The Exchange Rate for Caesar’s Coin

Border Field fence

View of the fence from Border Field State Park, San Diego. Notice the bull fighting arena and lighthouse on the Tijuana side. Also note the imposing fence, white border patrol vehicle, and camera tower guarding the U. S. side.

“Therefore give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” (Matthew 22:21).

I’m back in my office after a week in the beautiful San Diego/Tijuana area.  Our group spent the better part of the week on the Mexico side of the border, learning about the complexities and frustrations of U. S. immigration policy from a Mexican perspective.  We were deeply impacted by many, many stories of hardship.  This past Saturday, however, we came back across the border and visited Border Field State Park, where we had the unique experience of staring at the border fence right across from the Tijuana beach where we enjoyed tacos the night before.

Much to our surprise, we encountered a very friendly, well prepared, and available Border Patrol officer standing right along the fence who explained the details and challenges of his job.  There is no doubt that many people who cross the border merely want to make a living and escape the dire poverty and hopelessness that face them in Mexico.  However, the Border Patrol officer drove home to us that the Mexican Cartels regularly attempt to run drugs, human trafficking, and organ harvesters into the states.  It is not uncommon to catch them attempting to scale the double fence that protects our borders or even cutting through it.  And no, I don’t want to wake up in some seedy hotel missing a kidney.  Though immigration has a very human side, it also has a very dangerous side, and I am grateful for the service of men and women who keep crime and exploitation from crossing the border.  The Southern Baptist Convention’s 2011 resolution on immigration provides a very nice starting point as we think about how to resolve this dilemma.  As nice as it would be to revert back to the better days of 100 years ago, when there was no fence at all and one could literally walk over to the Tijuana side and get a taco (yes, they are that good), those days are gone.  While we need to treat human beings who have been created in the image of God humanely, we also need to protect our country.  We have enough problems on the inside to deal with.

But how do we reconcile these tensions on a personal level?  Take our border patrol agent as a frontline example.  If many of the individuals crossing illegally have nothing more than very real human needs, how can anyone justify sending them back to such hardship?  As the border patrol agent stated very clearly, he has a law to uphold.  It is not his job to decide whether or not to execute it.   Jesus explained that certain things most certainly belong to Caesar—to the government.  The Apostle Paul illuminated this when he argued that the government is given the sword, the authority to execute laws (Romans 13).  Our nation, and every nation, has the right to create and execute laws that will protect and promote the well being of its citizens.  And men and women like our border patrol agent must carry them out.

Still the authority of our nation only carries so far.  Peter and the rest of the apostles made this point to the Jewish religious leaders who commanded them to speak in the name of Jesus no longer: “We must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29).  As followers of Jesus, we need to recognize the importance of order in society and the right of the government to enforce it.  Sin wrecks havoc on all humans and human institutions.  By the grace of God, governments create some order to restrain the effects of sin.  (And some governments do a better job than others).  However, we are followers of Jesus, and his commands carry us further.  He commands us to speak the good news and to love.  We cannot let fear and uncertainty prevent us from loving people in Jesus’ name.  No matter how you feel about the current immigration policy, you cannot shirk your duty to love your neighbor, whether they are U. S. citizens, have their green card, or have entered the country illegally.

Many people in the news paint a harsh picture of those entering the country illegally.  Others sharply criticize those attempting to uphold the law.  Christians must look past the rhetoric and remember that while Caesar can mint coins, and has every right to do so, his coins cannot be spent in God’s Kingdom.  There is no exchange rate for Caesar’s coin here.  Do not neglect to love people in Jesus’ name, no matter what the newscasters say about them.

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Riding the Beast

"The Beast"“But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Phi 3:20).

During our trip to Tijuana, we have spent the majority of our time at Casa del Migrante, a Catholic mission to migrants.  In years past, the majority of their ministry was to migrants traveling north to find work in the United States.  Today, since the U. S. has deported 400,000 undocumented workers over the last few years, the vast majority of their visitors are recent deportees.  In fact, each night of our trip I sat across the dinner table and talked with men who had been dropped off across the border the previous night.  Many of them had been in the U. S. for several decades.  Most of them had wives and children somewhere in the States.  All of them were newly arrived in Mexico with only the belongings on their body—and they have no chance to return to their wives or children legally. 

One man, Jaime, was planning to hike across the mountains, risking a very dangerous journey, in order to get back.  Approximately ten people die every day trying to make this same journey, and yet Jaime would not give it a second thought.  Why would he do such a thing?  As I said goodbye to him at the end of dinner, I did so knowing that he might be dead in two or three days.  It is hard to relate to such a life or fully appreciate the choices he faced.  But many people feel the same pressures.

The picture above depicts men from Guatemala riding “The Beast.”  Guatemalans live in such abject poverty that even Mexico seems like a land of opportunity compared to their home.  So they get out the only way they can.  They ride on top of a freight train into Mexico—by the hundreds, as you can see.  One man we met at the Casa had fallen off “The Beast,” lost his leg, spent all of his money obtaining a prosthetic, and had it stolen when he got back on The Beast to complete his journey.  When we met him he was on crutches and broke.  These men are obviously convinced that a land of opportunity awaits them if they are willing to take on such risks. 

If you watch the news, you will hear no shortage of opinions about how the immigration problem should be solved.  I can’t pretend to have a solution to the complex political problems involved in our nation’s immigration laws.  However, I would remind you that the men and women who risk life and limb in order to cross borders are human beings with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us.  As Christians, we cannot all solve the public policy problems, but all of us can care about fellow human beings who are trying to make a better life for themselves.  I can’t imagine having to navigate the choices they have to navigate.  But I do know what the church must do.  We must love them.  We must also remind them that the American Dream cannot be the only dream.  The Apostle Paul very memorably instructed us that our citizenship is in heaven.  If we can love them and point them toward a home that cannot be taken away, a home in which they can find a lasting citizenship, then we will impart to them a gift that will last forever. 

 

 

Fuerte

Chicano 1

Mural at Chicano Park (and my fingers)

By Michael Wren

“But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world,” (Galatians 6:14).

Tuesday I visited Chicano Park in San Diego.  The park was created in the early 70s after the interstate was built right through the middle of the neighborhood.  Instead of allowing the city to use the space underneath the overpasses for government offices, the people protested and demanded a public park instead.  They got it, and Chicano Park is definitely a people’s park.  The mural you see (in the really poor photo with my fingers in the way) is part of a massive mural telling the history of these people, and only one of many murals throughout the park, most of them painted on the side of the cement columns supporting the overpass.

If you look closely at the picture, you might discern a cross on the far left suspended above a Spanish galleon.  Notice also the conquistador skeleton on the right.  Our tour guide, an Hispanic pastor of a Lutheran church, pointed out to us that the cross, to many Hispanics, is not a symbol of hope.  It is rather a symbol of death and conquest.  European people came in the name of Jesus and demanded that the native population convert or die!  To this day, the cross remains something of a negative symbol to many.  Instead, as you may know, the image that best communicates their faith is that of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Sometime after the conquest of Mexico City, a local farmer claimed to see a vision of the Virgin Mary, who instructed him to build a church building on that site.  She gave him roses, which were not in season, and he put them in the blanked.  When he went to the priest to have the vision verified as authentic, the image of the virgin (who looked very Hispanic) was on the blanket.  This is their symbol of the Christian faith.

And yet Paul saw the cross differently.  The cross really is a symbol of death, especially to ancient Romans.  But Paul still embraced it and claimed that this alone would be his boast.  Through much hard experience Paul had learned a lesson that each of us must master as disciples of Jesus—that if we would gain life, we must lose it.  As long as we boast of our own power and strength, we have no hope.  However, Jesus endured pain and death for our sakes, and here there is hope!  You see, the cross is both the symbol of death and hope—death and hope that are rooted in Jesus alone.

This means, of course, that the life of a disciple will be a life of death and hope as well.  We die to our wants and desires, our quest for power or significance, and we live as servants of Jesus.  Jesus said that the greatest among you will be the servant.  This is where we find our strength.   But the cross cannot become an instrument of conquest or a sword of power.  This is where the Spanish conquerors severely misrepresented the gospel.  It is a shame that the gospel is perverted and Jesus misrepresented by those who desire to wield earthly power.

Throughout Chicano Park, the Spanish word, “fuerte” is found in numerous texts.  The word translates as “force.”  The Chicano people, who inhabited San Diego long before it belonged to the United States, are seeking power in order to attain the kind of life many of us take for granted.  Their needs and concerns are real, and we should not overlook their cries.  However, like Paul we must remember that true fuerte is found only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is a force of love, sacrifice, and service.  And if the church exercised that kind of loving force, people like the Chicanos would have a refuge.  If they find refuge in the cross, then they have found freedom and power indeed!

A Study in Contrasts

By Michael Wren

“ He opened a rock, and water gushed out; it flowed like a stream in the desert.  For He remembered His holy promise to Abraham His servant.  He brought His people out with rejoicing, His chosen ones with shouts of joy,” (Psalm 105:41-43).

 As you may know, I have the opportunity to travel across the U. S. border to Tijuana with a group of pastors from Indiana.  The Lilly foundation is sending us this impoverished place to learn about the needs of migrants along the border, the work that is going on among them, and how the church can minister to them.  This trip will be a study in contrasts, and that lesson began on the plane ride to San Diego, from which we will cross the border today. 

After changing planes in Phoenix, we flew over the desolate Arizona landscape.  Nothing grew unless there was water nearby.  Dry stream beds were obvious from above, where runoff would flow on the rare occasion that the desert received rain.  Here, I saw green.  Everywhere else was sand and rock—with the exception of a few farms that thrived because of irrigation.  To the west were mountains.  Clearly the mountains received rain, because a lake had collected at the base of it.  Again, there was life.  But once we crossed the mountain peaks toward Southern California, everything changed.  The mountains and hills were covered with green.  The transition was dramatic and abrupt.  A remarkable contrast. 

Today will bring more contrast.  We spent the night in San Diego in a nice hotel right on the marina and are surrounded by yachts and million dollar homes.  But we are crossing the border today where we will encounter severe poverty, families that have been deported and have nothing, and entire communities built on top of a garbage heap.  We aren’t traveling very far—just across a border—but the difference between the “haves” and the “have nots” is stark.  However, as the Psalmist reminds us, our God is a God who can make streams of water flow in the desert.  He has done it before.  In Him we find abundance, whether we experience it here in this world or not.  Our blessings flow from Him, for without Him we have and can do nothing. 

The prophet Jeremiah instructs us regarding the righteous in Israel, “He took up the case of the poor and needy, then it went well. Is this not what it means to know Me? This is the LORD’s declaration,” (Jeremiah 22:16).  Being a disciple of Jesus entails more than receiving blessing.  According to Jeremiah, it involves dispensing blessing as well.  Sometimes we forget how great the need is until we witness the contrast.

Interceding for Sodom

tallelhammam

Tall el-Hammam, very possibly the ruins of Sodom. Picture found at tallelhammam.com

By Michael Wren

As Abraham camped somewhere near Hebron, he received three visitors representing the Lord.  As their meeting closed, the Lord spoke to the great man of faith, “Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious. I will go down to see if what they have done justifies the cry that has come up to Me. If not, I will find out,” (Genesis 18:20-21).  At this point, as Abraham looked from his high vantage point east across the Jordan at the territory of Sodom, he implored of the Lord, “What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will You really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the 50 righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that! Won’t the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  Abraham undoubtedly knew the reputation of Sodom, but he also believed in the power and justice of God.  He knew what God could and would do to those who are faithless and reprehensible.  However, massive, widespread destruction as a result of divine judgment would bring with it the destruction of the righteous as well.  Abraham grieved over the destruction of an entire society and over the suffering that the people of Sodom, particularly any who might be righteous, would endure.  And so he implored that God not sweep away an entire society hastily. 

But of course the Lord did destroy Sodom.  The wickedness of Sodom is starkly recounted in Genesis 19.  As a result, when Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was clear of the city, then out of the sky the LORD rained burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah from the LORD. He demolished these cities, the entire plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and whatever grew on the ground,” (Genesis 19:24-25).  This story is a sobering reminder of the perfect justice of God and the terrifying result of human depravity. 

Until recently, this story was found only in the pages of Genesis.  However, since 2005, an archaeologist from Trinity Southwest University, Dr. Stephen Collins, has been excavating a mound (a “tall”) just east of the Jordan River in the Kingdom of Jordan with a team of scientists and volunteers, and he believes he has found the site of biblical Sodom.  The site, named Tall el-Hammam, was inhabited during Abraham’s time, was destroyed during Abraham’s time, and is found exactly where the Bible says Sodom ought to be.  And here is what he found: the remains of a massive city several times the size of Joshua’s Jericho, surrounded by huge walls made from between 150 and 200 million mudbricks, a monumental gate complex, several city squares, an intricate network of city streets, public buildings, and private residences.  Only the foundations of these impressive structures are left, and all buried under a meter thick layer of ash.  Yes, the city that once inhabited Tall el-Hammam was incinerated.  Upon investigation, Carter discovered that the city was hit by a massive blast that generated enough heat to incinerate mudbrick and heat pottery to the point of melting into glass.  The heat was incredibly intense, much too hot for Middle Bronze Age humans to generate, but much too brief to be a volcanic phenomenon.  As soon as the heat blast hit, it was gone.  An explosion overhead.  And what of the inhabitants?  In seven years of excavation, they have found several bodies, but they have more often found scattered bone fragments mixed in with the melted mudbrick and ash.  The people of the city were hit with a massive, instantaneous explosion (he speculates that perhaps an exploding meteor could generate that kind of effect) that incinerated everything, including the people.  The few bodies they have found within the city were unburied, lying on the ground, and contorted in pain.  And the blast zone seems to stretch well beyond the city to the surrounding area. 

Carter’s case that Tall el-Hammam is Sodom is compelling, and his work provides us with a visualization of the wrath of God in action.    What could provoke such wrath?  The story in Genesis 19 reveals perverse sexuality and a complete disregard for the social norms of hospitality.  However, the prophets tell us more.  Ezekiel said of Sodom and its sister cities Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, “she and her daughters had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn’t support the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before Me, so I removed them when I saw this,” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).  Arrogance, selfish indulgence in luxury, greed, disregard for the needs of others, and detestable moral practices.  These are the sins that incinerated Sodom and its inhabitants.  And if Carter is right about the location, the city of Sodom was not a fly by night establishment.  It had been inhabited, flourished, and dominated the politics of the region for about 2500 years.  Yet worldly prosperity and security were not enough to save Sodom. 

The sins of Sodom are the sins of our society.  Just as Isaiah called his own people “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9), the same could be said of our nation.  What is the church to do?  First, the church must not live and think like the people of Sodom.  We must conduct ourselves in righteousness, in purity, in humility, and in compassion.  The church must be the holy and humble bride of Christ, a light in the darkness.  Second, the church must pick up the mantle of the prophets and compassionately proclaim the truth of God’s word to people who have disregarded it.  We must not disregard our prophetic role.  Third, however, we must pick up the mantle of Abraham.  We must intercede for our Sodom.  Let us implore the Lord to act justly, but not hastily.  Let us pray that God would change hearts and renew minds, so our society will not be swept away.  

For further reading, see Carter’s book, Discovering the City of Sodom.

Saving Christian Marriage

WREN-MICHAEL-39

Pastor, New Life Baptist Church, Greencastle

By Michael Wren

At last night’s association meeting, I spoke briefly about how the church ought to respond to the challenge ahead of us in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision.  As everyone knows, last week’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act allows the Federal government to recognize same sex couples who have been married in states where such a union is legal.  The decision itself is a great loss to social conservatives, and particularly to evangelical Christians.  But the rationale behind the decision is even more damaging.  According to Justice Kennedy, the Defense of Marriage Act violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing the equal protection of the law to every citizen, because congress illegitimately concluded that same-sex marriage is immoral.  With this ruling in place, it seems to be only a matter of time before all states are forced to recognize same sex marriage.  And with same sex marriage legal, polygamy would logically seem to follow close behind.

If you read blogs on a regular basis, you will know that there is no shortage of reflection upon how the church ought to respond in the days ahead.  While there is no need to say what has already been said by numerous people, I do want to expand my comments from last night and offer a few specific recommendations:

  1. Churches should not panic.  The church has never needed the state to define Christian marriage, and thus the church does not need the state to rescue it.  Our calling from God is still the same, and the gospel has not changed.  Jesus is still risen.
  2. Churches must continue to demonstrate a passion for lost souls.  Simply because the world considers homosexuality to be a legitimate lifestyle does not change the reality that the Bible declares it be to a sinful choice and that sin (in whatever form) destroys souls.  The church can expect to confront more broken families than it has ever seen before, and it must confront them with both truth and grace.  We cannot cease to care, to pray, and to share.
  3. Churches must evaluate their marriage policy.  This will be imperative for a couple of reasons.  First, with homosexuality (and eventually polygamy) legalized, churches will need a clear paper trail to substantiate their reasons for refusing people who request to be married.  The day might come when churches are penalized for discriminating against such people, and when that day comes we will have to count the cost.  Either way, though, we need to state clearly whom we will marry and under what circumstances.  Second, we must admit that churches have not done a good job of promoting and strengthening Christian marriages.  Even without the sweeping victories of the homosexual movement, the institution of marriage seems to be on life support in this country.  Divorce and cohabitation are common (both in our communities and in our churches) and have been treated with nothing more than an awkward silence.  While we must be persistent about speaking the truth into difficult situations (and doing so in love), we must also do a much better job on the front end.  In far too many cases, churches allow virtual strangers to use their facility as long as they pay a nominal fee and meet with a representative of the church.  Marriage, like everything else, ought to come under the discipline and watch care of the church.  Marriage is, in fact, an extremely important component of people’s spiritual lives.  Churches ought to craft policies that help ensure that “Christian marriage” is, in fact, Christian—and that the couple understands the importance of commitment to the church.

We are entering an era in which the church has the opportunity to stand out from the world dramatically—or face the reality that it has lost its gospel witness entirely.  The church of the first few centuries was dramatically successful at demonstrating the power of Christ to the corrupt Greco-Roman society around it.  They endured much persecution and ridicule, and they tended to take holiness very seriously, but they also earned a lot of credibility and won a great many converts.  The issue at stake is really not that of saving Christian marriage, but rather of saving the credibility of our gospel witness.  If we are willing to count the cost, we will experience an outpouring of God’s power.

Teach Us To Pray

Wade Potts,  Associate Pastor of Youth and Outreach, New Life Baptist Church, Greencastle

Wade Potts, Associate Pastor of Youth and Outreach, New Life Baptist Church, Greencastle

By Wade Potts

In my last blog entry I said that the primary method of discipleship is teaching.  This is the way John the Baptist, Jesus, and even Paul discipled new Christians.  Teaching does not necessarily mean that we fill individuals with facts and doctrines but it also means that we disciple new believers and other Christians practically by showing them how to live out the faith.

I recently read an article by Ray Deck III entitled 3 Creative Ideas for Family Prayer.  In this article he gives some examples for parents to teach their children to pray.  However, and I think he would agree with this, these ideas could be used when discipling all believers.  David Platt says this same thing in the Follow Me Bible Study.  He encourages us to teach people through example how to pray, how to study the Bible, how to evangelize, and so on.  Just about all new believers are uncomfortable about praying in public; yet, when we only tell them how to pray, these fears typically remain.  When we show someone how we pray this can calm their fears because they can see what prayer looks like.  It gives them a model to compare their personal prayers to.  It is one thing to give instructions to individuals on how to pray, to provide principles for praying well, or even to take someone through the Survival Kit for New Christians and flesh out what it has to say about prayer.  However, there is something very personal and very effective when one believer shows another believer how to pray.  I understand that none of us pray perfectly, but neither did John the Baptist, and yet he taught his disciples how to pray (Luke 11:1).

In fact, Luke 11:1 gives us a beautiful picture of this type of discipleship.  Jesus was praying in front of his disciples and this prompted the disciples to ask of him a very important request, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples” (HCSB).  Not only did Jesus disciple through teaching but we see that John the Baptist did as well. If you consider the Lord’s Prayer itself, it provides the perfect model for the Christian’s prayer.

  • We begin with the statement of God as our Father. Believers have been adopted into a new family – the family of God with God as our Father and Christ as our brother.
  • Jesus then teaches believers they must transition from addressing God as Father into declaring praise or reverence of His name. God’s name perfectly reflects His character – which is holy.
  • Then believers are taught to pray for the advancement of God’s Kingdom.  We must be constantly about the business of praying for God’s church to grow so that our outreach is fueled by prayer.
  • We are taught to pray for the completion of God’s will.  Believers struggle with knowing God’s will for their lives, so Christ teaches us to pray for that will to be done.
  • Christ teaches believers to express their dependence on God by praying that He will be gracious enough to meet their daily needs.
  • Christ then instructs believers to ask for forgiveness.  However, there is a catch.  When we ask God for forgiveness we must do so only after we have forgiven those who have “wronged” us.
  • Finally, we are instructed to pray for deliverance from temptation.  For believers to win the war against sin they must first win the battle of temptation.  This begins with prayer.

Jesus’ model prayer contains all of the elements a new believer ought to include in his or her prayer life.  So I encourage you to go beyond giving simple instructions for prayer by showing those whom you disciple how to pray, and Jesus’ prayer makes the perfect model.