Thoughts on the Iran Conflict

It’s been a hard week on the world stage. At the beginning of this year, U.S. forces attacked and killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a man who the Pentagon says was “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more” and “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomates and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”  Iran retaliated by launching a barrage of more the 20 missiles at two large military bases in Iraq, which, according to a statement from President Trump, did not, thankfully, kill any U.S. service members.  Sadly, it has now become clear that even though the attacks on the bases did not kill any Americans, a rogue missile, launched during this attack, did accidentally down a Ukranian passenger jet, killing 176 people, many of whom were part of a wedding party from Canada. The picture above of a child’s shoe gives perhaps the most heart wrenching glimpse into the true scope of this tragedy. So-called “collateral damage” from Iran’s attack was not just damage – it was death.

One of the most roundly condemned sins in the Scriptures is the shedding of “innocent blood.” Innocent blood was shed by General Soleimani through his terrorist activities. Innocent blood was shed on this passenger flight, even if inadvertently, by Iranian forces. And now, the hearts of many families who have lost loved ones are breaking. So, at the same time we can give thanks that a full-fledged conflict has not broken out, we should also mourn with the grieving. They are the reasons we should continue to, in the words of the Psalmist, “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). By God’s grace, may we be successful in our search.

January 13, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Violence That Never Seems To Stop

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Credit: Sam Rios on Unsplash

In my blog last week, I reflected on some of the events that shaped 2019, and I noted that there have been “accelerating attacks on houses of worship.” Unfortunately, the end of 2019 demonstrated just how true that was.

First, it was an attack on a Hanukkah celebration at a home in a New York City suburb. A knife wielding assailant burst into the home, wounding five people while the people inside scrambled to flee out the back door. Then, the very next morning, a gunman opened fire at a Church of Christ congregation outside of Fort Worth. Two people were killed. Many more probably would have been lost, but the gunman was taken down by the church’s security team.

It’s difficult to see these kinds of attacks at these kinds of gatherings. Celebrations and congregations are not meant to be battlefields. They are meant to be arenas of respite and rejoicing.

On the one hand, none of this surprising. As a Christian, I follow a man who warned of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7). Those who are Jewish know well Daniel’s prophetic announcement to King Xerxes: “War will continue until the end” (Daniel 9:26). Though both of these prophecies, in their contexts, point to the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, they can be applied throughout history. People are violent. And the human inclination toward violence shows no signs of abating.

While I am heartbroken over these stories, I am also grateful that, in both of these instances, many of these people were able to escape their attackers, or, as in the case of this most recent church shooting, the security team was able to stop the attacker. Sadly, however, we will not be able to end these types of attacks altogether. Too many stories of too much violence have demonstrated otherwise. In truth, despite our best efforts at safety, only God Himself can truly end violence. As God explained to His people of old, when God returns on history’s final day, “no longer will violence be heard” (Isaiah 60:18).

Until that day, I pray for victims and their families, I pray against further attacks, I give thanks for those who protect others while risking themselves, and I look forward to the day when my hope for peace will become the sight of peace. Even when it looks otherwise, I still firmly believe that guns and knives are no match for God.

January 6, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

2019: Year in Review

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Credit: Ulrike Leone from Pixabay 

It’s hard to believe another year has come and is now nearly gone. This year has had its share of memorable moments. There were the accelerating attacks on houses of worship – synagogues, mosques, and churches. There were the wildfires that devastated California and Hurricane Dorian that decimated the Bahamas. There was the huge controversy surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX, which experienced problems with one of its automated flight control systems, resulting in two deadly crashes. Politically, there was the impeachment of a president and the death of Elijah Cummings, a fixture in the US House of Representatives. And then, of course, in a story that will reach into 2020, there is a presidential election brewing.

It’s difficult not to experience a bit of déjà vu as I look back over this year’s big stories. Deadly rampages continue to terrorize communities and cultures. Natural disasters, a staple of creation since the introduction of sin, continue to wreak havoc across our nation and throughout the world. Businesses continue to find themselves in PR nightmares. And, our political fissures continue to widen and deepen. None of these problems were new to 2019. These were just new manifestations of old menaces.

Solomon famously wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is most certainly true. But we must also remember that this is not ultimate.

The apostle Peter writes about those who, like Solomon, know that things don’t really change. But they also doubt that anything ever will change. They complain: “Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). But Peter knows that even if the axiom “history repeats itself” is true of history, it is not true for the future, which is why Peter holds out this hope:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13)

Peter says there is a day coming when all the drudgery of this age will be overcome by the delight of the age to come.

But here’s the key: Peter says that, since we know that something better and different is on its way, we ought to “look forward” to what is to come. In Greek, the word for the phrase “look forward” is prosdokeo. Dokeo is a word that denotes “thinking,” and pros is a prefix that denotes “that which is first” or “at the head.” In other words, Peter is admonishing us to “think ahead.” Think ahead to a day when mass murders will die and natural disasters will be rendered unnatural and commerce will be consecrated and politics will care only about King Jesus. Think ahead to that day. Because it will be a supremely good day.

I’m praying for a great 2020. But I’m also hoping for a perfect eternity. I don’t know how God will answer my prayer. But I do know He will fulfill my hope. For my hope is His promise.

December 30, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

All the Days After the Big Day

Multiple studies have sounded foreboding warnings about the decline of marriage rates in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, while 72% of American adults ages 18 and older were married in 1960, that number has plummeted to 50%. More people are marrying later in life, and more people are choosing simply not to marry at all. Traditionally-oriented sociological observers point out that these falling marriage rates pose real problems not only for individuals personally, but for society collectively. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, explains:

Decades of statistics have shown that, on average, married couples have better physical health, more financial stability, and greater social mobility than unmarried people.

Other studies show that the children of those couples are more likely to experience higher academic performance, emotional maturity, and financial stability than children who don’t have both parents in the home.

The social and economic costs of family breakdown are paid by everyone.

Studies show divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers over $110 billion each year. But the real victims are children.

Children raised in single-parent homes are statistically more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, exhibit poor social behaviors, and commit violent crimes. They’re also more likely to drop out of school.

And when it comes to fighting poverty, there is no better weapon than marriage. In fact, marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80%.

These are sobering statistics. And yet, there is this interesting tension. While marriage rates may be on the decline, the wedding industry continues to grow. Forbes reports that, as of 2018, the wedding industry is a $72 billion a year money-maker, with the average cost of a wedding now ballooning to $35,000. Why are weddings so expensive? Forbes explains that couples feel compelled “to create ever more extravagant wedding experiences to make their day memorable for themselves and their guests.”

This heightened pressure around creating a perfect day for couples has given birth to a cottage industry – that of wedding therapy. Alyson Krueger reports for The New York Times:

The reality for many couples is that wedding planning is a tricky time. Deep-rooted family problems sometimes rear up. Some families face financial strain or must deal with contrasting values of how money should be spent. It’s also a time when couples and their families are going through big, fragile transitions.

The problems soon-to-be newlyweds encounter include things like:

“I can’t make a decision about who to have as my bridesmaid,” or, “I don’t know how to have a conversation with someone about not picking them as my bridesmaid.”

Other concerns, of course, are more systemic and serious. But the fact that there is a “wedding therapy” industry at all says something about our cultural mores and priorities.

In pre-marital counseling, I will often tell couples that the most important day of their marriage is not the first day of their marriage, but the last day of their marriage. “When death finally does you part,” I’ll ask, “what kind of marriage will you want to have – one that is marked by coldness and bitterness due to years of unaddressed issues, or one that is marked by warmth and forgiveness as you have weathered life’s storms together?” My point is this: if you want the last day of your marriage to be a good one, the time to begin working toward that is now. Far too many couples put all their effort and emphasis into the first day of their marriage – their wedding day – while thinking little about what their life together will look like after that. The wedding therapy industry is yet another indicator of our obsession with the first day of our marriages and the stress that first day brings. We have made our weddings about, well, our weddings – the dresses, tuxes, receptions, entrées, cake, gifts, decorations, and celebrations. But the wisest weddings are not about the weddings. They are not even really about the couple. The wisest weddings are ones that celebrate the gift that marriage is to humanity and reflect Christ’s love for the Church.

Perhaps if we made God’s gift of marriage and Christ and His Church the focus of our weddings, we would not only save ourselves from needing wedding therapy for the big day, we would also limit our need for marriage counseling for the days thereafter. I’ll take a healthy marriage over a perfect wedding any day. If you’re married, or especially if you used to be married, I have a feeling you would say the same thing, too.

December 16, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Learning to Give

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Credit: Gift on Picspree

A new report released by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable found that the percentage of U.S. adults who donated to charity dropped significantly between 2000 and 2016. 20 million fewer households donated to charity in 2016 than in 2000. While some attribute this drop in charitable giving to the Great Recession, which began back in 2008, giving has not recovered since this economic downturn, which has led researchers to seek out other drivers to explain the decline.  And one driver has become quite apparent. Una Osili, who is one of the co-authors of this report on charitable giving, explains that God and giving seem to go hand in hand:

“Attending services is correlated with giving to religious organizations, but it’s also correlated with giving to secular groups.”

It turns out that a decline in worship attendance can be correlated with a decline in giving.  People of faith tend to give to their communities of faith, but they give even beyond their community of faith, as Professor Osili notes, to secular organizations. Faith and generosity work together. To jumpstart generosity, then, perhaps a good place to start is not with a fundraiser, a plea, or a guilt trip, but with an invitation to trust in a God who is inordinately magnanimous and to worship Him on a regular basis.

Christians are driven to give because we know that God has first given to us. We believe that God has given us all that we have. So, if God has given us everything, the least we can do is give something.

This does not make giving easy, of course. Christians can still sometimes wonder if they have enough to give. Christians can still be tempted to horde their resources instead of sharing their resources. But this does not mean that giving is not a call. And this does not mean that giving is not a command.

Allow me to offer a challenge: as this year draws to a close, figure out a way to give – whether that be to a church, a charity, or a worthy cause. But then, take it a step further. Don’t just give once in the spirit of the holidays; make it your practice to give consistently as an exercise of faith. Giving is not meant to be an occasional anomaly in your life; it’s meant to be the way of your life. And, by the way, when it is, you bless the lives of others.

And everyone could use a blessing.

December 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Celebrating Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Each year, in keeping with a personal tradition, I like to read one of the Thanksgiving Proclamations issued by one of our presidents. This year, I turned my attention to the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1961, issued by President John F. Kennedy:

We have, as in the past, ample reason to be thankful for the abundance of our blessings. We are grateful for the blessings of faith and health and strength and for the imperishable spiritual gifts of love and hope. We give thanks, too, for our freedom as a nation; for the strength of our arms and the faith of our friends; for the beliefs and confidence we share; for our determination to stand firmly for what we believe to be right and to resist mightily what we believe to be base; and for the heritage of liberty bequeathed by our ancestors which we are privileged to preserve for our children and our children’s children.

It is right that we should be grateful for the plenty amidst which we live; the productivity of our farms, the output of our factories, the skill of our artisans, and the ingenuity of our investors. But in the midst of our thanksgiving, let us not be unmindful of the plight of those in many parts of the world to whom hunger is no stranger and the plight of those millions more who live without the blessings of liberty and freedom.

Like many presidents before him, President Kennedy is not short on his list of things for which he and the nation can be thankful. But what I appreciate especially about President Kennedy’s proclamation is that while he calls on the nation to be thankful, he also calls on the nation to be mindful of those for whom blessings may feel as though they’re in short supply. While many Americans gather around lavish feasts, others live with hunger and under oppression.  And these problems are not just international problems. They are domestic as well. A new study published by Dig Deep and the U.S. Water Alliance found that some two million people in the U.S. lack water and basic indoor plumbing. There are blessings that flow. But there is also need that is real.

President Kennedy concludes his Thanksgiving Proclamation with this admonition:

Let us observe this day with reverence and with prayer that will rekindle in us the will and show us the way not only to preserve our blessings, but also to extend them to the four corners of the earth.

The president wanted the nation to give thanks. But he also wanted the nation to give away some of the blessings it had received. He wanted the nation to embrace the “giving” in “Thanksgiving.” Indeed, giving is how we can demonstrate our thankfulness to God. In the words of the preacher of Hebrews:

Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13:16)

I pray that this Thanksgiving, you found many reasons to be thankful. I also pray that this holidays season, you’ll find many ways to be giving. These two things go together. For when you are thankful and giving, you provide others with the opportunity to be thankful and giving, too.

And our world could use more of both.

December 2, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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