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

I was reading this blog post today by Darin Smith (which I recommend to you) and agree with it completely. Except for one sentence. confused

In the penultimate sentence, the author says, “It is important to pray for governmental leaders because the circumstances they create either stop or advance the progress of the Gospel.”

Hmm…

Is it right to pray for religious freedom? Yes. Surely there is a benefit when laws do not restrict religious belief and expression. Is the Gospel dependent on religious freedom to flourish? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that leaders can create conditions that can “either stop or advance the progress of the Gospel.” No person or group of people have that kind of power

History proves this. Christianity grew in its earliest days under government systems that weren’t always favorable to the message. Sometimes, civil disobedience was even called for because of early restrictions:

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:27-32 

Current statistics prove this. According to the mission research organization Operation World, the Gospel is currently growing the fastest in Iran and Afghanistan. China is in the top five. Laws do not determine whether truth will spread. Faithful followers of Jesus who share their faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit, determine whether the Gospel spreads.

I applaud Darin’s great article to remind us to pray 1 Timothy 2 prayers for those in authority. He gives some great suggestions for the content of those prayers. But let’s not forget on whom the spread of the Gospel depends.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.Acts 1:8

Leave me a comment with your thoughts!

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.

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)  supreme court building

The normal stance of the believer toward his government in New Testament teaching is submission and obedience. There are times, though, when conscience overrides the dictates of human law. We saw that recently when the founders and owners of Hobby Lobby and some other businesses echoed the apostles’ words from Acts chapter five.

Anytime the Supreme Court passes down a 5-4 vote on any issue, the resulting voices are predictably divisive. Reading comments on social media or replies to blog entries and opinion pieces show the stark, sharp differences we have in America on certain social issues. When Monday’s decision came down in favor of Hobby Lobby’s rejection of supplying certain (but not all) forms of hobby lobbycontraception for employees, the differing worldviews of our culture came to a head once more. Here at Rotunda Reflections, the decision is considered a God-honoring victory for religious freedom, something dear to the hearts of many Americans. Without getting into the specifics of the abortion debate, which has been done many times before here and on other blog sites, let’s just say that when the court wisely upholds our right to live out our faith in good conscience, the principles of freedom (granted by God, not government) are also upheld.

We will be celebrating America’s birthday this week and for me, at least, this will be a new reminder to be thankful to be in America. It’s a land with an amazing constitution which guarantees the right to worship as we choose, not just in cloisters hidden from the world around us, as some who oppose us would prefer, but to be lived out in our daily lives with “the free exercise thereof”. How long this freedom will be allowed is in some doubt. But for those who hold this freedom of faith dear, we should prepare to stand for it, keep praying for it, and resolve to fight for it. Paul himself appealed to the authorities for his freedom based on his rights as a Roman citizen. While we prioritize the gospel as our main message to the world, there is nothing unbiblical or inappropriate in firmly seeking to preserve our religious rights and freedoms.

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.

 

roy costnerA video that is making its way around social media seems to be meeting with the approval of many Christians. In it, Roy Costner, the valedictorian of a graduating senior class in a South Carolina high school, stands to give his pre-approved speech, rips up the text and proceeds to share the importance of his Christian upbringing, including The Lord’s Prayer. All this despite the decision by the local school board to ban prayers from public meetings due to protests from atheists in the area. This resulted in applause from some in the crowd, drowning out most of the prayer itself.

I’m having a difficult time sharing the enthusiasm of fellow believers who give their approbation to this speech, calling it “courageous” or a blow to our enemies in our ongoing cultural battles. Christians have a responsibility to understand exactly what is happening here and respond. Based on the facts, here are three reasons I’m having a problem with this “prayer of protest”.

1) DECEPTION – It seems to me the atheists have the moral high ground in this situation. They worked within the system and shared their concerns. What does it say about a young Christian man who has his speech pre-approved, then discards it in favor of comments that are clearly against what he agreed to share? What does it say about Christian adults who cheer him on for his ambush of the administration? There are words that come to mind to describe actions like this, but “courageous” isn’t one of them.

2) THE NATURE OF PRAYER –  Right before Jesus instructs us to pray what has become to be known as The Lord’s Prayer, He revealed much about the place and motivation behind prayer:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5, 6

There is a time and place for public prayer, no question. But is communicating with God something to be done as a protest? Even Daniel, who defied authorities who banned prayer, did not publicly protest. He continued his practice of prayer in his home. He was being told not to pray to God at all, which justified his civil disobedience, knowing that he would probably suffer consequences.

3) THE PRINCIPLE OF SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITIES – What is the goal of obeying governmental authorities?

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. 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 2:1-4

Americans swagger. We just do. But it’s hard to swagger and submit. Yes, you have God-ordained rights, but so do others who disagree with you, whether they believe in God or not. The command to submit to the local school board in a public event would not have caused Roy to sin. Using prayer as a “statement” does not meet the purpose of prayer.

Truthfully, I’m still thinking this through, but my spirit did not rejoice when I saw this video. If there’s something I’m missing, please comment and let me know why.

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.

 

Recently, Paul Meinsen, my Capitol Commission colleague in Missouri, had a strange experience. It is recounted in this article.

If you had been Paul, would you have had an answer? How pathetic that a professing follower of Jesus would have such an attitude, but it is possible that you or I might come across something similar, especially with the current political turmoil and upcoming elections. We should be ready with an answer. What would you say?

Yesterday, I was scheduled to pray to open up the Quad State Legislative Conference. This is a group of legislators from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia who gather each year to discuss issues that affect our region, especially the Interstate 81 corridor which connects all four states. The meeting was held in Martinsburg, West Virginia, about a 25-minute drive from my house.

I had thought through what I might pray for when I got there. I usually thank the Lord for public servants who serve as ministers for the good of the people, pray for them personally including their families, pray for their spiritual lives and ask for godly wisdom as they make decisions for their constituents. I left the house at the time I had planned. Everything was right on schedule until I hit Tuscarora Pike, which was closed.

Now you have to understand where I live. There is a mountain between my house and Martinsburg, so when you encounter a closed road, your options are limited. I was halfway up the mountain when I saw the sign, so after backtracking, finding another way and getting behind a rather slow driver, I lost 40 minutes.

I was going to call a legislator on his cell phone to let him know I was running behind, but for the only time I can remember, my phone just had a black screen. It was fine earlier that morning and was fine when I finally got to the meeting, but was dead when I needed to call someone before the meeting started.

Then I went to the wrong floor of the hotel and couldn’t find the meeting room for a few minutes. When I did arrive, the welcome was being delivered and I wasn’t called on to pray. I had to leave after about an hour. Like I said, it was a bad day.

I asked the Lord “why” a lot yesterday. Why the delays? Why the frustration? Why the opposition? Why was Satan so intent on making me late? After all, it was just a prayer.

It was just a prayer.

As soon as I thought it, I was ashamed. Did that sentence really show what I think about prayer? I call people to pray for their leaders constantly. Deep down, do I really consider prayer something so small that it’s unworthy of satanic opposition?   

Oswald Chambers said, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.”

So there’s the confession of my fleshly thought and the rebuke I gratefully received. May we not handle prayer as an insignificant thing.

And please keep praying for your leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

The Christmas season has turned into some Christians’ best opportunity to whine that we’re being treated exactly the way Jesus says we would.

It’s as if we’ve been given some license to get in others’ faces just because they don’t agree with us.  Yes, it’s sad the word “Christmas” gets intentionally left off store signs and advertisements.  It’s sad schools have “Holiday” parties and concerts.  Yes, our culture has lost reverence for the real meaning of the season.   But why get mad at the world for acting like the world?

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”  1 Corinthians 2:14

How should we respond to all this?  Here are a few verses to think about in the next five weeks:

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  2 Timothy 3:12

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Matthew 5:10-12

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”  Philippians 1:29

This is probably the most convicting verse on the topic of being wronged.  The attitude is incredible and blows me away every time I read it:

For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.”  Hebrews 10:34

Each time you and I feel slighted for our faith this season, we need to find a way to shine as lights in this dark world by absorbing the hurt and showing why Christ causes us to think and act differently. 

so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world”  Philippians 2:15

Use times of disagreement with our world to be a generous, gracious testimony.  Ask the Lord for wisdom when you get into a problem situation.  He’ll give you the right answer at the right time.  Let’s leave the anger and whining to others.

Remember, you can’t spell “Happy Winter Festival” without w-h-i-n-e-y.

Oh, and Merry Christmas!