Tag Archives: testimony

Your Testimony in the Court of Public Opinion

When Trayvon Martin was shot, there was a media rush to announce the public opinion that George Zimmerman was a murder, and a racist murderer at that. Many of the slurs against Zimmerman that passed for actual charges of which the reports convicted him have since been debunked. The court of public opinion is not a very good place for achieving justice.

There is not much justice in the court of public opinion for Christians either. Christians are under fire for being narrow-minded and disconnected from reality. They are accused of meddling in things that have nothing to do with Christianity, and they are accused of not being Christian by people who do not know what a Christian is. Christians often feel rejected and belittled, at the very least. Sometimes they feel positively oppressed. The court of public opinion is not rendering much justice any case involving Christians.

Let’s look at the charges.

Christians are narrow-minded and disconnected from reality.

A prime example of this accusation is found in the ongoing discussion of whether an adoption agency can be compelled to place children with gay couples. Advocates of the LGBT agenda contend that it is illegal and immoral for Christian adoption agencies to refuse to place children with gay couples. They accuse Christians of narrow-minded bigotry in their unwillingness to approve gay couples as adoptive parents. LGBT advocates believe that Christian agencies have no right to implement rules for adoptive parents based on the Christian view that homosexuality is a sin. (It should be noted that Christians today are not of one mind about this. However, acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual expression by any Christian group is very recent, and the vast majority of Christian groups continue to classify homosexuality as sin.)

Christians like to meddle in things that have nothing to do with Christianity.

Even though the Supreme Court decided in favor of the church in Hosanna-Tabor public opinion considered the decision unjust. The core of the case was a question about the employment contract between a teacher and a church. The teacher signed a hiring contract that included a requirement that she submit any disputes about the terms of her employment to arbitration within the church. This contract amounted to a prohibition to go outside the church with any such dispute. However, when the church ruled against the teacher in a dispute, the teacher went to the EEOC with her complaint against her employer. The terms of the contract into which the teacher entered of her own free will led ultimately to the determination against the government. In the court of public opinion, there was considerable dismay that the contract was not set aside in the courts, because public opinion did not like the idea that the church was able to enforce such a contract. Public opinion felt that terms of employment are precisely the sort of thing churches ought to stay out of and leave to the government. What do terms of employment, the public asks, have to do with Christianity?

Christians are accused by non-Christians of not being Christian when Christians assert moral principles at odds with popular political and social agendas.

This problem is expressed on a broad range of issues. Non-Christians seize on a Christian teaching such as “Love your neighbor,” and accuse Christians of not loving their neighbors when they call their neighbor’s behavior “sinful.” It is likely that Christians contribute to the problem when they react with anger and outrage, but non-Christians do not understand that Christians can reject the behavior without hating the person. Christians can call homosexuality “sin” while simultaneously inviting homosexuals to church or while continuing to befriend a homosexual neighbor. A Christian can rejoice in the birth of a baby to an unmarried couple without condoning the fact that they live together without marriage. Non-Christians seem to believe that we cannot love people with whom we differ. More important, they believe that we DO NOT love our neighbors who engage in behavior we call “sin.” We probably need to work on our behavior and speech, but we probably also need to accept the fact that most people will continue to call us bigots for not approving and accepting all behavior we consider to be sin.

In the court of public opinion, these charges are made and the media reports conclusions without much published testimony from Christians. How are we to offer a defense against the accusations?

It is not likely we will ever refute these arguments once and for all. The arguments do not spring full-blown from the thinking of human philosophers. These arguments are the same arguments our enemy Satan has leveled against us from the beginning. When you boil all the accusations down to their essence, Christians believe they should listen to God, and Satan wants us to stop listening to God. It is the argument Satan used against Eve when he asked, “Did God say that? Well, he lies.” (My free paraphrase of Genesis 3:1-5)

Probably the touchiest issue is to be able to disagree respectfully and sustain love for the person with whom we disagree. Our opponents do not make it easy. In public discourse there is a lot of completely illogical speech. Too many people have been called “racist” or “bigoted” simply because they disagree with public opinion. It would be wonderful if that sort of thing could be ended. It can’t. If you speak or act to defend Christian teaching or Christian values in the court of public opinion, you need to be ready to cope with mindless name-calling.

Our only real defense against these accusations is to live lives that faithfully demonstrate the love of Christ for all people. When people say terrible things about us, when people lie about us, when people make fun of us and act as if we are immature children who believe fairy tales, it is easy to become angry. Satan loves it when that happens. It simply proves his point. The big challenge before us is to trust Christ completely. If we remember that he said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” then we will be able to respond lovingly to name-calling and public scorn. We don’t need to be doormats. We do need to be loving at all times. When we don’t quite know what to do, we need to ask ourselves what will show Christ to those who see us.

A Verse for Meditation

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.                                                      Psalm 85:9

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

  •  Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the Psalms were Jesus’ prayerbook. How might Jesus have prayed this verse? 
  • The angel told Joseph that the name of the son to be born to Mary would be Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.” How does this verse recall God’s promise to be with us? 
  • When the psalmist uses the term salvation what do you think he means? 
  • In verse 85:10 the psalmist writes, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” How does this imagery shape your understanding of the term salvation in verse 9? 
  • Do you believe that God’s salvation is at hand? Why? Does this verse bolster your confidence and joy of living? In what way? 
  • There are numerous views of the meaning of glory in this verse. Do you think Revelation has anything informative to say about it?

See, the home of God is among mortals.

                                    Revelation 21:3 

  • This verse speaks of something that is anticipated, but not yet in evidence. How does a vision of something that isn’t happening yet encourage you?

 

Christians Do Not “give back”

The public conversation in America commonly includes statements by people who announce that they want to “give back.” The first time I heard this phrase, I wasn’t sure what they meant. Now I understand that it is a way of saying that someone feels he (or she) owes the community or the country something. It is an admirable attitude to recognize blessings and obligations but I have found the phrase and the conversation troubling on several points.

Most of us feel blessed to live in our communities, and many of us feel blessed to live in the USA. Still, the phrase “give back” has come to sound a bit hollow, because the person who uses it really doesn’t say to whom or what he feels obligated and he doesn’t say why he feels obligated. Does it mean that he (or she) is giving something to community or government in return for something received? I think that is the point of it, but nobody is saying. The term also implies a transaction we need to examine. It points our attention to the person who says he will do the giving and invites us to come back and praise him if he actually does it. The phrase “give back” has no focal point except the speaker.

I feel much the same way about the phrase “give back” as I feel when the new liturgy directs the congregation to say, “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” To whom shall we give our thanks? To what? For what reason? The recipient of the thanks and praise ought to be named. (Here is where I confess that no matter what the printed liturgy says, I say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.”) Likewise, when someone says that he is going to “give back” I really want to know what he will give and to whom and why.

If the motivation for giving back truly is a sense of obligation to community or to government, then that is one thing. If the reason for giving back is to give community and government thanks and praise, then I would disagree with the motivation. I guess my real quarrel is with the language. I certainly won’t quarrel with the behavior. Maybe I question the motives.

Christian teaching sends us in a different direction. At baptism, Christians receive the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Truth, who teaches us that our blessings come from God, not from people or the government, and that good government is itself a blessing from God, ordained to be our servant, not our master. Christians, therefore, serve others as an act of grateful stewardship of God’s blessings, not as an act of payback to community or to government. We are taught to serve in a way that points to God, not to ourselves.

The central difference between a secular choice to “give back” and a Christian choice to serve, however, is this: A Christian truly cannot serve human objectives alone no matter what sort of service he engages in. A Christian is called to share the good news and make disciples no matter what he is doing. He lives as a testimony to God’s active blessing, and his work is a testimony to that blessing. He can no more fail to praise God in word and deed, even if the deed is digging a ditch, than he can stop breathing. As Henry Nouwen says, “One cannot be a little bit for Christ, give him some attention, or make him one of many concerns.”[1]

Ultimately, this discussion is about where our loyalties lie. If our first loyalty is to God, we are called to serve him and to serve people as Christ’s hands and feet in our community. There is no “payback” or “give back” involved, because there is no accounting. The credit for the good services and the outcome of those services goes to God, not to the people who serve.

It sounds harsh, but the truth is that when someone acts on the principle of “give back” that person is denying God. Christians who borrow the term for their own service to God should stop using it. When anyone says clearly or by implication that blessings come from anywhere but God he is rejecting God. Many people use the term as a substitute for saying “good works” or even “volunteer service.” Ultimately, however, to say that any act “gives back” to some human what was received from God, is wrong.

Here is what Jesus said about our service and our good works.

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

 When Christians do anything good, when Christians serve their neighbors, or their country, or anybody at all, they serve with every intention of pointing people to God, not themselves. They do not “give back” to society or to the nation. They serve God Most High, Who in His infinite mercy sent Christ to die for the sins of the world. When Christians serve any person, they are serving Christ, and when they perform any service, it is the ultimate failure if their service inspires only reward for themselves.

Any Christian who lives his faith with any integrity is always a servant. He helps people and works for what is right in government and in the culture. He prays for people in need and gives them personal help as well. He wants prosperity, happiness, and peace for all people. He engages in grateful stewardship of God’s blessings and in faithful service to God and man. But he does not “give back.”

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Nouwen, Henry The Selfless Way of Christ, © 2007 by the estate of Henry Nouwen, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0308)

God Answers the Prayers of the Persecuted

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...
Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

 

Christ’s call to each of us to deny self and take up our own cross and follow him clearly teaches us that the ability to follow him does not come from personal will. If I deny self, then I can’t get my power to go forward from self; it must come from somewhere else. After I deny self, I am called to follow Christ, and that is where I get the ability to pick up my cross and go forward. If that were not enough to teach me that faithfulness in the Christian life is not about me, then Paul’s experience makes that teaching very clear.

Paul had a problem, and he asked Jesus to solve it. He prayed and prayed and prayed. But Jesus didn’t solve it, and Jesus didn’t tell Paul how to solve it. What Jesus did was to tell Paul he would be with him and enable him to endure it. He even said that Paul’s inability to solve his own problem was a blessed means for Christ’s power to work in Paul as Paul endured and thrived despite his persistent problem.

I have a problem like that. I have prayed and prayed about my problem. I have asked God to take it away. I have asked God to intervene and fix what is broken. I have asked God to act in human lives to transform them. But God’s answer is, “My grace is sufficient for you.” By God’s grace, I am able to recognize that Jesus keeps his ascension promise and goes with me through everything. It reminds me where my own power comes from. I have learned that face to face with challenges to my faith, I have very little power. It is good for me to know that my weakness becomes a vessel for the power of God to work through me.

We like to believe that when we pray in faith, God will give us exactly what we want. In fact, we read the words, “Ask, and you will receive,” and we think that is how it works. We want those words to stand all by themselves on top of a great mountain of personal gratification. We want what we want, and we want to claim that these words promise us what we want. The Bible, however, is a complete revelation, and we cannot build a life or a theology on a single word or phrase. The words all form a whole that we dissect to our great harm. These words, “Ask, and you will receive,” must be recalled and claimed in close connection with the words, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Our “power” to ask God for what we need grows out of our weakness and inability to do it all for ourselves, and his answer may not be like a Christmas present off the top of our letter to Santa. God is not Santa Claus. The answer we “receive” when we “ask” may be the grace to live through something we would rather escape.

Christians in countries like Ethiopia and China pray faithfully to God every day. For them, the simple act of going to church for worship on Sunday may be viewed as a criminal act by their governments. It is likely that these Christians pray that their governments will relent and stop arresting, imprisoning and even torturing Christians. Yet so far, God has not granted them their wish the way a genie out of a bottle does. Instead God has answered their prayers with grace – the grace to live a faithful testimony to Christ. They feel weak and battered, but God’s power gives them the strength to testify with their very lives to the Christ who is more precious to them than life itself.

Here in the USA we complain that some people don’t respect Christians. We get angry when a school forbids the valedictorian to thank God publicly for the ability to learn and excel. We take offense when an employer refuses to allow office parties in December to be called “Christmas” parties. We are right to note that our culture is offended by Christianity, but as we take note of that fact, we must remember that Jesus said it would be this way. He warned us from the very beginning that the world would hate us, because it already hated him. We must respond to these reminders of Jesus’ teaching the way he taught us to respond – with love. Just like Christians in Ethiopia and China, we must pray for those who reject and insult us. We must learn, as the early disciples learned, to thank God for the opportunity to suffer for the name of Christ. Our testimony of love in the face of insult will be evidence of the working of God’s grace through our weakness. His grace is sufficient for us and for Christians around the world who are imprisoned and abused in the name of Christ. We must learn to be grateful for the opportunity to make that testimony.

The Power of Gratefulness

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the mighty waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
  Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

 

If you read Psalm 107 closely, you will see over and over that it evokes thanksgiving and gratitude despite recording numerous examples of terrible experiences. The storm at sea that is the focus of the selection above is only one example of an experience some people might question as a time for thanksgiving.

 

He took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Acts 27:35

 

This verse records how the apostle Paul, in the midst of a storm at sea much like the one described in Psalm 107, is able to be calm and grateful for God’s provision. The storm has been in progress for 14 days, and the sailors have feared they would either founder and sink in the depths of the sea, or else run aground and be broken on the rocks with all souls lost. Paul, who trusts God with his life completely, is reassured by the Holy Spirit that he and all the people with him on the ship, will not fail to arrive in Rome as planned. It is Paul’s destiny to serve God by testifying to his faith in Rome, and all those who are part of his destiny are likewise destined to be saved from the storm. In that context—faith, hope and trust in God’s steadfast love—Paul can give thanks for simple bread, simple food, the simple preservation of life in the midst of chaos.

Paul had “mounted up to heaven,” and gone “down to the depths” in the storm, just as the psalmist described. We who live in a world where most of the moving forces are beyond our control know what it is like. We can be making money hand over fist in a 401k fund, planning for a comfortable, even exciting, retirement, only to see a black day in the market wipe out everything. The fury of that tempest doesn’t hurt just one person; it hurts many. We go up to the heavens in our rejoicing and expectation, only to crash down to the depths when everything falls apart.

In that setting, who among us could still give thanks for a simple piece of bread? Do we thank God for his steadfast love that will carry us through to the future we can no longer imagine, all its props having been swept away in the storm? Can we feel grateful for life itself, and for God’s presence with us despite all the turmoil, in the midst of the mess that is left of the hopes we once had for our future? Do we think about the fact that nothing is beyond God’s control only to doubt his wisdom and his love for us because he did not prevent this disaster, this catastrophe, this perfect storm?

Yet Paul could do it. What makes him any different from me? How is he a better person than I? Is he really better just because we call him an apostle, or did he bleed when he was cut just like the rest of us? How could he be thankful for bread when it looked as if the storm would never end and when it looked as if the ship could not possibly survive to whatever end might come?

Yet that is what Paul did. He gave thanks for bread. Mere bread. Do you think he remembered Christ’s sacrifice for him as he gave thanks for bread that would be simple food for people who had not dared to eat for fourteen days?

The Psalmist says, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” (Psalm 107:2) but Paul actually gave thanks for God’s steadfast love before redemption was ever obvious. Paul’s faith was able to expand his gratitude to things not yet in evidence. The sight of unfamiliar land. Grounding off the shore of Malta. The final report that “all were brought safely to land.” (Acts 27:44) Paul was able to be grateful to the God who could do such things, the God who, according to Paul’s faith, would do such things.

This is the kind of faith we need when we are in the midst of a storm over our expression of our faith. Perhaps I simply say “Merry Christmas,” and offend someone. Maybe I wear a necklace with a cross pendant, and my customer says, “No” because he is affronted by my obvious sign of Christian faith. It could be that in a room full of bantering conversation, I say something about going to church, and the conversation stops while I am informed that “We think people should keep their religion to themselves.” It might be something bigger. Maybe I don’t want to pay the health insurance premium for contraceptive services, because I believe that I should trust God to create life when and where he chooses, not when and where I choose. Will I be punished by the state for refusing to pay for what conflicts with my faith? Perhaps I believe that God calls me to say, “God loves you” to someone who sits beside me on the bus. Will that person call 911 to have me arrested for hate speech? If I am a target because of my faith, if the storms of cultural or state persecution roil around me, will I be able to give thanks for food, for shelter, for family, for any blessing at all?

I hear some Christians complain bitterly at the fact that Christianity does not dominate the legal and ethical landscape in the USA today. This is not the reaction God wants us to have. The more we are oppressed, the more we should rejoice, because as Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26) We should be like the apostles after the high priest and his council told them to shut up about Jesus. They were beaten and then they were told not to mention that name again. Their response? They rejoiced “because they had been found worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)

There it is again. Gratitude. They were not simply grateful to escape imprisonment. They were grateful that their testimony was so completely true that they had to suffer as Jesus had suffered. Many of us would first whine that we were not shown any respect, and then we would whine that God had ignored our prayers for rescue. By the time we walked out the door, we would have whined so long and so pitifully that we would not any longer be able to speak of Christ with love and faith at all. We would have talked ourselves out of any testimony to Christ. The priests would not need to tell us to shut up, because we would have crushed our testimony all by ourselves.

Not all our suffering is about our testimony. Some of our suffering is economic. Some is our health. Some is just the misfortune of encountering bad people who lash out at everyone. Some is due to political events. The vast majority of our suffering is, like the storm that engulfed Paul, completely out of our control. We suffer along with everyone else because of the laws of nature or some other force we can’t manipulate.

The Psalmist says that none of this matters when we trust God’s steadfast love. We trust God, and we give thanks to God, regardless of our circumstances. We give thanks for God’s steadfast love which is a treasure more precious than any other evidence of well-being. We give thanks that we have hope not only in this life, but also in the next. It is hard to feel hopeless or whiny when you feel grateful. This is the testimony of the psalmist. He said, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.” In a living relationship with a living Christ, our lives are bathed in reasons to live gratefully, and those reasons transcend all the assaults of circumstance or malicious evil. As the redeemed of the Lord, we respond to disaster by saying,

“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” because “his steadfast love endures forever.”
(Psalm 107:1-2)