What Adventists Get Wrong about the U.S. in Prophecy

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In church this past Sabbath, I listened to a sermon about the United States in biblical prophecy. The sermon was part of a prophecy series (Unlock/Unlocking Revelation) that is being preached across the Lake Union Conference, not just in our single congregation (Media: WNEM5, MLive). I was told there are over 170 locations running the series simultaneously.

I like our local pastor. I respect him. My frustration with the sermon is not about him (I don’t believe he wrote the sermon). My frustration is about a very white-centric view of U.S. history. For context, the pastor is white, I’m white, and the majority of the small congregation is white (more so now than when we began attending three years ago).

After writing an initial draft of this blog post, I shared it with him so he could comment before I posted it. I’ve made a few revisions based on that hour-long conversation.

The basic theme of the sermon—and this is an overly simplified summary—was that the U.S. started as a good Christian nation, but now our laws are becoming bad, which is clear since we are losing our Christian freedoms. The breakdown of the family and laws that allow this were the key example of the current problems. Presumably this related to same-sex marriage, but this wasn’t stated outright. This degradation was paralleled with the second beast of Revelation 13, the one that has horns like a lamb but speaks like a dragon.

So what the sermon was really saying by describing a fall from good to bad was that slavery did not discredit the early great Christian version of America. The U.S. was still godly. But today U.S. laws don’t support a certain version of Christian ideals relating to the family, so now we’re falling. However, this disregards the generations of families in slavery who were ripped apart as they were bought and sold (more than 10 million ^arrived^ in the New World, plus those born here; besides all those who died or were killed while crossing the Atlantic). How’s that for “Christian family values”? The abuse of those families didn’t invalidate the great Christian start to this country, but gay marriage does?

If our biblical interpretation demands that we disregard the violent injustice experienced by millions of people, then based on the centrality of justice to God’s Word, I propose that we reconsider our interpretation, or at least add a bit of nuance.

If one accepts the overall Adventist understanding of Revelation 13, then I propose a simple alteration of the sermon’s message: understand both features (lamb-like horns and dragon-like speech) throughout its history instead of saying one was earlier and the other was later. That is, at its start the U.S. had an appearance of godliness (lamb-like appearance), but it spoke like a dragon (slaves not treated as humans, at best counted only as three-fifths human). Injustice in word and action despite a religious appearance have continued in different forms ever since, and these require a persistent critique. To this end, I shared a small book with the pastor—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

This approach is in line with early Adventist views (not that early is necessarily right or best, but merely demonstrates that my proposed interpretation is hardly novel). Adventist historian Doug Morgan writes about those Adventists:

Challenging the prevalent postmillennialist conception of the United States as an instrument of progress toward the millennium, they asserted that apocalyptic Scripture cast the Republic as a persecuting beast. They pointed to slavery and the Protestant establishment’s intolerant treatment of dissenters as evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy. (Adventism and the American Republic, 2001, p. 11).

After our conversation, the pastor decided his interpretation could have been kept in place while being supplemented with the admission that the ideals expressed in the nation’s founding documents are the key point while also admitting we have not done a good job of living up to those ideals.

This racial issue was my main disagreement with the way U.S history and God’s values were portrayed, but there were three other points that were less central to the sermon’s main arguments. First, and I don’t remember the exact wording, the violent entrance of Columbus and the conquistadors was greatly minimized (something like: they joined the people already here).

Second, yes the Bible says there will be persecution, but I’m frustrated when American Adventists accept the view that American Christians are being greatly persecuted today. Allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry is not persecuting Christians; Christians are still free to worship however we like. There is a difference between being persecuted and simply not being able to force one’s values or morals on others. We want our civil and religious freedoms, so let’s extend that concern to all others as well.

Third, the quick rise of U.S. power was described as a blessing from God. I cringe a bit when I hear this argument because I believe slavery was a key factor in our economic development. Later military dominance became another unjust tool for economic expansion. For starters, consider Smedley Butler,* John Perkins, or the case of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala (Wiki, GWU). To say that growth of the U.S. economy and our subsequent place of power in the world is simply because of God’s blessing is to sweep too much history under the rug.

In conclusion, if the Adventist interpretation of prophecy is correct, then surely it can be presented in balanced and meaningful ways that don’t (a) ignore gross injustices such as slavery and imperialism and (b) accept popular definitions of Christian victimization in the U.S. that ring hollow compared with true persecution seen in other times and also in other places today.

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*My favorite Smedley quote: “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

Note: This article was originally posted on Adventist Peace Fellowship blog under the title “Unlocking Revelation & U.S. History”. It has been republished with permission.

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2013_10_27_IMG_0098_webJeff Boyd is the managing editor of Adventist Today and the director of the Adventist Peace Fellowship. Formerly, he was the research coordinator at Tiny Hands International, a non-profit fighting human trafficking in Nepal. Jeff has undergraduate degrees in religion and psychology from Union College, an MBA from Andrews University, and an MA in peace studies from the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Jeff lives in Flint, Michigan (USA), with his wife and son.

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God’s Wedding Vows: A New Look at the Law

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The law of God, and namely the Ten Commandments, often takes a beating for being legalistic, old covenant, etc.  But Biblically, God’s commandments are simply a summing up of His character.  God is love (1 John 4:8).  The commandments are meant show what it means to love (Matthew 22:36-40).   I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Exodus 20 begins with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”  As Vara Prasad Deepati writes, “A recovery from bondage, a symbol of redemption, lies at the foundation of the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the Decalogue is not a legalistic code given to Israel, but a redemp­tive tie that defines the relationship of love that should exist between Israel and their mighty God”*

Yes, what if, instead of a list of commands, these ten statements are more meant to show a “redemptive tie,” a promise, a covenant…  Not of what we are going to do, but what HE is promising to do for us?  The church is described as Christ’s bride in scripture (Eph. 5:22-23, Rev. 19:7-10, etc.). And while attending a wedding, I listened as the couple made beautiful, personally written, vows to each other.  I think that’s when it dawned on me: God has made vows to us too!  And while we’re probably all familiar with them, we may have missed them altogether.  (Disclaimer, this is not meant to be Biblical exegesis, but maybe some food for thought 😉

And God said, I’m the God who brought you out of your bondage, out of those dark places that only you and I know.  I, that same God, vow to you this covenant:*

 

  1. You shall have no other gods before me. I promise to be faithful to you, and to help you to be faithful to me alone. When other things or people threaten to get between you and I, I will help you.  I want to be the one who occupies the first spot in your thoughts, your affections, and your dreams.  While I created you to love others, you do not need to furiously seek them to fill the void in your life.  I long to show you that I am enough for you, that when I am your first love, everything (and everyone) else will fall in place. You will be satisfied.

 

  1. You shall not make for yourself any idols. I promise to jealously protect your freedom. You can get rid of those things that remind you of the life you left. The things of this earth are here to serve you, not to trap you into service to them.  The sins of your past, and even your family’s past may weigh heavily on you.  But don’t make memorials to them in your mind and heart. I have freed you in my mercy.  What ties you to the old life? Money? Entertainment? Culture? Unhealthy relationships? Anger?  I want to free you from those idols.

 

  1. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. I promise to give you my name. And when I talk about my name, I don’t just mean the letters in my titles.  My name is who I am – it is my character.  When you become mine – my spouse – you take my name too.  You are a representative of my character.  It’s not a light thing.  Many have rejected me because of those who claimed to be my followers.   But not so with you.  I want to make it so that you actually become like me!  When people see you, they will see me through you.  You have entered into a royal position.  I want to show you what it means to be royalty.

 

  1. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holyI, the God and Creator of the universe, promise to set aside holy time just for you and I. In order for you to be faithful, filled, and united to me, we need our time together.  Yes, we can spend time together everyday, but on the seventh day I have set aside the whole day just for you.  Please choose to spend it with me too – it’s irreplaceable. This is the day when I remind you that just as I created you, I am recreating you. I have purchased you, and married you. I long to renew you – mind, body, and spirit.  Every Sabbath, I will be there waiting.

 

  1. Honor your father and your mother.  I promise to provide honor and care for your earthly parents. Because I love you, I love your family too.  You are my gift to them.  Just as you love and respect me, they also deserve your love and respect.  Show your parents that you care.  Help them with their needs.  Help to preserve their lives, just as they were commissioned to preserve yours when you were a child.  Even if your parents have fallen short in fulfilling their commission, I will bless you for blessing them anyways.  Your longevity and inheritance are in my hands.  As you bless, you will be blessed.

 

  1. You shall not murder. I promise to make you a fountain of life.  Don’t just avoid causing death, but do everything you can to preserve life. Protect the innocent.  Fight for the oppressed.  Stand up for what’s right.  As the Creator, I value life – I value your life – and I value the lives of those around you.  You can give or take life by not only what you do, but also by what you don’t do.  And life is not just physical.  I’m empowering you to give life to people’s hearts and souls.  That’s why I said that hate is like murder in your heart.  Instead of death and hate, I want to make you an agent of life and love.

 

  1. You shall not commit adultery. I promise to be faithful to you. And just as you have promised to be faithful to me, so you also are to be faithful in your human relationships.  When you commit to your earthly spouse, you are committing to them alone.  This doesn’t just mean physically, but in your heart and mind as well.  Show your spouse the beauty of the faithfulness that I show you – in your relationships with others, what you look at, and even what you think about. Even before marriage, be faithful to that future spouse.  Save yourself for me and them alone.  I want to give you a sexuality of the utmost purity.  In a world that sells sex, I use marriage as an analogy for my relationship with you.  What the world has attacked, I long to redeem in you.

 

  1. You shall not steal.  I promise that as you give yourself away, I will give you all you need.  While people may take from you what is not theirs, you can give because I give to you.  Really, all that you have is mine.  So even trying to cling to what’s “yours” instead of using it as I ask you is really stealing.  Let me have your stuff – your possessions, your money, your time, your whole life.  I promise that if you don’t withhold it, I will make better use of it than you ever thought possible.  So give – to the poor and needy, the hungry, the spiritually destitute, and even your enemies, as I lead you.  It’s all mine anyways, and I always provide for you. Don’t steal from the world the world the blessing I designed you to be to it. Give your life away  – as I gave mine for you.

 

  1. You shall not bear false witness.  In a dark world, I promise to make you a beam of pure, truthful light. In what you say, and what you don’t say, let it shine the true light of my glory.  Remember again that you are a witness of my character.  And a ‘witness’ has seen or experienced something first hand – like you do in relationship with me.  It’s not just what you say, but who you are that gives a true or false witness.  Your neighbors are watching you.  Your lack of truthful testimony hurts them – when you fail to share me with them, you lie and steal from them. Don’t be afraid to stand.  Don’t be afraid to be a witness of our relationship. I am with you. I will help your life to shine.

 

  1. You shall not covet. I promise to fill you so much that you do not need to be envious of others’ things, relationships, spirituality, or anything else that someone else has and you do not. Don’t set your mind on these things.  In doing so you take your eyes off of me and start walking by sight instead of faith.  You are bound to get tripped up.  Instead, thank me for what I’ve given you.  Claim my promises!  You don’t have because you don’t ask.  Seek me, and I’ll add everything else.  I am the God who gives all that you need – and more. Remember that these are my promises to you – my covenant. Will you commit to me? Even beyond death, I will be faithful.

*Deepati, Vara Prasad. “The Ten Commandments: A law to be obeyed or promises to be celebrated?” Ministry Magazine, June 2012.
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KKK–In my Blood, Not my Heart

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I walked into the bedroom as my mom was cleaning out my grandmother’s dresser and spotted a strange white bathrobe lying on the bed. “What’s this?” I asked, grabbing the unfamiliar garment and impulsively pulling it over my shoulders and slipping my arms in the sleeves.

My mom’s eyes widened a little as she turned around and saw me wearing it. “Do you know what that is?” She had an odd look on her face. “That’s your great-grandfather’s KKK robe.”

A chill went through me as I stared at her in disbelief. She was serious! I looked down at the robe, then touched it gingerly.

An unfamiliar insignia was sewn on the breast of the robe. A stiff cone-shaped piece of the same cloth lay nearby on the bed, with odd flaps extending from the back. As the astonishment wore off, I picked it up and turned it around slowly, recognizing the hat shape from a Little House on the Prairie KKK program I had seen years before.

It’s hard to describe the sensation of looking at a symbol of cold bigotry and knowing it belongs in your family. Anger? Shame? Grief? What exactly is a person supposed to feel when they see hard evidence that someone whose blood runs in their veins embraced something so evil? It’s almost like finding out that your ancestor was a serial killer.

And yet, I felt a numb curiosity—an urge to connect with this man I never knew, to plug into his mind and comprehend the mystery of what drove him to think in unfathomable ways. On impulse, I went into the bathroom to look in the mirror. There was a long, strange cape sewn on the back of the neck of the robe, with two small holes cut in it. Eye-holes? Apparently the cape was supposed to go over my head. I hesitated, then unfastened the neck and pulled the cloth over my head, positioning my eyes so they could see through the holes. My neck is longer than his was, I thought absently, a little grateful to know there was at least one tangible physical difference between us. I tucked the cape into the neck under my chin, then buttoned the neck again and fitted the cone-shaped hat over my head with the flaps going down the back behind my neck.

On impulse, I turned out the light and then lifted my eyes to look in the mirror.

I gasped and shuddered in involuntary shock at the image looking back from the glass. There was no trace of me in the mirror anymore. Instead, an ancient Klansman glowered back at me.

This was my heritage—a legacy of cowardice, of hiding behind a cloak, of threatening others from a vantage point of of supposed security and conscious supremacy. The flesh inside the robe now was related to the flesh that used to flaunt this garment with pride. There’s not that much difference between him and me—only years. Years and mindsets.

I recall my grandmother speaking reluctantly, softly, once or twice about her childhood memories of going to the KKK picnics. They were not unlike any typical Sunday School picnic, with her gleefully scampering around playing with other children for hours. But in the evening, she remembered soberly watching a burning cross silhouetted against the black sky.

But as she grew up, Grandma rejected the philosophy that her father had embraced so passionately, refusing even to bury him in his KKK robe as he had requested. She came to believe that every person was of equal value in God’s sight, without regard to race, ethnic background or religion. Thankfully, she passed on that heritage to me.

Had I been raised as she was, perhaps I would have shown less courage than Grandma. I’ll never know. However, I am thankful that I can stand on her shoulders, and that my children can stand on mine. I married a man who not only believes as passionately as I do in racial reconciliation, but even did his doctorate on the topic, and fought tirelessly to bring the races together in South Africa and Zimbabwe, long before I met him. Together we work, in our own small circle, to spread the gospel truth that every human being—no matter their size, shape or color—is priceless in the eyes of God.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with the same urges that drove my great-grandfather, though. On the contrary, they are written into my DNA as a sinner. How often have I felt like I am somehow higher than someone else? Do weight problems, intellectual limitations, fashion choices or any of a million other factors tempt me to look down on others because they are not like me? I can even easily congratulate myself on the fact that I’m not a racist like he was—thus giving in to the same self-exalting impulse.

Sinners love bigotry. It is the core of sin—the carnal craving to exalt self above others. Everything in us rebels against trusting what God says—that we are created in His image and redeemed by His blood, and this is the measure of how valued and loved we are. For some reason, we turn away from the one Fountain that would quench our insecurity. Incomprehensibly, we don’t want to believe that we are priceless—just like everyone else.

 So instead of quietly rooting secure identity in quality time with God every day, we huddle in mini-tribes with others like ourselves, scoffing at the lesser beings and congratulating ourselves on whatever makes us like each another and unlike those lesser people. We trample one another, vainly clambering on the rotting ladder of human rank and respect. We exalt leaders who build their very campaigns on disparaging people groups with whom we do not personally identify. We even want to make God over in our image, a neatly ordered Deity whose community is dependent on everyone keeping Their place in the holy hierarchy, instead of seeking the lowest place even with One Another. We ignore the very law of God that governs the universe—love. Love—the character of a God who came down to earth and, from the manger to the cross, voluntarily took the lowest place, in order to lift us up. We forget so easily that, because of Jesus, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

This week, I have been distressed to see stark evidences online that racism is alive and well in my neighborhood. Perhaps there is no more shameful way to demonstrate our disgraceful sense of superiority than to cloak ourselves in anonymity and scorn others without risking exposure or opposition. Instead of a white cloth with eyeholes, modern cowards may hide behind the anonymity of a veil of the Internet, confident they can spew disrespect without risking a loss of respect to themselves.

There will come a day that the scraps of cloth with eye-holes will be stripped away. Someday those who considered themselves above others—because of body shape, skin color, facial features, intellectual abilities, or any of a million other human measures of worth—will be rebuked by the One Who declared all equally priceless in the light of Creation and redemption.

The blistering contempt of other fallible humans is nothing to fear compared to the dreadful words that some will hear on the Judgment Day. “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who work iniquity.”

May we all repent of our bigotry before that day.

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387961_10151189420875204_236355998_nNicole Parker was once a zealot intent on changing the world, but is now an astonishingly domesticated homeschooling mom living in quite possibly the tamest town on earth–Collegedale, Tennessee. While engaged in her mundane tasks of chopping veggies and sweeping floors, she enjoys lofty theological ponderings, a pursuit also enjoyed by her husband Alan, a professor at Southern Adventist University. This penchant has led her to inch her way through a master’s degree in biblical counseling, and now has her devouring a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Andrews University. However, she has zero intention, and even less desire, to become a pastor. Check out her website at www.heartthirst.com

How To Keep Your Faith and Sanity While Following the Elections

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The American political season is in full swing with the 2016 Presidential campaign underway.

This has been an especially unusual election cycle, given that one of our own was running this year in Dr. Ben Carson. His recent exit from the race left some Adventists breathing a sigh of relief, while others in dismay. As the field narrows, and November 8 moves closer with each passing day, what are Adventist Christians to do?

Here are three general principles to keep your faith and sanity while following this election:

1. Avoid unreservedly endorsing a particular candidate or party.

According to the latest findings from the Pew Research Center, 35% of Adventists identify or lean towards Republican party ideals, 45% lean towards the Democratic side, and 19% consider themselves independent.The political preferences of U.S. political groups

Something inside me cringes when I hear statements like “Republicans are destroying our nation” or “Liberals are taking our country to hell in a hand basket.” Adventists should not be unapologetically Democrat or Republican.

The danger with unreservedly endorsing a candidate or any party as a Christian is believing that the solutions to this world’s problems will be solved by the election of human beings of a particular party into political office. While Fox News and MSNBC might disagree with this idea, the Bible and Ellen White back it up quite well. King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 (well-known to Adventists) tells us that what comes next in the timeline of Bible prophecy is the Kingdom of Christ, not a Republican or Democratic utopia.

Ellen White also spoke about the danger of partisanship when she said:

“There is fraud on both sides” she wrote in a “special testimony” sent from Australia to the General Conference session of 1897…Thus, she urged those for whom the Lord Jesus is “the Captain” to “file under his banner” and avoid “linking up with either party.” Adventists, she wrote two years later, have their “citizenship…in heaven…they are to stand as subjects of Christ’s kingdom, bearing the banner which is inscribed, ‘The commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.’”  Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, pg. 1038

2. If you absolutely must, speak to issues of justice and injustice.

Because all political parties are made up of broken people, we need to remember that, as believers, Christ doesn’t pick sides with anyone. Interestingly enough, in her day, “Ellen White became a fervent advocate of ‘movement politics’ – discriminating involvement in the political process on behalf of benevolent reform in contrast to partisan politics centering on advancing the power of a political party.”  -EGW Encyclopedia pg. 1037

Are there moral issues that need addressing in our day? Of course. Yet, it is a sad reality that the political arena pits, for example, pro-life causes against each other. While they each have their flaws, Democrats are stereotypically seen as the party that “kills babies” and Republicans are seen as the party that “hates minorities and immigrant rights.”

One writer wondered, “Why this tension between two groups fighting for human dignity? I think much of it is owed to our increasingly tribal and fractured culture.” Still, there are moral issues of justice and injustice to be faced and the Bible speaks firmly against the suppression of human rights.

One interesting anecdotal detail is that the early Adventist church made matters of justice and injustice a top priority. In conversation with Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review, he mentioned that early in its history, writers in the Review and Herald on occasion called out politicians directly, even by name. The reason for this was that Adventism saw itself as a counter-cultural movement, not encumbered by political partisanship (or endangering its non-profit 501(c)(3) status, but that’s another matter altogether).

Speaking up on matters of social justice include voicing concerns when politicians disparage entire people groups like the handicapped, immigrants, religious groups, and women. So, although I could have easily made an equally lengthy article against any of the candidates, I spoke openly against Donald Trump because, like Ellen White, I believe that we must push for “a government that protects, restores, relieves, but never savers of oppression.” Jesus said that we can’t read anyone’s heart, but we can get a good idea of where it lies by noticing the pattern of someone’s words and actions.

“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” -Luke 6:45

Still, there is a danger in both staying completely silent and being overbearing when it comes to politics. No one, especially pastors, should spend an inordinate amount of time studying, discussing, or posting about politics when there are other matters to attend. Ellen White went so far as to say:

“The tithe should not be sued to pay anyone for speechifying on political questions,” and any “teacher, minister, or leader in our ranks who is stirred with a desire to ventilate his opinions on political questions” must either “be converted” or give up working for the church, along with any credentials. -EGW Encyclopedia pg. 1039

3. Regardless of the outcome, follow and point people to Jesus.

In what is sure to descend into further madness leading to Election Day, Christ followers must stay above the fray. We must not believe the party narrative where the solution to the problems in this country is for “political correctness to go away” like Trump would advocate. The Bible explicitly counsels against this kind of unrestrained speech:

“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Proverbs 17:27

On the other side, we must also not believe that the church must exclusively work through the expansion of government social programs in order to impact the world. After all, the early church took more of a radical approach to personal possessions than even the Bernie Sanders campaign:

“And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.” Acts 4:32

People may have different interpretations about whether the above lifestyle is doable in a secular society, but the fact remains that it at least was possible in the early Christian community. To speak practically on one issue here as a Millennial pastor, while Bernie Sanders has a strong following of support from this generation, I have to ask myself if Millennials are more enamored with the idea of a church engaging in social justice than actually joining one to do it? This is a term that’s been labeled “slacktivism.”  Regardless of who wins, Christians who voted for a particular party or candidate will still have issues to work through.

The issues that divide people today will still exist after the election. We must remember that, at the end of the day, we are going to have to work and interact with people who believe differently than we do, religiously, philosophically, existentially, and yes, politically.

So, in this election cycle, yes, make your vote count; don’t stay home on November 8, 2016. Yet, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket; you may be disappointed when you realize your vote doesn’t usher in the Millennium. Focus on issues, don’t vote based on emotion or popular opinion, and remember that regardless of who is sworn in next, the Rock is still barreling towards the feet of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.

Until then, in matters of political and civil discourse, let’s remember the to follow the advice of Jesus’ own brother James:

“So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” James 1:9

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