If you can keep it

My Father’s Day present from my wife was the book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, by Eric Metaxas. In 1787, at the end of the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a certain Mrs. Powell, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin shot back, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

In all of world history, no nation had been founded on an idea. Nations had always been based around geography or ethnicity or tribal loyalty. But America was based on the idea that human beings were capable of governing themselves. That many nations have tried to imitate America in the years since should be a source of national pride.

Metaxas concisely describes the forces that came together on the North American continent that allowed America to come to be. He does this in a way that most readers have never considered before. The framers of the Constitution, though they came from different religious backgrounds, implicitly understood that the only way for self-rule to work was to have a population that regulated itself. Government could not possibly regulate private behavior without becoming authoritarian, and so freedom, virtue, and religion were inseparable. The framers believed that Americans were ready to give the experiment a try.

Everybody in the country should read it on this Independence Day weekend. In this season of unbelievably divisive political rhetoric, let’s reflect with Eric Metaxas on the wonder that is America.


Finding the extraordinary in us

“The puzzle is why so many people live so badly. Not so wickedly, but so inanely. Not so cruelly, but so stupidly.”

So says Eugene Peterson, in his book Run with the Horses. Peterson says we fail to live the full life we were created for. We do this “because we are convinced that we are plain and ordinary.” Our lives, our friends, the neighborhood where we grew up, all seem “undramatic.” “We see no way to find significance in such settings.”

Peterson has captured the problem in the 2015 movie, McFarland, USA, the story of a below-average football coach named Jim White, played by Kevin Costner. White keeps getting fired from coaching jobs for losing his temper. The only place he can find work is as a high school PE teacher in the poor farm town of McFarland, California.

White is a coach with no hope in a town with no hope.

White’s students are Hispanic kids who work in the fields before and after school every day. Their families need their labor just to survive, so the idea that the kids could be part of an athletic team, or one day go to college, is an impossible dream.

Yet the people of McFarland welcome White and give him a chance. He in turn sees something in them they had never noticed in themselves. Somehow they redeem each other.

McFarland, USA helps remind us that God has put the extraordinary in each of us, and he delights when we discover it.


At our church we’re starting a preaching series called “Summer at the Movies” in which we allow recent movies to prompt us to discuss questions of faith. We begin the series by exploring the question of doubt, with the movie Risen as a backdrop.

I grew up attending First Presbyterian Church in Ashland, Kentucky. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe. Most everyone said they believed back then; the question was where you went to church. My doubts centered on the way other Christians acted. Some people seemed to insist that they had a corner on the truth; that if you didn’t believe exactly the way they did, you were going to hell. I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with the Christian faith if believing meant being like them.

Surveys continue to say that one of the main reasons people stay away from church is the behavior of other Christians. If the Christian faith is true, it should make you humble and confident, not arrogant and condescending. .

In Risen, Joseph Fiennes plays a Roman Tribune named Clavius who is ordered by Pontius Pilate to investigate what happened to the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.
Nothing in Clavius’ worldview allowed him to believe that a person could come back from the dead. But Clavius kept an open mind. He followed the evidence.

It is really, really sad that some Christians are an obstacle to faith for many people. But the thing is, while other Christians may be obstacles at times to people with doubts, Jesus isn’t.

In Risen, Jesus, played by actor Cliff Curtis, is gracious and understanding to Clavius. He doesn’t try to browbeat Clavius into believing. He sits with Clavius and lets him wrestle with his doubts.

The real Jesus is like that too.


Last summer’s mega-hit was the animated feature Inside-Out, the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley whose world is turned inside-out when she has to move with her family to a new city. Inside-Out is one of those kids’ movies parents enjoy too, because it captures so many of the emotions we all experience growing up.

The movie depicts five different emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust as characters in Riley’s head competing for control. At first, Joy is in control, but when things go wrong, Sadness takes over. How is it that Joy and Sadness relate to each other? The message, at least in part, is that all of those emotions are normal and we need them all, in balance, to live a normal life.

The thing is, we live in a culture which claims life owes us happiness. As we discover that real life doesn’t work that way, may people create personas on social media to project to the world a life that is happy and pulled together. But the truth is, sadness is sometimes the most appropriate response to the things life throws at us. In the Bible, Jesus was called a “man of sorrows.” The word “smile” is only used in the Book of Job, and then in an ironic way.

The Christian faith offers us a way of looking at life that gives us hope, while at the same time acknowledging the world as it is, sadness and all. Jesus never just said, “Put on a happy face.” He promised to take the sadness we all experience and redeem it. He promised to make our joy more complete for the sad things we experienced in this world.

If I could made a sequel to Inside-Out, I would introduce a new character called Gospel, who Riley would meet at church with her parents. Gospel would gently work with all the other characters to keep them in their proper place. Gospel wouldn’t save Riley from sadness. Gospel would help Riley live a life worth living.

Saying “Yes”

Why do we prefer to do the things we know rather than do the new thing God is calling us to do?

My first assignment on active duty was Loring Air Force Base near Caribou, Maine.

Loring wasn’t the coldest of the bomber bases along the “northern tier” of the US. It wasn’t the most remote. It didn’t have the most snow (just 184 inches a year). But the combination of those factors made it the worst place to live overall.

The mission, nuclear alert during the Cold War, was characterized by hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Nobody wanted to be there, but the base was on the closure list, so headquarters was slow in sending replacement personnel. Assignments lasted five or six years.

One day, after only three years at Loring, I came to work and was surprised to find orders to fly reconnaissance planes out of Omaha. Now I would get to fly around the world. The people there loved the base and the mission. Everyone wondered how I got so lucky. I really didn’t know. Someone had told me recon was a good assignment, so I had put it on my dream sheet.

But then headquarters got serious about closing the base and sent a team to give new assignments to everyone. But guess what? No one asked for recon. Everyone wanted to keep flying bombers, doing the same thing they said they couldn’t stand.

The pattern for my career had been set. Every two or three years, the orders would come, and I would say “yes” to a new adventure. I ended up flying four different planes to my friends’ one. I got promoted two grades higher than most of my friends.

It’s funny, but this is pretty much how a life of faith works. Until you say “yes” to a new adventure, you’ll never know what God has in store.