow death and he did not live to see the day of race-based chattel slavery’s eradication across the globe.

Today, we will see “Another big name evangelical author/theologian/former denominational leader/para-church ministry head/mega church pastor tells Christians ‘you must vote’” (implicit here is always voting a certain way). This is not a daily but hourly headline that will make one dizzy just keeping up with it. I will admit the best of these has been written by a theologian I greatly respect, Wayne Grudem, so if you are interested in the line of thinking to which I am currently questioning please read his. If your conscience follows with Dr. Grudem’s I understand and encourage you to follow your conscience but I respectfully disagree. I do not believe history, scripture, or plain reason makes this reasoning (voting and voting a certain way) a tenable must for the American Christian.

History

Voting, the way we do in the United States, has not been and is not currently available to a vast majority of the world population and has not been available to a large population of the United States for more than one hundred years. Plainly, registering to vote being an option to all American citizens is a relatively young enterprise and has happened within the lifetime of many of those insisting it is something we must do. Many African Americans were barred from voting until 1965 (though they could vote in theory beginning in 1870). Women could not vote until 1920. Native Americans could not vote until 1924. So to say being a Christian means you must vote doesn’t make any more sense historically than to say being an American means you must vote.

Voting for one of two parties has not always been the case historically and I hope will not be the case in the future. Dark horses and party splits have sometimes been the turning point for the better in American politics (enter Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt). The two party system as it currently exists is an unfortunate byproduct of water under the bridge and would disappoint our first and second presidents to say the least:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” – George Washington

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” – John Adams

Scripture

Christian discipleship transcends time, region, and culture. The things all Christians must do will be evident in Scripture and will make sense to all those born of the Holy Spirit and will be things he or she can do as evidence of his or her walk with Christ in whatever time, place, or culture. When it comes to citizenship it is plain in Scripture that we are to pay taxes (Matt. 22:15 – 22, Rom. 13:7), pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:2), and be good citizens for the purpose of pointing to our Heavenly Father (1 Pet. 2:13 – 17). Any Christian, anywhere, at any time can do these things.

When “searching the Scriptures” for an imperative which requires 21st century Christians who are citizens of the United States (already a very narrow category limited to time, region, and status) the best they can come up with is “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” It would seem those appealing to this line forget the second half of the same Scripture as soon as they say it, “render unto God what is God’s,” which by far is the point of that passage. Rendering unto Caesar certainly applies to at least paying taxes because this the context of Matthew 22:15 – 22 and is corroborated plainly with other texts and the opposite of which is used as a lie in the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:2). Simply, paying taxes, tribal dues or tribute (which does translate in to most cultures) is not exactly equal to voting in a free republic (which does not translate in to most cultures). If that is our proof text demanding voting as a must for mature discipleship then we must look somewhere else.

Plain Reason

To state that one must vote and vote a certain way is the duty of a discipled Christian is to impose a legalistic weight upon the shoulders of believers that is impossible to carry at all times, in all places, and in all cultures.

If voting in a free republic was a step in Christian discipleship then there would be a text that points us here but there is not. What are we to say for Christians seventeen and under? What are we to say to legal immigrants not yet able to vote? What are we to say to penitent ex –cons who have not received the right to vote back yet? What are we to say to many African Americans before 1965? What are we to say to American women before 1920? What are we to say to Native Americans before 1924? What are we to say to none land owners before 1870? Would we say they are/were “bad” Christians? Oh, and what about the rest of the world?

Or, what about the individual who has a family emergency the night before election day? Is she guilty of being a bad Christian because she did not avail herself of early voting? What about the one who dies before he has a chance to vote? Will he be accountable in judgment because he failed to vote absentee when he could have? Could both this man and this lady be tax payers who pray for those in authority and be those who seek the welfare (Jer. 29:7) of their communities and still not vote (or gasp, vote for a third party candidate)? Or is voting (and voting a certain way) the litmus test for a good disciple of Jesus Christ who is an of age, eligible, 21st century citizen of the United States of America (now of any race or either gender)?

We are told in defense of this reasoning of a must vote, “You are voting for a platform not a person.” Well maybe the sample ballots in other states differ from those in my state but I do not see “X party platform” on the ballot I see the nominee of X party. If we were actually voting for platforms then it stands to reason perhaps we would not even know who it is we are voting for (who wants to vote like that!?). A nominee of a party with a platform should ideally be an individual who embodies that platform (and has the proven character to carry it out). It has been agreed by almost all commentators worth their salt that neither of the two major parties really did their best in this regard. The past three debates have looked more like daytime talk show family dramas (or late night parody skits) than the real engagement of political discourse the American people deserve. Still, we are belabored with those telling us we ought to vote for someone who just might have the chance to beat the other candidate because “our candidate” is our best hope.

This tactic is frankly pugilistic and reeks of chariots and horses dung rather than a wafting sweet aroma of the name of the Lord our God.

To the men I greatly respect on many levels who have plainly stated in their hourly opinion pieces that you do not respect “namby pamby Christians” such as myself who would not follow behind you lock step, I hope your conscience is just as in tact publically alienating fellow believers as much as it is in the privacy of your voting booth. I believe I speak for a lot of us millennial evangelicals (and similarly minded spanning the generations) in saying we still respect you, but just because your nominee calls dissenters names does not allow for your labeling of us as poor disciples, bad Christians, and worse.

To those who instead search for a better way, may we break free from the yoke of legalism that enslaves disciples of Jesus to a cookie cutter approach to American [sic] Christianity.

Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the opinion of men in these matters, for they have contradicted each other (and themselves) – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. (HT Martin Luther)