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.

God meant things to be so much easier…

God meant things to be so much easier…

“We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”  Peter Maurin (Co-founder, with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Movement)

Long before last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been in turmoil over the brokenness I see, every where I look…

  • Thousands dying from opioid overdoses.
  • Countless women revealing the abuses they’ve suffered from men behaving like animals.
  • The growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
  • The bullying young people endure in our schools, and on social media.
  • The vitriol that dominates our politics.
  • Senseless acts of “road rage,” ending in senseless deaths.
  • The public rise of hate groups.
  • The decline of civility.
  • The alarming negative impact of social media on everything from our politics to our children’s social development.
  • ISIS.  Al-Queda.  Boko Haram.
  • The Pulse night club massacre.  The Las Vegas strip massacre.  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.

What is happening?

I know the world’s never been perfect.  There’s always been war, violence, hate, prejudice, addiction, sickness, poverty, disasters, racism, injustices, etc.  Certainly, anyone whose lived through wars, or famines, or the Holocaust, or slavery, or in a refugee camp, or a natural disaster, may not be as shocked or disturbed as I am by our current state.  Perhaps the world is no more broken than it ever has been, and I’ve just been blind or ignorant.

Nevertheless, my eyes are wide-open now, and I don’t like what I see.

Do you?

Dorothy Day wrote, “We are not expecting utopia here on this earth.  But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

Is it possible that we’ve created a way of living that’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and undermining the kind of life we actually long for? Is it possible that our values and lifestyles – the values and lifestyles of normal, church-going, law-abiding citizens – are actually completely out-of-whack?  Is it possible that for the world to change, we’ll have to change ourselves?

In the shadow of recent events, children are on my mind.  I think we’re failing our children.

  • We aren’t providing children with adequate role models, mentors, and guides.
  • We’re pushing our kids to be too busy for their own good, and have placed too much pressure on them to perform.
  • We’re sacrificing family time, for work and activity.
  • We’re sacrificing community and extended-family, for opportunity and mobility.
  • We’re sacrificing religion and spirituality – in the Church and in the home – to competing obligations and recreation.
  • We’re not teaching children the values of respect for authority, hard work and discipline, and basic morality.
  • We’re exposing our children to way too much evil in movies, TV, the internet, and social media, without the supervision or skills to discern good and evil, right and wrong.
  • We’re indulging our kids, instead of investing in them.
  • We’re allowing our kids to grow up with way too much fear, without the foundations of security we all need to thrive.
  • We are creating survivors, not thrivers.

And, when I say “we,” I’m not just blaming parents.  Parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I certainly didn’t do it perfectly.  “We” is me.  “We” is you.  “We” is society, culture, government, the Church, the media, the press, school systems, sports leagues, etc., etc.  “We” are the problem.

I’m also not suggesting there aren’t countless parents, grand-parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, Scout leaders, police officers, politicians, etc. trying to make a difference in kids lives.  There are, thank God.

But, something has to change, doesn’t it?  What we’re doing isn’t working, is it?

I don’t have the answers, and it’s certainly much easier to identify problems than to develop solutions.  But, increasingly, I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to “be good.”

What if we lived simpler lives, with less stress, and more time for family, friends, and faith?

What if we knew our neighbors, and built stronger community with them?

What if we developed habits of helping each other, relying on each other, supporting each other?

What if we all gave more time to service, helping the most fragile members of our society?

What if we spent more time looking into each other’s faces, and less time at screens?

What if we planted deeper roots in one place, forsaking the next promotion or opportunity, for the sake of long-term stability?

What if we valued character-development – our children’s and our own – over academic, athletic, or professional achievement?  Not instead of, just more than.

What if church, worship, service, and faith development was a priority for the whole family?

What if we were more generous with our resources, our time, and our hearts?

What if we collectively committed to fixing what is broken in our society, instead of turning our backs and hiding from it?

What if we collectively believed we could make the world better than it is, and did something about it?

I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to be good – really good.  Do you?

“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?”

 

The Church I long for…

The Church I long for…

My church (First Church Coral Springs) hosted an event today called P.O.V. (Point of View), with the intent of teaching people how to be more empathetic of other’s points of views, especially when their views are different than your own.  Empathy does not mean changing your mind or opinion.  Empathy does mean listening respectfully to another person’s stories and perspectives.  Empathy does mean seeking understanding.  Empathy means caring enough to treat the other person with respect, kindness, and fairness.

Near the end of the day, we were asked, “What type of Church are you longing for?”

Here’s my answer…

“I long to be part of a church that loves well, that helps broken people find healing (all of us are broken), and that claims and restores broken places.”

How would you answer the question?  What type of Church are you longing for?

Coddling Evil

Coddling Evil

Yesterday, in a brief conversation with a colleague, reflecting on the recent tragedy in our community, she asked, “Why do we coddle evil?”  

She wasn’t only talking about the mass killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  She was talking about the myriad evils in our world – in our own communities – that we are either blind to, or just consider insignificant.

She was also talking about personified evil – the spiritual forces of wickedness at work in our world; undermining good, turning people away from God and their neighbor, and seeking out opportunities to cause death and destruction.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

I wonder if it’s because we blame evil on people.  We see people.  We see what they do.

Surely, people do evil things.  Surely, people are complicit for their evil acts.  Surely, people are responsible – and must be held responsible – for their choices.  But, what about the evil that shapes and forms the people who do evil things?

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Ephesians 6:12

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  1 Peter 5:8

I wonder if it’s easier to dismiss evil, blaming it on the bad choices of bad people?  We fear evil, of course.  But, we think we can avoid it by living in nice neighborhoods, sending our kids to “good” schools, avoiding certain parts of town, not associating with certain types of people, putting “bad” people in prison, protecting our borders, and certainly not participating in anything “too” bad ourselves.

Yes – evil exists in bad neighborhoods, bad schools, and in bad people.  Evil also exists in gated communities, private schools, and in “model” citizens.  Evil exists in our work places, in our government, on our TVs, and in our social media.  Evil, sometimes, exists in us.

Evil isn’t only a troubled young man with an assault-style weapon – though evil was clearly at work in him.  Evil is greed.  Evil is racism.  Evil is materialism.  Evil is sexism.  Evil is addiction, in all of it’s varieties.  Evil is lust.  Evil is judging others as inferior.  Evil is careless, thoughtless, hurtful words.  Evil is idolatry, in all of it’s myriad forms.  Evil is selfishness.  Evil is division.  Evil is power used abusively.  Evil is apathy.  Evil is hate.  Evil is injustice.  Evil is violence.  Evil is complacency.  Evil is pride.  Evil is worldliness.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

In moments like these, we inevitably ask questions about how to protect ourselves from future evil.  “Shouldn’t we have tougher gun laws?  Shouldn’t we have better mental health screenings?  Shouldn’t we have better security in our schools?”  Security and the protection of the innocent is undeniably prudent.  But, evil always finds a way in.  Evil always finds a chink in one’s armor.   Evil always finds a willing partner.

Perhaps the questions we should be asking, as people of faith are, “How do we name evil, resist evil, and do battle with evil, before evil wreaks such havoc and destruction?  How do we acknowledge and name the evil we complacently accept and minimize in our world, our communities, and even in our own homes?  How do we stop coddling evil, and start confronting evil?”

I’m not talking about Hollywood-style spiritual warfare and exorcisms – though there certainly may be times, people, and places that is needed.  I’m talking about donning the “armor of God” and confronting the forces of darkness in their tangible forms – racism, poverty, injustice, and the pervasive acceptance of myriad worldly values contrary to the will of God.

Jesus said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it!”

The Church of Jesus is not called to avoid evil, to accept evil, or to pander to evil.  The Church of Jesus is called to be a bright, piercing, billion-kilowatt light in the darkest darkness.  And, where the light shines brightest, the darkness flees.

Rob Bell writes, “Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

One of my favorite quotes is from a missionary named C.T. Studd…

“Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.”

Christian friends, “Why do we coddle evil?”

 

What broke him?

What broke him?

Yesterday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL – a school he was expelled from – murdering seventeen innocent victims and injuring at least fourteen others.  The press is already reporting there were “red flags” – expulsion, social media posts, strange behaviors, etc.  He doesn’t seem to have friends.  Apparently Cruz has experienced significant loss and grief.

As yesterday’s events unfolded, I asked, “What broke him?  Who broke him?”  This wasn’t the act of a “normal” person choosing wrong.  This was not the act of a “normal” person suddenly overcome with evil.  Yes, what he did was unspeakably evil!  But, this wasn’t the act of a “normal” person.  Only a “broken” person could do something this horrific.

“What broke him?  Who broke him?

We could ask the same every time one of these tragedies occur.

Perhaps some people are born evil.  Some would make that argument.  I can’t accept that.  I believe God doesn’t make broken people.  I believe God creates us in his good image.  I believe this world breaks people.  And, today, I wonder what broke Nikolas Cruz, and others like him.

Inevitably, many are already debating the need for better gun laws versus better mental health screenings.  Though I firmly believe some kind of law should have prohibited Cruz from purchasing a semi-automatic weapon, my point is not to enter that particular debate.

I’m wondering when Cruz’s brokenness began, who might have recognized it early on, and who failed to intervene?  I’m wondering what might have saved Cruz – and, now, all of his victims – closer to when his brokenness began?  I’m not looking for someone to blame.  I’m wondering about how Cruz, and others like him, might have been helped before doing such unspeakable harm?  I’m wondering who the next Cruz might be?

And, I’m wondering what the Church’s role is?  Obviously, the Church is quick to offer aid following tragedies.  We hold special services.  We offer comfort, counsel, and prayer.  But, I’m wondering, if we are called to be salt and light in world, how we could – must – address the widespread brokenness in our world?  Where was the Church for Nikolas Cruz?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not blaming the world, the Church, or anyone else for Cruz’s sin.  Cruz made that evil choice.  I’m just wondering why, and what might have stopped him.

I confess I am struggling today.  These aren’t just theological ponderings.  I’m wrestling deep in my soul.  I’m torn between knowing there is darkness in our world, and feeling an immense responsibility to stop playing “Church”; to actually do something substantial and assertive, to drive back the forces of evil in our communities and our world.  I’m torn between believing in the free-will that allows for evil choices, and believing God’s will ultimately prevails.  I’m torn between feelings of hopelessness in the face of so much despair, and an outrage-driven conviction to do more about it.  I’m torn between utter hopelessness, and knowing we have the power of almighty-God at our disposal.  I’m torn between wondering if the Church is making any difference in this world at all, and knowing Christ, working in the Church, is the only hope we have.

I watch as society drifts further and further away from God.  I watch as families senselessly decay.  I watch as more and more die of drug overdoses.  I watch as so many “Christian” families are less and less involved in Church, and more and more drawn away to other worldly distractions.  I watch as woman after woman after woman comes forward to bravely confront men who’ve assaulted them.  I watch as our country grows more and more divided.  I watch as age-old-racism seems to be rekindled.  I watch as the constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation looms on the horizon.  I watch as we literally throw away our lives on the smallest, most petty, trivial pursuits.

Friends, what are we doing?  Yes, Cruz is broken.  But, maybe Cruz is broken because we are broken?  Maybe Cruz if broken because the world is so broken.  Maybe the world is so broken because we – the Church – are doing so little about it.

And I’m thinking a lot about Jesus today.  I’m thinking about Jesus coming to heal our brokenness and rescue us from sin.  I’m thinking about the trivial ways we talk about sin, without confronting the sin that leads to yesterday’s massacre.  I’m thinking about the terrible weight Jesus bore on the cross, dying to save us from all of our sin and brokenness.

I’m wondering what Jesus is calling his church to do?

I don’t know who broke Nikolas Cruz.  But, I do know who could – who can – heal his brokenness. I know who can heal the brokenness all around us.

So, here’s my question, to the Church.  Are we going to keep playing Church – with nice worship services, cozy fellowship, shallow religious programs, and petty squabbles over silly, unimportant, irrelevant disagreements?  Or, are we going to get to work, with all of the courage and conviction we can muster, driving back the forces of darkness that lead to death and destruction, in Jesus’ name?

Isn’t the correct answer obvious?

What broke him?  What are we going to do about it?

 

 

Hoping for the best. Prepared for the worst. Praying, no matter what happens.

Hoping for the best.  Prepared for the worst.  Praying, no matter what happens.

All we can do, now, is wait.

Hurricane Irma – a historically strong, potentially-catastrophe-causing storm – is heading this way.  All forecasts indicate that Southeast Florida, where I live, is very likely the target.  Maybe not.  Likely so.

For now, all we can do is wait

We’ve purchased hurricane supplies.  With the help of friends, the hurricane shutters have been hung.  We’ve gassed up.  We’re taking this storm seriously and, short of evacuating, we’ve done all we can do to prepare.

Now, all we can do is wait.  All we can do is hope for the best, but be ready for the worst.

Surprisingly, as a 50-year-old Floridian, I’ve never experienced a major storm.  We were in graduate school, in North Carolina, during Hurricane Andrew.  We’ve been on the far-outskirts of a few hurricanes and tropical storms – but, nothing significant.  Last year, we fully-prepared for Hurricane Matthew – but, barely saw a cloud in the sky.  If Irma visits Southeast Florida, this will be my first.

Honestly, I won’t mind if Irma decides to just had out to sea!  I don’t think this is a life-experience I need to have!  I will be sincerely happy if all of the storm preparation was unnecessary!

Waiting for a storm of this magnitude is a vulnerable feeling.  Fortunately, we live in a safe home, and could afford the needed supplies.  But, are we prepared enough?  Is this house strong enough?  Will Irma’s impact exceed our preparations?  Are we prepared for the potential aftermath and clean-up? I don’t know.  I just don’t know.

I am aware that many are far more vulnerable than we are.  My heart goes out to them.

Not knowing, for sure, what’s to come, all we can do is wait.

No.  That’s not true.  Prayer is also an option.

While I don’t really believe that prayer will push Irma out to sea (If I did, how would I explain Harvey’s impact on Texas and Louisiana?  Lack of prayers?  There are probably more Christians in Houston than just about anywhere!  How would I explain the devastation Irma has already caused in the Islands?), I do believe that God is bigger than the biggest storm, and that God is present, with us, in the storm.

Throughout the Psalms, God is called “a rock, a fortress, a hiding place, a strong shelter.” Honestly, in this context, I’m not sure what those metaphors mean.  But, that’s what I am praying over my family, my church, my friends, and my community.  “God, please be our rock, our fortress, our hiding place, our strong shelter.”  Whatever comes, may we experience the peace of God’s presence, his strength and courage to endure the storm, and the faith and hope in his power to redeem and restore whatever is broken.

And, in the days to come, I am praying for the Church to be the Church.  It’s times like this that reveal the very best of humanity.  In the face of catastrophes, the best of the human spirit shines forth.  If we somehow, someway avoid this monster storm, thank God!  Someone, somewhere will still need the compassionate generosity and kindness of Christian people.  If we don’t avoid this, and find ourselves climbing out of the rubble in a few days, may we be people of hope, love, and generosity, as we recover and rebuild our lives and community together.  Let’s be the Church, and demonstrate to the world the very best of being the hands and feet of Christ!

For now, we wait.  We hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.  And, we pray to the God, who is our shelter in the storm.

My prayers are with you.  Be safe.