The American Gospel

I was a history minor in college and have enjoyed studying history almost as much as I enjoy studying the Bible. The history of America is fascinating and as Christians we can appreciate the role the pursuit of freedom of religious practice played in the founding of the country.

People came to America for many reasons from all over Europe, but especially from England and Ireland. At the peak, 38,000 people were moving to America every year from there. This was after only about 20% of the initial settlers survived. Many of those traveling to this side of the world were leaving countries where the government dictated what kind of religion you could practice, usually saying there was only one true religion, such as Catholicism or a state church. In most cases, they were fleeing situations where the state defined your religion for you at birth, based on nationality and family heritage.

What this means is if you were born some countries, you were likely to be a part of the state church, if you were born in Spain, you were likely Catholic, if you were born in the Ottoman Empire, you were likely Muslim. This way of thinking may seem very foreign to most of us here, but it dates back centuries in Europe to the time of a ruler named Constantine. Before Constantine, the Roman Empire engaged in state sponsored persecution of Christians. You can imagine the desperate desire believers at that time felt to see change.

This change happened when Constantine and his army had a vision of a cross and the emperor became a follower of Christ. He ended state-sponsored persecution and over the course of the rest of his life, he gave more and more power to Christians and the Church. In the beginning, they had new found freedom to practice their religion, but within a generation, Christianity was declared the official religion of the Empire and everyone thereafter was “born” Christian. Not born again, as Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to visit Him at night, but born Christian because of their family or nationality. That established a precedent that the Christian religion was similar to Judaism and some other ancient religions, not based on faith. Well meaning people, many of whom called themselves Christian, desired to fix the problems of their society with “good” Christian ideals.

For almost 20 years, I lived in the city that was the center of Constantine’s empire. Today, more than 99% of the people who live there are not Christian. The people who live there carry identity cards, and on those cards they have a place for religion. People are born into their religions, they are born Muslim, or they are born Christian. Some of them actually practice the faith they are born into, but for many of them, it doesn’t mean much of anything. The majority of them are Muslim in name only, but it is a part of their identity, given at birth. When they think of the United States, they consider us a Christian nation, a nation filled with people who are born Christian because of their heritage.

As followers of Jesus, we can be grateful for that Christian heritage, but you know as well as I do that it is faulty thinking to believe that we are Christian only because of our heritage or because our parents happen to be Christian. That is not what the Bible teaches and when we look around our society today, we don’t see a great deal that is worthy of the name of Christ.

In 2 Timothy, Paul wrote to a young Christian leader a warning. This warning is one that believers often turn to when they look around them and see troubling times. 2 Timothy 3, beginning in verse 1:

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. 2 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. 3 They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God.”

As surprising as it may seem, Paul was not talking about 2020 in America specifically. Instead, he was warning Timothy about human nature and a time that Timothy would see in his lifetime. Paul’s words were true for Timothy and they are true for us as well. Sin leads people to the destination that Paul describes. Mankind without God always finds itself in the same state and the “last days” that they saw in the first century church have been repeated throughout history. Paul wanted Timothy to understand that these things would happen and he should not be surprised, but be ready for them. It is the normal state of a human’s heart to live in rebellion against God.

Later in that chapter Paul writes beginning in verse 12:

“everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. 13 But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived. 14 But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. 15 You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus.”

Paul encourages Timothy to hold to the truth, especially to the truth of the Gospel. This is the key for the church whenever they face times of trouble or uncertainty. Our hope is not in figuring out a better human solution, our hope is in Christ. The only true hope for mankind is in salvation through Christ alone. That is the only thing in the entire universe that has the power to take a selfish, sinful heart and turn it towards the potential of a positive solution. That isn’t to say that the presence of Christians and Christian initiatives doesn’t have a positive impact on a large scale, even across a nation. I lived for many years in a country that didn’t have the benefit of a foundation built on Christian principles and I can tell you that the difference is noticeable.

But the power of the Gospel for transformation is local. It begins in the hearts of individual believers who have submitted their lives to Christ and it makes the greatest difference through those individuals impacting others in their community, especially through the local Church. Paul encouraged Timothy to turn to the truth and focus on the Gospel in times like this, but I think his first letter to the Church in Corinth is helpful for us as well. Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 1, beginning in verse 18.

“The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.” So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.” (1:18 – 25)

Growing up in the United States and being a part of churches in the Midwest, it was sometimes tempting to think that we could reach our communities and grow our Church through clever strategies and even what might be called “marketing”. In the same way, it can be tempting for us as Christian people to think some of the serious problems we see today can be solved by a policy change or implementing a better moral standard. Living in a Muslim country taught me the foolishness of everything but the Gospel. Nothing I say or do has the power to change the life of anyone. That is completely dependent on the power of Christ.

Paul points to the cross as the answer, not human wisdom. He calls our preaching foolish, offensive to some and nonsense to others, except to those who are called. To those who are ready to receive the message of Christ, it is the power and wisdom of God, a wisdom that is greater than all of man’s wisdom and stronger than all human strength. We proclaim a truth that is not yet ready to be received by all, but that all need to hear. If they find it foolish or offensive, that is not our main concern. Those who have ears to hear will hear.

America, just like the world, has a sin problem and the end result of sin is death, spiritual death. If you want to fix what is wrong with America, we have to start in our community. We are surrounded by those who have no hope. Hope is not found in a policy or a politician, it is in God alone. Later in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, in verses 30–31, Paul writes:

“God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” (1:30 – 31)

We ourselves, followers of Christ, who are but frail creatures of dust, have been united with Him. We can be right with God, pure and holy, freed from sin. That is what we boast of and that is what we offer our friends, neighbors and communities as their own opportunity to receive. If we rely on anything else, we are fools.

J.D. Greear, in a meeting last year with the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention said the following:

“What if the lack of money and power was a blessing… set us up for a resurgence of something simple. What if our lack of money and waning power turned us back to the simple things – relying on members intentionally sharing Jesus with others! And that’s where the power was. And, like the early church, who, without money or power or any of their people in Congress, saw a worldwide explosion of the gospel. What if that was what is ahead for us?”

Jesus is the answer. He is the one who changes lives. He is the one who changes churches and He is the one who changes communities. If you don’t know Him, you don’t know what hope truly is. He is the only hope for you and He is the only hope for America.

The Danger of Being Alone Together

We’ve never been more connected to as many people as we are today. In the past, the majority of friends from our childhood or college days would have drifted into anonymity as we moved on to another stage in life. Changing jobs and moving to a different city would have meant a new set of friends and co-workers with the others mostly staying a part of our past memories. Thanks to the mixed blessings of the internet and social media, now we continue to stay connected to our past in ways that would have been impossible for the majority of us previously.

We have more “friends” than would have been possible in the past, but for some people, this pseudo friendship has become a replacement for real relationships and community. These friendships provide a false sense of community, giving us the feeling that we are connected to people relationally, but without the healthy give and take that comes from real relationships. Google searches related to the psychodynamics of social media’s impact point to major issues that people are struggling with, in spite of these “connections”.

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There are several problematic differences between virtual friendships and the real thing, which contribute to really being alone together:

  • Edited Virtual Life – the version of life that we see on social media is heavily edited. While we may have some friends who share their every up and down on social media, for the most part people keep it to the highlights. They take the best trips, eat the best food, have the best kids/marriage/dating relationship and overall their lives are far superior to yours. This, of course, may or may not be true, but by only seeing this highlight package, your life pales in comparison. This is one of the main reasons that social media is linked to so many psychological disorders.
  • Echo Chamber of Ideas – In real life, when you share your ideas or opinions, you are forced to deal with a real, living person who will look you in the face and agree or disagree with you. This forces us to learn to either have a reasoned give and take with others or just to learn to keep our mouths shut. On social media, over time we curate our newsfeeds to filter out opinions that are not compatible with our own. Friends get “blocked” or “unfollowed” in a way that we may wish was possible in real life. In the end, reading through our social media becomes a cycle of fire – gasoline – fire where our most extreme opinions are expressed to an audience who reinforces them back to us. Instead of a fading echo, we hear an amplified echo that encourages us to keep turning up the volume.
  • Uncivil interaction – Platforms that encourage more give and take, such as Twitter and Internet forums most frequently disintegrate into flame wars. Someone who tries to post a thoughtful statement in hopes of sparking a reasoned discussion is often overwhelmed with a backlash riot. Digital communication has removed tact and civility from our interactions. As someone who works with people both in person and electronically, you learn quickly the dangers of digital communication. Good communication requires work and is far easier when both people can see each others body language and hear their tone of voice. Flat text can be read completely without context and is read more through the lens of the reader than that of the writer. Digital distance encourages us to a completely self-centric viewpoint that lacks empathy and encourages disregard for others.

I could point out other distinctions, but this is enough for this text. Social media and distance relationships through the internet can be a blessing, but without a foundation built on true community, they are more likely to become a curse. We need people, and we need real friends. Friends who we communicate with face to face and who will sometimes tell us we are crazy or wrong. Coming out of the Covid-19 lockdowns, I hope that has been reinforced even more to you than it was before.

Many of us have had to experience less real, human interaction over these last couple of months than in any previous period in our lives. Don’t let that become the norm. As you are able, get out and spend time with family and friends. If all of your friends are in the virtual world, take time to actually talk to them on a video call or take the initiative to join a group where you can interact with real people. Being alone together online isn’t enough to feed the human soul. You need more than that and for sure, our society does as well.

Evil, Chaos and Deception

Marvel movies are among the most popular in the world today. Every movie seems to light up the box office with success and comic book characters that were once nerds only have become mainstream. Some of these characters are original creations, who were created for the comics out of the imaginations of the writers, but others find their source material in ancient sources. One of these is Loki, the Asgardian god of mischief. He comes from ancient mythology and had a long history before he ever appeared in Marvel comics.

Loki is the trickster, the mischief maker, the one who exists to cause chaos above else. As such, in some depictions he is played as neither good nor evil, but existing on a sliding scale in between. In the modern narrative of the Marvel movies, Loki began as a cold-blooded murderer in his earlier appearances, happy to see the destruction of everything. But as time has gone on he has developed into a sympathetic anti-hero, who in part thinks to the excellent acting of Tom Hiddleston, has grown to be one of their most popular characters, so much so that he has his own series planned for Disney +.

Why mention Loki in this article? In part because he is an excellent representation of one of the faces of evil that we see acting today, agents of chaos who are taking the legitimate protests of our fellow citizens and undermining them to see the world burn.

Evil is sometimes apparent, and unfortunately we hear of atrocities regularly which most people identify as evil. We saw this in the recent deaths of two men, one in Minnesota and one in Georgia. In both of these videos, we saw men with power use that power to take the life of unarmed men. These events were horrifying and as more people heard of the tragedies, they had a strong potential to be seminal moments, drawing disparate parties together in order to enact real change.

It would be good to see action come out of these specific situations in order to see changes brought about, not only in those 2 communities, but around our country where so much pain exists from past conflicts and abuses of power. Justice is longed for and the belief in true justice out of the rule of law is a foundational principle of our society. Unfortunately, evil is real in this world today and it is not limited to outright acts of violence. Sometimes evil is more deceptive in the way it attacks order, justice and good.

Just as it was evil for one man to keep his knee on the neck of another until he was no longer moving, it is evil for Antifa and others to disrupt protests in the way they have done these many months. Evil men, paying young protesters to cause trouble. Evil men and women breaking the windows of stores to start the looting. Evil men providing bricks or breaking the concrete in order to try and get peaceful protesters to throw them at the police. Evil, sinful people burning and destroying not out of grief, but out of hatred and a desire to see chaos reign. There is evil in this world and we have seen a lot of it over these days of protest.

Don’t be deceived and don’t join their path to chaos and destruction. We could be encouraged to believe by media reports and unthinking memes that are shared on social media that everyone is our enemy and that anyone who is different than us is not to be trusted. This is not the truth. Many honorable, just people are marching for real change. They want a better community for themselves and for you. Some of them want to be able to live in the same framework of law and justice that a person like myself has almost always enjoyed.

Evil is sometimes open, and sometimes obvious, but other times it comes in through the back door. Sin is real and temptation is real, and while the number of agitators who are causing much of the real destruction we are seeing is overall small, the number of us, who could contribute to the chaos is very large. Don’t be an agent of chaos, be an agent of change. Stop, listen and care about others. You have more in common with them than you may imagine.

I challenge you to listen to the excellent podcast below, which has some significant thoughts on how to be a part of the solution, not the problem.

Just Thinking Podcast: George Floyd and the Gospel

Integrity Declined

Growing up one of the values that was consistently put in front of me was integrity. I saw it in society, in my family and even in popular culture. “A man’s word is his bond” Deals were supposed to be sealed with a handshake because a “man was only as good as word.”

I’m not sure why all the popular quotes about giving your word seem to revolve around men rather than women, but I believe it was expected that both would conduct themselves with integrity. To be bond breaker or a liar was one of the worst condemnations you could put on a person.

As a Christian, this seemed even more important. Not only was it one of God’s commandments, but the Bible is filled with verses encouraging believers to pursue truth, defend truth, know the truth and proclaim the truth.

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. – John 8:31–32

Anyone who has ever told a lie knows how true that statement is. Lies bind us to a prison of our own making. We must remember to keep them straight and we can find ourselves trapped by our own web. Lies repeated from others have different difficulties and condemnations. The law prosecutes them as slander and the Bible condemns gossip.

Today, truth is under attack from all sides. Relativism is common and growing. Where there used to be a concern that post-modernism would destroy our conception of truth, now it seems that all sides are showing a growing disdain for facts and integrity. Both sides yell, “fake news” when they hear anything they don’t like, but many of those who would condemn such news as fake, seem to have no concern about whether their own posts and reposts have any basis in the truth.

This doesn’t make sense to me. How can we claim to have integrity and character, but have no interest in whether something is true? Truth is real, it is not something that changes for each person. Whatever we read, whether from the left or the right, we should care if it is true, not just if it is supporting our own opinion and prejudices. If we call ourselves believers, we must be even more concerned with truth.

He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them. 2 Thessalonians 2:10

In this letter found in the New Testament, the author is cautioning this church against the tactics of the Devil. While this verse is talking about the lost, who don’t understand the salvation offered them in Jesus Christ, I want to call attention to a phrase here, “they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them.” This goes well with the verse above, “the truth will set you free.”

Freedom and salvation are found in truth. No one should desire to build their reality on a lie.

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. – Romans 1:25

This verse is talking about choosing to worship idols rather than God. In their time, it was most frequently an idol made of stone or wood, but idols persist to this day. It’s possible that one of the idols you are dealing with is the desire to be right or to have your opinion seen as right, but our opinions mean little if they are not actually true.

If you are someone who sees yourself as a person of integrity, I would hope the truth would matter to you as much on social media as it does on a deal with a neighbor or a friend. If you are follower of Jesus Christ, you can’t afford to set the truth aside. To carelessly put our name on something which may or may not be true is not only to decline our own integrity but to attach our flippant disregard for the truth to the name of Christ as well.

We should all be people of conviction, who are willing to stand for our beliefs. That is an admirable quality. But I hope you will care more about the truth than being admired. We should remember the day when as a society, our word meant something and we valued truth over opinion. When we enter the public forum, whether it is in person or online, let’s have the caution to consider our words carefully and to be advocates for the truth, champions for integrity, instead of accomplices in its continual decline.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. – Ephesians 5:15–16

The Weight of the World

It has never been easier to complain about the troubles of this life. Never have we had more avenues for releasing our grief about our latest trial. Every time I open social media, a news website or even listen to dinner conversations, I hear dark perspectives on the present, the future or overall dissatisfaction.

But what is this all about? We were never meant to bear the weight of the world. When we complain about the present or express our dread for the future, where is our focus. In the passage I read today, I see true sorrow and true despair. What was that about?

“Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.” He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.” When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open. So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again. Then he came to the disciples and said, “Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest. But look — the time has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Up, let’s be going. Look, my betrayer is here!”

Matthew 26:36‭-‬46 NLT

Christ faced true desolation as He looked towards the cross. It wasn’t about the suffering of the crucifixion, but what He would face after physical death. We may sometimes feel like we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, Christ actually did.

For all of us, He bore the weight of the cup of judgement for sin. He bore the greatest punishment, the distance that sin creates in the relationship with the Father. No one in human form before or since experienced such a deep understanding of what this would mean. We try to grasp the impact of our sin and conceptualize the meaning of it’s impact on our relationship with the Father, but Christ knew what it meant. He knew and He grieved with that full knowledge.

So, when faced with a true “grievance”, what did Christ model?

  • He asked His friends for prayer
  • He went to the Father
  • He asked the Father to take it away
  • He submitted to the will of the Father, whatever that may be.

I believe we should be willing to do the same. Not only it is a good pattern, when faced with a true trouble, but also it can act as a filter for our complaining. Is our trial truly trying or is it a mere inconvenience, a light momentary affliction worthy only of releasing to the Lord before moving on, letting go. If something is not worthy of bringing to the Father, then it is probably not worthy of our Facebook feed or our dinner conversation.

Who Will You Be?

In pondering the miraculous things that God has done over the centuries, my first thought leads me towards my own actions in the Christian life. Looking back, I evaluate what I have done, where I have been and if I have contributed in any small way to the things that He has accomplished. Looking ahead, with all my plans and strategies, the question becomes what shall I do or what can I do to be most effective in contributing to the cause of Christ around the world. But in the stillness of night, I felt the spirit ask me to reevaluate my thinking. It is not, what shall you do, but rather, who will you be?

“God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.”

‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:29-30‬ ‭MSG‬‬

If I am unwilling to be shaped as the life of His Son, then I am unwilling to be used by Him. It is only as we become like Him that we become truly useful to Him, otherwise, He would only use our actions the same way that He would use the wind or the waves or an unjust ruler who somehow serves His purposes.

Again the refrain that has surfaced time and again in my life only to be buried by the busies: “For my determined purpose is to know Him…

So, who will I be? Will I be a great leader who makes his earthly companions proud? How about a dynamic counselor who through wise words leads others on the best possible paths for their lives. Will I be a writer or speaker of some renown whose words live on when my body is dust?

None of these things reflect who we are really to be. We are to be like Him. We are to reflect the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

‭‭Galatians‬ ‭5:22-23‬ ‭NET‬‬

Against such things there is no law… What an uncomplicated life we could live. The weight of decisions set aside for the joy of the presence. Our ministry not tied up in a strategy, but in these fruit spilling over into the lives of others as we pour into our own lives from the unending capacity of our Father.

The Christian life is simple. It is not complicated. We are the ones who make it complicated. So, back to the question, who will I be? This is my choice. No one else can choose what I will be. It is a daily decision, with some detours that I am responsible for. In Christ, in the Body, I will be a child of God. I will live for Him. I will not grow weary, I will allow Him to gloriously complete the good work that He began.

Reacting to the News from Turkey

In recent days, the news from Turkey seems to be producing the wrong kind of headlines.

  • Bombings in Ankara, Istanbul, and Diyarbakir
  • Attacks on personal freedoms and freedom of the press
  • Threats against minorities and their properties
  • Dark tales of loss of refugee life and abuse of displaced peoples

In light of news like this, what should our response be? Many countries have begun issuing travel advisories, telling their citizens to stay home. Parts of the city, which were once crowded with tourists are now empty except for small groups and a high police presence. Sharp declines have occurred in visitors from Europe, Russia and the United States. Many cruise lines have cancelled their stops in the ports of Turkey.

As an evangelical believer from the West who has happily lived in Turkey for many years, I find this response troubling. Turkey was long seen as the moderate Muslim partner that the Western world had been looking for. This viewpoint led to an extended period of growth in prosperity and freedom for the country. Much of Turkey saw development that brought standards of living forward by leaps and bounds. Many foreigners, who visit Turkey for the first time, are surprised by the very European feel of many of it’s cities.

Unfortunately, recent events are leading to a more isolationist attitude towards Turkey. The ever “on again-off again” merry-go-round with the EU has never been so obviously against EU membership. The United States has not found the willing partner in the region that they once found when the Turkish military leaders were more influential. Perhaps most significantly, the current administration’s falling out with an influential Turkish religious leader, who resides in the US, has led to the loss of their biggest media advocate abroad.

If trends continue, Turkey will have no choice but to lean more and more to the South and the East for partnerships abroad. Even more so, this will lead Turkey to look within and become even more isolated from the rest of the world. Although Turkey is very modern, the percentage of the population which speaks European languages is very low, with less than 17% of the population speaking English with any proficiency.

Practically, this means that even though Internet usage is high, the vast majority of the population relies on the local media for their information and news. Attempts to provide alternative perspectives via Social Media have been actively thwarted by the government. More and more, regardless of where you are in the world, the likelihood of having a broader perspective is dependent on personal relationships.

In my opinion, the West must continue see Turkey as a vital connection point to the Muslim world. Whether the context is business, tourism or inter-religious dialogue, to turn away from Turkey at this point would be a great mistake. In Turkish culture, it is impossible to have influence without relationships. Relationships are best established with time and tea. If Western businessmen, politicians and tourists allow recent difficulties to create a significant lapse in these relationships, it could have the greatest impact on their worse case scenarios for Turkey becoming a reality.