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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Fourth

This Saturday we celebrate the Fourth, a uniquely American holiday. No other nation has a holiday quite like it. No other nation on earth has aspired to a higher and simpler ideal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Eighty-seven years afterward, on July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army withdrew in defeat from Gettysburg. On that same day, Vicksburg fell to Grant, two pivotal battles that decided the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery.

On July 4, 1884, France presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States.

In many ways the history of our nation has been written by our efforts to live up to the Declaration of freedom and equality for all. We are currently engage in perhaps our greatest struggle to rise to the ideals of our nation since the Civil Rights movement.

We have learned that ultimate freedom can never be achieved though legislation and government alone, as important as those are. Ultimate freedom must be achieved in each human heart. Every one of us must fight a personal war with our own sin nature that seeks to make us captive and steal our freedom. We see everyday in the lives of our politicians, sports heroes and celebrities the consequences of losing that battle in the secret places of the heart. Greed, corruption and prejudice remain the greatest obstacles to freedom and equality.

The pervasiveness of sin is perhaps the best documented reality in our world. The media is filled with daily accounts of its presence and the horrendous consequences it can create.

Two thousand years ago another document was drafted. It was not voted upon by representatives and did not found any government. But those words spoken long ago hold the secret to the ideals that we have embraced. Jesus said, “I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin … If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

God sent His Son into the world not merely to pay the penalty for our sin so that we might enter Heaven, He sent Him in order that He might overcome sin’s grip on our lives and set us free. The Apostle Paul had once been enslaved to ambition, anger and prejudice. He started his early career arresting the innocent and locking them up. But he found a better way. He confessed, “The good that I would do, I don’t. And that that I don’t want to do is exactly what I end up doing … Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24).

This Fourth, as we celebrate the freedom envisioned by our nation’s founders, may we experience true freedom that is found through faith in the One who laid down his life for all people of every nation and every generation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

What Are You Worried About?

The world gives us plenty to worry about. 

Many worry about Covid-19. Following efforts to re-open, more than half of the States report increased Caronavirus cases. Last week my wife and I ventured back to a restaurant wearing our masks and seated in an isolated booth. We attended our first church service since March, again wearing a mask and sitting apart from our friends. The U.S. continues to lead the world with more than 2.3 million confirmed cases and 120,000 deaths. 

Students worry about their educations.  Colleges, universities and schools remain undecided about whether they can open their campuses, and to what degree. Many are preparing to continue online-education in the fall.   

Some worry about their jobs.  Stimulus checks have been spent and, over 20 million Americans remain unemployed. While job opportunities are improving, millions worry about their income after unemployment checks run out.

Some worry about the stock market.  Although it has made a dramatic recovery since its collapse in mid-March, the economy remains uncertain and a second wave of Covid-19 could trigger another dramatic downturn.

Some worry about the social upheaval and unrest that has swept across our country with demonstrations for racial equality in cities large and small.  Racial icons of the past are being pulled down. The Confederate flag has been banned from NASCAR.  The commissioner of the NFL has apologized to those who took a knee to protest police brutality.   

The list goes on.  There are lots of things to worry about.  Some big. Some small.

Worry can be a good thing.  Like physical pain, worry can serve as a signal that we need to take action for ourselves and the welfare of others. But worry can also debilitate. All of us experience circumstances beyond our control.  In such cases, worry can rob us of sleep, steal our energy and cripple our creativity.

Jesus clearly wanted us to live our lives free from debilitating worry.

Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25-34).

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Liberty and Justice for All

I don’t remember when I learned the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.  I guess it was sometime before I learned to read or write, probably when I first entered school.  I grew up reciting the pledge at school assemblies, cub scouts, Vacation Bible School and on many other occasions.  We all said it in unison, hands over our hearts our eyes focused on the stars and stripes.  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” When I first learned those words, there were 48 stars on the flag.  By the time I entered high school, there were 50.

When I first recited the pledge I did not know the word “indivisible” or how to pronounce it.  Like many children, I thought it was an “invisible” nation.  At church I learned that our nation was “under God.”  This was reinforced by the inscriptions on our currency that declared, “In God we trust.” 

I was proud to live in a country that provided “liberty and justice for all.” It wasn’t until later that I realized that promise wasn’t true for everyone.  I attended Robert E. Lee elementary my first six years of school in a small Texas town.  When we recited the pledge of allegiance the Confederate general was staring down at us from his picture on the wall.  He looked proud astride his horse Traveler. But there was a sadness in his eyes.  There were no black students in our school, nor did any attend the others elementary schools named for Texas heroes: Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, William B. Travis and James Fannin.  All the black students attended Lincoln elementary on the East side of town where black families lived.  I did not know any of them. There were many liberties, I learned, that my black contemporaries did not enjoy: drinking fountains, swimming pools, restroom facilities, colleges and universities, employment opportunities.

I lived through the Civil Rights movement and, as a young pastor, worked to integrate our churches and overcome prejudice. But we continued to fall short of our national pledge.  The killing of George Floyd has catapulted our nation to a new threshold. We pray that recent events will lead to a better day when the reality of our world might reflect our pledge of allegiance:  “liberty and justice for all.” 

Seeking justice and equality is at the center of God’s heart. David writes, “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love” (Ps 33:5). Isaiah says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:17).

“Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another’” (Zechariah 7:9-10).

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Prayer Perspective

Perhaps you have heard the story of the church that was incensed because a local bar opened across the street.  Knowing nothing else to do, the church members mounted a prayer campaign to rid themselves of this blight on the neighborhood.  They prayed that God would intervene to remove the bar. 

A thunderous storm soon swept across the town and a streak of lightning lit up the sky, striking the bar. The building burst into flames and burned to the ground.  The owner of the bar sued the church for the destruction of his property as a result of their prayers. The church defended itself claiming that the lightning strike was an accidental act of nature.  The judge sat perplexed in front of the plaintiff and defendant.  “It appears,” he said, “that I have a bar owner who believes in prayer and a church that doesn’t.”

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln pondered the issue of prayer. Both the north and the south were religious. Both believed they were right and both prayed for victory.  After his death, the following note was found in his papers: “The will of God prevails — In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is somewhat different from the purpose of either party.” 

It is widely reported that during the civil war Lincoln met with a group of ministers at a prayer breakfast who tried to encourage him. They told the president that they had prayed that “God would be on our side.”  Lincoln corrected them saying, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”

How do we pray and what do we pray for?  The Bible is clear that we should let our needs be known to God, that nothing is too great or too small for prayer.  We must be careful, however, that our prayers are not merely extensions of our own self-interest and desires.  And we must not allow prayer to degenerate into a tug of war to get God to line up on our side against the interests and desires of others.

When Jesus gave us the model prayer, he taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Everything else in the prayer flows from this and is secondary to this.  But Jesus went a step further.  He not only gave us a model prayer to guide our words, he demonstrated how to pray when he faced death on the cross and  prayed, “Father, not my will but thine be done.” 

Prayer works best when it brings us into alignment with God and his purposes on the earth, purposes that often are at odds with our own.  When we pray this way we will love our enemies, do good for those who abuse us and give ourselves generously for others.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Our Moral Drift and the Way Back

Five years ago I wrote about Sandra Bland, a 28-year old black woman who changed lanes in Waller County, Texas to allow an approaching patrol car to pass.  Instead of passing, the patrolman pulled her over for failure to signal a lane change. The video of her arrest was haunting.  Sandra was understandably upset.  How many times have we all changed lanes without giving a signal? She was simply moving over to let the policeman by.  It seemed like such a trivial stop.

 She showed her irritation.  The officer was insulted and grew angry, demanding she put out her cigarette. She refused.  He threatened to “light her up” with his Taser, forced her from her car, manhandled her off to the side of the road, wrestled her to the ground, handcuffed her and carted her off to jail. Three days later, unable to post bond, Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell, victim of an apparent suicide.  A graduate of Prairie View A&M, she had been a part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

 The video was disturbing because of the injustice of it all, similar to the video of George Floyd.  Both videos are disturbing because of repeated incidents of police brutality against black persons.  They are disturbing because they represents our cultural drift from the values that make life work.  Our politicians hurl insults at one another, calling names, seldom restrained by the truth.  People scream at one another in movies and dramas, releasing unrestrained anger.  We laugh at the snide remarks of comedians. The principles of courtesy, respect, patience, honesty and forgiveness seem to be slipping away.  

 Have we slipped our Christian moorings?  Are we adrift in a sea of uncertainty that has no true North, no compass? Are the darker impulses of prejudice, fear and hatred leading us off a cliff?
 We turned to science and technology believing they would pave the way to a brighter future.  And, while science and technology have given us a higher standard of living with conveniences our forefathers never dreamed, they cannot provide the values necessary for living with each other.

 They are found in the words of Jesus:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Be merciful as your father is merciful.”  “Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down and running over.”  They are found in the Lord’s Prayer.

 The stones for our pathway forward are found in the fruits of the Spirit that overcome the flesh: “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, ...  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:19-23).

 I was appalled when the President used federal officers to disperse peaceful protestors so he could have a photo op in front of St John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible. The Bible and the church must never be used as political props. 

 Faith that fosters forgiveness and respect for all people of all races is essential to our survival