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.

Henry Kissinger Offers Insights for Ministry Leaders

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Henry Kissinger’s latest book was not written for gospel ministers, but the 92-year-old diplomat has insight into the contemporary world from which ministry leaders can benefit. In World Order, Kissinger surveys efforts to create international order, beginning with the Peace of Westphalia in the Seventeenth Century to our most current efforts in 2014. As such, it is part history, replete with fascinating anecdotes, and part prescription, as he identifies key questions and issues facing us as we seek world order in our day. For example, I had never before read that Czar Alexander ended the Napoleonic Wars by marching to Paris at the head of his armies. The Czar celebrated victory with 160,000 Russian troops on the plains outside Paris, a demonstration that caused disquiet, even among his allies. Interestingly, the Czar wanted “an order of things based on the exalted truths of the eternal religion of our Savior.”

Kissinger writes about Iran, China, Russia, India, Islamism in the Middle East, including the role the United States plays in each region. All of this is fascinating and beneficial as we seek to understand our world. But it’s his statements on values and truth that I find most helpful, and disconcerting.

For example, he writes that we live in a time in which “values” are “shaped by consensus,” and that our quest for consensus is done by “a sharing of emotions” more than an exchange of ideas. Which of us has not marveled, or wept, at the rapidity with which America’s values have changed on key moral issues? Currently, the hottest issue is same-sex marriage, which enjoyed little support 20 years ago and now has majority support in the U. S. More Americans favor same-sex marriage than have a positive view of evangelical Christianity!

As we consider Kissinger’s statement about our values being shaped by consensus, consider the findings (or assertions) of Mark A. Smith, Political Science and Comparative Religion and Communications professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. In his soon-to-be released book, Secular Faith: How Culture has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Smith argues that regardless of the religion Americans hold, our viewpoints regarding high-profile issues are shaped more by the culture than by our religion. Smith says that the cultural influence of the larger society through institutions like the media, schools, neighborhoods and workplace shape our views, and that religious leaders often “update their group’s official positions to maintain the support of the rank-and-file.” To support his assertion Smith mentions several issues in which religions “changed” their position. Views on issues like criminalizing blasphemy, outlawing alcohol production, banning commerce on Sundays, segregation of races, interracial marriage, as well as teachings on divorce, women’s rights, and homosexuality have changed greatly over the course of time. In essence, Smith corroborates Kissinger’s statement that the values America holds are shaped by consensus, and Smith says that we arrive at consensus by means other than our religion, that, indeed, religions in America change their teachings to line-up with the consensus of opinion. Sometimes that is good. Churches have been on the wrong side of some issues in the past. But often this is bad, as churches abandon clear biblical teaching in favor of cultural consensus.

In addition to our values being shaped by consensus, Kissinger writes that “the concept of truth is being relativized and individualized – losing its universal character.” For example, in 2012 the election campaigns had files on tens of millions of voters. Using research from social networks, open public files, and medical records, the campaigns could profile the voters and more precisely target them individually with the “truth” that would appeal to them. To use another example, two different people asking the same question on a search engine do not necessarily receive the same answer to their question. The answer you receive is individualized, taking into account where you live and other things known about you. A recent search I made, looking for a new dress for my wife, has filled my subsequent internet searches with advertisements for new dresses because my search engine knows I might be shopping for a new dress (dumb of me, I know!).

For decades preachers have spoken about truth becoming relative, but now the technology we use every day is reinforcing this. Imagine a coming day in which a question posed through Google nets the answer that those who control Google want you to have. Now, imagine that that day has already arrived, because it has.

A final insight by Kissinger concerns conflict between peoples. In essence, he says that conflict doesn’t only arise because societies and peoples don’t understand each other. Rather, conflict often arises because we understand each other only too well, and we profoundly disagree on values, ideals and strategic objectives. American politics has not softened with more media and data-driven election strategies; if anything the extreme viewpoints have a larger audience. Violent agitation can erupt in the Muslim world because of a fringe cartoon in a Danish newspaper. A videotaped beheading in Syria can harden the resolve of warring parties as it is broadcasted to the whole world.

We have seen in the Northwest how legal proceedings against a baker or a florist can set peoples and groups against one another. Teaching truth and sharing the love of Christ can be a tricky when battle lines are drawn and weapons revealed. I say “tricky” because we don’t merely want to “preach to the choir.” We are seeking to educate and persuade, and we often find that difficult even when it concerns our own children, let alone the typical unbeliever in the Northwest.

I could go on with this, but I’ll conclude with three responses that I believe the church must make. First, we must seek ways to love, love and love people in our community, and love them some more. Personal relationships in which love is abundant is the only way to win the hearts and minds of those whose values conflict with biblical truth. Christians and churches must be experienced by unbelievers as those who deeply love people and the community. This is how the Early Church reached the majority in Roman Empire within 300 years. Genuine love has always been essential to evangelism. It is not easy. The world does not believe us when we say that we “hate the sin and love the sinner.” But don’t worry about the “the world” so much as the “individuals” in your world. We love people individually, not in groups.

Second, we must pray, pray and pray. I’ve written before about the need for more prayer for the lost and the persecuted in our churches. Our worship services must be saturated in deep prayer, prayer for people, prayer for souls, prayer for God’s blessing on our cities, prayer to “the Lord of the harvest” that He will “send out workers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38). In small groups we must be praying for people by name who need Jesus as Savior and Lord. Spiritual transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our witness is vital, but we need God to move in people’s hearts. Oh how desperately we need that!

Third, we must teach our children and our people that the Bible is truth. The Bible is not a “source for sermons” or “positive thoughts.” The Bible is truth. We must read it. Our people must read it, believe it, and submit to the teachings of Scripture. The idea that churches and Christian leaders change their teachings to conform to the consensus of opinion is shocking, but we see it all the time. The renewal of the human mind requires consistent feeding on Scripture, Scripture which is believed and upon which we meditate.

One third of people in the Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho) say they have no religion. They are not Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim. Not that they don’t have religious beliefs, but in their thinking they don’t adhere to a “religion.” This means they are up for grabs! Can you imagine how fearful and hopeless you would be if you didn’t know Jesus!? How will these people face tragedy and death without Jesus? This world is not enough. We must have more. They must have more. Don’t give up on them. And remember, only hours before the Cross, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Kissinger may be right in his view of things in today’s world, but it will always be a good day to serve the Lord!