God “Bless?” America

God “Bless?” America

I led a new Bible study, this morning, on the Sermon on the Mount.  I intended to start last week, but delayed due to the swirl of activity in the immediate aftermath of the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Today’s class focused on the Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-16…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean when we say, “God bless America?” Health?  Wealth?  Prosperity?  Protection?  Favor?

The Greek word, used in the New Testament, for “blessed” is “makarios,” which means something akin to, “being in an enviable position,” particularly in our relationship with God.  Being “blessed, spiritually-speaking, is a good, desirable, godly place to be.

Jesus says we’re in an inviable position with God when we are poor in spirit, when we are mourning, when we are meek, when we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and when we are persecuted, when we face opposition for our faith.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds VERY different than the way most of us typically use the word “blessed!”

Is it possible we understand the word “blessed” correctly, but expect the wrong outcome? After all, we live in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on earth.  But, what’s all of our wealth and welfare doing for us?

Being close to God does NOT automatically lead to health, prosperity, protection and favor.  Instead, being close to God may mean the opposite.  Being close to God will break your heart for the sins of the world.  Being close to God will reveal your insufficiencies, and need for God.  Being close to God means working for justice and peace, even when it brings opposition.  Being close to God requires seeing the impurities in our own lives, and our desperate need for refinement.  Being close to God requires personal sacrifice.  Being close to God can be difficult… and blessed.

Being close to God is undeniably an inviable position.  It’s where we want to be, whether we get that or not.  But, God blesses us to bless others, not to bask in the blessing ourselves.  Being close to God is joining in God’s work of healing and redeeming this broken world.  Being blessed is less about the temporal blessings we may or may not receive, and more about the blessing we can be for those less blessed than us.

This world needs a lot of blessing!

Though I’ve read the Beatitudes countless times, I’m hearing them differently this time.  I can’t help but read them through the lens of our recent tragedy.  I hear the call to mourn and show mercy – Christians are good at that.  But, I’m also hearing God’s call to work for justice and peace, even if it means facing painful opposition.

In fact, just a few verses after the Beatitudes, Jesus adds, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  

The “blessed” do.  The “blessed” put blessing into action.  Friends, there’s a lot of blessing for us to do.

Yes, God, please bless America.  Bless us with the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the workers for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, and those who are persecuted for doing what is right.  Bless us with your Kingdom.  Bless us, please.

“Rights” vs. “Righteousness”

“Rights” vs. “Righteousness”

Inevitably… predictably… another mass shooting has inflamed the gun “rights” debate.  Again, politicians and pundits are debating the “rights” of gun-owners, guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, versus the “rights” of the innocent victims of gun-violence.

I must confess, I don’t like guns.  I don’t own a gun.  I don’t want a gun.  I’ve never fired a gun.  I’ve never, once, needed a gun.  I don’t hunt.  I haven’t felt the need to defend myself.

That being said, I respect that our laws allow others, who do have the need or desire, to do so.  And, law is the issue.

Humans create laws.  We decide what is legal, or illegal.  We decide, by creating (or amending) laws, who can sell, own, carry, or use a gun, and under what circumstances it is legal to do so.

Some argue that gun ownership is a “right,” guaranteed by our Constitution.  And, legally, they are correct.  But, for a moment, I would like to reflect on the word “rights.”  What are my rights, and what are my rights based on?

The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Inspiring words, penned by Thomas Jefferson.

“Unalienable rights” is a political/philosophical concept attributed to the “Creator.”  But, on what basis is such a claim made?

We have a “Bill of ‘Rights’,” that guarantees certain freedoms, and limits the powers of the government in specific ways, including the “right” for U.S. citizens to legally “keep and bear” arms.  The original “Bill of Rights” was written by James Madison, and approved by the United States Congress in 1789.  Numerous additions and amendments have been made to it over 200+ years.

The Congress – men and women elected by the people of the United States – have determined our rights for us, on our behalf.  Courts of law have defended those rights.  Hypothetically, those same laws can be amended by the same process.

What does God say about our “rights?”  To answer that particular question, Christians turn to Scripture as the primary authority for what God says, or doesn’t say.

You might be surprised to discover that the Bible has VERY little to say about “rights.”  Having “rights” is not a biblical concept.  Certain “rights” in marriage and inheritance are mentioned, which are mostly archaic.  The Prophets spoke of the “rights” of the poor, the widow, and the orphan to mercy and justice.  The Apostle Paul talks about having the “right” to food and drink, to being paid for his work, to having a wife – and yet, he didn’t demand his “rights,” for the sake of those he was called to serve.

Throughout the Bible, the word “right” appears primarily in two ways.  Repeatedly, the Bible talks about “doing” what is “right,” according to godly principles.  And, more importantly, the Bible talks about being “righteous” as God is “righteous.”  A “right,” biblically speaking, has nothing, whatsoever to do with what I am allowed or entitled to.  “Right,” biblically, is about correct, godly action.  Doing “right,” or being “right,” has to do with loving God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  “Righteous” living is godly living, which calls for obedience, faithfulness, and self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

That bears repeating.  Being “right” biblically means sacrificing my “rights” for the good and well-being of others.  “Demanding my rights and freedoms,” is inherently un-biblical, when it places my rights above another’s needs.

Let me be very clear.  “Liberty,” as in a Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom or right, is a political concept, not a biblical one.  The laws of the United States of America guarantee her citizens certain legal “rights.”  The Bible doesn’t.  That doesn’t make “rights” wrong or bad – they’re just not biblical.

Ultimately, whether or not laws are changed regarding gun ownership will be determined through a legal process of bills, debates, and votes – which may, or may not happen.  My point is this: Christians are called to “righteousness” – to do what is right, for the sake of others – not to defend our own “rights.”  My “right” as a U.S. citizen to “bear keep and bear arms” does not take precedent over God’s expectation of righteousness.  As a Christian, when demanding my legal “rights” supersedes my call to righteous living for the sake of others, I am not “right” with God.

Ultimately, my point – my opinion – really isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of gun ownership.  A “righteous” Christian can own a gun, and still be righteous!   I am NOT against responsible gun “rights” or laws, even if I don’t choose to exercise that “right.”  My point, Christian brothers and sisters, is that we must seek a “righteous” solution to gun-violence, based in biblically principles, not just legal ones.

We must offer a “righteous” perspective and voice into this legal debate.

Are we willing to sacrifice some degree of our legal rights, in order to make our children and our schools safer?  Are we willing to forgo some degree of our legal rights, to protect the innocent?  Are we willing to relinquish some of our legal rights, for the sake of righteousness?

Do we care more about our “rights” or our “righteousness?”

 

Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

I was prepared for yesterday (Sunday, February 18, 2018) to be a “different” kind of Sunday, given the recent tragedy in our community.  We’d already modified the service to address the myriad questions and emotions, to honor the dead, and to comfort the hurting.  We were prepared for larger crowds, knowing people often turn to the God and the Church following tragedies.  And, they did.

I didn’t, however, expect Governor Rick Scott to show up.  We’d heard it was possible, but didn’t know for sure.  Governor Scott was in town to attend several funerals of the victims, and wanted to attend a worship service in the community.  He chose First Church, and we are honored that he did.

I also didn’t expect the press.  They weren’t there for the Governor – that had been kept a secret.  But, they were all there!

Throughout the morning, different people said comments to me, like, “You must have worked extra hard on that sermon, preaching for the Governor!”

With no disrespect for Governor Scott, at all, and no desire to sound self-righteous, I  honestly replied, “Governor Scott never crossed my mind.  I was preaching for the person whose hurting the most, and needed to find God this morning.”  

Maybe that person was Governor Scott.  I don’t know.  If so, thank God.

I wrote and delivered my sermon, with someone local in mind – not Governor Scott, and not the press.  I was thinking of the grieving, the confused, the traumatized, the hurting.  I was thinking of the men and women, children and youth, who’ve been most personally affected by this terrible tragedy.  I was thinking about the person who needed to be reminded that God exists.  I was thinking of the person who needed to hear that God is with us in our pain and suffering.  I was thinking about the person who needed to hear that it’s ok not to be ok.

Please don’t hear any of this as false humility.  Yes, I was conscious of the Governor’s presence (as well as his security detail).  I was aware of the cameras and microphones, recording my every word and move.  I was aware that I really need a hair cut; that my shirt was too wrinkled; that I’ve gained way too much weight.  I was aware that I was missing a rare opportunity to address the broader topics of gun violence, mental health, school safety, mental health, etc., etc.   I was painfully aware of every word I stumbled over, and every thought I couldn’t articulate.  I was deeply aware of my many pastoral inadequacies and shortcomings.

But, thankfully, none of that was my primary focus.

Maybe something I said, or something the press recorded, or something they experienced personally, may have touched them or a broader audience.  If so, to God be the glory.  But, that, to me, is secondary.

Isn’t it interesting how our attention is drawn to what, or who, the world says is important – like a governor or the press?  No doubt, they are important, in their own respective ways.  And yet, Jesus’ attention was always drawn to the least “important,” and the ones who suffered the most.  Jesus’ attention is still drawn to suffering.  I hope the same is always true of me.

The Governor has returned to Tallahassee, I suspect.  Soon, the attention of the press will be drawn elsewhere – not to another tragedy, like this one, I pray.  Soon, life in Coral Springs and Parkland will return to “normal” – whatever that means, now.  But, the wounds inflicted upon us on February 14, 2018 will remain for a long, long time.

That’s all that mattered to me yesterday.  That’s what matters to me today.

Monuments of Shame

Monuments of Shame

During my college years, I was quite enamored with beer.  I’m not proud of that.  But, it’s the truth.  My love affair with beer became a destructive habit that damaged relationships, hindered my maturation and education, and cast a permanent dark cloud over that chapter of my life.

I not only drank beer.   I covered the walls of my bedroom with beer-related posters and neon beer signs.  I built a visible, tangible monument to my destructive, addictive idolatry.

27 years ago, with God’s help, I stopped drinking.  Thank God.  About that time, I also tore down the beer-related decor.  Needless to say, there’s no beer-related paraphernalia in house anymore.

Given my history with beer, and the pain and destruction it caused, imagine if I still had that stuff hanging around.  What would that communicate to my mom, to my wife and children? What would that communicate to guests in my home?  What would that communicate to those who call me “pastor?”  What would that say about me, and my inability to move on?

Perhaps this is an overly-trite example, by comparison.  I hear a lot of talk these days about Civil War-related monuments.  I hear well-intentioned people say, “It’s our history,” as a justification for why the monuments should remain.  But, as I understand it, the purpose of monuments is to honor.  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain, in public, tax-payer supported places of honor, that represent such a dark blot on our history?  Is it appropriate for monuments to remain that symbolize the source of pain and strife for so many of our fellow-Americans?  It appropriate to maintain public monuments that white supremacists continue to use as symbols for their hate-filled cause?

I have vivid memories of the Berlin Wall coming down  and the massive statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Iraq.  Numerous statues of Stalin and Lenin were torn down, removed, or relocated to history museums.  To the best of my knowledge, the destruction of such monuments was celebrated by most Americans.

In contrast, one can still visit many of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany – not as monuments, but reminders.

I will confess, as a 50-year-old white man, born and raised in the South, it only recently occurred to me that Confederate monuments were an issue of concern.  They’ve been an “accepted” part of Southern culture, since before I was born.  They’ve just been part of the Southern landscape.

But, my eyes have been opened.  While they’ve not offended me in the past, I now view them from a different perspective.  I have a growing understanding of what they represent to my African American brothers and sisters.  I have a growing understanding of the shameful horrors they represent. If they cause pain, and continue to communicate a message of racial difference and separation, then they need to come down.

They MUST come down!

Yes, the Civil War is part of our history – as are the Trail of Tears, the Japanese internment camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the southern Jim Crow laws, etc., etc.  We have history books, documentaries, and museums to keep those stories alive.  Remembering our history is important, so that we learn, grow, and strive not to repeat it.

Perhaps we do need monuments – monuments on behalf of the victims – as reminders of our sins.  But, why would we maintain monuments to honor the perpetrators of our darkest moments?

Though trivial by comparison, my college drinking is a dark chapter of my life.  I’ve worked hard to overcome that part of my history.  I can’t change it.  And, I won’t hide it.  But, I certainly won’t memorialize it.  The neon beer signs had to come down.

They had to come down.

 

 

The Sin of Being Passive

The Sin of Being Passive

I can easily be accused of being passive.  I don’t move quickly.  I take my time making decisions.  I tend to be quiet – taking in more than I express.  I don’t get very excited very often.  I prefer peace and calm.  I don’t show much variation of facial expression.  I can watch grass grow or paint dry, and be perfectly content.

But, I wouldn’t say that I am mentally passive.  In fact, my mind is so active that I have trouble shutting my thoughts down.  But, externally, I realize that’s a different story.

During Lent, I’ve been reflecting on that line from a familiar prayer of confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done…”  We not only need to confess our sins of commission, but also our sins of omission – in other words, our sins of passivity.  While I may not be guilty of this or that particular action (though I likely am), I am very likely guilty of inaction.

It recently occurred to me that Adam was standing next to Eve – passively – while the snake tempted the two of them to eat the forbidden fruit.  Then Adam blamed God for making Eve.

When the angels told Lot’s family to leave Sodom, they dragged their feet.

When Dinah was raped (Genesis 34), her father, Jacob, did nothing.

Passive.

Isaiah 1:17 says, Learn to do right; seek justice.  Defend the oppressed.  Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

That’s action.  That’s what it means to God’s people.

But, by verse 23, Isaiah says that, our rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  Their actions were evil – bribery, corruption, theft.  But, equally evil was their inaction – including the distinctive call to God’s people to love justice and do kindness – “they do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Oppression is not only the result of sinful action.  Oppression is also the result of passive inaction – MY passive inaction.  YOUR passive inaction?

Though I read and speak and write about justice, acting on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized is another matter.  I cannot – we cannot – passively watch the injustice in our communities and broader world, and do nothing.  We are called to be people of action – to be a hand of mercy and a voice of prophecy.  We are called to act.  To do less, is nothing less than sin.

I confess that sometimes my passivity is selfish – I just don’t want to do anything.

I confess that sometimes my passivity is selective blindness – if I don’t see it, it must not be happening (ostrich syndrome).

I confess that sometimes my passivity is rooted in busyness – I am so busy doing church work that I don’t have time to do Kingdom work (there is a difference).

I confess that sometimes my passivity is a result of cowardice – will I be criticized for this, and am I willing to pay the price?

I confess that sometimes I am passive because I don’t know what to do – ignorance becoming a convenient crutch.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther king wrote the following words from a Birmingham jail cell, largely to white passive pastors, who were discouraging his actions, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

“The time is always ripe to do what is right.”

This week, chemical weapons were deployed in Syria, Isis killed over 50 people in Syria and Iraq, and – as is true every other week – multitudes of people are suffering and dying in countless ways, while I passively do nothing.

Forgive me, Lord, for what I have left undone, and those things which I ought to have done. 

What will we do?  What will I do?