When Politics Leads to Bloodshed

When 66-year old James Hodgkinson opened fire on a ball field in Alexandria, Virginia this past Wednesday, he seemed to be targeting Republican members of Congress, who were engaged in a friendly game of baseball.  Shortly before the shooting, the suspect asked two representatives if the congressional members playing that day were Republicans or Democrats.  When they responded that they were Republicans, he left.  But when he returned, he came toting a rifle, which he used to wound four people, including the majority whip for the House of Representatives, Steve Scalise, who sustained severe injuries.  He remains in critical condition at an area hospital.

Following the shooting, investigators sprang into action and quickly discovered that Hodgkinson had a sharp disdain for Republicans, posting many virulently anti-Republican messages on social media.

This is where we are.  Our nation has become so bifurcated politically that a difference in party can become a motive for attempted murder.

In general, recent times have not proven to be good ones for political discourse in our country.  From a magazine cover depicting a comedian holding a severed, bloodied head bearing a curious resemblance to the president’s head, to a modernized telling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a New York park that portrays the assassination of someone who, again, appears strikingly similar to the president, to the president himself joking during his campaign that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and shoot someone and his voters would still support him, political discourse has, to put it mildly, taken a nosedive.

So often, such reckless political flame-throwing is defended on the grounds of the blessed freedom of speech that we enjoy in our country.  “If we can say it, we will say it,” the thinking goes.  Indeed, no matter what political views you may hold, it is likely that some in your political camp have said things about opposing political factions that, though they might be legal according to the standards of free speech, are certainly not moral according to the guidances of God’s good Word.  Free speech does not always equate to appropriate speech.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves not only, “Can I say this?” but, “Should I say this?”

Part of the problem with our political discourse is that so often, so many seem to be so content with ridiculing the other side that they forget to offer cogent arguments for the benefits of their side.  But when we define ourselves by how we belittle our opponent, we turn our opponents into nothing short of evil monsters.  We stop disagreeing with them and begin hating them.  And our political discourse turns toxic.

President John F. Kennedy, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, gave a commencement address at American University where he called for a recognition of and an appreciation for the humanity we share even in the midst of stark political differences.  He said:

No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.  As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity.  But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements – in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage …

So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.  For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy had no qualms about vigorously defending American democracy against the dangers and evils of Soviet communism.  But he also never forgot that communists – yes, even communists – are people too.

The tragedy of this past Wednesday is a stark and dark reminder of what happens when we forget that our political adversaries are still our brothers and sisters in humanity.  To put it in uniquely theological terms:  our political adversaries are still God’s image-bearers.  This means a Republican has never met a Democrat who is not made in God’s image.  And a Democrat has never met a Republican who is not the same.  So may we guard our actions, guard our tongues, and, above all, guard our hearts as we engage those with whom we disagree.  After all, our hearts were made not to hate our opponents, but to love them.

Let’s use our hearts as God intended.

June 19, 2017 at 5:15 am 3 comments

In Praise of Fathers

Father Daughter

Just in time for Father’s Day this Sunday comes a new study detailing the impact fathers have on their daughters’ behavior patterns.  In an online article published in Developmental Psychology, researchers from the Universities of Utah and Albany “compared the outcomes of older and younger full biological sisters who experienced the divorce or separation of their parents while growing up, and thus spent differing amounts of time living with their fathers.”  They found that “when fathering was high quality…older sisters were less likely to affiliate with sexually risky peers during adolescence compared to their younger sisters” because they had more time with their fathers pre-divorce than did their younger siblings post-divorce.

This research is sobering, but it is not particularly surprising.  The profoundly formative effect fathers have on their children has been well-documented.  This study serves as both an encouragement for fathers and a challenge to fathers.  It serves as an encouragement for fathers because it is a yet another reminder that they matter – greatly.  In a culture that has enclaves that can, at times, belittle, disparage, and minimize the roles men play in families and in society, this study reminds us of the blessing of dads.  It reminds us that fathers, by how they treat their daughters when they are little, can shape their daughters’ expectations and views of men as they grow up.  But this study also presents a challenge to fathers.  In an age when far too many men make children but do not raise them, this study is a clarifying indictment of the steep price that a man’s absence can incur on his children.  This must change.

In a society that obsesses over personal autonomy and choice, fatherhood is a countercultural sacrifice and call.  Fatherhood compels men to sacrifice many of their freedoms and hobbies for the sake of loving, providing for, and raising their children.  And whether the call of fatherhood comes expectedly or unexpectedly, it should and must be answered wholeheartedly, regardless of whether or not a man feels he’s ready to be a dad.

Many men I know are quite competitive.  They have a desire to beat those who are strong by being even stronger themselves.  Fatherhood, instead of pushing men to be stronger than the strong, invites men to be tender with the vulnerable – their children.  Fatherhood calls for a strength that does not conquer, but loves.  And this is the highest strength of all.  Which is why fathers are worth celebrating.

June 12, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Physician-Assisted Suicide and Who We Really Are

Euthanasia

Physician-assisted suicide has gained limited acceptance in many regions of the country because it has been peddled, in part, as an option for those suffering from the excruciating pain of certain types of terminal illnesses.  Supervised suicide was sold as a way to alleviate physical misery.  A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, however, suggests that the actual reasons people choose assisted suicide are quite different from that of physical suffering.   One of the researchers in the study, Madeline Li, explains that many people consider assisted suicide because of:

…what I call existential distress.  [For some people,] their quality of life is not what they want. They are mostly educated and affluent – people who are used to being successful and in control of their lives, and it’s how they want their death to be.

In one instance cited in this study, a marathon runner found herself confined to her bed because of cancer.  She wanted to take her own life because “that was not how she saw her identity,” Li explained.  In another case, a university professor wanted to die because, according to Li, “he had a brain tumor, and he didn’t want to get to the point of losing control of his own mind, [where he] couldn’t think clearly and couldn’t be present.”

This study reveals that physician-assisted suicide can turn out to be not so much a palliative response to physical pain, but an angry response to the loss of how we see ourselves.  A marathon runner wants to end her life when she can longer run marathons.  A university professor sees no reason to live if he is no longer able to think at the level he once was.  It turns out that when people lose what gives them their identities, they often lose the very will to live.

If nothing else, this study should serve as a warning concerning the dangers of finding your meaning, purpose, and identity in something you are or in something you do, for these types of identities can all too easily be shattered by the wily ravages of this world and this life.  This is why, as Christians, we are called to find who we are in Christ.

When a rich man comes to Jesus in Mark 10 and asks Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by citing a sampling of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”  When the man boasts to Jesus, “All these I have kept as a little boy,” Jesus responds, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”  The rich man, the story says, “went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  It turns out that this man found his meaning, purpose, and identity in his wealth.  And when Jesus asked him to give up the source of his earthly identity, he could not – even to follow Jesus eternally.  May we never make the same devastating mistake.

Physician-assisted suicide carries with it a whole host of ethical problems, including the temptation to place profits over people.  Just last week, The Washington Times reported on a doctor who claimed that some Nevada insurance companies refused to cover certain life-saving treatments he requested for his patients because they were too expensive.  Instead, these companies offered to help his patients end their lives.  If this story is true, such a practice is nothing short of appalling.  But sadly, far too many people do not need a creepy suggestion from a greedy insurance company to consider taking their own lives.  They only need to be so turned in on who they are in this life that they forget about who they are in Christ.

Suicide may be some people’s answer to a loss of identity.  But suicide cannot give someone a new identity.  It cannot give someone hope.  Only Jesus can do that.  So let us find ourselves in Him.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

June 5, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Reflections on London

Lodnon

As I finish my preparations for worship at Concordia tomorrow, I do so knowing that people across the world are hurting tonight as terrorists have launched an attack yet again, this time in London.

As I’ve been reflecting on another tragic night, I cannot help but hold out hope.  Here’s why.  Terrorists strike.  They quickly detonate a bomb, or mow down people using a car.  Terrorists strike.  Our God, however, does something more.  He abides.  He abides with us to comfort us in our distress.  He abides with us to dry our eyes when they are filled with tears.  He abides with us to give us strength when we are weak.  Terrorists strike.  Our God abides.

And abiding is better.

Abiding is better because it outlasts a strike.    Abiding is better because long after terrorists disappear into the shadows to plan their next sinister attack, our God remains by the sides of those who have lost loved ones.  Abiding is better because long after the police clear, loved ones are laid to rest, and today’s tragic story gets coopted by the next big tragic story, our God will not forget the events of this night.

One of my favorite hymns is “Abide with Me.”  Two of its verses are especially poignant to me tonight.  The first of these verses is for those who are mourning losses in these attacks.  The hymn reminds us of how Christ’s abiding presence can comfort us in our loss:

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings;
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea;
Come, Friend of sinners, and abide with me!

In a world of terror, we do not need Christ to be our terrible Judge.  Instead, we need Him to be our gentle Healer.  May Christ begin the healing process in all those who are grieving.

The second of the verses reminds us of the hope that we have for the lost:

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness:
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still if Thou abide with me.

Terrorists struck tonight.  And with them, death struck.  But when Christ abides with us, we triumph.

Terrorism doesn’t stand a chance.

Praying for London.

June 3, 2017 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment

Terror in Manchester

Manchester Town Hall

Terror struck again, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.  What began as a night of fun for fans of the pop music diva ended with 22 dead, many of them children, and 59 others wounded when a suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of the concert arena.  ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by 22-year-old Salman Abedi who seems to have become radicalized after travelling to Syria.

Once again, the world is left struggling with what can only be described as a senseless and ghastly act of violence.  As I have after other similar attacks, I want to offer a few thoughts on how to process yet another week marred by a terrorist’s malice.  Here are three things to consider.

Sin is real.

In general, we want to believe that people are good.  Sure, there may an occasional evil outlier, but, overall, we like to assume that people are hardwired for goodness.  The steady stream of terrorist attacks, however, indicates differently.  Indeed, the tragedy in Manchester was the most widely reported terrorist attack of last week, but three additional attacks were also launched this past week – one in Egypt, another in the Philippines, and yet another in Indonesia.  Heinous acts of evil are rampant.  Sin is all too real.

It is true that the vast majority of people, thankfully, will never be party to a terrorist plot.  Every one of us, however, will struggle with some kind of sin.  Whether it be the sin of deception, or lust, or pride, or anger, none of us can escape the sirens of our sinister sides.  Because we live in a broken world, we have to live with the sad fact that the sin of terrorism will continue to be “out there.”  But because we ourselves are broken people, we also have to live with the sad fact that we will continue to struggle with sin in us.  The apostle Paul is right when he writes, “For all have sinned” (Romans 3:23).  Sin is real and is everywhere.

Righteousness is real.

We may struggle against sin, but we also yearn for righteousness.  We recoil in disgust against terrorism precisely because we know it’s wicked and we yearn for what is right.  But how do we know what is right and that terrorism is wrong?  Paul explains that, even if we do not know God, we know what is right and wrong because God has written righteousness on our hearts: “When [people], who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15).  This is why, in the face of evil, we appeal to and press toward righteousness.

Justice is coming.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”  At a time when racism was rampant, Dr. King believed justice would ultimately triumph.  And although racism still spreads its ugly tentacles through our society, justice has been slowly but surely bludgeoning the evil of racism over the 54 years since Dr. King’s speech.  What is true of racism is also true of ISIS and other organizations like it.  The evil of ISIS is simply no match for the justice of God.  ISIS may delight in the death of the innocent, but a day will come when “there will be no more death” (Revelation 21:4), for “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54) through Christ.  Indeed, Christ has already defeated death by His resurrection.  And because of Christ’s resurrection, those who lose their lives in Him do not lose their lives forever.  Death, for them, is but a pause in the drumbeat of life.  Their resurrections are soon to come when Jesus comes.

So after a week when a terrorist did his worst, we can take comfort in the biblical promise of everlasting life.  To quote the poet and pastor John Donne:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

May 29, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Trump, Lavrov, Comey, and Flynn

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 4.55.21 PM

What a week it’s been at the White House.  Last week brought what felt like a one-two punch of political crises.  First, The Washington Post reported this past Monday that President Trump, in an Oval Office meeting, shared highly classified information concerning terrorist activity with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  Because the information the president shared was first shared with us by one of our allies, the potential exists, according to some experts, to compromise our intelligence sharing relationships with these allies.  Then, the very next day, The New York Times published a story claiming that President Trump had asked the now former FBI director, James Comey, to end his investigation into the president’s fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn.  As soon as the story broke, many began to raise questions about whether or not the president potentially obstructed justice.  The president has since denied The New York Times’ report.

As politicians and pundits debate the consequences, the legality, and the constitutionality of the president’s alleged actions and their implications for our country, and as our political discourse continues down a path that seems to be increasingly marked by fear, distrust, and anger, here are a few reminders for us, as Christians, to help us navigate these heady times.

Pray for the president and for all our leaders.

Whether you love him, hate him, or are on the fence about him, President Trump needs our prayers.  Scripture commands us to pray for him along with all those who serve in our nation’s government: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).  This means Republicans should be praying for Democrats and Democrats should be praying for Republicans.  Political leadership is not only geopolitically treacherous because of the power it wields, it is spiritually perilous because of the prideful temptations it brings.  Politicians need our prayers.

Love the truth more than you love your positions.

In February, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”  In it, she cites a Stanford study in which researchers rounded up two groups of students:  one group that believed capital punishment deterred crime and another group that believed capital punishment did not deter crime.  Both groups of students were then given two studies, one of which presented data that showed capital punishment did deter crime and the other of which presented data that showed capital punishment had no effect on crime.  Interestingly, both of these studies were completely fabricated so the researchers could present, objectively speaking, equally compelling cases.  So what happened?  The students who were pro-capital punishment applauded the study that bolstered their position while dismissing the study that called it into question.  Likewise, the students who were anti-capital punishment applauded the study that agreed with their position while dismissing the other study.  These two groups were so entrenched in their positions that they dismissed, out of hand, any information that called their positions into question, even if that information was presented as factual.  In other words, they loved their positions more than they loved the truth.

Politics seems to be custom-made for the kind of thinking that is more interested in holding positions than in seeking truth.  I have seen several social media posts where people boast openly that they no longer watch this or that news channel.  Instead, they receive their news only from outlets that are sympathetic to their positions.  As Christians, we should humbly recognize that there is truth in all sorts of sources – even in sources that disagree with and call into question our political positions.

The nature of truth is that some of it will always make us uncomfortable.  Sin, at its root, is based on lies, which means that some lies will inevitably appeal to us more than some truth, for all of us are sinners.  Indeed, if some truth never makes us uncomfortable, then we are probably missing the truth!

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska offered a great bit of moral clarity on the subject of truth in political discourse when he said recently on a morning news show:

Both of these parties, going back a couple of decades now, regularly act like your main duty is to – if here’s the truth, and you think the other side’s going to say this – you think you’re supposed to say this to try to counterbalance it.  I think that’s a bunch of hooey … You’re supposed to say what you think is true and try to persuade people to come alongside with you.  You’re not trying to counterbalance one falsehood with another.

This is exactly right.  You don’t fight one political tall tale with a tall tale of your own.  Truth trumps political posturing.  In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, we are to “deal honestly and seek the truth” (Jeremiah 5:1).  We are not to blindly and sycophantically defend the positions of our favorite politicians.

Trust in the Lord; not in an earthly leader.

In politics, crises will always abound.  Politicians, after all, are fallen human beings who are prone to making the same mistakes we are and can, at times, even intentionally and malevolently sin.  This is why we cannot trust in them for deliverance from our plights and blights.  Only the Lord can deliver us from these things.

Perhaps the thing that disturbs me the most about our current political environment is not what our politicians do, but what so many of us believe our politicians can do.  So many of us seem tempted to fashion our politicians not as public servants, but as civil saviors. Sometimes, we can be tempted to believe our politicians can usher in a humanly wrought utopia (think of some of the hopes that rested on the chant, “Yes, we can!”) while at other times, we can be tempted to believe our politicians can repristinate a bygone America full of wistful nostalgia (think of some of the discourse that surrounded the slogan, “Make America great again!”).  As Christians, our hope lies not in utopia or in nostalgia, but in Parousia – the day when Christ will return and sin and death will be conquered by Him once and for all.  That is our hope.  He is our hope.  So let’s devote ourselves to proclaiming Christ, Him crucified, Him resurrected, and Him coming again.

May 22, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

No-Win Situations

maze-1

George Jones once sang a song called “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win.”  I imagine Jesus felt much the same way when He uttered one of the tersest parables of His ministry:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.” For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  (Luke 7:31-34)

It seems no matter what message the kingdom of God was offering, the people of Jesus’ day were determined to reject it.  When John came preaching a message of somber repentance from sins, the people thought him to be mad.  When Jesus came and welcomed sinners and preached to them the gospel of grace, the people thought Him to be licentious.  Sometimes, you just can’t win.

A while back, my son Hayden was a little under the weather.  He was also teething.  So when I held him, he cried  And when I put him down, he cried.  When I sat down with him, he cried.  And when I stood up with him, he cried.  At that time, I just couldn’t win.

I have been a pastor long enough to watch quite a few people put themselves in what I call “no-win situations.”  Sometimes it’s a financial no-win situation.  “There is no way I have enough money to live on!” a person will say.  Sometimes it’s a relational no-win situation.  “There is no way I can ever forgive this person for what they have done to me!” another person will say.  And when I suggest some ways that someone can, in fact, navigate toward a winning solution, I will hear a whole litany of why there is no way to fix the problem.  Sometimes, a person just won’t let himself win.

When Jesus invites us to Himself, He invites out of the no-win situations of our sin and into the comforts, promises, and delights of His grace.  Like John the Baptist came before Jesus, there is an element of repentance that comes before forgiveness – sorrow that comes before joy.  But whether it is in dirge or in dance, we are invited out of our sin and into Christ’s arms.  The question is:  will we be like the people of Jesus’ generation, refusing both to participate in repentance and to receive God’s forgiveness?

The apostle Paul writes that his desire is to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  Paul has a desire to win what matters most.  But he also knows that his win will come not by his effort, but by his loss:

Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  (Philippians 3:7-9)

Paul’s win is the righteousness of Christ that leads to everlasting life.  This is the win to which Jesus invited the people of His day in Luke 7.  And this is still the win to which Jesus invites us.  And there’s no win that’s better than this win.

May 15, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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