Thursday, July 2, 2015

Speaking Words Of Life

We live in an amazing country. And the freedoms and benefits of living here are enormous. We live in a country that has a healthy food supply. We are not actively at war in this nation. We have medical care for many of our citizens and a free public education system for both genders. We have 50 states but there is freedom of travel among those states without passports. We attempt to support freedom of religion or no religion and if you post something negative about the government on social media you live with the expectation that your post will still be there in the morning. These are just a few of the privileges of living in a free society.

You and I are living in one of the freest societies that have ever existed. But if you look at some of the indexes for civil and political freedoms for 2015 you can see quickly that freedoms have been dropping for 9 consecutive years for many countries in the world.

In the U.S. our “great experiment in democracy” has not been without ups and downs to be sure. And the expectation of freedom remains strong for most of us in this country. But is it possible to misunderstand our amazing liberties and the effect they have had on us? Do we have this sense that they “belong” to us forever? Have we read enough history to know better? Do we sometimes find ourselves getting angry when something we hold dear in this society gets encroached upon by others in society who look at life differently than we do?

I think it’s almost impossible not to get a sense of entitlement about American freedoms. It is one thing to feel incredibly blessed by living in a free society but it is another thing to believe you are forever entitled to those benefits.

I have noticed something troubling in the last few years in our culture as social media has allowed us to speak quickly and sometimes vehemently about our political and cultural views. What I’ve noticed is we are getting grumpy and sometimes we are getting just plain mean.

Jesus gave us some specific commands in the Bible about how to live. He said “I’m giving you a new commandment. Love each other in the same way I have loved you.” Christ said a lot to his followers when He was here but He continually repeated His command to love each other the way He did . . . personally and unconditionally. The Bible has many positive commands of what we are to do. Love. Give. Be with people who are suffering. Make sacrifices in your giving. Keep loving and don’t stop.

But do you know there are things we are also told we are NOT to do? One verse says “Do everything without complaining or arguing. Then you will be blameless and innocent.” That is an incredibly high standard. And it seems to be so especially in our social media generation. We can speak almost instantaneously into any situation. We don’t have to slow down anymore to be thoughtful in our responses to our friends, our families and our communities. We can be practically instantaneous in what we communicate. The verse that says we are not to complain or argue goes on to say if we will follow that high standard we will shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of Life. The word of Life is the powerful truth of what Christ can do for us as he sets us free from sin and helps us turn back to God.

But notice this verse all starts with whether we decide whether we will indulge in complaining and arguing. If we do this we will not be blameless and can’t really hold the word of Life out to anyone. Our choices of what we post on social media really have consequences.

It took me awhile to understand that a country like this one was going to live on compromise. There really is no way to have a free society without having us all a little dissatisfied all of the time. What helps me is to realize that when I am excited about something going on in our society that someone else probably is not. Someone who, like me, cares about his family, pays his taxes, and does the best he can every day. I need to try to see him as a real person. So what do my friends and acquaintances notice about me when my party is not in office? Do they see me being respectful of the president or do they see something else? Do my Facebook posts make Christ happy? Do the people on the other side of whatever the issue of the day is feel honored by my comments?

I have lived long enough to see a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions come down. All the way from back in the civil rights movements in the 1960s. When a decision comes down that I might have wished had gone differently do I complain? Or do I get really grateful to live in a country that has branches of government that check each other every day I have been alive. Branches of government staffed by people who have tried to do the best job they know how to do on most days.

So let’s look at our lives. Let’s look at Facebook pages. Let’s listen to our conversations. And let’s listen to the things our children hear us saying every day. And the next time something happens we don’t like (an election, a Supreme Court decision, or the guy who cuts us off in traffic) let’s listen hard to what we think and what we say. And then if we ever get the privilege as believers to live in Malawi or Syria or some of the very toughest places in the world, we might, just might have practiced enough self-control to even think about being ready to live in those places. And be shiners of the light we are privileged to shine to all.

We have become arguers and fighters, not for the gospel, but for our rights as Americans. We are not fighting for the salvation of the lost but are fighting for our freedom of religion in America. We are not called to fight for our freedoms. We are called to set people free with the good news of the gospel.

Followers of Christ all over this globe are suffering horrendous persecution and anguish simply because they confess the name of Jesus and cling to Him as their Savior and Lord. Many of these individuals have no idea what it would be like to have the protections and privileges Christians have in America. But not having those freedoms does not slow them down in living amazing lives of integrity, love and humility in their cultures. And many would have a very difficult time understanding our consternation over the present circumstances we have in America just because we think some of our rights under our constitution seem to be slipping away. To them they would be unable to relate to rights and protection under the laws of their country.

I don’t imagine anyone in America who has enjoyed our present rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms (or as my wife says, ‘freedom to bare arms’) wants to give up any of these rights and I understand the fear, discomfort and upset we can feel personally regarding changes that are taking place in America.

So what are we to do as American Christians? Curse and spew hate at the individuals we perceive as responsible for these changes? Fight and bite and scratch and claw at these individuals? Speak evil of them? Write our Congressmen but not show the simplest of kindnesses to other people? What would a Christian in Syria advise us to do? What would a Christian in Malawi advise? What would Christ advise? Or command? “Go into all the world and preach the gospel making disciples of all men.” Something like that!

Is our focus to be on the political structure of our country and our freedoms or are we to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness? Are we to be cursing and condemning other religions or are we to be loving the individuals within those religions and telling them about our Savior?

Some of you may be feeling like it’s a real challenge to care about people who oppose your views. Perhaps those people even feel like enemies to you. Jesus said something very powerful in the Sermon on the Mount. He said “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.45 In this way you show that you are children of your Father in heaven.” Notice Jesus was and is a realist. He knows we will struggle with relationships and that some people on earth will seem like our enemies. But also notice his command. That we LOVE those people and pray for them.

Jesus told us if we were his friends we would obey His commands. And that includes following Him in choosing to love and pray for our enemies. Just like He did! But, I have seen Jesus give us blessings that went far beyond our having the ability to pray for our enemies. And that is that He would break down the walls between us and our enemies by letting us reach out to them. What might that look like the next time there is someone in the political realm we disagree with? What if we picked up the phone and asked that person what it felt like when his side won? Could we walk in his shoes just for a minute and hear his side of the story? Could we listen to why that issue matters to her so much?

But what if we realize we don’t have any friends right now on the “other” side? If that is the case have we only been hanging out with people who think like we do? Well we can change that. We can ask God to give us someone right in our neighborhood or at work or at the gym to get to know a little better. Even if it’s just to have polite conversation about life. God is faithful to answer those kinds of prayers. Because He cares very much about how we get along with others on this planet. Let Him give you someone you least expect. And just watch what happens to your heart. You may have been commissioned by God to be His ambassador, but He cares as much about your heart as he does anyone else’s. And ours can become hardened. Without us noticing!

In America we have more freedom and privilege than most of the world. Many Christians on this earth know nothing of an environment or government that has affirmed their beliefs. Rather they have had to stand strong in utter darkness at risk of their own lives. We may soon share their experiences in America. We need to prepare for that day to be sure. Perhaps God is preparing you right now. In a world where communication is moment by moment He might be asking you to respond to the Scripture about not complaining and arguing anymore and challenging you to love people. The way Jesus asks us all to love. One person at a time. Who knows? That person might be on the social media you are going to be on today. Do you have an encouraging comment for an “enemy?” Watch out! One day that person might become a friend.

Mark Phelps

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