Saturday, May 27, 2017

Making America Good Again: Never Forget

Monday is Memorial Day.  It is a day for Americans to remember all of the heroes who gave their lives in the service of our country.  It was around the time of the Civil War that people on both sides of that awful conflict, mostly women, made a special effort to decorate the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers, even if they were the enemy.  That is why this national holiday was originally called Decoration Day.

There is something about placing flowers on a grave that spurs our memories.  My husband and I regularly visit the places where family members are buried and remember them.  The ritual is important to us.  We all want to be be remembered and remembering is part of the responsibility of the living.

God gave us the gift of memory.  God told Moses to remember His commandments and teach them to the children.  God also made a special point of having the nation of Israel remember important parts of their history, like when they escaped from slavery in Egypt. In keeping with this Passover tradition, Jesus told his followers to remember His last meal with them.  In more recent times, the phrase "Never Forget" is used to remind us of the horrors of the Holocaust and to not allow them to be repeated.   Remembering our history, even when we didn't know the people involved, is important.

So this Memorial Day, I would like to encourage you to reclaim the tradition of Decoration Day.  Find in your community or local cemetery a memorial to the men and women who lost their lives creating or preserving the liberty we hold so dear - and decorate it.  Take a flag or a flower.  Spend a moment thinking about their sacrifice and your benefit.  Be grateful.  Be humble.

I live in a town called Bradenton in Florida.  Within walking distance of my home there is a memorial to the veterans of World War I at the city pier.  The plaque reads:  "Memorial Pier Dedicated to World War Veterans 1930."   Please notice, they didn't expect World War II.   There are memorials to all Veterans and the Confederacy at the County Courthouse.  There are memorials for those lost their lives in all wars, including Vietnam, Korea and World War II at the Veterans Park near the hospital which itself was originally named the Manatee Veterans Memorial Hospital.  The hospital was built in 1953 and on the back of a picture postcard of it, it says:  "A Memorial to Manatee County Veterans of all Wars. Contributed by the public of Manatee County."  There is nothing yet in our community for the fallen in the Gulf War or the ongoing wars on terrorism.  Perhaps someday, but we should still never forget.

Since this part of Florida wasn't really settled until the mid-1800s, there aren't graves of those who died in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars or the Mexican American War but your community might have some.  Think about all of the wars Americans have fought in since our founding.  If you don't remember (or were never taught!)  what they are, here is a list with the numbers of dead and wounded from the Department of Veterans Affairs:

So this Memorial Day, spend some time remembering.  Read through the list of America's Wars and rather than think not about the numbers, think about the soldiers themselves and what they went through.  Think of them as citizens, like you, fighting for their country.  Think of them as  husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who laid down their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  Decorate the graves and memorials of those who have died to keep us free.  Find some way this Memorial Day to remember, really remember, those men and women who died for you.
Let's Make America Good Again by not forgetting our past.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Open Letter to Rev. Olsen about Christian Persecution in America

A family member recent shared an open letter written to Franklin Graham from a Lutheran pastor, Rev. Peter Olsen.  Here is his letter, followed by my response:

Dear Rev. Olsen,

A family member of mine shared your letter on her Facebook page and, being a supporter of Rev. Graham and a pastor myself, I was interested in what you had to say.

Interested - and then saddened - by how you misrepresented him and President Trump.  I was reminded of Jesus' lesson about taking the log out of your own eye before helping someone else take a speck out of their own.  I admit that I often do the same thing and am trying to be intentional in these divisive times to be very aware of my own presuppositions before I speak or put pen to paper, well, fingers to keyboard.  With that in mind, I would like to share my perspective on the persecution of Christians in our country.

You are quite correct that Christians are not being physically persecuted in America like they have been throughout the Middle East and other parts of the world.   Rev. Graham is intimately aware of those dangers through the work of Samaritan's Purse.  Recently, that organization set up a hospital outside Mosul, Iraq. I've been supporting them, other than Christmas Shoe Boxes, since 2014 when they stepped in to help the Yazidi's being murdered by ISIS.   They are on the ground in that region with a front row seat to the persecution of Christians, Muslims and others.  He knows what religious persecution looks like.

So when Franklin Graham talks about the loss of religious freedom in the United States, perhaps we should pay attention and not dismiss him out of hand.   You say in your open letter to him:

 "Of all the things that worry me, the loss of religious freedom for Christians in America isn't one of them. I can't say I have ever experienced anything in this country that could reasonably called a restriction on my religious liberty, much less persecution."

I respectfully suggest that you consider taking the log out of your own eye and look around. The restrictions are there, and I am concerned, like the frog in the pot of boiling water, you just don't sense the change in temperature.

The Founders of America acknowledged that governments are created by God to protect the rights and liberties God has given to humanity.   God is the lynchpin that holds our American experiment together.  The founders did not want a theocracy or even a state sponsored church, but they did not want to abandon God in the process.  Our system of government, John Adams wrote, is dependent upon a moral and religious people.  God would rule, but through the hearts and minds of citizens who controlled the power of government through their votes and participation.

To have a moral society, there must be moral citizens.  Morality, to be binding and consistent, needs to be based in God, not the whims of people.  As America slowly abandons God and increasingly seeks to determine what is good and evil apart from our Creator, we have repeated the sin of Adam and Eve.  You know, all that stuff about wanting to be like God.  

For most of America's history, the majority of the citizens agreed on moral precepts of their Judeo-Christian faith.   Discerning God's will can be a messy business.  Sometimes America got it right, sometimes we got it wrong, and sometimes, like now, it seems that we are increasingly ignoring God altogether.

Why are we ignoring God?  Over the past fifty years or more, there has been a concerted effort on the part of some (call them secularists, progressives, Marxists, or whatever) to steadily marginalize Christians and Christianity.  As a result many have abandoned the faith and many more have not come to faith in the first place.  Our culture is reaping the result of abandoning God as central to American life.

Many of today's Christians faithfully fight daily battles to live out their faith and restore faith in God to our nation.  They feel the heat.   These are the "persecuted" people Rev. Graham was talking about.

Within academia and the political classes there has been an ongoing effort, mostly through the rewriting of American history, to uncouple the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution.  The mantra of "separation of church and state" and a "godless Constitution" have been repeated so often that folks believe them to be true.  But when Jefferson told the Danbury Baptists that there would be a "wall of separation between Church & State" he was addressing their concern that the government might meddle in church affairs.  He assured them the government would leave the churches alone.  Today's interpretation that the church should not unduly influence the government turns Jefferson's words on their head.  The church, and the moral teachings thereof, are essential  for our form of government to work.

As for our "godless constitution," the principle that "All men are created equal" loses its power  when you take away the reality that it is God who created us equal; people didn't just decide that one day.  If we decide we are equal today, we can just as easily decide we aren't all equal tomorrow.  It is God who gives us rights  - like that "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" stuff.  And God designed that these rights are to be protected by governments.   It is God our "Creator" who has provided us with the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God. "  It is God who as the "Supreme Judge of the Universe," holds us accountable to those laws, and who, in his love and mercy wants us to rely on His "Divine Providence."  Those are all the ways God is described in the Declaration of Independence, by the way.   We do not have a "godless" constitution, we have a God-infused Constitution.    To deny the bond between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is to deny God's involvement in our political lives.  Isn't that a restriction on Christianity?

The courts have removed The Ten Commandments from view as a "religious" document rather than celebrating it as the best moral code humanity has ever known.  Speaking of the courts,  why are they making decisions about so many issues, like abortion and same sex marriage,  that rightly should be put before our legislatures or in some cases the people themselves.  I would vote based on my understanding of Christian teaching.  Your vote would count too.  Then I would live with the result, but I resent the courts' intervention in these matters. Christians, and all citizens, are being prohibited from having a voice on changes in our laws that impact deeply held convictions.  Isn't that a restriction on Christianity?

Let's think a minute then about the bakers who lost their business. You mentioned the importance of following the law and I agree. But they reached a point where the law violated their understanding of the sanctity of marriage and choose not to participate in a same sex marriage.  They wouldn't cross that line.  Where is the line for you?  Would you perform a marriage for two people of the same sex?  Would you insist that I do?  Under what circumstances would you participate in civil disobedience in order to follow God?  Sadly to say, as laws and regulations in America become increasingly less dependent upon Biblical principles, more Christians will be forced into civil disobedience.  In a nation based on Christianity, why are we people of faith having to decide between right and the law?  Shouldn't we work hard to see that our laws are right and just in God's eyes?   Isn't this a restriction on Christianity?

Our education system fails to reinforce Christian values and virtues taught at home and in churches.  Prayer and the Bible are no longer permitted in public schools, although they were the basis of public education for the first 150 years of our constitutional republic.  How does a Christian raise their children if the schools won't even acknowledge there is a God, let alone that a significant part of human nature is our spirituality?  We are more than the sum of our cells, are we not?   Isn't the outright denial of a Creator in the education of our children a restriction on Christianity?

In popular culture and political punditry, Christians are sometimes demonized, but most often ridiculed and bullied.   TV shows and movies rarely if ever show Christians in a positive light.  Those that do are often cancelled.  And as you know, many Christians are lights whose example would benefit the world.

Again and again I read and hear folks like me - conservative Christians -  referred to as "xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted and misogynist."  It has almost become a catch-all among the main stream media to describe a person of faith.  Often it is expanded to include the "angry, fearful" descriptor you added for Rev. Graham.  Criticizing sincere Christians who don't have a hateful bone in their body is just another way to marginalize and silence people of faith.

For the record,  I am not xenophobic because I love America;  I welcome immigrants who will follow our laws;   I am not homophobic because I believe God designed marriage for men and women;  I am not a bigot because I believe all lives matter; and I am not a misogynist because I believe God created men and women to be different and equal.   All of us are God's children.  All of us are due dignity and respect.  All of us are sinners in need of His grace.  All of us will be held accountable by God for what we do and say.

Following God's will is a whole lot easier if we struggle to discern it together but how can we do that if we are discouraged - and sometimes prevented  - from talking to each other.  It is hard to speak up for your faith when you see people who think like you regularly ridiculed. Making fun of Christians is almost a new sport.  Sadly, it has  chilling effect on the free speech we also hold so dear.  Isn't that a restriction on Christianity?

Now, a bit closer to home.  Do the members of your congregation feel free to express their faith at work or school?  Or have they been shunned or disciplined for having a Bible on their desk, a quote from Scripture on their iPad, or inviting someone to church or on a mission trip?  Have they bought the lie that faith is a private matter, not to be shared in public.  I think Jesus' command to go and make disciples is very hard to do if you can't tell folks about Him.  Do they feel that their Christianity is restricted?

What about you, have you ever been asked to pray at a public event, but been told to keep your prayer generic so as to not offend anyone?  I, too am a Christian pastor (United Methodist), and I pray in the name of Jesus when asked to pray at public events.  I would expect others to pray in their traditions as well. To not pray in Jesus' name would make me feel like I am some how ashamed of Jesus.  And I'm not!  I am not ashamed of the cross, and no pastor in America should be put in that position.  That is a restriction on Christianity.

So while American Christians are not being physically persecuted like our brothers and sisters around the world, there are many in our country who are, and have been, working hard at eroding the soul of Christianity in our nation.   All levels of government, schools,  and popular culture seem hell-bent on denying God in any way that can.  The persecution of Christians in America is spiritual - but no less deadly.  The churches seem to be doing little to fight back.

Even though you say you haven't experienced it, I think you have. Can you see, perhaps a bit, how and why some Christians in America are feeling ridiculed, marginalized and persecuted?  We believe that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and as the strength of those principles diminishes in public life, so will the strength of America.  We are in a fight for the soul of America.  I hope you can see it now, and will join us.

I'll be writing you another letter soon to respond to other issues you raise in your letter to Rev. Graham. In the meantime,  may God continue to bless your life and ministry.

And by the way, you mentioned pastors doing funerals for people whose conduct we don't "approve of."  I'm not sure exactly what you meant by that, but if you mean how difficult it is to do funerals for some folks,  I know it can be a struggle.   Here is a bit of pastoral advice.  I once had a parishioner tell me that she hated going to funerals because pastors always lie and never tell the truth about the life the deceased had led.  So you know what,  I quit trying to sugar coat the lives of those I buried.   I do the funeral, give an honest (although sensitively worded) account of their lives, and entrust them to the mercy of Jesus.  Powerful stuff.  Trust me, those who mourn do appreciate it.

Rev. Susan Schrier Clouse

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Making America Good Again: Grateful for Mom

Today is a day to tell your Mom you are grateful for her.  No one likes being taken for granted!   See her if you can, call her if you can't visit - and remember her if she has passed on.

In honor of Mother's Day, here is a poem from the Bible's Book of Proverbs (31:10-31).  This was written about 1000 BC.  Then, as now, women are wives, mothers, businesswomen, homemakers, helpers of the poor and needy, and lovers of God. Then, as now, women are virtuous, capable, trustworthy, frugal, energetic, strong, hardworking, productive, prepared, dignified, generous, wise, kind, and faithful.  These are the ways women show love to their children, husbands, communities and Heavenly Father.  My Mother taught me all these things, and I hope yours did too.  May the next generation pass them on.

A Wife of Noble Character

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?
She is more precious than rubies.
Her husband can trust her,
and she will greatly enrich his life.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
She finds wool and flax
and busily spins it.
She is like a merchant’s ship,
bringing her food from afar.
She gets up before dawn to prepare breakfast for her household
and plan the day’s work for her servant girls.
She goes to inspect a field and buys it;
with her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She is energetic and strong,
a hard worker.
She makes sure her dealings are profitable;
her lamp burns late into the night.
Her hands are busy spinning thread,
her fingers twisting fiber.
She extends a helping hand to the poor
and opens her arms to the needy.
She has no fear of winter for her household,
for everyone has warm clothes.
She makes her own bedspreads.
She dresses in fine linen and purple gowns.
Her husband is well known at the city gates,
where he sits with the other civic leaders.
She makes belted linen garments
and sashes to sell to the merchants.
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future.
When she speaks, her words are wise,
and she gives instructions with kindness.
She carefully watches everything in her household
and suffers nothing from laziness.
Her children stand and bless her.
Her husband praises her:
“There are many virtuous and capable women in the world,
but you surpass them all!”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last;
but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised.
Reward her for all she has done.
Let her deeds publicly declare her praise.

Happy Mother's Day!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Making America Good Again: What a Wonderful World

He made the earth by his power;  he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. -- Jeremiah 51:15
They say the devil is in the details, but right now I'm feeling overwhelmed with details - details on healthcare, details on the federal budget, details on immigration, etc., etc. No one seems to be sharing the whole truth, and some folks seem to be lying outright;  I need a break before I dive back in and try to figure out what's best.

Sometimes we all need to step back and try to get a broader perspective on things. That broader perspective came to me in watching the very first Disneynature movie:  Earth.  What an amazing planet we live on!

This movie brought the lives and struggles of polar bears, whales and elephants up close.  I was amazed that these animals could go weeks and months without food.  I struggle to get from breakfast to lunch!  We humans are a wimpy bunch.  I was entertained by watching baby bears and ducks at their antics.  The mating rituals of the birds in New Guinea were hilarious. I was enthralled by the struggles of the cranes flying over the Himalayas.  Watching wolves hunt a baby caribou and lions attack an elephant was was both horrifying and humbling.  Disney brought the circle of life into my living room.

But I didn't need a movie, I only needed to walk out my front door.   I am blessed to live on the Manatee River just south of Tampa Bay.  On any given day, I see hawks, pelicans and egrets stalk their prey and come up with a fish.  I have recently felt a bit like a voyeur as I watched seagulls and mockingbirds at their mating rituals.  The ducks are now pairing up and we will see baby ducks soon.  Some days, I can see dolphins leisurely breaking through the surface as they travel up and down the river.  Manatees and sting rays have floated along our seawall.  "And I think to myself, it's a wonderful world,"  just like the song says.

Step outside today and look, really look, at nature around you.  How can you not be awed and overwhelmed by what you see?

The original version of that saying about the devil being in the details is "God is in the detail."   While the Disney movie didn't mention it at all, it is God who created all these animals, their instincts and the habitats they live in.  He crafted the details of their lives.  Surely He has a plan for human beings too.

Jesus put it this way:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
 And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34)
Let's stop focusing on the devil in the details, which is what causes us all this worry.   Let's get to work looking for God.  

It is God's plan we should seek, not only in the details of health care, budgets, immigration but in all aspects of our lives together.  When tomorrow comes, don't worry about the problems you face, look to God for guidance.  Maybe then we'll stop tearing each other down with half-truths and outright lies and work together to discover the Truth.

There are ways to fix the challenges we face, but only if we humbly, honestly and deeply look to our Creator.  We can Make America Good Again by striving to live according to God's loving and perfect plans for us.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Making America Good Again: Pray!

May 4th is more than "May the Force Be With You Day," it is also The National Day of Prayer.  While presidents calling on Americans to fast and pray has been a part of American history since the beginning, since 1952, it has been the law of the land that:

"The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."  (36 U.S.C. § 119)[1]

So, pray tomorrow.  Pray even if it is not something you normally do, or your prayers are limited to the "OMG" or "Jesus Christ!" variety.  Take some time and think about what you would like to talk to God about. If you don't read this until after Thursday, that's OK.  Pray when you can.

Prayer is simply having a conversation with God, the Creator of the Universe and the Lover of your soul.  Prayer is not just us talking, but it also is us listening.  God answers prayers - sometimes with a "yes", sometimes with a "no", and sometimes with a "be patient."  I have experienced all three, and then some.

If you aren't sure what to say, you are not too unlike Jesus' first disciples who asked Him for some guidance.  Jesus gave them some advice about how to pray.  This is from Luke 11:1-13, New Living Translation:

11:1 Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 Jesus said, “This is how you should pray:

“Father, may your name be kept holy.
  May your Kingdom come soon.
3 Give us each day the food we need,
4 and forgive us our sins,    as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”

5 Then, teaching them more about prayer, he used this story: “Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, 6 ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ 7 And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ 8 But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.

9 “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? 12 Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! 13 So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Go ahead and pray.  Your Heavenly Father would love to hear from you.

Prayer will Make America Good Again.