Praying from Nineveh

It’s depressing to watch the news, lately–the reports include the COVID-19 pandemic, rioting and violence, injustice, crime, natural disasters…there is very little to celebrate. And yet, my nation just recognized the 244th anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. In that declaration are the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..” America has never realized perfection of these truths. No nation can claim perfection, just as no individual person can claim perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But the truth still stands. All men (and women, children…human beings) are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. God does not favor the rich or the poor, men or women; He doesn’t favor one skin tone over another; He doesn’t love Baptists more than Catholics, or agnostics! He is not partial to citizens of one nation over another; He doesn’t favor Republicans over Democrats. Governments and individuals may deny or withhold these rights; they may pervert the truth or twist and shape circumstances to their favor at the expense of others. But the truth still stands.

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Long ago, there was an empire called Assyria– powerful, ruthless, domineering. They were not governed by principles of fairness, equality, or justice. They conquered and slaughtered other people at will. Their capital city was Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, a man thoroughly familiar with their cruelty and lack of justice, was dispatched by God to warn the people of their coming judgment. Instead of obeying, Jonah fled. It would seem understandable that Jonah might fear the people of Nineveh. Delivering such a warning could put him in danger. But that wasn’t why Jonah fled.

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The story of Jonah is well-known. After fleeing toward Tarshish on the first available ship, God sent a storm. Fearing that the ship would sink, the sailors cast lots to choose a human sacrifice to appease the sea gods. Jonah volunteered, saying it was his sin that “caused” the storm. Reluctantly, the sailors threw him overboard, and the storm ceased immediately. Jonah was “saved” when a giant fish swallowed him. From the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and God rescued him again, causing the fish to spit him out onto dry land. Jonah took advantage of his second chance, and went to Nineveh, preaching the message of destruction.

But when Jonah’s message results in mass repentance and a “second chance” for the Ninevites, Jonah is disgusted. THIS was why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh– because he did not want them to receive a warning and a potential reprieve! He knew that God was sending him, not with a message of doom, but with a message of hope! There was a chance to repent– to try again–to seek justice and avoid destruction. They didn’t deserve it. Certainly, they had never given mercy to any of the peoples they had already conquered. God had every right to destroy them without any warning– and Jonah had counted on it.

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I almost always focus on the character of Jonah when I read through this story. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah+1&version=NIV (follow this link to see chapter 1 and use the site to read the other three chapters). But what about the people in the city of Nineveh? Imagine a stranger walking around one of America’s major cities– Washington, New York, Seattle (in light of recent events there)… His face and skin are unnaturally white and blotchy; bleached by stomach acid from an enormous fish. He looks like a zombie, and his message is delivered in utterly horrible assurance–“yet forty days, and this city will be destroyed.” Not by a spike in COVID-19 cases; not by looters or protesters tearing down a couple of buildings here or there–total destruction by the hand of God.

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What might we do differently if we had forty days to convince God to stay His hand and give our nation a chance to repent. We claim we are not like the Assyrians– we were founded on truthful principles and ideals. We “hold” these truths, but we do not live them out as a nation.

The Ninevites did not have time to amend or rewrite a Constitution. They did not have forty weeks or forty years to “reconstruct” their empire or implement social justice legislation.

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But they had time to pray. They had time to fast, and repent, and seek the mercy of God. From the least to the greatest, they fasted and prayed. Even their animals fasted! They stopped frantically trying to grab power, and turned their eyes toward their Maker and Judge. And God listened! God forgave! God showed mercy!

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May we pray– in every nation, region, city, village, or settlement– for God’s mercy in these times, and at all times. God is not waiting for us to “get it right.” He is waiting for us to come to Him. May we be humble and hopeful and turn to Him today. And may we learn from their example.*

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*Spoiler alert– while the Assyrians in Nineveh repented after the message of Jonah, they quickly forgot God’s mercy and returned to their wickedness. Just a few decades later, God DID bring destruction on the entire empire– this time without warning!

Just a Minute…

I stumbled upon a site that promotes a concerted minute of prayer for our nation.  In the light of upcoming mid-term elections, recent violent outbreaks in some of our cities, and other urgent issues, there are movements afoot to unite American Christians in our prayer efforts.

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National Minute of Prayer Home

The National Minute of Prayer is based on an effort carried out in England during World War II.  I want to be careful in promoting this idea– I DO NOT believe that God is swayed solely by people praying to Him in large numbers or at certain times– God sees our hearts and knows our minds.  He wants hearts that are sincere, humble, and attuned to His will, and He will act, not on our desires, but on His own knowledge of what is truly best for our individual lives, for our nation(s), and for our world.

Still, I think this is a good idea, even though I don’t necessarily agree with all the ideas and aspects of the blog.  I don’t believe there is anything magical or super spiritual about any given minute or hour of the day, so if the chosen hour of 9 p.m. (ET/8 p.m.CT, etc.) doesn’t work for you, or you can’t commit to a single minute during the day, just commit to pray for a solid minute at least once each day.  I think the value of a project like this is in the commitment and the community–even as individuals search for a closet or a quiet corner to seek God’s face, the knowledge that others are doing the same adds to our commitment and our courage.

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There are dozens of websites, blogs, and videos with similar programs and suggestions.  Find one and consider following or joining!

And this doesn’t just apply to a particular nation facing a particular time of crisis.  Christians living in Australia, Bolivia, Cambodia, Djibouti, Estonia, Fiji, Greenland, Haiti… you get the idea– can set aside one minute every day to pray for their nation and its leaders.

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Think what it would mean to the heart of God to hear His children praying in unison for healing and justice to be done around the world in our home nations!  Think what would happen if we set aside just one more minute to pray for the Church universal!

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We Hold These Truths…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (July 4, 1776)

Full text of the Declaration of Independence

We’re getting ready to celebrate our Independence Day in America.  There will be parades, cookouts, parties, fireworks, and a host of other celebrations.  There will be a lot of flag-waving and patriotic displays.  At some gatherings, there may be readings of our Declaration of Independence.  This document was drafted to outline, not just a list of reasons why they should rebel, but what they hoped to build as a result of their struggle for freedom.

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Over 240 years later, this document, and what it stands for, is still relevant and calls us to a high standard– one our nation has not fully achieved.  In spite of the great strides we have made and the example we have been to the rest of the world, in recent decades, we have left behind many of the very truths we aspired to hold.

First, there is a dangerous belief that “truth” is no longer self-evident, nor is it timeless.  We don’t hold beliefs and truths anymore.  We shift with the tide of public opinion and the shadowy promise of “being on the right side of history”– which just means being on the winning side of the current debate within our lifetime and hopefully into the next set of history books.

Second, we have spent countless hours, shedding blood, sweat, and tears over the phrase “ALL MEN”– struggling to reach the promise of equality for all humankind.  We have fallen short of this vision, and twisted it into a grotesque parody of itself.   Instead of working together in unity and inclusiveness, we have devolved into factions each fighting to be “more equal” than others.  Instead of looking at the equal value and humanity of all our people, we point fingers at all the people who are “less worthy”, “more privileged”, “entitled”, “marginalized”, “intolerant”, “judgmental”, who “need to be silenced”, or “need to be kept in their place”…how can neighbors and fellow citizens be so vicious?  One answer may be found in the very next phrase…

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ARE CREATED equal, and are endowed BY THEIR CREATOR…Usually, this phrase is emphasized in the exact opposite places– the emphasis is on EQUAL and ENDOWED.  We have lost the “truth” of being “UNDER GOD”.  We have lost the truth of being created.  We have lost the truth that our worth, our rights, our values, are not a product of our own opinions and observations.

It is easy to point to others and say, “They are ruining our country– They are not living out these truths.”

The harder lesson is to look at my own assumptions, actions, and beliefs.  Do I TRULY believe that all the people around me– of every creed, gender, race, political party, nationality, educational achievement, or economic level are created equal and endowed BY THEIR CREATOR with value, and inalienable rights?  If, at any point, I make assumptions about the worthiness of “those people”, assuming that God loves me more, or will have more mercy or grace toward me because of who I am or how I behave; because of the color of my skin, or where I live, or who I voted for; because of the things I know or the good deeds I have done–I am part of the problem.  Christians, if we bear the name of Christ who created all mankind, and we hate those whom Christ created, the love of Christ IS NOT in us.

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That doesn’t mean that we ignore sin and compromise our character, and pervert justice in the name of a comfortable facsimile of equality.  But it also means that we must stop whitewashing hatred and injustice in the name of morality.  Morality without love cannot heal our nation.  Nor can rewriting our history.  Nor can declaring our Independence.

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The Declaration of Independence is not a stand-alone document.  It had no authority on its own.  If our founders had lost the Revolutionary War; if they had abandoned their vision of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”; if their descendants had failed to bring a divided nation back into unity; if our parents and grandparents had not struggled and fought to make our nation live up to its principles; and if our generations fail to come together and work toward that same vision– Independence will not be something to celebrate, but something to detest.

While it is called the Declaration of Independence, it is a spirit of dependence– on God, on His truth, and on the goodwill of our fellow Americans, that keeps this document alive and full of promise.

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We need to pray for our nation– and for our own revival– if we are to truly celebrate this Fourth of July.

Memorials

Memorial Day weekend is coming up.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with the American holiday, also known as Decoration Day, it is a day set aside primarily to honor soldiers who were killed in battle.  In recent years, it has come under some criticism from those who feel that it celebrates a culture of war, or that it places too much focus on the past– especially a past that has been idealized at the expense of progress.  Instead, it has become a time of recreation– backyard barbecues, beach parties, and bargain hunting at flea markets and yard sales.

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But much of the real focus of Memorial Day has been lost.  Memorials should not be used to idolize or idealize the past; but they serve a purpose in reminding us of hard lessons and the need to keep learning from them.  Memorial Day is not about being thrilled or puffed up by our past– it is to be reminded of both the good and the bad, and the need to see the larger picture.  We have inherited both freedoms and frustrations; triumphs that came at the expense of others, and trials that will impact future generations.  It is right and good that we take time to reflect on such things.

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The Bible gives us several examples of memorials– signs and altars and ceremonies that are meant to call things to memory.  Some of the memorials involve battles, but many more involve both promises and prophecy.  We are to remember God’s faithfulness; His power to rescue, redeem, and restore.

Our greatest memorial as Christians, is not a soldier’s tomb– it is the Empty Tomb!  It is the reminder that our greatest battle has already been won, and the one who died to bring us the victory has conquered both Sin and Death.

For God so Loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.   (John 3:16  KJV)

Memorial Day is also a good time to remember others in prayer– pray for those who have lost loved ones in the service of our nation; but also those who sacrifice daily for their families, communities, and around the world.  Pray for wisdom and opportunity to serve others around us better.  Pray for healing and grace– for those who fight internal battles with unforgiveness, betrayal, guilt, vengeance, and more. And don’t forget praise– thank God for His redemptive plan; for the victory won; for the sufficiency of His grace.  Thank others around you for their services and sacrifices. Finally, as we honor the sacrifices of others, let’s look for ways we can serve one another better.

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*Please note:  I will not be posting for the next couple of days due to the holiday.  I will return on Tuesday of next week.

 

Prayer and Politics

At the risk of alienating several family members and friends, I feel I need to make the following statement:  The United States of America is not, has never been, and will never be a “Christian Nation.”  I am not saying this in disparagement of my homeland– I’m not suggesting it is an irreligious nation.  But I think the term “Christian Nation” gets used presumptiously to suggest that America is uniquely righteous, or immune from criticism or judgment.  America is not a theocracy, and it is not a bastion of Christian virtue.  We are a nation “under God”, but not a nation that recognizes God as its supreme ruler.  Our government, while based on principles handed down through centuries of Judeo-Christian practice, is built around documents written by and for the people of this nation, independent of their adherence to that practice or to those doctrines.  1st Amendment and Religion

Our government does not sponsor Christian churches, nor does it require its citizens to belong to a particular religion or religious group in order to enjoy its rights, freedoms, and protections.  We do not have federal laws that punish those who believe other tenets or practice other faiths that do not fall under the Judeo-Christian umbrella.  Our courts may limit the practice of religion (including Christianity) when it conflicts with a “compelling”  governmental interest, such as public safety.  And our citizens who are practicing Christians are not united in how they apply Christianity to politics, and vice-versa.  Our members of Congress are not elected based on their adherence to a religious practice, and our leaders are not required to be clergy (the very thought is pretty laughable to most of us in today’s political climate!).  America is designed to be a nation that practices one of the most basic tenets of the Bible–that humans have the gift of Free Will, and the right to use it.

Having said all that, I also want to be clear that the Judeo-Christian tradition has played and (for now) continues to play an enormous role in our laws, societal construct, and civilization.  I’m not here to ignore that or dismiss it as unimportant.  My goal is to point out that prayer and politics should not be conflated or equated–prayer is not and never has been the equal of political thought or action–prayer is always superior!

As Christians, not only in America, but anywhere in the world, we are called upon to live worthy of Christ and his Gospel.  That doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand or staying silent in the face of evil and injustice– we should be engaged in our communities, and in our civic responsibilities.  But it also doesn’t mean that we protest, promote, plot, and proceed politically in our own power or wisdom.  We are commanded to pray for those in leadership and authority– those we voted for and those we didn’t!  We are commanded to submit to those same authority figures, to show them honor and respect, even if we are opposed to their policies and seeking to reverse those policies.  We are commanded to live (as much as it depends on us) in peace with our neighbors, to love our enemies, and bless those who curse us.   Our patriotism and our political expression must be in line with, and submit to, our commitment to follow Christ.  To show contempt or hatred for our nation and its leaders is to show contempt for the God who is sovereign over them.  But that same God will not excuse us for turning a blind eye to sin and corruption, or worse yet, covering it up or calling it righteousness.  Our prayers, both personal and political, need to be based in truth and love.

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Even as we live in tumultuous times, we are commanded to pray.  In relation to our nation and our society, I think there are at least four important things to keep in mind:

  • Our real citizenship is in Heaven.  Praying for our nation, its leaders, its laws, etc., is in line with Scripture; worshiping our nation, its leaders, its laws, etc., is idolatry.
  • Our neighbors, our nation, our world– they won’t change because we enact a new law, win an election, change the economy, or wipe out war.  People, nations, and societies will change because they have had an encounter with Jesus Christ, and they have been transformed by his Grace.  Are they seeing HIM in our actions, our Facebook and Twitter feeds, our interactions on the street; are they hearing HIM in our conversations; are they overwhelmed by HIS grace when they meet us?  Pray that God will help us be faithful in the small things.  Our actions speak louder than our words– and that includes the words of our prayers!
  • God’s ways are not our ways–we need to be careful that we are not praying for (and demanding, and offering on our part) a quick compromise, a superficial spirituality, and a cheap grace that substitutes for a deep and lasting revival.  Don’t ask God to “fix” the world and then wonder why he sends the repairman to your door, or recruits you to scrub toilets!
  • We are in a battle, but it is not with people and it is not going to be won by playing politics–we must learn to identify the real enemy, so we can put on the correct armor and reach for the right weapons.  Our shield is not the flag– it is Faith.  Our sword is not a clever argument– it is the simple truth of the Gospel.  Victory has already been declared.  Remember to rejoice when we pray for our nation and our world– the Lamb has Overcome!

Prayer connects us to the power of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose banner over us is Love.

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