The Church, Abraham Lincoln, and the Great Issues of Our Day

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Someone has said that the message of the First Century Church was not, “What has become of the world?” but “Look Who has come into the world!” In reality, that is the message of the Church in each generation, in all circumstances, and all geographies – or it should be. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is as true and transforming in the 21st Century as any previous era. Moreover, the message of Jesus preaches with equal truthfulness and power in Afghanistan and Albania as it does in the United States or Great Britain or Brazil. If it doesn’t preach as well, it’s not the true Gospel. The true Gospel promises spiritual liberation to Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, and the true Gospel is the only hope a Wall Street banker will ever have.

That said, it is vital that pastors, preachers and Bible teachers apply the teaching of God’s Word to the great issues of the day and to the issues and needs of their community and congregation. Truth must be preached and lived in love, but we must apply God’s truth to the issues of the day. Failure to do so will produce reasonable questions of relevance in our hearer’s minds.  Is the gospel relevant to this issue or that, which everyone is talking about?  Does God have a word for us in this situation?  Or, even, is our pastor or teacher aware of, or interested in, the great issues of the day?

This summer, and this year, there are at least three major issues that demand the attention of those who teach God’s Word. There are others I’m sure, but certainly these are three: the persecution and eradication of Christians in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, same-sex marriage in the United States, and the recent revelations that Planned Parenthood is selling the bodies of aborted babies. Regarding abortion, approximately 3,500 babies in the United States have been aborted every day, 365 days a year, since 1973 (more than 58 million). Thirty percent of these have been African-American babies. And that’s just the United States. In China it is estimated that 30,000 babies are aborted daily. Thirty-seven million babies are aborted worldwide each year.

I don’t have space in this article to suggest how a preacher might speak to each of these issues specifically.  But I will say that they must be addressed. The children who grow up in our churches need to know where their pastor and church stands on the great moral issues of the day. We must train our people to think biblically, and apply the Scriptures accurately when thinking and making decisions in everyday life. What does it mean to carry our cross daily? What does it mean to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ? How do these truths affect and effect our life choices?

When I was a pastor there was an election in which one of the presidential candidates, and one of our state governor candidates, took public positions on matters that were contrary to the teachings of Scripture. The presidential candidate said that he would not support any limitations on abortion, including partial-birth abortion. You might remember that partial-birth abortion is a procedure used when an unborn baby is late-term, and could often survive if born. The procedure entails the delivery of the baby from the birth canal, with the exception of the child’s head, which is left in the birth canal. The baby is then killed before the head is delivered from the birth canal. The governor candidate ran on one major issue. He wanted the state to begin a gambling enterprise, a lottery, “for the sake of the children.” The lottery income was to be dedicated to school funding.

Without naming names, or political parties, I told our church that I would never, no not ever, would I vote for or support candidates who held such positions on the issues. I further called on parents and school officials to demand that politicians not “use children” every time they wanted to pass a law involving the expansion of alcohol sales or gambling. And then I answered the objection that some might have that I was “getting political.” I told them that politics and biblical morality and worldview intersect, and when they do the church must address it. I told them the primary message of the church is not “morality.” Our message centers on Jesus and His gospel. But the Bible also addresses matters of right, wrong, and how we should live (and this is a gospel issue), and “the children who grow up in this church need to know where their pastor stands.” I said, “I don’t want anyone to question my commitment to the right to life, or state-sponsored gambling, and all that that means.” By helping our church see how politics and our Christian worldview intersect, I was able to teach our people, including our children, that the Bible does address the matters they were hearing discussed in the news and across our nation.

Presently I am reading Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings. I have been struck by how well he wrote, thought, and spoke, even as a young man. He was courageous and he was clear. In a speech delivered while still in his twenties, reflecting on the danger that the United States faced, he said this:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide” (Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Jan. 27, 1838).

Lincoln had it right. The destruction of a people, especially moral and spiritual destruction, always comes from within. That being true, God help us.

When we look back on leaders of 100 or 200 years ago, we are often greatly disappointed at where they stood on issues such slavery and race. Even great men, who did great things, could be horribly wrong on significant issues. Lincoln himself had some thoughts on race that we would find contemptible. He thought black people should be freed and sent back to Africa. He cited the story of Moses leading Israel out of 400 years of slavery, and back to Israel, as an example of the rightness of such a re-segregation. Sometimes we are tempted to judge our predecessors by their mistaken views. But I would urge that we be cautious about judging people who couldn’t quite break free from the prevailing thinking of their generation. Their ability to be wrong should humble us. No, I don’t want to judge them. My greater concern is what future generations will think of us. I fully expect that 10, 20 or 100 years from now, abortion will be eradicated from our nation. The day will come when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be appalled by what we did to the unborn. When that day comes, I hope they find that many of us did all we could to oppose the slaughter. More importantly, I pray that when we stand before the Lord, as we are now presently standing, that He will be able to commend us for what we have done as Christian leaders in our generation.

Training Up an Adult

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The wise man said, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). I would suggest to you that such training begins, and largely ends, at a younger age than many of us would suspect.

When our son Luke was four years-old I tried to coax him into the swimming pool, but to no avail. No reassurance, nothing I said, seemed to work. I couldn’t get him in the pool. Then, moments later, one of his little friends said, “Luke. Come in the pool,” and he jumped right in!

I was reminded of that when I read an article in which Marilyn vos Savant was asked a question about a three-year-old girl who is growing up in England. Her parents are Americans, but the little girl is speaking with a British accent. Vos Savant said that as children begin to socialize with other children they adopt the accent of their peers, not their parents. Isn’t that interesting?

A friend of mine who worked with children for many years once told me that most every significant character attribute of a human being was set by age five. He said, “You give me a child for the first five years and I can teach them self-discipline, respect, trust, love, and how to treat others. But if they don’t learn these things in the first five years, you’re too late. Their basic character and values are set by the time they enter kindergarten.”

However you want to think about it, abundant evidence from many sectors seems to confirm that training up an adult is largely accomplished by the age of five. If a child doesn’t learn how to respect others by age five, good luck on teaching them to respect others when they’re 14. If a child doesn’t learn that she can trust her parents, and God, at an early age, it will be a “tall order” to help them become a trusting adult.

Have you heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment? Beginning in the 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Mischel tested five-year-olds on their ability to delay gratification. The children were offered a choice between a small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for about 15 minutes. The reward was a marshmallow or cookie. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the rewards tended to have better life outcomes. SAT scores were higher. Educational attainment was greater. Even the body mass index (BMI) was better for adults who as five-year-olds were able to delay gratification. If a five-year-old is able to delay gratification, they are more apt to have a better life as an adult.

What does this mean for you and me? First, it means that parents must be intentional about teaching their little ones values, disciplines, and basic biblical truths. If we think that teaching children about God’s love for them, and their need to obey God and love Him can wait until they are older, we need to adjust our thinking. One of the reasons that some five-year-olds flunked the “marshmallow test,” was that they hadn’t learned they can trust adults to do what they say. If children don’t learn to trust their parents when they are very young, it can significantly impair their ability to trust others and delay gratification when they are older. This can impact a young person’s choices regarding premarital sex, staying in school, or sticking with any task whose reward is in the distant future.

Second, pastors and churches must provide a robust ministry for little children. Even if your church has only a few little ones, do not neglect to teach them and train them in the ways of God. They will learn and keep in their hearts more than we know.

So much more could be said. Books have been written on this. But in the last few weeks it has been made clear to all that the world will teach our children that family and marriage is whatever 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court says it is. Not only that, but as of January 2015, in Oregon, teenage children as young as 15 can now obtain a “gender reassignment surgery” without parental consent. How did this happen!?

This morning on the news I heard it argued that Planned Parenthood’s selling of the body parts of aborted babies could be justified because they were trying to find cures to illnesses through experimentation with these body parts. How far have we fallen! If we ever could, it is clear that we no longer can, expect the community to reinforce the Bible truths that we hold dear. And we’d better do all we can to teach our “littlest” these truths. Human beings need to learn the value of life while still cradled in their mother’s arms. Two-year-olds need to learn respect for others. Disciple-making can’t wait until the “age of accountability.” By then, you may be too late.