Polarization Damages the Church

conservative-liberal-281x300In America we are seeing the increasing polarization of our country. This is especially clear in this election year. The polarization, though, is not just in politics. It is in the Church.

The right/left divide is harming the Church in subtle ways. Christians who are on the left of social issues mistrust Christians on the right, and vice versa. We now have a Church culture where people who advocate for evangelizing and converting others are suspicious of the motives of those who want to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Those who want to help the immigrant and foreigner among us are wary of those who adamant about the fundamentals of the faith.

Christians paint caricatures of each other as either being so open-minded their brains fall out or so closed-minded that they want to establish a theocracy in the US. (Unfortunately, there are fringe groups on the extreme right and left that live up to these pictures, but the vast majority of Christians do not.)

Now, I do not believe that unity is a virtue that ought to be held no matter what anyone believes or how anyone acts. Denying the divinity of Christ is not Christian, nor is killing an abortion provider. But we in the Church have allowed the political polarization in our culture to affect us.

It is now uncommon to hear from the same Christian that we have a bounden duty to not only offer Christ to the lost, but to seek justice. We not only are called to proclaim the Name by which all may be saved and offer a cup of cold water in His Name. We are to care for the widow, orphan and loose the bonds of oppression as well as seek and save the lost.

We have a responsibility to care for the poor and to protect the unborn.

If Christians do not find ideas, policies, and platform points from both the right and the left with which they agree, they are not reading the whole Bible. If Christians do not find ideas, policies, and platform points from both the right and the left with which they disagree, they are not reading the whole Bible.

Put another way, Christians ought to equally offend the right and the left as we follow Jesus.

Think about this and listen carefully to what each side is saying, in politics and in the Church. You may be surprised by what you hear.

Texas Planned Parenthood Decision and a Christian Response

Before I begin this post in response to the indictment decision of the grand jury in Texas against the anti-abortion activists instead of Planned Parenthood I would like to make two points very clear.

40th Anniversary March for Life in 2013. My family was here and did the March.

40th Anniversary March for Life in 2013. My family was here and did the March.

  1. I am against abortion. I was adopted at birth in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade, and have a personal stake in the decision not to abort unplanned pregnancies. I am also a father of four and cannot even conceptualize having ended any of their lives before they had a chance to live.
  2. This is one response, not the only response, a Christian can have to this news. Obviously I believe I am correct, otherwise I would not be posting this piece. Yet I am not narrow-minded enough to think that my opinion is the only one that matters in the world.

So, now that I have made those two points, here is my take on what Christians ought to do in response to this issue.

STOP trying to have the government regulate everyone in the country to follow a Christian outlook on life! Abortion is morally reprehensible. That is a given. Any society that would willingly kill its own children is a weak and selfish society. It is a barbaric practice that we sterilize by performing it in a medical setting and calling it a procedure. It is infanticide, plain and simple.

Yet we Christians would not have to bring legal action if we would spend more time discipling the people we have to live by a higher standard than what is legal in our country. We would not have to bring legal action if Christians took seriously Thou shalt not kill and Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me. And We would not have to bring legal action if we not only lived this way, but encouraged others to convert and live this way with us. Planned Parenthood would disappear if there was no market for their services because there was no demand by potential patients and customers. It would not matter that abortion is technically legal in the US if our society did not avail themselves of the procedure.

We need to quit trying to have the government, at whatever level, try to force us by law to live a certain way. If something is morally wrong and sinful, convert others and train ourselves to live to the higher standard God calls us to live. This is how the Church functioned in the first 300 years of its existence. We did not petition the Roman government to change laws. We simply lived according to God’s vision of life. And at that time we were persecuted, had our property confiscated, our rights revoked, imprisoned, and killed. Yet we never led a legal drive to change the laws of the Empire. We simply lived as Christ taught us. That was what converted the Empire, not law suits.

Just a thought.

Hebrews 10:39 and Christian Courage

faithsignI really don’t like the image of Jesus that some people have of a meek, mild man (who tends to look like a woman with a beard in paintings) and went around just talking about love.  Its an image of a hippie Jesus I would expect sitting around a campfire singing kum ba ya with flowers in his hair.  That is not the image of the Jesus who made whips and beat the people in the Temple as he overturned the tables and chased everyone and everything out of it.  Nor is it the Jesus who confronted hypocrisy with harsh words and stern rebukes.

I also don’t like the image of the Church as a fortress of saints huddling together for protection from the evils of the outside world.  Its an image of a weak group of people whose purpose is to watch out for each other and separate from the rest of the world.  If someone else happens to hear of the Church and what she believes, that person may join, but the bulk of the Church’s efforts is on keeping evil out and protecting who it has.

This image of the Church does not line up with Scripture.  Take this verse from Hebrews as a prime example:

But we aren’t the sort of people who timidly draw back and end up being destroyed. We’re the sort of people who have faith so that our whole beings are preserved.

Christians are on the move, not timidly retreating from the world as it gets darker around us.  Paul writes about the armor of God and in it the main protection we have is a shield and breastplate–neither of which protect when armor-of-godsomeone turns around to retreat or run away.  They only protect the front of the body as the person is moving forward.  Jesus said as well that the Church would be so strong the gates of hell will not be able to withstand it.  This is an image of the Church marching against the strongholds of evil in the world.

If our understanding of the Church is meek and loving–and ultimately helpless in the face of evil in the world, this is not the biblical understanding of the Church.

Whether it is social issues or terrorism, the Church is not helpless, nor should it be afraid.  We have the presence of the Living God with us and nothing can change that fact.  Actually, that is not entirely true.  We can leave God’s presence when we do not live into the reality of the Church that God has created.  When we shrink back from our faithful witness in the world, we leave the power of God and we will be overcome.  Short of that, though, nothing can inhibit God’s power among us.

What is it that we are afraid of, then?  My suspicion is that we are afraid of losing the comfort and security we have.  It is a dangerous thing to stand up for Jesus in the face of a hostile world, but the only weapon the world has against us is fear.  To that we have a ready answer from Paul (Romans 8:35-39):

Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake.  We are treated like sheep for slaughter.  But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us.  I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

Do not be afraid.  Do not timidly draw back and be destroyed.  Stand fast.  Christ is with us and no one can change that fact.  Thanks be to God!

Acts 12:1-5 and Why Prayer Doesn’t Seem to Work Sometimes

Unknown_St_James_the_Great_the_Apostle_300I know people who are afraid to pray because they don’t want to be let down if their prayers are not answered. I also know people who are hurt and disillusioned with God because they prayed earnestly and their prayers were not answered. Sometimes prayer does not seem to work. Look at this passage from Acts:

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.

The rest of the story is that God sent an angel to free Peter, and Peter escaped, hid, and had a fruitful ministry for years until he was crucified in Rome. This seems like a story about how prayer works, but what about James? Isn’t it entirely probable that the church prayed fervently for James as well? Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.

I do not have an answer for this. James was just as much beloved by the church as Peter was. James was one of Jesus’ inner circle of three just like Peter was (along with James’ brother John). James was an Apostle just as Peter was. Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.

What I do know is that the church prayed for Peter after James was martyred. This means that the death of James, the unanswered prayers for his deliverance, did not stop the church from praying for Peter.

We do not understand why prayers are answered or not answered because we are the ones asking for intervention. It is up to God to decide if, when, and how to do it. This is where faith comes in to the picture. Faith is strengthened when it is tried. Perhaps the best illustration of this kind of faith and prayer is the when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all are about to be thrown into the fiery furnace. Here is how that situation played out:

13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’ 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up’ (Daniel 3:13-18).

They had enough faith in God that, whether or not God answered their prayers for deliverance, they would still believe.

Prayers are our outpouring of our selves to God. Sometimes we see them answered in miraculous ways, and sometimes they seem ineffective and unanswered. The question we all have of ourselves is whether or not we will continue to pray even if our prayers in the past were unanswered.

Mark 9:20-24 and Honesty Before God

July-22-Unbelief-960x700Let’s face it, sometimes it is difficult to believe that God can and will act in certain situations in our lives. Sometimes it feels as if either God helps other people before us, or perhaps God is not in the helping business any more for situations like ours. Then this feeling gets reinforced when it seems as if no one in the Church can help us, either.

This was the situation when a man brought his possessed son to the disciples while Jesus was up on Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John. The disciples at the foot of the mountain could not cast out the demon, and the father became desperate. After all, there were stories circulating of these very same men traveling around casting out demons. Why not now? Why not his son?

Then Jesus comes down from the mountain:

20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ 23 Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’

There it is! The most honest prayer before God there can be. I believe; help my unbelief! The man believed enough in Jesus and his movement to bring his son to them, but now he was doubting whether or not his son would ever be healed. He did not get angry. He did not overly compensate with bravado. He did not fake a faith that is unshakable. Rather, he was honest and said he was struggling.

God already knows how we feel. It goes much better for us when we are honest before God.

Matthew 12:25-29 and God’s Power in This World

John Wesley led a movement that was filled with the Holy Spirit and changed the world around them.

John Wesley led a movement that was filled with the Holy Spirit and changed the world around them.

I know many people in the West who see our society crumbling and growing darker, more evil. They remember what life was like decades ago, see it now, and wonder how the Church has lost so much ground. Of course, most of them are also quick to point out how the Church is growing in other parts of the world and wonder why not here. (I should say here that the Free Methodist Church in the USA has been growing for several years now. You can see the statistics here.)

Jesus’ comments say something about this situation:

25 Because Jesus knew what they were thinking, he replied, “Every kingdom involved in civil war becomes a wasteland. Every city or house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan throws out Satan, he is at war with himself. How then can his kingdom endure? 27 And if I throw out demons by the authority of Beelzebul, then by whose authority do your followers throw them out? Therefore, they will be your judges. 28 But if I throw out demons by the power of God’s Spirit, then God’s kingdom has already overtaken you. 29 Can people go into a house that belongs to a strong man and steal his possessions, unless they first tie up the strong man? Then they can rob his house.

Who is the strong man? Satan. What are his possessions? Those who are possessed. How does Jesus have the ability to cast out demons? Through God’s Spirit and because Satan is already bound. When God entered into this world, Satan was bound. Because the devil is not equal-but-opposite from God, there is no dualism or yin-yang concept in Christianity, where the Holy Spirit is, Satan has no power.

Given this reality, the situation in the West means something that is hard to hear, but very true. Our culture is becoming more dark because we do not have the Holy Spirit within us as much as we had in the past. We have, as John Wesley was so fond of saying in his own day, the form of godliness without the power. We know how to do Church. We know what the right and wrong things are. We know how to stand up for justice and be in ministry to and for others. But we have lost our first love, and we are doing all of this because of rote tradition, because of political ideologies, because it is what we have always done (or think we should have always done).

Yet for all of our action on behalf of Jesus Christ, we no longer have the living, vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. We have the form of godliness without the power.

We need to repent of our self-sufficiency. We need to repent of our resistance to change. We need to repent of our political activism. We need to seek God with a passion that realizes that without him, we will cease to exist. We need to be relentless in asking for the Holy Spirit to be poured out once again in our congregations and fellowships. We need to have a serious discontent with any Christian group that would try to organize around personal preferences, hanging out, or certain causes, and seek out other people who will settle for nothing less than the very power and presence of the Living God in their lives.

Jesus has bound the strong man. If we are in fellowship with him, we will see that reality all around us. Just look at the Christians in the two-thirds world and how the Good News is being proclaimed with power there. May we in the West cease settling for tradition, familiarity, political activism, and fellowship based on affinity. Instead, let us seek the power of God in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then we will see God’s wonders once again.

Daniel 3:16-18 and Faith Amidst Tragedy

ucc-logoChristians in the United States suffered a tragedy several days ago when a man intentionally martyred several Christians in Oregon. He killed them because they confessed to be Christians, because they confessed to worshiping the True and Living God. Many times people can have a crisis of faith in hearing of situations like this. Why did God let this happen? If they were truly worshiping God, why were they not spared?

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the “Three Holy Youths,” were given the same option–if they declared their faith in the True and Living God they would be met with certain death. Only in their case it was compounded with the taunt that if their God was real or true, he should be able to save them. This is the same question asked after the fact in the Oregon shooting. Pay close attention to what the youths respond:

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’

They realized they were not called to be lawyers trying to defend God, but witnesses to their faith in him. They also understood something that we tend to forget–our existence here and now is not the sum total of life for those who have a real and true relationship with God. Whether God miraculously saves us here and now or not, he is still God and we still have a never-ending relationship with him in which we will continue to live.

The test of our faith is not whether we will continue to believe after something bad happens. The cross is the ultimate evil perpetrated on an innocent person and that brought about the ultimate good in the universe. Rather, the test of our faith is whether or not we will continue to believe in the face of certain tragedy, before it happens. Those martyrs in Oregon, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Agednego, and all the Christians martyrs in persecuted lands around the world, show the same kind of faith in the midst of tragedy. May we all have such faith if the situation presents itself to us!