God is in Control

Just about every news and social media outlet in the country has been crackling since yesterday with the news of the Supreme Court’s decision in the so-called Obamacare case and the House of Representatives’ vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. Most pundits–on both sides of the aisle–are saying that yesterday’s SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) decision is the most important decision since Bush v. Gore in 2000. Others have said that Chief Justice John Roberts has demonstrated his independence and refusal to be swayed by partisan politics. Others have said he abandoned the president who appointed him (George W. Bush), and still others have said he has proven to be the next Robert Jackson, the Attorney General-turned-Supreme Court justice who demonstrated that he was not beholden to any political party in deciding cases. And, of course, still others have asserted that the five justices who decided the majority opinion have destroyed the Constitution. And, perhaps most interestingly in a purely theoretical/academic sense is the fact that the SCOTUS opinion says that mandated health care is permissible as a tax–whereas President Obama has asserted repeatedly that it is not a tax. Interesting…

On the same day that this decision came down the House of Representatives voted to find Attorney General Holder in contempt for the manner in which he has handled congressional investigation into the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” operation. This is the first time in U.S. history that a sitting attorney general has been found in contempt of Congress. Holder, of course, has called the vote politically motivated, though seventeen Democrats voted in favor of the contempt citation (while two Republicans opposed it). Perhaps more troubling, however, is that 100 Democrat members of the House walked out–including all 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus–and refused to vote at all. According to a letter sent by the caucus to colleagues, the Republican leadership in the House failed to provide a legislative purpose for the vote, and therefore, said the caucus members, they “cannot and will not participate in a vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.” There were, by the way, two separate votes, finding the AG Holder in both criminal and civil contempt, by votes of 255-67 and 258-95 respectively. (Purely as a side note, I have to wonder how any member of Congress can believe that a vote to hold the sitting attorney general in contempt has no legislative purpose, yet similar votes for professional athletes who lied or were less than forthcoming in congressional investigations into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports is clearly fine. Just saying….)

Anyway, if you logged in hoping to get my take on either of these matters, I am going to disappoint you, because, one, I try to avoid being overtly partisan/political in this space, and two, I have not yet had time to read or fully digest the ramifications of the SCOTUS decision and I want to avoid making uninformed comments on the decision.

What I do have to say, though, is that regardless of which side of either of these issues you or I may be on, and regardless of what the short or long-term implications of either decision will be, God is in control!

Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (ESV). We may not have a king in the United States, by the hearts of presidents, justices and members of Congress are just as much in God’s control as the hearts of kings. Furthermore, the power that is exercised by those individuals and bodies is granted to them by God–and they cannot do anything that He will not allow. Romans 13:1 says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (KJV). Jesus Himself, when questioned by Pilate, said, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11, ESV).

Nothing that happened yesterday, that happens today, or that will happen tomorrow, catches God by surprise. Man can do nothing that God does not allow. Not necessarily, by the way, that God desires, but that God allows. Politics and public policy are important…but they are not the most important thing, and they will not save anyone. We should be informed and be involved, and most of all we should pray–see I Timothy 2–but regardless of what happens we must not be overwhelmed or defeated, because God is in control, and in Him is our hope!

Decorum Expected

Earlier this week Mike Huckabee’s “Huckabee Report” addressed the behavior of guests at President Obama’s recent reception for Gay Pride Month. The report reads, in part, “Two visitors showed their gratitude by posing for photos giving obscene hand gestures in front of the official portrait of President Reagan. The photos appeared online in Philadelphia magazine. One of the men, Matty Hart, linked his Facebook page to them, adding obscene comments about Reagan.”

This saddens me on several levels. One, it should be common sense that a certain level or decorum is expected in the White House. Regardless of what anyone may think about the sitting president or any of his predecessors, there is no excuse for such immature and disrespectful behavior. The White House itself is a symbol, representing the office of the president, as well as a wealth of history and the peaceful transitions of power that have marked our nation for more than two hundred years.

While we have a tremendous privilege in America to speak freely about our opinions, and publicly express disagreement with, and even disapproval of, our elected leaders, there is no reason for such discourse to sink to the level of adolescent insults and name-calling. The tenor of political campaigns today does not help, of course, but the amount of mudslinging contained in campaign commercials and other attack ads does not justify the kind of behavior referenced in the Huckabee Report. A White House spokesperson apologized for the behavior, and said that that kind of behavior does not belong anywhere, let alone the White House. Agreed; but the reality is, there will need to be a seismic shift in the level of public decency expected in our country–and modeled by our elected leaders and other public figures–before this kind of thing is likely to become rare.

By the way, Mr. Hart is the national director for public engagement for a group called “Solutions for Progress.” According to their web site, Solutions for Progress is a “public policy and technology company.” Their homepage includes this headline: “An organization like no other. Changing reality on the ground by using policy research and technology to fight poverty; assisting people to obtain supports in an easy and dignified manner and governments to deliver
services more effectively.”

Now, I don’t know anything about the organization than that; until I Googled it after reading the Huckabee Report I had never heard of it. But I find it interesting to say the least that the headline on their web site touts their efforts to assist people in a “dignified manner.” It seems quite clear that there was nothing dignified about Mr. Hart’s behavior–and apparently he does not care. According to Huckabee Report, Hart “was unrepentant and says he doesn’t care if he’s not invited back to the White House.”

Referring to the name of Mr. hart’s organization–Solutions for Progress–Mike Huckabee commented, “Sounds like he doesn’t know much about either of those things. I really hope tasteless, vulgar people like that don’t even attempt to pretend to be for diversity or civility or tolerance.” I have to agree. And while it may make little difference in the overwhelming flood of indecency and lack of respect so prominent in America today, I would call on Solutions for Progress to demonstrate to their constituents and the entire population of the United States that while Mr. Hart may not care, they do, and such behavior will not be tolerated. There is really only one appropriate response for their organization to make: Mr. Hart should be dismissed immediately.

Daily Mercies

The book of Lamentations is one of those Old Testament books that even most people who read the Bible regularly do not read very often. In fact, just the name of the book sounds depressing; after all, who wants to read about someone’s lament? It is a book with powerful truths about the faithfulness of God, though, and it contains a verse that many can quote, or at least paraphrase, though they may not know the reference.

Lamentations 3:22-23 reads, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (ESV). Anyone who grew up in churches that sang hymns will also recognize that this verse was the inspiration for the wonderful old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

There is a wonderful parallel truth between this passage and Matthew 6:34, I think. In Lamentations we are reminded that God’s mercies are new every morning. In Matthew 6:34 we read, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (ESV).

I do not think it is coincidental that in Matthew Jesus teaches that each day has trouble enough without worrying, or becoming anxious, about what might happen tomorrow or anytime thereafter, and in Lamentations we are reminded that God’s mercies are new every morning.

Matthew 6:34 comes at the end of Jesus’ teaching about not being anxious, teaching that includes reminders about the facts that God provides for the needs of the birds, and humans are far more important than birds; that worrying cannot add a single thing to one’s life; and that God is well aware of our needs–and will provide for them.

Unfortunately, many people–myself, sometimes included–get focused on what the future may hold, what tomorrow may bring. I am referring mostly to an apprehensive worry about the future, but the same can be true of excitement or enthusiasm about the future, too. We can get so caught up planning and looking forward to a vacation, a wedding, a party–fill in the blank with the exciting event of your choice–that we miss out on today.

I am well aware that the instruction to not be anxious is far easier said than done. I certainly have not mastered it. But the truth is, God promises to give us new mercies each day, and exhorts us not to worry about anything beyond today. Each day has its own supply of trouble, Jesus said, and God will provide new mercies each morning, according to Lamentations. In other words, God will give us what we need to get through today, but He does not promise to give us knowledge or, or mercies for, tomorrow or beyond.

Does that mean we should not care about tomorrow? I don’t think so. I does not mean that we cannot plan, or that we cannot pray, or that we must somehow erect a wall in our lives that prevents us from seeing beyond the end of today. Planning is biblical, after all. But the truth of James 4:13-16 applies to both planning and worrying. Just as we must not say “tomorrow I will do this, and next week I will go there, and by this time next year this will happen,” we also must not spend time worrying, “what if this happens tomorrow, and what if the test is positive next month, and how will we cope if next year the worst has happened?” Why mustn’t we? Because, James 4:414 says, “you do not know what tomorrow will bring.”

The reality is, tomorrow could be much worse that I fear, or it could be far better. Ultimately, I simply do not know. And God has ordained that I do not need to know. All He asks of me is to trust Him that whatever tomorrow brings, He will give me fresh mercies to make it through, and His will will be done. He will not abandon me, He will not let me walk through tomorrow unaccompanied–because His faithfulness is great.

“Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

President Luter

Last week the Southern Baptist Convention elected a new president, and they elected Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, and the first African-American to be elected to the position.

This is newsworthy for the fact that Luter is the first African-American SBA president, but even moreso because when the SBA was founded–167 years ago–it was formed, at least in part, out of an effort to defend segregation and even slavery. In 1995 the SBC apologized for its history. I am not a huge fan of apologies made by individuals years, decades, or in this instance, centuries, after the offense occurred because I fail to see the significance in most instances. I am not sure how I could apologize to someone for something that I did not do and that they did not suffer from and have it carry any real meaning. I am getting off track now, though…. In this instance, anyway, I believe it was appropriate for SBA leadership and the denomination as a whole to express regret over the offensive elements of its history, and certainly to clearly articulate that those principles are no longer a part of the organization now. And it certainly is noteworthy that an organization–any organization–that has such a past would now elect as its president an individual who, at the time of its founding, would have never even been considered for membership.

I do not know Fred Luter, nor do I know anything about him other than what I have read in news stories, but it certainly sounds from those stories like the Lord has worked through him to greatly impact the New Orleans area. His dedication to his church after Hurricane Katrina, and the rebuilding of that church, is incredible.

In actuality, though, what has prompted me to write about this issue today is not the election of Fred Luter per se, but some of the realities that still exist in some SBC churches. Full disclosure: I am a former member and deacon of an SBC church. I do not consider myself a southern Baptist, nor did I even at the time of my membership in an SBA church, but it was the church in our community that was most faithfully teaching and preaching the Word of God and carrying out the Great Commission.

On usatoday.com there was a comment made by a reader regarding a report that stated that Luter “came out of the racist south.” The commenter was expressing chagrin over such “unbiased reporting”–a term he was using sarcastically. Unfortunately, however, it is true. Whether or not it is relevant to the story of Luter’s election may be debatable, I suppose, but it is a fact that Luter was raised in a part of the south that was in many instances still very racist during his formative years. This same commenter said, in a later post, that in all of his traveling in the U.S. the south is one of the least racist parts of the country. Perhaps he has been very selective in the parts of the south that he has visited, or perhaps he–either by choice or by lack of perception–failed to see the racism that does still exist.

Apparently his commenter is not the only individual so deceived, either. Another individual commented on the story of Luter’s election, and the comment referenced above, with this statement: “This actually has nothing to do with racism. Since racism hasn’t existed in most SBC churches in 35 years only an idiot would think there is a connection. The only reason the major media thinks there is a difference is that it has been that long since any of them went to church.” The word idiot is a strong one, but this individual apparently feels quite strongly that there is no racism in SBC churches, and has not been, in quite some time.

It saddens me to say, however, that I have seen racism first hand in SBC churches. And I use the plural on purpose, because in the position in which I served I had the opportunity to be in many different churches throughout part of the south, and I experienced or witnessed first had the racism that does still exist. I have been in churches that would not allow African-Americans into their church. I have been in a church that almost fired its pastor because he married a biracial couple. I have been in more than one church where the spoken and implied position of more-than-a-few of the members was that African-Americans should stay in their own churches and had no place “infiltrating” theirs.

Now, I need to interject a few things here. One, I think that same individuals–Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come immediately to mind–cry racism over every and any little thing and attempt to make racism the source of most any wrong that occurs. Individuals of that ilk tend to stoke the racist flames and are just as racist in most instances as those they claim to be challenging. The dialogue they tend to engage in is not constructive, but destructive. At the same time, however, I also recognize that the existence of all-white or all-black churches does not in and of itself mean that the congregations are racist. There are cultural differences, differences in worship style and tradition, and a variety of other reasons why churches may remain predominantly or even exclusively made up of one race, none of which are racist.

I am pleased to say that the SBC church that I was a part of made tremendous strides towards breaking down long-standing walls of division that stemmed from a long tradition of racism in an area of the country that had once been covered with tobacco fields worked by slaves. I do not think that that church is a racist church. But that does not mean that there are never racist individuals or racist thoughts within the church, either.

Here’s what it comes down to: (1) racism does exist, and it does exist even within the church; (2) racism does not exist, in most areas, to the level or the extreme that it once did or that some instigators would still have us believe, but (3) that is not justification to get lax or to turn a blind eye to racism when we do see it. Oh, and (4) the fact the he grew up in the “racist south” and is now the president of an organization founded in part with racist principles is relevant to the newsworthiness of the election of Fred Luter as SBC president.

Bottom line, though–there is simply is no excuse for racism. The Bible makes it absolutely clear that God created all humans, that He creates them in His image, and that we are all–regardless of the color of our skin–descended from common ancestors (both Adam and Noah). The old children’s song is right on: “Jesus loves the little children/all the children of the world/red and yellow, black and white/they are precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world.” He loves the adults, too. And there is one other thing that the Bible is just as clear on–we are to love each other just as God loves us, without qualification or clarification.

The Foolishness of Legalism (Part 2)

Well, I never got around to blogging yesterday. Good thing I’m not legalistic about it….

In the last post I outlined the foolishness of legalism in the work place. As dangerous as it can be there, it is even more dangerous in the Church, because legalism either stems from or leads to a completely inaccurate understanding of salvation.

In the Old Testament there were a lot of rules given by God that the Israelites had to follow. This was known as the Law. The entire point of the Law, however, was to reveal to the people that in and of themselves they could not possibly keep the Law. As it says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The word “law” appears more than 500 times in the Bible (in the English Standard Version) so it is clearly an important matter. More than 300 of those instances are in the Old Testament, but that leaves more than 200 instances in the New Testament, meaning the subject of law is not an Old-Testament-only issue. In the New Testament, however, the perspective completely changes; Jesus brings a “New Law.” Jesus Himself came to fulfill the Law–He is the only one who could ever do so. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (ESV).

The problem was that the Pharisees, the Law experts, completely denied who Jesus was because while He fulfilled the Law He violated many of the additions to the Law that the Pharisaical traditions had added. Just like some churches and denominations do today, the Pharisees were not content to leave the Law as God gave it alone; they thought it was necessary to clarify it and add to it in order for everyone to know exactly what they could and could not do, particularly on the Sabbath. Of course the Pharisees then also (1) took great pride in their adherence to the Law, and often drew attention to themselves for their “righteousness,” and (2) found many and creative ways to adhere to the letter of the Law while still doing what they wanted to do (such as pocketing a handful of dirt from their yard in order to go wherever they wanted while still adhering to the stipulation that they not leave their land).

Today there are churches, denominations and parachurch ministries that add stipulations and restrictions on behavior: do not go to movies, do not drink alcohol, women cannot wear pants, do not use playing cards, do not have drums or guitars in church, etc. These are just a few examples of legalistic rules that I have heard of or had experience with myself. In Jesus’ day, and then during the first century after His ascension, it was things like men must be circumcised, do not eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, do follow the feasts and traditions of the Jews, etc. Jesus and Paul spent considerable time addressing the error of strict adherence to such rules in a legalistic manner.

And it is the “legalistic manner” that causes the problem. In the last post I provided a definition of legalism, but dictionary.com provides more to that definition as legalism pertains to theology: “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works; the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.” Legalism, as alluded to above, usually stems from and/or results in a works-based idea of salvation. If I keep all the rules, I’m good with God, in other words. This is not biblical–see Titus 3:4-5. No one can work their way to salvation.

Now, if I, or anyone else, is convicted about certain behaviors it is perfectly fine to establish boundaries–“rules” even–regarding those behaviors. For example, if someone is convicted, and convinced from their understanding of Scripture, that going to a movie theater is not honoring to God, then he or she should not go to the theater. At the same time, though, he or she MUST not believe that by avoiding the theater he or she is somehow gaining points with God, or that if I choose to go to the theater I am somehow sinning or dishonoring God. These things fall within the realm of Christian liberty; when we try to impose rules we become legalistic…we become Pharisees. And, at the end of the day, we undermine, if not deny, the truth of the Gospel message–that salvation is by faith alone through Christ alone.

I happen to be convinced from Scripture that drunkenness is a sin, but I am not convinced that consumption of alcohol short of drunkenness is a sin. That said, I do not consume alcohol. At the moment I am employed by a Christian ministry that has asked me to agree to a code of conduct that does not allow the consumption of alcohol, but even when I have not been under such a code I have chosen not to consume alcohol. That does not make me any better than someone who does choose to drink, nor does it earn me anything with God. I choose to wear dress pants and a tie to church on Sunday, too, but that doesn’t mean I’m any closer to heaven than someone who wears a flannel shirt and jeans.

In Philippians 3 Paul talks about the abundance of reasons he had to be confident in the flesh–in other words, in his works. At the end of his recitation he said that any gain he had he counted as loss for the sake of Christ. In another passage he refers to his works as so much dung. At one point in Galatians (4:20) Paul tells the church in Galatia that he is at his wits end with them because of their tendency to accept the addition of works to salvation through faith.

It was foolish for a county in Michigan to fire an employee for turning in to police a loaded gun he found. It was foolish for the Pharisees to suggest that failure to wash their hands before a meal was a sin on the part of the disciples. It was foolish for the Pharisees to be more upset that Jesus had “worked” on the Sabbath than excited about the fact that a man who had been blind since birth could now see. It is just as foolish for you or me to get caught up in adherence to rules that the Bible does not contain.

The Foolishness of Legalism

“Legalism” is one of those words that it is just about possible to use with a positive connotation. It is typically used in a judgmental manner by those who oppose the attitudes and requirements of individuals and groups who are legalistic, and those who fit into that category often fail to realize it, and so would rarely if ever use the term to describe themselves. The truth is, though, that legalism was a problem in the early church, and is sometimes a problem still in churches today. I will address that here somewhat, but first I will provide a modern example of the foolishness of legalism from outside of the church.

Even before that, though, perhaps it is a good idea to define what legalism is. Dictionary.com provides this definition: “strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.” And that definition provides a perfect backdrop to this contemporary example.

Apparently, a county employee in Detroit, Michigan was mowing grass last month–not his own grass, but grass he was supposed to mow as part of his job. In other words, he was at work. In the course of mowing, he came across a loaded revolver. He called the police to inform them of the gun, thinking they would come retrieve it. However, the authorities never arrived. So, when he finished working, the county employee took the gun to a local police station to turn it in. The police thanked him, happy to get another gun off of the streets. County officials, though, fired him, saying that he was in violation of county policy by possessing a gun while on the job.

Now I’m guessing that when you read that your initial reaction was probably somewhere along the lines of, “Oh brother!” or “You’ve got to be kidding!” After all, the individual in question was clearly doing the right thing–the responsible thing. Without a doubt, the policy barring gun possession at work by county employees was devised in an effort to promote safety, and the vast majority of the time there would be no reason for a county employee to possess a gun. The problem is, rules and policies always have the potential to run smack into unforeseen situations–situations in which the “letter of the law” no longer makes any sense.

For just about my entire working life I have been in positions that required me to enforce rules. First, I was a classroom teacher, so I had both my own classroom rules to enforce as well as those of the school. But for the last eight years I have been in positions where I was usually the one who was the ultimate enforcer of the rules. Sometimes I was also able to craft, or re-craft, the rules, but other times I was expected to enforce the rules that were given to me by those in authority over me. Either way, I was “the executive branch,” and enforcing the rules was my responsibility. What I learned very quickly is that developing rules that are absolute is rarely a good idea. Why? Exactly because of situations like the county worker in Detroit who found a gun and took it to the police station to turn in. Odds are good that as the county policy is written those in authority had a choice to make: fire the gentleman, or fail to enforce a county rule.

There are students expelled from school and inmates incarcerated in prisons all over the country because of so-called three strikes rules. in an effort to curtail crime, many states passed three strikes laws, mandating life sentences for individuals who were charged with their third felony. No, I am as anti-crime as anyone I know. In fact, other than criminals, who in the world would claim to be pro-crime? But I also think it is absurd for someone to be spending the rest of his life in prison for a third minor offense, while someone else might get ten or twenty years for killing someone. The same thing is true of students who have been expelled from their school for an accumulation of relatively minor offenses. There needs to be wisdom in the application of the law…which necessitates wisdom in the crafting of the law.

To go back to the definition of legalism, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law are not always in complete agreement. Legalism is what results when the former is given precedence over the latter. And as foolish as it is in the workplace, the school, or the criminal code, it is perhaps even more foolish to allow legalism to creep into one’s relationship with the Lord. But I’ll address that tomorrow….

Keepers of the Lights

Most anyone who knows me is aware that I could be called a lighthouse enthusiast. I do not remember really being all that interest in lighthouses until I was in college, but ever since then I have been intrigued by the lights themselves, the stories of the people who kept the lights, and the accounts of the ships and lives that have been saved by the beacons on the shore. My fondness for lighthouses developed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The series of lights along these barrier islands stand upon the shores of some of the most dangerous waters of the world’s oceans, an area that has been called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Lighthouses, of course, were put in place specifically to alert ships to danger, and to help guide them safely through the dangers around them–dangers often unseen to the naked eye.

Today, children have to make their way through some of the most dangerous waters society has ever presented them with. Everywhere a child looks or goes there is another rocky shoal upon which the hopes and successes of their life could be dashed, damaged or destroyed. I do not necessarily buy into all of the arguments that children and teenagers today have far tougher conditions to grow up in than any previous generation. Indeed, along with the challenges of peer pressure, drugs, gangs and premarital sex so prevalent today are also greater opportunities and material wealth than previous generations enjoyed. What I mean, in other words, is that the glass is half full and half empty; it’s not a matter of one or the other.

With proper guidance, children today have the potential and the opportunity to succeed beyond the wildest imaginations of their parents and grandparents. That proper guidance does not happen by accident, though, and it does not come from the government. God’s plan is that it comes from the family–a father and mother who are married to each other, love God, and teach their children His ways. Alongside the family come the church and, ideally, the school. The family, church and Christian school have the responsibility to continually send out a warning beacon to the children of today, showing them where the danger lies and helping them find a safe route through life.

It took special people to be lighthouse keepers, cut off, in many cases, from the rest of civilization and living a lonely life in a simple house beside a tall tower. The material benefits and creature comforts were few. But the importance of the mission kept them doing their job day after day. Likewise, the family, the church and the Christian school must keep facing the salt water, the wind and the storms that life may send the way of our children.

Keep the lights shining!