The One Maxim That Comforts My Soul in the Midst of Social & Political Storms

On this Election Day, wearied by the rancor that too much permeates our culture – and that has infested the Church – these words from slave-trader-turned-pastor/poet John Newton are at the forefront of my mind:

I meddle not with the disputes of party, nor concern myself with any political maxims, but such as are laid down in Scripture. 

There is one political maxim which comforts me: ‘The Lord reigns.’ His hand guides the storm; and He knows them that are His, how to protect, support, and deliver them.

It is a comfort to my soul and to my mind to remember that “The Lord Reigns”. I regularly need to remind myself that it is not just that the Lord will reign someday – though that is certainty God’s promise. The Lord Reigns NOW! – Today. When Jesus came on the scene he declared: “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” This means that in his first advent – his first appearance – he began to reclaim all that belongs to him – (which is everything). He reigns today in the hearts and lives of his people throughout the World. And he is sovereign over all creation, so that whether people bow to Him and honor Him as Lord or not, he is still working out his purposes. (see Psalm 2) He cannot be stopped. He Reigns. He will Reign. And with the mess I see all around me, or whenever I turn on the news, “the Lord Reigns ” is a comfort to me, no matter what the election results are tonight, and in the coming days.

As a fan of John Newton, I also began my day today by re-reading this short letter from Newton to a friend, from which the quotes above are taken. The context of this letter is a call to his fellow Englishmen to pray for the renewal of his homeland, prompted by news of “hostilities” in the American colonies. Though this letter was written in August 1775, the wisdom and the tone are timeless. (From The Works of John Newton, v. 2)

“O what a Shepherd! Let us love, and sing, and wonder.

I hope the good people at Bristol, and everywhere else, are praying for our sinful, distracted land, in this dark day. The Lord is angry, the sword is drawn, and I am afraid nothing but the spirit of wrestling prayer can prevail for the returning it into the scabbard.

Could things have proceeded to these extremities, except the Lord had withdrawn His salutary blessing from both sides? It is a time of prayer.

We see the beginning of trouble, but who can foresee the possible consequences? The fire is kindled; but how far it may spread, those who are above may perhaps know better than we.

I meddle not with the disputes of party, nor concern myself with any political maxims, but such as are laid down in Scripture. There I read that righteousness exalteth a nation, and that sin is the reproach, and, if persisted in, the ruin of any people.

Some people are startled at the enormous sum of our national debt: they who understand spiritual arithmetic may be well startled if they sit down and compute the debt of national sin.

Imprimis, Infidelity: Item, Contempt of the Gospel: Item, The profligacy of manners: Item, Perjury: Item, The cry of blood, the blood of thousands, perhaps millions, from the East Indies.

It would take sheets, yea quires (i.e. 25 sheets of paper), to draw out the particulars under each of these heads, and then much would remain untold. What can we answer, when the Lord saith, ‘Shall not I visit for these things? Shall not My soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’

Since we received the news of the first hostilities in America, we have had an additional prayer-meeting. Could I hear that professors in general, instead of wasting their breath in censuring men and measures, were plying the Throne of Grace, I should still hope for a respite.

Poor New England! Once the glory of the earth, now likely to be visited with fire and sword. They have left their first love, and the Lord is sorely contending with them.

Yet surely their sins as a people are not to be compared with ours. I am just so much affected with these things as to know, that I am not affected enough.

Oh! My spirit is sadly cold and insensible, or I should lay them to heart in a different manner: yet I endeavour to give the alarm as far as I can.

There is one political maxim which comforts me: ‘The Lord reigns.’ His hand guides the storm; and He knows them that are His, how to protect, support, and deliver them.

He will take care of His own cause; yea, He will extend His kingdom, even by these formidable methods.

Men have one thing in view; He has another, and His counsel shall stand.”

To Those “Born Again” in the USA

My good friend, Fred Liggin, recently posted a contextualized paraphrase of John 8.30-37 on his blog, Long Way Here, and on his Facebook page.

“As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Christians living in the USA who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

“We are descendants of democracy,” they answered Him, “and we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We aren’t enslaved to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will become free’?”

Jesus responded, “I assure you: Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in the household forever, but a son does remain forever. Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.

“I know you are descendants of democracy, but you are trying to explain my teachings away because My word is not welcome among you.”

Kinda hits home, doesn’t it?

In sharing this I have no desire to denigrate our country – especially not right after Memorial Day. As Americans we have much to be thankful for. Among that for which I am thankful are our civil liberties, and for those who have served to preserve them. On Memorial Day we especially give thanks for those who “gave the last full measure of devotion”. As a country we have been greatly blessed. But, as a country, we also have more than a few things for which we need repent – both from our past and in our present. What I think Fred hits on is the confusion and compromise that sometimes – perhaps even all too often – occurs in the church, because of an unhealthy mixture of allegiances to country and to Christ. If you are an American, be thankful! But always remember: To God alone belongs glory. (Isaiah 42.8)

Here is the link to Fred’s original post: Jesus, Truth, and Freedom.

What’s the Problem?

Writing in 1974, Francis Schaeffer suggested:

“The central problem of our age is not liberalism or modernism, nor the old Roman Catholicism or the new Roman Catholicism, nor the threat of communism, nor even the threat of rationalism and the monolithic consensus which surrounds us. All these are dangerous but not the primary threat. The real problem is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit. The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.”

No Little People

In other words, for Christians assessing the Culture Wars, the problem is you – and the problem is me.

The Benedict Option is Not Really an Option

Benedict Option collage

Since I already have some pretty definite opinions about the book, I thought maybe I ought to read it.  My preliminary thoughts about Rod Dreher‘s The Benedict Option is that it offers a good analysis of the present states of both culture and Church, but Dreher’s solution seems more imposed than necessary or biblical. In other words, Dreher seems to have a fascination with the Rule of Benedict, and uses the current social climate as an excuse to encourage others to embrace it.

It’s not that I think there is no benefit from Benedictine practices. On the contrary, I was intrigued a few years ago when reading Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People with a group of pastors with whom I would meet monthly or so.  What I appreciated from Okholm’s work, and expect to appreciate from Dreher, are the categories of thought the Benedictine’s have developed.  I appreciate many of their disciplines, and I can see that many of their practices could help cultivate a disciplined and rich spiritual vitality.  However, the notion of withdrawal from the world at the root of Benedictine discipline, is not only an impractical option for most people, I am convinced that it violates Jesus’ command to his disciples found in John 20.21:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

And it is out of line with God’s expressed instruction to his people who were living in Babylonian exile, as recorded in Jeremiah 29.7:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

In other words, despite some – even many – ideas worthy of serious consideration, and that might be appropriate to be adopted with some adjustments, it seems to me that The Benedict Option is not really an option for those who want to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  And Dreher himself seems to understand this since, despite the provocative title, he spends much energy explaining that what he is encouraging is the employment of some of Benedict’s principles without necessarily actually withdrawing into monastic communities.

See also:

Race & the Church RVA: Why Do We All Look the Same?

The second gathering of Race and the Church in Richmond, Virginia took place on Saturday morning March 12. The theme was: Why Do We All Look the Same? A Cultural & Theological Analysis of Underlying Church Dynamics; featuring speaker Dr. Alexander Jun.

Alexander Jun is a professor at Azusa Pacific University, a TED Talk speaker, and author. He has published extensively on issues of post-secondary access for historically underrepresented students in under-served areas. Jun is also a respected Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.

To view the message from the first gathering, with featured speaker Sean Lucas, click: Race and the Church: Telling the Truth.

Culture Shaping Power of the Church

Potter's Hands

Os Guinness, in his excellent book, Renaissance, concerning the church in midst of the present challenges unprecedented in Western Culture, notes the culture changing and culture shaping power of the gospel, when the gospel is both declared by God’s People and is actively shaping God’s People.  When many of our churches are caving in pursuit of “relevance”, which is hoped will cause people to “like” the church, so we can keep our numbers up, I think Guinness offers a both prophetic and strategic word:

What we have here in the teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures, and amplified in Augustine, is the very heart of the secret of the culture-shaping power of the gospel in the church. When the church goes to either of two extremes, and is so “in the world” that it is of the world and worldly, or so “not of the world” that it is otherworldly and might as well be out of the world altogether, it is powerless and utterly irrelevant.  But when the church, through its faithfulness and its discernment of the times, lives truly “in” but “not of” the world, and is therefore the City of God engaging the City of Man, it touches off the secret of its culture-shaping power. For the intellectual and social tension of being “in” but “not of” the world provides the engagement-with-the-critical-distance that is the source of the church’s culture-shaping power.

In short, the decisive power is always God’s, through his Word and Spirit. But on her side the church contributes three distinct human factors to the equation: engagement, discernment, and refusal.

First, the church is called to engage and to stay engaged, to be faithful and obedient in that it puts aside all other preferences of its own and engages purposefully with the world as the Lord commands.

Second, the church is called to discern, to exercise its spiritual and cultural discernment of the best and worst of the world of its day, in order to see clearly where it is to be “in” and where it is to be “not of” that world.

Third, the church is called to refuse, a grand refusal to conform to or comply with anything and everything in the world that is against the way of Jesus and his kingdom.

Being the Church in the World: Distinctiveness

In this video John Stott discusses what he calls one of the most neglected themes in the Bible: Distinctiveness.

With all the clamoring for church to be seen as relevant in our culture, perhaps we – the Church – have lost sight of the call to be different.  Not different for the sake of being different, but different nevertheless.  Christians are to be different because, rather than being conformed to the principles of this world, we are more-and-more to be conformed to the likeness of Christ – in character, in passions, and in perspective.  We are to be formed by the Word, and consequently we become different from those around us.

Relevance has it’s place.  There is no merit in being irrelevant – and even less in just being weird.  But relevance must be considered as only one item, and it must be understood alongside with how we are also to be different from the world around us, and distinct in the communities where we live.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics – An Interview

I am not a fan of Diane Rehm, by any measure.  Not only do I find her views unpalatable, her voice grates my ears.  But as I was driving to an appointment today I clicked the NPR preset on my JEEP radio and in the matter of seconds had my attention arrested by the discussion between Rehm and her guest, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.  Earlier this week Douthat released a book provocatively titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  This book was only on my “To Read” list – or at least, it was on the list to put on my list, but now it on my “Definite Read” list.

I have no doubt that there are areas of doctrinal difference that I have with Douthat, but as I listened to him make his points and respond to Rehm and some of her regulars, I could not help but nod in agreement.   Douthat offers some astute cultural observations that, being missional, I cannot ignore.

To listen to today’s interview click: Bad Religion

Different Worlds

While I’ve long known it, recently I’ve finding the following quote to be painfully all too true:

Following Jesus today requires you to practice the same single-minded non-conformity. And it will produce the same effect in your life that it did with Jesus.  If you truly follow Jesus, in addition to enjoying a most excellent adventure, you will likely end up seeming too Christian for many of your pagan friends and too pagan for many of your Christian friends.  When you truly follow Jesus, you’ll spend considerable time in the world like he did, and as a result, many of your religious friends will think you’re too irreligious. On the other hand, many of your irreligious friends will find it odd that you are so focused on the spiritual.  Thus, you end up seeming both too Christian AND too pagan.

~ Dick Staub, Too Christian, Too Pagan

To Speak or Not to Speak

I am torn.

According to a recent article by the Florida Baptist Witness, a group of concerned citizens are recruiting pastors to challenge a 55 year old law that prohibits non-profit organizations, including churches, from endorsing specific political candidates.  Practically speaking this law empowers the IRS to censor the content that is offered from church pulpits. 

On the one hand, I am sympathetic to this cause because I do not believe that anyone should censor legitimate speach.  In a free society political speach should not be censored. Further, while not being an alarmist, I am concerned that allowing the government this authority to regulate what is proclaimed from a church pulpit may one day broaden and include other issues that are moral-theological in nature but that have political implications – or that have simply become politicized.  The IRS is an agency with all authority and functions with a “guilty until proven innocent” M.O.  Having them as regulators is a dangerous proposition.

On the other hand, the pulpit is a place that should be unconditionally reserved for the proclamation of the Gospel.  PERIOD! While I do not like my civil rights infringed, I have no right, under God’s direction, to use the pulpit for anything other than declaring, teaching, and applying God’s Word.  Political speach becomes an easy – and often seductive – substitute for the real responsibility that ministers of the Gospel are charged to do.  Loosening the present law will not change my conviction, nor my practice, whatsoever.  But if the present law will keep some of my clergical colleagues focused on our collective purpose, well, that seems to be a good thing.

For those interested in this discussion, you might want to check out: Speak Up Movement

Keller on Being Salt & Light

Working through the Sermon on the Mount on Sunday mornings, a few weeks ago I preached from Matthew 5.13-16, the Salt & Light passage. What I explained to our congregation is that, after instrucitng us about what our attitude ought to be as citizens of the Kingdom, Jesus goes on to reveal the Influence he expects his people to have on the communites where we live, and on the world around us.

In this video Tim Keller offers his thoughts about being Salt & Light.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

With proper dues to Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changin'”.   I found that glaringly evident when, earlier this week, someone sent me the following video that was oringianlly presented to a gathering of SONY executives.

When I watch this video I find myself wondering about the implications for the church, especially as it relates to our mission to extend the Gospel to the ends of the Earth.  Some things are exciting, others a little unnerving.  See what you think.

I’d be interested in any thoughts that come to mind.

Making a World of Difference

“What will it take to change the world – to really change it for the better?”

Ron Sider asks that question in the Introduction to his book, Living Like Jesus.  And his question resonates with me. It has for a long time – long before I heard Sider aksing it. 

I grow bored and frustrated with a faith that simply exists to perpetuate itself.  It has never seemed to me to be the faith I see in the Bible.  The early disciples of Jesus turned the world upside down! Jesus came to reclaim the world that is rightfully his.  Somehow, isolating oursleves while singing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” does not seem to match God’s purpose for his church.

The church of Jesus Christ is intended to be an expression of what the Kingdom of God is and will be.  We are called to be influencers in a world that is corrupt to its very core.  (See Matthew 5:13-16 & Jeremiah 29:7)

And we are to be influencers while recognizing that we have been infected by the very corruption of sin that is continuing to devastate the world around us. We are not immune. But we are in remission because of the blood of Christ. (See Romans 3:25 & Hebrews 9:22

Such an understanding shapes our attitdes as we do what we are called to do. Knowing that we are not superior, but are totally dependent upon the grace of God in the blood of Christ, we are humble and compassionate toward the world we are called to serve.  And knowing that our only hope is God’s grace, we glorify God through thankfulness to him and dependence upon him. 

Sadly, I see too may churches, and too many Christians, who have chosen to isolate themselves from the world they see as polluted.  They have no intention of trying to influence it, only to escape it. 

This seems foolish to me for a number of reasons.

First, it is directly disobedient to God’s intention for his people (See Genesis 12:2-3).  The motive for this disobedience may be the understanding that we are not immune to the corruption of sin. It is therefore an act of self preservation; it is an attempt to avoid becomming infected.  But it is still disobedience to God.  And it is a lack of functional faith that he will preserve his people.

Secondly, self preservation is misguided because, as Romans 3:23 shows us, we have all already beeen infected! We can hide if we want, but it will do us no good.  The infection is already inside the camp!

Finally, worst of all are those who isolate themselves and live as if they think they are immune to the effect of sin. These are self-righteous separatists. If they are impervious to sin, why isolate themselves? Such people make no positive influence on the world that I can see.  And frankly, because of their wrong view of themsleves and their direct disobedience to God, I am not sure I really consider them truly Christian! (However, I don’t get a vote.)

So I wrestle with the question: How can we make a difference? How can we change the world? How can we influence it toward what God intends it to be?

Sider offers an answer to his own question:

“I think the answer is simple: It would take just a tiny fraction of today’s Christians truly believeing what Jesus taught and living the way Jesus lived.”

I think Sider is right.

Siders book elaborates on practical ways we need to examine our lives, and ways our lives are to reflect the life & teaching of Jesus.  It revolves around what Sider labels Characteristics of a Genuine Christian: 

1. Genuine Christians embrace both God’s holiness and God’s love.

2. Genuine Christians live like Jesus.

3. Genuine Christians keep their marriage covenants and put children before career.

4. Genuine Christians nurture daily spiritual renewal and live in the power of the Spirit.

5. Genuine Christians strive to make the church a little picture of what heaven will be like.

6. Genuine Christians love the whole person the way Jesus did.

7. Genuine Christians mourn church divisions and embrace all who confess Jesus as God and Savior.

8. Genuine Christians confess that Jesus is Lord of politics and economics.

9. Genuine Christians share God’s special concern for the poor.

10. Genuine Christians treasure the creation and worship the Creator.

1l. Genuine Christians embrace servanthood.

This list alone is worth the price of the book. 

I think much good would come if we sincerely reflected on these premises.  How much more if we began to humbly acknowledge that often we have been negligent in many of these areas, and began to act on them in accordance with the teaching and life of Christ?

I suspect we would see our influence grow; that our influence would be viewed as a positive thing.  I suspect we may even see Proverbs 11:10 come to life:

When the righteous prosper the city rejoices;  When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy!