grace Posts

Persecution – the Normal Christian Life

Afghans, seeking refuge in Kabul, now in a state of terror, violence, and oppression.

I recently had lunch with two Christian leaders who serves in the Middle East. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of pastors who serve in persecuted regions of the world- places like India, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. For these pastors, being persecuted, pushed aside, and challenged at every level in society, is normal. Their stories remind me to again, to praise God for the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S., for those who have fought and died for our freedoms, and to encourage and advocate for policy makers who place religious liberty as a priority in their decision-making.

In America we tend to redefine “persecution” for our context, and it doesn’t match what our brothers and sisters experience elsewhere. And yet, the Bible says that no Christian should ever be surprised when we are persecuted for our faith in Jesus Christ. The real surprise should be if we’ve never been persecuted, even in a free society. If we’ve never been persecuted, something’s wrong, and worthy of examination. The Apostle Paul brings a necessary clarification, when he says that, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). All believers will face persecution – that is, IF they, “desire to live a godly life.” Holy living, a life set apart for God, will bring persecution. Count on it, and count it all joy.

Currently, God is refining His Church. Persecution, trials, and struggles will always separate true believers from others. Many who are not genuine believers will fall away under persecution, as it becomes a line in the sand, a point of demarcation. Jesus said one may endure, “for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:21). Persecution draws out those unwilling to stand (Acts 13:50). Paul faced, “insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Corinthians 12:10), and yet, still remained content and committed to Jesus. The Lord rescued him in the midst of persecutions and sufferings (2 Timothy 3:11). Paul had no fear of those who could kill the body. He knew the Lord was with him, even in the worst of persecutions.

I’m inspired by our persecuted brothers and sisters. Let them inspire us all to remain committed to Jesus, regardless of what others may think, say about us, or do to us. But let each of us be certain that the suffering we face is because we are living, “a godly life in Christ Jesus”, holy, consecrated, and separate from those who not yet been transformed by our Savior. May our suffering point them to the God of all Comfort.

Who does the atheist thank?

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it, but Thanksgiving is purely a theist’s holiday. I’ve often thought, “how confusing is it, for the atheist to have a moment of profound gratitude, but then no one to thank? And with my title question, I’m not trying to be snarky. I’ve actually asked this question of an atheist and his answer made me think more deeply about my own gratitude. He said, he was grateful for everyone who had ever done anything for him in his life. He was thankful for those who labored to build his house, for those who worked to gather the materials needed to construct the house, for the engineers and plumbers who made water come to his house, allowing him to have to drink that morning. He was thankful for those who invented electricity and those who figured out how to get that electrical current into his house, which allowed him to have lights and appliances, and heat in the winter and cooler air in the summer. He was thankful for those who engineered and built the roads that he drove on that day, and for the designers of automobiles and for those who labored to create the car he drove to work, and everywhere else he went.

You can see where that goes. Appropriately, on and on, it goes. When you stop and think about it, you and I have infinite reasons to be thankful today- and an infinite number of people to thank. But as, not only a theist, but as one who trusts in God, and as a follower of Jesus Christ, my gratitude extends far beyond people and circumstances, to the Giver of all things in life. If my gratitude terminates on the gift and does not move me to the Giver, it ends prematurely. My worship is short-sighted (if, indeed, it is worship at all). It is appropriate to express gratitude for people in our lives, and especially to those who have genuinely impacted our lives for good (thank you, Steve Jobs, for helping bring about this MacBook Pro I’m typing on right now). But of course, Steve Jobs is gone, and I can’t thank him directly or personally. My gratitude seems weak and disingenuous. All expressions of gratitude for the stuff of this world fall short of ultimate gratitude and thanksgiving.

We should all be thankful and humbled today, if we know who to thank. Thanksgiving, though directed and expressed to another, does many things within our own hearts. Thanksgiving is a reminder of God’s love for us and His provision for us. Thanksgiving is glory-giving. As we thank God, we give glory to Him. Thanksgiving is one of the most profound ways for us to do what we’ve been created to do. Giving thanks right-sizes us before God Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth. It reminds us that we are in need, a lot more than we think we are. And we need Him above all else. Apart from Him, my atheist friend has nothing to be thankful for. As I explained to Him, ultimately simple cause and effect should drive us to God. We have (the effects) because of Him (the Cause). And ultimately, you get to the un-caused Cause, which is God Himself.

Take a moment this week and give thanks:

  • Acknowledge WHAT you have. Count your many blessings. Name them one by one.
  • Acknowledge WHY you have what you have. It is not by your own doing.
  • Acknowledge HOW you have what you have. You have been blessed. All of life is a gift, thus, implying a Giver. Thank Him for how He has blessed you.
  • Acknowledge WHO you have. He has given us each other. Thank Him for your family and friends. Thank Him for using imperfect people (like you and me) to bless your life- that’s all He has to work with. Extend some grace to family and friends this week. Life is too short not to forgive.

God has given us the greatest Gift of all. Let us pause and thank Him for salvation that has come to us in Jesus Christ.

“He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”  Romans 8:32  

All of God’s blessings begin with Jesus. Unlike the atheist who suddenly feels profoundly grateful and wonders who to thank, we know who to thank. Our gratitude is ultimately focused on a Person. His name is Jesus.

“God so love the world that he gave His one and only son so that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

Thank Him for your salvation- and share His love with others.

When Politics Becomes Idolatry

I wrote this a couple of years ago, and it seems more relevant today:

The Church in America is at a crossroads. In this cultural moment of instability and polarization, many have turned to a new kind of Christian Nationalism as the answer. I’ve seen a shift among some, from a grateful and healthy patriotism, to a nationalistic idolatry. Christian Nationalism threatens the Church, the witness of believers, and the advancement of the Gospel. It is important to recognize that many politicians have taken on the name of Christ and co-opted the Church for political purposes. Non-Christians attach the beliefs and actions of these leaders to the broader Christian witness. This, of course, is not new, but it has revealed an underlying syncretism of faith and politics that threatens the clarity of the Gospel. This syncretism is the result of a fear-based response to a growing sense that the Church is losing ground in the culture wars. Lacking faith that Christ and His Church can stand alone, many Christian leaders have co-opted government to accomplish a “kingdom” agenda. The dearth of moral leadership in the public square and the polarizing nature of leaders have magnified the tension and division among Americans. Regardless of what side you fall on- and most tend to fall heavily on one side or the other- we all know these are challenging days in America. We are as divided as I’ve seen in my lifetime. As we celebrate our freedom as Americans, it is important that we do so thoughtfully, intentionally, and from a biblical perspective.

Once upon a time, “Jesus is Lord”, was not only a declaration of faith, but a political statement. So political, in fact, and such an affront to the Empire and the Emperor who sat on the throne, it led to capital punishment. The Roman government had declared you could not worship two masters; it was Caesar and no one else. As a result, early believers (our ancient brothers and sisters) were martyred for their faith in Christ. It was not the declaration that, “Jesus is Savior” that shook the Empire but that, “Jesus is LORD”. This confession of faith flew in the face of the State because it meant that Christ alone is the King, the Ruler, the One with all power and dominion, and that there is no other. Allegiance is to Him alone.

If Christ is Lord of our lives, we are devoted to Him above all else – above our nationality, race, ideology, ethnicity, political leader, or party. Most Christians know the difference and seek Christ above all else, but we all wrestle with idolatry, more than we know. Calvin noted that, “The human heart is an idol factory”. Idolatry is most often making good things God things – even God-given things – and trusting in these things more than God. Idolatry can include comfort, security, wealth, success, power, and approval. It can include our spouses, families, jobs; even religion or doctrine can become an idol. Most Christians commit idolatry without knowing it. I’ve learned that idolatry is so insidious and subtle in my life, that it requires accountability and humble, thoughtful scrutiny. It’s been helpful for me to understand that my deepest emotions point me to my idols. What makes me anxious? What frustrates me, makes me angry, nervous, extremely happy or sad? Idols are revealed when we identify our fears. Something has become an idol if the thought of losing it would make me question if life is worth living. Something has become an idol when I think that, in it or through it, I find meaning, happiness, and worth.

Let me be clear that patriotism is not idolatry. A grateful and passionate patriotism is a proper response to the blessings that come from living in our country. Not everyone can celebrate their country, their founding fathers, and those who have given their lives for the freedoms we enjoy in America and often take for granted. But patriotism can become idolatry.

When does patriotism become idolatry?

  1. Christians practice idolatry when they believe that a political leader will bring the social change necessary, more than Christ.

At first glance, this seems absurd, but for many, their functional savior is a political leader or party, and not the Lord Jesus Christ. I know this because some are more passionate about their politics than they are about Jesus. They read more, think more deeply about, and study politics far more than they study the Bible or pursue theology. I know this because many watch political news more than they read their Bible and they engage in political conversations (most often with others who agree with their disparagement of certain opposing political positions) than they engage in spiritual conversations with others about Jesus. I know this because of the fear, anxiety, and anger I see on social media platforms. I see Christians who are more passionate about defending a political view or partisan position than they are about defending the Gospel and the truth of Christ. I know this because I see Christians who support and defend a candidate or leader carte blanche, even when it is clear that he/she is speaking or acting in ways that are clearly not the Way of Jesus. All leaders are flawed and surely no one person or party is right on every political matter.

I can’t imagine Paul wringing his hands, anxiously praying for the Father to place a certain Emperor on the throne in Rome so that the Gospel could finally advance in the Empire. Paul and the early followers of Jesus did not rely on a political leader or the State for any power or authority to advance the Gospel. They knew who their Leader was and they were operating out of all the power and authority they needed, given to them by Christ, through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine Jesus endorsing a certain candidate in our day, with the expressed position that through him/her the kingdom agenda would finally become a reality? Praise God we live in a free democracy and that our leader is not a totalitarian dictator (as in Paul’s day). We need to remember that our national leader is just a president who has 1/10th of the power of any totalitarian dictator. Regardless of your political persuasion we can all praise God for the genius of the “American Experiment”, with our Constitution and our three branches of government with its checks and balances. Let us be thankful for our democracy.

  1. Christians become idolatrous when they believe in the ability of the State to affect change, more than the Church.

Christians practice idolatry when their focus for change is on what the State can do more than on what can be accomplished in and through the local church. Many believe the State will bring necessary change, instead of embodying that change and living out the Gospel in every domain of culture. When one’s energies are spent electing one candidate up against another more than on the ministries at his/her church, which can bring about effective and lasting change locally, it has become idolatrous. Patriotism can be idolatrous when our hope is in the State and when our “agent” of change is the government, or an election or specific candidate or party.

I know that some trust in the State more than Christ because I see those who claim to have been transformed by His love, but do not love others as He has loved us. These days we are quick to label, categorize, and demonize people (and those who agree with them), so that thoughtful dialogue and civil discourse becomes impossible. If you categorize and tag people, calling them names or placing labels on them, it dismisses them from having a thoughtful perspective. And it dismisses you from thoughtfully and respectfully listening to them. This lack of engagement will never lead toward empathy and understanding. This is the lost art of American politics. For the Christian, the hope of the world is Jesus Christ and His Spirit alive and active, embodied in the Church, as the People of Jesus live out their faith.

  1. Christians become idolatrous when they spend more time and energy on political matters than on a pursuit of Christ and the making of disciples.

An obsession with politics may reveal a misguided focus for the believer. This is not to say that we do not need Christ-centered politicians and Spirit-led leaders in government. Surely we do, as in every cultural domain. But when we find that our time spent serving in and through our local church, is less than the time spent reading about, and watching news about the State, elections, parties, or working for political change, we’re out of balance.

But can’t we be both patriotic and politically informed and involved? Certainly we can, and that is not my concern here. My concern is that too many Christians spend too much of their God-ordained time and precious energy supporting partisan politics, believing that they are furthering justice and advancing the Gospel – thus revealing a syncretism at best and idolatry at worst. We advance the Gospel by advancing the Gospel. It is Good News that needs to be shared. In the end, people don’t care about our opinions. They care about our love. What they need is Christ-like love, empowered by His Spirit within us. Our opinions don’t change lives, but our love does. His love does. No one is argued into the kingdom.

When it comes to seeing real change in our culture, where do I focus my energies? Is it engaging my neighbor or ranting about politics and demeaning those who vote differently? Like you, like me, like every American, it is their right to vote as they choose. Who or what do I think is the real agent of change? What do my anxious thoughts and actions reveal about where my allegiance lies? Jesus said that whatever we value most is where our thoughts and actions will run. So, I urge us all to take a hard look our lives and where our minds and hearts are going. And then celebrate with unbridled joy the God-given privilege of living in America, where we are free to worship Him above all else and to share His Gospel with gentleness and love. Praise Him!

“I’m not a racist.”

I’ve heard this statement many times and it’s often followed by, “but…” which sometimes precedes a racist statement, opinion, or ideology. Author Dr. Ibram Kendi has challenged me to ask, “But are you an anti-racist?” Many of us can’t define what a racist is, thus, none of us claim to be “racist” or would ever want to be labeled a racist. But the opposite of “racist”, is not, “not racist”. The opposite of racist is “anti-racist”. We either endorse or oppose racial equality and hierarchy. We either endorse through inaction or support through our actions, systems that oppress and disfavor certain groups of people. We either allow racial inequities to persevere (as a racist), or we confront racial inequities, (as an anti-racist). There is no safe zone when it comes to racism.

Dr. King’s, Letter From a Birmingham Jail (April 16th, 1963), has impacted my life and ministry in big ways. In it he called out “white moderates” (specifically white pastors) for their lack of involvement and silence during the civil rights movement. He said the problem was not the KKK or the White Citizen’s Council but white moderates- people who claimed to be for racial equality and justice but refused to actually do anything or say anything, or felt the timing was not right. It’s possible to agree with a particular philosophy or movement but never get involved and actually do anything. So, are you a racist or are you an anti-racist? You’re one or the other.

Even today, we still have far too many “white moderates” who are not advocating and fighting for racial equality and justice. Dr. King wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Sadly, this is true, and the oppressed need those who are not oppressed to speak out and to fight for them. Systemic racism demands that people in positions of power leverage their influence for the marginalized and oppressed. I know many followers of Jesus who are doing just that in our city. As a pastor I’m so encouraged to see more and more people in our church stepping into that space of racial equality, social justice, and reconciliation. I see business leaders, community leaders, volunteers, and advocates, bringing real effort and action that is dismantling and breaking down long-standing, systemic racism in our communities.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech (August 28, 1963), Dr. King said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” And now, nearly 57 years later, some of us are still waiting to move, waiting to jump into the fray and do something. We can all do something- a kind word, a new hire, a mentoring moment, speaking up and speaking out in a conversation with a friend, listening more intently, and seeking to understand. Others of us can leverage our position to change decades-long policies and processes to bring about systemic change that can turn the tide of racism in our sphere of influence.

Here we are, 52 years after his death, and it’s still time to act. Dr. King said, “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” The best way to honor Dr. King is by honoring the King who has set us free, through His life, death and resurrection. We are now free at last. In Christ we are free to love without any need for love in return. We are free to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. We are free to bring voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless. Are you a racist or an anti-racist? Now is the time to decide. Now is the time to act.

And the Angels were Silent – Saturday in the tomb

And the Angels were Silent – Saturday in the tomb

“He put Jesus’ body in a new tomb that he had cut out of rock, and he rolled a very large stone to block the entrance of the tomb.”  Matthew 27:60

How quiet it is on Saturday before Easter. How sad it is. How despairing it must have been for those who had seen their teacher, their friend, and their hope die right before them. All of creation held its breath to see what would happen next. All of heaven peered toward earth to see how we would respond. And God didn’t move. Not one word; not even a sign. Have you ever been there? You had great expectations that God was up to something big, something life changing, and then, nothing. Have you ever put all of your hopes in a person or in yourself, only to see them come crashing down before you? If so, you know how the disciples must have felt.

They ran away scared, because that’s what we do when we can’t control a situation or think there’s no way it will end well. We run and hide. They couldn’t believe it. Their Master was dead. He was really dead. It was all over. No hope, nowhere to turn, no plans.  On Saturday all they could do was run for their lives and hide out, hoping no one would find them. Have you been there? Maybe right now. Do you ever think God is silent? Do you ever pray thinking He’s not even listening? Let Easter Saturday serve as a lesson for every day of the year. God may seem to be silent, but in reality, He’s about to bring about His greatest work. If you ever wonder if He’s at work on your behalf, ponder the difference between Saturday and Sunday. Remember, God may seem slow, but He’s never late. He’s always right on time.

Pray:  Lord, I confess I have not trusted You in Your silence. I want You to work in my time and in ways that don’t require a lot of waiting and wondering, a lot of pleading and desperation. I realize when You are silent You are still at work and I will see your work, perhaps your greatest work of all. And when You are silent, I can show my greatest faith. I choose to trust in You today.