Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 6

Fish

Matthew 4:19; 14:13‑21; Matthew 15:32-39; Luke 24:42-43; John 21:12-14

Since antiquity fish have been a major food source for people, and in ancient times fish were also an object of worship.  Coins picturing a woman with a fish tail honoring Atargatis, the Syrian “Fish Goddess”, were found at Ashkelon. Deuteronomy 4:18 specifically prohibits the Hebrews from creating images of fish to worship. 

God demonstrated His provision for His people when Jesus used five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000, seven loaves and “a few fish” to feed 4,000, and fish and bread to feed His disciples after the Resurrection.  He also provided proof of His bodily resurrection when he ate.  Christ’s early and great promise to his disciples, seven of whom were fishermen, was that He would make them “Fishers of Men”. 

The Greek word for fish (ἰχθύς ichthys) is formed by using the first letter of each of the words in Greek which stand for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”  As such, it was used as a symbol for Christ in the early church.  Early Christians would identify themselves to each other by drawing this symbol and thus avoiding the attention of foes.  The fish was also used as a direction symbol to places of worship.

Just as Jesus, early Christians often lost it all; family, friends, possessions, loved ones, and even their lives, for their faith.  Within only a few years of the Resurrection, Stephen the deacon was stoned by a Jerusalem mob (Acts 7) and James the apostle murdered by Herod Agrippa 1 (Acts 12).  In the succeeding centuries, Christians have been beheaded, crucified, thrown to the lions, and burned.  Even in modern times, Christians have found themselves in Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, and Maoist prisons.  Believers in Christ are sometimes beaten, imprisoned, tortured and murdered for their faith in the Muslim and Hindu worlds, and throughout the earth. 

Western Culture, dominant on the globe for nearly 500 years, is built on a Judeo-Christian foundation.  But many at home and abroad want to crush this bedrock, and followers of Christ are more and more feeling the blows.  

Children of the King need never be afraid.  Since the dawn of time, the people and Church of our Lord have survived and grown despite the furious hate of Emperors, Secularists, Skeptics, Dictators, Monarchs, Bigots, and Fools.  The Word of God is the most powerful force in the universe, and Psalms 2 reminds us that nothing can stand against the works of the Almighty. The Church of God is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.  

During this Advent season, let us remember that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The gates of Hell will not prevail against His people (Matthew 16:18).  Each time we see a fish, let us give thanks for those who were not afraid to suffer for their faith. Let us speak boldly for Christ, sharing the blessings He has given us yesterday, today and forever. 

The First Noel

The first Noel, the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

For all to see there was a star
Shining in the East beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

And by the light of that same star
The wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
Who hath made Heaven and earth of naught
And with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 5

Triangle

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Matthew 3:16, 17; Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 1:9-10; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:31-34

December 5 – Triangle

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Matthew 3:16, 17; Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 1:9-10; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:31-34

A preacher once remarked “A God who is small enough for our brains would not be big enough for our needs.”  The Bible is truly the word to man from the infinite, almighty, eternal God.  Just as we cannot grasp “infinite”, “almighty”, and “eternal”, so we also cannot fully grasp many other teachings in God’s word.  The Trinity is one of these teachings.  How can God be one, and also three?

Reason tells us that there can be only one God, for how can more than one infinite being exist?  Divine revelation lets us see that the one God eternally exists and reveals Himself as three persons.   

The Bible is clear that God is one, and also that God is three; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Christians use symbols such as the three leaf clover, the egg (white, yolk and shell), and even the composition of man (body, soul and spirit) to help wrap our minds around this profound mystery. 

The triangle is another such symbol.  With its equal sides representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the triangle communicates the equality of the persons, their teamwork, and because the triangle is inherently the strongest geometric shape, their strength. 

The passage in Deuteronomy reminds us not only that God is one, but also that we need to place reminders of His love and His teachings everywhere in our world.  We should also remember that God Himself placed such symbols as the triangle throughout His creation to help us remember Him. 

Knowing that such common symbols as the triangle represent important truths in our Christian faith gives special meaning to our lives. If we get in the habit of looking for these symbols, we will discover that they are abundant in our world. Look around as you move through your day and see how many triangles you can discover. Bridge struts, the letter “A”, road signs, mountains and often plants have many triangle shapes. These symbols are a constant reminder of His presence and His caring. Look for them during this special time of year and throughout the New Year to come. Be reminded of our Savior and His love.

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 4

Anchor Cross

Jonah 1; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25; Acts 27; Hebrews 6:19‑20

Few things are more terrifying than to be tossed helplessly in a raging storm at sea.  Capsizing, running aground, being washed overboard, and breaking up, all often fatal, are only a few of the dangers.   The crew’s best hope is to jettison cargo, find a sheltered place (if possible) and anchor firmly. 

In antiquity from Polynesia to the Mediterranean, anchors were often grooved or pierced stones.  By the first century A.D., Romans were using anchors with arms and flukes (similar to the traditional and more recent kedge anchor).  The arms allowed the anchor to dig deeply into the gravel and mud on the bottom of the Sea of Galilee, or into the lime, clay, sand and mud on the Mediterranean floor.  A properly set anchor cannot quiet the storm, but it can bring the ship and its crew safely through. 

The disciples, many who were experienced fishermen, likely had many stories of life threatening tempests.  The Apostle Paul endured storms and even shipwreck.  In every case, the Lord protected them, whether on the Sea of Galilee or in the Mediterranean off the coast of Malta.  Better than any anchor, Jesus calmed the sea, and brought them through the storm. 

How fitting, then, that this Christmas anchor is shaped like a cross.  Even as Jesus brought His people through disaster on the water, so He brings us through disasters in our lives.   Crime, sickness, injustice, and pain are inevitable on our earthly journey.   Our hearts break as parents die, children disobey, jobs are lost and health is shattered.  Our strength fades when loved ones betray, dreams are crushed, wealth fails, and our bodies wither.  Like a sailor’s, our best hope is to jettison the distractions in our lives, find a sheltered place in His word, and anchor in His love.  Sometimes the Lord “calms the sea” by taking the situation away.  If He does not, though, He always brings us through. 

Even through the ultimate and eternal storm, that of sin and death, Jesus, by His death on the cross and resurrection, has delivered those who love Him.

As we put our hope in Christ, we study and obey His word.  As we learn his word and speak to Him in prayer, He builds our faith and makes us better able to trust Him (Rom 10:17).  We know that Jesus will be faithful to His promises and work His perfect will in our lives.

While contemplating the symbolism of the anchor-cross with our loved ones this Christmas season, let us resolve to remember Christ each time we see an anchor, or a storm.  Jesus is, truly, the anchor for our souls. 

O Come all Ye Faithful

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant;
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels!
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above.
Glory to God, all glory in the highest!
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

Hail! Lord, we greet Thee,
Born this happy morning;
Jesus to Thee be all glory giv’n.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

 

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 3

Messianic Rose

Isaiah 35

Tucked between chapter 34, which describes the judgment of God against many nations, and chapter 36, which tells of the terrible Assyrian invasion of Judah, is one of the most beautiful of God’s promises for His people.  Isaiah 35 tells what happens when the living water that only the Messiah, Jesus, can provide, floods into the driest of lands.   “The desert shall … blossom…” has long been considered a Messianic Promise, and the rose has traditionally been the flower mentioned by the Scripture.   Although the actual plant in chapter 35 is one of the bulb family and more closely resembles a crocus than the modern rose, the stylized rose (five petaled) has been called the Messianic Rose for it refers to the promise of a Messiah. 

In this passage God’s people hear of encouragement to the exhausted and strength to the feeble.  We are promised sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, leaping for the lame, and joyful shouting for the dumb.  Land which was formerly considered desolate and worthless now has the glory of Lebanon, the majesty of the mountains, highways of righteousness, and safety for God’s people. 

Writing between 720 and 700 BC, Isaiah could only have known through the eyes of faith the fulfillment of his words.  Around 30 A.D., Jesus encouraged, strengthened, healed, and fed just as Isaiah wrote 700 years before.  Looking back from the 21st Century, we know that the promise of a Messiah came true and we have the wonderful story of how that happened. Even now we do not have the whole story, but when the Messiah comes again in glory, each line of this marvelous promise will come literally true. 

Have you ever considered the many symbols of our Christian faith that are in evidence around us all the time and that we so often take for granted? Flowers, butterflies, birds, trees‑‑all these have significance for us as Christians and serve to remind us of the love of our Father who has given us these gifts.

As we with our families consider our gracious Lord each day during the Advent season, and every day in the year, let us take time to notice the innumerable reminders of His love, and thank God for them.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Come thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a Child and yet a King.
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.


 
 

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 2

Six Pointed Star

Genesis 1, Psalm 8, Colossians 1:15-18

The first of the Christ symbols is a six-pointed star, a symbol with a long and checkered history. It is used currently on the flag of the State of Israel. Previously it served to identify the Jewish people during World War 2, on the ancient and mystical “Seal of Solomon”, and in idol worship in many cultures.   More importantly, the six-sided star is the Star of Creation. The six points, six outer triangles and six sides of the inner hexagon reflect the six days of creation of the universe.

Jesus Christ, the focus of Christmas, is the ultimate creator; He has created all things. Out of nothing (Latin “ex nihilo”), He created everything that exists in the universe. The fabulous intricacy of the human body, the web of life, the awe-inspiring beauty of nature, and the bewildering variety in the universe overwhelm us with a sense of His amazing wisdom and power.

As you place the six pointed star on the Advent calendar and read about the creativity of our Savior, think about the significance of this symbol.

Ponder the creation of light and darkness, and the fundamental role that energy plays in the universe. Consider the heavens and the earth, the plant world, the sun, moon and stars, and the animal kingdom. Meditate on the mystery of Man, the pinnacle of God’s creation, and his responsibility to oversee the world, and to love and serve his Maker.

Made in God’s image, and using resources in the world He has made, we also create. Art, music, architecture, literature, engineering, agriculture, and mathematics, whether done by a novice or a master, are examples of human creativity. Most amazing of all, man and woman come together in the ultimate human creative act…producing a new life.

Advent season is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, God the Son. He has created a magnificent universe for His glory and our blessedness, and we as reflections of Him should create for the glory of God and the benefit of others. Let us rejoice in this great mission as we ponder the Star of Creation.

Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Hark! the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With th’angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail th’incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

 

 

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 1

Christmas Tree

Genesis 1:1, 11-12, 24‑31; Genesis 3:22-24

Hang your tree up today.

Plant life forms the basis of life on earth; providing oxygen, food, shade, building materials, fabrics, and fuel. Plants also remove waste products, including carbon dioxide, and other human and animal waste. Life on earth would be impossible without plants.

Trees are the largest and often considered the most noble of the plants. Evergreen trees such as spruce, pine, and fir, seem to live through all seasons. Trees have long been symbols of the life sustaining power of God. Our reading today reminds us of their fundamental role in Creation, finding ultimate expression in the Tree of Life.

Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, to earth. Jesus is the Creator of all things and the source of physical life. He is the perfect sacrifice for our sins and the fountain of living water providing eternal life for those who believe.

Do you know where the first Christmas tree came from? There are many theories, some reaching as far back as Saint Boniface (born 7th century, died 5 June 754). Trees had long been important in pagan worship in Northern Europe. Donar’s (Thor’s) Oak, located in the state of Hesse, was considered sacred by many in Germany. In a challenge to the pagan deities, Boniface began to chop down the oak, and suddenly a strong wind blew it over. When Boniface was not struck dead by the Germanic gods, the people rejected them and accepted Christianity.   They continued using trees in services, but rather than worshipping spirits in the trees they worshipped the One who made the trees.  

Another story tells us that one evening Martin Luther was walking home through a forest in Germany. As he looked up through the trees he saw a host of twinkling stars in the dark sky. He thought about the Star of Bethlehem. As he gazed at the stars framed so beautifully by the branches of the fir trees, Luther was filled with awe. He wished that he could take that lovely scene home to his family so he cut down a small fir tree, took it inside his house, and decorated it with tiny flickering candles.

Green is associated with life and living things. The shoots and signs of growth in spring remind us of the color green. The evergreen Christmas tree speaks of life that will never end.

As you put up your Christmas tree today. read of Saint Boniface and Martin Luther. Turn out the lights and sit in the dark quietly. Light a candle and have the Scripture read. First the passage in Genesis and then John 12:44‑50. Sing softly the German Christmas carol “O Christmas Tree.” Think about the gift of God, Jesus Christ, which has made our own everlasting life possible.

O Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!
In beauty green will always grow
Through summer sun and winter snow.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
You are the tree most loved!
How often you give us delight
In brightly shining Christmas light!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
You are the tree most loved!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me
That hope and love will ever be
The way to joy and peace for me.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me.

 

O Tannenbaum

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur
zur Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtszeit
Ein Baum von dir mich hoch erfreut!
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Dein Kleid will michwas lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
Gibt Trost und Kraft zu jeder Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Das soll dein Kleid mich lehren.

 

Advent Tree Family Devotions – Getting Started

Advent Devotional Tree ornaments 1 Advent Devotional Tree ornaments 2

Celebration #1 – The Advent Calendar

The season of Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and continues until Christmas Day. Traditionally, Advent calendars have had windows to open which mark the days between December 1 and Christmas Day.

This Advent calendar is based upon the idea of marking the days between those dates and using Christmas symbols to help us remember some of the significant events in the Christmas story and the history of our Lord’s life.

It is also based upon the idea of making a devotional calendar as a family to make this time of sharing each day a special part of the family’s celebration of Christmas.

These Advent decorations are historic symbols and are commonly used on Christmas trees. They were first designed and used by the earliest Christians and were found on jewelry, utensils, in the catacombs and in buildings. They are symbols used by the early church and by the church today to show the peoples’ faith in Jesus Christ. This faith is evident to all who view the symbols. They are always made in gold and white to symbolize majesty and purity.

We hope that as you make and use your Christmas Advent calendar, you and your family will more fully experience and enjoy Christmas, and create memories that will endure for generations. As we were created in God’s image to be creative, let your ability find full expression as you create your decorations together.

Each day there is a Bible reading and a devotional reading.  On most days, a Christmas carol follows the readings.  It is not necessary to read every Bible passage or sing every verse listed, but only as many as time and inclination allows.  Share the opportunity to read the Bible, read the devotion, and lead the carol, among family and friends.  Consider using these in church or in Bible studies. 

Our family enjoys sharing the devotions around a table or in a living room bright with Christmas lights and candles.  Sometimes we have egg nog or hot cocoa with Christmas cookies.  

The Advent Calendar and Symbols

There are several ways to make the Advent calendar. You may use paper, felt or other fabrics or materials, and adorn your decorations with sequins, beads and pearls and other trimmings.

Steps to follow:

1. Enlarge the tree pattern onto newspaper or a paper bag.  Cut your tree from green felt, construction paper, or some other material.

2.  Choose an appropriate neutral color for the background if you wish to make your tree and calendar into a banner.  Otherwise you will need to hang the tree from the top to the wall.

3. Using white and gold paper or felt, trace around the patterns or cut them right from the book and use them as a pattern.

4. When you are finished with the decorations, if you choose felt, decorate with sequins, beads and other trim as desired. Make them as fancy or ornate as possible for this is part of the symbolism.

5. If you make your decorations from paper, draw in some of the details as for example on the grapes, shell, etc.

6. There are two ways to attach the decorations to the tree. You can use velcro or snaps (for the felt only). Glue the velcro dots to the back of the decoration and to appropriate places on your tree (the ends of the branches and along a trim line (either imaginary or one you have glued on) Rickrack works great for this.

7. You will need 23 envelopes. Number these and put the appropriate decoration in each one.

8. Each day read one of more of the Scripture passages given, and then read the devotion.  Afterward, remove the decoration from the envelope, and attach it to the tree.

9. On Christmas Day the devotion to read does not include putting a decoration on the tree, but rather refers back to several that have already been affixed to the tree.

10. On Day 1, hang the tree and begin the observance. On all the other days, attach the decoration to the tree.

11. You may make all the decorations in advance or make them one at a time, each day, as your family chooses. If you choose to make them each day, be sure to allow enough time to complete the each one before reading the devotion. It is a good idea to have the patterns cut out in advance.

Supplies you will need – paper, pencil, scissors, eraser, large piece of green felt or construction paper 12 x 18″, large piece of white and gold paper or felt, velcro snaps (if using felt and velcro is not desired) glue sequins, beads, pearls, etc. needle and thread, rickrack and/or other gold trims, small silk flowers (for felt decorations), piece of ¼ or 1/8″ doweling to hang tree if a banner is made.

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is a day on which Americans are reminded to give thanks for the blessings that we, as individuals and as a nation, have received. Many spend their Thanksgiving watching football, others travel, and almost everyone eats more than they probably should. Many celebrants thank the people with whom they spend the day, usually family and friends, most thank whoever prepared the meal, and everyone should thank God, ultimately the One who provided everything we have.

Of course, to thank God requires that we believe in a personal God. It makes no sense to thank God if you don’t believe that one exists, and it also makes no sense to thank a god who isn’t a person, someone who isn’t a “someone”; unless you are of the sort who thanks the air that you breathe or the water that you drink. Surveys suggest that about 95% of Americans believe in god in some form, although perhaps 20% of those believe that god is a cosmic force, as opposed to a Person.

The Theory of Evolution plays a role. Those who believe that the universe began in a Big Bang and proceeded to develop into what we see today in the absence of divine intervention are entirely logical if they ask “why thank God for anything that we have received when the impersonal forces of evolution gave it to us?” Even if they believed in such a distant god they would be justified in withholding thanks from someone who never did anything for them.

Of course, in the absence of a personal God it is hard to explain where human personality came from. It is far easier and more logical to assume that human personality is as illusory as divine personality. If people who believed this were entirely rational, they would conclude that there was no point in thanking whoever made their Thanksgiving dinner or gave them Christmas presents. In such a belief system, these actions are equally the result of impersonal, deterministic forces.

The difference in how we see Thanksgiving in modern times is suggested in the above discussion, but it is better illustrated in comparing Presidential Thanksgiving Day Proclamations over the past two centuries.

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation – 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation – 1863

October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States – A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Abraham Lincoln

Thanksgiving Day Proclamation 2012

On Thanksgiving Day, Americans everywhere gather with family and friends to recount the joys and blessings of the past year. This day is a time to take stock of the fortune we have known and the kindnesses we have shared, grateful for the God-given bounty that enriches our lives. As many pause to lend a hand to those in need, we are also reminded of the indelible spirit of compassion and mutual responsibility that has distinguished our Nation since its earliest days.

Many Thanksgivings have offered opportunities to celebrate community during times of hardship. When the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony gave thanks for a bountiful harvest nearly four centuries ago, they enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe – a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before. When President George Washington marked our democracy’s first Thanksgiving, he prayed to our Creator for peace, union, and plenty through the trials that would surely come. And when our Nation was torn by bitterness and civil war, President Abraham Lincoln reminded us that we were, at heart, one Nation, sharing a bond as Americans that could bend but would not break. Those expressions of unity still echo today, whether in the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country, the Union our forebears fought so hard to preserve, or the providence that draws our families together this season.

As we reflect on our proud heritage, let us also give thanks to those who honor it by giving back. This Thanksgiving, thousands of our men and women in uniform will sit down for a meal far from their loved ones and the comforts of home. We honor their service and sacrifice. We also show our appreciation to Americans who are serving in their communities, ensuring their neighbors have a hot meal and a place to stay. Their actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they affirm once more that we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth, but from our bonds to each other.

On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2012, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together – whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors – and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.

– BARACK OBAMA

Comparison of the Presidential Proclamations George Washington

Notice the differences of the proclamations over time. In 456 words, George Washington reminded Americans of the providence (care, guardianship and control) of Almighty God and implored them to “obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” He suggested that we spend our time in thanksgiving and prayer, and to “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue”. God is mentioned or at least alluded to in almost every sentence.

George Washington did not refer to individual ethnic groups but referred only to the “People”. He highlighted science and liberty and his desire for our nation to be a blessing, and for God to bless, all Mankind. Washington referred repeatedly to the People “establishing a government”, “becoming a Nation” and “establishing Constitutions.” He mentioned the importance that each individual do his part “whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually”. Aside from “I”, he never referred to himself. Finally, Washington asked pardon for our national sins.

Abraham Lincoln

In the midst of the terrible Civil War, Lincoln also referred to the providence of the Almighty God and the Most High God. He mentioned the human tendency to forget the source of our blessings, and alluded to the hardness of the human heart. After reflecting upon the blessings that the Union had enjoyed, despite the hellish conflict, Lincoln gave credit to the personal God, not the strength of men. He also referred to the sins of his nation.

“No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

As in Washington’s proclamation, Lincoln focused on God as the benefactor to whom our thanks belong. He never mentioned individual ethnic groups but simply referred to “fellow citizens” and “the American people.” As with Washington, God is referred to in the masculine personal. Lincoln referred to himself as “fellow citizen”. The length is 519 words.

Barack Obama

Only 74 years passed between the proclamations of Washington and Lincoln, compared to 150 years between Lincoln and Obama, but America has become a different nation. We read of “God-given bounty”, “our Creator” and “God” but compared to Washington and Lincoln, the Divine One is barely an afterthought. There is no mention of His providence, His judgment, His service, His glory, or even “Him”.

In 550 words, Obama emphasized “lending a hand”, helping each other and “giving back.” One ethnic group is mentioned, and the word “Americans” is used. Obama honored the military and the rest of the nation separately, while the others did not honor the nation at all. Washington and Lincoln suggested that we humble ourselves, while the word is absent in 2012. Having little history as a country, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln referred to present events. In contrast, Barack Obama spoke at length of history. His only Biblical allusion was “we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers” (Genesis 4:9). While Lincoln stated that America’s greatest gifts came from God, Obama attributes them to “our bonds to each other”. He referred to himself as “President of the United States.”

Conclusion

There can be little doubt that the themes of America, as revealed in Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations, have changed. Biblical Christianity has given way to a humanistic communalism. God is mentioned but is in no way central. Sin and repentance are entirely absent, as is the providence of God. Honor is reserved for man, and not for the Creator of all men.

If modern American Christians were to write a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, what would ours say? Would it resemble Washington and Lincoln or Obama? If the latter, can we wonder why America has changed so much over the years? Renewal in our land will not be found first at the ballot box but in the prayer room, at the pulpit, in the home, and at the workplace. If Christians humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways, He will hear from heaven, forgive our sins, and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Halloween

On those infrequent occasions when modern man considers the landscape of religion throughout the world, he is likely to think of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a smattering of smaller faiths. These religions, the “big five”, encompass the beliefs of more than two thirds of the world’s population, though there are innumerable sects and denominations within each. It was not always so.

Of these, before 500 BC only Judaism and Hinduism existed, and even they were different in many respects from the religions by those names today. Instead the world was a bubbling cauldron of tens of thousands of tribal and regional religions. The Greek pantheon, which became the Roman pantheon, the Celtic religion, and the later Norse pantheon, are among the most well known today in the West. Even after the advent of Buddhism in the early 5th century BC, Christianity in the first century AD, and Islam in the 7th century AD, these tribal and regional religions played an important role in the lives of their followers.

No one knows where the holiday today known as Halloween originated, but there is widespread agreement that it came out of the cauldron of Christian and pagan influences in Europe in the Middle Ages. Some link it to the Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end) while others to the Roman feast of Parentalia (the festival of the dead). The name “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve”. The common belief was that the souls of those who had died wandered the earth until All Saints Day on November first, when they would be taken to purgatory. All Hallows Eve, therefore, was their last chance to take revenge on their enemies. To avoid recognition, however, the souls would disguise themselves. Those targeted by the souls of the dead could do something good for them and perhaps avoid retribution. Also, the poor would go from house to house in the Middle Ages on All Saints Day receiving food in exchange for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day, November second. From these practices followed the modern customs of dressing in costume and “trick or treat” on Halloween.

During the Reformation, Protestants objected to Halloween as “Popism” and tried to eliminate pagan influences from the Church. The Puritans in New England opposed the holiday but later Scottish and Irish immigrants brought it with them into the New World. Subsequently celebrating Halloween became widespread in America among all social classes and ethnic groups.

Like all things, holidays take on the color of their surrounding culture. The lives of medieval men and women were surrounded by death. The healthiest could and often did perish in an instant, and as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote in Leviathan “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” As a result Halloween was heavily influenced by death, its main images being skeletons, corpses, and ghosts, or dealers in death, such as witches, demons, and even the unlucky black cat.

Halloween in America today is less about death, which seems distant in a land with good public health, excellent medical care, and where people die in hospitals instead of at home. Rather Halloween is more about sex. A quick look at almost any costume catalog reveals sexy pirate, foxy lady, sexy wench, sexy gangster, Aphrodite, nurse knockout, passionate princess, and a host of revealing costumes for women and even young girls. Men’s and boy’s costumes are more about violence and arrogance, with outlaws, commandos, and fictional superheroes as standard fare. There are, of course, still the historic Halloween standards of witches, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and other bloody, rotting and scary costumes. And in the interest of fairness, many children and even a few adults dress up as animals, fruits, vegetables, (modest) princesses, and other fun and wholesome choices.

Christians today sometimes eschew Halloween entirely, sometimes participate wholeheartedly and without discretion, and sometimes celebrate a variation, such as “fall festivals” common among church groups. The Bible does not categorically state what the Christian response to Halloween is, since Halloween is a much later development. Nonetheless it does provide principles to guide our conduct.

First, believers in Jesus Christ should never fear. Some people feel that pumpkins, black cats, and other images of Halloween are so associated with this holiday that Christians must not be associated with them at all. This is false; the God who made pumpkins and black cats allows people to use, and even misuse, what He has given them, and uses their actions for His greater plan. Other people fear the images of death. This must not be, because death is a result of our sin and must be faced, and also because Jesus Christ conquered death once and for all at the cross. Still others fear the magic and what they perceive as demonic influences. Evil spirits undoubtedly have significant influence on the world, as do good spirits, and their influence is not confined to Halloween. However, Christ won the final victory, and if our eyes are on Him, we have nothing to fear.

Second, believers in Jesus Christ should avoid sin at all costs. Most everyone fears death, but few fear sin. This is remarkable because sin leads directly to death, and not just physical death, but spiritual death as well (James 1:14-15). When sin is wrapped in such an alluring package as a scantily clad, beautiful young woman, we fear it even less. While sex between husband and wife bears the imprimatur and magnificence of heaven, the same act between anyone else will result in eventual destruction (Proverbs 7). But sex is not the only good thing which if misused becomes sin. Power and pride, so laudable when directed rightly, so lamentable when directed wrongly, and so prominent a theme in the men’s Halloween costumes, can also lead to sin (Habakkuk 1:11).

Our family enjoys decorating, carving pumpkins, going to fall festivals, dressing up in costumes, and eating treats on Halloween. God made, either directly or through the handiwork of man, every pumpkin, every treat, and even every costume and decoration. He will use it all for His perfect purposes and His glory. Our responsibility, not just for Halloween but for every day, is to avoid the twin dangers of fear and sin. In so doing, we can enjoy all of the abundant life that He gives those who love Him.

MLK Day – Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

Our ultimate authority, the Word of God, teaches that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” Combined with other Biblical testimony, this means that we are equally created, equally sinners, and equally eligible to receive God’s grace. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us all, rose again for us all, and those who believe in Him are united in the Body of Christ. As the old hymn reads, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

From a political standpoint, the US Declaration of Independence holds that all men are created equal; meaning equal before God and equal before the Law. While people differ in their abilities and their character, their God-given rights and responsibilities are recognized and protected by the law. Minorities are no worse, and no better, than majorities. Neither is any other group. Franklin Roosevelt noted “No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities (Letter, 25 June 1938, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).”

Despite this truth, man is notorious for denying rights to people who are not like him, and even in denying rights to people who are not him. Everyone does this in ways large or small, whether they do it intentionally or not. No man or group of men is uniquely bad or good, and every person, compared to the perfect nature of God, is a racist, sexist, ageist, bigot, or whatever other term we wish to use. We may not see it and we often deny it, but lurking just beneath the surface in every man, woman, and child is a selfishness and wickedness that none of us ever want to acknowledge (Romans 3:10, 23).

Muslims have oppressed Christians, Chinese have oppressed Tibetans, Europeans have oppressed colonials, and everybody has oppressed everybody else whenever they had the power to do so throughout history. Closer to home in America, whites enslaved blacks and then denied them basic human rights even after they had been freed from slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. a black Baptist preacher named after Martin Luther, the Architect of the Protestant Reformation, was an important leader in the fight for equal rights, and responsibilities, for African Americans.

God Is the Foundation of All Just Law

As King noted in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” Eternal law and natural law are rooted in the character and personality of God the Creator. How could it be otherwise? If the universe has anything to say about law and justice, it says that only the fittest, those individuals best adapted to their environment, survive. Even if one considers not the individual but the community, those that survive are those that out-compete others in their environment. In a universe without God, inequality and competition, not equality and cooperation, are the lessons written in the stars. Mankind’s sense of justice is rooted in the Lord, not in ourselves or the created world (Romans 1:18-22).

Those who reject God reject this truth, but even their rejection cannot mask the fingerprints of the Holy One. In light of the recent massacre of kindergarteners at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, the Washington Post ran an article entitled “Atheist parents discuss death”. One atheist parent said “As far as morality and how to behave, when it comes up I say ‘You don’t have to be religious to know right from wrong; the Golden Rule is what we go by.’” This atheist parent may have been shocked to find that the Golden Rule, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” is found in the Bible (Matthew 7:12). For those who would argue that these words of Jesus merely reflect what is found in other religions that predate Christianity such as Buddhism and Hinduism, the root concept is found in Leviticus 19:18, written around 1400 BC and long before Buddha ever roamed the earth. The universe could never reveal the Golden Rule – someone outside the universe needed to do so.

God Is the Foundation of All Human and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Since law is derived from God, and since humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), human rights are also derived from God. Human rights are generally defined as “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.” The Bible is clear that men are equal in having been created, equal in being sinners, and equal in being eligible for God’s grace. From these truths are derived the universal human rights noted in the US Declaration of Independence; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These God-given human rights provide the foundation for the civil rights, such as the right to vote, that we enjoy in America today.

There is no genetic or environmental reason why humans should have any rights. If, as Darwin suggested, only the fittest survive in nature, then human rights as we know them do not exist. Individuals have only what they can take. Those who can take nothing get nothing.

Neither is there historical justification for universal human rights because for millennia the only ones with such “rights” were those who could seize them by force. Kings did whatever they had the power and legitimacy to do with their subjects, whether rape, murder, or plunder. Women, the poor, and foreigners often had no rights at all. The caste system in India, the concept of dhimmi in Islam, and the ideas of a “master race” are built on the ideological foundation that all people are not created equal. Concern for universal human rights did not become widespread until the 18th century, and then primarily in Christendom. Because of the inherent sense of right and wrong that God has placed into man, most people feel guilty about doing wrong to others, but history suggests that “thou shalt not kill” has more traction than “all men are created equal”.

“Civil rights” are commonly defined as those rights which are granted by a government to its citizens to promote equality. They are political, social and economic rights that the government must monitor and protect. People who believe that individuals have rights but refuse to believe in God may argue that human rights and civil rights are the same thing. Logically this would mean that in truly democratic countries, those in which the people hold the reins of power, the citizens grant rights to themselves. In non-democratic countries, citizens would receive only such rights as the rulers gave them. In such situations rights might differ between countries or cultures. The end of the story is that without God, human rights and civil rights are neither universal nor irrevocable.

“Civil liberties” are fundamental freedoms that the government must stay out of in the lives of its citizens. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press are examples. One government professor summarized that civil liberties are about freedom and civil rights about equality.

A Christian Approach to Human Rights, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

As Christians approach the issue of human rights we must remember that man has no rights before God. He creates us and sustains us, and the Lord is never in our debt. His character, His will and His laws are the ultimate authority in the universe. The Bible clearly teaches that all people are equal. Certain universal rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are the logical consequences of such Bible truths. Civil rights are not granted by governments but are derived from the God-given human rights which are themselves derived from God’s Law. Civil liberties, likewise, are based on the freedoms that God provides his creatures as revealed in the Bible. As such, human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties are universal and irrevocable.

Once a people abandon the Biblical basis of human and civil rights, so called “rights” can arise which are not rights at all and which can even deny real human and civil rights to certain groups. Controversies masquerade as human rights issues which have more to do with sin and selfishness than real human rights. In the infamous Roe v. Wade decision on abortion in 1973, the US Supreme Court decided that a woman’s “right to privacy”, a tenuous “right” based at most on inference from the Constitution, takes precedence over her baby’s right to life. Christians must have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and must utterly reject such reasoning. The Bible is our guide, and we must be transformed by it.

Ensuring that we know the issues and know the Scriptures intimately, followers of Jesus Christ must advance the cause of Biblically based civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less. But we must also oppose sin and selfishness masquerading as civil rights wherever and whenever we live. Jesus did no less.

Believers should advocate for civil rights in the name of social justice to advance social equality. It is also important for followers of Jesus to advocate for civil liberties to advance freedom in society. We must keep these in balance; taking money from the rich to help the poor may advance social equality but it also hinders civil liberty. Limiting freedom of speech to protect one group necessarily harms another.

Conclusion

Human rights, civil rights and civil liberties ultimately begin at the throne of God. Those who would promote equality and freedom must begin there. In our messy world, however, the fruits of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties are poorly distributed and incomplete. The final solution to these problems lies in the heart of each man. Government can help but can also hinder, whether by ham-handed intervention or by tyranny. Businesses and other organizations can do the same. The best hope of “liberty and justice for all” is found in “one nation under God”, and even more in each man under God. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers (#51):

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

When each man is under God he becomes a better man, more like an angel, and more able to safeguard human rights, civil rights, and civil liberties for all.

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day is a special day in America, whether your candidate wins or not. 

On 21 January 2013 I served as the deputy tactical commander for US military medical forces at the 57th Presidential Inauguration, opening the second term for President Barack Obama. All told, nearly 200 military and hundreds of civilian medical personnel provided care to the estimated 800,000 spectators and 10,000 participants. Hundreds of patients ultimately found their way to the dozens of medical tents, aid stations, roving medics, and others involved. Most people were simply cold and aching but a few had heart problems and other more serious conditions. Our National Capital is a beautiful place and the parade was a panoply of music and color. Regardless on one’s political convictions or voting record, everyone on our team was proud to have been a part of this event.

This was my third inauguration; I was the deputy commander of forces from Dewitt Army Community Hospital in 2009 and a spectator at the Bush Inauguration in 2001. In each case I was struck by how many people stayed to watch the presidential motorcade and how few to watch the parade. Even though the motorcade was delayed by over 30 minutes yesterday most of the people lining the route remained. After the president’s armored limo, preceded by press trucks and surrounded by Secret Service, passed by, thousands of spectators disappeared. It was as if the highlight of the day was a chance to see the President.

Two women, African Americans in their early 20s, jumped with joy as he passed, shouting to him and blowing kisses. They had been Democratic campaign volunteers, having spent hours on the phone and door to door grind. Some other black women argued, albeit good naturedly, with each other about which of them Obama had actually waved at. As the limo crept past shouts erupted from the onlookers. Many donned Obama hats, wore Obama T-shirts and carried Obama bags.

I could not help but puzzle at the fascination; almost worship, shown by many in the crowd to the president. Presidents are not generally exceptional in other things that generate such adoration, such as appearance, wealth, or talent in drama, sports or music. Though Obama has a unique standing among African Americans, who were very well represented yesterday, Bush also enjoyed such attention. What is it about the President of the United States that engenders such devotion? How does this feeling continue, though diminished, into the second term despite the inevitable disappointments?

From an economics standpoint, scarcity is a factor. The country needs a president, there are 330 million Americans and there is only one American president, so the supply and demand curve is heavily skewed in his favor. This is certainly one advantage that the president has over Congress and the Courts.

From a success standpoint, simply becoming president makes a person more successful, at least in the eyes of the world, than most people will ever be. Though presidents rarely have movie-star looks or talent, they have been reasonably well appointed and gifted. Success breeds success, and people feel more successful when they are around a successful person.

From an historical standpoint, presidents are part of history, no matter how good or bad, and people with a sense of history, no matter how small, want their fleeting lives anchored in something bigger than themselves. In 2005 I was deployed to Fort Polk to assist with the rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While there I visited the Los Adaes State Historic Site and met a worker whose ancestor had been the commander of the Presidio Los Adaes in the early 18th century. When visiting Antietam for the sesquicentennial my son and I were guided by a Park Ranger whose ancestor had fought in the battle. Their history had given these men direction and even purpose, and being a part of presidential history can do that for some.

From a personal interest standpoint, the President, more than any other single individual in America, can advance the interests of one person or party over another. Between the bully pulpit, the appointment of judges, the enforcement of legislation, and the control of the massive executive bureaucracy, the President of the United States can heavily influence who wins and who loses in many fights.

The single greatest factor in the appeal of the presidency is power. While the President exerts control on the domestic scene, he also exerts tremendous power internationally. The American president controls the most powerful military on earth, and the most powerful in human history. Insofar as he can work with Congress he holds vast wealth to distribute to whomever he sees fit. Those who claim that the President of the United States is the most powerful man on earth are probably not too far off the mark. Whether he is too powerful (or some might say not powerful enough) will be the topic of a future article.

All of these factors help us understand the fascination of the onlookers yesterday with the president. But in some cases even more is at play.

The president might be the closest thing to God that some accept. Many refuse to believe in the Biblical God and yet understand that they cannot personally make the world as they wish it to be. So they try to find someone else who can do it for them. Perhaps this is the real reason that Americans are giving their presidents more and more power. Perhaps that is why some Americans make their president an object of veneration.

Those who refuse to accept any reality beyond the physical world must attribute to this world the highest priority. Governing this world then gains the highest urgency. Could this be why zealots left and right seem to hate those who disagree with them, even though they are fellow Americans? Could this explain “gridlock in Washington?” Finally, could this explain the emergence of what many have called The Imperial Presidency?

President’s Day – Christians and the President

American Presidents are extraordinary, and they are ordinary. We should value, and can learn from, them all. 

This President’s Day, it is reasonable for Americans who follow Jesus to consider the President of the United States, the man and the office, and to commit ourselves to praying for him, for the rest of our government at every level, and for our nation.

“The conclusion of a brief speech made by Gen. Garfield at a mass meeting in front of the Merchants’ Exchange in New York City, April 15, 1865, the day of President Lincoln’s death. The excited throng was demanding vengeance upon certain newspapers for utterances considered treasonable; two men lay dying in the street for exulting in assassination, and telegrams from Washington gave intimations of other probable victims of a general conspiracy. At this critical moment, a man known to but few stepped forward, and, beckoning to the crowd with a small flag, spoke these words in a clear and impressive voice:

‘Fellow-citizens,—Clouds and darkness are round about Him. His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of his throne. Mercy and truth shall go before his face. God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.’
The effect was instantaneous. The crowd listened, and became calm, and the meeting afterwards was quietly dissolved (http://www.bartleby.com/344/187.html).”

The Power of the President

The President of the United States is considered the most powerful man in the world; primarily because the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. He has command of a military of over 3,000,000 and influences a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion dollars. There are over 310 million Americans, almost 5% of the world’s population, and the US gross domestic product is over $15 trillion, over double that of China, who has the second biggest economy. For the brief time that he is in office, the man who is the President is the personification of America. His may be the most recognizable face on the planet, with people everywhere seeing his face on television, on the Internet, in magazines, and in a thousand other venues.

Within the United States, the power of the President is unequaled. He has what Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit”, the ability to be heard, but not necessarily agreed with, nationwide on any issue of his choosing. The president will always be more popular than Congress or the Supreme Court because, unless he is an idiot or a sadist, it is always easier to like and harder to dislike an individual than an organization. From 1975 to 2010, Congress’ job approval rating averaged about 35% (http://www.gallup.com/poll/145238/Congress-Job-Approval-Rating-Worst-Gallup-History.aspx) while the President’s, though much more variable, has most often been in the 40-50% range (http://www.gallup.com/poll/124922/Presidential-Approval-Center.aspx). The president has the power to unilaterally modify legislation through signing statements and Federal rulemaking, and can move the executive branch through executive orders. He can also decide to enforce certain laws and disregard others. Congress and the Supreme Court can do little except by consensus and the courts can decide on only what comes to them.

The Demands on the President

We have had good presidents and we have had poor presidents, but regardless of the qualities of the man the American people, and many others throughout the world, put great faith in him. Making the world safer in an age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, encouraging the equitable distribution of scarce resources, protecting the Earth’s climate, and helping safeguard human rights for all is a nearly impossible task, but we expect our president to do all of these things. Simultaneously he needs to laugh when we laugh, cry when we cry, and grow angry when we are angry. Americans expect the president to inspire them when they are discouraged and point the way to a brighter future. It is a burden no man can fully bear, but the best among us can handle for a time.

No one who has never been president understands the diamond-crushing pressure, the microscopic scrutiny, the impossible expectations, and the gravity of the decisions inherent to the office. When Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1945, he famously asked Eleanor Roosevelt what he could do for her. Eleanor replied “Is there anything that we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

The Limitations of the President

Though presidents have tremendous power and control an impressive array of resources, people, money and expertise, they are not able to do whatever they wish. The Founders specifically limited the power of the presidency to prevent tyranny. Government was and is limited, and the citizens of America have a vital interest in keeping it that way. This is because government is comprised of people, and we all have the same corrupt nature. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Unlike more autocratic nations, the United States has multiple centers of power which limit the president. Corporations and other organizations can and do vigorously oppose him at times. Citizens vote every four years to keep or replace the president, and the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution ensures that no one can ever be president more than 10 years.

Putting Hope in the President

Too many people put too much hope in a president. For reasons good and bad, his power is always limited. Presidents and other political figures, no matter how good they are, will always disappoint. Presidential satisfaction levels are nearly always high when he first takes office, and drop off significantly thereafter. Presidents are men, and even the best, like Lincoln or Washington, sometimes failed. King David, one of the best leaders in history, failed spectacularly. And as noted in the introduction, presidents die. Through natural processes, accidents or the hands of others, the Great Equalizer strikes down even the most capable, the most likeable, and the most powerful.

What should Christians Do?

As Christians, we must pray for the president, both the office and the man. We must pray for Congress, the Supreme Court, and all of the other executives and legislative bodies that govern our land. Shortly before the 2012 Presidential Election, a woman in my church told me in passing that she was praying for the presidency, but not the president, with whom she vehemently disagreed. Though that opinion might sound good to some Christians, to whom Barack Obama’s policies are anathema, Jesus would have vehemently disagreed. He commanded His followers to “pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).” The Apostle Paul wrote “Bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14).” No U.S. President in history can compare to Herod or Nero.

Believers in Christ should be active in all aspects of life, including politics, to try to “form a more perfect union.” If governments at all levels in the United States are truly governments of the people, by the people and for the people, such governments are not our enemy. When they do wrong, however, the Church must oppose them, as Friedrich Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did against Hitler.

But we must never place our hope in a man or in any group of men. Psalms 146:3-4 reminds us “Put not your trust in princes, [nor] in the son of man, in whom [there is] no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Though governments seem to have so much power, God still reigns (Psalm 2). When Pontius Pilate, the appointed governor of Judea in the Roman Empire, told Jesus that he had the power to free Him or condemn Him, Jesus replied “you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (John 19:11).”

James Garfield, on that somber day in April 1865, got it exactly right: “God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.”

Veteran’s Day

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, the holiday proclaimed by US President Woodrow Wilson on 11 November 1919 to mark the end of the “Great War”, also known as the “War to end all wars”, World War 1. Sadly, the very fact that the number one follows the words “world war” reminds us that another, even more terrible war followed only 20 years later. On 1 September 1939, World War 2 began. After the carnage of this second disaster, veterans petitioned the US government to change the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, honoring all veterans of all American wars. On 1 June 1954, this change became law.

Violence, evil and war are sad but real parts of the fallen world in which we live. Police protect us as individuals from violence at home, and soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines protect us from the greatest earthly threats, personal and even national destruction in time of war. Veteran’s Day is a time to remember those who have stood in the gap between America and her enemies. These men, and increasingly women, have guarded our freedoms and won the freedoms of others through their sweat, their tears, and their blood. All Americans must honor their sacrifice, and must consider what we as individuals can do for our country. All must be good citizens, paying taxes, obeying the laws, and working hard to contribute to their families and communities. Some must take the mantle of military service, taking the place of those who have gone before.

The following letter demonstrates the spirit of a man who truly understood the nature of his life and the necessity of sacrifice. It is one of my favorites. The letter was written in 1940 by the copilot of a Wellington bomber in Britain’s Royal Air Force, Flying Officer Vivian Rosewarne. He was killed in action shortly afterwards.

An Airman’s Letter to His Mother

Dearest Mother:

Though I feel no premonition at all, events are moving rapidly and I have instructed that this letter be forwarded to you should I fail to return from one of the raids that we shall shortly be called upon to undertake. You must hope on for a month, but at the end of that time you must accept the fact that I have handed my task over to the extremely capable hands of my comrades of the Royal Air Force, as so many splendid fellows have already done.

First, it will comfort you to know that my role in this war has been of the greatest importance. Our patrols far out over the North Sea have helped to keep the trade routes clear for our convoys and supply ships, and on one occasion our information was instrumental in saving the lives of the men in a crippled lighthouse relief ship. Though it will be difficult for you, you will disappoint me if you do not at least try to accept the facts dispassionately, for I shall have done my duty to the utmost of my ability. No man can do more, and no one calling himself a man could do less.

I have always admired your amazing courage in the face of continual setbacks; in the way you have given me as good an education and background as anyone in the country: and always kept up appearances without ever losing faith in the future. My death would not mean that your struggle has been in vain. Far from it, it means that your sacrifice is as great as mine. Those who serve England must expect nothing from her; we debase ourselves if we regard our country as merely a place in which to eat and sleep.

History resounds with illustrious names who have given all; yet their sacrifice has resulted in the British Empire where there is a measure of peace, justice and freedom for all, and where a higher standard of civilization has evolved, and is still evolving, than anywhere else. But this is not only concerning our own land. Today we are faced with the greatest organized challenge to Christianity and civilization that the world has ever seen, and I count myself lucky and honoured to be the right age and fully trained to throw my full weight into the scale. For this I have to thank you. Yet there is more work for you to do. The home front will still have to stand united for years after the war is won. For all that can be said against it, I still maintain that this war is a very good thing: every individual is having the chance to give and dare all for his principle like the martyrs of old. However long the time may be, one thing can never be altered – I shall have lived and died an Englishman. Nothing else matters one jot nor can anything ever change it.

You must not grieve for me, for if you really believe in religion and all that it entails that would be hypocrisy. I have no fear of death; only a queer elation … I would have it no other way. The universe is so vast and so ageless that the life of one man can only be justified by the measure of his sacrifice. We are sent to this world to acquire a personality and a character to take with us that can never be taken from us. Those who just eat and sleep, prosper and procreate, are no better than animals if all their lives they are at peace.

I firmly believe that evil things are sent into the world to try us; they are sent deliberately by our Creator to test our mettle because He knows what is good for us. The Bible is full of cases where the easy way out has been discarded for moral principles.

I count myself fortunate in that I have seen the whole country and known men of every calling. But with the final test of war I consider my character fully developed. Thus at my early age my earthly mission is already fulfilled and I am prepared to die with just one regret: that I could not devote myself to making your declining years more happy by being with you; but you will live in peace and freedom and I shall have directly contributed to that, so here again my life will not have been in vain.

Your loving son

The nature of life is that sacrifice never ends on this side of the grave. Parents sacrifice money, time, and much of themselves for their children, and this does not end when the children grow up and leave home. Children sacrifice for their aging parents, and we all sacrifice for the ailing in our family and friends. The rich give to the poor (Leviticus 23:22). Even the sick and disabled are not exempt; they give what they can for the benefit of others. Abraham was preeminent over Lot, but he still gave the younger man the first choice of the land (Genesis 13:8-12). The prophet Jeremiah sacrificed marriage and family for the sake of his ministry (Jeremiah 16:2). The widow had little, but she gave what she had (Mark 12:41-44). On the cross, the dying Jesus cared for the thief (Luke 23:42-43) and for His mother (John 19:26-27). No one is exempt from the requirement of sacrifice for the benefit of others, and that sacrifice has no end.

Flying Officer Rosewarne’s sacrifice ended on the next mission, but thankfully most veterans’ sacrifice does not. America has thousands of veterans who survived despite terrible injuries such as the loss of multiple limbs. Each of us must do our part to help them in their recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration. We do this in part in gratitude for what they have done, but even more to help them prepare for sacrifices yet to come. Soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan for the benefit of their countrymen know something about sacrifice; that is why they serve. This does not change when they are injured. Though most can no longer serve in uniform, they can serve as teachers, businessmen, fathers, husbands, and in a thousand other ways. The same is true for injured female veterans. Like all of us, they will continue to sacrifice for the benefit of others to their dying day.

Veteran’s Day highlights the sacrifices of those who have served in uniform. Let us remember their sacrifices, and the sacrifices that we all must make, as we travel life’s highway.

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