xiAs I was speaking with the pastor of my sending church this week, he told me about  another missionary from our church who was facing religious liberty challenges in her part of the harvest field, China. Many Christian workers from the West have had to make the hard decision whether to remain in their ministries there or make other plans due to increasing persecution.

Maybe you haven’t heard of the word “sinicize” (it was new to me.) According to reports, President Xi Jinping announced last spring his new five-year initiative to sinicize all religions, especially by forcing allegiance to Communism. Persecution of Christians, including imprisonment, is on the rise and house churches are being threatened.

But here’s the sentence that caught my eye in this article that details the situation: “Experts say the new wave of persecution comes as the country undergoes a religious revival.” The very definition of a paradox, but it has happened many times before.

The shell of Communism is crumbling and in its place we’re seeing huge numbers of people coming to Christ. Just as the first-century church blossomed during persecution, China is experiencing the same thing over the past several years. While religious liberty is being tightened and even rejected by the government there, the gospel is taking off.

The Bible encourages followers of Christ to get along with their civil governments and model cooperative citizenship as long as obedience to the Lord is the priority. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we’re commanded to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Peter wrote the same idea.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”  1 Peter 2:13-17

We should be grateful for the measure of religious freedom we have in America and should speak up for the God-given (not man-given) right to freely worship for all people and all faiths. We should pray for our brothers and sisters in China and elsewhere who are being denied these rights. But we should never get the idea that the gospel cannot go forward unless it is unshackled from government regulation. It will go where God ordains it to go, regardless of the godliness or godlessness of any given governmental system. He decides – not man, not Satan, not Xi Jinping – only God.

Keep in mind as you read this final verse that it quotes a brutal tyrant who ruled Babylon and had severely mistreated the nation of Israel. God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and narcissism by sending him into a season of insanity and taking him off the throne. When he was finally restored, he was praising God and his words apply to China right now:

All the peoples of the earth
    are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
    with the powers of heaven
    and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
    or say to him: “What have you done?”   Daniel 4:35

GospelVMoralismPick a news story from this week. A strange and unprecedented presidential campaign? Disagreement over a possible Clinton indictment? The murder of policemen in Dallas? Police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis? The threat of terrorism here and overseas? Twisted analysis of our problems by our leaders – those who should know how to fix problems?  These issues and a hundred more vie for our attention each day, uniting most Americans to agree on this: we need change.

For some reason, we think the problems of this summer are the worst in history. But our current state just continues the path men have followed for millennia with the same core problem that we’ve always had. But lately, people are talking about change more than before. There seems to be a lot of us thinking that we could do better. We can. But we have to know what kind of change is really needed.

If the apostle Paul could speak to America and America’s leaders today, his message would be the same as the one he had for King Agrippa in Acts 26. And since Paul can’t speak to Americans today, those who follow Christ have to be the ones to speak. So, what did he say?

  1. He told his story – Quoting Jesus, Paul related, “But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,” (Acts 26:16). Paul had a great testimony of coming to faith in Christ and if you have been changed by the power of Jesus, then you have a story you can tell, too. Nobody can refute your story, so tell it and give glory to God.
  2. He made the gospel clear – Again remembering Christ’s words calling him to minister, “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). This should be the heart of our message to the world – the gospel of Christ is the only power that can truly change hearts through forgiveness and sanctification. No other plan or shortcut will work.
  3. When he was commanded, he obeyed“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision…” (Acts 26:19). None of this matters if the Church won’t obey.
  4. He presented true change – Obeying God’s call he “declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” (Acts 26:20) Here’s where lives head in the right direction, families and communities heal, then nations are strengthened. Deeds that flow from repentance. Hearts, then behavior, changed by the gospel.

If the Church prays only for better behavior in our world, if we are content merely with better laws and less immorality, we have missed Paul’s message from Christ. Moralism never solves what the gospel does. As we pray for our broken nation and increasingly godless society led by many blind guides, a prayer for the spread and reception of the gospel is our only true hope. And the only way that hope becomes a reality is if individual Christians share it with individuals who don’t follow Christ yet.

Agrippa thought Paul was crazy, by the way, and didn’t believe the message. But the root of our world’s problems (and the solution) remains unchanged 2100 years later.

baltimore protestYou’ve seen the riots. You’ve heard the news conferences. The past week in Baltimore has been marked by the tragic death of a 25-year-old man triggering protests that have been building for decades. And now the marches are spreading across the nation. Disenfranchised communities are speaking out and have a large megaphone available with hundreds of microphones and cameras pointing directly at them. They’re angry and everyone seems to be trying to put their collective fingers on the reason why. But, as is so often the case, fingers are landing on the wrong answers.

We need more jobs. We need better schools. We need economic opportunity. We need the police to stop profiling.

In other words, our government has failed us.

The political solutions are complex, there’s no question about that. But the conclusion that government is the ultimate answer fails to go deep enough. But going deeper for answers will cost us something as a society.

  • It will cost time – The real solution will not happen overnight. Actually, since we have rejected the real solution for so long, the time to undo the damage would take years. How many? I don’t know, but many.
  • It will cost will – We (by that I mean a lot of us who want positive change) would really have to want this. Enough to accept a major shift in thinking and action.
  • It will cost submission – People would have to subject their natural inclinations to the will of someone else.

I see news reports that show churches and faith-based groups trying to serve during these protests. Prayer circles are forming. Food and water are being shared. This is good, but a larger message, a deeper message must also be sent. Not a temporary message of help during a city’s outrage, but a life-changing message that will last for eternity. Baltimore, and everybody else, needs to hear:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in princes.   – Psalm 118:8, 9 –

Quit looking to government to ultimately help with all our problems. Turn to God and His ways. His Son, Jesus, offers the answer to our most foundation need of forgiveness and acceptance.  His Word holds answers to solving the confusion and chaos in our world. Submitting to Him and His plans will heal families. Parents will be more likely to stay together, kids will be happier, families would be stronger and communities healthier. That would immediately alleviate some of the economic woes, but again, the political answers would still have to be grappled with. But if citizens and lawmakers were committed to God and His path first, better answers would be found by our leaders.

Statements like this one by New Orleans Saints’ tight end, Benjamin Watson, must be heard and embraced. I hope you’ll read it. And keep praying for Baltimore (and everywhere else).

benjamin watson

pulpitLast week, five Houston area pastors were told by the courts to produce sermons and other communication that referenced HERO (the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance). This law protects, among other things, the right of any man or woman to use whatever public restroom they want, depending on which gender they identify with. The mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, a lesbian herself, tweeted “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game…” This brings up several thoughts here at Rotunda Reflections, since this has caused such a firestorm of criticism by many in the religious community.

Annise Parker Mayor of Houston

Annise Parker
Mayor of Houston

1)  The first thought was, “When (not if) this happens in Maryland, what will be the response of pastors and churches?” The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill last March (the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014) guaranteeing the same rights to transgenders. The governor signed it into law in May. California is the only other state with such a law on the books.

2)  Any fair-thinking person, liberal or conservative, should be able to see the unconstitutional nature of this subpoena of sermons. By the way, the original subpoenas were amended to demand the pastors produce speeches instead of sermons. This was surely due to the public outcry over the clear violation of the pastors’ first amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion. And isn’t a pastoral “speech” just a sermon anyway?

3)  Christians began immediately opining what they thought the pastors should do. It’s still early, but if Houston moves forward with the demand for these sermons (which are public anyway), those who follow Christ will have to come to terms at some point with what they believe – the dilemma of this issue may be in our backyard next. I’ve seen some believers say the pastors should comply and be grateful their sermons will be read. Others say defiance is the way to go. It’s not a cut-and-dried answer since the Scriptures give us both ideas relating to interfacing with government. Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 speak of submission to governing authorities. Also, 1 Timothy 2:1, 2 point us toward an attitude of quietness and peacefulness regarding government relationships. But there are also examples of civil disobedience that clearly show there are times to refuse obeying government’s demands. The three Jewish youths disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:12), Daniel prayed when it was forbidden by Darius’ decree (Daniel 6:7-10), and Peter and John kept preaching when they were commanded to stop (Acts 4:18, 19). So, which is it? Quietly submit or defy authority?

I would lean toward the latter, but not necessarily because of the examples above. Each of these examples were fairly extreme and don’t have a direct parallel to the Houston case. But for American Christians under the rights and privileges of the constitution, there seems to be a biblical precedent to stand up here. Paul, on several occasions, appealed to his status as a Roman citizen when his freedoms were threatened. And freedom of religion is such a basic right of those in our nation, it would be wrong to quietly let that right erode in small increments (because it won’t happen in one big reversal). Just as Paul reminded rulers of his rights and forced leaders to acknowledge them, we have a biblical and constitutional responsibility now and for generations to come to refuse our government’s inappropriate erasing of those rights.

The other part of this equation is that there may be consequences to pay for refusing the demands of government. Will we see the day that pastors are fined or jailed for preaching against homosexuality and same-sex marriage? I pray not. Even those who champion the homosexual agenda in America should fight against forcing anybody to think and act only as the government tells them to. Our core values and freedoms are at stake now. Let’s prayerfully move forward with a desire to submit, but be ready to challenge if that’s what we’re called to do.

So, if my sermons were subpoenaed, I would definitely pray hard, prepared to refuse Caesar’s overreaching and suffer whatever consequences might come.

frustrated guyA frustrated friend and I were speaking not long ago about influence. Specifically, his influence (or lack thereof). He tried to convey how impotent he feels in the current culture to bring about any real change to his world. It’s a world that is increasingly headed in direct opposition to his beliefs and he wondered out loud, “What can one person do? What platform do I really have?”

He’s not the first to feel this way or ask those same questions. Even the Psalmist said, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3)  For centuries well-meaning people have looked around themselves, despairing at the condition of society and their inability to change it.

I tried to encourage him the best I could but have taken a few days to think more about his statement. Then I came across these words from Solomon, no lightweight when it came to wisdom:

I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. Ecclesiastes 9:13-18

The “powerless” person in this tale had the true power and teaches us several key lessons:

1)  Wisdom is required – In a world devoid of true wisdom, the Word of God is still the source of answers for what plagues our culture or any other. The keys, then, are to know it, apply it, share it and spread it.

2)  We all have a platform – No one is entirely without influence regardless of our situation or how powerless one may feel. Size of the platform is irrelevant; seizing the available opportunities is what counts.

3)  The platform may seem insignificant – Wisdom, while never powerless, could appear like small weapon but still overshadows public boasting of a foolish ruler. This passage says the audience of wisdom “heard in quiet” is better off because of the content of the message, not the size of the crowd.

4)  Start with your sphere – What do you think this poor, wise man did? I doubt if he took to the local airwaves to get his wise message out. Did he organize a community to deliver the city? With his connections? I doubt it. He probably had a very small circle of listeners, but somehow his wisdom caught fire and the city was eventually saved from the siege.

Who is in your sphere of influence? Thousands or a handful? Friends? Children? Grandchildren? Your wisdom passed along by your life and words can take hold in them and inflame their hearts to do the same thing as they gain wisdom. You are not without a platform.

5) Prepare for obscurity – Maybe we’ve watched Braveheart once too often then bemoaned the fact we aren’t all clones of William Wallace. Our heroes are the william wallaceones who get things done in a major, sweeping way. They are hailed, revered, famous. When they die there are processions, ceremonies, monuments. We don’t naturally default to peaceful, patient wisdom as a solution to oppression, but Solomon says it carries the day against foolishness – and we live in a world awash in foolishness. If you have to be stroked or feel gratified about getting the credit, learn to embrace disappointment.

It’s past time to stop decrying the voluminous foolishness in our world and start addressing the dearth of God’s wisdom.

Huge, loud problems met with huge, quiet solutions. What would happen if followers of Jesus spread wisdom this way? The sooner we accept God’s (seemingly) backwards plan and act on it, the better we all will be.

So get wise, identify that platform and save the city.

 

Have you noticed that attacks on Christianity don’t seem to let up?  Even in America, the home of the free, every group other than Christians either get a free pass or get openly promoted. And the Christian church’s response? Usually, it’s a call to make the world change.

Funny, the Bible doesn’t tell us to do (or even expect) that.

“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  John 15:20

“All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”   2 Timothy 3:12

“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”   Acts 14:22 

“You yourselves know that we are destined for [these afflictions].”      1 Thessalonians 3:3

There are dozens of other verses.

The first-century church stands in stark contrast to the American Christian attitude that we deserve better treatment than what our culture is giving us. When Jewish leaders demanded that Peter and John should stop teaching in Jesus’ name and authority, these two men went back to the church and reported it. These believers stood at the same crossroads you and I do when we’re wronged by our society. What to do?

They (as a solid biblical example for all believers in all time periods under all human authorities) prayed. Look at the content of this prayer very carefully:

“Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

   “‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
   and the peoples plot in vain? 
The kings of the earth set themselves,
   and the rulers were gathered together,
   against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.  And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:24b – 30

Key thoughts in this prayer are acknowledging the control of God; admitting that it is normal for human leaders to “gather together against” the Lord; asking God to allow the gospel ministry to continue to be spread in the midst of the persecution (not necessarily the removal of it).

Maybe most significantly is the belief expressed that God superintends the thoughts and actions of governmental leaders (even evil ones) to carry out His will. Pilate and Herod committed gross sin in the unfair treatment and murder of Jesus, yet these early Christians knew this sin was predestined by the Lord to bring about His purposes. In the same way the threat to Peter and John by the Jewish rulers was somehow in His plan. This prayer displays a huge amount of faith and strength. But it is a faith placed first on God Himself rather than human effort to derail the persecution.

American Christians today should warm up to the idea that as bad as things are in our world and as uncomfortable as this culture may make us, that could be the very thing God wants to happen. There’s no need to be surprised at this treatment.  It was promised.  It’s what we signed up for. Our prayer should be that the good news of salvation in Christ can be shared in the middle of all this mess.

 

Today, the first Thursday in May, is the National Day of Prayer.  Thousands will gather for public prayer events and even more will remember to speak private words to God asking for help for our nation. It’s a day that true followers of Christ should rejoice in (regardless of who else chooses to join in or promote it). It’s an acknowledgement, at the very least, that we depend in some measure on God for direction, provision, mercy and safety. It brings some questions to mind, though:

Will God hear every prayer lifted up today?

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. (Psalm 66:18)

Will every prayer come from the right motivation?

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:3)

What should our ultimate motivation be as we pray for America?

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations,  I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

What can we pray that our nation would sense and realize?

Put them in fear, O LORD! Let the nations know that they are but men!  (Psalm 9:20)

For what task should believers ask to be empowered in today?

Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! (Psalm 96:3)

As we pray, what relationship should we seek with America?

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  (1 Timothy 2:1, 2)

As we pray for “kings and all who are in high positions”, what should take priority?

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  (1 Timothy 2:3, 4)

God bless you on this special day in our country, however you choose to participate.  These are just a handful of Scriptures that may guide how we pray today, but there are hundreds more. You may want to have an open Bible in your lap to look for more direction from God to pray with His words for America.

Also, as you pray for leaders, this list will point your mind toward biblical thoughts.  It’s from Frank Erb, my Capitol Commission colleague in California.

May God bless our nation, one heart at a time turning to Him.

I came across an insightful article at Politics Daily regarding Billy Graham’s advice on several topics from politics to aging parents.  While reading it, I felt helped and confident in the wisdom of Graham’s 92 years of experience along with some sadness at his honesty in sharing his regrets.  I recommend it to you.  Just click here.

Billy Graham and Richard Nixon

Graham has led an amazing life and has left a legacy that all followers of Jesus should consider.  When he looks back and gives advice, we should listen, evaluate and make better decisions as we learn how to best serve the Lord where he has placed us.

Since I have been called to go to the political community, I took great interest in Graham’s words since he has been called the “pastor to the presidents”.  Graham has had spiritual impact on America’s presidents for decades and God has used him to point leaders to Christ.  But stepping over the line from ministry to politics is something he wished he hadn’t done and it negatively affected his ministry.  I find it instructive that he counts it as one of his greatest regrets.  It’s cautionary counsel for all of us.

“I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to, but looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”

Bill Clinton with Billy Graham

This is just one of a multiple of reminders that God’s representation in the world today is His church and that He has left His plan for societal impact in our hands – making disciples.  Sharing the powerful change brought about by the gospel of Jesus is our primary calling, even to governmental leaders.  We can either learn from Graham’s mistake or repeat it.

Our president has caught some flack in the last couple of years for his lack of church attendance.  That’s why the press took notice recently when, while on vacation, the Obamas went to services on consecutive Sundays for the first time since moving into the White House.  One article’s headline even assigned a motive for President Obama’s stance on faith – “Obama Tries to Reassert His Christian Bona Fides, With Words and Deeds”.  Click here for the full piece.

So what should believers think about their leaders’ attendance patterns at church?  Is it our business?  Is it right to pile on with other critical voices if we don’t think they go to church often enough?  Should we care?

In a word, yes.

But there should be a deeper desire that Christians need to express for their leaders’ spiritual lives than just their presence at worship services.  That desire should be for leaders to know and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ, having a growing, vital personal relationship with Him that changes who they are and how they think from the inside out.  Paul described that change when he wrote to Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.  Titus 2:11-14

Having true faith in Christ is the same for everyone, politician or not.  We all must come to Christ on his terms and bow to His revelation of Himself, not what we or other men construct Him to be.  It may comfort us to know that we have leaders who are in the pews every Sunday, but if they are not saved and being changed by the gospel we need to seek more for them.  If they are there merely to assuage their religious critics, that’s obviously not enough.

Should we be glad that they are in church even if they have political motives?  If the Word of God is faithfully preached to them, sure!  The Word is powerful and may make inroads into their hearts.  But as we look at those verses in Titus, key words must be defined for these leaders to truly glorify God in their lives and church attendance.

Among those words are salvation, ungodliness, passions, self-controlled, upright, godly, redeem, lawlessness, purify and good works.  When believers plumb the depths of the true meanings of these words and live them out,  regular church attendance will be a natural outflow of that faith.

Until then, anger is not needed when we see leaders failing in church attendance, but renewed prayer for them to grow in the grace of God and have hearts that are being transformed by Christ.  Pray that those who lead us will humbly go to public worship to commune with their Maker, not to control the media.

After a culmination of years of investigation and controversy, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York faced the judgement of his colleagues this week.  For the first time in almost 30 years, a censure was read on the House floor, this time against Rangel for several areas of ethical misconduct.  It was a reminder to our nation that there are powerful people in our government who are not above the temptations of corruption.  For followers of Jesus Christ in 21st-century America, however, it should serve as a reminder of a different kind.

As Rangel addressed the chamber on the day of his censure, he spoke a few words of truth, found in this quote: “Even though it is painful to accept this vote … I know in my heart I’m going to be judged not by this Congress but by my life, my activities, my contributions to society.”

Obviously, Rangel was referring to the judgement of his legacy as a congressman.  When all is said and done, he believes what will last will be his service over 40 years in the House, not just a censure near the end of his career.  No one can say whether that is true, but the words that he said that are definitely true in the ultimate sense are: “I’m going to be judged not by this Congress…”.

Ministry from the church to its governmental leaders is needed for this very purpose.  There will be a day of judgement on our lives, but the criteria will not be our work, motives, intent, goodness or altruism.   That day is surely coming for all of us, according to the Scripture:

“it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…”  Hebrews 9:27

“For it is written, AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.” So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.”     Romans 14:11, 12

It’s another of the many reasons we should pray for those who lead us.  In some respects, they are just like you and me, dealing with life’s everyday frustrations, joys and even tragedies.  But in another sense, the life of a politician contains a dizzying spectrum of the best the world can promise – pleasure, money, power, prestige – far beyond what the average citizen could be tempted with.  Pray for a spiritual heart change for leaders, that their priorities would reflect God’s.  Any other path is wide open to devastate marriages and produce all kinds of destructive corruption.