Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.
Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.
Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?
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As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.
Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!
You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?
I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.
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My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.
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Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.
And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.
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I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.
So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”
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The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.
Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.
Meant to tackle this topic last week, and the wheels came off of my planning cart.
A few months ago I wrote a response to the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a photographer could not legally refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding regardless of that photographer’s religious belief. In the weeks/months that have passed since that ruling the accounts of courts and judges forcing people to accept and even participate in what they view as aberrant behavior have just mushroomed. In my last post I mentioned I would suggest a way forward for the church, but in reality what I have to say is not new – either to me or to others. So, I am not claiming originality here, but I would like to share once again what I believe the church must do, or must continue to do if it is already doing so.
By way of reminder, I do not see the United States as a Christian nation. Perhaps we once were: that point can be debated. But we should no longer use the phrase if we are to have any respectability. At one time those who lived in the United States but were not Christians managed to smile when Christians invoked the phrase. Now, the American world is no longer smiling. The quaint little expression “Freedom of Religion” now is interpreted to mean, “Freedom to keep your religion to yourself.” When Americans no longer have the right to LIVE their religious beliefs, we in effect no longer have that freedom.
We must accept this fact or nothing else we do will ever matter.
So, how is the church to move forward in a post-Christian world? Once again – I make no claim to originality, but here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. We are going to have to get over the fact that people will hate us. For too long we have been thinking and acting as if we can change people’s hearts by changing our beliefs and practices. If I have heard once I have heard a thousand times, “if we do not change [x] (where “x” can be just about anything) then our young people will leave us and no one in the community will want to join us.” So, churches change names, worship styles, language styles and incorporate the newest, flashiest equipment on the market. And what happens? Their young people leave for an even edgier church and the people in the community do not want to join them because they are simply the latest in a long line of churches who have changed names and core values.
Is my Bible the only one that has John 15:18-25 in it? Or is this the first generation in which speaking up for one’s beliefs has caused a negative reaction? Why do we believe that changing OUR beliefs will cause others to change THEIR hearts? I am not suggesting that we should be hateful, or that we should never ask questions about what we believe. But legitimate self-examination is a far cry from running in absolute panic away from any criticism or unwarranted attack.
No – we are going to have to overcome this irrational fear of being disliked and we are going to have to realize that the new “normal” is for God’s people to stand out in stark contrast to a bent and broken world.
2. We are going to have to ACT like we believe what we say we believe. We say we believe in a lifetime of marriage between one man and one woman, but we practice the acceptance serial marriages like we owned a wedding chapel and our livelihood depended upon as many “re-marriages” as we can possibly create. We say we do not believe in pre-marital co-habitation, yet we allow our children and grandchildren to “try out” marriage partners as if they were test-driving a new vehicle. We say we oppose graphic violence, sexuality and adult themes, and we buy millions of dollars of movie tickets every month, and allow our teens and pre-teens to do likewise. We fill our minds with the same base lyrics that non-Christians fill their minds with, and salve our consciences by attending a worship hour a week and re-proclaiming how much we hate words and actions that blaspheme our God.
But, if we ditch the cable and turn off the satellite, our neighbors might think we are weird or un-American or something. See point #1.
3. We are going to have to re-evaluate this entire “The Constitution as the 67th Book of the Bible” mantra that “conservatives” have been repeating for so long. Oh, no – no one actually ever says that, but that is exactly what is meant in many of our good conservative (read “Tea Party”) speeches.
Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is a wonderful document. Maybe the best human government document that has ever been written. But, strictly speaking, following the Constitution is exactly what has brought us to this point in history. The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Bible,” or “Christian” simply do not appear in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The framers of the Constitution did not want a theocracy, and certainly not a Christocracy, and they made sure we did not get one. But human seeds grow up into human trees, and the fruit of a Christ-neutral document is now becoming ripe. Yell and kick and scream all you want to, but how else are you going to interpret the protections ingrained in the Constitution that prevent one religion from becoming physically forced upon all citizens? If we have the freedom to exercise religion, we also have the freedom not to exercise religion, and when you allow (or actually mandate) broken, sinful, human judges to decide what is or is not constitutional, then bingo – welcome to the U. S. of A. in the year 2014. So, what was brilliant in terms of human government has proven to be utterly disastrous in terms of discipleship to Christ.
But, to quote that out-dated and horribly non-American apostle Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
4. The church is going to have to start practicing some old-fashioned discipline. The church has boundaries. We are not everyone and everything. Not everything is holy. Not everything is “set apart.” There is clean and un-clean, holy and un-holy, Christian and un-christian, saved and lost. It is ridiculous to suggest that a congregational leadership cannot exercise any kind of discipline because “if they do then people will get their feelings hurt and they will leave.” This is not to suggest that the eldership “withdraws fellowship” from someone just to rattle their swords. I have witnessed that and it was a stain against some good men and a good congregation. But for a biblical leadership to allow, or to even sanction, blatant immorality within the congregation is just unconscionable. The same is true of doctrinal beliefs. A congregation cannot condone or sanction contradictory beliefs. You cannot have a separate worship service for every competing feeling or doctrine. If everything is acceptable then nothing is sinful. And we wonder why people look at us with our three different services with three different worship formats and laugh? We are not demanding discipleship – we are offering a circus.
Sorry for the wordiness today – I guess I got a little carried away. But the world is not smiling at us anymore – if it ever did. And we, as God’s people, are going to have to learn a new way to act. Or, conversely, we are going to have to start acting like we’ve known how to act all along.
What is going on in the United States?
- A teenage girl is declared brain dead, the hospital begs the family to be able to remove “life” support and the family refuses.
- A pregnant woman is declared brain dead, the family begs the hospital to remove “life” support and the hospital refuses.
- It seems every week some sociopath shoots up a school, mall, or place of business.
- “Transgender” children have won the right to use the bathroom facility of their choice, regardless of their birth gender, and regardless of the objections of parents of children who must share the facility with such “transgendered” but biologically dissimilar classmates.
- A groups of homosexuals who “only want to be treated equally” stage a mass marriage ceremony to the song “Same Love” during the Grammy Award presentations.
- Our Nobel Peace Prize winning President and his administration are guilty of the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in military drone strikes.
Many “conservative” Christians are asking how these things could happen in their “Christian” nation.
I can’t say I know for sure, but as one who is rarely without an opinion, I’ll give you my two-bits worth:
It is because we either allowed it to happen, or actively promoted the environment that allowed it to happen.
“Oh, but we are different” you say, “We are Christians and we honor and worship God!”
- Yea, we worship God by supporting the same educational and governmental bodies that dictate that little girls cannot safely and privately use a “Girls” restroom because it is offensive to a “transgendered” little “boy.”
- And we worship God by supporting and promoting a medical establishment that has so blurred the lines between life and death that our medical professionals and judicial elites cannot even agree as to when a body is “dead” and should be removed from “life” support. And when you throw in the ethically challenged and morally suspect issue of organ and tissue “donation” the question becomes even more murky.
- And we worship God by holding 2nd Amendment rallies and “God Bless America” parties and we pray for this God to fight the battles for the Red, White and Blue regardless of the issues that caused our government to send those troops into battle in the first place.
- In other words, we worship God, not by refusing to participate in this broken down, sin-sick and decaying process we call “culture,” but by actively promoting it, working for it, voting for it, and by making sure it continues by virtue of our monetary contributions and our devotion.
With worshippers like that, why does God need any enemies?
As I study the Scriptures, (especially the New Testament writings but even in the Old Testament) I see a much different picture. I see a people dedicated to God, challenged by that God not to accept or to participate in their decadent culture, but to transform and renew it. I see Abraham being told that by his faith he would bless “all peoples.” I see Moses being given a law that was culturally transformative – beginning with the nature of the God who gave it and ending with a “promised land” that would be a blessing to all people. I see a small but dedicated group of social outcasts, called “Christians,” who loved and cared for the sick and dying people in their towns and cities, and for the sick and dying culture that seemed to be bent on destroying God’s most precious creation – human beings.
I’ve read the “we have to be a part of culture in order to change culture” arguments until I’m cross-eyed, but I still don’t get it. How do you change the sin of drunkenness by participating and promoting the consumption of alcohol? How do you change the sin of pornography by participating and promoting the degradation of human sexuality? How can you change the warping of human sexuality by accepting and promoting the brokenness of those who refuse to acknowledge the difference between male and female? And in the name of the Holy God, how can you change the culture of violence and killing by promoting the militaristic and violence oriented culture of guns, bombs, tanks, and missiles? How can we eliminate racism, greed, and hate by being hateful, greedy racists?
I’ve read the Bible through several times, and I still cannot find that verse that says, “Be a part of culture and do what your culture tells you to do until that culture finally comes around to seeing that it is wrong.” I have, however, found many passages that reveal the world will hate God’s people, that if God’s people are faithful to him they will often find themselves in lion’s dens, prisons, and under the executioner’s blade. I read over and over that God sets the standards for human behavior, not the government of one country or the constitution of that government. I read that God tells his people to “follow me” even if, and especially when, that path leads through the valley of the shadow of death.
If this is a Christian nation, if this place is just one election away from utopia, if we can fix our problems with one more war or one more law or one more talk radio host, then you can have it. It holds no joy or interest for me.
As I read it, I am to pray thus:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10, ESV, emphasis mine)
I do not see anything about supporting a rabid nationalistic militarism. I do not read anything about excusing or protecting sociopathic miscreants who kill simply for the thrill of killing. I do not read anything about letting those who reject God’s plan for love and reproduction feel that they are welcome to enter into a church that wears the name of God or his Son and promote a lifestyle which has been specifically condemned by a Holy God.
But, here is the kicker – if you are a “conservative” Christian chances are you have no one to blame for the current state of affairs other than yourself.
And until we can come to grips with that truth, we will never be able to address the resulting chaos…
(Author’s and editor’s note: the young lady who was declared dead may have been a pre-teen; my apologies if I “misremembered.” Also, heartfelt condolences to both families. These are heart-wrenching stories and have no easy solutions. Such is the fog of modern ethics).
This is the second in my series examining the current situation of the Churches of Christ from my own unique perspective. As the old commercial repeated endlessly – your mileage may vary. These thoughts are submitted to promote conversation, not to dictate policy.
The connection between this post and my last post is undeniable and in many ways immeasurable. The working of economics is intimately connected to politics. Where there is a significant change in one you will always find a change in the other. Sometimes that change is for the better, often it is a very negative change. In my last post I suggested that the United States has seen its last conservative (even remotely conservative) president for the next generation, maybe for the next century. There are huge economic implications for this shift, and the Churches of Christ had better be thinking in terms of the following major ramifications in our economy:
- Changes in our political system will result in unprecedented changes in immigration. These changes may be positive, some may not be so positive. However, the church needs to be prepared to reach out to and to assist a significant number of new immigrants, many of whom will not be prepared to participate in this new society.
- Our aging population, combined with the new “Affordable Health Care Act” will significantly change the economic landscape for our senior citizens. When health care becomes a rationed commodity the aged and the sick will be the most affected. How will the church respond?
- The ACA itself will have huge repercussions on our economy. The law has not even been in effect long enough to be enforced and yet the ripples from its more draconian aspects are beginning to hit average citizens. Millions are losing their health care packages even as I am typing this blog. Millions of others will have to pay significantly higher premiums to maintain what they have. How will the church respond when these individuals have no ability to pay for what is legally mandated that they purchase? HInt: don’t look to the government – they are the ones who created this boondoggle.
- The United States is witnessing the creation of a permanent unemployed/underemployed class of people. How will the church respond when millions of young people cannot attend college and/or cannot find jobs after college because the economy simply does not have enough work for them to do?
These are serious, generation shaping questions that must be addressed if the church will have any kind of message to reach the young people now coming of age and the most vulnerable generation – our aging seniors. Someone who disagrees with my earlier post might argue that the way to solve these problems is to elect a fiscally and morally conservative president. As I pointed out in my last post – that simply is not going to happen (at least unless there is a MASSIVE shift in public opinion in the next 12-18 months. America has become a dependent society – absolutely dependent upon the government, and it is the Democrats (and I might add, Liberal Democrats) who are viewed by the majority of Americans as being the best protectors of that benevolent government. President Obama’s reelection over Mitt Romney was beyond comfortable. And that margin of victory illustrates the seismic shift in the outlook of the American voting public. Speaking generically, we do not want to take care of ourselves anymore, we want the government to take care of us.
The lie that will be revealed, of course, is that the government is not capable of taking care of all of us – at least not to the degree that everyone expects it to – so at some point this fragile house of cards is going to come crashing down.
Once again, I return to the theology of men such as Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, and David Libscomb. Lipscomb’s aversion to the Christian’s participation in politics is well documented. What may not be as well know, however, is his very “this worldly” outlook when it came to taking care of those most devastated by the powers of oppression. The most well known of his benevolence works involves his ministry to the sick and his assistance of medical personnel during an outbreak of cholera in the city of Nashville in 1873. Lipscomb stayed in the city, ministering to the predominantly black community who were unable to flee the epidemic. Lipscomb, ever the theological conservative, gave buggy rides to the Roman Catholic sisters who also stayed behind to help the poor.
In other words, the members of the Churches of Christ are going to have to relearn that theological and biblical conservatism do not a priori eliminate social activism. In a perverse sort of way, many ultra-conservative members of the Churches of Christ are the most theologically liberal when it comes to “loving your neighbor as yourself.” These Christians scream loud and long when the issue of assisting the oppressed is raised, and to what do they point as the savior of these economically oppressed? The liberal government of the United States that they love to hate!!
Lipscomb’s apocalyptic worldview allowed him to realize that human governments were not the solution to mankind’s problems. He fiercely resisted the siren call of politics to “make this world a better place.” He firmly believed only the gospel of Christ could do that. Yet, he was theologically sound enough to know that if the gospel of Christ called for him to make the world a better place, it was the church that was to be the community from whence that change would occur. And, to Lipscomb, this was not simply an idea to discuss in a journal – he put his life at risk to make it happen.
The United States is becoming more socially liberal by the election. This includes morals as well as economics. As stated earlier, each layer of governmental assistance that is accepted by and therefore eventually required by, the citizens of the country makes it that much more unlikely for a fiscally or morally conservative leader to be elected much beyond the local level. That is, or will soon be, the new normal.
And nothing could possibly be further away from the Kingdom of God as is described in the New Testament.
So, members of the Churches of Christ have a decision coming – will we continue to buy into the false, and falsely comforting, message that all we need to do is elect one of “our” people in the next election?
Or will we return to the faith of at least some of “our” founding fathers and hitch up the old buggy and start taking care of our economically oppressed neighbors the way God intended us to – by the means of local congregations of the Church of his Son?
Next up – the Church and the Religious World
Boy, did I nail it. I predicted here that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) would strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as well as the Proposition 8 in California which denied homosexual marriage. While the court did not actually rule on Prop. 8, they refused to rule against the lower court ruling which invalidated the proposition, thereby basically throwing the proposition out.
Make no mistake – completely removing the morality of the issue for a brief moment, these rulings are monumental – epic even.
Stop and think about what just happened. Both of the rulings overturned the legislative or the popular vote of a majority of elected officials or the population of a state. The DOMA was enacted by both houses of government of the United States and signed into law by President Clinton. Proposition 8 passed by a significant majority (if it had been a presidential election, the winning side would have claimed an ‘overwhelming mandate’.) In viewing both of these popular statements by a majority of Americans as being in violation of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the SCOTUS basically said that they, not the elected officials of the country, nor the general will of the population of a state, have the right to make the laws of the country. No piece of legislation that has been or ever will be passed that in any way, manner or form infringes upon a person’s real or imagined rights under the 5th Amendment will be considered legal.
And that, my dear readers, is epic. These rulings make Roe v. Wade look like a kindergartener’s crayon drawing when it comes to long term repercussions. We have been dealing with the fallout of Roe v. Wade for the past 40 years and we still have not figured out exactly what “right to privacy” means. That will all seem very tame in comparison to what was just delivered by the SCOTUS.
So, what is the church supposed to do in response?
Any legislative recourse has been effectively eliminated by the ruling itself. It matters not if the Senate and House of Representatives both passed a law unanimously declaring that marriage should be defined as between a male and female (and that was never going to happen anyway). The SCOTUS would simply strike that law down as well. I really do not think people understand how massive this ruling is. Our legislators do not matter anymore. The only law makers who have any power at all right now are the 5 liberal judges who sit on the Supreme Court.
So, Caesar has revealed his hand. The amazing thing is that some people are shocked, utterly amazed, at what just happened. I called it months ago. Anyone with eyes in their faces and ears on their head could have called it. These rulings were as close to “fore-ordained” as anything John Calvin ever proclaimed.
Will this wake the church up? Will we rise out of our slumber? Will we, at long last, finally realize that we are not living in a Christian nation, that the United States Constitution is not inspired by God, that it is a fallible, corrupt and corrupting piece of human governance? Will we learn that the only way to change the course of human events is to change the course of human hearts? Will we quit trying to convert the world to kingdom ethics by passing feeble legislation that can be overturned and erased by 5 utterly corrupt human beings?
Will we ever learn that leaning on the broken reed of human strength is the only sure way to destroy a nation? (Isaiah 36:6; 30:1-5; Ezekiel 29:6-9).
As I said in my earlier piece, this may be the best thing that could have happened to the church – at least in one respect. Now we can no longer hide behind flimsy legislation to advance the kingdom of God.
Let us stop trying to fight Satan with Satan’s tools. Let us repent of our misguided attempts to do so and return to the power of our God.
Last time I checked, no court has ever managed to invalidate any of His rulings.
Today’s tip o’ the hat goes to Matt Dabbs, whose Kingdom Living blog is one of the blogs that I regularly follow. Matt has been carrying on a conversation regarding the recent discussion on gun control. In his most recent post he received a comment that was illuminating to me, and Matt’s response was even more illuminating. I would like to add my two cents worth here.
In his response, Matt pointed out how as government (specifically the US government, but it can be true of any other government) expands two things happen. One, the government takes more responsibilities away from the individual citizen. Just think of the ways in which the US government has taken over responsibilities that were once the sole obligation of an individual or family – retirement, health care, education, occupational safety, food safety, even such things as mandating the way in which we drive our vehicles and how wide the gaps can be between slats in a baby crib. The federal government has a say in virtually everything we do today – you cannot even mow your lawn today with a gas powered mower without dealing with a dozen safety modifications that were mandated by the federal government because some ninny thought it would be a good idea to stick his hand under a mower with the engine running.
As these encroachments have occurred there have been some grumbling but few outright rebellions. We (or at least most of we) think that Social Security is a good thing, and that having someone make sure the beef we buy at the supermarket is safe is a pretty good idea. So, little by little, bit by bit, inch by inch we surrender our “God given” responsibilities and for the most part we do not even whimper. So the federal government tells our schools what to teach? Oh, well, who’s playing in the Super Bowl this year? The federal government mandates that I have to pay a chunk of my salary to a national ponzi scheme known as Social Security? Rats, I think I misplaced a cuff link. What’s fer supper, Grandpa?
The second thing that happens is the corresponding reduction in the number of “freedoms.” But, you let just one bill get introduced either in the House of Representatives or Senate that restricts a so-called “right” and you would think the sky was falling. Where is Chicken Little when you need her? It is obvious that we have a problem in the United States regarding the proper ownership and use of guns. But, unlike the federal creep into the realm of responsibilities, you let one representative or senator mention “well regulating” the “right to bear arms” and shazaam, that senator or representative is viewed as popularly as Adolf Hitler in all his brown shirt glory. There is an obvious disconnect here, and it could be argued that one of the main reasons the United States is in it’s current state of moral collapse is that we as a culture have surrendered all of our fundamental responsibilities to “Big Brother” without a corresponding relinquishment of our so-called “inalienable rights.”
Simply stated, you cannot have the one without the obligation of the other. If we want the freedoms we must shoulder the responsibilities. If we want the government to care for us cradle to grave, then we have to relinquish the power of self-determination.
I have read the Bible through and through a number of times. Pardon me if I am missing it, but I simply cannot find in the pages of Scripture where a human is afforded the “God given” rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Prior to the coming of Jesus, God’s chosen people spent almost as much time in captivity as they did in their national freedom. Jesus was born at a time when the Jewish people were dominated by a foreign power. After it’s inception the church spent the first 300 years of its existence speaking from the minority position – sometimes abused, sometimes persecuted, more often simply ignored.
The amazing thing is that it was during these periods of slavery, abuse and persecution that God’s people actually thrived: the Israelites in Egypt, the Jews in Babylon, the Jews under the Roman Caesars, the church in its many persecutions. It is a fact of history that when faith in God becomes a “national” process that the purity of the faith declines precipitously. Note the kingdom of Israel under Solomon and his successors, the “imperial” church under Constantine and his followers. There appears to be a natural law that the more faith in God becomes entwined with secular politics, the more corrupt and dysfunctional that faith becomes.
So what does all of this have to do with doing theology in the fog of contemporary life? Simply this: we as disciples of Christ in the 21st century who live in the United States need to decide once and for all whether we are going to be slaves of Christ or whether we are going to be slaves of the Constitution. There are many things about the United States that makes me proud and thankful to be born an American. But I have to remind myself that my birth in America was simply an accident of nature, and that there are many, many other things about the United States that are profoundly disturbing to me.
The fact is, the closer a person gets to the crucified Son of God, the further one must separate himself or herself from the US Constitution. The Constitution was written from the bottom up. It’s source of power is “We the People.” It is a purely humanistic document. The disciple of Christ gets his or her power from the top down. The source for the power of a disciple of Christ is God Himself. When you make the confession that “Jesus is Lord” you are making a political statement as well as a religious one. You are stating your allegiance to the cross and everything for which it stands, not the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands.
The Church of Christ is not a national church. It is trans-national. It is uber-national. It is meta-national. It is all of God’s people joined in the simple yet profound allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah and to God as the Father.
To all my readers outside of the US, sorry that I have spent so much time addressing American issues. Be grateful to be where you are. God has made it possible to be a part of his kingdom regardless of your place of birth or residence. Thankfully, that includes the United States.
Here is the text (more or less verbatim) of the sermon I preached on 12/30/12 at the Third and Kilgore congregation in Portales, NM. I do not have access to a a website that can upload sermon audio, so I had to go with a written text.
The year was 49 BC. The place – Gaul, just north of the country of Italy. The person was Julius “not quite yet” Caesar. The situation – by law if Julius, a general in the Roman army, wanted to enter into Italy he had to relinquish his military position and surrender the power of he “Imperium” he held in Gaul. As he camped at the river Rubicon he debated his options. If he crossed the Rubicon river with his army he would be declaring his rebellion from Pompey – an act of treason. He would be under a death sentence. Every man who followed him armed for battle would be under a death sentence.
After some deliberation Julius “not quite yet Caesar” did cross the Rubicon, and as he did so he is reported to have said, “The die is cast.” There would be no turning back.
Flash forward about 80 years. A wandering rabbi sits on a mountainside and calls his disciples to him. As his disciples and others listen to his teaching, they realize that there is something unique, powerful, about this particular rabbi. They also realize that if they follow this new teaching they will be “crossing the Rubicon” in relation to their world. There will be no turning back.
I want to use the imagery of “crossing the Rubicon” to illustrate two points this morning. If I am right in these two points then the third point will be a call to respond, a call to action as it were.
#1 – The United States has crossed a cultural Rubicon in a very profound way. It is my opinion that there is no way to alter its direction short of a major collapse or a major spiritual uprising. It has been headed in this direction for more than a generation, but has picked up speed tremendously in the past decade. The last election virtually “sealed the deal” in the mindset of the American people. Just notice, for example, the tremendous difference between John F. Kennedy and Barack Hussein Obama. Kennedy spoke those immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Obama has cemented in the American mind the idea that the only reason government exists is to bestow entitlements to its citizens. A majority of Americans are now dependent upon the government in some form or fashion. How will anyone convince them to relinquish any of these “entitlements?”
Two, There has also been a staggering shift in the moral understanding of Americans. This is clearly, but not exclusively, demonstrated in the acceptance and even advancement of homosexual behavior and same sex marriage.
#2 – This first point places those who would follow the rabbi from Nazareth in a very small and shrinking minority.
If it was ever true that the United States was a Christian nation it no longer is true.
If God was truly honored and worshipped, the Constitution could be a living and vibrant document that heralds justice and freedom for all.
But, if you remove God then the Constitution becomes a wicked and humanistic piece of paper, subject to the whims and fancies of those who interpret it.
Worse, it has become an idol. It is something that is visible and on a surface level points to a supreme being, but is simply a human construct full of human depravity.
And so – we return to that mountainside and we strain our ears to hear the words of that Nazarene rabbi, knowing that those words are a call to “cross the Rubicon” and declare our allegiance to God and to reject Satan and the rule of this world.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit.
- Blessed are those who mourn.
- Blessed are the gentle.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
- Blessed are the merciful.
- Blessed are the pure in heart.
- Blessed are the peacemakers.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for God’s sake.
- Disciples are salt and light in a bent and broken world.
- Avoid murder by avoiding hate.
- Avoid adultery by avoiding lust.
- Honor marriage.
- Tell the truth, first and always.
- Go the second mile.
- Love your enemies.
- Give without expecting return.
- Pray as a child to a parent.
- Fast fervently.
- Hold to God, not your possessions.
- Do not be anxious.
- Do not judge.
- Seek God’s kingdom, not your own nor that of the rule of Satan.
# 3 – So, we must decide where our loyalty lies – with God or this world.
I was truly shocked, dismayed and heartbroken when, almost within hours of the events of 12/14/12 my Facebook page was full of postings by Christians, some of them even gospel preachers, responding to the murders of 26 innocent people by declaring that the most important thing to them was the ownership of their guns. No reference to being ruled by the Prince of Peace. No thought to the fact that we are to be a people that rejects violence and turns the other cheek. No consideration to the Sermon on the Mount at all – just an endless repetition of quotations defending the Constitution and the 2nd amendment in particular.
Brothers and sisters, we must – it is imperative – we cannot overlook Christ’s demand for us to declare our loyalty. Are we going to be loyal to Christ and His kingdom or this world?
Second, we must commit. We must learn to view baptism as a “crossing of the Rubicon” in a spiritual sense. This is especially true of those who have already made this confession. When we confess that Jesus is the Lord we are saying something profoundly political. That was the most treasonous statement a person could make in the first century AD. The law was you had to confess “Caesar is Lord.” Christians could not do that. They had already confessed “Jesus is Lord.” There could not be two Lords in their life. And so, when they said “Jesus is Lord” and went under the waters of baptism they were crossing a spiritual and a political Rubicon. They were placing themselves under a death sentence. Many did pay with their lives, others paid by losing property or jobs or family connections. We must learn the significance of those three words again. We cannot have two Lords in our life!
For those who have not made that confession, please stop and consider what you will be doing when you make the good confession. You are not just doing something so you can take communion every Sunday. You are not doing something just to make your parents happy. You are not doing something just so you will not be the last one in the youth group to be baptized. You are making a profound statement. You are confessing that Jesus is the Lord of your life. Do not make that decision lightly.
Third, we must live like this world is no longer our home. Two passages in particular come to mind as I think of this truth. Philippians 3:20 states that “our citizenship is in heaven.” There it is – no having to parse out that thought. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God and that is where our allegiance lies. Second, Hebrews 13:14 says that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” That’s right, we do not have a lasting city on this earth, but there is a city that is to come that we are citizens of, and we await its arrival. We have to choose which city we want to be a part of. It will be an eternal decision.
I want to close by giving a quote from one of my favorite authors. This short passage sums up completely what this lesson has been about. If I am correct, and I certainly do believe that I am, the words I have spoken this morning are critical words for us to hear at this time in our history. And so, these words from an earlier generation come down to us with an urgency that I hope we can all learn to feel:
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious and happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship.
(Note: the Scripture notation was corrected to read Philippians 3:20. Sorry about the earlier slip of the finger.)
I want to begin by thanking many of you for the comments and observations on my post yesterday. In one response the comment was made that it was “provocative” and I must admit to a certain degree of emotion as I wrote the piece. Sometimes I do my best thinking when I am really worked up about something. On another day I would have written differently, although I stand by what I have written absolutely.
What I want to stress is that I am not writing as a political pundit. This is not political for me. It is spiritual. Governments rise and fall, powers shift in an endless ocean of greed, hate, selfishness and rebellion. That will never change, no matter what we might think or write.
But if you believe in the God of the Bible you must also believe that this world is not everything that there is. There is something beyond us – a great unknown in which all will be made right and the lion will indeed lay down with the lamb. That Kingdom, that reign of peace and righteousness is promised to those who trust utterly in the God who made this world and the world to come. The Kingdom came near in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who showed us, in incarnate human form, what the Kingdom could be here on earth if we would but “trust and obey” the reign of the King.
Although God had revealed himself in many ways previous to the coming of Jesus, mankind always wanted something better. In the garden of Eden instead of glorying in the fact that he was made “in the image of God,” man decided that it was better to be “like God” and so he threw his deepest sense of humanity away – and he ended up neither “like God” nor in the image of God any longer. Throughout mankind’s long history he has been searching to regain that lost “image” and the best he can come up with are “images” of his god in the shape of animals or totems. In the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, this happened repeatedly, until God finally punished his people by sending them into exile. The punishment worked – you never read of Israel as a nation falling into idol worship following the return from Babylon.
In the decades immediately following the death of Jesus we can see in the pages of recorded history how deeply Jesus’ message of being “reborn” in the image of God affected his disciples. When the Roman authorities would attempt to force them to utter the words, “Caesar is Lord” the disciples would refuse, because when they made the “good confession” that “Jesus is Lord” they meant it. They could not mouth the words, even knowing they did not believe the words, because even the mere vocalization of the consonants and vowels would have been bowing the knee to an idol. Because of their abject refusal to do so, many lost their lives. Others had property confiscated, were beaten, or otherwise punished.
Today, now almost 2,000 years removed from the death of Jesus, his people who live in the United States are faced with another defining moment. I have been writing, in fits and starts, about how I have come to view the Constitution as a form of an idol, an “American Idol.” The events of 12/14/12 crystalized that observation in my mind. I have been deeply touched by the fact that several, perhaps many, others are waking up to the same realization. Perhaps they have held it for many years and I was simply unaware of it. I am personally horrified to realize how long I have been blind to this reality.
If the blind shall lead the blind, they both will fall into the pit. (Matthew 15:14)
I want people to wake up and realize that this is a spiritual problem, not a political one. Oh, and I do not mean putting prayer back into the schools or posting the 10 Commandments back on the walls of the court houses. What I am talking about is removing the idol from the hearts of Christians and putting Jesus back in His proper place.
In my limited discussions with radical gun advocates following the massacre in Newtown the only response I get is “my right to own any gun and any ammunition is guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment.” There is no logic applied, no connection to the Kingdom of God, certainly no submission to the Prince of Peace. Just a pathetic, ignorant, reflexive appeal to a brief and profoundly misunderstood phrase in a man made and deeply flawed piece of human governance. So there you have it. An idol, shaped out of cold steel, wood or perhaps composite materials, and shrouded in an ink stained piece of parchment. Just as the ancient idols needed to be nailed to the floor lest they fall over, this idol needs to be nailed to the floor with poor arguments (guns don’t kill people…if you take away all the guns, only criminals will have guns) lest they fall over and everyone can see how pitiful their gods really are.
I cannot believe I have been so blind. I was one of those people. I mouthed the words. What is worse, at one time I actually believed those words. God forgive me for my ignorance and my idolatry. Now, we are living in a culture in which the ownership of a gun and the defense of the same is made a defining feature of what it means to be a Christian. If you are against unlimited gun ownership you are against the Constitution, and since the Constitution is founded on Christian principles (so the argument goes, I profoundly disagree) ipso facto you cannot be a Christian.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:20-21)
America has become so inwardly focused, so in love with its individualism that even the concept itself has become demonical. It has taken on a life of its own. America today is all about the one, the individual, my rights, my freedoms, my way of doing things. But the Scriptures teach us that the Kingdom of God is focused on the other! The primary other is God himself, but even here in our daily walk we are to consider others more highly than ourselves, we are to lift the loads of the other, we are to bind up the wounds of the other, we are to willingly surrender our rights so that the life of the other is made better. Our America is 180 degrees out of phase with the New Testament. We cannot support this American way of life and at the same time claim to be followers of the Crucified One. The cross itself is the pinnacle of selflessness, and it was in the shadow of the cross that the message of the Kingdom of God spread like a wildfire.
Therefore, it is my firm conviction that you cannot replace God’s word with a fallible, broken human document and at the same time claim to be His disciple. You cannot worship an idol and the true and living God.
“Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Some have responded that I am being too harsh – that I cannot equate equate unqualified defense of the 2nd Amendment (or the Constitution as a whole) with idolatry. To which I simply respond: What is your definition of an idol? An idol is anything that replaces our trust, our affection, our devotion to God.
“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37, 38)
It is not political, people. It is spiritual. And, if it is spiritual, our eternal destiny hangs in the balance. Do not be mislead by fine sounding but inwardly rotten arguments. Idols have never worked. They will not work in the 21st century any better than they worked in the 8th century BC or the 1st century AD.
Please, for our children and our grandchildren – we must wake up!
Today is December 7, 2012, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. As I ponder this event I cannot help but consider the changes that have reshaped America in the past decade. Just for a moment, consider how America responded to the unprecedented attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and how America has responded to the equally unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The two narratives could not be any more distinct.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor the President of the United States addressed the joint houses of Congress and requested a declaration of war. Following the attacks on New York and Washington the President of the United States promised retribution, but did not seek, nor did he receive, a declaration of war. In 1941 and following the people of the United States knew they would have to make personal sacrifices on many different levels before the war would end. In the years following 9/11 Americans have not only refused to sacrifice, we have complained bitterly about the expense of fighting our “enemy.” In 1941 we knew exactly who that enemy was. In 2001 and following we only have a vague idea of who the “enemy” is, and too frequently we have befriended our enemy and killed our friends. In the years following World War II America was still largely an agrarian culture, and the work ethic was what drove the exploding economic opportunities. After ridding the world of the threat of National Socialism (the Nazis and the Japanese Imperialists), it was generally assumed that nothing could stop someone who had a dream, a plan, and a bucket full of elbow grease and determination. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those who survived the tragedy and the survivors of those who died lined up at the doors of the government demanding to be paid for their losses. Instead of “asking what they could do for their country” (in President Kennedy’s great phrase), they demanded that their country sacrifice for them. That, in one single vignette, illustrates the profound difference between 1945 and 2001. Our moral fiber has only disintegrated from that point.
In my last post I made the following observation:
This past election was truly an eye opening experience for me. In this election cycle I tried to listen and read what the candidates and the pundits in the media were saying (and writing) from a theological vantage point. In other words, I was trying to hear what was being said within the broad structures of God’s Word and also within the structures of God’s actions in similar situations in times past. What I discovered was truly disconcerting. I am not one who buys into the “Chicken Little” theory of American politics (“the sky is falling, the sky is falling”) but I do sense that over the past 8 years America has past beyond a “tipping point” and I do not believe there is any return (short of a cataclysm). When the eventual results of this move will become obvious I have no way of knowing, but I do believe that day is inevitable.
I would like to expound on that just a moment.
In this past election the citizens of the United States had a stark choice to make. On one level there really was not that much of a difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But, on another level there was a profound difference. President Obama, for all of his oratorical skills and political acumen, knows absolutely nothing about fundamental economic principles. Despite my hesitations about Mitt Romney’s ethics, I at least knew that Romney understood how a company works, and how companies work together in an economic spider-web. Romney understood that in order for businesses to succeed the government was going to have to pull back – at least to some degree. In Obama’s world, the only reason businesses exist is to provide income for the government to increase it’s stranglehold on every facet of American life.
Americans voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama’s socialist view of government, where the state is to be the overlord and dictator of all decisions involving a person’s life from the cradle to the grave. It wasn’t even really close. Instead of Kennedy’s vision of all Americans pulling on the same rope at the same time to keep the American dream moving forward, we now have each American pulling on a single strand of the rope in the hopes that the government will give him or her just one more perk, one more entitlement, one more “guaranteed freedom.” In a staggering reversal of fortune, we have turned our government “of the people, by the people, for the people” over to the National Socialists.
Think about how America has changed, and how quickly it has changed. My grandparents were among the first generation to enjoy the “fruit” of Social Security. By all accounts, Social Security will not exist by the time my daughter reaches the age of 65, and that is assuming America still stands as a republic in 2071. That is four generations, folks. Our current rate of expanding “entitlements” means that we as a culture will be financially and morally bankrupt in far less time. And, lest you think that I am crying “wolf” when there is no wolf, simply answer this question for me: when, in the long history of human existence, has a populace voluntarily chosen to relinquish privileges and status that a previous generation has enjoyed? Our baby-boomer generation is now entering their retirement years which is placing an increasing burden on those who are working. The number of those who are working is getting smaller. Every “social safety net” that has been voted into existence has only expanded – none have contracted. Every session of congress that net gets bigger and those “saved” by the net demand more and more from those who are providing the services.
At some point the balances tip past equality, and the burdens of the welfare state exceed the ability of the working class to support it. It is my contention that the first clear indication that America is moving headlong into collapse was the overwhelming support President Obama received for his vision of national socialism.
So, since this is a blog concerning all things theological and not necessarily political (although the two can never be separated), what is the disciple of Christ supposed to do?
First, a few things he or she should not do. One, running out and buying an arsenal of guns and a warehouse full of ammunition is not only foolhardy, it is positively unchristian. We will not overcome this evil at the point of a gun. If you trust in Smith and Wesson then it is blatantly obvious to me that you do not trust in Jesus the Messiah.
Next, circulating or signing a petition to secede from the Union is equally foolish. Political stunts such as that not only feed our opponents prejudices against us, they are further proof that we do not trust in the power of God, but that we are relying solely upon our own human wisdom and ideas. God repeatedly communicated to Isaiah that the Israelites were NOT to send to Egypt for military support. It was a good political strategy, and maybe at one point could have been considered a sound military strategy, but it was a pathetic spiritual response to their crisis. Which then leads me to my theological response to our current situation.
Disciples of Christ must return to their faith. I know that sounds like a stupid comment, but it is absolutely true and necessary. For far too long we have been concentrating on impossibly small and meaningless arguments while the soul of America has been radically transformed. God, Jesus, sacrifice, redemption, transformation and Holy living must once again become the focus of our message. If we are to leave a heritage to our children of a free and prosperous country, we are going to have to build a foundation one human soul at a time. We are going to have to preach a message of sin and grace, corruption and salvation and we are going to have to pray for the Holy Spirit to move in a profound and decisive manner once again. We are going to have to return to the fortitude that is illustrated by the disciples in the book of Acts if we hope to make a difference in this world. And that means we are going to have to say unpopular, unpatriotic, and politically incorrect things and risk the consequences.
I said that a day of judgment is coming – and I believe that. But I also believe in God’s grace and God’s forbearance. I believe that he can relent, or he can lessen the fall that justice demands. That is the story of God’s dealing with his faithful in the past. The question for disciples today is whether we believe in that grace, and if we are willing to humble ourselves to approach God to ask for that grace. That is the question the next decade will answer.
My daily Bible reading had me in the book of Lamentations this morning. One of the real blessings of my daily Bible reading is that my schedule calls for me to read a section long enough to be challenging, yet not so long as to be oppressive (or, at least in my mind. YMMV). Just to let you know, I read anywhere from 7-8 chapters a day, not counting Sundays when I have a different schedule. Even though this is a lengthy reading, every so often one or two verses jump out at me as if I have never read them before. That is what I find so interesting about this particular plan. The text speaks to me in its own way, rather than me telling the text that it has to say something to me. Of course, sometimes I am so distracted that I can’t hear any of the verses, but that is okay because I know that tomorrow is a new day, and I will read that passage again in due course and at that time it may speak volumes to me.
So, as I was saying, today I was in Lamentations. Now, I don’t know about you, but I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon taken from Lamentations, and to the best of my recollection, I have only preached one. So, as I was reading along and following the prophet’s anguished cries over the destruction of Jerusalem I came across 4:13, which in my Common English Bible reads this way:
It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities, those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.
Wow. Reading the books of Kings and Chronicles and the prophets you would get the idea that Israel and Judah were punished because of the sins of the kings. The author of Lamentations thinks otherwise. Oh, to be sure, the kings were a sinful bunch (at least all of Israel’s kings were, and a great many of Judah’s). But the author of Lamentations (Jeremiah?) saw through to the real lack of leadership – the spiritual leaders.
Today, especially among conservative pundits, bloggers, and preachers, the entire problem with the United States resides solely in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Why, if we could just sweep out the mean, nasty, ugly heatherns that are making all those mean, nasty heathern laws, well we could fix up the country just like she should be.
I don’t think God is going to give our political leaders a pass when it comes to morality and the way in which they have led our country. But I think there is another group that is going to get a lot more scrutiny than I think they are going to be comfortable with, and that is all those conservative pundits, bloggers and preachers that are calling for the roof to fall in on all the liberal politicians.
Simply put, the people cannot go where they are not led. And if the so called leaders who are complaining the loudest are not forging a way for the people to follow, then they need to shut up. And if they are forging that path, then they need to shepherd those who are following instead of shooting arrows at the other guys.
Real leadership involves more than just identifying where the other guys are wrong. It means that you have to both teach and live the ideas that you believe are right. Leadership does not mean holding up a wind sock and then going in the direction of the prevailing current. It means setting your course and courageously maintaining that course whether the wind is at your back and the sun is shining brightly or if the wind blowing mercilessly against you and the sun is hidden by the clouds. The one who says, “I will take a poll and whatever my people feel is best, that I will do” is not a leader. That person is a charlatan. That person is a fake. That person is a coward.
Real leadership means standing at the point, and quite often standing alone, to take the arrows from the enemy in front and, quite frequently, arrows from the discontented hiding behind. Leadership is not acquiescing to the whims of the majority, but it is confidently proclaiming the way of truth and safety. Real leadership means that the leader makes demands that might at times cause his or her followers to make sacrifices. Fake leadership promises only blessings and success.
As I view the religious scene in the United States I see a lot of men (and women) who are comfortable in their positions who have done their homework well and know exactly where the winds of popularity are blowing. They know how to play the game of politics with brutal, almost demonic efficiency. They know how to play the fearless general when necessary and they also know when to pull out the robe of the martyred hero when the situation calls for it.
Jeremiah provides the perfect illustration of the concept of Godly leadership in a time of personal unpopularity. He tried desperately, with only minimal and fleeting success, to get the people to hear and accept God’s truth when virtually every power – political and religious – was against him. He may have lost the battle, but we have his story as a lasting tribute to the necessity of having spiritual leaders who are willing to go against the current of modern culture in order to speak the word of God.
I am really growing weary of preachers who stand in the pulpit and declare that the real problem with American resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. No. That person is just the result of the real problem with America.
The real problem with America stands behind the pulpit every Sunday morning and preaches a false word – a lying deception. The real problem with America is the spiritual leader who refuses first to hear the Word of God, and so refuses to proclaim it. The real problem with America are the so called “conservative” preachers who preach week in and week out “peace, peace” when there is no peace.
If the preachers in the pulpit would lead the people in the pew, then the president on Pennsylvania Ave. would be of no consequence. If our politicians have so much authority in the realm of morality and ethics, exactly whose fault is that?