A Day of Lament

Heavenly Father, I was invited by Sojourners to participate with other people of faith in a National Day of Mourning and Lament to remember the lives of the 100,000 Americans who have died due to COVID-19. For the past few months, nearly every day, I have seen graphs and statistics showing the exponential spread of the virus. This virus has been truly devastating. It grieves me but another crisis grieves me more.

Lord, The New York Times honored the lives of thousands of coronavirus victims by printing their names on the front page, a tribute that powerfully illustrated that there was a life worth saving behind every number. Lord, You knew every one of the decedents by name. Please comfort those who knew and loved them. Every lost life matters.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy on us.

In the past week, news of the pandemic has been replaced with news of protests of the death of George Floyd, another black man whose life was taken for no reason. The sickness of racism has taken the lives and devalued the lives of people of color for far too long, from the abhorrent days of slavery to the hard-fought days of the civil rights movement to the we-should-know-better-by-now present.

The names of black men and women and children who lost their lives to the knee-jerk reactions of racism are written in our memories and our collective conscience – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor. Lord, You knew everyone of these victims by name.

God, this country is in crisis. I lament the senseless loss of life. I lament the violence. I lament racism. I lament injustice.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy on us.

Lord, I grieve for black parents who have to have “the talk” with their children, telling them that they must fear police officers. And Lord, I pray for the majority of police officers who serve honorably. Protect them and help them to make a positive difference in the communities they serve.

Jesus, my heart breaks for the message black Americans are hearing. One of my favorite columnists, Eugene Robinson, wrote a piece titled, Black lives remain expendable. As a black man, he was angry and rightly so. “Stop treating African Americans like human trash and start treating us like citizens.” Black lives are not expendable. Lord, I pray that every white American will start treating every African American as a human being. I pray that we will start treating every black person as if they matter. They do matter.

Lord, I can’t get these words out of my head: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Sir, I can’t breathe. The words of a man who wanted to live. The words of a father. The words of a brother. The words of a son calling out for his mama in the last moments of his life. He did not deserve to die.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer. Amen.

Imagine a man

Imagine a man whose heart is far from God. He puts many gods before the one true God but the god who has a real hold on his heart is the god known as Self. The one true God is higher than any other god. He alone is all powerful and all knowing. He alone is worthy of all honor and praise. The one true God is the God of love and the source of all that is good. The man whose heart is far from God follows a god of hate. His god brings forth that which is evil.

The man whose heart is far from God expends an extraordinary amount of energy elevating the god of Self – boasting about how smart he is, how wealthy he is, how powerful he is. He exalts himself over everyone and everything. He knows more about any subject than anyone else. In his own eyes, no one is greater in all the earth. He never admits failure, never confesses a wrong, never acknowledges weakness or self-doubt. When he is not elevating the god of Self, he busies himself tearing down his enemies – anyone who makes the god of Self look bad. His greatest enemy is the truth and he fights the truth with a vengeance.

Imagine Narcissis gazing adoringly at Self in the mirror. Self-aggrandizement. Self-adulation. Self-importance. Self-indulgence. For the man whose heart is far from God, it is all about Self.

The man whose god is Self is a master manipulator, a master of deception, a conman. He belongs to his Father, the devil, the father of lies. He carries out his father’s desires. There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language.

No man is perfect. We all sin. We all fall short of the glory of God. None of us knows everything. We all fail. We all stumble. But the man whose god is the god of Self will never admit this. He will never repent. He lives in a world of make believe, a world of fantasy and unreality. When he looks in the mirror he sees a distorted version of himself.

His most consequential lie is a powerful self-delusion. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” He tells himself, if there is a god, I can deceive him just as I deceive people.

The man who worships the god of Self surrounds himself with oleaginous sycophants, toadies, boot lickers. They see his nakedness but pretend that the emperor wears the finest clothes. Convinced that the ends justify the means, they flatter and praise him to stay in his good graces and to trade on his influence.

The man who is his own god believes he is above the law. Many men have tried and failed to hold him to account. The truth is, every man will have to account to God for every wicked act, every careless word. Imagine the day when the man who has spent his life worshiping Self finally faces his Maker. He will not get away with lying to the Father of truth. He will not impress the omnipotent, omniscient God with his wealth, power or intelligence. He will not escape God’s judgment by deflecting and blaming others.

The man whose heart is far from God is not a figment of my imagination. He is real. He is an old man but there is a childlike quality about him. There is something sad and pathetic about his constant need for adulation. He is rich in material wealth but morally bankrupt. He is seemingly successful and yet a colossal failure. He is a powerful liar but he cannot change the truth. He presents himself as a savior but he cannot save his own soul.

I had a dream about this man a couple of months ago. I said one word to him. Repent. The man whose heart is far from God is not beyond God’s redemption. I pray that he will be humbled before the one true God before it is too late.

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By John William Waterhouse – http://www.allartpainting.com/echo-and-narcissus-p-16444.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7716057

A Prayer for the Church

Heavenly Father, thank you for this new day. This morning, I remembered a childhood rhyme we recited on our way to church. We would interlace our fingers, placing our thumbs parallel to each other. Then we would say, ‘here’s the church.’ We would lift our index fingers, touch them together and say, ‘here’s the steeple.’ Finally, we would turn our hands out with the fingers still interlaced and say as we wiggled them, ‘open the door and see all the people.’ 

Tomorrow on what is normally one of the most “peopley” days of the year, most churches around the world will be empty. As they have for the past few weeks, pastors and priests, musicians and others who serve in the church have recorded a service for Easter Sunday. The people will watch from the safety of their homes.

Jesus, today I remember what you said to the woman at the well about places of worship. She said that her ancestors worshiped on the mountain but you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem. You said to her, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 

Jesus, Messiah, this pandemic is proof that true worshipers do not need a physical building to worship you. We worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth! We will gather together virtually to pray and sing your praises. 

Lord, just as you warned, there are many false prophets and teachers out there, including those who promote the false prosperity gospel and those who falsely link religion and politics. I pray that those who lead people astray will be revealed for what they are and that people will discern the truth. You cannot serve both God and money. You cannot serve both God and political power. You alone are God. You alone are sovereign.

Jesus, thank you for dying for my sins. As Isaiah prophesied, you were pierced for our transgressions, you were crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on you, and by your wounds we are healed. 

Father, I pray for the body of believers. I pray for the clergy who lead us. Help us to grow spiritually through this challenging time of physical distancing. May we let our lights shine in the darkness so that others will see our good deeds and glorify you.

Amen


Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Contrasting Two Kingdoms

When I read The Myth of a Christian Nation last year, I took a lot of notes about the kingdom of God before launching into a self study of kingdom parables. The author, Gregory A. Boyd, responded to God-and-country believers who conflate religion and politics, by contrasting the ways of the world with the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ’s kingdom is not of this world; if it were, Jesus would have told his followers to fight as the world fights.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

John 18:36

How do you use your power?

The kingdom of this world trusts the power of the sword. Boyd used the word sword to represent more than physical force. The sword symbolizes all the ways people use power over people. Individually, we use power over people to get our own way – to bend people to our own will. The strong use their power over the weak. The rich use their power over the poor.

The government uses its power over people to control the behavior of its citizens. Of course we need laws to protect our rights and to prevent people from harming other people, but there are limits to the power of the sword. Many Christians want the government to use the power of the sword to force people to obey God’s laws. The problem with this is that laws change a person’s behavior but do not have the power to change the heart.

The kingdom of God has a completely different concept of power. It is based on the power of the cross – the power of redemption. When you put your trust in Jesus, he changes you on the inside. When you have been redeemed, you want to follow God’s laws.

The kingdom of this world responds to conflict by engaging in a tit for tat. If we are insulted or injured, we respond in kind – an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. We may hit back even harder, trying to outdo the other person’s meanness. In God’s kingdom, the injured person responds by returning evil with good – turn the other cheek, bless those who curse you.

The hope of the world lies in a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that doesn’t participate in tit for tat, a kingdom that operates with a completely different understanding of power.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation

Instead of using power over people to force them into compliance or engaging in a constant tit for tat, Boyd encourages us to use our power differently, following the example of Jesus. When you respond to another person with gentleness and self-sacrificing love, they may see the injustice of their own ways. Love has the power to transform the enemy’s heart. When we return evil with good, we stop the endless cycle of violence fueled by hatred. Let the Spirit purge your heart of bitterness, wrath and anger (Eph. 4:31).

Who is the center of your universe?

In the kingdom of the world, people are motivated by self-interest and personal will. Our culture encourages us to be self-centered, to put the self first. We compete with each other to be on top. We trample each other to get ahead. We covet what others have. Instead of living sacrificially, we are self-indulgent and greedy.

The kingdom of God is based on God’s will and the interests of others. God’s will is that we love others as we love ourselves. In God’s kingdom, we don’t look just to the interest of ourselves, but to the interest of others. We don’t exist to be served but to serve. In the kingdom of God, grace abounds. In the kingdom of God, humility abounds. There is no room in God’s kingdom for selfish, self-important people.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4 (ESV)

How big is your world?

The kingdom of this world is tribal. We choose sides. We circle the wagons. We ostracize. We build walls to keep people out. We insult and demean others. We look down on and exclude people who are different. We defend our own team at all costs. At our worst, we identify so strongly with our own tribe, we demonize our enemies and treat them inhumanely.

The kingdom of God is full of unconditional love and boundless grace. In God’s kingdom, we love one another, even our enemies. The kingdom of God isn’t limited to people who look like you and act like you. There is room in God’s kingdom for everyone – every racial, sexual, ethnic, and socioeconomic group. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

I long for the kingdom that is not of this place. As I know all too well, it is easy to conform myself to the ways of this world, to engage in selfish power struggles. If I want to be transformed by the Spirit, I must humble myself and become like a child. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

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Scottish Castle Photo by John Roberts on Unsplash

On being an outsider at church

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

Jesus – Luke 12:51

After my last post, my brother told me he is glad politics isn’t mentioned in his church – he would hate to feel isolated because his political views might not match those of other members of the congregation. My pastor tries not to be political and he rarely mentions politics in his sermons. Where I have been exposed to political views of the congregation is in my small group or koinonia. I have been in two groups so far and in both, I have found my political views to be at odds with others in the group. When politics is discussed, I feel like an outsider, like I am not following the same Christ. How can I have real fellowship and unity of purpose with Christians who are not like-minded?

My first small group met in the home of a member of the church, a woman who has served as a deacon. It was a great group of women and we shared and learned a lot in our Bible studies. But it became really uncomfortable when a couple of people claimed that Obama was a socialist. When the hostess called Obama the anti-Christ, I dropped out of the group and told her that the political comments were the reason.

I was invited to join my current group by a woman I met in a Sunday school class. At first we met in the home of one of the women but she travels a lot so we started meeting at church. As I’ve gotten to know the women, I’ve figured out that once again, I am an outsider. A few years ago, in response to news stories about a refugee crisis, one group member said she would throw the children back over the fence. WWJD? Definitely not that. When we were discussing “taking up your cross,” another woman said that for her that means speaking out against homosexuality. Not once has she expressed any concern for their souls. Another woman has expressed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant views.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, I heard a guy telling someone about a Sunday school class on voting your Christian values. The person asked whether there was a consensus in the class about who to vote for. He just laughed and said, oh yeah. I knew I would not have wanted to be in that class. After the election, the senior pastor said he thought that those of us who were upset about the results did not trust God enough. In my small group, one of the women laughed about the negative reaction to the election – “snowflakes.”

I thought about searching for a different church, one that reflects my views on God’s love, mercy, and justice, and the kind of life that Christ calls me to live. I decided to stay where I am because the word of God is preached, even if much of the congregation doesn’t really get the message of Jesus Christ. The scripture is being fulfilled. They hear but never understand.

When politics comes up in my small group, I feel like a visitor from another planet. The much repeated statistic about the election is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. When I heard that statistic, I looked around at my group and thought to myself, that sounds right. I am the one in five who could not vote for the man who is the antithesis of my Savior. I am an outsider in my Christian group because my allegiance is to Christ, not to a political party.

Sometimes I feel like a liberal among conservatives and sometimes like a conservative among liberals.  I have conservative theology—I believe the Bible—but that leads me to “progressive” opinions about politics, because the Bible has much to say about justice and helping the poor.  And I believe we are called to show love and grace even toward people we disagree with, especially toward people we disagree with.

Philip Yancey, Author of Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners

In being an outsider, I face challenging questions about Christian fellowship. Can I have a meaningful connection with people I disagree with? Can we live in harmony with each other (Romans 12:16)? Can we encourage each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11)? Can we accept one other (Romans 15:7)? Can we be kind and compassionate to each other (Ephesians 4:32)? Can we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)?

I can easily answer yes to most of these questions. Despite our differences, we are united in our love of God. We are one in our desire to seek Him. And yet, because my political beliefs are at odds with the rest of the group, I experience a lot of inner turmoil. I don’t accept views that contradict the teachings of Jesus. When those views are expressed, what should I say? Most of the time, I keep my mouth shut. I can get angry when I am passionate about an issue and I know that I should be gentle and not quarrelsome. That said, I could not be silent when one of the women said she hoped that Trump is a Christian and another said that “they say he is a Christian.” (Read 1 John 1:5-10.)

It would be easier to only worship with people who share my political views. But I have to live in this world; I can’t isolate myself from people who believe differently. In the Parable of the Weeds, the enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. The servant asked the owner, do you want us to pull up the weeds? “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”