In 1620, around 100 dissident Christians made an incredibly difficult journey across the Atlantic from England to America. Known as Separatists because they believed it was better to separate from the established Church of England than to follow its decrees, these Christians made a decision to leave their home country and find a place where they could worship God, not according to the dictates of a king or queen, but according to their own understanding of the Bible and God’s will for them. First escaping from England to the Netherlands, the Separatists found more religious freedom, but many other difficulties. Eventually, part of the group decided to take the bold step of sailing to the New World and starting their own colony.
They were English subjects still. They came to America with a land patent from the king and with financial backing from English merchants. They did not deny the authority of the king or of Parliament over the civil aspects of their lives. But on the question of their duty to God, they could not accept the authority of their government over the authority of God’s Word. Since the King of England did not agree with them on this point, they chose to separate themselves not only from the Church of England but from their native country as well. These men and women, known to history as the Pilgrims, risked everything and suffered much to find a place where they could plant their own church and live their lives according to the laws of God.
William Bradford called his brave group of Separatists “pilgrims” after those dauntless Christians who, for centuries past, had left their homes and traveled to distant lands to visit some holy shrine, or the site of a miraculous happening, or a place where the bones or belongings of saints could be found--a place where they could feel closer to God. The Pilgrims who set sail on the Mayflower also wanted to feel closer to God. They were able to leave behind their houses and land in England because they knew that country was only a temporary home. And they were able to endure the hardships and deprivations of the New World because they knew it, as well, was not their final destination. Instead, they “lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
As Christians, we should live in this world--wherever we live in this world--like the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation. We should recognize that our place of residence here is temporary. Our nationality is temporary. Our true citizenship is not in any nation on the earth, but in the Kingdom of God, both now and for eternity. We should not hold too tightly or be too concerned for anything on this earth. For our treasure and our home is in heaven.
I was finally able to see “Bridge of Spies” in the theater this week with my family. We all enjoyed it, and my husband came right home to buy the book the movie is based on to get the rest of the details of this amazing story of a spy exchange during the Cold War. Tom Hanks is wonderful in the part of Jim Donovan, an honorable insurance lawyer who is first asked to defend a captured Russian spy and then asked to go into East Berlin – alone and with very limited resources – to negotiate a trade of the Russian spy for the pilot of an American spy plane shot down over Russia.
Not surprisingly, the story includes CIA agents who are more concerned about gathering information from the Russian spy than seeing him get a good defense in court. One agent tells Donovan that he needs to know everything the spy tells Donovan. When Donovan asserts attorney-client privilege, the agent responds by saying that the needs of the CIA are more important than such things. “There is no rule book here,” he says. Donovan laughs.
Of course there is a rule book, as Donovan makes clear. It’s called the Constitution. It is what defines us as a people – We the People of the United States. It’s what we’re all about – or what we should be about. There are times, of course, when we’re threatened from without, and we’re scared, and we need to defend ourselves, and at those times many people in the United States may be willing to sacrifice some of the liberties of the Constitution in exchange for security. But those are the very times when we need the Constitution the most, for to destroy it is to destroy who we are as a people.
Today, the threats are not all outside our borders. Judges, lawmakers, and even the President of the United States have been accused of ignoring the Constitution, or of reinterpreting it according to their own desires. The ones leveling the accusations may even claim that the Constitution must be interpreted exactly as intended when it was written. It’s difficult to imagine how that would work, though, since our nation, its people, and the world we live in are all vastly different than they were 230 years ago. Some interpretation is necessary, and I’m sure there will always be people pulling to the right and to the left to get their preferred interpretation followed. That’s okay – as long as they don’t rip the Constitution down the middle.
As a Christian, I have another rule book, one that I take even more seriously than the Constitution. It’s the Bible. It is what defines me as a Christian. Like the Constitution, it can be difficult to interpret and hard to apply in a culture that is vastly different from the one in which it was written. However, my first priority as a Christian should be to figure out how to apply it to my life – how to live by its rules, its life-lessons, and its “original intent.”
I know of some Christians who aren’t too concerned about the original intent of the Bible. For them, it’s enough to look at the life-lessons in the book and apply them in a way that seems appropriate in our modern (or should I say ‘postmodern’) culture. They ask, “How does this speak to me today?” instead of “What did this mean when it was written so long ago?”
As a US Citizen, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and a former federal prosecutor, I hold the US Constitution in high esteem, but I remember that it was written in a different time by men who were wise but not all-knowing. The Bible, on the other hand, was written under the direction of one who is all-knowing and who still lives with us today to help us correctly interpret and apply his words. Remember that, the next time you delve into his rule book.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
I had dinner tonight at a strip mall that has three small restaurants next to each other and a large patio with lots of tables for outdoor dining. The patio was crowded with people eating, talking, laughing, and smoking. It reminded me of times I’ve been in Europe, eating at a street-side table in a busy city like Rome, London, or Paris.
Except in Paris tonight, no one is sitting outside enjoying an evening meal, some good conversation, and a little people-watching. In Paris tonight, there is a curfew. People have been told to stay in their homes, to keep off the streets. In Paris tonight, over one hundred people lie dead in a theater, in a restaurant, or outside a stadium, victims of at least six terrorist attacks across the City of Lights.
The people around me at the restaurant tonight seemed to care little for what was happening on the other side of the world, but I’m sure many people who have the news today paused at least once to ask, “Can it happen here? Are we safe here in the United States?”
Different people will answer that question differently. Some people believe in the power and might of the United States and think our enemies are too afraid to make a major terrorist strike here (another major strike, I should say, considering the loss of almost 3,000 American lives on 9/11/11). Others believe that the United States is under God’s protection, that he has promised a special blessing to this nation since its founding, so no great evil can happen here. Since 9/11/11, the number of people in both those groups has been dropping, especially the second one, but I think there are still some Christians out there who think God has a special plan for the United States because we are a “Christian nation” and it is our job to spread the blessings of Christianity throughout the world.
We should realize by now, if we have paid any attention to world news in the past year, that Christians are not immune from persecution and violence. Many who called themselves Christians have paid for that title with their lives – not just in the past year, but for the past two thousand years. God does not promise peace and protection to his followers. Obedience to his law is no guarantee of security. Not even if our whole nation were to seek God in humility and repentence could we hope to be safe from all harm threatened by foreign extremists or home-grown terrorists.
Isn’t that what the Bible promises, though? In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God promised to heal the land of Israel, the people called by his name, if they would “humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,” but that promise is not repeated in the New Testament. Jesus made a different promise: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Read Matthew 24:4–14 if you want to know what else Jesus said was going to happen at some point in the future. It isn’t a pretty picture, and Jesus made no exceptions about who would be affected by the dire events he foretold. He did make many other promises though, including to be with us until the end of the age and to prepare a new place for us beyond all the evils of this world.
So what do I think? I think what happened in Paris today can happen in the United States, and it probably will eventually. Our nation has made a lot of enemies, at least as many as France has, and there will always be limits to our national security. There is violence all around us, and illness, and accidents, and uncertainty. Our job is to stand firm in our faith, to trust God, to spread the gospel, and to live our lives according to God’s law – not to obtain security and peace here in this country or anywhere in this world, but to store up treasure in heaven, “where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal,” or where terrorists threaten and kill (Matthew 6:20).
We’re still a few weeks away from Thanksgiving, but the battles over Christmas have already begun. Christmas music is playing in many stores and the malls already have their decorations up. Hallmark channel is playing Christmas movies, and every day brings a new stack of catalogs to my mailbox filled with Christmas gift ideas.
While many people sigh and shake their heads in dismay, retailers big and small are already battling to get their share of your holiday spending. It’s serious business to them, with some, like Walmart, adding more Christmas cheer to draw in buyers and others, like REI, hoping to catch some goodwill by actually closing their stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. With “Black Friday” deals already available in many stores, it seems the whole of November will soon be known as “Christmas Shopping Month.”
Of course, the real battle over Christmas is whether we’re even allowed to call it that anymore. Many public schools now have “winter break” instead of a Christmas holiday. The same stores which are desperate for your shopping dollars have instructed their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The big outcry this year is over Starbuck’s decision to offer a plain red cup during the holiday season rather than something more festive like snowflakes or Christmas trees. ““This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories,” is the official reason for the change, causing many Christians to respond with accusations of political correctness and a hatred of Christmas.
But let’s face it, the “Christmas” we’re fighting over doesn’t have a lot to do with the story of a baby in a manger – God Incarnate sent to earth to die for the sins of mankind. Snowflakes, fake evergreen trees, twinkling lights, and songs about a jolly guy in a red suit – whether they show up before or after Thanksgiving – do little to remind us of the greatest gift ever given or help us show our love and gratitude for that gift.
I’ll admit it. I like all the holiday trappings, the lights and garlands and pretty wrapping paper. They lighten my heart and make me think that the world can be a beautiful place. For the most part, though, our world is not a beautiful place. It is filled with poverty, violence, despair, war, greed, ignorance, dissension, and disunity. We can’t decorate our way out of that reality, although we can disguise it for a while.
I wonder if that isn’t the reason many Christians put so much focus on Christmas and want everyone around them to celebrate it with them. We don’t show too much concern over whether our neighbors know who Jesus is or why he came to earth to be born in a lowly manger. We just want them to put lights on their houses, put decorations on their cups, and say “Merry Christmas” with a smile on their faces so we can feel safe and protected in our own little winter wonderland for one more Christmas season. We want to forget our responsibility to tell them what Jesus did for them. We want to want to pretend Christmas miracles will make everything all right, if we all just believe.
Charlie Brown once asked, “Will somebody please tell me what Christmas is all about?” Before you wade into the Christmas wars this season, ask yourself that question. Then ask what will you be doing this season to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas and to share God’s gift of Jesus with your neighbors and with the world?
“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:14-15).
Although the word “peace” can be found more than 150 times in the Bible, this phrase, “the gospel of peace,” is used nowhere else in the Old or New Testaments. Paul didn’t explain it, and he didn’t tell us how putting it on our feet is supposed to help us in our spiritual battles, but I think we can figure out what he was talking about.
The word “gospel” means “good news” or “good tidings.” Remember that phrase? The angel who came to the shepherds on the first Christmas said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). The angel came to announce the gospel, the good news that Jesus had come into the world. But the good news doesn’t end with the Christmas story. Jesus taught us how to know God and how to serve him, he showed us how to love each other, and then he gave his own life as a sacrifice for our sins so we could live with him someday in heaven. And the good news doesn’t end with Easter. Jesus is living in heaven right now, watching over us. The Holy Spirit lives within us to help us know God better and to experience his love. God has a plan for your life, and he has a plan for the whole world. In the end, everything will work out according to his plan, and he—and we—will be victorious.
That’s good news!
Remembering that good news every day—preaching ourselves the gospel, putting it on our feet and standing on it—is our protection from Satan’s attempts to sabotage our lives. How can we doubt God’s love for us when we remember that Jesus died for us? How can we be afraid of the future when God is in control and has promised us victory in Christ? How can we be angry at what other people have done to us when God has forgiven all our sins against him? He sent his own Son to die, to pay the penalty for those sins. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
When we look at what God has done, at who God is, at what he has promised us—when we remember the good news of the gospel—our perspective changes and the doubts, fears, and hurts which have been rubbing us the wrong way just disappear. Of course, God doesn’t promise to make our lives safe, happy, and prosperous all the time when we put our trust in him. But when we put our trust in him, everything that does happen in our life—every good, bad, exciting, ugly, exasperating, beautiful, terrible thing that happens—is for our good. These things happen to make us into the people God wants us to be. They happen so we will rely on God alone for our strength, our hope, and our joy. And the more we rely on God and trust him to use everything for our good, the more we find ourselves at peace in a world that is full of turmoil and hatred and war.
While I'm on vacation this week, let me share a few excerpts from my new book - a Bible study on the Armor of God.
One of my favorite Bible stories is about Nehemiah. Nehemiah lived during a time when the nation of Israel had been defeated and many of its people taken to live in exile in Babylon. After many long years, the people had been given permission to return to their homeland and rebuild their cities. When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem he found it in a sorry state, with most of the city wall broken down and the gates burned.
Nehemiah came to Jerusalem with permission to rebuild the wall. Starting the work was easy enough. Two caravans of Jews, totaling more than 50,000 people, had already returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. They had started on the wall before but then stopped in the face of strong opposition. Not long after Nehemiah got the people to work, the opposition started again—and grew. Eventually, the builders of the wall were threatened with all-out warfare if they didn’t stop the work. Nehemiah wasn’t going to let that deter them. He made a plan and encouraged the people:
“We’ll post guards all night, and during the day everyone will work with a sword at their side. Half of the people will stand guard with spears while the other half work. If everyone does their share, we can get this job done!” (Nehemiah 4:16–23, paraphrased).
They did get the job done. In 52 days, the wall around the city and all the gates were built or repaired. Such a feat would be considered amazing even in today’s advanced societies. In 445 B.C., it was nothing less than miraculous. Nehemiah knew who deserved the credit. He wrote: “When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:16).
Without a wall of protection around them, the Jews had been forced to compromise with the surrounding nations and do things their way. The alternative was being attacked and possibly forced out of their homeland all over again. The neighboring countries liked having power over the Jews, and they were willing to fight to keep that power. Nehemiah encouraged his people to pick up their weapons and be prepared to fight back. That was the only way they would ever be able to rebuild the wall and have a secure place to live.
Nehemiah had a lot of important things going for him. He understood his enemies and what they were capable of doing. He understood what God wanted him to do. He created a detailed plan, and he encouraged his people to follow it. Most important of all, he trusted in God and in the promise God made to restore his chosen people to the land of Israel.
After the Jews had been defeated and taken away into exile, God had spoken to them through the prophet Jeremiah:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:10–13)
Just like the people of Nehemiah’s day, we need to be ready to stand up to our enemy. To do that, we need to understand who our enemy is and what he’s up to. We need to know how to fight our battles and defend ourselves. And we need to remember that God will lead us to victory. Without that assurance we might as well give up—we’ve already been defeated.
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What is my mission as an author? It's a tough question, but I believe the goal dearest to my heart is to help Christians think about what they really believe and then to act as if they really believe it. It all begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian. Then we have to learn to live like a Christian.