America: A Place of Refuge

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.” Deuteronomy 23:15-16

Those of us who remember the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Iraq to Isis should not be surprised at the recent return of Afghanistan to Taliban control. Likewise, the recent bombings of Afghan citizens and US soldiers outside the Kabul airport should come as no surprise. Our own Civil War followed by over a hundred years of black American struggle for equal rights proves to us that victory on the battlefield does not guarantee permanent social and political change.

Apparent failure aside, the 20 year long US presence in Afghanistan was justified. The Taliban hosted those who planned the 9-11 attacks on American soil. Their subsequent refusal to hand over those who perpetrated the attacks demanded a strong military response on the part of the US.

Unfortunately 20 years of US military action in Afghanistan left the nation no more secure than our previous actions in Vietnam and Iraq left their peoples. The departure of our military forces from each of these nations ignited flows of refugees. As I write Afghani citizens who allied themselves with our military and our concepts of democracy and religious freedom are fleeing for their lives. Bombings last week outside the Kabul airport suggest worse times are coming. Those bombings bring back other memories of citizens of the Soviet bloc countries risking their lives to get past the Iron Curtain. Like that past generation of Soviet fanatics, extreme Islamist theologians believe Muslim born people seeking to live outside of Muslim dominated regions are worthy of death.

Many Americans believe it is dangerous to accept Muslim refugees. They fear Muslims will some day take over our nation and impose their laws upon us. That is an argument based upon fear and lack of knowledge of what God has commanded and what He is doing. The Gospel preached by Jesus is breaking into Islamic regions. Higher birth levels aside, Islamic civilization and territory has been in retreat for generations. The extreme violence associated with fundamentalist Islamist movements is not a sign of success but of insecurity, loss and desperation. Fear of that violence is why so many Afghani citizens are fleeing their homeland.

We who follow Jesus are constrained by faith to receive the stranger in flight from oppression. We accept what has been given to us in the written Word: widows, orphans and foreign strangers are our neighbors; we cannot refuse to provide refuge to them. Similarly, patriotic Americans are honor-bound to protect those who served alongside our troops during the two decades we attempted to make Afghanistan into a nation more like our own. Those people need our help NOW. There is no shame in fleeing oppression; Matthew 10:23 quotes Jesus counsel to his disciples to flee persecution. Relocate, run as far as necessary to be safe! Whether faithful Christian, American patriot or both, we are duty-bound to receive as our guests and neighbors Afghan citizens seeking to flee our common enemy. Let us not abandon our Afghan allies in their time of need!

Comments On The Disunited States of America

Once there was a nation known as Yugoslavia. Near the end of it’s existence we visited it. Although a fascinating country, our visit was marred by a sense the people were filled with bitterness, resentment and resignation that something bad was about to happen. We didn’t realize it but they were a people preparing for war. Skip ahead to 2012. We had lived 20 years as residents of Japan but were now returning to the US. Sadly, we found the same foul spirit we had sensed in Yugoslavia operating in the United States. Even many of the Christians we knew and fellowshipped were affected by that spirit.

Where love, hope and patience ought to predominated we fond resentment, fear and aggression. We soon realized these ugly emotions were fueled by a steady diet of conspiracy theories, prejudice, half-truths and outright lies dispersed by pseudo-Christian commentators. They claimed special knowledge of hidden truths when all they really had was subjective opinions and feelings. These people dismissed fact checking and rules of evidence accepted since the time of the Greeks. Where Jesus said to trust God, they promoted a human champion who echoed their destructive narrative. Where the word of God said to wait and pray, they demanded immediate action. Where the word of God said to submit to the ruling authorities, they applauded sedition and insurrection. In the end it led to an attempt to subvert the 2020 election and the Constitution of the United States.

Christians need to toss off the false prophets and manipulative dissemblers who seeded the ground for the 2020 sacking of the US Capitol. Otherwise we will become participants in a failed state such as Syria and the former Yugoslavia became. We can avoid that fate. Turn off the radio, turn off the TV. Shut down the computer. Get rid of that book written by an angry conspiracy theorist. Go back to Jesus. Relearn the greatest of all laws: love God with all our heart, soul and might and love other types of people as we love our own type. It won’t be easy; living by the rule of love never is easy. But if we are able to do this we will live as children of our heavenly Father and as obedient citizens of the Kingdom of God!

Graven Images and the Bell That Cracked

The recent killing of a black American named George Floyd by police in Minneapolis ignited a storm of protests against white suppression of the black descendants of former slaves. In the United States and in England statues of formerly respected slave traders and slave owners are being toppled to the ground. The legislature of the state of Mississippi voted to remove from it’s flag the emblem that represents the failed Confederate States of America, perhaps the only attempt at nation building in which protecting and expand slavery was a primary objective.

Some people argue against the toppling of statues. They say history is history, that you should not wipe it out. I argue there is nothing at all wrong with removing ANY statues and icons. One of the commandments the LORD gave Israel was a prohibition against images and statues representing living beings. His reason was that we not value any other thing alongside Him. The toppling of those statues of formerly admired slave traders and slave owners in the US and in England reveals something of God’s attitude towards statues in general and those past “heroes” in particular.

As supporting evidence of what I believe God’s opinion is towards I call attention to one of our most treasured national icons, the Liberty Bell. The bell was commissioned in London in 1752. The words of Leviticus 25:10 “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof” are cast onto its surface. Wonderful words but words our European Founding Fathers did not apply to non-whites and people of “low social status.” Not when most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves! Of the most well known Founding Fathers, only Alexander Hamilton was prepared to speak publicly against the institution of slavery. Our first President, George Washington owned as many as 100 slaves. Apparently he and most of the other Founding Fathers did not believe the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness applied to people whose skin was not white like theirs. Is a surprise that the Liberty Bell cracked and could not be fixed? That to this day it sits broken and silent in a Philadelphia museum? Perhaps that crack and continued silence is God’s silent critique upon America’s original sin. Perhaps it can never be fixed till those engraved words from Leviticus are true for all Americans.

Concerning Messianic Presidents

Many American Christians believe the key to spiritual revival and national success is electing the right man to be President. As an idea it sounds good but there is less Biblical evidence in support of this notion than some Christians imagine. Although we do see instances of Biblical kings imposing institutional religious reforms and movements (good and bad!) upon Judah and Israel, the good reforms were at best temporary hindrances to the peoples’ drift further and further away from the God who had led them out of Egypt. Righteous remnant aside, the righteousness of individual kings accomplished little more than a temporary delay of God’s judgement of His rebellious people.

Regarding the institution and position of kings, Scripture informs us it was not God’s perfect will for Israel to have a king. Israel was established to be a peculiar people called into a personal relationship with the LORD who would be their king and rule through priests, circuit judges and the occasional prophet bringing a direct communication. It was this way for hundreds of years till a change in the thinking of the people caused them to demand from the LORD a king “like all the other nations.” 2nd Samuel 8:7 tells us the prophet Samuel was disturbed by their demand and prayed to the LORD regarding it. The LORD replied “Don’t take it personally. They have not rejected you – they have rejected me from being their king. Let’s give them what they want.” It was not a victory for the people; in giving the nation what they wanted the LORD was merely permitting them to do what they wanted to do; most kings promoted the downward spiral to national division and eventual destruction.

Israel’s first and second kings were specially chosen by God. Saul was the first one. Outwardly he fit people’s notion of what a king should be. Tall, good looking and busy about the business of making Israel great. Inwardly though he was spiritually and emotionally unstable. Unable to seek God for himself or obey God’s commands when he received them, he just did what he thought best. Eventually God instructed Samuel to anoint a different man, one who was not even considered by his family to be a grown adult. That second man was David. Although much better than Saul at seeking the Lord, he was by no means perfect in all his actions. But he and his son Solomon did make Israel into a great nation – for a time. Unfortunately Solomon’s son Rehoboam oversaw Israel’s division into two separate kingdoms and religions systems. The greatness that was Israel’s under David and Solomon was a momentary break in a steady downward slide to national disgrace and destruction.

Even the most righteous kings could not halt the slide to destruction. I call as witnesses three kings said to have sought the LORD and walk in His ways: Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah of Judah. Good and effective rulers though they were, these men did not seriously impact for the better the spiritual climate of the people. The writer of 2nd Chronicles 20:33 summarized the general spiritual condition of Judah after Jehoshaphat’s death by writing “the people had not yet directed their hearts to the God of their fathers.” King Hezekiah was a good king, led revivals and the like. His big mistake was pride in his national wealth, revealing all to Judah’s future destroyer by giving the Babylonian ambassador a tour of his treasury.

Some years after Hezekiah died King Josiah came upon the scene. The text tells us Josiah “made” the people go back to the LORD. He reformed the religious system so as to correctly worship the LORD. The people conformed outwardly but the reforms did not change things their hearts. The prophetess Huldah (2nd Chronicles 34:28) expressed the LORD’s take on the situation with the words “I (the LORD) will gather you (Josiah) to your grave in peace so your eyes will not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place (Jerusalem) and it’s inhabitants…” Grace short lived: Without first seeking the LORD regarding what he was about to do Josiah died in a needless battle against an Egyptian army headed against Babylon. How ironic that two of Judah’s best and most godly kings helped pave the way for Babylon’s success!

What use to us are these ancient stories from ancient Israel?

Firstly, they serve as a correction to the tendency American Christians have have to mix politics with religion and view Presidents as either messianic or the incarnation of evil. This tendency paves the way to spiritual delusion, paranoia and even idolatry. What foolishness! For citizens of the Kingdom of God there is only one Messiah; His name is Jesus. His is a spiritual kingdom not an earthly political party. The Kingdom of God does not align it’s values to human political parties!

Secondly, there are many Americans who identify vicariously with a political figure or party. So close is their emotional identification with their chosen President that they become spiritually, emotionally and socially enmeshed with that person or party – and incapable of discerning what is and is not right about specific issues. In essence they become willing slaves of the man or their party. This is wrong. No follower of Jesus should ever let this happen. We are to serve the LORD and only the LORD!

Thirdly, and this my main point: America is not nearly as unique as we wish to think. Presidents are mere men and our nation-empire is merely one of many of similar political groupings that have come and gone in this world; how many we do not know because so many have been lost to history. Our elected Presidents do not stand before God as our representatives. They, like us are mere flesh and sentenced to die after which they will be judged according to their faith and deeds. The kingdoms of this world – ALL OF THEM – America included – are sentenced by God to destruction. Having these things in mind we who are citizens of God’s spiritual kingdom should not elevate any but Jesus rule over our hearts. We should rise above petty nationalism and partisanship and live as citizens of Christ’s spiritual kingdom. I repeat: In this life we should honor no person, no party and no nation as equal to or greater than the LORD our God.

“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone or anything else…” Isaiah 42:8

Kingdom of God Values Are For Today

The Gospel of Matthew chapters 5-7 is a record, perhaps a summation, of how Jesus expects citizens of his kingdom to live out our lives. Referred to by many as the Beatitudes, these sayings are introduced by the words “blessed are you when …” Presented by Matthew as a single open air speech, the Gospel writer summarized the reaction of the crowd in chapter 7 verses 28 and 29: “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught as one having authority, and not as one of the scribes.”

What was it that astonished the people and caused them to contrast Jesus with their standard religious experts? Was it some new content they had never before heard? I don’t think so. Much of what Jesus said is stated in word and example within the Old Testament. Was it that Jesus had some kind of exciting and glamorous way of speaking? Was he especially attractive? None of the Gospel writers mention Jesus’ appearance or speaking style. What they did say was his parables often confused people! So why listen to Him? Was it the miracles that attracted people That works to attract people but does not explain the astonishment people felt at the authority Jesus spoke with.  My suggestion is the people experienced a revelation similar to Peter when he said to Jesus “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” I believe in their spirits many of Jesus’ hearers recognized Him as the One behind the sacred words delivered to Israel through Moses and the prophets. The authority they senses was that he, Jesus himself was the source of God’s revelation to Israel!

There are people who maintain these teachings are for the millennium when Christ rules physically over the earth. They say that in this current age it is impossible to survive in politics, business – whatever – if one tries to apply Jesus’ teachings to everyday life. Let’s be honest; if career and security is what one is concerned about it can be just as tough to apply Matthew 5-7 to a Christian ministry as to the secular world! What these people are really saying is it is hard FOR THEM to live according to the Beatitudes and perhaps dangerous to whatever it is they hold dear.

Regardless of what some people say, Jesus really did teach the values of Matthew 5-7 as normative values for His followers. The early disciples believed in Jesus’ authority and honored those teachings to the point of giving up careers and even their lives. In our day multitudes of sincere followers of Jesus strive to live out the words of Matthew 5-7 regardless of their worldly circumstances. The world does not always reward us for living by Jesus’ teachings but that is OK. Our reality is we are citizens of a spiritual kingdom that has already arrived and whose ruler lives within us (Luke 17:21) through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. If we wish to do so, if we are willing to accept the risk we can live out Jesus’ values before the world.

Want to know more? Read Matthew chapters 5 – 7.

How’s Your Vision?

How is Your Vision?

Preparing a study of the first two chapters of Luke I was struck by Luke’s positive attitude. The people Luke wrote about in those chapters – Mary, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, the angel Gabriel – were excited and hopeful in outlook. Optimistic and forward thinking in their understanding of God and His plans for the world. The angel Gabriel and the hosts of heaven – who certainly knew what was going on in the universe – proclaimed not gloom and doom but God’s goodness and his gracious intentions for the human race. Human and divine messengers united in a single message of hope, optimism and good feelings.

It all started with Gabriel appearing to Zacharias. “Don’t be afraid…God has heard your request.” Gabriel goes on to tell how the miracle baby soon to be born must be named John because he “will turn the hearts of many back to God and the children to their fathers.” When Elizabeth, the barren old wife of Zacharias, conceived she praised God saying “He has taken away my disgrace!” Several months later the miraculously pregnant Mary visits Aunt Elizabeth and bursts into exultant praise of God. She sings of God, proclaiming him savior, mighty one, holy and merciful keeper of promises. Then at the birth of John Zachariah blessed the name of God, proclaiming God as savior, merciful, holy, righteous and keeper of promises. Then after the birth of Jesus, old Simeon sees the baby Jesus, takes him into his arms and gives thanks that he has lived long enough to see God’s salvation, prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to foreigners and the glory of Israel.

Luke’s Gospel overflows with hope and gratitude! Missing from Luke is doom, gloom, despair and God’s heavy hand raised against rebellious sinners. Luke’s attitude reminds us that God takes no pleasure in negativism, in death and heavy handed treatment of sinners. How is it that? Didn’t they (God and Luke) know all the bad things that happen in the world? Didn’t they understand prophetical insight necessitates condemning all that is wrong in this corrupt and this rebellious world? Why do THEY gloss over the coming world economic collapse, impending wars, doom, gloom, despair and judgment? Why are they so different from many of us?

I think Luke was different because the Church of his day was different. NOT because the times were better – they were not. What Luke did was this: he focused upon what God was doing to make people and the world a better place. Luke observed lives being changed, he saw enormous spiritual progress taking place wherever Holy Spirit empowered believers went. Luke traveled with people who knew Jesus and were living out the word of God as Kingdom infused disciples. Of course they understood all was not well in the world! Their positivism was not denial of reality, it was a transformation in mindset away from fascination with the negative to God-infused love for what was pure and holy and positive.

Consider Mary’s song. Although she acknowledged the problems in the world she EXALTED in God, proclaiming “God is my savior, his name is holy, his mercy is from generation to generation.” Acknowledging what is not good, EXALTING in what is good. Can we do as Mary did, exalt in God our savior who is holy and merciful from generation to generation? Can we – do we want to – put away our carnal fascination with what is negative, pessimistic and delights in coming judgment? I hope so, because if we cannot do so we – not God – will bring all those things upon ourselves. It’s all a matter of focus, what we fix our eyes upon.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your vision is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your vision is poor, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” Matthew 6:22-23 (Berean Study Bible)

June 3, 2017

Beware the Thucydides Trap

A couple of weeks ago I saw an interview on Public Television with Graham Allison, author of the book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” I took note of what Dr. Allison was saying because I have been reading the book to which he is referring, “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Allison’s thesis reflects what Thucydides himself said in his book: when new, emerging powers threaten older established powers, those powers react with violence. Dr. Allison feels we are in a similar time, with the re-surging power of China challenging comparitive newcomer America in ways similar to that which Athen’s and Sparta experienced. Thucydides wrote the record of that 27 year long war, a destructive war that devastated the Greek world. A similar conflict in our own time could devastate Asia, perhaps the entire world.

The character of the two ancient Greek rivals players has been studied for over two thousand years. Athens was a rising, commercially minded, innovative and somewhat democratic economic powerhouse. Sparta was a conservative, non-materialistic “stay at home” military power obsessed with maintaining itself through slaves and a very controlling oligarchy. Similarities to this scenario an be found throughout history including the American South. Athens and Sparta had come to blows before but the conflict that started in 431 B.C. and lasted 27 years was a defining conflict that led to the downfall of Athens as an empire and relegation of Sparta to little more than a curiously archaic tourist destination for wealthy Romans.

Thucydides maintained that the war between Athens and Sparta could have been avoided had the various parties to conflict controlled their emotions. For Athens the semi-democracy, the emotional issue was her desire to advance intellectually, philosophically and materially through economic expansion. For Sparta, the emotional issue of her small ruling elite was protection of personal honor and maintaining control over the nearby peoples they had subjected. Although reluctant to use her elite military beyond her own borders, honor dictated that Sparta go to war against Athens. Honor aside, 27 years of warfare brought nothing of consequence to Sparta or Athens. Greece was in ruins, permanently disunited and unable to resist Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.

Although in the short run it appeared Sparta had won the war it is Athens that remains to our time. Although Sparta retained it’s independence down to Roman times as sort of an amusing and anachronistic theme park, in our day it is nothing but piles or rocks for tourists to walk over. Athens though no longer a military threat, retained the respect and admiration of the world. Today we view Athens along with Jerusalem and Rome as one leg of a tripod supporting modern civilization; my wife and I have spent time in all three cities within a single week. Spartans serve as source material for Hollywood action movies, Athenians inspire leaders and poets.

Thucydides Trap is as real in the business and religious world as it is in the realm of international politics.  In all types of organizations, established power figures seek to assert themselves over and against the threat posed by younger and more innovative leaders. For Bible reading people we find an especially vivid example of this scenario in the Old Testament account of King Saul who, in a fit of insecurity, threw his spear at David. In terms Jesus introduced us to to, we can see Saul as an old wine skin that could not contain the new wine David was introducing into Israel. It’s something to think about – new wine skins are sometimes necessary; without them the company or organization inevitably fades into insignificance and eventual extinction. Without new wine skins to contain the new wine, the old wine skins will burst and nothing will remain remind the world that such an organization, such a nation once existed in the world.

August 31, 2017

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