Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Heart of this Problem

We’ve been here too often.

The violence is numbing us.

The rituals and rhetoric of public grieving seem predictable and somehow insufficient.

The anticipation of tragedy is disturbing.

Amidst the cacophony of angry voices and opposing opinions – editorials and talking heads – our flag remained the most poignant silent reminder of our shared grief and the uncertainty of life.

At the beginning of the week the Stars and Stripes waved proudly as we celebrated the 240th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence. Before the week was over it flew sadly at half mast, testing once more whether this nation – conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal – can endure.

President Obama has ordered the American flag lowered more than any president in history.

It is a sign of our troubled times.

This time it was for five police officers slain in Dallas while protecting the lives of others.

We’ve been an increasingly divided country. We are North and South, red states and blue states, rich and poor and black and white.

Sometimes we’re simply Americans – but not often enough.

Values once held dear are today suspect. Beliefs that united and sustained us in tough times are questioned or scorned as idealistic and naïve.

Throughout history there have been nations that have been great without being good. The United States is not one of them. Our founders never intended it to be. They created a government that must rely on widespread virtue – and faith – to survive.

“We have no government armed with power,” observed John Adams, “capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion … Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Three years before the bloody civil war that would sunder the nation Abraham Lincoln argued that dependence upon economic and military strength alone would not be enough to preserve the Union:

“Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere.
Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them.”

Abandon ordered liberty rooted in virtue, Lincoln said, and “you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.”

Our founders understood that in a free republic personal virtue and national greatness are inseparable. Forsake individual morality and this nation would descend into the bondage of anarchy.

Their warnings have proven prophetic.

After the last funeral is conducted in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, white police officers will still be confronting young black men on the streets. And the tensions will remain. So will the judgments, suspicions and reactions.

The cause of racism will not cease even when its effects are addressed in law and practice. Bias and bigotry are stubborn and subtle enemies. They dwell deep within the human heart and the heart cannot be legislated.

For decades we have known that the deterioration of the black family – and the absence of strong male role models – has impacted the black experience much more than economic and legal factors.

Yes, racial discrimination is still a daily reality in this country and it’s immoral. Poverty is also real. But the ultimate answer is not more laws but more decency, responsibility, respect, determination, courage and self-control.

Right and wrong are not subject to race – they are colorblind. The content of a man’s character is the only judgment you and I have any right to make about him.

Through the prophet Jeremiah God warned of the desperate and unfathomable wickedness of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Even as many began to trust in Jesus, he still “didn’t trust them, because he knew human nature. No one needed to tell him what mankind was really like” (John 2:24-25, NLT, emphasis added).

Jesus knew what was in the heart of man.

These tragic acts of violence remind us again that we are all fallen creatures and we live in a fallen world.

Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”

We are fallen not because of our race but in spite of it. In the end the only race that matters is the human race and the only thing that can redeem that is the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ.

Only Christ can transform our hearts and heal our divisions. He alone is able to excavate the angry heart of stone and replace it with a tender heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

Only God can heal our land by changing each of us. Only changed people can change society.

This is our calling. This is our duty.

May we pray with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10, KJV).

Only then can we begin to face the stubborn ancient prejudices that lurk within us all.

Because the heart of this problem is a problem of the heart.

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Working It Out

Tona Herndon had every right to be angry.

She had every right to be offended.

Tona had been violated – shamelessly, unexpectedly and unconscionably violated.

There she was in the small town of Bethany, Oklahoma visiting her husband’s grave. Suddenly, without warning, a man had grabbed her pocketbook and run away.

Tona Herndon had been robbed – in a cemetery, while paying her respects to her dead husband.

If anything good could come from that incident, it’s pretty elusive.

Christian Lunsford didn’t know Tona Herndon or what had happened to her. He might have been a bit suspicious when his father, Shane, had presented him with a surprise gift of $250. Especially since his dad is an ex-con.

The 15 year-old boy might have wondered – or not.

Then Shane got arrested and charged with the crime. It broke Christian’s young heart but didn’t exactly shock him. Christian loved his dad. He also knew him.

At this point in the story you might be tempted to ask: “So what did the boy do? After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. True enough, but someone named this lad “Christian” for a reason.

He contacted Tona Herndon and arranged to meet her. The teen apologized for what his dad did. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out the $250 and handed it to Herndon. She was surprised and moved.

She thanked Christian and took the money. Then she handed it back to him.

“He gave and I received,” she said later, “and I gave and he received”.

Tona Herndon smiled. “So it worked out”.

When he led Prison Fellowship, Chuck Colson was a strong advocate for criminal restitution, arguing persuasively that it was practiced in the Old Testament under the Hebrew system of justice. Colson believed that bringing the offender face to face with his victim was the first – and most important – step toward true justice; what he called restorative justice.

The ultimate objective of biblical justice is reconciliation – shalom – peace.

In the case of Christian Lansford and Tona Herndon, a young man intervened on behalf of another whom he loved. Though he had done no wrong, Christian pursued forgiveness and reconciliation in the place of his father and on his behalf.

Tona would have been within her rights to keep the money as at least a partial payment for what had been done to her. After all, the money was hers. She had been assaulted by a robber.

This was only just.

Instead, Tona responded not with justice but with mercy and kindness. She had received the payment. She was satisfied. Then she generously returned it to the son of her offender.

This was an act of grace.

It was an expression of forgiveness; it was a symbol of reconciliation.

It has been well said that in God’s economy, justice is getting what we deserve, mercy is not getting what we deserve, and grace is getting what we don’t deserve. If we all realized this more, we’d be less judgmental of others and more grateful for God’s patience with us.

We’d be less harsh in our condemnations and more honest in our confessions.

On the cross, Jesus intervened on our behalf. He did so because of his love – and his Father’s. We were the ones who had sinned. We were the ones who had so grievously violated God’s law and his justice and holiness. Jesus had done nothing wrong but he stood in our place and paid the price we owed.

This was death. It’s what we deserved.

God responded by forgiving us, cleansing us and saving us – and by giving us eternal life.

This was grace. It’s what we didn’t deserve.

Paul explained it to the Romans:

“Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us” (Romans 5: 1, NLT, emphasis added).

Jesus did this “for us”.

God was merciful. We didn’t get what we deserved.

He did this for you and for me, in all of our presumption, and all of our arrogance; in all of our self-congratulatory self-righteousness – in all of our hopeless and pitiful “filthy rags”.

Yet, “because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand …” (verse 2, NLT, emphasis added).

The King James Version states it in simple eloquence:

“By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand …”

By God’s grace we stand. By his grace we live. By his grace we are forgiven. By God’s grace – and by his grace alone – “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (verse 2, KJV).

Without this grace we would have no joy. We would have no hope. Without it we would perish.

You and I have been reconciled to God – the chosen recipients of his matchless and amazing grace. How much now should we, just like Tona Herndon, be the dispensers of grace to those around us?

He gave and we have received. We must give that others may receive.

When we do, we’ll discover that “it works out”.

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Jeff Smith’s America

It was a dramatic moment in a dramatic story.

The tall young senator stood unshaven and disheveled on the floor of the senate. His voice hoarse from hours of a filibuster; exhausted, his energy spent in a one-man defense of his ideals, he looked once more at his passive colleagues.

“You think I’m licked,” he told them. “You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause.”

He staggered over to the large bin overflowing with fabricated telegrams orchestrated to condemn him and drive him from office.

He reached in and grabbed a handful and held them up.

“Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.”

With that, Senator Jefferson Smith collapsed.

As with all Frank Capra’s movies, this one would have a happy ending. The distinguished but corrupted senator whom Jeff Smith had once idolized openly confessed his complicity on the senate floor.

Jim Taylor’s graft machine was defeated.

Truth triumphed over greed.

Jeff Smith would live to fight another day.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – starring the inimitable James Stewart in his first Oscar-nominated role – stands alone as the iconic Hollywood depiction of American values and old-fashioned patriotism.

That nearly eighty years later its pure idealism would seem so quaintly irrelevant is an American tragedy.

Young Jefferson Smith, unlikely choice to replace a deceased senator, is suddenly thrust into the cynical sneering world of Washington politics. A good and decent man, the naïve Smith is mocked by the press and ridiculed and dismissed by his worldly colleagues.

When his legislative plans to acquire land to build a camp for boys in his home state interfere with the nefarious schemes of a powerful political machine, Smith is suddenly no laughing matter. Run by a ruthless boss named James Taylor, the machine goes all out to railroad unsuspecting Jeff Smith out of the senate.

It is a classic morality play.

Selfless idealism confronts self-centered greed.

Throughout the film, the virtues and values of America – especially our ideas about individual freedom and decency – are unapologetically espoused.

There is no cynicism in this film except on the part of the villains who care nothing of American virtues and have no virtue of their own. They care only for themselves – for power and for money. They would use the government to concentrate and expand both.

Speaking to his jaded legislative assistant who would later root for him and fall in love with him, Jeff Smith explained why he wanted the boys’ camp:

“You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more.

Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”

When Jeff Smith finally had the chance to speak to his hardened senate colleagues on the floor, he painted a noble red, white and blue portrait of America.

He read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He invoked Lady Liberty at the top of the capitol dome and defended “the whole parade of what man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting …so he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created to, no matter what his race, color or creed.”

Smith insisted “there’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.” Freedom, he declared, was “the blood and bone and sinew of this democracy that some great men handed down to the human race.”

It was quite a speech.

Jeff Smith believed every word of it.

Today, many Americans, like the boys Smith spoke of, have forgotten what it truly means to be an American. Amidst our cynicism, anger, fear and bitterness we’ve lost sight of the great privilege and duty of living in the greatest, freest and most wonderful nation on earth.

It’s easy to give in to despair and cynicism. The media, popular culture and too many of our politicians lead us to think that American liberty and all it represents is just another “lost cause.”

But as Jefferson Smith reminded us, we must hold to our ideals and “you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others. Yes, you even die for them.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was banned in Hitler’s Germany. In German-occupied France in 1942 it was the last film shown before the ban went into effect – one theater showed it 30 times – and the first shown after France was liberated.

It should be required viewing in every high school.

Jeff Smith reminds us of what America means – what it stands for and why it’s worth fighting to preserve.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8,KJV).

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