Religious Liberty

Americans declaring independence from Great Britain was audacious.  It launched a historic effort to apply the loftiest principals of self-government known to the world.  Many who engaged the task are familiar names, some serving as President.  But less known is the contribution of a Baptist minister, John Leland.

Leland was an influential Virginian in the 1780’s during that post-war period prior to the adoption of the constitution.  Fellow Virginian James Madison became known as the “Father of the Constitution” because he researched, wrote, and defended the proposed constitution more than any other person.  Yet his election as a Virginia delegate to the constitutional convention was not always sure.

Baptists in England and the colonies had suffered government sanctioned ill-treatment as non-conformists, including confiscation of property and imprisonment for preaching.  Leland demanded an end to it.  He said, “The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Since the proposed constitution had no such protections, he opposed Madison’s election.  So Madison paid a visit to Leland, and gave his word that he would advance religious liberty and a full bill of rights in return for Leland’s support, and both men kept the bargain.  In 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed in Philadelphia.  The Bill of Rights followed in 1791.

Leland and Madison believed that the state should not force citizens to support a church in violation of their conscience.  True liberty means the freedom to live according to your conscience, limited only by the rights of others.  But the founders never envisioned the rights now conferred upon the citizenry that are in direct conflict with Americans’ first freedom.

Religious liberty is now in the way of the sexual revolution and the new morality of personal preference.  That is a danger to all.  Al Mohler writes, “Religious liberty will not long survive if it is reduced to a private sphere with no public voice. The very freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and thus so is the liberty of every American. Human rights and human dignity are temporary abstractions if they are severed from their reality as gifts of the Creator. The eclipse of Christian truth will lead inevitably to a tragic loss of human dignity. If we lose religious liberty, all other liberties will be lost, one by one.”

Jesus has given us a freedom politics and law cannot deny.  “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8).  May God bless America by preserving our liberty to believe and live that.

How Awesome

Following the Lord, she set out for Botswana, but ended up in heaven. Sarah Harmening was traveling with Mount Zion Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama. On June 8 at 3:30 p.m., the bus crashed in Atlanta and she flew away. She was 17.

Because of the tragedy the world knows now of her abiding faith, and that of her family. She was a proliferate journaler, and wrote her final entry shortly before her departure. She notes how moved she was by Peter’s letters in the New Testament. “It talked about humbling yourself which I will need to do (and that also means being a little uncomfortable), it talked about the devil prowling about like a lion seeking whom he may devour, and how we need to be alert and of sober mind, and how we get to participate in His divine nature! I mean, how awesome is that? I was just reminded of why I’m here and that God has called me here and He’s done so for a reason. So I know He’s going to do incredible things.”

Her mother, Karen Harmening, thought her daughter was awesome. “Sarah was a gift to us that was given on December 20, 1999. And she loved the Lord with a love that was tangible,” she said. Her obituary says that she lived and breathed to know Jesus Christ and to make Him known.

It is too easy to consider this meaningless, something that God should have prevented. Tragedy can make you cynical about God. But remember the gospel is about God doing something about evil, suffering, and death. In his book “Why Suffering?” Vince Vitale writes, “One day each of us is going to have to deal with the reality of death. When suffering comes, when death comes, who will bear it with us? Who will see us through it? Jesus will, if we ask him to. If we invite Him, then we will never be alone in our suffering, and we can trust that we will spend eternity in a place where suffering will be no more.” In this fallen world hard things happen, but the perspective of eternity is that these things do not have the final say.

Last Thursday, God whispered Sarah’s name and invited her to leave the land of the dying for the land of the living. I offer you what she found to be so moving that day. “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:3-4). How awesome is that?

Out On A Limb

Dancing on stage in a recital for little girls would frighten most dads. But sometimes a father has to go out on a limb for his child, if for no other reason than to demonstrate his love.

Michael and his 10-year-old daughter Lauren decided that they wanted to spend more time together. So they hatched a secret plan for him to not just take her to dance lessons, but to participate. On the day of the recital, Lynne (mom) looked frantically for Michael who was apparently about to miss it. The recital began and Lauren entered the stage dancing. Lynne was stunned and emotional when Michael joined and danced with Lauren, making the memory of a lifetime. (See “The Recital” on YouTube.)

There was another father once who had to go out on a limb. He had to risk his reputation and honor. He was engaged to be married, but he became aware that she was carrying a baby that was not his. In fact the child was no man’s but who would believe it? The baby was Jesus, the mother was Mary, and you know the man as Joseph. Despite the honor of serving as step-father to the Messiah, the Bible records no spoken words of his. Apparently he was more a man of action. He was obedient to God, he protected Mary and the Child, and he provided for them by plying his carpenter trade. His role as “Nourisher of the Lord” was celebrated in medieval times during the Feast of Saint Joseph, an early expression of Father’s Day.

In his book “God Came Near,” Max Lucado considers Joseph’s choice between sitting on a branch and climbing out on a limb. “Joseph knew that the only thing worse than a venture into the unknown was the thought of denying his Master. As things turned out, Joseph’s fears were justified. Life wasn’t as comfortable as it had been. At times that limb must have bounced furiously in the winds. But you can be sure of one thing. He never regretted it. One look in the face of that heavenly toddler and he knew he would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Being a father and indeed being a Christian involves some risk-taking, and it is not easy. It seems especially so these days, but that is not a new thing. Climbing out on a limb for God and family takes faith and courage. The good news is that we are not left to our own strength, and the reward is great. “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word” (2 Thes. 2:16-17).

Love Sweet Love

Capturing the cultural moment in a song was a successful formula for Hal David and Burt Bacharach in 1965. Their hit also contained a timeless thought, still applicable today.

Jackie Deshannon recorded and released their song “What the World Needs Now is Love.” In just a few months, it topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada. Those were days of wrenching cultural upheavals. Civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr. Watts riots. Cold War. Vietnam War. Sexual revolution. Countercultural protests. Lingering national grief over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the controversial findings of the Warren Commission.

The song says we have enough mountains, rivers, moonbeams and cornfields, but what’s missing is “love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…Not just for some but for everyone.” It was recorded again this year, and it is still true. The context today includes brutal killings in the name of religion, politicians who attack each other with wanton disrespect, ongoing wars, injustice and intolerance, disrespect for authority.

The song poses the problem, but offers no answer. Pluralism supposes that all religions are about love, a claim difficult to justify. Only Jesus offers the unconditional love of a heavenly Father and the lofty morality of selfless love, an answer that can change the world. He was about love and sacrifice, and called his followers to the same.

“God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God’s love does not contradict His justice. His wrath toward immorality is what makes the sacrifice of His Son such a loving act of forgiveness which you receive by faith. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is a portrait of God’s fierce and unyielding love for you. Yet if you’re honest, you know you do not merit such grace from a heavenly Father who runs to embrace your homecoming. Remember, nothing separates us from the love of God (Rom. 8:31ff).

That enormous love compels us to be the same. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35).

Even if to you, it beggars belief that God became man, you cannot deny that this kind of love would change the world to the extent it is practiced. The more you personally live by love, the more people in your world will be changed. So, who will show the love of God to the people around you? That is the sweetener the world needs now.