Who Do You Serve?

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Happy New Year! As much as it is a new year, and a welcomed one at that, the beginning of 2021 feels a lot like 2020. This is the case for our world, but if I am honest, it is also true for my heart. While the outside of me looks pretty good most of the time, the inside of me could use some work. The truth is the two, my internal self I keep hidden and my external self I present to the world, are more connected than I often realize. This becomes apparent when I lose my patience with my wife or kids and then wonder what happened. Why is it we struggle to leave behind the parts of us that are preventing of from living a full and free life?

As I pondered this question, something Jesus said popped into my head- “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) We often associate this verse with the love of money”, which makes sense based on the words Jesus used, but I believe the meaning is deeper. I do not think Jesus is concerned with how much money we have but rather the control we yield to our money. This is not unique to money. There are many “things” we elevate to a place of control in our lives. Whatever we allow to be in the place of control in our lives becomes our master, which can have serious consequences in our lives if we don’t choose well.

This has become very apparent in our current political season. If you are unsure, just take a look at what happened at the U.S. Capital last week. Make no mistake, the events of last week were tragic and heart breaking. Lives were lost, property was destroyed, reputations were forever tarnished, and our country was further divided. The right to protest and disagree is part of what makes our country great, but what happened on January 6th has no place in our country. To allow the words of a man and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to put you in a position to storm our Capital is a picture of the consequences of allowing politics and politicians to become your master. The regret evident in the statements of some of the people arrested for their part in the incident demonstrates the impact choosing the wrong master has first on our hearts and then on our actions.

This is especially troubling for the church. To, as some did, use God to justify your decision to invade the U.S. Capital in hopes of overturning an election clearly displays misplaced allegiances. The trend toward Christian Nationalism is a trend toward making politics our master over Jesus. Instead of making decisions based on Christ, many in the church have used Jesus to prop up their political leanings, subjecting their faith to their biases. This is not consistent with the message of Jesus. We as Christ Followers need to repent and realign our priorities.

This struggle with allegiances is not always about something external such as politics. In my case, it is all about me. I have allowed pride to become my master. This becomes clear when I struggle to admit when I am wrong or to even consider the validity of another’s opinion. It also shows itself when I am unwilling to take steps I know are right and beneficial, but also come with a cost to my pride or reputation. I have allowed pride to own me and it is keeping me from experiencing the full life I desire.

Where do we go from here? It starts with taking an honest assessment of our lives and identifying the master we serve. We are all serving a master, whether we know it or not. Then I believe we need to ask whether or not the master we serve is producing freedom or bondage in our lives. Does the master I serve make me feel more free or less free? Is it life producing or life sucking? From what I can tell there is only one master who truly produces freedom- the God who created on purposes and with a purpose.

This is what Jesus meant. Jesus is telling us choosing a master is not optional. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we each serve something or someone. Jesus is calling us to choose the only master who can truly set us free. Who are you going to choose?

James Belt

A 2020 Lens of Gratitude

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Thanksgiving 2020 almost appears to be an oxymoron at first glance. Why would we associate being thankful with a year that brought us a global pandemic, political strife, social unrest, and murder hornets to name a few? It would seem more appropriate to have a “book burning ceremony” for the collective Yearbook of 2020. However, this is not how thankfulness and gratitude work.

Thankfulness and gratitude are first and foremost a choice. Whether good or bad circumstances, we have to choose gratitude or we will drift towards ungratefulness. As humans we have the unfailing ability to find disappointment in the middle of the best of times. On a tropical island, with blue water, a nice breeze, clear skies, and an umbrella drink in our hand? Everything is perfect until we realize we need to be upset that the sand is hot. If there is an imperfection we will be sure to find it.

The positive side of this challenge is we have the opportunity to choose gratitude, even in the worst of circumstances. We can be passing through the most “2020” part of 2020 and discover a ray of hope or a blessing for which to be thankful. You are stuck in quarantine for two weeks over your birthday because you unknowingly occupied the same space as someone with COVID only to have your internet decides to stop working so no Netflix? After screaming on the inside, and maybe the outside, you realize it is the first time in years you will have an opportunity to disconnect and maybe even read a book. In that moment you choose to see your life through the lens of gratitude.

What if we chose to make gratitude the primary lens through which we see life? What if instead of defaulting to disappointment we defaulted to thankfulness? What is we looked at each other, no matter the color, political beliefs, or religious affiliation, through a lens of gratitude, searching for something we can appreciate instead of something we can hate? I have a feeling this world would look a little different and we would all be happier for it.

With a little over a month left in 2020, I am going to make it my goal to put on my “gratitude glasses” every morning. Instead of drifting through life disappointed and ungrateful, I will intentionally choose to filled with gratitude for the one life I have been given. I will redeem 2020 by making it the year I remembered thankfulness is a choice worth making.

Happy Thanksgiving!

James Belt

Hope Beyond Election Day

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

With November 3rd, Election Day, almost upon us I have heard many say, and have even sarcastically said myself, “the world could end” or “our future is hanging in the balance” depending on how the election goes and who wins. While I certainly do not want to minimize the importance of elections or voting (get out there and VOTE!), I do wonder if we are putting a little to much weight on the results of November 3rd. Are we giving ourselves a little too much credit?

The Year 2020 is one for the ages. I could go through the list, but needless to say, anxiety levels are through the roof. This is completely understandable. As someone who deals with anxiety on a daily basis, I can appreciate how even the most steady person could be knocked off kilter by the “Wave of 2020”. Additionally, having personally lived through a significant earthquake, I know what it feels like to suddenly realize the ground is not as stable as you once believed. The Year of 2020 has shaken us into a state of uncertainty. This lack of certainly plays into our perspective of the future.

While this year has been destabilizing, the root of the problem is much deeper. Our affinity for believing the “sky is falling” goes back to the human condition. From the beginning of time humans have needed to be reminded not to lose heart because of their finite perspective. If you would like proof, just read the Bible. The pattern is very consistent- life is good, something interrupts life (often our own choices), the future becomes unclear, humans freak out, God tells them not to lose hope, hope for the future is restored. What can we learn from this pattern?

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13, NIV) Paul did not write these words as someone who had lived an easy life to a group of people who were living in perfect circumstances. In both cases life was less than ideal, far more so than most of us experience today. Yet, Paul encourages them to be filled with joy and peace, and overflowing with hope. In fact, Paul writes it expecting that it would be true. What was the determining factor- their trust in God through Jesus. Their hope was not grounded in their unsteady, finite perspective, but rather in someone with infinite perspective.

This goes back to my original question- are we giving ourselves too much credit? If the future was ultimately in our hands, the results of November 3rd could make or break the future. However, the future is not ultimately in our hands. Instead, it is in the hands of a God who loves us and created us on purpose and for a purpose. We should find great hope in that, especially as Christ Followers.

Does that mean life will be perfect or that we shouldn’t care about what happens this side of heaven? No, of course not. We are called to vote our conscious and fight for a better future. How we live and what we do does make an impact on the world and its future. However, at the same time, we shouldn’t lose heart and believe the future is lost when life becomes a little murky. When the future becomes unclear to us, we must fix our eyes on the one who can always see. No matter what happens on November 3rd, we can find hope in a God who loves us.

I would challenge you to consider a change of perspective. Instead of putting your trust in your own decisions, or a political party, I would challenge you to put your trust in a God who Paul says will “fill you with joy and peace.” Maybe, just maybe you might find yourself “overflowing with hope.”

James Belt

Live with Expectancy

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Do I really believe in it, or do I just pay it lip service? Do I expect to see it, or would I miss it completely? Is it changing my life, or do I live as if it does not exist? These questions have been rattling around in my head for the past month or so. What is “it”? The Power of God.

I have recently been challenged on this subject by conversations with a couple of friends in Nicaragua. They did not intend to challenge me as far as I know, but the stories of their recent experiences with the Power of God through the Holy Spirit produced a certain tension in me. Their stories were filled with expectancy, humility, and trust.

They expected to see the Power of God as they walked through their day. They humbly recognized that the Power of God came from the Holy Spirit and not from themselves. They trusted the outcome to God. The results- life change, healing, growth, hope and joy to name a few. In many ways, their stories remind me of the early church described in the book of Acts in the Bible. They are living out the words of Acts 1:8- “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

While the impact on their own lives has been exciting to watch, their impact on the lives of others has been incredible. Instead of being turned off by their new passion to live for Jesus, people who were previously far from God have been drawn in. In fact, I would say the change in their lives is what was so attractive. People who were far from God saw a glimpse of the Power of God and found themselves wanting more. It was Jesus shining through the lives of my friends rather than my friends themselves that was so attractive.

This is what challenges me. Do I live expecting to see God move? If I did see God move through me, would I just think it was something I had done? Does my lack of expectancy impact my ability to point people who are far from God to Jesus, the only real source of life-changing hope? I would have to say yes.

I am still wrestling with this new found tension, but one thing is for sure- I want to experience more of the Power of God. I want to live with expectancy. I want to have eyes to see God move. I want my life to reflect Jesus in a way that draws people to God. I want my life to be different because of the Power of God.

– James Belt

My Hope for the Year to Come

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Today happens to be my birthday. As I considered what to write a thought came to mind- what would I want to be able to write about on this day next year? What do I hope has changed or happened by September 30th, 2021? Well, here I go.

Over the next I hope the world becomes a little more hope-filled. This year, 2020, has been full of pain and brokenness. On the surface 2020 appears to be a recipe for hopelessness and despair, but I believe it can be the starting point for something new. It is often when we find the bottom that we discover how to climb to new heights. Real hope has the power to change the world. When people realize their God-given potential and have the opportunity the exercise it everything can change. May hope abound and the world change over the next year.

Over the next year I hope we move closer to true Racial Reconciliation. In some ways it feels like we are miles apart as it stands today. However, there are other signs of true movement towards a world in which everyone is treated as equal creations of a Creator who loves each of us equally. We should not assume saying Black Lives Matter means anyone else’s life matters any less. True healing starts with recognizing how someone has been harmed and a willingness to do what is necessary to right the wrong. May love for our neighbor become more important than our pride. May the Church be a driving force for change. May our Brother and Sisters of Color be given equal opportunity and standing in our country and world.

Over the next year I hope we find a new level of unity. Today division appears to be the name of the game. Instead of looking for common ground, we look for dividing lines. Pride abounds and polarization has become the norm. This is destroying our world. It is time to set aside our differences and in humility come together. As beings created by the same God, we are more the same than we are different. There is more to life than being right. May we fight for what is best for all of us, finding common ground on what really matters and setting aside our differences. May we find true unity.

I am excited to see what the next year brings. May I be a part of making it the best year yet!

James Belt

Hope Not Forgotten

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Nineteen years ago today the world stood still in shock as the United States experienced an incredible tragedy. Unfathomably, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center Towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The devastation could have been even greater if a brave group of heroes had not fought back against the terrorists on the plane that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania. Over 3,000 lives were tragically lost and the world would never be the same.

I remember the moment well. I was sitting in a lecture hall at Towson University when a student yelled out that a plane had hit the Twin Towers. Initially, our professor believed it must have been a hoax, but this unthinkable event was confirmed when the administration announced that classes were canceled for the rest of the day due to safety concerns. I remember driving home wondering what exactly had happened and why. Upon arriving at home, while sitting at the breakfast bar in our kitchen, I watched the news as they confirmed that these were intentional acts of terror against our nation. The future no longer appeared certain. It was a dark day.

However, darkness can only be present when light is absent. Not long after the tragic day of September 11th, 2001, a light of hope began to emerge. What started as fear and despair turned into resolve and hope. Yes, the world was different but it was not over. From the darkness emerged a collective hope that would not be stopped. We were one nation with one goal- we would always remember those who were lost, and we would choose to live fully, honoring those who were not given that choice. What could have driven us into hopelessness became the catalyst for a new found hope.

I hold the same hope on this September 11th. We again find ourselves passing through a moment of darkness. We appear more fractured than ever. However, this moment of darkness could be the catalyst for a new beginning. As we did nineteen years ago, we could find hope for a new and better way forward. A way forward that brings us together and reminds us to live fully.

September 11th, 2001 taught us we are stronger united. We are stronger when we put aside our differences and pride, and choose to love each other well. We can choose to remember the lesson we learned from the lives that were lost, we can choose to live fully. We believed there was still hope on that tragic day. We can do the same today.

We will never forget.

James Belt

It Is Time to Listen

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

As I sit to write this, today marks the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Remembering this moment has always been important, but it is of particular importance in 2020 as United States, and maybe the world, has reached what appears to be a breaking point with Racial Injustice. As we ponder the question, “where do we go from here?”, it is important to reflect on the question, “why are we still here?”

From the first time I really listened to King’s famous speech, I have always found it powerful and inspiring. His dream of a country in which everyone, regardless of race, has the same opportunity to reach their God-given potential is beautiful and hopeful. The United States is a place of great opportunity, but some people have been arbitrarily disadvantaged from taking advantage of “The American Dream” simply because of the color of their skin. King did not lose hope that one day this could change and neither will I. This dream can and will one day be realized.

There are many reasons why King’s “I Have A Dream” speech made and continues to make such an impact. As a white man, I want to focus on one of them- people actually listened. I was not alive when the speech was made, but it would be hard to deny the far reaching impact of King’s words. In a moment, King simultaneously shined a light on the realities of injustice and the hope for a new way forward. While change was not immediate, it is clear that King contributed greatly to the steps that have been taken to correct racism and racial injustice.

However, it is also clear that the work is not complete. Why are we still here? Again, there are many reasons, but it stems in a large part from an unwillingness to listen. Earlier in 1963, King wrote an open letter to pastors and others who were telling him to stop pushing so hard to end segregation and racial injustice. The letter, now known as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written by King while jailed in Birmingham for his fight for a better way forward. King made many profound statements in the letter, but his plea for people to actually listen and see the realities of racial injustice is what sticks with me most. This plea is still relevant today, especially for people who call themselves Christ Followers. We are still hear because, like the people of King’s day, we are unwilling to truly listen to the pain of the hurting.

As Christ Followers, we can no longer remain complacent and unwilling to listen to the cry of our brothers and sisters of color. We are called to love our neighbor, which starts with a willingness to understand their story. This is the beginning of change. This is how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream becomes a reality. What a beautiful reality it would be.

On this day in 1963, people chose to listen. Will you choose to do the same today?

James Belt

We Must Step Into the River

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

My inspiration to name my blog “Into the River” came from a specific story I read in the Bible which led to a realization in my heart and mind, ending up with me spending three years of my life living in Nicaragua. The story is found in Chapter 3 of Joshua, a book in the Old Testament of the Bible. Joshua is leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, which means they will have to cross the Jordan River at flood stage. God’s instructions for crossing the Jordan River? “Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.'” (Joshua 3:8, NIV) Gulp.

Just for clarity sake, this means God is asking Joshua to instruct the priests to walk into a raging river while it is still raging, all while carrying something on their shoulders. Imagine coming up with that “locker room” speech. What did Joshua do? He told them exactly what God said, trusting that God’s plans were bigger than his perspective. What did the priests do? “Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing.” (Joshua 3:15-16a, NIV)

Joshua and the priests followed God’s call into the river, even when it appeared crazy and dangerous. Their willingness to trust God by stepping into the river led to a new and abundant life, and a greater appreciation of God’s love for them. They discovered that real life is found when we step into the river.

This was the realization that entered my heart and mind. If I desire real life, the life God desires for me, I have to be willing to step into the river. It is in stepping into the seemingly raging river that I open myself up to be used by God. It is in stepping into the river I find an abundance and love that is not always easy, but it life-producing. When we live on the banks, unwilling to take the first step, we cut ourselves short. Life is found in the river.

This new found perspective was challenged in 2011 when I felt God calling me to move to Nicaragua. I said I believed life is found when we step into the raging river, but did I believe it? It was time to “put my money where my mouth is”. Moving to Nicaragua came with a lot of challenges, but the abundance and blessings have far outweighed the cost. I stepped “into the river” and found God faithful. I stepped into the river and found new life.

I believe we are in a collective “into the river” moment as Christ Followers. Addressing racial injustice and its byproducts looks like a raging river to many people. It is complicated, complex, and not without a cost. From the “banks of the river”, stepping into it seems irrational and maybe even dangerous to some. However, there is no choice- crossing the river requires a step of faith into the river, believing God will do something beyond our understanding.

If our desire is healing, and a new, abundant life in which we can all live as one, we have to be willing to take a risk. Many people will not understand our step “into the river”, but the cost is worth it. As Christ Followers, we must put aside the fears and rationalizations that keep us from coming to terms with the realities of racial injustice. Instead, we must step into the discomfort, not forgetting our foundation in Christ but rather bringing the hope that comes from that foundation to an issue that breaks God’s heart. It will be messy, but it will lead to abundance.

Will we as Followers of Jesus choose to step into the river of racial injustice or will we stay on the banks, reinforcing the world’s belief that we care more about being right than loving people? What would Jesus do? Real life is found in the river.

James Belt

Equality and Capitalism

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

I am a conservative and a believer in the power of Capitalism when it operates with a conscious. I am also a believer in equality for all and would now consider myself an “Antiracist”. To many people these two sentences seem to be in conflict. This fact is both saddening and interesting to me. This perceived dichotomy is earned in some cases and unfairly attributed in other cases. However, in whichever way this perception came to be, conservatives and Conscious Capitalists (the concept of Conscious Capitalism is described in John Mackey and Raj Sisodia’s book by the same name) need to change it. We need to become Antiracist Conscious Capitalists.

The problem with Capitalism at it pertains to racism is not inherent. In other words, Capitalism as a system is not built on a premise of racism. I strongly believe Capitalism is the best system for creating true opportunity and solving issues of poverty. Conscious Capitalism says all stakeholders should be taken into account, including employees, humanity, and the environment. It is a “socially responsible economic and political philosophy” as described by Mackey and Sisodia. Capitalism has allowed many people to build businesses and change lives, including my parents who have been blessed by and been a blessing to others through the business they started over thirty years ago. The problem is not Capitalism itself, but rather who has had access to the benefits of Capitalism.

As a white male, I have had full access to the benefits of Capitalism as did my parents. This does not mean it has always been easy, but it does mean that the system has provided me and my family with an incredible amount of opportunity over the years. I recognize that every person’s story is different and that some white people have not had the same opportunities I have been afforded. However, in general, the white community has been allowed to benefit from the fruits of Capitalism for many generations.

The story is different for many People of Color. Whereas my family had access to capital in various forms and were treated fairly by the system, many People of Color and Black people in particular have been systematically and/or functionally excluded from the system. This does not mean that some Black people and other People of Color have not benefited from the system, but the road they have taken to get there has been considerably harder than mine as a white male. By not allowing People of Color to equally benefit from Capitalism over the years, we have created injustice, inequality, and pockets of hopelessness and poverty. When we say People of Color should just “pull themselves up by their boot strings” we ignorantly discount their story and reality. Conscious Capitalism can work for all, but everyone needs to be given equal access to the opportunities it creates.

Our inability to recognize the systemic racism issues in our system as Conservative Capitalists is making our voice irrelevant and giving Capitalism a bad name. When we dismiss the impact systemic racism has had of People of Color, we reinforce the narrative that Capitalism is inherently racist and unjust. If we are unwilling to comes to terms with the fact that People of Color and Black people in particular have been excluded from the benefits of a Capitalist society, we are writing our own death sentence as influencers of society. However, it does not have to be this way.

We can choose to stand up and be Antiracist Capitalists. This means recognizing the injustice and inequality that exists, and equaling the playing field so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of Conscious Capitalism. This will require real steps and investments as a society, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. Imagine a society in which flourishing was possible for everyone? I see no downside – economically, social, emotionally – to a society in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Racism costs everyone, not just its victims. You cannot sit on the fence. You are either against racism or for it, whether by commission or omission. I choose to be an Antiracist. I choose to be a Capitalist. I choose to believe they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Do you?

James Belt

Unity through Discomfort

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

I typically use this space to write about hope, specifically the difference hope can make in this world. With some exceptions, these thoughts have come from my experiences and observations. This has generally been free from controversy- who wouldn’t vote for hope?

Over the past few posts, I have felt compelled to write about racial injustice and inequality, and my journey in coming to a greater understanding of its existence and implications. This has generally connected back to hope, especially as it relates to being created equal by a Creator who designed us for equal opportunity to live full and fulfilled lives. These topics are considered more controversial and even divisive by some.

I have found this interesting, but not completely surprising. As I have been on my journey of learning, I have been challenged and have had to ask myself difficult questions. How have I been so oblivious to the extent to which racial injustice and racism has been a part of our world? Where does racial bias exist in me? These questions can be inflammatory and discomforting, especially without the full picture. Like many, my assumption has been that my “non-racist” perspective and belief in the power of opportunity was enough. Since I am not a part of the problem, I am a part of the solution. By being “color blind” I am promoting unity, or so I thought.

As a Follower of Christ, I attempt to look at situations through the lens of Christ. My rate of success to that end is far from perfect, but such is life as an imperfect human. Reflecting on the question of racial injustice and racism, the parable of The Good Samaritan came to mind. If you are unfamiliar with the parable, it is found in chapter 10 of the Book of Luke in the Bible. As a parable, it is a story Jesus created to illustrate a point.

The parable is more or less about a traveler who is robbed and left, half-dead along the side of the road. Two “religious” people see him as they pass by on the road, but rationalize their way out of helping him. Following the two religious people, a third person, a Samaritan, passes by and decides to help the man, even paying for his care after helping him off the road. This would have been shocking to the listeners as Samaritans were considered outcasts at the time.

There are many applications to this parable, but a particular thought came to mind as it relates to injustice. A number of years ago, while listening to an interview with International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen, I remember him saying in response to this parable, “if people keep getting robbed, someone needs to fix the road.” In other words, if we want to put an end to an injustice, we have to address the root cause of the injustice.

While it may be uncomfortable, this is why addressing the issues of racial injustice and racism is not divisive. If our goal is to create a world in which unity can truly exist, we have to address racial injustice and racism. This is what it looks like to fix the road. By shying away from the topics, we as Christ Followers are as guilty as the religious leaders in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Yes, I did not rob the guy, but I am complicit in his robbing and future robberies if I am unwilling to help him and to do my part to fix the road. This needs to be our attitude toward racial injustice as Christ Followers.

Hope is found in fixing the road. If I believe everyone is created on purpose and for a purpose eliminating roadblocks that prevent the reaching of a person’s God-given potential is critical. This is a part of addressing practical and spiritual hope- removing the perpetuators of hopelessness. In fighting against racial injustice and racism, we bring greater clarity to the power of hope.

This is where true unity is found. Not in the absence of discomfort, but rather in the willingness to pass through the discomfort to reach a new reality. A reality of true equal opportunity and mutual admiration.

James Belt