Immigration History and Confusion in the Church

Polls suggest that just 12% of evangelical Christians say that they think of immigration primarily through the lens of the Bible.

We have a somewhat romanticized view of immigration in the US. All of us in the United States reading this article are the benefactors of immigration, unless your ancestors were all Native American. Thus, the vast majority of us have benefitted from the various waves of immigration to the US in the past.

My ancestors immigrated at various times from England, Wales, Germany, Switzerland and France. It’s no wonder, then, that I view our history of immigration with some appreciation and sentimentality, and I believe most people with European ancestry feel like I do in that respect unless.

If you have much Native American or African ancestry, then, your view might be a bit different. If you have Chinese ancestry, you might feel differently. If you had German ancestry in 1750’s, you also might feel differently, but I will get to that.

We also tend to view our immigrant ancestors as hard-working, honest, and lawful people checking off the right boxes, jumping through the right hoops and diligently observing the protocols demanded of them to enter the country. We have earned the right to be citizens through their noble and respectful efforts.

Most of us, me included in years past, don’t really know the history of immigration to the United States other than the generalized and romanticized notions we carry from the US history we learned s children.

I am not a big fan of the new approach to American history that downplays the great positives that characterize the birth of our nation and its unique place in the world as a leader in many facets of human existence from governance to industry, science, and technology, medicine and human rights and in many other ways. At the same time, I think we should be honest about our history.

Immigration in the New World was relatively open, with exceptions, before 1882. Benjamin Franklin advocated in 1751 to exclude Germans and Africans from settling in the New World because he was “partial to the complexion of my country”.[1] Alexander Hamilton “warned of the dangers of absorbing and especially naturalizing too many foreigners”.[2] In fact, it seems that fear of immigrants is (at least) as old as the New World itself.[3]

People like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington opposed those views at the time, though Jefferson’s opinion may have been motived by a perception that German immigrants were more apt to support him politically. Some things don’t change!

I am not going to recount all the history of immigration in the United States. I am sure I don’t know the half of it, but a few noteworthy historical markers might be instructive in these times.

My interest here is the evangelical church in the United States, of which I am a member. How should we as a church orient ourselves to the immigration issues in our time in light of Scripture?

Continue reading “Immigration History and Confusion in the Church”

American History through the Eyes of Four Female, African American Banjo Players: Our Native Daughters

Songs from Our Native Daughters is American history told with dignity, grace and tenderness.

National Museum of African American History and Culture photo by Frank Schulenburg Copyright: CC BY-SA 4.0

For Black History Month 2021, I was more intentional than I normally am to listen to the voices of black people in America and to learn a little black history.


Rhiannon Giddens photo at flickr.com cropped

I have appreciated the voices of many people, including Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the musical group, Carolina Chocolate Drop. Throughout Black History Month, she posted many biographies, and I followed her daily posts during the month.


So it was that I came across a project she created with a group of female, African American banjo players that was just released to the public. Yes, all banjo players, all female and all African American.

She set out to do an album of Americana music from the perspective of black history for Smithsonian Folkways. She put out a call for banjo players, like her, but she didn’t originally intend to gather together a group of four African American female banjo players: Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah and Rhiannon Giddens.

Four black female banjo players?!

It turns out she couldn’t have scripted a better group. The result of this collaboration is captured in song by the album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, and in the form of a documentary, Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters. Their story, which is the story of their ancestors, and a story of overcoming through struggle, is a poignant one.

They met at Cypress House Studio in Breaux Bridge, LA, an old Creole cabin with “stories in the walls”. Dirk Powell, a longtime collaborator with Giddens, owns the cabin that houses the studio, and he produced the album.

They set out to reinterpret an existing canon of Americana music as part of the black narrative in the Americas, but they found their own voices and creativity in the process. The creative force of their shared history and experience led them to produce mostly original music for the album in the genre of Americana.

Part of that shared experience is the history of the minstrel banjo and slave narratives that are common to their collective ancestry. Giddens discovered her own history through her love for the banjo, which was an instrument brought to the Americas by the African slaves. Giddens commented:

“African American history is American history. It is important to know who the founding fathers were, and it’s also important to know who built the White House…. [I]it’s important to know who built the railroads; and it’s important to know the nameless people….”

Thus, Giddens found her own voice in the process of collaborating, writing and playing music for this project. In telling the African American story through Americana music, the group says the hope to prompt people to ask, “What can we do to be better as a society and as humans?”   

Continue reading “American History through the Eyes of Four Female, African American Banjo Players: Our Native Daughters”

How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?

We have our gods, though we don’t give them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

My thoughts today are based on the story of Paul and Barnabas while they were in Lystra, a city in central Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. While Paul was speaking, his gaze came to rest on a man listening to him speak who was “crippled at birth”.

Paul saw the man had faith, so he loudly told the man to stand up. (Acts 14:8-10) The man sprang up, and the crowd was awed, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)

The people in Lystra were pagans. They worshiped Roman gods and, perhaps, other gods as well. They started calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and began making preparations to worship them.

When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, they were appalled! They rushed into crowd, saying, “Don’t do that! We are just men like you!” (Acts 14:14-15 (paraphrasing)). Then, Paul addressed his pagan audience like this:

“[W]e bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things[i] to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Acts 14:15-18

This is, perhaps, the first sermon preached in the early church to people who are not Jews. The pagans did not believe one God. They didn’t understand Mosaic Law, the concept of sin or the prohibition against worshiping idols considered to be false gods.

Thus, Paul didn’t address them as he did his Jewish audiences. He didn’t appeal to Mosaic Law, or accuse them of sin, or call them to repent.

Just as the Gospel is good news to the Jews, it is good news to the pagan Gentiles. The message, however, is different. Paul urged them merely to “turn from vain things to a living God”!

By “vain things” Paul meant their gods, the idols that the pagans worshiped. Instead of calling them idols, as he would have done to a Jewish audience, he referred to them descriptively by their character – their worthlessness, emptiness and utter inability to accomplish anything.

We have a hard time relating to idol worship in the 21st Century. Idol worship is so Bronze Age! Our ancestors long ago stopped believing in gods and sacrificing to them, right?

Tim Keller, in his sermon, The Gospel for the Pagan, paints a different story. These pagans were not so different from us.

In a polytheistic society, of course, people worshiped and sacrificed to a variety of gods. There was no supreme god. People had to decide what gods to worship. Thus, people chose gods to worship based on how those gods could help them.


A a merchant might sacrifice to the god of commerce. A farmer might sacrifice to the god of agriculture. Other people might sacrifice to the god of art and music, or love and beauty, or a combination of gods, depending on what was most important to them.

Keller says that sacrificing to the god(s) of choice was, in effect, worshiping the things people valued most. By sacrificing to the gods of commerce, agriculture, art and music, love and beauty, etc., they were worshiping whatever it was the god represented.  Whatever a person sought help for was the thing from which they sought meaning in life, hope and fulfillment.

Thus, says Keller, “vain things” (idols) are things that “promise fulfillment, but leave you empty”.

We may think of ancient pagans as a brutish and unsophisticated lot, but we are no different than they in the sense that we sacrifice for the things we think will fulfill and satisfy us. The only difference is that we have dispensed with the representative gods.

The person who values career, or accomplishment or being respected by peers as a matter of first priority will sacrifice for those things. The person who thinks that love, romance and family are the highest forms of meaning will devout primary attention to those things. The person who loves art and music will sacrifice for those things and from them seek meaning and fulfillment.

We aren’t that different, really from our pagan ancestors, though we might scoff at the idea of gods, as in idols. We have our gods, though. We just don’t call them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

Paul’s message to the pagans in Lystra was, “These are worthless things!” They can’t fulfill you. Only the Living God can do that. His message has more application to us in the 21st Century than we might think at first glance.

Continue reading “How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?”

The Extraordinary Generosity and Hospitality of CS Lewis

CS Lewis believed there are no ordinary people, and he lived as if it were so.

The statue outside the library in the Irish town where CS Lewis was born
depicts him, as the Narnia narrator Digory Kirke, stepping into a wardrobe.

Ever since I read Mere Christianity in college as a new believer I have been a lifelong admirer of CS Lewis. He may be better known for his children series of books, The Chronicles of Narnia. He wrote other fiction, including a trilogy of science fiction novels, but Lewis more than just a write of fiction.

Lewis was a first-rate Christian thinker with an ability to tease nuanced meaning out of complex ideas with rare clarity in his writing. Having been an atheist almost into his 30’s. Lewis came to Christianity with a wealth of knowledge in the classic languages and literature.

His autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy, is a literary cornucopia of allegorical references to the classics. Ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic and Germanic writings were the universe in which his mind operated and found meaning.

When he became a Christian, and he looked back on that wealth of knowledge with new insight, and, indeed, the language of classic literature became the background and (in some ways) the springboard for his belief in “the true myth”, as he came to call it: the life, death and resurrection of God who became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

While Lewis is known for being a Christian apologist in addition to being a writer of children’s fiction, he was first and foremost a scholar of classic literature. He was a lifelong professor of English Literature with tenures at Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954–1963). His books include a highly regarded and well-used critique of Paradise Lost and a textbook on Sixteenth Century English literature.  

To say that Lewis was a prodigious writer and thinker is to understate the fact. He wrote over 30 books of varying types in addition to his “fulltime job” as a distinguished university professor and sought-after speaker.

Given the legacy of thought and writing that Lewis generated, one might suppose that Lewis had no time for the more mundane matters of life. One might suppose that his ego was as prodigious as his works. One might be wrong about such suppositions.

Lewis was one of a kind. Born in 1898, Lewis didn’t marry until 1956. One might suppose that bachelorhood allowed him the luxury of time, but Lewis made a different kind of lifetime commitment that infringed greatly on his time. Lewis took in a woman he didn’t know and cared and provided for her until she died.

The backstory is that Lewis and Paddy Moore met as soldiers in the trenches during the Great War (WWI). They made a pact with each other that the survivor of them would take care of the family of the other if one of them did not survive he war. Lewis, himself, was injured and ended his involvement in the war in the hospital, but Paddy Moore went missing and was never found.

True to his word, CS Lewis, who had interrupted his college years to volunteer for the war, took Paddy’s mother and sister in to live with him on a very modest student’s budget. Lewis cared and provided for Mrs. Moore the rest of her life – a total of 30 years – often doing the household chores himself. After she developed dementia and was moved to a nursing home, Lewis visited her every day until she passed.

Perhaps because of that care and provision, Lewis lived a very modest life, but he always found time for hospitality. Lewis was, perhaps, as generous with his hospitality as he was productive in his writing and professorial vocation.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Lewis opened up his home to several groups of children forced to evacuate the big cities. Lewis also regularly hosted the Inklings on Thursday evenings in his classroom for nearly two decades. (They met alternately at the Eagle and Child Pub, affectionately known as The Bird and Baby) on Tuesdays at midday).


The Inklings was more or less an ad hoc group of writers and thinkers who met to discuss their literary works in progress and whatever other subjects suited their fancy, often late into the night. J.R.R. Tolkien was a faithful member of this group from the beginning, reading the Lord of the Rings to his fellow Inklings, who critiqued it, before it was published. Including a small handful of regulars, the group included about 15 frequent visitors and another dozen infrequent visitors and guests over the years.

As noted above, Lewis married later in life. The marriage, itself, was an exercise in hospitality.  Lewis opened his home to Joy Gresham Davidman, a writer from New York city, and her two sons David and Douglas. They eventually married in a civil ceremony so she could gain British citizenship, but what began as a gesture of generous hospitality, turned into true romantic affection.

They were married a short while, by a priest this time. Joy had developed cancer, and their wedding vows were exchanged in a hospital. They had four more years together when Joy went into remission, but cancer eventually claimed her. Their unlikely story is the subject of the movie, Shadowlands, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger and directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. Lewis also wrote about her death in A Grief Observed.  


But all of this is prelude to the real purpose for which I write today. My inspiration comes from Douglas Gresham, one of Joy’s sons, who was very young when he went to live with his mother in the home of CS Lewis.

Continue reading “The Extraordinary Generosity and Hospitality of CS Lewis”

When the Smoke of Battle Clears, Where is God?

God is bigger than the battles in history and the lives of all the men who fought them, but He is with each one of us.

My great, great grandfather, Enoch Jones, and his brother, Silas Jones, fought in the Civil War for the north. They were members of the 40th Illinois Infantry, Company F. They mustered in August 10, 1961, at Springfield.

In March 1862, the 40th Illinois, 46th Ohio and Morton’s Battery was organized into a Brigade commanded by Colonel Hicks under General Sherman, and they boarded transport ships that carried them up the Tennessee River. They re-combined with the 6th Iowa under Colonel McDowall and entered the Battle of Shiloh. It would be their first armed conflict.

The north took a beating at Shiloh. The 40th Illinois was commended for standing ground under heavy enemy fire even after their cartridge boxes were empty. A total of 196 men of the 40th Illinois were killed or injured in the one battle, including Colonel Hicks.

Silas suffered mortal injuries. He mustered out of this life two weeks later. Enoch mustered out of the 40th Illinois Infantry on May 15, 1865, two days after Jefferson Davis was captured and one month after President Lincoln was assassinated. The north was victorious, but at great cost.

Enoch saw action at the Battle of Shiloh, Siege of Vicksburg, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and Siege of Atlanta, and other places before he returned to a humble life in central Illinois. Enoch didn’t participate in the famous “March to the Sea”, because he took a bullet in Atlanta. The bullet drove a button into his chest, but that button saved his life. It earned him the Purple Heart my parents have to this day.

I was fortunate at a Civil War memorabilia show years ago to find a tattered and yellowed dairy written by another volunteer in the 40th Illinois Infantry. He was in a different company, but his periodic reports of the movements and activities of the Brigade gave me a ground level view of the experiences of my ancestors as Union Civil War infantrymen.

When the diary opens, the author anticipates with patriotic and religious confidence the mission they are about to partake. The 40th Illinois was a completely voluntary unit. The diary expresses a kind of righteous hope and abandon to the cause of fighting for God and for country.

I could not help but think of the horrendous carnage of human and equine life they would encounter. Sinew, flesh and bone left exposed to the gaping air as the smoke slowly drifted off future battle scenes. The groans of shattered men lying in their own blood would be the only sound remaining as infantrymen regrouped to count their ranks. Trees splintered by the shrapnel of canons and muskets would stand starkly against the acrid stench of gunpowder lingering still that gaping air.

Did they know what they were in for?

I recalled seeing Civil War physicians’ bags. They carried saws, and picks, and hammers and other objects of painful reminders of the brutality of war without modern anesthetic or antiseptic. Saws saved what was left of the living by cutting off limbs susceptible of gangrene. Many, like Silas Jones, survived the battle with injuries only to die later of infection.

Knowing these things, I was intrigued to read the thoughts and expressions of resilient faithfulness to the duty fight for God and country continue on the pages of that diary after the Battle of Shiloh, and all the way past the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Then the diary ended – abruptly. No resolution. No postscript. No clue as to why it simply ended.

I can only imagine the writer mustered out early – maybe in Atlanta. I assume he wasn’t as lucky as my great, great grandfather. But I am not writing merely to tell a story of my ancestor. There is a bigger picture.

Continue reading “When the Smoke of Battle Clears, Where is God?”