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It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
New Growth Press (February 1, 2012)
***Special thanks to Rick Roberson of The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Genre: Religion/Christian Life/Relationships
List Price: $15.99
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: New Growth Press
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Ch a p t er 1
The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory. All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols—worship him, all you gods!
Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, Lord. For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. Let those who love the Lord hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked. Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name. (Psalm 97)
We are bound to disagree over politics, not just in the culture but in the church as well. I bump into this reality all the time. One such occasion occurred in early 2009 when I had two very different appointments back to back. The first was with a leader in my church who wondered why we did not talk more forcefully about abortion and homosexuality. He wondered why we were more likely to speak out on trendy New York City issues like justice and mercy than to speak out and even act on the issues he was concerned about. He wondered why, for example, if we were prepared to sponsor a march against hunger, we were not also prepared to sponsor a protest in front of an abortion clinic.
I met next with a Christian graduate student at Columbia University. She told me that she had begun to drift away from Christian community because, as she put it, “I am beginning to find that the people I agree with theologically are the people I disagree with so- cially.” The issues for her were, interestingly, the same as those mentioned in my first appointment—abortion and homosexuality, but especially the latter. She was in a different place on those issues. She was not gay herself, but she had a number of close friends who were, and her love for them made her feel at odds, given her prior church experience, with the Christian community. She was confused about what the Bible had to say about committed homosexual partner- ships, and she was struggling over what she would do if she became convinced that the Lord forbade them.
We talked about many things—about the false choice the culture often presents (one either must completely accept the gay lifestyle or one must admit to homophobia), about the tendency in the evangelical world to elevate certain sins over others (homosexual sin over heterosexual sin; or sexual sins over other types of sin, like greed or gossip), about the fact that there are different legitimate strategies for nudging our culture in the direction of sexual health (California ballot initiatives being only one of them), about the difference between struggling with sin and embracing sin, and about the difference between homosexual inclination and homosexual behavior.
I came away from the second appointment thankful and perplexed (more later on my perplexity). I was thankful that this young person had felt comfortable talking to me, for I am “the church” by virtue of my role as a pastor. I could not help but think that she approached me because our church did not, in its public face, fit the stereotype that she had begun to react to. We were committed, as she discovered, to a traditional view of marriage (heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong unions), but we were also keen to keep our “front door” open, so that people like her and her friends would feel comfortable coming in for serious and honest discussion.
Tensions in My Own Mind
We are bound to disagree, not only over issues, but over which issues to “go public” on. Committed Christians, sometimes in the same church, sometimes in the leadership of the same church, can easily find themselves at odds with one another on these sorts of issues.
Such tensions arise not only between us but within us. I mentioned that I came away from the second appointment perplexed. The graduate student’s struggles reminded me of how confused people are, especially young people, even church-raised young people like her, about God’s way of wisdom when it comes to sexual matters. I found myself asking if our church’s relative public silence on the issue was in fact the best policy. Certainly it helped keep our front door more widely open than it might otherwise be. It certainly gave rise to an important and nuanced discussion with one particular person that might otherwise not have happened. But what about all the others out there? What about those in my own church who might need a lot more guidance than they realize?
Issues Change, but Disagreement Continues
As I write, everyone is talking about the economy—but not everyone in my church agrees on what is to be done. Some believe that the government bailouts are necessary and good; some see them as a fiscal disaster and an inexcusable wink of the eye at gross moral failure.
Back in the 1980s the range of issues was broader, but Christians still found plenty to disagree about. Some members of my congregation rejoiced at the swing to the right. They saw the Republican triumphs in 1980 and 1984 as harbingers of moral, fiscal, and educational renewal. Others were less sanguine, pointing with dismay to the new guard’s positions on, for example, gun control and the environment as huge moral blind spots. (If they had been able to see ahead into the new century, they might have been equally appalled at the financial chaos brought upon the world by the new guard’s advocacy of the unregulated pursuit of wealth.) Some saw the fall of the Soviet Union as the vindication of free market capitalism and of policies aimed at its unfettered growth. Others joined Czech Republic President Václav Havel in his fear that the lifting of Soviet control would only invite new expressions of violence, not simply in the former Soviet bloc, but even at home:
The unnatural bipolar system imposed upon the world, which concealed or directly suppressed historical differences, has collapsed. And these differences are now manifesting themselves with sudden and nearly explosive force, not just in the post-Communist world but also in the West and many other areas of the globe. I fully agree with those who see in this reality the seeds of one of the most serious threats to humanity in the coming era.
Some today might argue that the “triumph” of capitalism, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor that has accompanied it, has been one of the sources of the rise of terrorism in the first decade of the new century.
Navigating Our Differences: Don’t Panic
How do we navigate all these differences? Surely it is by looking to the Scriptures for perspective and guidance. I have found Psalm97 to be very helpful in this regard. It calls our hearts back to their proper center and for that reason serves as a manifesto on “first principles” for Christian citizenship. The first of these first principles is that Christians need never panic, since our God rules everything: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Psalm 97:1)
Notice that “reigns” is a political word. It describes a king exer- cising dominion over his subjects, the ancient equivalent (roughly) of saying, “President so-and-so sits in the Oval Office.” Of course verse 1 says much more. We elect American presidents for a brief time. Their “reign” is neither permanent, nor absolute, nor flawless, nor worldwide, whereas God’s is all four. His rule causes the “earth” to be “glad” and the “distant shores” to “rejoice” (emphasis added). Verse 9 declares his absolute sovereignty over all authorities, whether seen or unseen: “For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” What an encouragement! What a source of confidence and joy for the believer! God is in charge absolutely.
Those who bemoan the moral and social disintegration of American culture are often right. But when they speak to us in such a way as to stir up fear and panic in our hearts, they are wrong. Our God reigns, and therefore we need not—we must not—be afraid as we exercise our civic responsibilities, no matter what seems to be going on around us.
Consider the damage panic can bring. First of all, panic impairs judgment. If we give in to the voice that cries “Act now, or our great country will be forever lost!” we will find ourselves demanding easy and quick solutions to our nation’s problems, when in fact there are no such solutions. Christians, more than any others, should know that no candidate, no platform, no party has all the answers. But fear makes it easy to forget this.
Panic breeds impatience not only with political process but also with people. It easily leads to browbeating and to polarization even in the church, the very place where God expects us to model the one community that will outlast all others. How quickly and tragically we accuse and demonize one another when we are afraid. Our hearts break over the killing of millions of unborn children, but are we really right to label every pro-choicer an advocate for murder and every woman who submits to abortion an accomplice in murder? What of the young woman who has been persuaded that the child within is not yet a child? (Note: God distinguishes in Scripture between premeditated killing of a person and accidental killing, a distinction which we find in our own law’s distinction between murder and manslaughter.
Abortion is, of course, premeditated, but for some people that act is not morally murder since they have been led to believe that what is aborted is not a person.) What of the person who votes pro-choice because she cannot see how the legal battle against abortion will succeed rather than because she is pro-abortion? Because panic cries “Do something right now, before it is too late!” it dehumanizes us in our dealings with each other. For me to understand my neighbor’s motives and reasoning takes time, the very thing panic cannot stand.
Panic can be used to justify falsehood. Some people, fearful of a religious takeover, have lifted Jefferson’s “wall of separation” idea out of its historical context and used it, dishonestly, to justify the silencing of the religious voice in every public place and discussion. (The language, which nowhere appears in the Constitution, was used by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, to justify federal disengagement in religion while tacitly approving state engagement.) Promoters of creationist literature, fearful of the impact of the teaching of evolution upon their children, have sought to sneak their material into a Pennsylvania public school by doctoring the terminology of their manual without substantially altering its content. Still others, fearful of the secularization of schools, have promoted “stealth candidates” with a hidden agenda (say, school prayer). Such subterfuge usually backfires, causing the opposition to retrench even further. Worse, when employed by believers, it dishonors the God they claim to serve by using ungodly means (lying) to advance an allegedly godly end.
Panic displeases God. Fear is a matter of the heart, and our reigning King cares deeply and especially about our hearts, since it is from them that everything else issues (see Matthew 12:33–37; Mark 7:20–23). God cares about why we do something at least as much as he cares about what we do. Psalm 97 reminds us that, deep down, the fundamental tone of our lives must be joyful confidence in God’s sovereign reign, not fear: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. . . . Rejoice in the LORD, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.” (Psalm 97:1, 12, emphasis added). When I choose political and social action because I am afraid, even if I can justify that action from Scripture, I am denying God at a deep level. I am acting from unbelief. I am taking his majestic name in vain.
The next time you find yourself driven by fear, or you hear a mes- sage that urges you to act out of fear, consider Jesus. Our Lord saw the desperate evils of life far more clearly than we ever will, and yet he never panicked. In The Waiting Father Helmut Thielicke wrote:
What tremendous pressures there must have been within him to drive him to hectic, nervous, explosive activity! He sees . . . as no one else ever sees, with an infinite and awful nearness, the agony of the dying man, the prisoner’s torment, the anguish of the wounded conscience, injustice, terror, dread, and beastli- ness. He sees and hears and feels all this with the heart of a Savior . . . Must this not fill every waking hour and rob him of sleep at night? Must he not begin immediately to set the fire burning, to win people, to work out strategic plans . . . to work . . . furiously . . . before the night comes when no man can work? That’s what we would imagine the earthly life of the Son of God to be like, if we were to think of him in human terms. . . . But how utterly different was the actual life of Jesus! Though the burden of the whole world lay heavy on his shoulders . . . he has time to stop and talk to the individual . . . By being obedient in his little corner of the highly provincial precincts of Nazareth and Bethlehem he allows himself to be fitted into a great mosaic whose master is God . . . And that . . . is why peace and not unrest goes out from him. For God’s faithfulness already spans the world like a rainbow: he does not need to build it; he needs only to walk beneath it.
Seek God’s Glory above Narrow Political Goals
Psalm 97 calls us to exalt a Sovereign whose reigning glory knows no national bounds. And this gives us our second “first principle”: our political activism must always serve God’s glory worldwide. In other words, model Christian Americans, like their counterparts in Brazil or Korea or wherever, set their hearts first and always on the promotion of God’s interests.
Psalm 97 makes this priority vivid. Verse 1 does not read, The Lord reigns; let Israel (or America) be glad! Nor does it read, The Lord reigns; let my family be glad! These groups must surely join the chorus, but the choir in view is far grander: “Let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (emphasis added). Verses 6 and 7 convey the same idea: “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory. All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols—worship him, all you gods!” (that is, all the different groups of people throughout the world [emphasis added]).
In the classic film Chariots of Fire Olympic runner Eric Lid- dell courageously models this priority. When the Prince of Wales and a number of other powerful figures press him to overturn his conscience-bound decision not to run on the Lord’s Day, he politely refuses. A singularly obnoxious figure accuses him of arrogant dis
loyalty, saying, “In my day it was ‘country first, then God.’ ” Liddell fires back, “It is you who are arrogant! God made kings. God knows I love my country, but I cannot for the sake of that country do what God forbids.”
God’s glory, God’s victory, the revealing and acknowledgement worldwide of who he is, what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do—this great purpose drives history. Each nation’s saga belongs to this larger one. The history of the United States, so full of God’s blessing and goodness, is not for that reason a special history unto itself. It belongs, together with the histories of Peru, Iraq, China, and Senegal, to his story.
There is a remarkable moment on the eve of the conquest of Jericho. Joshua meets a strange figure:
[Joshua] looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my
Lord have for his servant?” (Joshua 5:13–14)
God is neither “for us” nor is he “for our enemies.” God is for himself—his own purposes and his own glory. What a moment this was for Joshua. He suddenly realized that he was in the presence of an army far greater than his own. Perhaps even more important he realized that to be the commander of Israel at the gates of Jericho did not automatically put him in the ranks of that army, and he fell to the ground. If this humbling reality was true for Joshua in the days of the theocracy (when God’s rule was located in the action of one particular human kingdom) how much more true must it be for us who have no special claim to be God’s people simply because we are Americans or belong to a particular political party or are the advocates of a particular plan for making our country a better place. My strong suspicion is that, if we could see what Joshua saw, a great deal of the self-righteous certainty that lies behind our political anger would dissipate, and along with it the anger itself.
America and the Kingdom of God
We can draw at least one implication from this great principle. Many of us have legitimate longings for our country. But our deepest longing must not be that America will be happy or prosperous or safe. Think about foreign policy. Our deepest longing as we think about U.S. activity in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot simply be that America will be protected from terrorism. It must be that our policy there will advance in those countries, if only in small ways, the sorts of things that please and honor Christ—things like justice, mercy, and evangelism. One of the tragedies of modern times is that far too many Muslim people hate Christianity because they equate it with American militarism. Or think about the American economy. Our deepest longing must not be (as so many hoped in early 2009) that the economic crisis would pass quickly, that people would star spending again, that foreclosures would drop off and employment would rise, and that the “bad guys” (whoever they were—there was, of course, some disagreement about that) would be brought to justice.
We must keep reminding ourselves that a safe and rich America is not necessarily identical with the triumph of God’s agenda. Scripture teaches after all that God is glorified not only in his mercies, but also in his judgments. In Romans 1:18–32 Paul describes the social and moral disintegration of an ancient culture—a disintegration disturbingly parallel to what we observe in our own country today—from sexual chaos to greed-driven economic collapse. Paul says that this tragedy did not happen by chance, but was the work of God aimed at making known his holy anger: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18). Like Jeremiah and many of the prophets, the Christian must be prepared to say with tears, “Lord, if you choose to glorify yourself in the failure of our thankless and decadent society (and I hope you do not), then so be it. Honor your name!” Our first love must be God’s will and honor, come what may.
We must embrace this difficult truth or we will blind ourselves to things about our country, past and present, Republican and Democrat, that have not pleased God. We must love our country, but we must have lover’s quarrels with it (starting with ourselves), for our citizenship is in heaven.
Imagine a world without the United States. An unsettling thought, as unwelcome and as unlikely as the end of their empire would have sounded to Roman citizens at the time of Augustus Caesar. But history and Scripture teach us that nations come and go, and there is no guarantee that America will exist forever. Our duration and stability are in fact anomalies in the saga of human civilization. All human governments will one day fail, and for that reason the Christian sets his deepest hope on the glory of God’s reign, not the survival of his country.
We come now to a third “first principle” for civic life drawn from Psalm 97: Christians must hate evil. Abundant evidence for this principle occurs in the psalm: “Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. . . Let those who love the Lord hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 97:2, 10, emphasis added).
“Clouds and thick darkness” surround God’s throne because he is morally unapproachable. That is, he is absolutely holy and we are not. When we read that his throne rests on “righteousness and justice” we learn that every act of his sovereign rule arises from a character and policy that are good and fair. Because of who he is, God will neither act unrighteously nor tolerate anything unrighteous throughout his dominion.
We will consider hating evil more fully in Chapter 9 in our dis- cussion of integrity. At present notice two things about it. First, we are to hate evil, not people—not even evil people (like those “fiends” across the aisle in Congress!). It is the easiest thing in the world to demonize the opposition—to make an abortion activist or a pro-gun lobbyist the incarnation of all that we hate about what they advo- cate. We must not do this.
Here is the second thing to note. The mandate to hate evil is for us a double-edged sword. On the one hand it comforts us immeasurably to know that the God who reigns over everything is good. We can know that all that is right and true and lovely will one day be fully vindicated. On the other hand, this truth reminds us that God is on our side only insofar as we are on his (remember Joshua’s encounter with the angel): “Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous” (Psalm 97:12, emphasis added).
Who among us can be 100 percent sure, in anything, that God is fully on our side? Even in our most “Christian” moments, we as a nation never enjoyed the special relationship to God that ancient Israel enjoyed. (People have different opinions on how Christian we were once, though it is fair to say that there was a time when a Protestant Christian ethos dominated the culture.) Israel was a theocracy, the kingdom of God located in a human kingdom—something we have never been, despite the rhetoric of some. For this reason we must be wary of the sort of thinking that lifts an event or law out of ancient Israel’s civic life and tries to insert it wholesale into the contemporary scene as “God’s will for America.” A sad example of this was the tendency of some in colonial times to identify the killing of American Indians with the conquest of Canaan.
And even if we were a theocracy, we would still need to be extremely cautious about identifying what is “of America” with what is “of God.” After all, for all its privileged status, not even Israel survived the righteous judgment of God when they turned from him. Patient and forgiving for many years, he nevertheless chastened his people, even to the point of exile. If Israel, who enjoyed “most favored nation” status, was punished for sin, can we expect an exemption?
It is a great mistake to think that all the good guys and all the best ideas can be found in one party, usually one’s own. If we hate evil we will watch for it close to home. And we will resist it close to home—in the ideas and strategies of our closest friends and allies (those whose errors we are most apt to overlook). We will never find ourselves buying into everything our party or activist group stands for. And for this reason we will always be a little bit lonely, a little bit out of sync with our fellows. This may be hard, but it will keep us humble—and that is always a good thing.
Making It Personal
1. What social issues would you rather not talk about at church, or with Christian friends, or with any friend? Why?
2. Recall a time when you or a friend made a political choice out of panic. Why did you panic? What did you do and what were the results? Why is panic in politics unwise? Why does it displease God?
3. Psalm 97 teaches that God’s glory worldwide is the main theme of history. Romans 1 reminds us that God is glorified in judgment just as he is in mercy. Where do you see God’s mercy at work in American society? Where do you see his judgment? Talk to God about what you see.
4. The final stanza of Katherine L. Bates’ famous song, America, reads in part: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.” Scrutinize the political party or activist group that you feel the greatest affinity to. Where does it need mending? What can you do to contribute to that mending? How might your efforts make you lonely?