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Reflections on Immigration and Deportation (Part 3)

[This is the last in a series of posts to probe thinking and responses on this issue. Click to access Parts 1 & 2. Keep thinking, stretching, learning and growing.]

6) Consider fear

Any time you have a group of people who have no recourse to due process means you have less freedom as a country. That’s why we rationally need to address what to do with the 11+million people who are here illegally: We do not want a permanent underclass.

The human temptation to exploit is too real for us to take this lightly. Employers who know workers won’t complain will be tempted to abuse them. Landlords who know tenants are at their mercy can become derelict.

Moreover, you do not want a group of people who view the police with suspicion or the government as the enemy. This is common sense. But for someone who is afraid of being deported, the officer’s uniform is to be feared.

Another glimpse of life: An American woman fell in love with and married a Mexican man who was here illegally. They had several children and opened 4 restaurants in the Midwest. He was deported, and they have not seen him since. The children are growing up without their father. The wife has lost 3 of the restaurants. And the government adhered to the letter of the Law and oversaw the destruction of a family, jobs for dozens of servers, and great places to eat.

This is one story of many. It seems to me that we are better than that as a country. Yes, if that person had not been here illegally there would have been a different outcome. But, that person was an integral part of the flourishing of his community. Is deportation really the best solution?

7) Consider Scripture & the Gospel

Three quick thoughts from Scripture.

“Sojourners in your midst.” There are several references in the Law of Moses to the treatment of sojourners. It’s always with a view to their protection and the extension of mercy to them. God is saying that a people who please him will take care with those who are aliens and most subject to danger: When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Lv 19:33-34) This verse is but an example of the heart of God: take care to be kind, just and compassionate to the sojourner.

“Do unto others what you’d have them do to you.” Jesus is stark here in Matthew 7:12. It’s true. It’s convicting. And, it’s just this simple. If I lived in a violent place with no future prospects, would I want a neighboring country to invite me in to do the back-breaking work (i.e., mutually beneficial) or not?

Extending grace always beats exacting justice. This is hard for us, because there is just so much injustice in the world. But, with the Lord, an open, gracious hand always trumps exacting justice to the letter of the Law. A country that will deny grace to those needing it will find less grace abroad in its land. A county that extends grace—even if, for a time, it is taken advantage of—is a country where grace will continue to grow.

This is not “throw open the prisons, because we show grace.” No. People ought to be held accountable for their wrongs. But, by now we have seen that with change of status, with dishonest handlers, with extreme poverty in the home country and ready jobs here, with employers hiring people who are undocumented (anchoring them here)… well, there’s so much more nuance than simply to call everyone ‘illegal’ who is undocumented. And to treat everyone en masse.

The thing about grace is that it is uniquely a divine trait. Only God originates grace. Every act of grace on earth has the same source. Therefore it is in never-ending supply. The more grace you give, the more grace you have to give, and the more grace is in play. This works on the level of countries, too. Think of the after-effects of World Wars 1 & 2: After WW1, The Treaty or Versailles exacted extreme reparations from Germany, and set the stage for another war 21 years later. After WW2, the Marshall Plan for Europe (and its equivalent for Japan) saw the quickest turnaround of destroyed enemies into vibrant allies that the world has ever known. It was a display of grace in the political sphere.

Can we think there is a grace-filled solution to our problem? Do we think we have to support deportation or else we’ll be denying the rule of law? Is there a creative third-way through this dilemma? I think so.

Consider each person as a person with dignity and potential. Consider each person’s past: (a) the universal longing for a better life, (b) their status (which is not ‘one size fits all’), and (c) the contribution they’ve made since they’ve been here. I think on balance, we can figure out a way to address their immigration status in a way that upholds the rule of law, while seeing the potential increase they bring to our country.


Based on these considerations, might God grant believers like you and me a different outlook than what Left or Right are serving up?

Reflections on Immigration and Deportation (Part 2)

[Part 2 of 3 – to get us thinking, growing and engaging in the public sphere. To read part 1, click here. We pick it up in the middle of several considerations believers should make when thinking about the individuals and the issue as a whole. Part 3 will be published later today. Leave a comment–graciously–to push back, ask questions, encourage or bring new insights!]

3) Consider the cultural increase

Lamentably, during the 2016 campaign, now-President Trump played on prejudices by calling Mexicans “rapists, criminals” etc. He has since gone out of his way to differentiate between the criminal element and the industrious element in the Hispanic community, and he’s praised their contribution to our economic growth. This has been lost on those at both ends of the political spectrum: the Nativists (who want to keep America for Americans) and the Left (who only hear Trump say what they want him to say).

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the Latin Americans who come to this country are coming seeking a better life. They are prepared to work hard to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that are available here. They are future- and family-oriented (wanting to give their children a better life), and they hold traditional values (with a strong Catholic ties).

Honestly, if I were designing the type of people I’d want to populate our country, these would fit the bill. Hardworking, industrious, family-focused, with traditional values.

It seems to me that they are models for whom to have flowing into the country. If only their status were not an issue.

Is there a way to solve that very real ‘illegal status’? To me, because they are the types of people who will change the future, it’s worth us finding that way.

4) Consider the economic increase

People know where jobs are, and they go where jobs are, and they get a job. It’s the law of supply and demand, and it’s how economies work: those willing to move for work will get it. At the moment of their employment, they are contributing to your life and mine, and our economy. Farms, factories, constructions sites, etc. We now reap the benefits of their illegal labor. The US economy grows because more people are able to produce and have the means to consume.

Are they taking jobs from Americans? It’s hard to think so when the jobless rate is under 5% (which is the traditional line for “full employment”) and the economy is in the longest growth cycle for 50 years (over 90 months of growth, as of Feb 2017). Rather than taking jobs from others, they are contributing to the growth of the economy.

Are they doing work that no one wants? Yes. The alternative to their labor in these jobs is higher pay for these jobs and thus, higher prices for the food harvested, goods manufactured. This statement is not a blanket excuse for illegal immigration. But it’s a reminder to those who want wholesale deportation that this will radically change many aspects of our economy.

On taxes & use of public services: I honestly don’t know if they ‘pay their way’. You can find studies and reports to say whatever you want. So I don’t know if they currently pay their way. But I know this: they sure will if they prosper, and they never will if they remain poor. It’s in our best interest to help them prosper.

However, every dollar spent at Walmart, Piggly Wiggly & Amazon is taxed, no matter who spends it. Every rent check pays the property tax on that rental unit. Every employee paid with a fake SS number contributes to Social Security, and they’ll never get that back. Every employee paid has federal and state taxes deducted at source. If that is with a fake social security number, they’ll never file taxes to get returns the tax code grants to workers.

Schools and Emergency Rooms. “They are using these services without paying for them.” Except they are paying sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes; it’s not anything near a ‘free-ride’ indicated in that statement.

5) Consider who else is implicated

If an employer hires an undocumented worker to work for him or her, that employer is as culpable as the worker. There’s no way around this. Even if an employer is presented with a SS number, there’s a good chance in farming, construction, etc., that the potential worker is undocumented. We are unjust if we speak only of ‘illegal immigrants’ and not also of ‘illegal employers.’

If the employer pays cash, or fails to live up to employment standards in any way (i.e., paying them less than minimum wage, making them work beyond what the law allows, threatening them with no recourse), that employer is profiting unduly from their status. That’s called exploitation, which is not only illegal, it’s also immoral.

I have heard many on the Right say with conviction, “but they’ve broken the Law”, and I agree: the Rule of Law is the bedrock of freedom. So is the universal application of the rule of law: Employers who hire undocumented workers must be held to account too.

Second, if citizens at large participate in the benefit of undocumented work—lower prices for homes, building, produce, factory goods—then aren’t we ratifying the working situation? This is why, when the abolitionists in England were working against the slave trade, they shamed England not to use sugar, which was produced by slaves. While we eat the fruit harvested by and drive on roads built by their hands, we are ratifying the situation that brings it about.

[Part 3 is coming later today.]

Reflections on Immigration & Deportation (part 1)

[Part 1 of 3 – to get us thinking, growing, and engaging the public sphere]

“I’ve told my friend Alejandro, if he’s scared, he can come and stay with us.” A friend at Grace told me this recently. Alejandro is his friend and is in the US illegally. The recent focus on the deportation has driven up fear for Alejandro and the millions like him.

My friend was the second person at Grace in the last three weeks who told me the same thing: they are willing to take someone in, so as to protect that person from forcible deportation.

These two brothers, I can quite confidently say, would vote on the conservative side of the political spectrum. They are mature (in Christian faith and in their age category). They are financially successful. In other words, they are not radicals by any political definition.

And yet here they are ready to defy an agency of their government. What’s going on?

It’s time to admit that we need to think afresh about persons who live in the US illegally. And by “we” I mean Believers. Christians. Christ-followers. It’s time for us to step back from the thought patterns of the Left or Right, and change the equation in our thinking. My intent here is to write to believers who consider themselves thoughtful. Let’s be more thoughtful and more creatively thoughtful than what we see in the world. Whether you identify with the Right or the Left, do you have room to grow in your thinking?

It seems to me that you can address a problem either by looking at the problem itself or by looking at the desired outcome. In this case, either you can focus on walls, wait times and quotas, etc., or you can see the bigger question: what kind of country do we want? What kind of atmosphere? What kind of future? What kind of people to populate it? What coheres with Scripture and with our calling? How do we treat people near us? How should we?

Let me make four preliminary comments, and then offer several areas in which we can “consider” better.

First, every sovereign nation has the right and duty to seek the best for its own citizens (though not at the expense of other countries, i.e. conquering a neighbor). A primary role of government is to maintain order and the ability to live peaceably within one’s borders. The other way to say this is to promote “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and maintain true justice and human rights.

Second, every nation that flourishes walks in step with God’s ideals for human flourishing. For Christians this is so obvious as to be redundant. A nation that flourishes, then, will highlight justice and integrity, compassion and kindness. These are like 4 wheels on a car: each is needed to drive the car forward.

Third, the United States is based on opportunity, an industrious spirit, merit, ‘blind justice’ (citizens equal before the law because of equal human dignity). The American Dream is not so much prosperity as it is opportunity; not more possessions, but more decision-making power. America has always looked forward—to build a better life, a better nation, a better world. A city on a hill. A place where people dream of coming and achieving untapped potential. As we review the history of the North American Continent, 95% of us are of immigrant stock, and we built the US (and Canada) from wilderness to world leadership because we based it on freedom of the individual to flourish.

Fourth, the two major tragedies of our past are so humiliating because they contradict our ideals: The awful treatment of Native population, and the horror of slavery and its hangover. We have failed our ideals miserably in both these areas. And we’ve failed God’s ideals.

At this moment, we are in danger of allowing within our midst a third human tragedy on a national scale: our ultimate treatment &/or ‘solving’ of the question of the dilemma of undocumented persons in our midst, of illegal immigrants into our border.

The need is urgent for many Christians to think with more creativity. So let us consider together.

1) Consider the individual & their home

Think of a village or town in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America: Economic prospects are bleak (to put it mildly). The future for your family is tenuous. Mere existence is the daily grind. There’s very little “pursuit of happiness.”

Consider this: of the people in that village, who would embark on a 500-mile mile journey to a distant country for a better life? The ones with courage &/or resourcefulness, those who not only want a better life but who will work to make it happen.

What is their expectation as they start their journey? Perhaps they go with limited knowledge of VISA prospects but hope for the best. Or they go with encouragement of family in the US (“just come, we’ll figure it out”). Maybe there’s a handler who says “I can get you in, for a fee.” Or they know they’re coming illegally.

In those cases where a handler has promised entry: Often the handler will be crooked, and drop them off near the border, obviously without proper paperwork. At that point, the migrant has few choices: enter this dreamed-of land with no papers, remain in the borderland of Mexico (which is not home, has no job prospects, and has a high level of crime), or attempt to make the trek back to one’s home village. It’s not hard to see why people cross illegally.

Perhaps, back in the village, there’s no handler, but there’s a solo trek across Mexico to get to the US. There is a 1½-3 year waiting period to obtain a visa, as of 2011. [] This legal immigration road would entail multiple correspondences with the US embassy/consulate. This might just seem too long in a dead-end home where things never get better.

From our end it’s illegal immigration. I don’t think that’s the overwhelming concern in the village. They are willing to risk anything and everything on a better life. They know that if they get to the US they can get jobs and begin to change their lives.

Perhaps they should think more clearly about immigration status before leaving home. But can you blame them? Stay for a no hope existence; Go for a risky-but-American-Dream future. Get to America and make more in a week than most make in a month, send support back to mom or wife, and ultimately bring your family to America too.

They are simply trying to get out and make a better life. This does not mean that they are in the right to cross the border illegally. But it helps me remember where someone came from and what they came to. They desperately want what we have been born into.

2) Consider change in status

Not all who find themselves in the US illegally came here illegally. Consider this accounting from an attorney friend of mine:

I’ve got a client who came to the United States in 1998 with his wife and his 1 year old son. He left a terrible situation in Mexico. I’m not sure mechanically how they got here. He is diligent, law abiding, fair. He loves his family, has been married to one woman and works hard. Initially, he obtained a work permit and began working as a textile worker. He kept the same job for almost a decade. He and his wife had 3 more children born in the United States. They paid taxes. He had a valid driver’s license. He was never arrested or charged with any violation of law. About 5 years ago, he went to renew his driver’s license and was told that he had to present a social security card in order to renew. He’d had a NC driver’s license for more than a decade. He never was issued a Social Security Number. He tried to get one, but was told that his status in the US was no longer permitted. He could not even apply for a SSN. He has remained in the US…illegally for several years. His only option was to leave the US and apply for entry and then wait or he could stay and do the best he could. He would never abandon his family. He stayed. For years, he kept his nose clean, obeyed the speed limit, worked as a painter for cash (all the while still reporting the income to the IRS, who, by the way, gladly took his money each year). What do we call this man? Is he an illegal? Is it fair to consider him in the same light as someone who, in 2017 may be aware of the illegality of their act, who comes anyway, no matter the reason or justification? 

His status changed, and now he’s undocumented. The laws changed, and now he’s in a shadow bureaucratic existence. What should he do?

[parts 2 & 3 will be published tomorrow – including Scriptural insights. You can “subscribe via email” and get each post delivered to your inbox; see above right]

Of Scuba Gear and Insurance Policies

What is the nature of the gospel? When it comes to you and me, and our interaction with Jesus Christ for salvation, what does that interaction look like in our lives?

Many people think of it like they think of an insurance policy. When you want life insurance, you make a decision to buy it, you pay some money, and then you forget about it… until you are in trouble years later. Too many people think of salvation like this: a one-time decision, go on living your own life, and then when you die you are assured of a good outcome.

This is wrong. It’s not anywhere in Scripture. It’s against the very heart of the gospel message. A better way to think of it is this: you are trapped under water. Doomed. Certain death is moments away. When all of a sudden, from above, comes a scuba diver. He takes off his scuba gear and holds it out to you.

Do you take it? Only if you think there’s air in the tanks. Only if you can see yourself doing the impossible: breathing underwater. Only if you trust the person giving it to you. Only if you want to live.

You grab the mouthpiece, and take a breath. Life. Right now. You put on the tanks, and strap them on to your back. You are wearing the Scuba Gear. You are rescued.

The nature of the gospel is this: you wear it. You put it on. You grab hold of it. For every breath. The gospel isn’t something you think of once, and then get a big payout when you die.

The gospel – God’s love toward in Christ Jesus – is this: you put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and being clothed in him, you are saved from death and doom, and you are assured of a place in God’s everlasting kingdom.

With the scuba gear on, you can work to free yourself from the trapped-ness of being underwater. This too reminds me of the gospel: once we are breathing the air of God’s grace, we have the presence of mind to work at ridding ourselves of the things that trap us and doom us: Secret sins, wrong habits, error-filled thinking, selfish ambition… these will do us in, if we don’t attack them and free ourselves from them. The problem is that we don’t have the power to do this on our own.

But breathing the air of the gospel through the scuba tanks means that we have God’s power to free us from the stuff of life that traps us here.

And, very soon we float up to that place we were created for: just like a regular trapped swimmer can come up to the air they can breathe, so too, God has created us to be with him. And, as we grab hold of that scuba gear called The Gospel it won’t be long until we are breathing the clean, fresh air of the Presence that we were created for.

The gospel changes everything about us. It’s not insurance for one day in the future, it’s Scuba gear for every breath.

If Jesus hasn’t changed your life, then he hasn’t changed your heart.

If he hasn’t changed your heart, then he hasn’t changed your eternity.

Thus, if Christ hasn’t changed your daily life, then you have to ask yourself, has he really changed your eternity?

How to get ready today

If you know your boss is coming to check out your work, you prepare for it.

If you know your mom is coming to visit, you clean your house.

If you know the IRS is coming to audit, you get things in order.

If you know the Cable Guy is coming (anytime between 9-noon!!), you have arrange your schedule to be home for it.

We all understand the concept “being ready” for a visit that we know is coming. In Matthew 24-25, Jesus reminds us of the Visitation that is unmistakable. The Coming of the Son of Man at the end of time is not a “maybe-maybe not” scenario. He is coming.

The only unknown is the When.  (Read Matthew 24:36-25:13 – that is the theme of this portion: “be ready for he is coming at a day and an hour you are not aware.”)

Our stance in daily life, then, has got to be one of vigilance, faithfulness and preparation.

Consider the following areas of our lives, and how you can grow in preparing yourself today so that you can look Your Savior in the eyes at his coming! Unashamed. Joyfilled. Use the following to do an “audit” of your life.

  • Affections – what is it that you love and long for more than anything? Are you cultivating your heart to be more consumed with Jesus?
  • Practices or Habits – what is it that you spend your time doing? Which of the things you listed are redemptive, which are neutral, and which draw you away from godliness?
  • Speech – how God-honoring are the words that come out of your mouth?
  • Decisions – do they reflect God’s priorities? Do they strain toward “putting to death my sinful nature” & walking in the Fruit of the Spirit.
  • Sin – are you giving room in your life for things you know are wrong? “It’s just my little peccadilo”. NO! Do battle against sin that so easily entangles us. Also, are you asking God to show you your blind-spots and hidden errors?
  • Confession – how often do you seek God’s forgiveness? His power? His Priorities? How often do you throw yourself on his mercy?
  • Praise – when was the last time you simply told God (in speaking, writing or singing) how great he is and why?

Watch the Lord make you more like Christ, and make your life more fulfilled, as you address these areas in your life seriously!

Hood Ornament Christianity

Christians: Who is Jesus to you? A simple question.

I would think that every person who claims to be a Christian would say something like, “he’s the most important thing in my life. He’s my savior. He’s the center of things.”

These are the correct answers. Good. Let me ask the question a little more pointedly: Say you have a friend who has no real experience of Jesus. Based on their observations of your life, who would they say Jesus is to you?

Would their answers go something like this? “Jesus is someone they mention once in a while, and I know they get to a church now and then (when they are not at the beach or traveling with sports). They play that K-LOVE radio in their car. But other than that, we live pretty similar lives. Their kid watch the same movies as mine, they yell at the refs like I do, we both complain about credit card debts and call the same politicians liars… A whole lot like me, except I sleep in every Sunday.”

Do you see yourself anywhere in this description? One of the dangers of the “bible belt” is that there are a whole bunch of people who live Hood Ornament Christianity: lives that are just like others, except that we pop Jesus out on top, and think we’re OK.

True Christianity is—to continue the metaphor—the entire car: Jesus is the engine, the chassis, the drivetrain, and the fuel in the tank. He’s the whole car of our lives, and we are the passengers carried by him.

Jesus didn’t come to ‘make your life better’; he came to give you God for eternity. He’s not the best option for how to live your life; he’s the only Rescuer from sin and death. It’s not that Jesus wants to redirect you; he wants to resurrect you.

In Christ, we are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), not just a cleaned-up one. Jesus lives in us (Gal 2:20), not above us or beyond us. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3), totally changed and totally secure.

Jesus warns us that many who call themselves Christians will abandon their confession under the hard times, troubles and persecutions that are coming (Matt 24:4-13). They will turn their back on Jesus himself because they fear suffering. He also encourages us that many will endure to the end and be saved.

It seems to me that if you treat Christ like a Hood Ornament on your life, you are in grave danger of being those who fall away. But, if Christ is the car and driver of your life, you will buckle your seatbelt in hard times and cling to him.

So, how do I know if I’m a Hood Ornament Christian or not? In other words, how do I know if I would hold to Christ in tough times?

Some questions to serve as answers: (1) how tightly do you hold to him today? I doubt you will be able to hold more tightly when everything is against us. (2) How much do you sacrifice for him and arrange your life around his priorities now? Do you think you’ll start doing it ‘then’, in hard times? (3) What are you unwilling to give up now to Christ? That’s what’s more important than Jesus to you.

The more of us we give to Jesus now, the more of us he’ll have then!

Lord Jesus, Give me an open hand with the things of life—relationships, opportunities, dreams, homes, positions, things, assets, hopes. They are gifts from you. And, I hold them in trust for you, not in ownership over them. Please forgive me where I’ve grabbed them too tightly, and valued them more than I ought. Give me an open-hand with the things of life, so that my hand can grasp tightly the One Thing that is necessary: You and You alone. May my life be wrapped up in you.

Will it be worth it?

imgresAt Grace, we are just coming through a season where we’ve made 3-year commitments to give over and above our regular giving. God has given us a “Vision 2020”, and he’s moved us to be part of it.  Planting churches, bigger missionary footprint, stronger discipleship, multi-ethnicity.

One of the questions people have (whether they verbalize it or not) about giving radically and sacrificially, is this: “will it be worth it? How do I know this is a good thing?”

Let me give you 6 reasons it is always worth it to make more of our resources available to God’s work

1) You are making an investment, not a gift. God never asks for charity. He asks for clear-minded investment: “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven,” Jesus tells us (Mt 6:20).  This is investment advice.  He’s not saying, “you’ve been given so much, can’t you spare some?” He’s saying, “I’ve got an investment tip for you… you can lay up some treasure…” Giving to the Kingdom is investing.  What you and I won’t know until the next life is ‘what kind of return is it?’ We can be reasonably sure that God won’t be paying us back with USD or British pounds.  But what? I don’t know.  I just know what Jesus says: invest in treasure that will last.

2) “He who sows generously will also reap generously” (2 Cor 9:6). This seems more direct & ‘this life’ than the previous point. One thing I’ve noticed: I’ve never seen someone (high or low income) who lives generously ever go without anything they need (and many things they want). Without drifting into prosperity gospel garbage, I’ve seen God bring generous harvests on those who have sowed generously.  And, I’m amazed at people who struggle financially… almost all of them have been sparing in their giving.

3) “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).  is this really true? Well, it has to be because Jesus said it.  So, how is it true? As a kid, I didn’t believe it! But, as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully less selfish!), I’ve had the joy of giving special things to special folks: an engagement ring to my wife; the long-talked-about, longed-for Christmas gift to my boys; a surprise party here, an afternoon of company there. God fills and blesses the one who pours out on his behalf.  The one who keeps things has little blessing from them, if they’re not being used. The one who makes them available to others has the blessing of providing in need.

4) “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). It’s just fun to be able to know that God loves it when I do something! This is concrete, and specific.  Every time I give with joy and good cheer, God loves it.

5) Jesus tells a difficult parable about he “dishonest manager” in Luke 16. He makes the point afterward of saying, “if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” The point is clear: the stuff we have now is a practice or a proving ground for the stuff we will receive.  If earthly wealth has such a hold on us, why would we be trusted with that which is even more valuable.

6) God is always worth it. He just is. He is so much more gracious and generous, powerful and purposeful, loving and caring, good and guiding than we’ll ever know! So, to give to this God is always and eternally a good thing.

Six quick reasons why it’s always worth it to give to God’s work.  Even apart from sheer obedience or heartfelt gratitude. May God grant that every person who calls themselves a Christian would grow in this grace of giving, with the full confidence that it IS worth it.

Peace with our Past & Future

urlRomans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

We talked on Sunday about the 5 directions in which we need Peace:  Peace with God, Peace with ourselves, Peace with our past, our future, and with others. You can watch it here (click the “archive” tab in the middle of the screen)

For Peace with our past and future, we considered how Romans 8:28 brings great courage – because God is at work in us.  I quoted the following from Charles Spurgeon, and several of you have asked for it.

“Everything that happens to you is for your own good. If the waves roll against you, it only speeds your ship toward the port. if lightning and thunder come, it clears the atmosphere and promotes your soul’s health. You gain by loss, you grow healthy in sickness, you live by dying…

“Could you ask for a better promise (than Rom 8:28)? It is better that all things should work for my good than all things should be as i would wish to have them. All things might work for my pleasure and yet might all work my ruin. If all things do not always please me, they will always benefit me. This is the best promise of this life.”

Amen and amen.

Grace: a common word, the ultimate word

[This was published in the Kinston Free Press, 10/29/16]

Many people “say grace” before their meal. Others lament that “folks have lost the little graces,” meaning the small acts of courtesy and honor in daily life. If you play the piano you know about grace notes. If you dance elegantly you move with grace. If you like old movies you remember Grace Kelly.

But what does grace really mean? Where does it come from, and why does it matter?

The Apostle Paul writes to Titus: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). Jesus is the one who appeared. So, he is the grace of God… in person. St John says the same thing: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us… full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Everything Jesus did was grace and truth all at once.

Jesus is the Grace of God walking around on earth. His healing, teaching and miracles. His kindness with many, his severity with some. This is God’s grace in Christ. But it’s deeper too.

Paul also describes Jesus’ entire mission as grace. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor; so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Jesus exhibited grace by coming… for our sakes… from heaven’s riches to our utter poverty on earth… so that we can come to heaven’s riches. His whole mission is an act of grace.

Grace is salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9). God rescues us by his utter goodwill toward sinners and his initiative to accomplish good toward us. Our part? To take him at his words and respond in awe, humility and devotion: “Lord, your grace overwhelms me! I believe it: your love for me, your forgiveness for my sin, and your adoption of me. I surrender to you.”

Jesus is God’s grace personified. His mission is God’s grace activated. His saving us from our sins is God’s grace outpoured. Why does this matter? Because without grace we have no chance in life or death. What do I mean? It’s very simple: without God coming to us in grace, we could never come to him by our goodness. We could never overcome the barrier of our sins, the canyon of our rebellion, the deadness of our selfish and proud hearts. But God breaks down our rebel, wandering hearts—and makes us alive—by his gentle grace.

His love, kindness, and pursuit of us. His mercy, goodwill, and generosity. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins, his resurrection for our new life. The invitation of peace with God through Jesus. This is grace. And it’s nearly unbelievable!

Grace is the greatest word in any language, because it’s the greatest person, mission and gift from God! When you and I hope for mercy from our boss, or forgiveness from our love ones, we are giving evidence of the universal heart-longing for this thing called grace. This common word is actually the starting word of hope for the world. Our acts of grace to one another reflect God’s ultimate Act of Grace in Christ. May we never miss the reality that our signpost actions point to.

Election Clarity: a friend’s perspective

[NOTE: You may have seen this about clarity on the presidential election.  Kevin DeYoung wrote it 2 weeks ago.  You can read the original here. His blog is worth reading (especially on Mondays!!). I thought these 10 thoughts were extremely helpful in sifting thoughts as I get ready to vote in my first US election. I hope it helps you.]

“Seeking Clarity in this Confusing Election Season: Ten Thoughts”

I’ve been the pastor at my church since the summer of 2004. That means this is the fourth presidential election we have been through together. In each of the previous three, there have been moments—small, isolated moments—of conflict surrounding the election. Things have been stirred up by email chains, social media fodder, and sometimes by things I have said. I hope these brief reflections will not be in the category of “stirring up,” but rather might provide some clarity about what Christians should agree on and what we may not have to agree on.

Here we go.

1. Since this will come up in every comment and has been asked by my own parishioners dozens of times, I’ll make clear from the outset: I will vote for President, but I will not vote for either of the major party candidates. I have been critical of both candidates—more so than in any previous presidential election—because I believe both fail to clear a basic threshold of personal integrity, sound judgment, and trustworthiness.

2. This does not mean I think every Christian must come to the same decision in order to be a good Christian. There are simply too many prudential matters in the mix for Christians to be adamant that you absolutely cannot vote for so and so. Someone may think Trump is a lecherous oaf, but still conclude that his policies and judicial appointments have a better chance of being good for the nation. Likewise, someone may find Clinton’s position on abortion utterly deplorable, but conclude that Trump’s pro-life credentials are untrustworthy and that Clinton is less likely to be recklessly incompetent. Others may be convinced that an unpopular Clinton presidency may be better for conservative principles in the long run than a train wreck Trump administration would be. Some people may think voting third party is a waste. Others may figure it is one way to send a message that the system failed us this time around. Or maybe they really, really like Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or whomever. Do I agree with all these arguments? No. But am I able to tell Christians that these arguments are manifestly unbiblical? No. They are conclusions that require prudential judgments. While our church might discipline a member for holding the positions Clinton holds or for behaving the way Trump has behaved, this does not mean we have biblical grounds for disciplining a church member who, for any number of reasons and calculations, may decide that voting for either candidate (or neither) makes the most sense. And if we wouldn’t discipline someone for a presidential vote, we should stop short of saying such a vote is sinful and shameful.

3. While it is not the role of pastors to tell their people who to vote for, it is our role to interpret Scripture and point out theological carelessness. Yes, David was a great sinner who was used mightily by the Lord. Yes, God forgives sinners and so must we. But David repented of his sin (see Psalm 51). Being a sinner like David doesn’t qualify anyone for anything, except for the redeeming blood of Christ and the saving grace that will be given to all those who truly repent and believe.

4. Likewise, Cyrus was a pagan ruler used by God for the good of his people. Which establishes that God can use pagan rulers for the good of his people. The example itself says nothing about whether God will use a particular pagan ruler, or whether God would have us vote for said pagan ruler if given the chance.

5. Even if you are a hold-your-noser instead of a NeverTrumper, every Christian should agree that Trump’s comments about women and his actions toward women (not to mention the way he has spoken of minorities) have been horrid. We embarrass ourselves when we try to defend the indefensible. And to claim it was merely locker room talk (which it wasn’t), or that you’ve heard worse (sadly, many have), or all men have spoken like that before (they haven’t) only serves to excuse sins that need to be forgiven not minimized.

6. And what about Clinton? It’s true, some conservative evangelical Christians have voiced more criticism about Trump than about Clinton. I imagine this is because most conservative evangelical Christians do not consider Clinton a viable option because of her extreme views on abortion. The conversation among most white evangelicals is not Trump or Clinton but Trump or not Trump. But certainly Clinton is no paragon of virtue either. It is hard to think she can be trusted with money, with power, with classified information, or with simply telling the truth.

7. But we are not voting for Pastor-in-Chief! Agreed. I don’t insist that the President of the United States has to be qualified to be a leader in our churches or even a member in our churches. And yes, many presidents have been morally bankrupt. But we can’t say what we would do then with what we know now. More importantly (and more theologically), we must not be moral relativists. The Bible does not teach that every sin is the same, nor does it suggest that private character is an irrelevant consideration for public service. There is nothing about sitting in the Oval Office that magically transforms people into something other than what they have been. If anything, power tempts even good people to be bad and makes bad people even worse. Our candidates will always be imperfect. When and where that imperfection crosses the line into “morally unfit” may be a matter of discretion, but it must be a matter that matters.

8. Likewise, to criticize a candidate’s egregious moral faults is not “casting the first stone.” We are not killing them or condemning them as irredeemably lost. The question is not whether Trump or Clinton are perfect moral examples, or whether we have failings in our past, or whether grace can cover all our sins. I evaluate presidential candidates with the same sort of grid I’d use for a staff evaluation: character, convictions, competence, and chemistry. Obviously, I don’t look for all the same things in a president as I would for an associate pastor. But I do think that in both cases a person’s ethical compass is crucial. The Founding Fathers, however imperfect they were in practice, were at least agreed that a Republic cannot long endure apart from the cultivation of virtue. I’d like to see the President defend and pursue the same.

9.There is a tendency, on both sides, to treat “our side” differently than we treat “their side.” Would the same Christian leaders excusing Trump’s statements ever think to excuse the same from Clinton (Bill or Hillary)? Of course not. Would liberals be overlooking Bill Clinton’s treatment of women (and Hillary’s role in downplaying or silencing accusations) if a Republican candidate (or spouse) had the same trail of serious allegations? No way. So much of politics is “defend our guy at all costs” and “seek and destroy their guy at all costs.” The church must show a better way.

10. I am interested in politics, always have been. I follow the ups and downs and ins and outs of the campaign season closely. I love my country and care about who wins and loses. Elections have consequences. Yet I’m much more interested in the church—my church and the Church. Our fidelity to biblical truth, our personal holiness, our sincerity, our consistency, our ability to speak with grace and truth, our unwillingness to confuse the kingdom of this world with the kingdom of Christ, our realism in the midst of utopian promises, our hope in the midst of fear and loathing, our winsome witness to the gospel—to embody these realities week after week is more important than what happens on the second Tuesday in November.

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