Devotions

Freedom of Religion

Norman-Rockwell-Freedom-to-Worship-1943

Freedom of Religion

On the day I write this, I just heard more reports out of China. A generation ago, China’s crackdown on religion was harsh. Christians huddled in underground churches. The threat of persecution, imprisonment, and, on rare occasions, death was very real. (If you want to read a powerful book on this era, Randy Alcorn’s Safely Home is an inspiring fictional story of bold faith in the face of persecution.)

That was a generation ago. For most of the last two decades, Chinese religious persecution softened. Sadly, it’s dramatically ramping up again. One of my favorite Christian commentary sites, BreakPoint.org, began a recent commentary, saying,

“Right before the New Year, a Chinese court sentenced Early Rain Church Pastor Wang Yi to nine years in prison for ‘inciting subversion of state power.’

“As summarized by the Catholic website Asia News, ‘Religious organizations must spread the principles and policies of the Chinese Communist Party … educating … religious citizens to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party …’ If that sounds like China will now force religious organizations to be organs of the Communist Party, that’s because China is forcing religious organization to be organs of the Communist Party. ‘Every aspect of the life of religious communities – from formation, gatherings to … projects – is subject to approval by the government’s religious affairs department.”

Freedom of Religion?!

In 1943, in the darkest days of World War II, American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill proclaimed four essential freedoms for peace and liberty. One of these four was Freedom of Religion. War-torn Europe was watching first-hand the horrors of religious oppression at the hands of government. The Nazis were systematically exterminating millions of Jews.

There’s still religious persecution today. In October, the PBS News Hour reported that Muslims in China, especially in its western provinces, “have endured what the U.S. calls one of the worst human rights crises of modern times.” Christians must stand up against all forms of religious persecution – for Jews in Nazi Europe or Muslims in Communist China. Why? Because if we accept any form of religious persecution, one day it will be us who are persecuted … and it is apparently that day again for Chinese Christians.

Christians face persecution across wide swaths of the world today. Across the globe OpenDoorsUSA.org estimates that 11 Christians are killed each day on account of their faith. It happens in places like North Korea, Somalia and Sudan, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. And it’s not just killings. Systemically there are church bombings, kidnappings, and Christians being oppressed into slavery.

In America, we face much, much softer forms of persecution. But it’s there. For example, one secular view is actively promoting “freedom of worship” rather than “freedom of religion.” It seems innocuous, but it’s far more than just semantics. As Sarah Torre, a religious liberty scholar, states, “This incorrect view of religious liberty argues that faith should remain a private affair—relegated to personal activities or weekend worship services. Step outside the four walls of a home or house of worship and robust protection of religious freedom ends.” Is that freedom of religion … or is this really a semantic way of silencing people of various faiths?

Other prominent politicians have actively advocated for religious institutions to lose their tax exempt status if they don’t subscribe to certain tenets of the modern cultural orthodoxy. Be clear, however, that the issue is not about taxes, money and funding; it’s about control. If churches lose their non-profit status, they’re existence would now be regulated like corporations which are accountable to governmental policies rather than religious beliefs. It’s an absolutely subtle way to curtail (and even silence) religion.

Compared to what’s taking place across much of the world, this is soft persecution to be sure. But religious freedom is much more than a constitutional principle; it’s at the heart of what it means to be free. And Christians ought to bark whenever any religion is being persecuted, or we may find ourselves like German Pastor Martin Niemoller who woke up in the middle of Hitler’s reign and said …

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who views this

as an essential freedom

and principle motivation

The Four Freedoms

Rockwell 4 Freedoms

The Four Freedoms

Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Religion

Freedom from Want

Freedom from Fear

In mid-December, Mary Louise and I were in Vermont with my son Jay and his family. Nearby, in little Arlington, Vermont, was a simple Norman Rockwell museum. While he was living there, during the midst of World War, “Roosevelt and Churchill issued their Atlantic Charter with its Four Freedoms proclamation.” Rockwell, the most famous American artist of his generation, said, “I had tried to read it, thinking that maybe it contained the idea I was looking for as a way to contribute to the war effort.”

How, after all, does a middle aged painter – more skilled with paint brushes than grenades – help his nation defeat the evil of Hitler’s advances?

Roosevelt and Churchill talked about four freedoms. The Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of Religion are enshrined in our American Constitution (see the First Amendment). Two others – the Freedom from Fear and the Freedom from Want – were absolute and positive aspirations in the midst of a violent World War.

Rockwell want to capture these freedoms on canvas. But how? As Rockwell wrestled with how to portray these freedoms graphically, he went about his normal life, saying, “I went to an Arlington Town Meeting, I attended a Grange supper … Then one night as I was tossing in bed, I suddenly remembered how my next door neighbor, Jim Edgerton, had stood up at Town Meeting and said something that everybody else disagreed with. But they let him have his say. No one had shouted him down. My God, I thought, that’s it! There it is. Freedom of Speech. I’ll illustrate the Four Freedoms using my Vermont neighbors as models. I’ll express these noble ideas in simple, everyday scenes that everybody can understand.”

One Christmas Eve, I recounted this story. One of the reasons that Christ came in human form – became incarnate – was because everyday people sometimes have a hard time “picturing” the great God of heaven. Therefore, in addition to coming to save us, Christ came as a human to paint “simple, everyday scenes [of God-with-Us, Emmanuel] that everybody can understand.”

That reminder from Christmas Eve is one reason that I highlight these pictures again.

There’s a bigger reason. Now, I’m not going to tell you what that theme is yet, but over the next week or so, I’m going to highlight aspects of these pictures to highlight that bigger theme.

Indeed, I want to help train you to think theologically this season. But wait … Do you consider yourself a theologian? You are. Every person who thinks about God is a theologian. Why? Because their engaging in thoughts about God. The only question is: Are you a good theologian or a bad theologian?! Do you think about godly truth or are you swayed by worldly lies? The answer to that last question is probably “Yes.” I pray that you do strive to think about godly truths. I know that we’re also immersed in the world and its lies, and we can’t help, even by accident, to be often steered astray. So, are you a good theologian … or a faithful person who doesn’t want to be as easily led astray?

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who loves to think

about the things of God!

 

 

Advent: Christ

SPOILER ALERT: This is part of the Christmas Eve Sermon. If you don’t want to spoil the sermon, click here for another devotion.

Advent Christ

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11

The center candle of the Advent wreath is the CHRIST candle. It is pure and white, reflecting that Christ Jesus is sinless and holy.

We did most of our discussion of Christ yesterday under the category of LOVE. Christ loved us enough to take off his robes of light and enter into our fragile, temporal human state (Philippians 2:5-8), and he loved us enough – even while we were still sinners – to die for us (Romans 5:8).

Today, I want to simply tell you one of my favorite stories of grace that reflects this truth.

Imagine a night court on the busiest day of the year. It is packed. It seems like half the town was arrest this night. It is so busy that the judge never has a chance to even look up. Defense lawyers and prosecutors read off the particulars and as the judge is filling in the constant paperwork, he’s saying by rote, “Guilty.” “Not Guilty.” “$500 fine.” “Three nights in jail.”

Another young man is led before the bench. The lawyers read out the particulars. It’s obvious the young man is guilty. And just as the judge starts swinging down his gavel, he happens to look up. His son is standing there.

Now, if he’s a just judge, what must he do? The just judge brings down the gavel and declares his own son guilty.

But then he does a strange thing. He stands up. Takes off his robes. Steps down from the bench. And comes around to stand beside his son. He says, “This is my child. I love him. And whatever the fine is, I’ll pay it. Whatever the jail time is, I’ll do it. And if this crime deserves death, I’ll take it.”

Isn’t that what Christ Jesus did for us. He stood up from the Eternal Throne. Took off his robes of light. Stepped down from heaven. Came and stood beside us, saying, “This is my child. I love him. And whatever the fine is, I’ll pay it. Whatever the jail time is, I’ll do it. And if this crime deserves death, I’ll take it.”

As we light this candle on Christmas Eve, be thankful for the humbleness, love, and grace of our amazing Savior.

Merry Christmas. (Devotions will start up again in the new year!)

In Christ’s Love,

a thankful child

saved by grace

Advent: Love

SPOILER ALERT: This is part of the Christmas Eve Sermon. If you don’t want to spoil the sermon, click here for another devotion.

Advent Love

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son … – John 3:16a

Today we turn to the fourth Advent candle and ask, “What is love?”

  • The first and clearest definition is this: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
  • Indeed, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
  • And Jesus (his Son) so loved his world that he gave his very life for us on the cross. (The Apostle Paul tells us that “while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Now, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. – Romans 5:6-8).
  • And then Scripture tells us: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …” – Philippians 2:5
  • Scriptures says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)

The fourth candle of the Advent Wreath is the candle of LOVE.

We know God’s love! It’s written all over the cross. Near Valentine’s Day, I like asking the kids, do you see the big red heart in the church? They look all around the sanctuary, saying, “No.” Then I point to the cross. That’s what true love is.

Yes, the love of God is written all over the cross. It’s also written all over Christmas. When the Apostle calls to many things – like love – saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …,” he continues with a powerful Christmas image, saying …

who, though he [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

He “humbled himself.” “Emptied himself.” The great God of heaven coming in “human form” was the first near-ultimate humbling. Coming naked. And then in diapers. Humble. That’s only one of two words that can describe Christ. Love is the other! Coming in human form was the near-ultimate humbling. God allowing himself to die on the cross that we ant-like humans put him on to save us who were ungrateful was the ultimate humbling and the ultimate love.

And we are called to have the same mind in us that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Phil 2:5). We are called Christ’s beloved and we are called to love one another (1 John 4:7). What is love? Now read the scriptural definition below through the first time, asking, “Am I patient, kind, and willing to bear all things?” Read it through the second time asking, “Is Jesus patient, kind, and willing to bear all things?” Then I’ll have one more question for you at the end …

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. … 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The answer to the above question is easy. Your love is not perfect; it’s a standard you cannot reach. But Christ’s love is perfect. Thus, if you want to discover all that God has to offer, there’s only one hope: Can Christ-in-you be patient? and kind? and willing to bear all things? and having a love that’s truly enduring and never-ending?

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who sings

“O Little Town

of Bethlehem”:

Cast out our sin

and enter in,

be born in us today

 

 

 

Advent: Joy

SPOILER ALERT: This is part of the Christmas Eve Sermon. If you don’t want to spoil the sermon, click here for another devotion.

Advent Joy

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. – Luke 2:10-11

We’ve been talking for the last few days about candles on the Advent Wreath. Today I want to pause and give you a little, quick context.

Advent is a season of preparation – first we wait symbolically with Hebrews of old for the first coming of Jesus the Messiah (at Christmas), second we wait spiritually for the second coming of Christ (when he will come to permanently defeat sin and death and make all things new).

The Advent Wreath has been used in Western Christianity for about a thousand years. First, the wreath itself is an evergreen ring. With a ring having no beginning point or end, it symbolizes the eternality of God and the immortality of the soul. Ever green, it also signifies the promise of eternal life. Often other forest clippings are added to the wreath, representing other parts of the sacred Christ’s story – laurel (victory), prickly holly (crown of thorns), red berries (blood of Christ), pine cones (seed of new life).

Atop the wreath there are at least four candles – and often a fifth in the center, the Christ Candle. Most of candles are blue or purple. Purple historically represented prayer and sacrifice. Blue is a more recent liturgical option, symbolizing all these things … and hope! Each candle in this evergreen ring has a meaning – although there is not unanimity on the symbolism of each. Some faithfully call these candles “The Prophecy Candle,” “The Bethlehem Candle,” “The Shepherd’s Candle,” and “The Angels’ Candle.” The third candle is rose colored, because of the shepherd’s joy when the birth of the Messiah was proclaimed.

The third candle is, indeed, the candle of JOY. Our pattern at Spirit of Joy labels this instruments of light as “Hope,” “Peace,” “Joy,” and “Love” – and our third candle also reflects the rosiness of joy.

A white candle is often placed in the middle. It is traditionally lit on Christmas Eve. This “Christ Candle” is white to represent the purity and sinlessness of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

You’ve heard me talk about joy a hundred times. For example, I’ve learned (and shared with you) that “happiness is circumstantial, but joy transcends our circumstances.” My most significant learning occurred, though, when I went looking for a Biblical definition of joy. You’ve heard this before, right?

  • I started in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. The first time joy occurs is when God breaks four hundred years of prophetic silence, and proclaims the birth of John the Baptist, the herald of the New Kingdom and the Coming Christ. And there was joy.
  • The second instance of joy was when the first person “met” Jesus. It happened in utero. John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when his mother, Elizabeth, met Mary who was carrying Jesus in her womb.
  • The third occurrence was when the angels came to the shepherds – our verse for today – proclaiming, “‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Notice what happens here every time: Joy breaks through when the Kingdom breaks in!

And so our question for today is this: This holy season, how are you allowing the Kingdom to break through? Worship? Devotions? Less busyness and more spiritual focus? Time around the Advent Wreath?

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who wants

more pure joy

(Guess what I

need to do?)

Advent: Peace

SPOILER ALERT: This is part of the Christmas Eve Sermon. If you don’t want to spoil the sermon, click here for another devotion.

Advent Peace

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7

In the old days – like the 1970s – you could legitimately feel sorry for the mailman. It was the era of Christmas cards. My childhood house, for example, seemed to get hundreds. And it seemed like the most common theme was “Peace on Earth.”

Peace was a big issue in the seventies. The second “war to end all wars” still rattled most adult’s consciences. Then came Korea. Then the largely unpopular Vietnam War. It all seemed senseless. A younger generation was horrified. Peace signs seemed to decorate the sides of their every VW microbus. Every beauty pageant contestant’s ubiquitous wish was for peace. Therefore, “Peace on Earth” – a legitimate theme of Christmas – was a prominent theme of the Christmas cards of my youth.

There were lots of doves and angels and nature scenes and children holding hands. But I wondered … “If Jesus came as the Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9), why didn’t we have more peace?”

Do you ever wonder that?

The second candle in Advent represents PEACE. And where is the peace?

I have two answers. First, we’re in the midst of a long battle for permanent peace. As long as there’s sin on this world, there will be violence, abuse, and power struggles. It’s tragic when that happens in families. It’s horrific when that happens between nations – often millions left dead. We talked yesterday about the first candle – the candle of HOPE. We long for a day when mourning and crying and pain will be no more (see Revelation 21). We hope for a day when sin will cease, death will die, and battle gear will no longer be issued (Isa 9:5, the verse before we’re told that unto us a child is born whose named shall be called Prince of Peace.)

Don’t you long for that? So why isn’t it here? Because Christmas was D-Day. In World War II the forces of evil (Hitler) raged for five years. The war was essentially won when the Allied forces grabbed a toe-hold in Normandy (D-Day). Nevertheless, it would take a bloody year for the Nazis to be completely beaten back. The “war against sin and Satan” was won with Christmas and cross. They were D-Day. Nevertheless, we are still in a bloody war. Until Christ comes again, there will be sin and sadness. Evil is fighting its last gasps against us in an already lost war.

But if the war is already won, why doesn’t Christ come quicker to establish his eternal rule of peace? As it says in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” “I’m waiting for just one more … and another more … and then I’ll come,” is Christ’s message. That’s his love. He wants no one to perish … eternally. But in the meantime there seems to be no peace.

So why do we call him the Prince of Peace? Well, peace only comes where the light of Christ’s kingdom touches. And that happens first in individual human hearts. And our verse for today reflects this. How do we find “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding”? By yielding to Christ’s control (and blessing) in our lives. In a famous short passage in Philippians 4, we are invited to look for things “rejoice” over. And there is much. We are called to be “gentle” [gracious, unselfish, merciful, tolerant, and patient]. We are called to focus on God “prayerfully.” We are called to learn to trust, rather than be continually consumed by “anxiousness.” We are called to persistently look at life through the lens of “thanksgiving.” And that’s when “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

And if more of us would just live that way, we’d have more pockets of peace on earth … as we await the permanent peace of the New Heaven and the New Earth.

In Christ’s Love,

a guy who wishes

the world would seek

peace with Christ

and discover more

Peace on earth

 

 

 

Advent: Hope

SPOILER ALERT: This week’s devotions are part of the Christmas Eve Sermon.

Funny story … I started writing a series of devotions for this week, and discovered, “I like this better than the sermon I have in the back of my mind for Christmas Eve!” Yet I kept writing – sermon/devotions.

If you don’t want to spoil the Christmas sermon, click here for another devotion.

Advent Hope

we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ – Titus 2:13

There are four candles on the Advent wreath. The first one represents HOPE.

Israel waited for a nearly a thousand years for the Messianic successor to King David to come. A thousand years?! That would have required remarkable hope … and patience.

During this time, Israel had some good kings … and a lot of bad kings. They had occasional military success, but more often, they were run over by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Seleucid Greeks, and Romans. It was said of the Grinch that “he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.” I think the Israelites probably “hoped and hoped ‘till their hopers were thoroughly discouraged.”

And yet hope is a funny thing. It’s hard to live without it. If we have hope, then we have buoyancy … even in the midst of the worst circumstances. Years ago, I remember hearing a presentation of a minister trying to help a gang infested neighborhood. He said, “The average life expectancy for a young man in our neighborhoods is 32. Think about it: Sixteen is middle aged. Why wouldn’t he engage in risky behavior? He has no hope. He knows he’s already dead.” This minister began to see that his only chance of changing this culture was to try and breathe hope and purpose.

Israel stayed afloat, in spite of outward circumstances, because they had hope. They trusted God and his promises. Year after year – even as through “hoper” grew sore – they still awaited the promised King. Their attitude clearly fit today’s verse: “we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus [the Messiah].” (Note: Christ and Messiah are interchangeable term – one Greek, one Hebrew.)

  • So … half of Advent points BACKWARD to that first fulfillment. After one thousand years of waiting, the long-expected Messiah finally came. God was faithful to his promise, and hope was gloriously rewarded.
  • The other half of Advent points FORWARD to the ultimate fulfillment. It is promised that Christ will come again. And this time we’ve been waiting for nearly two thousand years. (Is your “hoper sore”? Do you believe it will happen? Do you “wait [with eager anticipation] for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”?)

Let’s look at today’s verse in context. It says …

  • 11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.“Has appeared.” Past tense. Christ first coming – including his sacrifice on the cross – has “offer[ed] salvation to all people.” That was the first coming.
  • And this gift – the past fulfillment, our present salvation, and our future hope – should empower daily living. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. We don’t have to live like hopeless gang members, crossing middle age, and seeing nothing worthwhile that transcends this broken world. No! We have HOPE! And that hope inspires to say “‘no’ to worldly passions and live godly lives” for the one who gives us hope.
  • And we do live lives for God because we live looking hopefully forward: 13 we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. That passage is to you and me – New Testament saints. We’ve seen the first fulfillment – Christmas and Cross. We know God is faithful to his Word. Our “hopers” may be sore as the years drag on, but we trust that Christ will come again to make all things new!

Advent turns in two directions – backward and forward. Yes, revel at the past tense wonders of shepherds and angels and a virgin birth. But used this season to also look forward: Christ will come again! He will make all things new!

In Christ’s Love,

a guy with a hoper

that’s happy (not sore)