OK. Let’s start with an overarching theological premise.
Jesus can make America better.
America cannot make Jesus better.
If you disagree with that, I hope you disagree without being disagreeable.
Second logical premise —
If things are NOT mutually exclusive, they can be true at the same time.
Conclusion — If we allow the Holy Spirit to steep the first premise into our souls, we can be humbly proud of America and feel blessed to live in America without letting our “love of country” become a part of the Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ as sovereign King over all earthly nations. While many aspects of America are exceptional, American Exceptionalism reflects a sinful superiority that the Bible says cannot be the way of a Christ follower. Said another way – Anything good about this nation is a result of the Gospel, not a part of the Gospel.
Let’s talk about the two things being true at the same time. If we imagine that metaphorically our souls are trees that are fed by a root system, whatever is flowing through that root system is what we worship. Christ demands the He be the only thing flowing through those roots — THE ONLY THING — not Him PLUS anything else. If that is true, then what do we do if we have positive feelings about this place that we live? Well, good feelings about what HE has done here CAN come out as fruit in the health of the tree, but it will always be presented in this fruit: LOVE, JOY, PEACE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GENTLENESS, GOODNESS, FAITHFULNESS, and SELF-CONTROL. In addition, what about folks who feel they have not been given a fair shake In America and historically actually have not? For the oppressed and/or damaged soul, balm and healing to the wounds come through that same Christ-alone root system, not just looking away during the National Anthem. And, if we want to see change, the effort for Christians will show up in that same fruit, not a wicked keyboard.
Two things can also be true sometimes because we live in the NOW and NOT YET. Somehow Jesus has completely defeated sin for those who believe and yet we still sin (two things that are simultaneously true). In me, this quandary shows up in desperately praying for the above fruit to show up in me, “Be my only living water through the root system, Jesus.” “Fill me with your Spirit, Jesus.” And then, in the same day be overcome by stress, sin, and past wounds, and not treat people with ANY of that fruit. How can that be? Does that mean that I am false? Nah, it just means that Jesus work on the cross has forgiven me from the penalty of sin, and given me a superior “water through the root system” to the power of sin, but I am still in the presence of sin. And, if I am not worshiping and seeking things from above (you know, Colossians 3 things that we are to set our minds on), that inferior, but powerful, presence will rework the source and I will function for a time out of the old system. Example: How can Jonathan Edwards be one of the great theologians and preachers of the Gospel EVER, and not get the issue of slavery completely correct? Well, because two things can be true at the same time. He can be functioning with a flow of the Spirit to correctly divide the Word of God, and yet the presence of cultural idolatry sin kept him trapped in being a slave owner. We don’t need to praise Edwards or cancel him as Jesus is quite capable of figuring that out. Being released from being judge and jury allows us to guard against over-praising his good work or cancelling him from his sin. Why? Because we need to put the mirror in front of us because we all have cultural idols – just different ones – that Jesus will work through on our Day – capital D.
Along those lines, I watched the movie Selma the other night and took note of how many of those fruit characteristics that come from the Spirit of Jesus showed up in Dr. King. Yet, some would want to cancel him for the alleged sin side of his sexual ethic and not pay attention to his correct approach to how to “face down the negative” side of our history. You know that side that contains the building of large sections of our economy on the backs of oppressed slaves, leading into Jim Crow, and systemic racism that still exists today.
What does all that have to do with Independence Day and the Gospel?
Well, we have to get the right water source through the root system, or we will risk idol worship.
Please allow me to walk you through some of my journey. First, I have American blood running deep. Also, I am about to describe a lot of crying, but because of some abuse from peers early in my life, this is pretty much of the extent that I cried over a period of about 25 years. So, when I say I cried, something touched the depths of my soul, and most of them had something to do with that deep American blood.
I have been to Gettysburg three times: The first was in the 5th grade. As I stood by a cannon on a foggy morning and pictured Pickett’s charge up that wide open slope, I got real quiet, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by emotion and I snot-cried. I think God was teaching me about the devastation of the curse and the brutality of the souls of sinful men, but also I just got a sense of what it has cost to keep this Union going of which we reap so many blessings. Went back in my early 20s and had the same experience – quiet, BIG tears. Went back with my son 20 years later, Same…
I went to Bunker Hill and the green lawn of Lexington and the North Bridge at Concord. Pause – Quiet – Teared up.
But, nothing like Gettysburg until these experiences:
— Pearl Harbor and the Arizona memorial will still your soul; it stirred mine. I did not speak for over 2 hours; hard for me to do. Even folks who are not American find it eerily sobering — looking down through the oil-stained water at at an underwater tomb. Swear I heard screams of brave men who believed in something. Contemplating those moments – quiet – cried.
— My father received medals for his work in the back of a B-17 in WW2. I got to tour a B-17 at an air show in Chesterfield, MO, and when I saw that little cramped space back there where he put his life on the line for multiple missions into Nazi Germany to stop evil gone wild, I froze. The space forced him to spend hours on his knees because there was nowhere else to go — very little between him and bullets and flak. Quiet, contemplative, & to the person behind me, “don’t rush me; this is a moment” – cried.
— I had the honor to represent our country in international competition for USA Basketball. Flag went up behind and the “Star-spangled Banner” was blaring. Hand over heart — Didn’t care that folks would eventually want to cancel Francis Scott Key — contemplative – quiet – eyes closed – tears FLOWED.
— In a non-American moment, I saw the chains that supposedly held Simon Peter as he was put on a cross upside down in a cathedral in Rome. Was a moment, but I did not cry until a later time when I physically saw and touched some similar chains that held millions of slaves in this country – the same country that has been the conduit for God to provide me so MUCH. Still wrestling with this -Two things true at the same time.
— In another non-American moment, I openly wept when I toured the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Oh my – never have I seen such evil more on display. However, I also cried when, on a tour of the Smithsonian, I studied the treatment of Native Americans for the purpose of accessing the lands that this country called so free. It has hit my soul that those events were really not that different. Quiet – cried.
— I cried when I toured the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis that ends on the spot where Dr. King was assassinated. Appreciative of brave men and women who believe in something. Quiet – contemplated – cried. Just stayed there for a moment praying that things would get better.
Those six or so caused what Jesus did when he discovered Lazarus’ death — WEEPING.
There were also some that are maybe a little less momentous, but stirred me to some moist eyes:
— When Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind,” and we beat the Soviets to the moon.
— When my brother walked in the door from the Vietnam War. Partially because I was glad to see him, but also because I was pro-USA.
— When USA basketball got cheated out of the gold medal at the ’72 Olympics. That one also caused an American pride temper tantrum. I tore up a room in protest!!
— When Justin, my son, experienced his first Independence Day fireworks display while in my arms.
For a non-crier, this place called America that we celebrate our Independence Day on Sunday sure does stir a lot of emotion in me. The real question is, what, as a follower of Jesus, do I do with all these emotions and strong feelings about this place called America? The key is to have the root system that is feeding my soul which determines what I believe in being fed by the correct source. Jesus called himself living water and when I am receiving THAT water, I can work these things out in a healthy way.
When healthy, and the root system is fed by Christ alone and faith alone,…
…we can celebrate and praise God for the blessings of things like freedom to worship without making those freedoms the object of the worship. Did you hear me in the back? Our blessings cannot become the object of worship. If we keep the flow of living water through a healthy root system correct root system, we will land in being involved in America as an ambassador from another Kingdom, so we are involved in our culture while walking as salt and light and in the positives that come along with fruit (peace, joy, patience, etc). Both things can be true at the same time. I can praise God for the blessings, AND realize that the blessings are not to be worshiped.
However, If the blessings of America or some of that aspects of a democracy like a particular political party or candidate become the water source or if we mix the two together,…
…sinful anarchy. either just inside us or with sinful activity, will become the result. On a small scale, we will lose our joy and peace if our party or candidate are not successful, and on a large scale when the misguided object of our worship loses, evil could come out and some church member storms the capitol building with a Jesus banner in his hand and a pipe bomb in his pocket. Remember —
Jesus can make America better.
And, therefore if we allow Him to be the total root system for our lives, it is okay to be hugely appreciative of the blessings that we receive to live, work, worship, and play here. We can humbly flourish. But —
America cannot make Jesus better.
It is a short trip into our appreciation of American or degradation of America for it to become our root system or even a part of our root system and water supply and therefore attempt to depend on it for only what Christ can bring, or allow our frustrations with it to drive us to despair.
We can enjoy all the blessings of living in America, but at no point can Christians dilute the water in the root system with patriotism. It must be Christ alone. Honestly, the two have been mixed together by many pulpits for so long that a well-meaning American Christian might be a little more like Jonathan Edwards than they know. I am sure that I am there more than I know.
May we get the source right, and then enjoy our holidays with Christ at the center and American human flourishing for all people as the fruit up in the tree plops down all over the place. I would think that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control when dealing with the frustrations of our living in a blessed (and cursed) place would be preferable to the alternative of a faulty root system and water source leading us into some form of anarchy.
— Spurgeon on the Sermon on the Mount and a man (or woman) who seeks righteousness — “He hungers and thirsts after righteousness. He does not hunger and thirst that his own political party may get into power, but he does hunger and thirst that righteousness may be done in the land. He does not hunger and thirst that his own opinions may come to the front, and that his own sect or denomination may increase in numbers and influence, but he does desire that righteousness may come to the fore.”
Remember, we can look on America and see some things that reflect the beauty of Christ; however, we can never look on it and see anything that enhances the beauty of Christ.
May we get this right. It is time for renewal!