Holy Spirit, ever dwelling
in the holiest realms of light;
Holy Spirit, ever brooding
o’er a world of gloom and night;
Holy Spirit, ever raising those of earth
to thrones on high.
Living, life-imparting Spirit,
you we praise and magnify.
Holy Spirit, ever living
as the church’s very life;
Holy Spirit, ever striving
through us in a ceaseless strife;
Holy Spirit, ever forming
in the church the mind of Christ:
You we praise with endless worship
for your gifts and fruits unpriced.
Holy Spirit, ever working
through the church’s ministry;
Quickening, strengthening, and absolving,
setting captive sinners free.
Holy Spirit, ever binding
age to age and soul to soul
in communion never ending,
you we worship and extol.
Read and meditate on this hymn as your personal prayer today. What does God say to you through this hymn?
Christians and adherents of countless religions have come to the United States for one central reason: religious freedom. In many countries around the world, only one religion is legal. In North Korea, in order for the government to control people even more completely, the government invented a religion that is the only authorized religion. In Bhutan, there is a state religion, but a few other religions, not including Christianity, have been authorized in the Religious Organizations Act. In many European countries, a state church receives money collected by taxing all citizens regardless of whether they believe. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution has stood guard over the freedom of citizens to believe and practice any religion they choose. The First Amendment has also protected citizens from being required to support any state religion.
First Amendment protections have been prized by citizens and guarded by presidents for more than 200 years.
Over that same period, the bulk of the population of the USA has had some connection with Christianity. The original colonists came to the New World from England – some as emissaries of the state church and some as refugees from the state church. Even those who opposed England’s state church were predominantly Christian. A goodly number would likely have been classified by the faithful as nominal Christians, but in general, Christian ideas, Christian teachings, Bible imagery and Bible-based morality dominated the culture. Even though the country has always been a nation of immigrants, most immigrants assimilated the practices and etiquette of Christians whether or not they had the slightest interest in the faith. Blue laws enforced Sunday as a day of rest and a day to close the bars. Teachers felt free to read the Bible and pray in the classroom if they wanted to. Christians disputed the real presence and wrangled over baptismal forms in lunchrooms. Children played church as often as they played house. A Christmas pageant was the highlight of the school year. The dominance of Christians in the culture led Christians to believe that many cultural norms and practices were protected by the First Amendment.
Now things are changing. Christianity no longer dominates the culture. Some Christians will say that an opportunity to have a true Christian culture was squandered, but that discussion is irrelevant to the realities. People who worship Allah and Vishnu and nobody are numerous enough in the culture to bring considerable pressure to bear on Christians. Now the question is, what constitutes a protected expression of Christian faith and what is no more than a cultural practice? To what extent must the law protect adherents of all religions from cultural persecution? When is an act or word persecution, cultural shunning, or impolite behavior which adults don’t honor with outrage? For example, public schools have “always” had Christmas break. Now somebody wants to call it the “winter break.” Some people interpret that as persecution of Christians. Is it real persecution? Or is it cultural restriction? Or is it simply an accommodation that recognizes that a majority of the school population does not celebrate a religious festival called “Christmas?”
I have a lot of questions. Do you have questions? When Christians are persecuted, how do you believe we should react? How should we deal with the increasingly rapid shrinking of Christian influence in the culture? What is the difference between taking offense and managing the problem of persecution? How is a Christian supposed to live an culture where other religions and even atheistic humanism seem to be more highly respected than Christian?
I have pointed out previously that Jesus did not teach that we should give all our money to government in order that the government take care of the poor. Now I will explain why. Our decisions about our relationship with our government is part of the way we live in obedience to our Lord. When we choose to make the government the agent of our social concerns, we are denying our personal stewardship of the means God gives us to care for ourselves and others. We are further denying our individual and communal calling within the church to be Christ to the people we meet. This decision is not simply a mistake. It is bad for everyone.
Think about the amount of money and the number of programs our federal government has initiated in its efforts to help the poor. The outcome is obvious: there are more poor people than ever before. Common sense tells us that if we try something that fails miserably, the smart response is to try something different. We may decry the poor stewardship of God’s provision when programs fail. We may point accusing fingers at administrative failures and lying clients. But the bottom line is that the federal government keeps starting more and more programs that do not work, all designed to give money, housing, education and so forth to the poor, but none of them have ended or even reduced poverty. The number of people in poverty continues to grow year after year, and the cost of giving things to more and more people escalates with the client base.
Because as one radio commentator said recently, government social programs do not eradicate poverty; they simply make poverty easier to endure.
Everyone knows that poor people feel deprived and devalued. Those who have never known anything but poverty wonder where the people they see on TV got all that stuff, and they want the same stuff. This is the kind of envy that fuels the Occupy movement, which is largely populated with people who are not poor. The “Occupy” partisans simply feel angry and hurt that somebody has more than they have, and they feel entitled to take what others have acquired. They allege to believe that they are leveling the playing field.
When we Christians buy into this rhetoric, we are denying the teachings of Christ.
Remember when Jesus told us not to worry about what we need? This statement was not a mystical exercise to be folded up along with your meditation mat and your candle after prayer
time. This is the real thing. Jesus promised us that if we got our priorities straight, God would bless us with everything we need.
Sooo. How much is enough? How do we know that we have what we need and we don’t need any more? This is a very different question than the one the Occupy movement asks. The people in the Occupy movement look at other people and say, “You have more than you need.” Jesus says we should look at God instead of other people. We should ask what God wants us to be doing with our lives, instead of probing into the lives of other people to determine what they should and should not do. Jesus said we should be concerned about doing what God created us to do. He said that if we are achieving our own purposes, then we will be happy, fulfilled and not needy.
In other words, there is no single answer to what anybody “needs.” The government makes all sorts of definitions and regulations and policies and procedures. Despite all that effort to end poverty, there is more poverty than ever. What’s more, even people who are not in poverty feel needy. Government programs that attack one problem generate envy, jealousy and outright greed among people who have a different problem. They want to know why their problem is not being solved for them.
None of this is God’s plan for people. God created each of us to be blessed in relationship with him. He gave each of us gifts and vision and purpose, and he promises that when we are using our gifts and following that vision and accomplishing his purpose, we will be happy and content. He never ever at any time says that he wants everyone to have the same things or the same number of things. He does not even say that the playing field will be level or the rules will be fair. The mountains will become plains and everybody will be completely joyful in the new heaven and earth at the end of time, but not here and not now. In the here and now we will have challenges and fears and doubts and failures and wants and needs and happy days and sad days. This life will never be a picnic, but it will be fulfilling and worthwhile. The sense of fulfillment and the recognition of value will not be about some balance in a bank account.
Government can do nothing for the spirit of a human being. Government can grant people money and possessions, but that is all. Sadly, the human who has nothing but the gratification of biological needs is not a human being fully alive. That human is miserable, and all he or she looks forward to is receiving another possession or another payment. That is what we all see in the people who settle into government housing buying food with government payments and waiting for a raise in their benefits. They learn how to optimize their benefits, and they teach their children the same attitude.
This is not what God created people to be. If we Christians, who know Christ and the fulfillment of life in relationship with Him do not love and serve our neighbors ourselves instead of foisting it all off on the government, the world will become a desolate and dreary place. We must reclaim the role we have historically had in doing good for people. In big ways and small ways, we must show people the love of God every day. We must demonstrate that we love people by sacrificing self and serving others. We must do this in our daily lives in a million small ways. We must not put it off to be done by “ServeNow.org.”
Am I the model of this behavior? I am not. I am working on it. I spent most of my life believing I was supposed to spend all my time in mental activity. I am only just waking up to the truth that every Christian has the same calling – servanthood. I have never been humble and selfless and caring, but now that I see what government administration does to programs intended to love and serve people, I am positive that this is not the way to lift up the poor and bring liberty and prosperity to all. You tell me. What are you doing? Tell me what you do in big ways and small ways that have nothing to do with society or government or activism or “awareness” or any of the buzz words. Help me learn. I need your help. I am praying for guidance, but I do believe there are people out there somewhere living in the style that exemplifies Jesus’ teaching. Please share your experience and your thoughts.
Yesterday morning I read a headline that said, “School Removes ‘God’ from ‘God Bless the USA.’” The article explained that the school taught the children to sing, “We love the USA” instead. This news is quite disturbing to me.
It troubles me on several fronts.
For starters, I know that schools modify songs all the time for various reasons. They may use the catchy tune of some popular song and write new words in order to teach science or history or other material. This practice reminds me of the Salvation Army story about its founder who wrote hymns to be sung to popular tunes. He said “The devil shouldn’t have all the good tunes.” It is easier to teach someone the words to a new song if the melody is already familiar. The idea that the school would use a familiar melody and sing different words is not a shock to me.
It does shock me that the school would take a song with the iconic status of “God Bless the USA” and change only the words that are the backbone of the song. The reason the song has the status it has is the very message the school removed. People appreciate the message that we should pray for our country. People sing this song enthusiastically because they believe what it says. They love their country, and they love singing this prayer.
There is no requirement that the school use this particular song for any particular purpose. For the school to gut the message by removing the word ‘God’ in this way sends two destructive messages to me:
1.The teachers who made this change are telling children that they don’t think the children should acknowledge God, and
2.The teachers are telling the children that teachers can do anything they like with cherished patriotic expressions.
This action is yet another statement that our culture is becoming secularized. We must face this reality without flinching, and without whining. We must recognize the change that has happened and is happening. We must continue to be salt and light in the name of Christ no matter how energetically the culture rejects the salt and covers up the light. Our response to this outrage must be expressed with serpentine wisdom coupled with the grace of doves bearing olive branches.
There are many patriotic songs children could learn to sing. If they are going to sing this one, they ought to sing it as it is. If the school wants a patriotic song with no reference to God, let the teachers find a different song or write one themselves. To modify some silly ‘flavor of the day’ popular song in order to teach children something or to have some fun is fine. To modify a song that evokes in many citizens the same response as the sight of the Statue of Liberty is a slap in the face of the whole nation.
We need to remember that this song is not a song that we normally use in Christian worship. Those who modified it would tell us to quit complaining, because this is a popular song, not a hymn. It was written to arouse patriotism and commitment to the USA, not to God. However, the very wording of the song expresses faith in God and expresses an attitude that people approved as a cultural expression for most of my life. Only recently has it been common to hear anyone complain about asking God to bless our nation or participate in assuring its well-being. During the past three years, however, there has been an escalation of rhetoric demanding that the word ‘God’ and all other evidence of faith in God be expunged from public life. Until recently, most people in our culture nominally acknowledged the existence of God and considered the Christian faith, but no particular denomination, to be a normal and obvious component of the community. Currently, there is a growing sense that many people in the culture take offense at the mention of God in public and at the assumption that the Christian God is the one named when that word is used.
This developing trend is expressed in a desire that children sing patriotic songs whose lyrics are not a prayer to God. While I deplore that attitude, I would not be upset at children singing some patriotic song that did not include God’s name. However, it isn’t a neutral act to gut “God Bless America” and strip out the message that is so important to the songwriter that he used it for the title. It is an act of aggression against Christianity to do this. The people who changed the song sliced it up like a potato, boiled it, and mashed it, serving up a glob of words and notes that is completely secular. They have a right to a secular song and a secular message. I don’t think they have a right to trash a patriot’s expression of the way his faith is integrated with his patriotism. The author, Lee Greenwood said, “The most important word in the whole piece of music is the word God, which is also in the title God Bless The USA.”
The fact that the school butchered this song in this way is strong evidence of the more troubling truth that children in public schools are immersed in secularism much stronger than even the cultural secularism. Increasingly, the culture within the boundaries of school property filters and shuts out all Christian references and the expression of Christian faith.
When the Catholic Bishops protested that the federal government had overstepped its bounds in requiring the Catholic Church to pay for and encourage use of contraceptives, abortion and sterilization services, many people in the culture were angry at the bishops, not the government. The culture said with a loud voice that the Catholics had no right to opt out of the cultural standard that said that preventing or ending unwanted pregnancy is a national imperative. The religious principles of the Catholics were rejected and trashed. In Massachusetts at Stall Brook Elementary School, the religious principles of Lee Greenwood were rejected and trashed.
It is all very well for the culture to choose to be completely secular. God created people free, and he lovingly allows them to be free to reject him completely if that is their choice. It is not very well for the culture to choose to crush people for whom their faith is their way of life. I seem to recall reading that Buddhism was quite popular among people who don’t want to worship God, because they were told that it was a way of life, not a religion. I submit that the distinction expressed is only semantic. The real truth is that your way of life is your religion. You live by the principles that express your values, and your values come from somewhere. For Christians, our values come from God. We cannot live as if he does not exist. As the secular culture exerts increasing pressure to push God out of public life, the Christian way of life will inevitably be stressed. The slaughter of Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA” foreshadows things yet to come. We will need to be very assertive, and very loving and prayerful, to counterbalance that momentum by living our faith, the faith that teaches us to love and pray for those who treat us spitefully.
The teachings of Jesus are all about love. In fact, when we read those teachings closely, we discover that the teachings of Jesus are about transformation. When we get close to Jesus and spend time listening to him, we open ourselves to become different. When the Holy Spirit dwells within a person, that person simply cannot continue to be like everyone else.
Today’s daily news is filled with rhetoric about the way people relate to each other. If I read only the specific spoken words, I would conclude that all the people involved are trying very hard to get along with each other. Each party to the conflict simply feels the need to point out some little failing in the words the other person is using. Simply using better words would clear everything up in a flash.
Politically correct language is not about loving anyone. The rules for speaking politically correct language do not transform anybody, and abiding by those rules will not produce a culture where people love or even respect one another. The best possible outcome from mandating correct speech is tolerance. If you have ever dealt with a sibling you could barely tolerate, you could testify to the fact that tolerance is not love.
Still, the secular culture of our day holds the usage of correct speech in high regard. The level of regard is expressed by those who not only watch what specific approved or disapproved words are spoken, but they also peer beyond the specific words and recognize when otherwise innocuous words have become code for forbidden words. I don’t need to elaborate on this image. You hear it every day from commentators and politicians and the spokespersons for politicians.
The problem with policing speech is that while people can be legislated to use or to avoid specific words with some degree of success, there is no corresponding success in changing attitudes. The underlying problems remain, and the problems are not all in the hearts of those who use what is considered to be offensive speech. For every person who expresses a heart illness that is manifest in speech that assaults someone, there is someone who cannot forgive some past offense, and that person is on high alert to find the slightest remnant or suggestion that the offense is approved by any speaker. Someone who takes offense at people who have done nothing to offend, finding hate speech and code words everywhere, has a serious problem with the inability to forgive. The mechanism of managing verbiage can never heal an unforgiving heart. That heart must be transformed by love, and that kind of change can only be made by the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to achieve transformation of the culture by policing the speech of the people.
It is hard to imagine how such behavior arose in a nation whose regard for the freedom of speech given to every human being by God himself at the moment of creation is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. As often happens, it arose in response to very real wrongdoing, but effects of the perpetration of evil have been exacerbated by the effects of the inability of people to forgive, even when the old wrong no longer even exists. This problem mirrors the behavior of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, and when we look at what Jesus thought about the Pharisees, we can see clearly why political correctness will never have the desired effect. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for washing the outside of a cup and ignoring the garbage inside. He accused the Pharisees of being like mausoleums – ornate and beautiful on the outside, despite being full of rotting corpses and the bones of the dead.
The solution to a culture where people actually do get along, where people respect one another and even love one another, is not political correctness. The solution is in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said that love is the greatest commandment of all. We should love God above all, and love our neighbors as ourselves. He said that even if a neighbor became an enemy, we should love that neighbor anyway, and even pray for that neighbor. Furthermore, if that neighbor needed anything from us, Jesus said we should give it. We should not withhold ourselves or anything we have from that enemy neighbor while it lies in our power to make the situation better. When people are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to live the law of love, then this culture will be transformed as well.
When I point out that political correctness will not solve attitude problems, I do not suggest that we should all abandon good manners and polite consideration for others in our words. I simply mean that good police work never ends crime. Criticizing or even punishing people for unacceptable speech does not really do anything for the issue that lies beneath the words. There is only one way to transform the human heart. That heart must be open to the Holy Spirit.
How does this work?
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17