Worshiping America: Memorial Day, Patriotism, and the Church

God bless America

Land that I love

Stand beside her, and guide her

Through the night with a light from above

God Bless America will undoubtedly be sung in thousands of parades, picnics, services, and churches to celebrate Memorial Day. First instituted after the Civil War to commemorate Union and Confederate soldiers who had died, it was extended after World War I to be a day honoring all Americans who had died in war. Beyond the weighty task of reminding us of the price paid for our freedom, Memorial Day weekend serves as the unofficial start of the summer season with its vacations, cookouts, and fireworks. Americans will enthusiastically lift their voices wherever they gather to sing God Bless America, America the Beautiful, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, The Star Spangled Banner, and perhaps a rendition of Neil Diamond’s America.

While Christians should join to sing these songs at parades and picnics, should they be doing so in a church worship service? Do displays of patriotism have a place in Christian worship or should they be reserved for the local minor league baseball stadium? The church I grew up in regularly mixed God and country. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were occasions to prominently display the American flag, have veterans wear their uniforms to church, and congregationally sing every patriotic hymn in the book. Many a tear was shed and hand raised in salute at the sacrifices of soldiers and success of the United States. I even recall a seminary chapel service I attended where all of the students were led in My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. God and country seemed to fit together like two houses of congress.

One Sunday I was sitting in a church worship service on Memorial Day weekend reminiscent of what I experienced growing up. The choir was singing a patriotic hymn while images of America and her military were displayed on the screen. At the end of the song, the congregation eagerly rose to its feet in thunderous applause, profoundly moved by the images and music. On that day, America received more heartfelt and enthusiastic worship than Jesus did on the average Sunday. It is tragic when followers of Jesus are more moved by Normandy than Calvary, more inspired by God Bless America than In Christ Alone, and more challenged by the soldier than the Savior.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a patriot who loves my country. Words cannot describe the depth of my gratitude to the soldiers who have given their lives for the sake of others. I believe, while America has done both good and evil in the world, the good has outweighed the bad. I’m not afraid to stand up next to you and admit Lee Greenwood’s Proud to Be an American can still a bring a tear to my eye. But I love Christ more. My allegiance to Him surpasses my allegiance to any person or country. He alone is God and He shares His glory with no one. When Christians elevate country and render worship which is God’s unto Caesar (America) they commit idolatry.

Early Christians would have been confused at our mixing of God and country. In the Roman Empire in which they lived, God and country were the same. To worship the gods was to declare loyalty to Rome. Since Christians refused to sacrifice, burn incense or acknowledge Caesar as lord, they were branded as disloyal and identified as a threat. Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, in dealing with accusations brought against Christians in 112, was supported by Emperor Trajan in releasing any who denied Christ by reciting a prayer to the gods and offering incense and wine to the statue of the emperor. For the Roman Christian, patriotism was the acceptance of a god other than Christ – something they could not do. For us, it is more complicated. At what point does patriotism become the false worship of country as a god?

Each person must wrestle with this individually but churches can blur the line between patriotism and idolatry by taking time designated for the worship of God and devoting it to America. Can we imagine the early church singing praises to Rome? Since the state was equated with god it would be idolatry; so is singing praises to America during a time of worship acceptable? Jesus declared in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting…” Honoring those who have served and died and reflecting on their sacrifice can be powerful, but caution is warranted. We have gathered to worship Christ and Christ alone. Anything less is a sad imitation and can lead a congregation into country idolatry.

Turning one’s country into a god destroys the very spirit of unity Memorial Day exists to create. If you make country a god you will be constantly stressed about the direction it is going. You will exalt those you believe are helping it and demonize those you believe are hurting it. It’s not simple disagreement; they’re ruining your country!  You will look down on other places and other peoples as inferior. You will become ethnocentric – caring little about the world because only your country is worthy of attention. If you feel your country is a good god, you will exalt its achievements, but if you feel it is a bad god, you will harp on its failings. You cannot see it objectively because too much is at stake. A country may be a great place to live and a worthy cause for which to die, but it makes for a horrible god.

This Memorial Day, let’s devote our worship services to Jesus and not America. He receives so little of what He truly deserves of our lives that to take time devoted to Him and to give it to a lesser god is a tragic mistake. Then, after we have worshiped Jesus, we can remember the troops, salute the flag, and sing God Bless America.

-Brian

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Does Being a Christian Mean I Have to Be a Wimp?

There is a popular notion that Christ is really nice and polite. He never gets angry or uses strong language. He doesn’t criticize those with whom he disagrees. He welcomes every person and every belief and would never judge. As a result, his followers are called to be nice and polite. They aren’t allowed to get angry or ever use harsh words. They should love and accept everything instead of criticizing and judging.

This is notion surfaces when someone writes a controversial book. As critics rise up, calls for acceptance and the suspension of judgment rise higher. This happens on a smaller level in denominations, churches, small groups, and college ministries. Somebody teaches or promotes an unbiblical idea. Leaders begin making decisions apart from the Scriptures. Sinful actions without repentance are allowed to continue unchecked. Someone says, “Isn’t there something wrong with this?” But they are quickly silenced with assurances that God is love, Jesus wouldn’t judge, and we should just give them a hug and a Hallmark card.

These attitudes are founded on certain assumptions about Jesus. One of these is that Jesus is love and love only. Love defines Jesus; not the other way around. Even worse, this love that defines Jesus is defined according to human (and usually American) concepts of love rather than biblical ones. Since Jesus is love, he accepts and tolerates everyone and everything. Jesus’ ultimate goal is to hug all of humanity, light a candle, and sing “God Bless the Broken Road”. This Jesus set our example on the cross where he suffered the consequences of loving the poor and oppressed and challenging the status quo.

Is this a complete picture of Jesus? Do we just go on loving and accepting until there is no one left to love and accept? When sin, false teaching, ungodly leadership, and more abound are we really to be – for lack of a better word – wimps? Do we follow the supposed way of Christ and just give in for love’s sake?

To find out, let’s take on everyone’s favorite verse, Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But beware; appearances can be deceiving. This famous saying of Jesus isn’t telling us not to judge. Here’s the rest of the passage:

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

The problem isn’t judging; it’s failing to judge oneself by the same standard. Jesus calls us to examine ourselves and repent of our own sin before we approach someone who is in error or in sin. He tells us to take the speck out of our brother’s eye – in effect, to judge them after critically judging ourselves. We begin with the assumption that we are the worst sinner; this gives us the humility and confidence in the gospel to take on other sinners.

Guided by the Scriptures and having repented of our own sin, we can stop being wimps and carefully correct false teaching, lovingly rebuke sin, and boldly confront ungodly leaders. This is what we see Jesus and the apostles doing in the New Testament.

Jesus instructs in Matthew 7 to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” In chapter 10 he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”  In chapter 16 he says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” In Matthew 21, he overturns tables and calls all who buy and sell in the temple courts “robbers.” In Matthew 23 he calls the Pharisees hypocrites, blind guides, children of hell, lawless, a family of snakes, and murderers.

Paul says about false teachers in Galatia “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves.” Peter says of false teachers in 2 Peter 2, “These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.” John says in 1 John 3, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning is of the devil.” These are not soft words. Where is the tolerance? Where is the acceptance? Where is the hug?

In judging, rebuking, or confronting we must avoid being a wimp, a jerk, or a coward. Wimps sit quietly in the pews, shaking their heads and hoping sin and false teaching will go away by itself. They allow these to destroy lives, families, and churches without lifting a finger. Wimps are strong on love, but weak on justice. Jerks know they’re right and they’re proud of it. They don’t distinguish between real problems and minor disagreements and enjoy pointing out everyone else’s errors and moral failings. These folks are strong on justice, but weak on love. Cowards, unlike wimps, are willing to judge sin and false teaching but, unlike jerks, are unwilling to confront those at fault. They lack the courage to confront the problematic person or group and instead spread dissension and mistrust under the radar. The tragedy of the coward is they end up being just as poisonous as the very thing they oppose.

When sin, ungodliness, and false teaching crop up we avoid being wimps, jerks, or cowards by following the real Jesus. Jesus is both loving and just. He is the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God. He spares the woman caught in adultery yet tells her to go and sin no more. He rips into the spiritual leadership of the Jews yet weeps over Jerusalem. He casts out teachers who prophesy falsely in His name yet gives mercy to the repentant tax collector. This is the way of Jesus. He is suffering servant and glorious king. He was not a wimp who just accepted everything, a jerk who looked down on others, or a coward who was afraid to confront. Following Him is not easy, but it is worth it. Will we?

-Brian

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Maternity and the Gospel: A Word to Churches on Mother’s Day

Motherhood is a role worthy of celebration. Churches will be full of families and corsages this Sunday as our country observes Mother’s Day. Many churches have traditions for honoring moms: passing out a “mom” book, having them stand and often a sermon from Proverbs 31, highlighting a famous wife and mother from Scripture. We are reminded to thank God for our mothers, their sacrifices, homemade cookies and godly influence. I would offer churches an insight for this day: as you celebrate, consider the broken, failing and empty.

Not everyone grew up with the mother of Proverbs 31. Gone are the days of assuming everyone in your church and on your block had a kind and loving mother who took them to church, nursed their scrapes and faithfully attended to her home and family. We have moms who are (or were) absent, apathetic, abusive and adulterous. As great as it would be for everyone to have glowing memories of their mothers, many do not. Worse, some do not understand and haven’t come to terms with why their childhood (and maybe adulthood) does not contain this angelic creature who embraced to the fullest her God-given role as a mom. Please consider the broken.

Also consider the failing. Mother’s Day can be a harsh reminder to many that things in their family are not good. Their children are wayward, in trouble or stagnate. Some haven’t heard from their children in years; some have, but what they’ve heard is hateful and heartbreaking. Moms lament over their mistakes and see no hope for the future. Others are reminded of a dark past that included abortion. Whether Christian or not, many who have aborted a baby struggle with guilt and mourn the death of their little one on Mother’s Day. This day stirs not only joy but grief also. Consider the failing.

Lastly, consider the empty. The pews will be filled with women who are infertile, have miscarried or who have buried one of their children. There are not enough cards to compensate for the feeling of emptiness some experience on this day. They will be sitting next to big families, new babies and could feel awkwardly out of place. They will smile and pretend to be happy when the oldest mom, newest mom and mom with the most children stand while the congregation applauds them. While for many this day means a nice dinner out, it is an aching reminder to others that they are not moms or have lost children. Think about the empty.

This Sunday will not be a Hallmark commercial for many, but there is great potential for healing and hope.  No matter if your church is in the city, suburb or pasture, these women will be sitting in your pews. We have the weighty task this Mother’s Day of giving them the greatest hope which is Christ. I pray that this Sunday, you will make much of Jesus and no one else.

-Emily

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Maternity and the Gospel Part 2: Where is God in Miscarriage and Infant Death?

The elation of a positive home pregnancy test. The calculated due date. Thoughts of friends who can give you hand-me downs. Waiting to hear the drumming of a tiny heart on the monitor. Just the thought that this pregnancy will end without a baby is crushing; more crushing still is when it does. You’ve miscarried.

Maybe worse is the loss later in the pregnancy or after birth. Showers, nurseries, ultrasounds and a name have prepared a happy path for his or her arrival. Something went horribly wrong and in addition to the shock of the baby’s death is a funeral, burial and the storing away of little diapers.

There is no bouncing back. Death is avoided, unknown and the heaviest of human experiences. Its early thieving of the crib is death at its hardest. Some want an explanation while others wish it to be nothing more than the luck of life; if it is not chance then there exists a vile and guilty party. Even though we can’t solve the “why” we still seek to understand. Amidst the mystery of miscarriage and infant death are a few certainties: death comes to all, God grieves death and babies are with Jesus.

An unchanging statistic is that one out of one people will die. The penalty for sin is death, effective in the garden after Adam and Eve rebelled: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).” The curse reached beyond the first couple: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12).” Our bodies are broken by sin and prone to disease, abnormality and accident. We cannot reproduce perfectly every time. Ten to 20% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage.  In 2005, 11% of U.S. pregnancies between 20 and 37 weeks gestation ended in death and in 2006 six out of 1,000 babies born alive died. Consider also the curse given to women in Genesis: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;with painful labor you will give birth to children (3:16).” Not only did the physical pain of actual childbirth increase, but the entirety of parenthood, from conception to rearing, was rendered difficult. Death is not for a certain age or circumstances and is no less a death if it occurs in the womb. It could be at 8 weeks, 10 months or 16 years, but death will come to all and the timing never seems right to us.

As we grieve lost babies, so does our Lord. Because He knows the time and means by which all die does not discount His genuine grief. Jesus famously wept at the death of His friend Lazarus, fully aware He would be the One to restore Lazarus to life only minutes later. His crying was not shallow or for show; there is no deception in our Savior. In addition to personal grief, He was perfectly living out Romans 12:15: “…mourn with those who mourn.” God is still in the business of mourning with us. Why is this comforting? Christians do not worship an impersonal, detached task-master. The Father gave His Son over to death for wretched sinners. Not only did He send Him to die and resurrect, but also to identify with us by experiencing our joys and sorrows, struggles and temptations as prophesied in Isaiah: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…(53:4).” God wholly grieves the loss of a baby.

Lastly, we remain confident in the heavenly destiny for those who die in infancy and the womb. Christian parents who have lost children to miscarriage and infant death can eagerly anticipate meeting them in heaven. Among their ranks is King David who, when his son died as a young child, said to his servants, “But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me (2 Samuel 12:23).” David, author of countless Psalms praising God for His character, believed he would meet his child in eternity. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Mark 10:14).” The Son of God affirms that His kingdom contains and welcomes children. Death cannot hinder these precious ones from the hand of the Father who wills them home. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2, we were dead in our sins before God alone made us alive with Christ. The implication? The dead (spiritually and physically) cannot help themselves and are in need of a Savior. The business of giving the gift of salvation is His alone. Scripture points to the election of the unborn and infants.

The complexity and pain of an actual loss is not squelched with words. Images aren’t forgotten. Trying to conceive post-loss brings conflicting emotions and stress. Fears of future losses weigh heavy. Could God prevent miscarriage and infant death? Yes. Just as He does not intervene to prevent every tragedy, He will not always prevent these. While losing a baby is a deep wound, it’s not an eternal one. After Job lost everything (including all children), his declaration was stunning: “Though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him (Job 13:15).”

-Emily

13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

Excellent book for parents grieving a lost baby:

I Will Carry You: The Sacred Dance of Grief and Joy by Angie Smith. Broadman and Holman Publishers 2010.

Ministry for infertility, miscarriage, infant death and post-abortion:

http://www.calebministries.org/

Al Mohler’s theological defense for the election of infants:

http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/07/16/the-salvation-of-the-little-ones-do-infants-who-die-go-to-heaven/

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Tornados, Floods, and Earthquakes, Oh my! Why O God?

On Friday, March 11 an 8.9 magnitude earthquake ripped the sea floor off the coast of Japan, shaking that country for 3 to 5 minutes and sending a massive 23 foot tsunami wave onto land, sweeping 14,700 people to their deaths and leaving 26 million tons of debris in its wake.

On Wednesday, April 27 tornados with winds approaching 200 miles an hour descended on seven states killing over 340 people. Tuscaloosa, Alabama was the hardest hit; the tornados there damaged over 5700 buildings.

This week floodwaters threaten to overwhelm the levy protecting the town of Cairo, IL. Floods have already swept away many homes in Midwest states and hundreds have had to evacuate to shelters as rivers continue to rise.

As Christians, we believe God is in control of nature. Psalm 135:6-7 says:

Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.

If Psalm 135 is true, God seems to have a hand in the natural disasters we have seen in March and April of 2011. The question of those experiencing Tsunami-initiated nuclear meltdown in Japan, picking up pieces of their lives in Tuscaloosa, seeing their home float away in Illinois, or just viewing it all on television may be, “why oh God?”

The Bible tells us these disasters are a result of evil. In the book of Job, two natural disasters – fire from heaven and a great wind – take his property and the lives of his employees and children.  Job attributes these to God (Job 1:21) but the reader knows these are caused directly by Satan. Romans 8:21-22 states creation is “in bondage to corruption” and “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth.” When humanity sinned all of creation was subject to the devastating corruption that followed. Tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and disease are the groaning of a creation bound by the sin of those God appointed to have dominion over it (Gen. 1:28). Like citizens feeling the consequences of the sins and failures of their king, so creation experiences the consequences of the sins and failures of its human stewards.

Some will say – is not God sovereign over both Satan and creation? He most certainly is. They can do nothing apart from His allowing it. So then we naturally ask, “Why does He allow it?” The short answer is no one ultimately knows and no one ultimately has the standing from which to question God. That is the answer Job receives from God about the trouble that has befallen him. God says in Job 40:2, 7-9:

Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let Him answer it… Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like His?

We can in no way begin to approach the understanding to comprehend the ways of God, nor do we have the position from which to question Him. That said, the Bible does not leave us there.

Every disaster God allows is a reminder of our need to repent and turn to Him. In Luke 13, Jesus offers commentary on two tragedies. The government had killed some locals who were offering sacrifices and a tower in Jerusalem had collapsed and killed eighteen people. Jesus clarifies that these tragedies happened not because the individual sins of those killed were so great, but because everyone’s sin is great and it is a reminder we all need to repent. About each incident he says, “…unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” When we see an earthquake shake a city, a tornado tear apart a town, or a flood overwhelm a neighborhood we should realize we deserve no better. Thus, we turn to Christ in repentance for our sins that have earned us far worse.

Disasters are also a physical reminder of a much more devastating spiritual reality – that we are separated from God and dead in our sins. In our normal, upbeat, and busy lives, where we work and entertain ourselves into oblivion, we simply miss this reality. Disasters awaken us to Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” We deserve God’s wrath, yet each day He pours out His grace on believer and unbeliever alike. When disaster strikes we lift our fist to the sky and demand, “Why oh God!” but should be more shocked when God pours joy and blessings into our sinful lives. Those lounging on a tropical beach, holding a newborn baby, or eating a juicy steak don’t often lift their fists to the sky and demand, “Why oh God! You are too good to a sinner who deserves your wrath” but if God is holy and just, we probably should.

John Piper expresses it this way:

The point of every deadly calamity is this: Repent. Let our hearts be broken that God means so little to us. Grieve that he is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure. Lament that he makes headlines only when man mocks his power, but no headlines for ten thousand days of wrath withheld.

Disasters are the result of evil, both satanic and human. Yet God rules sovereignly over Satan and sin. We cannot understand or question why a certain tornado or flood occurred. Yet He allows these as an expression of his wrath and a reminder to repent and turn to Him. They are not retaliation towards individuals, but symptoms of the brokenness our sin has brought into the world. The real scandal is that God gives so many good gifts when our sin warrants the opposite. We should be stunned not by the bad days, but by the good.

God is more gracious and loving still. For the Christian, God is present with (Matt. 28:20) and comforts us in the midst of our suffering (2 Cor. 1:3-4). He uses it to bring about good for us beyond what we can imagine (Rom. 8:28). He weeps with us in our pain (John 11:35). He takes our sorrows and suffering upon Himself at the cross and dies for us (Isa. 53:4-5). One day, He will wipe away every tear and bring all evil and disasters to an end (Rev. 21:4). When the earth shakes, the wind blows, and the waters rise we have a God who rules powerfully over it and who runs toward our trouble, not away from it. Trust Him. He is love and He is gracious.

-Brian

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