Thursday, March 27, 2014

Where is the next James Madison?

If you want to stand in the room where America as an idea was conceived, visit Montpelier, where James Madison grew up, lived most of his life and died.

Montpelier is a beautiful place, nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. On clear days, you can see the peaks rising in the distance through the second-floor window in the library of the restored plantation house. I stood in that spot recently and trembled at the magnitude of what took place there, in the mind of one man.

You can imagine Madison looking out that very window for inspiration during the months he spent alone there before the historic summer of 1787, poring over his own books and the many volumes of history, philosophy and politics sent to him by his friend and political ally, Thomas Jefferson. When he emerged from his self-imposed intellectual retreat, Madison carried the ideas that would form the basis of the U.S. Constitution and its first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights.

Without those founding documents, our nation — which was then a shaky confederation of former colonies on the verge of squandering their hard-won independence from England — would not exist. And you would not enjoy the right to speak, worship, vote and assemble with others as you please. Neither would untold millions of other people across the world, freed from their chains by the ideas Madison not only forged but ceaselessly labored for, wrote about and campaigned to see ratified. 

To be sure, the encouragement of Madison’s great mentor Jefferson (who also wrote a little something called the Declaration of Independence) was crucial. So was the instant credibility George Washington brought when Madison persuaded the beloved revolutionary general to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Many others contributed to the basic principles that went into the Constitution, both during Madison’s formative years in the Virginia legislature and during the long, hot summer of the convention itself, where he spoke more than 200 times.

But without Madison in his finest hour, where would we be today?

“As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer,” wrote historian Garry Wills. “No man could do everything for the country — not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That was quite enough.”

He would go on to serve two terms as president, lead the young country through the War of 1812 and live until age 85, the last of the Founding Fathers to pass off the scene. Yet in that pivotal year of 1787, James Madison was 36 years old. And he was far younger when he began grappling with the ideas that would make him the “Father of the Constitution.”

I highlight Madison’s youth at the time in order to pose a question: Where are the Madisons of today? More specifically, where are the spiritual Madisons?

We keep hearing that the Millennials, born after 1980, are leaving churches in droves (or never joining in the first place), that they are wary of making commitments to faith communities, government, school, marriage or any other institution. They like having unlimited options, we’re told, and prefer digital social networks to joining or forming the groups that traditionally have held society together.

The Pew Research Center supplied more confirmation of those attitudes in its study released March 7, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.”

“The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood,” the study reported. “Now ranging in age from 18 to 33, they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry — and optimistic about the future. … [H]alf of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and about three in 10 say they are not affiliated with any religion. These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics.”

You have to give Millennials credit for being optimistic about the future, given the crummy economic and career prospects they’ve been handed. Maybe that’s the natural energy and hope of youth. The grim economic outlook of recent years, not to mention massive student debt, also explains part of their reluctance to get married and enter into other major social or financial commitments. The issue of trusting others, however, is revealing.

“Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust,” Pew reported. “In response to a longstanding social science survey question, ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?’ just 19 percent of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers [born from 1965 to 1980], 37 percent of [the Silent Generation, born from 1928 to 1945] and 40 percent of Boomers [born from 1946 to 1964].”

People tend not to interact with those they don’t trust — and definitely won’t willingly work with them, join churches or other voluntary organizations with them, or cooperate with them to keep civil society functioning.

Perhaps you’re a Millennial believer in Christ, but you’ve decided to take a pass on being part of a local church. It’s an outmoded institution encrusted with irrelevant traditions, you say. You’re “spiritual but not religious,” so you intend to worship on your own or with a few close friends. You plan to do ministry and missions that way, too, rather than bothering with bulky religious organizations that might waste your time and money.

It’s your choice. But consider this: What if James Madison had decided to go it alone after the American Revolution? He could have stayed at Montpelier and enjoyed his big Virginia plantation — and let others worry about a fledgling nation on the edge of collapse. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and plunged into the long, exhausting task of dialogue, debate, compromise and coalition-building that went into creating the United States of America out of the competing interests of 13 ornery colonies.

The church, a far older institution than the United States, is also the Body of Christ. Christ commands that we not only worship, serve and proclaim the Gospel alongside other sinners saved by grace, but that we love them. What a concept.  

In order to form a more perfect union, we must commit ourselves to renewing the imperfect one we have. We need you to be a part of it!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Karen Watson, 10 years on

Karen Watson knew Iraq was dangerous.

She had left the chaotic country months before, exhausted and afraid, as it descended deeper into violence. But she went back anyway. Not as a soldier, but as a Christian relief worker, armed only with love and humanitarian aid.

 That decision cost Karen Watson, 38, her life on a dusty road 10 years ago. But she had no regrets about going back. Karen wasn’t big on regrets; she had experienced too many of them already in her short life. She was big on obedience.

 “When God calls there are no regrets,” she wrote in a now-famous letter found in a sealed envelope marked “Open in case of death” among some things she left with her pastor, Phil Neighbors, at Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif., when she departed for the Middle East.   

 “I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations,” Karen said in the letter. “I wasn’t called to a place; I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward.”

She had joined the wave of foreign relief workers who rushed to Iraq after U.S. and coalition forces overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. But relief groups didn’t realize how quickly large areas of Iraq were becoming death traps as factional attacks and terrorism mounted.

On March 15, 2004, Karen and four other Southern Baptist humanitarian workers were driving back to Mosul after a day of visiting villagers in need of clean water. Gunmen pulled alongside their vehicle and opened fire, killing Karen and her co-workers Larry and Jean Elliott died on the spot. David McDonnall died hours after the attack. Carrie McDonnall, David’s wife, suffered multiple wounds but later recovered.

I had the opportunity to write about these workers and four other Southern Baptist missionaries killed in terror attacks since 9/11 in a book, “Lives Given, Not Taken: 21st Century Southern Baptist Martyrs” (, published in 2005. It gave me the chance to read their letters and journals, to talk to the widows, friends and colleagues, parents and children of these workers about their lives.

Karen Watson’s story struck the deepest chord in me. She overcame a difficult early life, a broken family, devastating losses of loved ones and years of emotional pain to become a bold and joyful servant. She packed a lifetime of loving Jesus into the nine years she knew Him as Savior before her death.

“Don’t make Karen into a saint,” urged a close friend. “She would hate that. She was pretty wild when she was young. But when she became a Christian, she turned around 180 degrees.”

So who, exactly, was Karen Watson? One tough gal, to hear some tell it. Before becoming a believer, she ran a pool hall. Later, as a detention officer with the Kern County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department, she handled potentially violent jail inmates and trained other deputies to quell disorder, by force if necessary.

During her first year as a believer, she was offered the  job with the Sheriff’s Department — and she seized the opportunity. Karen had a deep sense of justice, of right and wrong, which had been violated many times during her years of pain. Law enforcement represented a way to try to right some of those wrongs. And as a young Christian, Karen had by no means become a quiet, retiring nun. She was in charge — and when she felt it necessary, in your face.

“She was a straight shooter. She didn’t sugarcoat anything,” said Lt. Kevin Wright, her commanding officer and closest friend in the department. “I would hear her footsteps coming down the hall and know I was going to get a lecture about something. She would come in, close the door, sit on my desk and say, ‘We gotta talk.’”

Karen did her best at all times and expected everyone else to do the same. No slack, no excuses. Nearly everyone in the department liked her, though, because she backed her words with action, commitment and loyalty. “She was the kind of person you wanted on your side when the going got rough,” Wright said.

Inmates liked her, too. She was firm, but fair. “She was compassionate with them,” Wright recalled. “They knew they weren’t going to pull anything over on her, that she was strict and would enforce the rules. But she was willing to listen to them.”

Once Karen gave her heart to Jesus, He began the patient process of softening her, a process revealed in the journals she kept throughout her walk with God. They are a series of love letters from God to Karen, and from Karen to God, recording her pursuit of Him with all of her mind, body and soul.

“I'm not going to give anything to my Lord that will cost me nothing,” she wrote, way back in 1998.

 Many times during her life, Karen — like other children of broken homes — battled anger and bitterness, depression and loneliness, perfectionism and insecurity, the compulsion to rebel against authority. She also struggled with fear throughout her time in Iraq and freely admitted it.

But courage isn’t the absence of fear, as one of her pastors reminded listeners at her funeral. Courage is the laying aside of fear to obey God, trusting Him with the consequences.

When she was assigned by IMB to help coordinate post-war relief projects in Iraq, she sold her house and car and gave away most of her other possessions — whatever wouldn't fit in a large duffel bag. After relief work began in earnest, she worked with others to coordinate the distribution of thousands of food boxes sent by Southern Baptist churches and the rebuilding of damaged schools, among numerous other projects. One of her most cherished ministries: the “Widows Project,” a program that helped mostly nonliterate Iraqi women learn to read, gain work skills and generate income.

“Karen built relationships everywhere she went,” said a colleague. “People remember her. They remember the light in her countenance. They remember her friendliness.”

The spiritual battle intensified for Karen as the brutally hot summer months of 2003 passed. Threats against foreign civilians were increasing. She personally experienced several close calls in the Baghdad area as bombings and street attacks mounted. Gunfire woke her up at night; sleep seldom returned. It became overwhelming.

Karen left Iraq for several months, not knowing if she would ever return. She rested — mentally, physically, spiritually. She savored the feeling of having lunch with friends at McDonald’s without having to look over her shoulder or listen for explosions and gunfire. She studied Arabic. She spent many hours in prayer. As time passed, she confronted her anxieties about what was happening in Iraq. She studied key passages of God’s Word with close friends — grappling once again not only with current fears but with old wounds and heartbreak.

“Lord, in all my weakness I need Your strength for the future,” she wrote in her journal.

Karen was convinced it was time to return to Iraq. Shortly before she left, she bought a beautiful gold ring with several small diamonds. The purchase surprised friends, since Karen usually saved much of her small salary and lived on next to nothing.

“It looked like a wedding band,” said a friend. “I wore a wedding band before I got married, too, to remind me that Christ was my husband, that I wasn't alone.” She asked Karen if that was what she had in mind.

“Yes,” Karen replied with a radiant smile. “I guess that's it.”

When Karen’s friend learned of her death in Iraq only days later, she wept with everyone else. Then she remembered the wedding ring — and her weeping turned to tears of celebration: “It was her wedding day. Christ had so prepared her as a bride that she was completely without blemish. I don’t know if I have ever been with anyone who was more ready to meet Him face to face.”

Only Karen — and her beloved Bridegroom — know all the reasons why she returned to Iraq, and why she died there. But in the end, her joyful sacrifice wasn’t for needy Iraqis.

It was for Jesus.