Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nine Reflections In the Light of Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Advent Candles

Recent days have been marked by division and confusion as two grand juries in two locales, dealing with very different cases, chose not to indict police officers for their actions that led to the deaths of two African American men. Even as we move into our second full week of Advent, we do so with uneasiness over the cultural divisions that have erupted once again. Even among Christ's people there have been some hard words toward those on opposite sides. So as we at Grace think of the second candle, the Peace Candle, let me offer some thoughts during this time where peace seems so elusive in America and even in the church.

First, I am not Solomon, nor can I dig through all the testimony given in each case with unerring evaluation. I think the two grand juries were both wrong--that's my opinion, not fact. The Ferguson grand jury was not properly conducted with a prosecutor making a case and asking them to weigh it, but rather with a prosecutor handing all sorts of evidence to them and saying, in essence, "figure it out." That is not the role of a grand jury. In the Garner case, I cannot understand how the videotaped choking to death of a man thought to be engaged in a non-violent crime, by an officer using a maneuver banned by his department does not supply "probable cause" that a crime occurred. Both juries missed the mark, in my opinion.

Second, the cases are not equal, and should not be treated so. In one, a young man seen on video earlier robbing a store struggled with a police officer within the police car over the policeman's weapon with some level of "violence" and subsequently was shot--and while some witnesses say his hands were up at the moment, the autopsy results indicate they were not. The police officer's actions may be questioned, but a case can be made that they were within the scope of his authority--and again, I am not saying he was right, but that he might have been. In the other, a non-violent offense is being confronted, the suspect resists but not in a life-threatening way, he is subdued using unauthorized force, and can clearly be heard to say "I can't breathe" before he loses consciousness. Resistance to arrest that is not a threat to an officer should not be met with potentially lethal response.

Third, the feelings of many (most?) in the black community that these cases provide evidence of the continuing reality of racial inequality in treatment by police are not just real feelings, but justified on many levels. Black male friends of mine have, at various times, relayed their stories of being pulled over, stopped on the street, questioned, and even taken into custody on suspicion of a crime simply for being present in a setting. One friend in our own small village was stopped by police and questioned because someone observed him walking down their street in broad daylight: WWB--"walking while black." That is not a reality most white men can identify with.

While recently published statistics have been used to say that only one fourth of police shootings that resulted in death involved black victims, we should remember that only 13% of the population is African American. Compared to white victims of police shooting fatalities, blacks are killed at twice the white rate. While there are all sorts of factors to add in to this (are more violent crimes committed by blacks or whites, for example), the fact is, in the black community there are a lot more funerals due to police shootings, relative to the population, than in the white community. And in the case of Eric Garner, being thought guilty of the crime of selling individual cigarettes made his wife a widow, his children orphans, and left a community outraged as well as mourning.

Fourth, some public comments by prominent voices, including some evangelical Christians, have not been helpful. Statements by some whites and blacks that dismiss concerns about injustice show a lack of sensitivity, and in some cases, simplistic thinking. And broad condemnations of American culture (as systemically racist), of police actions (as typical), and of conservatives who question the innocence of a particular suspect/victim (as racist) are equally detrimental. Some FB friends have been sadly predictable in their postings demonizing or lionizing of each side. One friend wrote, "Silence is consent." I know what he means in one sense, because I've watched people assume you agree with them if you don't say otherwise. But I would argue that sometimes silence may indicate trying to think before speaking, or listening well, or remembering that with many words, transgression is unavoidable--all biblical restraints on speaking without clear understanding.

Fifth, I am thankful for voices like Dr. Al Mohler, Dr. Russell Moore, Thabiti Anyabwile, Trip Lee, and others who have tried to reflect on the current situation carefully, thoughtfully, honestly, and biblically. These and others have shared truth and also perspective that has been helpful.

Sixth, it is past time for white American evangelicals to acknowledge that we have largely failed when it comes to racial reconciliation. While we may honestly say we feel no prejudice toward blacks or other races, we are the church people and children of the church people that largely sat on the sidelines during the civil rights movement and were often more interested in our own neighborhood safety than we were equal protection under the law, to say nothing of caring about the spiritual condition of neighbors of color. Our churches fled the inner cities along with all who could, rather than face the challenge of becoming multi-cultural. And we still (with a few exceptions) don't know how to do "multi-cultural" unless it means people of other cultures adapt to ours. When we say we have no prejudice, we may be ignoring the stereotypes we believe, the now-instinctive reactions we have to situations and the pervasive power of the environments we have accepted as normal.

Seventh, as Christians, and especially those of us who are white Christians, we need to learn from our black Christian brothers and sisters, and even defer to them as more "expert" in their situation than we are. We sound foolish (or worse) trying to tell Christians in the black community that they are imagining prejudice and patterns of mistreatment. If we have honest questions to ask in humility and love, our black brothers and sisters are willing and ready to answer them. And we need to repent of any thinking and attitudes that have been dismissive and unconcerned about what these brothers and sisters who live in predominately black neighborhoods experience. If we care about Christians in Iraq forced from their homes by ISIS, we should also care about and stand with Christians in poor neighborhoods who live under radically different experiences and expectations in "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Eighth, the "morphing" of protests into a more general anti-police sentiment is wrongheaded and sinful. Government is given power by God to protect human flourishing. The sins of individuals within power structures are wrong, but so is drawing conclusions that these individuals represent the structures themselves. Police officers choose to serve and protect their communities, knowing that as they do so, they will inevitably curtail some people's ideas of personal liberties. And at times they must use force to do so, which will never look pleasant. Protest a society's inequalities, but not against those seeking to protect the very existence of society. My acquaintance with police officers has shown me that most seek to be those who are "peace officers"--protectors of community safety so that people can live without fear.

Ninth, expectations of a society marked fully by "shalom"--God's peace--are equally wrongheaded in this fallen world, although every time believers in the Prince of Peace gather together and corporately worship, serve, and minister, they can have a small taste of what that peace means and will be in its fullness when that Prince returns. So we groan in a world without peace even as we offer its message to those who need it. We mourn with brothers and sisters in the black community whose suffering is not the same as ours and who deserve our concern and efforts. And in this time of Advent, we long for the coming of the One who will be the righteous Judge and the Prince of Peace.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Still Going in the Holy Land

Well, my plans for regular blogging have been hampered by time, as well as spotty and slow internet. While I've been able to post pictures to Facebook occasionally, I haven't been able to get my camera's photos to transfer easily to my various internet storage places. Yes, I still use an actual camera, not a phone accessory.

So, instead of all sorts of clever and informative posts here, there have been a few FB picture dumps. That's not what I wanted to do, but I don't feel TOO bad. After all, it's been another amazing trip to Israel for our group. Ten times is not too many times to come, especially when you have the privilege of introducing people to their Bible in a brand new way.

I'm very thankful once again to introduce old and young alike to the wonders of the biblical record as it is reflected in archeology and history, and to remind us all that while the Bible's witness to its own authority is enough, the corroboration of history is a faith enriching experience.

I'm thankful for the demonstrable accuracy of what the Bible says about even "minor" details. As we travel around Israel and read Scriptures and reflect on the incidental details, we discover how precise the scriptural record is, from distances to practices to events. Don't let anyone tell you that the Bible isn't good history. Archaeologists who disagree always wind up altering their conclusions--I'm not an archeologist, but I am old enough to watch people either recant their assertions that the Bible is wrong, or else discover that the Bible's details are even more accurate than what we knew.

I'm thankful for a God who has not only preserved his Word, but allowed people to make amazing discoveries and finds that affirm what he his infallible record of events. It certainly should be an encouragement to all to believe the things less visible, wouldn't you think?

I am sobered by the number of people who can know truth but not be changed by it. How can someone quote scriptures, visit the places where Bible events took place and can be attested to, and still not believe. Sadly, it is the case.

But I am also reminded of the power of the Word by two different testimonies I have heard here in Israel of people who continually heard the Gospel story as tour leaders were telling it to their groups and wound up believing it for themselves.

At Caesarea

Morning on the Sea of Galilee

On the steps of the Temple
So, my FB friends can see more pictures, and I'll return to more normal blogging when I return to the States!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Traveling Down Bible Paths

I am at the airport with 16 of my 18 group members about to begin my 10th trip to Israel. One of my greatest joys is to introduce people to the land of the Bible. In the process it is as if I am reintroducing them to the Bible, or at least the vivid reality of what the text holds. 

There has never been a time that I have taken people to Israel when I don't find that they come back changed. So do I. 

I'll post from time to time to met you all know what's going on, and try to get some pictures up as well. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Day After the Vote

OK, I'm a political junkie. I enjoy the political arena, even though I would never run for office (you are all safe). I have strong political opinions that I try (usually unsuccessfully) to mute. As one who believes the Bible gives guidance to all people as to how we may flourish, I think biblical principles can and should influence political thinking.

For those who are (like me) identified as "conservatives" today (and who may well have been what were called "liberals" in the 19th century, but that's a topic for another time), last night's U.S. midterms had lots of encouraging results. "Our" side now controls the U.S. Congress and the governorships of over 30 states. Down ticket races in many places (including Ohio) were also very favorable, and I'm personally pleased that some people I know as having great integrity and good thinking were elected or reelected to various positions.

However, I would like to offer a word of caution to those celebrating: the political "right" may have won this election, but that is not the same as "right" vs. wrong. This is not the dawn of the Millennium. Nothing about this election means that America has been "saved" in any way, shape or form. As a friend wrote, "The 'G' in GOP does not stand for God."

The results may mean a slowing of a descent, but even that is uncertain, since so many of the issues that relate to biblical morality have, in my view, been lost. Same sex marriage is legal and court-protected in most states. We may move to guard our borders better, but no one seems excited to figure out how to deal with those millions here without legal status. Even last night's winners have no consensus on how to respond to international crises and catastrophes, and they don't hold the presidency where so many of those decisions must be made. Out of control deficits and permanent national debt is a cancer and, in my view, a societal evil that hurts future generations. But reining in taxes and spending has not been accomplished systematically since Calvin Coolidge's day. It was the hero of conservatives, Ronald Reagan, who reversed the slow, steady decline of national debt when he achieved tax cuts but not corresponding spending cuts.

"Our" side has as many wrong ideas as the "other" side, as many self-serving politicians, and maybe as many scandals in waiting. Because it is politics, it is about compromise, and that usually leaves everyone dissatisfied. And because it is about power, the players in the game face incredible temptation to sacrifice principle to hold onto it. Massive government action from one side can have just as many unintended consequences as from the the other side.

So, am I saying that politics and results of elections don't matter? No, absolutely not. I have all sorts of thoughts as to how the new balance of power might be used well in Washington, D.C., and I hope to see things happen. But it is very easy to become "triumphalistic" and overly optimistic about what will come.

I recommend that Christians pray for all of our governmental leaders--that's a safe recommendation since it comes from the Bible. I encourage us to become as aware of political issues as we can, recognizing that we must listen to various sources so as not to gain only the bias of one reporter, paper, or program. We should seek to think about how Scripture might guide good thinking about some of these matters. And I certainly hope we will speak out, communicate with our officials, and encourage good actions.

Let me offer one more sobering thought while I'm throwing cold water on celebrations. With its rapid moves toward stigmatizing and punishing traditional views on life in the womb, sexuality, gender identity, and marriage, our culture has moved away from its roots in Christian moral tradition. I'm somewhat skeptical that the new Republican Congress will be nearly as concerned about these matters as repealing "Obamacare."  But while one may be financially costly and unwieldy, the other can contribute to the damnation of a soul. Let's be sure that we care more about eternal outcomes than temporal, political ones.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Blog and Reblog: My Thoughts on Voting Choices

The following is a combination of posts on voting and elections I have offered previously. Most of the material was written before the last election, but I'm getting the same questions again, so I am re-posting and expanding my answers (with slight alterations due to circumstantial changes).  

Three overarching principles...

It's election time, and as someone who has always had an interest in politics, a passion for truth and justice, and a concern for my own nation's well being, I take voting seriously. I also value God's kingdom over the kingdoms of this world, and my calling as a son of God and pastor in the Church over being a citizen of the USA. I know how easily political passions are stirred, and how we can blur the line between political desires and biblical priorities. What to do?

First, we bow before God's sovereign will, knowing that He will guide events according to his plan for the ages and while we must exercise our responsibilities and will be held accountable for our free actions, He is bringing all of history to its God-glorifying, justice-rendering, mercy- and grace-filled, conclusion. And we are to preach the Gospel  of Jesus to the ends of the earth to hasten that day!

Second, we acknowledge that Christ is King over His kingdom--revealed in part today on earth through his people, even as he is already enthroned in Heaven and awaiting his future rule on earth. While it is not here in its fullness, we who are its citizens are to live as such and demonstrate the difference it makes in our choices and in where our confidence lies.  

Third, we recognize that in a fallen world, we must often choose the lesser of two evils. No one we could respect would argue that one candidate in a contest is God's special agent, while the other is the forerunner of the Antichrist! They are both flawed and fallible people who hold positions and beliefs that do not reflect righteousness fully. But we must still choose and should choose the lesser of the two evils (also known as the better of two alternatives). As another writer said about this: "Not only are the choices imperfect, but so also is the chooser."

What about pro-life (and other moral) issues?

In every election cycle, I find myself wondering about the wisdom of some of my Christian friends who try to defend their support for a candidate for office who supports abortion rights by an appeal to other issues. They say something like this,

 "Well, there are lots of "pro-life" issues. You can't just care about people before they are born. If you don't care for them afterward--the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the immigrant, the victims of discrimination, etc., you are not really pro-life, you are just anti-abortion."

(Often, the speaker will throw in protection of the environment as being "creation care," and equally or nearly equally important as a "pro-life" issue.)

I believe that every one of the issues mentioned in the above is important, and Christian ethics has something powerful to bring to any discussion of policy decisions. In fact, unlike some of my more rock-ribbed conservative friends, I am supportive of a number of government initiatives and using tax money to address quite a number of programs to address many of them. I am for a very liberal immigration policy, along with a robust border protection plan and writing and enforcing good immigration laws. I've lived in poor neighborhoods, and ministered in places where "the system" really IS stacked against the poor and needy. They do suffer, and it is wrong. However, only one of the issues under discussion is the active, government-sanctioned (and insured by government mandate) taking of millions of innocent, defenseless, human lives.

This kind of weak thinking needs to be seen for what it is--rationalization and false equivalence. It is rationalization because it tries to re-frame issues in a way that says they belong to the same category of moral importance when they do not. The killing of an unborn child is a crime against the God who gives life and a direct violation of scriptural absolutes from Genesis onward against the unjust shedding of blood. This crime, by man or beast, was so evil that God demanded that the offender be executed by "man"--that is, mankind collectively, which we now see function through human government. It is false equivalence in the same way as we see it when people say, "All sins are equally sin, so they are equally bad." Telling a lie and murder are, indeed, both sins, but the scope, consequences, extent of guilt, etc., are radically different as everyone with a smidgen of common sense (not to mention good theology) understands.

[Let me hasten to add that abortion is, certainly and thankfully, as forgivable as any sin, and those who may have had an abortion under the misguided idea that this was simply exercising a personal choice are in many ways victims as much as sinners. The church is filled with sinners saved by the forgiving grace and mercy of God. I am committed in my pastoral concern for those who have abortion as a part of their past, and my desire for them and for all whose lives are marked by a "past" is that we not let that past define the present or destroy the future.]

Someone who opposes the death penalty as evil, but supports abortion as a personal choice has chosen to oppose something with at least some biblical support (I know Christians are on both sides of that debate) and to support something that violates every principle of Scripture when it comes to the sanctity of human life as given by God. And pacifists who hate war but allow abortion are at least as inconsistent--not wanting to kill in war, even if the aggressor may be heinously evil, but callously allowing the destruction of an unborn child because its arrival might be inconvenient.

If a candidate promises to feed all the poor, but will allow the rich and poor alike to kill unborn babies, that is not in any consistent way a pro-life position. If another candidate will make the killing of babies universally illegal, and says, "let private compassion replace government programs," that may or may not be a good political position, but it is not evil unless it says, "let the poor starve to death; the sooner the better." Debates over the role of government in caring for individuals can take many forms, with both sides able to marshal positive biblical examples and texts for support, but the decision to allow the killing of unborn children can find no such support.

I understand the appeal of candidates who exude compassion and attack greed and selfishness. It resonates when we see inequality, suffering, and evil in our society. But to my friends who want me to join them in supporting candidates who take what they (and maybe even I) would say are more "Christian" approaches to societal evils, I say this: start choosing candidates who will defend defenseless unborn babies, and then I will know that those candidates may be trustworthy in the other issues we face. Until they see that a government cannot practice any form of state supported mass murder, they cannot convince me they have a proper moral compass to guide political choices.

By the way, I will vote this way, even if it means voting for a high tax, soft on defense, socialist. My conviction has led me in the past to vote for a liberal Democrat over a conservative Republican.

Now I know that some will say, "You can't legislate morality!"  To which I answer, "Of course you can!"  That is what legislation does every time it makes something a crime; it creates civil morality.  Laws against rape, murder, theft, etc. are the legislation of morality--they are wrong and they will be punished.  The question is whose morality will be enshrined in legislation.  And as long as I can, I will strive to have civil morality that is as closely aligned with biblical morality as is possible in our society.  I'm not after a theocracy any more than our Founders, who seemed pretty comfortable with the idea that the Bible provided a framework from which a republic could draw effective and sufficient moral guidelines.

The argument made in the previous paragraph is my continued justification for supporting laws that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong covenant. I've written about that in another post, but simply stated, God blesses marriages, but the state has a vested interest in the promotion of life-long marriage covenants where husbands and wives raise children together. The social scientists have produced study after study showing the benefits of having a father and mother physically present in a child's life and of the deleterious effects of single parenthood and divorce. Government tax breaks for parents and in support of marriage are in the national interest. I would also favor a return to stricter divorce laws, requiring the establishment of fault/grounds, but I am probably spitting into the wind on that one.

Think clearly, and think biblically, as you prepare to vote, this time and always.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Once Upon a Time...in Revelation

[The following was originally written as the introduction to one of our recent messages in Revelation. I offer it again here as a reminder and encouragement to all of us as the series comes to its close, and because we all need to remember the grand love story we all live in!] 

Once upon a time there was a handsome prince, who was his Father’s pride and joy. The handsome Prince was not just handsome, but good--as good as any prince could ever be. In the course of events, the Prince (as often happens in such stories) fell in love. It was not with a princess, or even the most beautiful of young women. He loved a very unlikely girl—one whose bad qualities, at least as far as anyone could see, were much more numerous than her good ones. If you were to see her, and hear her, and watch her, you would probably say, “What does he see in her?” But whatever it was, he saw it. He loved her. And because of his love, no sacrifice was too great to make to have her as his own.

Something magical began to happen (as often happens in such stories). The more he loved her, and the more she realized it, the more she began to change. Slowly at first, and not always easily, her harsh words and bad attitudes began to fade. Though at first she had seen the Prince as only another man, she began to see just how good he was—how kind, how patient, and how forgiving for the ways she treated him. She began to sound less like herself, and more like him when she spoke. The hardness of her looks at others softened to match his kind smile. Without really understanding how it happened, she was shocked to realize that she loved the Prince.

Now as with any good love story, there was problem, and the problem involved villains. There were many others around who thought it was wrong that the Prince loved only this one undeserving maiden.  Not only were they jealous, they were incensed that someone no better than they might marry into such wealth and power as came with being the wife of the Prince. They began to disparage the Prince when they talked to her, and they mocked her among themselves. Mockery and disparagement turned eventually to open anger, and even attack. The young woman who had once fit in with everyone else now found herself ostracized, criticized, and finally victimized by increasingly violent threat and action. It became worse when these enemies realized the Prince was away doing the business of his Father, the King. Her life was now in grave danger.

But though he was away, the Prince was not unaware of what was going on. Until he could come back to her, he asked his Father to send whatever help his beautiful love needed, and his Father was only too happy to do so. By all sorts of means that involved last minute rescues and unexpected escapes, the young maiden found herself safe time and time again. But how she now wanted the Prince to return. And oh how he wanted to return and take her to be his bride. 

Finally, the Prince was enabled to come back to his Father and his Father told him, "it’s time." And it was just in time. His love’s enemies had come together and were ready to capture and kill her, and unless she was rescued, it seemed, they would do just what they planned. The Prince, though known for his kindness, was also not one to have his fiancĂ©e trifled with, let alone attacked.  His smile could melt a heart, but his anger—well, no one could stand up to it. And none of his enemies did as he arrived in just the nick of time, rescued his true love, and whisked her away from all her enemies and brought her to his home. There, to her amazement and surprise, all had been prepared and a wedding was about to begin. Her wedding. She would have her Prince forever. And she who had begun life as no one in particular would, as the bride of the Prince, live happily ever after.

The story of Revelation is many things, but one thing we sometimes forget is that it is the culmination of a love story—the story of Jesus and his love for his bride, the Church. “From heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought her, and for her life, he died.”He didn’t just die, though. In an event better than any fairy tale, he rose again, went to heaven to be enthroned next to his Father, and there he prays for her, asking his Father for every blessing and protection she needs to complete her “make up”—not as in cosmetics, but as in members. He loves her and is not willing that any one who is to be a part of her would be left out and perish. In God’s wisdom, her growth and development requires testing and trial, until the day comes when she is a fully prepared bride. 

So, we wait now in weakness and suffering, but we know the happy ending is coming.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Ebola Matters...Now

Today we've awakened to the news that someone here in the states has been diagnosed with Ebola, the first such case in the USA. And of course there are the Facebook posts speculating, the CDC head pontificating ("we will stop this in its tracks"), critics wondering why travel from West Africa has not been more monitored, and people not wanting to go go Dallas.

I think it's silly to say we will "stop" it--when we don't know how many people have traveled here from affected places and were near someone with the virus who sneezed--yes, that is one of the ways it can be transferred. Maybe we will stop it, or maybe we won't. But I'd rather claim credit for something done than assure people we will do something I can't ultimately control.

But here's the more interesting thing to me--we care, now, because it's here. But whole nations are under quarantine in Africa, not allowing travel across borders, because of this disease. Thousands have died. And some people weren't sure we should bring US citizens home for treatment when they were infected while treating patients. Perhaps we should ask why having Ebola here is so much more newsworthy than the months of Ebola suffering in Africa was. We all know the answer--it was happening to THEM over THERE, and now it can happen HERE to US! Now we will be anxious to find a vaccine and a cure and make sure everyone can have it--here.

One of the greatest international legacies of President Bush was the PEPFAR program that aggressively combatted HIV/AIDS in Africa, and by all accounts (including those of some of our missions personnel) saved many lives and drastically increased survival rates. Interestingly, it was attacked here in the US as a waste of money by most of his political allies and was ignored or belittled by his opponents. Over the last 4 years, the government has cut the budget by 12%--and we're not talking trillions of dollars here--it's a relatively small program. More people will die and more orphans will be created.

With Ebola, Christians have been concerned for aid workers. We've seen impact as mission ventures have been short-circuited. But have we thought about how devastating this is in a needy region where many are believers--our family?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Little Bit of "Worm" Theology

John Vasconcellos died this past May. Most of you don't know him, but this powerful California legislator was a very common name back in the late 1980s when he led the creation of and chaired the state's "Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility." This monumentally misguided effort introduced all sorts of self-esteem mandates to the California public schools, believing that low self-esteem was the root cause of crime, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and nearly every other social ill. He helped the state's "crazy" image, but gave voice to what many secretly believed--the solution to our deepest problems is lack of self-esteem: we all should believe in ourselves!

Even among Christian thinkers, this kind of positive attitude led many to caricature and demonize older theological minds that often spoke of the smallness and even "vileness" of the human heart. It was called "worm" theology, from OT references by Job to himself as a "worm, and not a man" and echoes of this in the Psalms. The idea is one of self-abasement and humiliation, and was picked up on in an number of old hymns.

Such an attitude, it was thought, was unduly negative for those who are the crown of God's creation--his very image. Sadly, this kind of "either/or" thinking has led us to a continuing dearth of balance in our thinking about ourselves, and more importantly, of God.

Don't get me wrong. We should take great joy in the fact that "God loves us right now, as we are." He is always compassionate to us when we come to him, no matter what our state. But, as the rest of the thought needs to go, "He loves us too much to leave us as we are." For the way in which we come to God, whenever we come, is less than what it it meant to be. 

John Owen has two very practical pieces of advice for those of us seeking to "mortify" (a nice word for "kill") sin--"Think greatly of the greatness of God" is the first. We ought to fill our minds with the biblical imagery of God as highly exalted above and beyond us, of his perfections, his holiness, his zeal for his own people and name, and so on. Secondly, make sure you also fill your mind and thoughts with the guilt of the sin you seek to eradicate from your life. Don't be so quick to pass over just how offensive it is to God, how much it grieves the Spirit, the price Jesus paid to free you from it, and the lack of holiness and ability to be "righteous" that you have on your own. Unless you really hate your sin, you won't want to kill it, only tame it. And sin will not be tamed.

It is this thinking on one's own inability and remaining sin that undoes "self-esteem," and requires us to develop a higher "God-esteem." Generally, sinners do not need to learn to think better of themselves, they need to think worse of themselves and better of Christ who is making us into something we are not by nature--saints!

Friday, September 12, 2014

9/11, Remembering and Wondering...

I'm writing this note on Thursday, September 11, 2014 (yesterday by the time you read this). It's Patriot Day officially, the day we recall attacks on airplanes that led to the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, much of the Pentagon, and a lone airliner crashing in Pennsylvania. 

There was a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit the first tower. Flags are at half mast. Remembrances have appeared all over Facebook, as well as pictures of the towers, before, during, and after the attack. Many talked about where they were at that time, and what they remember. One friend was on his way to mail a letter. He never did. He lost 9 acquaintances in the towers and Pentagon. Others talked about not leaving their TVs, and wondering what else was going on. For those of us in California, we woke up to the towers on fire, and I wasn't even dressed before the first one came down. Various people I knew, including missionaries, were in the midst of international travel and were basically locked in place for days. Meanwhile there were no planes overhead except fighter jets.Many stories began to emerge of people who were going to be in the towers or on those planes but were not. And then there were the stories of people who wound up there at the last minute, thinking they had gotten "lucky." One particular story belonged to one of my church members in Santa Clarita. George is a United Airlines pilot, and flew the Boston to LA route that month. As it turns out, the rotation was such that he was scheduled to fly on September 12. Had the attack been one day later, it would have been his plane.I still remember Todd Beamer's story, told by his wife, Lisa, and the phone call from his hijacked plane that gave us that memorable line, "Let's roll!"There were so many stories we heard in the aftermath of that day--stories of bravery, of self-sacrifice, of courage, and of faith. It was a horrible day that yielded so many individual evidences of extraordinary acts of heroism.It was a little more than a month later that I was catching a flight back to LA from Seattle when the news broke that we were attacking Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. All the passengers in the newly created extra security lines were more nervous as they heard the commentators talking about Osama bin Laden. The war that began then still drags on--even as we have sought to disengage from it. 

By the week after 9/11, we were already hearing some calling for all out war against every suspected enemy, and others saying that we must show mercy as a nation and turn the other cheek--war was not the answer. People were expressing confused ideas. So I preached on justice and mercy, what the Bible says to governments and individuals about both, and the difference between justice and vengeance. I called on us to think biblically even as we dealt with our own reactions. President Bush was "our president" no matter the party at first. His words at the national  memorial services and on the rubble at the World Trade Center made everyone proud. But politics revived, and national unity foundered as the Patriot Act was debated, and disappeared as the Iraq war went beyond the defeat of Saddam to "nation building." Politics seemed to trump any thought of national unity or resolve. Neither of those commodities seem to have been recovered since then. President Bush was not just wrong in the eyes of his detractors, he was evil. Now the same is true for President Obama. People who had been first in line to promote the war now were falling all over themselves to say they really hadn't favored it. Now we see a President elected on the promise to get us out of Iraq, who did so very quickly, but now is having to decide how to respond to what happened in the vacuum we left. I see people posting notes today saying that we were attacked but emerged stronger and more united. I wish that were the case, but I don't see a lot of national strength of will (we don't know what to do), or national character (we don't know right from wrong). We seem to have developed a patriotism that is more akin to wishful thinking.What has made America unique (and I would argue great) was that God, in his providence, allowed a nation to come into being that was powerfully shaped in its founding by principles and ideals largely derived from Scripture (even when those espousing them didn't see or acknowledge that). Believing that mankind generally and governments especially were prone to evil when empowered, they crafted a republic of laws, divided power (both nationally among branches of government and between the nation and states), individual liberties and rights, and made citizens sovereign. It was an incredibly novel experiment that worked. And while we have never been a "Christian nation," we have historically been a nation that acknowledged the God of Christians and Jews as God over the nation, though not enforcing any state religion. This "God sense" permeates our history, culture, songs, and ideas of morality--even when we ignored those ideas in our actions. This is what made the US a nation of "do-gooders" through much of our history. It also is why we were such a desirable target for those who associate a god and a religion with a nation, and see all of life as a contest between religions. We survived. But so did our enemies. One might argue that they control more people and geography now than they did in 2001. Parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Libya, other pockets of north and eastern Africa--these are now places where enemies of our nation thrive. Add Iran, Cuba, and North Korea to the mix as well. Qatar funds terrorists. Wahhabi Islam (a militant branch bent on global expansion and virulently anti-Christian) is largely funded worldwide by its strongest adherents, the royal family of Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, since 9/11 (and even before) the effort to gut the God-awareness from our national consciousness has only sped up.

Our nation's enemies do not think of the aftermath of 9/11 as a defeat, any more than Israel's Palestinian foes do. They just see this as a continuing battle, where we've not been able to defeat them.

After the fall of communism in the 1990's, people talked about the "end of history" and America as the world's only superpower. And though it was only a faint shadow of what it had been, there was still a residue of moral fiber instilled from our past. As one who knows that history is headed toward judgment, I remember wondering when our inevitable decline from that singular dominance in the world would come. I now wonder if 9/11 was that turning point? I don't know. I was born after America's first stalemate at war (Korea). I was raised during the time of our first defeat (Vietnam). I rejoiced to see the end of the Cold War as Communism crumbled in Europe and the former Soviet Union. As we mark another 9/11, I think about victories that have turned sour in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the current butchery of ISIS. My heart is not filled with nationalistic pride or belief that we will always win.

Instead, I'm praying for a nation that was given so many providential blessings and advantages, but has lost its way and its soul (if one can speak of a nation having one). Perhaps the growing danger of the world that is coming home to us will be God's instrument to awaken repentance and faith. Maybe our abandonment of the national "civic religion" that acknowledged but did not truly submit to God will open the way for the true Gospel to stand out boldly and lead to the true conversion of many. Let us hope that we who believe that all the nations of this world are ultimately under the power of the evil one will abandon the false hopes we have had in government, politicians, and military might. These are all adequate for specific earthly tasks assigned by God to rulers, but they all make terrible saviors.

I'm remembering those stories that need to be remembered, and praying that I might be as true to my Lord, my family and friends, and my neighbors as countless numbers were  to theirs on that unforgettable day.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ray Rice Saga: Hearing vs. Seeing

Ever since last spring, it has been well known that Ray Rice, 7 year veteran running back of the
Baltimore Ravens, had been in a fight with his then-fiancee (and now wife) in an Atlantic City casino.  What was known (and seen in a previously released video) was that she had slapped him, and he followed her into an elevator. It had also been seen in the same early video that Rice dragged his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator. Rice was charged for his actions, but before trial was accepted into a diversion program. The National Football League took a lot of heat from a number of groups for only giving Rice a two game suspension. Rice, according to all reports expressed remorse and sorrow over the incident. He was straightforward in interviews with the league and with his team about what went on--how he had hit his fiancee and she had been knocked out. She sat next to him when he held a press event to apologize. She married him. And though many were still very upset about the light penalty he had experienced, it looked like the matter was history.

Then a gossip website/TV show released the video from inside the elevator. No new facts were released. No new information was gained. But the sight of a football player throwing a punch and a woman being knocked unconscious, left on the floor, and then dragged out of an elevator became the big news story of the day. By noon, Rice was released by his team, and minutes later, suspended indefinitely by the league.

I have a number of reactions to all of this. First, I was in agreement that the league had done much too little to punish Rice's behavior earlier. Second, I think the punishment Rice now faces is correct. Third, I was impressed by his coach who said he had been talking to Rice, and that he and his wife stood ready to help Mr. and Mrs. Rice, and would be praying for them--hoping that this couple that seemed to be working on their personal matters would succeed.

But one major reaction I have is the power of what we see over what we know through written or spoken report. Ray Rice had told investigators from various places that he had punched his fiancee. According to one spokesman in the investigations, Rice didn't "sugarcoat it." But seeing him do what he said he did caused players who had been previously silent to jump on social media to call for his banning. Reporters on ESPN could hardly get air time fast enough to join the ban bandwagon.   Everyone, including the President of the United States, had to weigh in.

I don't disagree that he should be out of the game. What he did was horrendous. But why could our society not understand that truth from words, but only from images? I wonder what would have happened if a now retired football player who went to prison for killing a man would have been celebrated and idolized at his retirement or during his career if there had been video of the crime?

We have known for a long time that video footage has incredible power to change perspective, just as photographs did in an earlier era. They don't make something more true (and we know from sad history that photos and videos can be altered to promote false narratives). But our visceral reaction to visual imagery changes the equation almost every time.

In this case, the video of Ray Rice's assault will forever shape his life and our perceptions of him. It has, at least for now, ended his career. That is fair. It may make keeping his marriage together harder. That is sad. And having gone viral, we have no idea what cultural impact it will have. That is sobering.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tomorrow's Worries

“Don’t worry about tomorrow…tomorrow will worry about itself.”  Jesus, in Matthew 6:34

I’ve often wondered about this verse, and two things, one small and one not, have made me think about it again. The small thing is my son’s specific interest in the reference, and so this is for you, Nathan.

The bigger matter is life—specifically the near-daily onslaught of bad news, global and personal. News from around the world is particularly grim—wars, rumors of wars, atrocities, Christian persecution, racial tensions, and a
general message of helplessness coming from political leaders with serious speeches and no actions. I have a daughter and nephew in the military. I have a son in law who is a police officer. I have friends in many of the affected regions.

Worry creeps into the picture. What kind of world is this? Are children—including mine—going to be safe? Will my friends be harmed? Are Christians going to be silenced? Will our nation become a powerless observer of world evil, will war erupt and envelope much of the world again, or both?

At first blush, this verse sounds almost fatalistic—and these words, spoken outside this context would indeed be fatalistic. But Jesus is not saying that “que sera, sera” should be your thinking. The immediate context of Matthew 6 before this is about God’s amazing  and specific provision and direction of all things for the good of his creation generally and his people particularly. The preceding verse tells us to “seek first” God’s kingdom and righteousness, and what God provide what is needed as you pursue him. This means that the correct response to circumstance is not worrying about what is going on around us or what we need, but trusting in our Father’s understanding and provision. If we are pursuing God, Jesus says, everything else that we need will be taken care of as he sees fit.

Alright, but what about tomorrow’s needs or problems? We may be OK right now, but there are clouds on the horizon. I maybe safe right now, and my needs met, but just for today. Such thinking about what may come tomorrow will rob us of our joy in God’s provision today. So Jesus takes these commonly used words and gives them a better context. “Tomorrow and its needs? That’s tomorrow, not today. God has taken care of you for today. Seek him. And since when you wake up tomorrow it will be “today” you will have what you need then.” As another old saying goes, “tomorrow never comes.”

Tomorrow isn’t your reality—today is. So, don’t be worrying about tomorrow’s needs, tomorrow’s crises, tomorrow’s questions. In most cases, they won’t materialize as you anticipate. In every case, God has said he takes care of you—right now. Tomorrow’s worries? Let “tomorrow” have them, because God is with you today. Pray about future needs, and give those things to the Lord, but worry should be “permanently postponed,” because you are trusting in your God today.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Strong Comforter

One of the names for the Holy Spirit is "the Comforter." The name comes from the Greek word, parakletos, which speaks of being "called alongside" with the purpose of help. From this idea of assistance, we've moved to a word that sounds more like a "sympathizer," or a warm blanket. That's not exactly the same, is it? 

Now don't get me wrong. God wants to encourage and shelter and console his people in this life. But if the Holy Spirit is just a warm fuzzy presence saying "there, there," I'm not sure that really helps.

But that is not what the title "Comforter" means. As R. C. Sproul noted as he taught and wrote on this subject, when parakletos was being translated into English back in the 1600s, they wanted to use a word that meant "to come along side with needed strength or aid." They chose the word "comforter" because, back then, it meant that. It was from two Latin words, cum, which means "with" and fortis which means strength (the musical term "forte" is from this word). The emphasis is not on feeling better, but on being provided needed strength or help. In fact, the ESV uses "Helper" instead of "Comforter" for this very reason. Languages evolve over time, and with the word "Comforter" we went from powerful aid to a down quilt.

Interestingly, the same Greek term (parakletos), when used of Jesus in 1 John 2, is translated "Advocate," a term used for a lawyer--that is certainly one form of aid we can understand.

So, when you think about the Holy Spirit, don't think of a spiritual "warm blanket." Instead, consider him to be the person of the Trinity who gives you, by his presence with you, all the strength and power you need for godliness.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Different Realities

Friends from Ukraine write, “Hey, are people paying attention? Russia is invading us—sending thousands to fight alongside separatists and arming them.”

I haven’t had the heart to say, “No we really aren’t paying attention. You are probably on your own.”

Friends in the Middle East ask, “Are people at home up in arms about what ISIS is doing to tens of thousands of people here? Syria is in chaos, Iraq is falling apart, and the only things growing are refugee camps!”

I respond, “Well, we got mad when they killed a journalist, but that’s about it.”

Friends from south Asia inquire about ways that the nation has responded to the death of an American general in Afghanistan, or the murder of Christian aid workers. “Have there been memorials and prayer vigils? What did the President say about the general?

I answer, “Not really, and not much.”

White friends ask when everyone will get tired of all this pseudo racist stuff surrounding a thug who beat up a cop and then got shot. Black friends ask when whites will wake up to the systemic racism that permeates our society’s power structures.

I don’t have an answer.

I imagine all of these inquirers getting together, and asking rather pointedly, “then what in the world do people you know care about right now?”

That I can answer. “Well, a lot of them are dumping buckets of water over their heads and making a video about it to post on Facebook—it’s for ALS awareness. LeBron is coming back to Cleveland. The NFL and college football seasons are starting up. And the new season of most TV shows is about to begin.”

They have nothing to say.

And then I ask myself "what can I/we/our nation/concerned observers do to change all of these things?"

There is only one step I can come up with, but it is the best I could give.

I can pray. And so can you.

The question we may not want to hear next--"So, did you?"

Friday, August 22, 2014

Just a Bucket of Water...The ALS Challenge and its Detractors

These are the moments as a pastor when I would just as soon not know what all of you are doing on Facebook. I'm watching my FB home feed fill up with people "small and great" as this Sunday's text in Revelation says, dumping containers of various sizes over their heads filled with water--though it's called the "Ice Bucket Challenge," it seems to be cold water in most cases. The reason is that someone else did it and challenged them to follow through, either doing this or donating to research for ALS--a terminal, debilitating disease that has no cure. It raises awareness of this disease, and according to the ALS Association, it has caused their donations to climb to six times what was received last year.  It looks like...well, "fun" doesn't really apply, but it is being done in a good spirit.

Until...we have a number of people point out that the ALS Association funds research using embryonic stem cells. Dr. Georgia Purdom of AIG blogged here about it, and printed a statement by the ALSA that said they have limited embryonic stem cell projects, but that they might, under certain conditions, have more. They also said one's donations can be specified away from such research. But is that just allowing other funds to continue such research? Do we want babies created in test tubes and then destroyed so that their cells can be used to try and find a cure for other human beings?

So should we participate and forget it, object and criticize it, or do what one pastor friend did, and participate but add a caveat about being careful where you donate? Is this a time to demonstrate concern or discernment? Do I join in the social media fun and frenzy, or stand up as a Christian killjoy who can find the cloud in every silver lining?

If awareness is all that was raised, no one would care. And technically, if you accept the challenge and douse yourself, you have avoided having to make the donation--that's what everyone who gives the whole challenge says, "I've been challenged, and now I'm challenging my friend Stan and if you don't do it you have to give $100 to ALS research." But donations are "pouring" in, so it's not just awareness. I do wonder how many of the wet awareness raisers I've seen are donating money though.

I also wonder how much of this is a combination of motives. Some of my FB friends seem to like any occasion to star in any video. Many are enjoying being called out and calling others out to do this, like a giant, viral, dare. Some have been personally touched by the ravages of ALS on friends or family--and it is a scary and insidious disease.

So, what should you do? Here's how I would respond. 
1. This is the equivalent of a social media chain letter, or one of those posts that says, "I love Jesus. Repost if you do, too." Or even worse, "If you are really my friend, comment with a word that you think of when you think of me." I am always (confession time here) so tempted to post, "NEEDY!"  I hated chain letters back in the day, and I hate this kind of manipulation. I almost get the impression that some are desperate to participate to fit in or raise awareness of their own creativity. That is obviously not true for many, but this is a mixed motive moment.

2. ALS  should be thought about and fought against. So should all sorts of physical manifestations of the curse of sin upon this world.

3. Christians ought not to check their moral concerns at the door when evaluating research associations. Birth defects deserved medical research, but the "March of Dimes" campaign against them lost the support of many through their promotion of abortion as a means to avoid such defects. Children should be educated, but UNICEF spends money on international programs I find abhorrent. 

4. If you say you are "raising awareness" of ALS and not giving money to fight it, you are just starring in your own video. If you dumped water over your head, dry off and go make a donation. BUT, either find a place to donate in line with your convictions, or specify where your donation to the ALS Association goes (Read their statement about this here). If enough donors make the point that we won't kill some humans to save others, perhaps the point will be made.

5. Make all decisions about your charitable giving based on principles, priorities, and values from God's word. Think about them, pray for God's guidance, and do what you believe God wants done with his resources. For many of us, though not all, we should cultivate the impulse to give, rather than stifle it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Living in The World We Don't Want

Having returned last week from a great vacation (which includes strictly limiting news media, social media, and email), I find I've returned to a world that I don't want to live in. Consider:

Christian homes marked for attack in Mosul, Iraq. The
Arabic "n" marking stands for Nazarene, a pejorative name
for Christians.
Days are stretching into weeks where a radical Muslim group (ISIS) is killing Muslim "heretics," crucifying Christian converts in Syria, killing and persecuting Christians in Iraq, and performing ethnic and religious "cleansing" that is more public and visible than the early stages of the Holocaust. All those nations that swore "never again" are now simply saying, "again?"

Rockets launched at Israel from Gaza by Hamas
Meanwhile the national descendants of Holocaust survivors in Israel have faced renewed anti-Semitism in Europe and international condemnation for military action in Gaza, which has been launching missiles toward Israeli citizens for years, and still refuses to stop. With Gaza in ruins, Israel halted military incursions, and what happened? Gaza launched more missiles. The typical response in the news? ISRAEL LAUNCHES NEW STRIKES, and only later in the report, "in response to 70 missiles launched by Hamas in Gaza." Hamas is committed to war until Israel is destroyed, and yet we call on Israel to show restraint, just like we would if Cuba was continually shelling Florida.

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine
Russian aggression against Ukraine is roundly condemned, as was its aggression against Georgia a few years ago, but when Russian weapons in the hands of Russian puppets in Ukraine shoot down a passenger jet with hundreds of lives lost, no one does anything...just like the good old days of the Cold War when the Soviet Union shot down a passenger plane with hundreds aboard and no one did anything. Russia is on the verge of annexing more of Ukraine and possibly invading. But suggesting that we are back in a new Cold War is considered foolish.

And don't even take time to think about domestic issues: border problems, shooting of unarmed civilians in Missouri and Ohio, and a government that passes laws, only to ignore them or delay implementation because they will create political cost and economic pain.

The breathtaking pace at which our culture has embraced and prized relational choices the Bible says  are sin (unfaithfulness to marriage vows, divorce, wholesale rejection of marriage by many couples in favor of cohabitation, and acceptance of same sex marriage) is yesterday's news. As mentioned in Romans 1, people now are not just doing wrong, but celebrating when they get others to join in.

Meanwhile, Christians who feed the poor and place orphans in homes are bad when they follow their consciences and the clear teaching of scripture, refusing to recognize same sex marriage or to offer insurance that pays for abortion of infants in the womb. Of course, these Christians, and all Christians through the history of the Church, are holding views and values that civilized societies have, until the last one hundred years held as well.

Dr. Kent Brantly, missionary doctor being treated for
Ebola, has been labeled "narcissistic" and guilty of
idiocy for going to Liberia instead of working in the US.
And for all who make the terrible mistake of linking political conservatism with biblical Christianity, the statements of Ann Coulter (and a few others who made similar comments) that a Christian doctor who contracted the Ebola virus while serving in Liberia was "narcissistic" and his current medical condition was "idiocy" show that even our supposed "friends" in this world don't really get what good is.

Perhaps these events may be the tipping point for those who have been so convinced that "American exceptionalism" was true and we were a nation in character unlike any other. True, our history has evidenced many blessings from God--but blessings are by definition undeserved. They are grace--either common or special, but grace nonetheless.

Perhaps circumstances will finally disabuse those naive Christians who think we will bring the kingdom of God's power, ethics, and circumstances to earth by our good works--reversing the curse by our kindness.

Perhaps, but I doubt it. But this is a moment for repentance, and for courage. We repent, because it seems that only extraordinary evil awakens us to the evil around us, when in fact evil has been our constant companion. We repent because we Christians in America have lived as if suffering and tribulation were exceptions for Christians, and not the rule, and we have allowed the vigor of our faith to diminish accordingly. We have forgotten that Jesus told us, "in the world you will have tribulation.," not that it will only come after you've gone.

But it is also a time for courage. How? Because in that same passage, Jesus said, "in the world you will have tribulation, but take heart (take courage, be encouraged), because I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Note that we don't jump up and down for joy at tribulation, but we recognize it is not the final destination or experience for those who know Jesus. He sometimes protects from evil, sometimes delivers through it, but always promises that his victory is our confidence. Evil did not stop him from redeeming his own, and evil will not stop his people from inheriting eternal life. And so we are to have courage--be brave and bold, though we don't have any strength or power of our own. It is courage anchored in Jesus' death and resurrection, and it will be needed for many in the days ahead, because tribulation is our current "promise." But Peter says it is "for a time" that we are tried. Paul says it is "momentary" and "light" in terms of comparing it to the weight of the glory and good that is coming. But it is real.

Don't freak out at how bad things are. Some of our brothers and sisters are wondering how we've missed how bad it has been for a long time for them. Don't wring your hands, although you can and should be moved with compassion. Pray for the needs and suffering you see. Pray that God will strengthen those going through the fire right now. Do what you can--give if there is a need you can meet and a way to meet it. But as the fire and destruction and collapse of  "Christian culture" continues, pray for yourself, that your faith will not fail. Pray the same for others. Dig into the Word. Find other believers with whom you can pray and study and prepare. Hold on to truth, and tell it even if it is unpopular. Speak it clearly, humbly, and in love. The Church is always to have a place in public life, even if it is to be ridiculed for views and beliefs that are unpopular.

This world is not a place we would, or should, want right now. But the day is coming when, after judgment falls, Jesus will make all things new. Keep your eyes and heart fixed on that hope, and the present distress will not overwhelm you.