Graceful Unity

At the presidential inauguration, country music artist Garth Brooks offered truth.  It was as though “the fragrance of the knowledge of Him in every place” had been revealed (2 Cor. 2:14).

As a solo trumpet sounded the opening lines, Brooks removed his trademark cowboy hat.  He sang, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”  The verse moves people.  Is it because we are lost and blind, and we sense it?  Is it because we need God’s grace to save us from this long night of the soul?  John Newton penned those words from his dark experience as a slave trader, but his wickedness is no more wretched than yours, for all have sinned.

Brooks continued.  “When we’ve been there 10,000 years…we’ve no less days (as he lifts both hands skyward) to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”  It is the most recognized Christian hymn in the world.  Its timeless and vital message is for all who have ears to hear.

Some would claim that message is unity.  For sure, we are divided by vitriol passed as politics, fear fed by the media, and coarseness embraced by culture.  Earlier in the week Brooks said, “The message they’re pushing is unity, and that’s right down my alley, man.”  I guess that’s why he asked everyone to sing along.  I appreciate the sentiment, but that was a symbolic unity at best.

The push for unity can be deceptive.  A call for political unity is a demand for the minority to capitulate. A call for religious unity ignores the exclusive truth claims of distinct religions.  Calling for unity was not Jesus’ method.  In fact, he expected to be divisive (Luke 12:51).  British Theologian J. C. Ryle criticized false unity.  “People cannot believe that any earnest, clever, and charitable man can ever be in the wrong. Peace without truth is a false peace…unity without the gospel is a worthless unity. Let us never be ensnared by those who speak kindly of it.”

Yet a unity in truth does exist and is attainable.  Jesus prayed, “The glory which You have given me I also have given to them, so that they may be one…I in them and you in me” (John 17:22-23).  Paul tells how that happens. “For you are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26).

Newton’s life and lyrics reflect amazing grace as told in Jesus’ story of the prodigal.  “This son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:24).  By faith you are found and raised to life in Christ.  By faith you join the family of God and enjoy the hope of eternity.  The sweet sound of that graceful unity is the right message for today.

Peaceful Fruit

Deion Sanders is the only athlete who has played in a World Series and a Super Bowl.  To what did that success lead him?  Attempted suicide.

Sanders played in the 1992 World Series (Braves).  He is a two-time Super Bowl champion (1994-49ers; 1995-Cowboys).  Despite fame and fortune, in 1997 he drove his car off a 40-foot cliff. Intentionally. He writes in his biography, “I was going through the trials of life.  I was empty, no peace, no joy.”  His soul warred with the fruitlessness of his life.

With Sanders, did God almost drop the ball?  Is it his job to ensure you have a nice life while you try to be a moral and successful person?  That sounds religious, but it isn’t Christianity.  The Christian worldview makes sense of life as you experience it, and trials are part of everyone’s experience.  But trials do not tell your whole story.

Good can come from suffering.  By it we can experience God’s comfort and grace.  Theologian J. I. Packer explains that the purpose of troubles and perplexities of life “is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast.  When we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him.”  When suffering finds you, walk it to the foot of the cross.  There you’ll meet the One who knows about suffering and gives you peace despite the human experience. That’s the rest of the story.

“It is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  Suffering teaches you to accept God’s rule in your life.  Chuck Colson, who spent time in prison after Watergate, agrees.  “God uses the thorns and thistles that have infested creation since the Fall to teach, chastise, sanctify, and transform us, making us ready for that new heaven and earth.  The greatest blessings in my life have emerged from suffering.  God’s purposes are the context that give suffering meaning and significance.”

Meaninglessness tortured Deion Sanders.  But then he experienced this truth: “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems not to be pleasant, but painful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:10-11).  He said after the suicide attempt, “I finally just got on my knees and gave it all to the Lord. My faith is everything.  It’s the air that provokes me to live.”

Now Sanders coaches young men at Jackson State University.  He partners with Stand Together in Dallas to eradicate poverty and youth violence.  Through the way of suffering, he has found the peaceful fruit of righteousness and offers it to others. Let that be your story, too.

Boldly and Joyously

I have questions.  Strange and unusual events lead me to this basic question, how now shall we live?

First, some current events questions I don’t presume to answer.  COVID emerged amid shocking warnings that it could be bad.  Are economic shutdowns and personal isolation as bad as the disease?  Cities in the USA burned while authorities allowed lawless autonomous zones.  Will that kind of territorial lawlessness reappear again or elsewhere?

Persistent claims of fraud challenge previous elections.  Will Americans ever trust another election?  When people stormed the capitol last week, did they really think anything good would come of it?  Will Big Tech censor my speech if they disagree?  Mr. Biden promised to sign the Equality Act in his first 100 days.  Will this Act make people of faith less equal because we believe a disordered view of humanity should not be forced on citizens?

Jesus’ fisherman friend wrote to believers scattered in a culture that discriminated against them for their faith (1 Peter).  From that letter, here are five ways you can live boldly and joyously in today’s world.

  1. Love people. If you are obedient to the truth of Christ, then your soul has a new capacity to love people. Racism, envy, and strife are selfishness, not love.  To “fervently love” one another is to boldly proclaim Jesus, who even said to love your enemy! (1:22)
  2. Remember who you are. You are an “alien and stranger,” just passing through this world. Feeling anxious and disenfranchised comes from a desire for control, a worldly lust that wages war against the soul. An eternal perspective brings joy. (2:11)
  3. Live an honorable life. If someone slanders you as evil because you fear God and apply his truth to life, respond boldly with “good deeds” and “excellent behavior.” People notice that, and it glorifies God. (2:12)
  4. Speak truth. Align your faith, deeds, and words by setting up Christ Jesus as Lord in your heart. As you live with the joy and hope you have in Christ, people will notice.  Be prepared to boldly “give an account” but with gentleness and reverence.  Jesus said whoever believes in him will have eternal life. (3:15)
  5. Endure suffering with purpose. Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that tests and strengthens your faith. Jesus said you are blessed when this happens. “If you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.”  Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials. (4:12, 2:20)

Chuck Colson’s answer to the question, “How now shall we live?” is found in his book by that title.  He writes, “By embracing God’s truth, understanding the physical and moral order he has created, lovingly contenting for that truth with our neighbors, then having the courage to live it out in every walk of life.  Boldly and, yes. Joyously.”

Right Side of History

A U.S. physician became alarmed by his elderly mother’s observations.  She spoke from her experience resisting communism’s early advances and as a political prisoner in Eastern Europe.  Rod Dreher recounts the story in his book, Live Not By Lies.  Recent stories of “cancel culture” in the U.S. alarmed the lady and recalled her history.   Similar to that 20th C. movement, a damaging ideology is pitched today as something good, even in a religious way. Don’t get caught in that net.

Dreher describes it like this: “It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of victims in order to bring about social justice.  The contemporary cult of social justice identifies members of certain social groups as victimizers, as scapegoats, and calls for their suppression as a matter of righteousness.”  Unless you are one of the oppressed classes, you may not speak.  It’s about levers of power and redistribution of wealth. It even brands religious freedom as bigotry.

You cannot dismiss this as campus wokeness.  It does exist in education, but also in politics, business, and the media. It brooks no dissent and divides people into two classes: oppressed and oppressor.  It affirms its adherents in anything they feel or believe, even if it is self-destructive.  It knows nothing of repentance and reconciliation, only retribution.  It self-defines righteousness.  It rejects the basis of equality, that all people are created in God’s image. Can such defects yield true justice?  The prophet Habakkuk wrote about this some 2600 years ago.  “Strife exists and contention arises. Therefore the law is ignored, and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out confused” (Hab. 1:3-4).

So how do Christians face any ideology that denies truth? Christianity is more than a set of beliefs and behaviors.  It is more than a worldview.  It is a relationship with the Creator who forms your new identity in Christ.  We are people who love God and neighbor, as Jesus said.  So trust God’s Providence to accomplish his purposes regardless of people who live as though he doesn’t.  “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), not by hate, fear, or coercion.  Offer refuge and truth to those damaged by cultural lies. Forgive those who would cancel you because you do not live by those same lies.  “I will rejoice in the God of my salvation (not in this rising ideology.) The Lord God is my strength” (Hab. 3:18-19).

When enough people demanded truth and liberation in Eastern Europe, communism collapsed. History shows that the followers of Christ and his gospel outlasted it.  As history reveals, the dark secrets of any modern ideology cannot remain hidden from the light of God’s revealed truth.  Side with your Creator and you will be on the right side of history.

No More Time

Each December when World Magazine recaps the year, I turn to the list of deaths.  Reading what people did or how they died reminds me I still have time.  It also raises questions about the finite human experience.

I noticed a few entries on the list.  NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. Actor Robert Conrad did his own stunts. Kenny Rogers is “The Gambler” no more.  Ken Osmond played Eddie Haskell on “Leave It to Beaver.”  John Lewis marched with Martin Luther King Jr.  Herman Cain died with COVID. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was known by her initials.  Eddie Van Halen was a Rock and Roll guitarist.

The passing of time and people increases the stream of probing thoughts that demand some bandwidth. I’ll borrow the questions that Leo Tolstoy said nearly drove him to suicide.  “What will become of what I do today or tomorrow?  Why do I live? Why do I wish for anything or do anything?  Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death?”

An awareness of the passing of time is a defining and sometimes alarming feature of the human experience. The year changes. A life passes.  The mirror startles.  An intrusive thought emerges that time never stops ticking along. You can’t stop it or even slow it down.  What you can do is make the most of your appointed time, however uncertain its boundaries may be. How? The One through whom all things came into being, the One who is life and light (John 1:4) is the source of transcendent and timeless human meaning.  God created humans to know and glorify him. That has unique meaning for your life.

After his Resurrection, Jesus walked with two friends toward Emmaus.  They didn’t recognize him.  As they approached the village, “they urged him, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening and the day is now nearly over.’  So he went in to stay with them” (Luke 24:29).  While with them he revealed truth in a life-changing way. He infused their lives with clarity, meaning, and destiny because they had seen the One who died yet lives, the One who made time yet releases you from its restraints.

If the Lord tarries, your name and a brief description of your life could appear in a publication.  People may read and learn a little about you.  Your loved ones will remember you.  Will they know that you enjoyed walking with Jesus even as the evening time approaches?  Did you travel this sod with God-given purpose? When the day is over and you no longer journey in the land of the dying, by faith in the Lord Jesus you will stay with him in the land of the living where time is no more.