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

For the next month, our senses will be bombarded with all things Christmas. Among this barrage, carols will ring in our ears and from our voices – words we have heard and sung for decades of Christmases and immediately associate with the best of the season. Many of these were written centuries ago in other times and cultures, but I’m amazed how we are drawn together with these people over the distance of years and miles. It’s also interesting how old carol texts can still reflect our world today, along with the emotions that come with them.

H.  W. Longfellow  (1807-1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(1807-1882)

While Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, there is a dearth of global peace. Identifying with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s reflection on the violence of his day during the American Civil War, we can easily join him by saying: “And in despair I bowed my head;/ ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said:/ ‘For hate is strong,/ And mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’ Why, if the message of Christmas (more accurately, the message of Jesus) is peace, do we have an entire world system that has so dramatically missed it?

Aren’t there carols that refer to Jesus as The Desire of Nations? The phrase is found in Haggai 2:6, 7 and found an iconic expression in Handel’s Messiah (where you can literally heard the earth shake). Why hasn’t that happened? Why can’t the nations see the virtue of peace and the superiority of kindness, respect, and love found in the Person of Christ? One carol that describes Jesus this way is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: “O come, Desire of Nations, bind/ All peoples in one heart and mind./ Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;/ Fill the whole with heaven’s peace.

If we look to the fulfillment of this carol stanza in our present time, we will get needlessly frustrated. The stories coming out of every continent on our planet scream the reality that the coming of Jesus to earth, the very thing we love and celebrate so joyfully each Christmas, has not resulted in the cessation of envy, strife, and quarrels. The whole earth isn’t filled with heaven’s peace. All people surely aren’t bound in one heart and mind. This is where we have to accept that in our hate-filled, violence-filled, terrorism-filled world, Jesus will not be the Desire of Nations until sometime in the future.  The reason is clear and found in John’s words:

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 1 John 5:19

The message of peace that believers see in the coming of Christ as a baby is only fulfilled partially today. The time of all nations desiring God will be in the future. Some people (and nations) are finding peace with others in this world now and we’re grateful for that. But more importantly, many are finding peace with God in this age.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” also refers to Christ with Haggai’s title: Israel’s strength and consolation,/ Hope of all the earth Thou art./ Dear Desire of every nation/ Joy of every longing heart.” The hope in this prayer is possible to experience now, is available to all, but can only be received by those who repent and follow Christ. The timing of the fulfillment of that hope is up to God Himself and is only known to Him. But we should not stop praying for more people in this world to seek and find the Desire of Nations.

Flag of France (1)This weekend has seen another outpouring of heart-wrenching sympathy for those who have been slammed by the hateful fist of terrorism. All the political disagreements have bubbled to the surface again, as they always do after senseless violence, with little headway toward true solutions. All it seems we can do is brace ourselves for the next attack, wondering when and where it will occur. Coping in this era of a globally-conscious, 24-hour stream of tragic information, uncertain of tomorrow’s headlines, proves to be a challenge. Yesterday it was France. We don’t know who will need peace and comfort when terror strikes next. Social media, though, has emerged as a way for many to respond to our violent world, and as I read posts from this weekend, I’m left wondering a few things.

  1. I wonder, when someone says something like, “My prayers are with ______ tonight”, exactly what that means. I am all for prayer. One of the main goals in the ministry I have is to encourage people to pray, so when I see so many offering their prayers for those in need, I know that’s a right response. It just seems possible that prayer can be a culturally acceptable activity (or claim of an activity) after senseless murder. It can make us feel better, but wouldn’t we want to make sure our prayers are actually effective when offered? The Scriptures make it plain that some prayers are effective and some are not.
  2. I wonder, for some of these responding to tragedy with prayer, where their desire for God is in the rest of their lives. God is the only right and true Judge of the heart and of the validity of these prayers, not me. But if one’s worldview and promotion of values is opposed to what is clearly revealed in the Bible, why pray at all (or say that you do?) I would hope that if we see the need to pray in times of loss and suffering, that the pressing need for prayer would be a regular soul-response. If God is worthy to be sought, He is worthy constantly, not only in time of need.

“pray without ceasing” 1 Thessalonians 5:17

 

Francois Hollande, President of France

Francois Hollande, President of France

3.  I wonder, as we pray for families who have suddenly lost loved ones to terrorism this week, if our prayers include the leaders of nations who must make crucial decisions to try to protect their people from future attacks? Since protecting citizens is a God-ordained purpose of government, do our prayers include wisdom for the right policies from our leaders?

“for he (the human authority) is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4

Our prayers should be with the people of France right now. And Syria. And other places that have been touched by terrorist acts in recent days. We should be praying for repentance from those doing the killing. But prayer is never meant to be exclusively a knee-jerk reaction to disaster. It is meant to be communion between people and God, done His way with His guidelines. We don’t get to make those guidelines. And if we reject the true path of prayer (taught at length all through the Scriptures) we do it at great peril to ourselves. No matter how therapeutic it might make us feel.

baltimore policeThe beginning of Romans 13 describes the protection-design God gave societies when He instituted government. Right now, there are some in Baltimore (in government leadership and in the normal populace), who are in violation of this design. If individuals would understand, then act on the truth in this passage, the problems they are facing right now would take a major step in the right direction. But as it stands now, people don’t feel safe and (without the backing of superiors) the police don’t feel authorized to keep people safe.

What follows are the phrases you’ll read in the first four verses of Romans 13. (Keep in mind, if you believe your governmental leaders don’t deserve your submission and obedience, that Paul’s first-century government was the Roman Empire, led by Nero – not exactly a friend to the Christian or Jewish communities.)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. – This is true of Baltimore and any other municipality. Governments are established by God for His purposes of safety and flourishing of the people. For that to happen, governmental leaders have to understand their God-given responsibility to keep order, rewarding and punishing depending on people’s behavior.

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. – There may have been abuses of authority by some Baltimore law enforcement officials, but mostly in America we should be grateful for those who risk their very lives to keep us safe. To watch the news or hear interviews of some citizens of Baltimore, the police are to be defied. There is judgment promised to those who defy God-appointed authority; one of those judgments should be consequences for such rebellious behavior. The problem for Baltimore right now is that the police are not arresting folks at the same rate as before, an unintended consequence for not supporting law enforcement as it should be. The mayor, police chief and state’s attorney bear responsibility for this judgment. During the riots, they coddled those who would destroy and terrorize.  

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. – If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have to fear any reprisals from law enforcement. Police need to keep this in mind as they serve. 

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. – There’s a good and right reason police carry tasers, night sticks and sidearms. It’s not in vain and has the sanction of the One who ordained governmental authority in the first place. If you get in a police officer’s face and/or try to take away said weapon, you might get hurt. That’s common sense and is a given. No monument needs to be erected to commemorate the life and death of one who foolishly violated this simple principle.

For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. – Government leaders and law enforcement officials should be God’s representatives to us for our good, keeping us safe by carrying out judgment on wrongdoers. That can only happen as their authority is properly recognized, respected and obeyed.

Police who respond to calls are being surrounded by mobs of 30 – 50 people threatening them. Political leaders have sided with criminals. The result? The very protectors of Baltimore’s safety that God has provided have been reduced to unrecognized authorities. You have negated God’s very instruments of your peace and now you can’t leave home without fear of being shot. When those in your communities embraced near anarchy, fueled by perceived injustice, what did you expect?

Baltimore – leaders and citizens – need to quit treating Romans 13 like it is something you can just take or leave. Right now, many are walking away from following its principles, and that is proving to everybody that it’s a disastrous decision.

Believers in Annapolis at the National Day of Prayer (May 7, 2015)

Believers in Annapolis at the National Day of Prayer (May 7, 2015)

A week ago today, people all over America gathered at events that centered on interceding for our country. The National Day of Prayer is an annual tradition for many and for that we should be grateful.

I took part in the observance at Lawyer’s Mall in Annapolis, Maryland. This is the spot used for most assembling that is done in the capital. During the legislative session, every day witnesses a protest or rally of some kind on a major issue or bill that is being debated. But on the first Thursday of May each year, that space is reserved for prayer.

We recited the pledge to the flag. We heard the national anthem sung. We prayed for several categories of influence in America – government, business, media, family and others. The gospel was presented. And the thing that always seems to strike me when I’m there is how biblical it is. How obedient to the Scriptures these folks are.

Here we stood in front of the capitol building, to the side of the governor’s house, across the street from the offices of the General Assembly and right next to the statue of Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Right in the middle of the center of power of Maryland with strong, bold reminders of all three government branches on every side. And we prayed. It is a modern-day bowing to the Lord based on a first-century text that still points us to the top priority of any citizen of heaven who is temporarily also a citizen of an earthly nation:

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

No anger was shown. No bullhorns were used. No placards were waved at cars passing by. Just prayer. Peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified.

Thanks to Juin Killingsworth, who heads up the National Day of Prayer throughout Maryland and also to Mitch Ekstrom for diligently coordinating the Annapolis meeting each year. And may we not stop praying for America and our leaders to repent and turn to God.

navy yard shootingIt happened again. Someone with a deranged way of looking at the world has killed more innocent people – this time at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. A dozen people didn’t come home yesterday. Many others will have a traumatic memory they didn’t want or ask for. But it happened again.

What is sad is that it will happen again. And again. If we see the world as it really is, we know evil exists and people suffer. How do we as believers face this kind of challenge? How can we send our kids out the door every day, knowing that our communities are not completely safe?

The title for this entry might be impossible. Evil like this is illogical and doesn’t make sense. But we need to acknowledge some things from God’s Word, our unchanging source of answers, even in the most confusing times.

First, whether we can see it or not, God is in control of everything. Can he stop evil things from happening? Yes. For his purposes, he does it all the time. We might be shocked how often he restrains evil around us. But sometimes he doesn’t and when that happens, he still has his reasons.

Think about it. What was the greatest crime of all time? What was the most unfair miscarriage of justice and cruel treatment of an innocent man? The crucifixion of Jesus. And here’s what the Bible tells us about that evil act – “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.” Acts 4:27, 28

God has his reasons for allowing evil to get the upper hand sometimes, but he is still in control. Second, because of this, we can trust him. Paul dealt with all kinds of evil every day, sometimes to the point of death, and how did he look at it? “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God…” 2 Corinthians 1:8, 9

Third, we know this world is temporary. We shake our heads often and wonder how people could be so heartless and violent. I saw a Facebook comment today about the shooting that just said, ”When will this stop?” According to Scripture, not until Jesus comes to be the final Judge and make everything right. In the meantime, here’s a great attitude to adopt: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion (or possession, inheritance) forever.Psalm 73:25, 26

So, on days such as these, we grieve. Our hearts break because of the effects of sin on our society. We brace ourselves for what will be on the news tomorrow that we can’t know now. But God is already there, controlling it within his plan and timing. With faith in that, I’m fine to send my daughter to school tomorrow.

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.

good and evilSeveral days ago, after the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were hunted down, I shared these verses as a Facebook status:

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,  for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.    Romans 13:2-4

One comment a friend made under the status wondered what happens when the government and people of a nation call evil good and good evil. It’s the natural question that is begged when we read these verses. Things clearly do not always play out as they should.

The reason I shared the verses that day was because there had been a criminal act committed and as the suspects were being chased, more criminal acts were layered on top. The governing authorities had to use deadly force to deal with the suspects, killing one and severely injuring another who was eventually arrested. This was an example of God-granted governmental authority to “bear the sword” to bring judgment to those who do wrong. Simple as that. We should be grateful for law enforcement officials who carry weapons, sometimes actually using them to maintain safety and peace for our society to operate as it should.

But what about laws and leaders that do not reward good behavior, but elevate evil as something that is right? The verses from Romans 13 paint a picture of civil government as it ought to be, not as it always will be. In this passage, Paul calls on all to submit to governments, since they are God’s servants for our good. This is written by a man who lived under Roman as well as Jewish rulership in the first century, which would ultimately give him a death sentence for spreading the gospel of Christ. Not all decisions by government will fulfill God’s intended role of upholding right and punishing evil. After all, governments are composed of humans. Sinful humans who are in need of God’s wisdom and guidance. Wisdom and guidance that are often rejected.

A glaring example of this is from today’s headlines – President Obama’s speech this morning at Planned Parenthood’s 75th anniversary gala. Our government in America has sanctioned the destruction of millions of lives, many snuffed out by this organization. Not only do we have laws that allow this killing of innocent life, but we pay for it – our tax dollars funded Planned Parenthood with $542,000,000 in 2012 (that’s $61,836 an hour 24/7/365). Not only do we fund it but our president proudly promotes the mission of Planned Parenthood, which performs 320,000 abortions a year, by giving a speech of appreciation and encouragement to continue the job.

The bombing at the Boston Marathon displayed sin, evil, the intentional taking of innocent human life and a despicable devaluing of personhood. These very words may even show up in media reports as they describe the atrocity and follow-up on the victims’ stories. But what we won’t hear are the same words used to describe the work of Planned Parenthood and other abortion doctors who deserve to be characterized the exact same way. And we’ll never hear a follow-up on the victims.

What are we to do and how do we look at Romans 13? Prayer for the spiritual awakening of our leaders and nation is always the first step (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We should also pray for, work for and vote for people who know what good really is and what evil really is. Government cannot and will not carry out true justice until we have leaders who can tell the difference.

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.

In USA Today, you can find out if you live in a peaceful state. The Institute for Economics and Peace has ranked all 50 U.S. states according to “homicide rates, violent crimes, percentage of the population in jail, number of police officers and availability of small arms”. See where your state shows up in the report here.

As interesting as the rankings are, the Institute’s definition of peace caught my eye. For them, and most people in the world, the definition of peace is “the absence of violence”. That definition may work fine for a study in geographic social trends, but is a sad substitute for people’s everyday lives. You don’t have to have bullets flying around you to lack peace.

Finances, health problems, unruly children, broken dreams, job losses, divorce, depression, car issues – these and and a multitude of others take peace away every day. As a matter of fact, each of the problems just listed were mentioned to me in one day of visits with Maryland General Assembly members and staffers. Some were dealing with the situations just fine. Others were a mess. And none of the issues depended on the number of police officers nearby. Peace is not merely the absence of violence – it is the presence of Jesus Christ.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  John 14:27

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.  John 16:33

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus ChristRomans 5:1

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  Colossians 1:19, 20

As you pray for your leaders, pray that they will find true peace, not by the world’s philosophy, but through the one and only Prince of Peace.