Where is my loyalty? What is my first love?

I have always hated the term "Christian Nationalism."  As I see it, there is nothing Christian about nationalism, which is defined as "identification with one's own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations."  Let me explain.

Nationalism reinforces the idea of "me first."  How can I, as a follower of Christ, hold to that belief when Scripture tells me clearly: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." (Phil. 2:3-4) How can I say "America first" in the same break as I say "Jesus first?"

I strongly believe in patriotism, which is "devotion to and vigorous support for one's country."  I see this exercised by the respect the Guatemalan people have for their flag, their national anthem, and their history and tradition.  And the contrast I see between the nationalism of the US and its lack of patriotism is striking.

Are the values of the US the values that we find in the Bible? Not the theoretical values of the Constitution, but the day to day values seen in the way of life of the US.

If you are not a Christ-follower, this doesn't matter.  You are free to believe and act as you want.  If, however, I claim to follow Jesus, I am mandated to think with the mind of Christ, not my own wisdom.  Too often, God's way of thinking and acting does not make sense to me, but that is what I am commanded to do.  

When I say, "I surrender all,"  what do I mean?

Do I include my identity as a citizen of the US?  Remember, surrender does not mean renouncing, only submitting something to the will of God.

What is my first and primary identity?  That of an "American"? Or that of a Christ-follower?  I fear too many of us have forgotten or forsaken our primary identity as Christ-followers to be seen as good "Americans."  

When I surrender all, do I surrender my security and my life-style for the good of others?  Am I willing to surrender some of my comfort so others can live with minimal safety and have access to minimal resources to meet their needs? Do I worry more about my future than about the present struggle of those who are lacking the basic necessities of life today?  Do I think more about the monetary inheritance I will leave my children, than the spiritual legacy I will leave behind?

These are hard questions. But life in another country has forced me to face these in my own life.  Please don't say that I have the "luxury" of doing this because I live outside of the US.  My ability to serve is dependent on the fact that I come from the US and benefit from the prosperity of my homeland.  But my ability to survive on the mission field is not based on the economic security I receive from the US, but my daily ability to survive is based on the fact that I follow Christ, oftentimes into places I don't want to go.

Some of these "dilemmas" are simple.  Is it my American guilt or the conviction of the Holy Spirit when I pay $4 for a latte, and yet pass by women on the street with white flags indicating they have no food for their families?  Do I need my coffee more than they need my $4?  

Other dilemmas are more difficult.  How do I respond long term to the 23 year old, polite and respectful young man who is living on the streets and comes to my home every few days, asking for "pan" (bread)?  Do I give him bread with refried beans and feel I've done enough?  Or do I offer him a hot meal on my doorstep, and sit with him while he eats it?  Do I try to help him with the impossible task of finding work when he only has a 3rd grade education, or do I help him complete 6th grade, where he might have a chance of finding a job which will provide enough for him to rent a room?  

What is my responsibility to this man, who I believe Jesus has brought to my door, when he falls outside of my "scope of ministry," but more importantly, outside of my comfort zone?  I'm still trying to figure that out. 

Please pray for me that I am open to God's guidance in responding to this and the myriad of needs I face each day.  It's far too easy to say "Reason to Hope first" and ignore those God brings into my life who don't fit in to "what I am called to do."



If I've learned anything. . .

 People often ask me what it is like to live on the mission field. I have never known how to respond until today. It is HUMBLING. I have learned how little I understood about myself, the world, and God. Today in my quiet time God put together some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for a while. I am sharing them with my friends not our to condemnation but confession. This is what I have learned, and to not share it with you would be selfish. So here goes. .

Living in Guatemala, I often reflect on the role of culture in shaping my beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, and actions. The longer I am here, the less I am shaped by the culture of the United States, and the more I am shaped by the culture of Latin American, especially the culture of poverty. Yet, I am neither fully “American” (though it is my passport country) nor am I Guatemalan.
Yes, I and grateful to the United States and all the opportunities it has provided me. But I love Guatemala for the way it has opened my eyes to how those same opportunities have blinded me—to the fact that we in the US are not more deserving or superior than those of other nations and that success and material gain have become our idols (how much of the success of a government is measured by the state of the economy, and how much is measured by how Jesus, in the form of the “least of these” is treated?). I learned about Manifest Destiny in school, but never saw it in action until I lived outside of the US. Too many of us think that the United States is now God’s chosen nation.
A nation, including Israel, was not chosen because it was superior to other nations, but chosen because God had a specific purpose for it to fulfill—the coming of the Messiah. If in any way you believe that the US is chosen by God, favored above other nations, stop and ask yourself what God’s purpose for the US might be, and whether or not it is fulfilling it.
We say we “were/are” a Christian country because the nation was founded on Christian principles. I don’t argue that for a minute. But that is Law, Old Testament do what is right in action. But did the US even have a change of heart and turn to live, not on Christian principles and traditions, but on the desire to truly follow God? That I don’t see so much.
We ask God to bless our desires and efforts, and tell him what he should do rather than ask what we should do. The reaction to the last election by many who follow Christ has shown me just how far we have to go. God permitted the new administration to be elected. Stolen or won honestly, he permitted it—just as he permitted Assyrian and Babylonia to conquer Israel. The challenge now is to live as Christ-followers no matter who is in office, or what restrictions may come. That is the history of Christianity in most of history and the world.
So maybe, instead of complaining about it, we need to stop and ask God “WHY?” Not with self- pity, but with a real desire to understand what he is doing in the world today. I don't think it is clear at all--but he can give us clarity if we seek it. As Blackerby teaches--look at what God is doing and then ask him how he would have us join in.
I love the United States. I am proud of the fact that both my father and my son have served as Marines in defending liberty. But I love the world, too. I see just how insulated I was to the suffering of the world, even though I often chose to work in areas of poverty in the US. It is possible to love the country of your birth and still love the world. The kingdom of God goes far beyond the borders of the United States, and I long most to be a good citizen of that kingdom.

In the world but not of the world--HOW?

 


We are told to “be in the world but not of the world.”  True, some are called to withdraw from society to be able to live a life totally dedicated to God.  For most of us, though, the call is to stay in our same communities, jobs, social and political activities and live a life totally dedicated to God in these “worldly” places.  To reveal the presence of Jesus into places where he might not otherwise be recognized. 

 

Though I live on the “mission field,” the truth is that for what most people is “the ends of the earth” has become my “Jerusalem”--my ordinary life, my regular neighborhood.  So, while being a missionary might sound exotic or even romantic, and my “world” might look very different from what it was in the past, the challenge remains the same.  To live in this world but not be attached to it.

 

I have tried many ways to do this, some more successful than others.  Today I realized there is a simple answer:  to “seek first the kingdom of God” and trust him to take care of everything else. To be transformed by the RENEWING of my mind by God's Word and his Spirit. To realize I don't have it all together, and don't have all the answers, and continually (renewing is an active verb) be looking to him to enlighten me--open the eyes of my heart to the truth.


This leads me to live life from a different paradigm—one in which everything is measured by it’s “eternal merit”(a lesson taught to me by one of my favorite pastors). Where every action s evaluated by it's ability to further the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is a life viewed, through a different lens in which everything is filtered through the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Love.

 

True, God is much more than just love—he is justice and truth.  Too often I try to step in for God and exercise his justice for him, or make others believe the truth as I see it.  (God is absolute truth.  I am aware, though, how often my understanding of His truth is flawed.) I speak boldly and with conviction,  but I do so far outside of the Spirit of Love.  Often it is from fear, frustration or even anger, being disgusted with the way things are going or what others are doing.  

 

Any time, however, I step out of love in speaking the truth, I am of the world.  Any time I try to exercise God’s justice for him (he can do it very well himself, thank you) and take matters into my own hands to try to make people do what I believe is righteous, I am of the world.  Just like Eve in the garden, or Abraham with Hagar, I am telling God that he is not enough, doing enough, or doing it fast enough.

 

This does not mean I adopt a passive stance toward life.  I am still involved in the world—I am in the world.  I show up, am present, in the social, moral, political and familial events of the world.  I am involved in the culture and society in which I live, trying to reveal Jesus’ presence, often in the most difficult and ugly places.  But I am detached from the outcome.  I leave this in the hands of my Father, who does not call me to be successful, but only to be faithful (Thomas Merton).

 

God is present in each moment of our lives, even the most sinful and most difficult.  The problem is that we often fail to recognize him, and seldom respond in a way which acknowledges his presence.  I want to change this in my life.  I will seek first the Kingdom of God, live as a resident of this kingdom, and leave the rest to Him.

 

 

 

 

 

Vultures or eagles

 Vultures or Eagles


For weeks I’ve been watching the birds circling over the mountains as I pray each morning.  They have made me want to soar like eagles.  They reminded me of eagles.

Today, as I sat watching them fly in circles, in organized groups, I came to a horrible realization.  I don’t know if we have eagles in Guatemala, but even if we do, I don’t think they fly in groups, even if the do fly in circles (I really do not know much about eagles).  I was struck between the eyes with the reality of what I was seeing.

Given what I know about Guatemala, the birds that I had been so romantically watching and longing to be like were most probably vultures!  Why had I not known this earlier?

My frame of reference growing up in the Chicago was to look for eagles.  If they were in Chicago, I never saw one, but they were our national bird.  Even the Bible tells us we can soar as on wings of eagles.  My experience had taught me, “See a big bird, think of an eagle.”

Vultures were totally foreign to my life prior to Guatemala.  I remember the first time I saw a flock of vultures scavenging a trash heap on the way to Santa Maria.  I was scared and revolted at the same time.  I actually felt nauseous , though could not bring myself to look away.  Their was something fascinating about these awful creatures.  (I’m sure they do fill some plan in God’s creation, but in my limited experience, they indicated death.  Thank you to the westerns I had watched with my Dad on TV as I was growing up.)

What this experience has taught me is how easily my past experiences and the culture in which I grew up color how I interpret what I see and hear.  It’s almost automatic, and surely was unconscious in this case. I believe this is where prejudices come from.  Our prior experiences cause us to try to construct meaning out of what we see and hear, but we are limited in our ability to interpret the facts correctly because we have only the lens of our personal past through which to view them.

How often do I think something is good and beautiful, only to find out on closer inspection it is ugly and dangerous.  Isn't this what sin is like?

From our human experience and our physical appetites, something can look beautiful and appealing.  Because we are drawn to it, we pursue this desire, thinking we are heading to our best.  Only too late do we realize that what we are seeking is a predator, seeking only to pick over our bones.

This is where God’s commands are designed to protect us.  Because of his perspective which is so much higher and clearer than ours, he can distinguish the vultures from the eagles before we are able to.  He gives us law to put a barrier between us and the vultures, and asks us to trust him not to go closer.

And we must decide.  Will we trust and obey his greater and grander frame of reference to lead us, or will we rely on our own puny perspective to guide us?  The choice is ours.

I pray I am humble enough to make the right one.

What does it mean to be blessed?

I am often saying to people, "God bless you" or "have a blessed New Year."  Today God has led me to reflect on what I mean by this, as well as how those I say it to might interpret it.

In Western society we have distorted the meaning of being bless as having good fortune, getting what we desire, or living in comfort.  We are so accustomed to wealth and a life of relative ease (in comparison to most of the world) that we have developed an incredibly low tolerance for pain and even inconvenience.  

Few of us feel blessed in 2020 due to the inconvenience and uncertainty imposed on us by the Covid pandemic.  Our lives as we have known and liked them have drastically changed.  We find ourselves frustrated, fearful and filled with discontent.  Yet, for some of us, 2020 has been a year of great blessing and we have learned to be quiet, be alone with God, and begin to understand what it means to live with God's favor.

I have learned this distinction living in a country of extreme poverty, among people who have very little in the way of material possessions, comfort, or convenience, yet believe themselves (correctly) to be greatly blessed by God.  It is this Biblical blessing I wish for you this coming year.

In searching for the meaning of being blessed, I first, of course, look to Scripture.  The passage in the Bible where the word "blessed" is used most frequently is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus himself tells us what it means to be blessed.  Careful examinations of this Scripture shows me just how much I have distorted the meaning of being blessed, exchanging it for temporal comforts and pleasures, and forsaking the offer of those things which last for eternity.

Seldom to I wish for others to be "poor in spirit," "persecuted for the sake of righteousness," "mourn," or live as one who is "meek." But these are who, along with the merciful, those who long for justice and peace, and remain pure of heart in a world of darkness, are those who are called "Blessed" by Jesus.  (Matt. 5: 3-10). 

He goes on to say, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." (Matt. 5:11)   How can I wish these things for those I love and care for?  But isn't this exactly what Jesus is saying we should see to be and desire to have present in our lives? 

How can any of these things make me "happy" (a word often used to demonstrate the meaning of blessed)?  

Don't we often used the word "blessed" to refer to those good things in life which we do not deserve,  and identifying these things as signs of God's love for us?  The problem with this is that the things of the "good life" can make us self-sufficient and proud, depending on ourselves while giving lip-service to the provision of God in our lives.  The more I have in terms of material possessions, the more I seem to "need" just a "little bit more."  

Can God give us good gifts materially?  Of course.  He gives us these things, though, as a means of serving Him.  We are blessed so we can bless others, not accumulate more for ourselves.  This was the challenge Jesus posed to the rich young ruler in the Gospel (Matt. 19:21).  It would seem that his possessions are precisely what kept him from following Jesus.  This too can happen to us when we are comfortable and secure in our lives in this world.  Perhaps this is why Jesus spends so much time in the Beatitudes to teach us what it means to be blessed spiritually, and eternally.

Blessed does not mean we will be comfortable, or secure.  Rather, Jesus promises us that if we embrace the life style He identifies in the Sermon on the Mount that we all be shown mercy, comforted, and filled with good things.  We will inherit not only the earth but the kingdom of God, and be privileged to be call children of God.  We will become holy, and more like Him.

This, then, is what I wish for you.  To be blessed with all the blessings promised by Jesus, and experience the satisfaction of growing closer to Him daily.  This can be done, regardless of our circumstances, if we set our heart of the things of God.  

May you be blessed and be a blessing to others.