The Shadow-Side of Freedom

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Last week, the latch on our backdoor handle got stuck. After working it loose, I discovered that the whole handle was worn out and needed to be replaced. I groaned inwardly because I am not known for being handy. To put it mildly, I am “home improvement compromised.” But, after trudging to Lowe’s to purchase a new handle, I scoured YouTube and found a guy with a thick southern accent who walked me through the process of replacing a door handle step-by-step. Everything was replaced, rekeyed, and ready to go within a few minutes. And I was more than a little thankful for the YouTube handyman who was wiser to the ways of door handles than I was.

In a famous 1946 lecture, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre quipped:

Man cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.

Sartre argues that when it comes to living, you just have to “figure it out.” He goes on to tell the story of a young man, who was once a student of his, who struggled to decide whether to stay and care for his mother in Paris or join the Free French Forces and fight the Nazis. Sartre asks of this young man’s moral dilemma:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.

According to Sartre, this young man was just going to have to “figure it out.”

Sartre concludes his lecture:

Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.

Sartre’s lecture, at first glance, carries with a lucrative offer of freedom. There is no higher authority of power, he argues, to which you can appeal to make life’s decisions than yourself. You can choose for yourself by looking to yourself. But, as my door handle experience reminded me, there are times where looking to yourself is not freeing, but frightening. Sartre admits as much when he says:

Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.

Too much freedom, it turns out, can feel like condemnation because, as initially nice as it may be to jettison a higher authority who looks over your shoulder and tells you what to do, you are still not truly free in one very important way – you are not free not to choose. You must choose something and then live with the consequences of your choice, no matter how awful. Everything rests on you, and you just have to “figure it out.”

The promise of Christianity is not that it removes or avoids all human responsibility and choice. There are plenty of calls in the pages of Scripture for humans to live morally and to choose wisely. But all of this human responsibility is placed inside a larger story of divine sovereignty. God is ultimately in control, offering guidance so that we may make righteous decisions and offering forgiveness for all the times we do not. We are not left merely to our own devices to “figure it out.”

One of the implicit criticisms Sartre levels against Christianity is in the story of his young student who is trying to decide between remaining in Paris to take care of his mother or joining the Free French Forces to fight the Nazis. Sartre explains that divine guidance will do this man no good because there is no divine guidance to tell this man what to do:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

But Sartre misses something in his characterization of God’s guidance. The young man in Sartre’s story faces two choices that could be considered moral. But just because there is no divine command that will make this young man’s particular decision for him does not mean that there is no sovereign help.

The Psalmist says:

The LORD is with me; He is my helper. (Psalm 118:7)

A lack of specific guidance from God about a specific decision does not mean that there is a lack of the presence of God through every decision. God will be with us – in our best decisions and our worst – with a freedom that removes burdens instead of one that creates them. For even when we don’t know what to do, He will help us through, and He will work things out, even when things – or when we – go astray. We don’t just have to “figure it out.” Instead, we can trust in Him.

March 8, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Jesus’ Love For Children Lost

Jesus Christ, Statue, Children, Catholic, Virginia
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One of the most moving moments of being a pastor is sitting with a family who has just lost a child. Perhaps they had a miscarriage. Perhaps their baby never made it out of the NICU. Perhaps their child lost their life in a tragic accident. There are many questions that a family asks at a moment like this:

How could God allow this to happen?

Did this happen because we did something wrong?

But there is one question I want to focus on in this blog:

Is my child in heaven with Jesus?

This is a weighty question because it reaches beyond a parent’s present pain and cries out desperately for an eternal hope. It deserves our serious consideration.

There is a famous episode in Mark 10 that gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with children:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And He took the children in His arms, placed His hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

There is an interesting debate over Jesus’ words in verse 14 when He says, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” What is the referent of “such as these”? Some say the referent is found at the beginning of verse 14 in “the little children.” This means that Jesus is not only welcoming a particular group of little children into His arms at this moment, but making a broader declaration about how the kingdom of God belongs to many other little children who are like these but who are also beyond these. The phrase “such as these,” then, reminds us that “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world.”

There are others, however, who argue that the phrase “such as these” is better informed by the word “anyone” in the next verse. In this interpretation, Jesus is not declaring that little children can enter His kingdom. Instead, He is only calling people in general to have a childlike faith. Though Jesus is certainly calling people to have a childlike faith in verse 15, syntactically, the specific referent of “such as these” is quite clear. In Greek, the word for the phrase “such as these” is tointoun, which is neuter. The word for the children who come to Jesus is paidia, which is also neuter. The word for “anyone” in verse 15 is hos, which is masculine. It is important to note that the genders of each of these words are incidental features of Greek syntax and not determinative of which genders of human beings can and cannot enter God’s kingdom. Syntactically, however, Greek pronouns and nouns do need to generally match in their genders. Thus, the first interpretation of which referent is the appropriate one for the phrase “such as these” is correct: it is children like the ones who are coming to Jesus in Mark 10 who can enter God’s kingdom. Age is no barrier to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Of course, I would not walk a grieving family who has just lost a child through the technicalities of the Greek syntax in Mark 10 like I did in this blog. But a careful consideration of the syntax is important for my pastoral ministry because it allows me to confidently proclaim:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

Just because a baby cannot intellectually assent to the great truths of the Christian faith does not mean they are barred from eternal life. Indeed, one of the reasons that adults can have a faith like a child is because there is such a thing as a faith of a child (cf. Matthew 18:6). Children – and even babies – can sing babbling praises to the Lord (Matthew 21:15-16). Babies – and even infants in the womb – can respond to God’s good news of a Messiah (Luke 1:41-42). A child lost to a parent does not mean a child lost to the Lord.

If you are reading this and you have lost a child, this I want you to know:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

You can have hope.

If you are reading this and you have a child or are expecting one, share with them God’s Word, even from the womb. Allow them to hear the voice of their Savior calling them. It’s never too early to teach the faith because it’s never too early for someone to have faith. And it is by faith that we live – and live eternally.

March 1, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Texas Snowstorm

That was interesting.

I’ve lived in the Lonestar State since the mid-90s and I’ve never seen anything even close to what Texas just experienced. The snow in San Antonio – where I live – was beautiful. The power outages, frozen pipes, icy streets, and water pump failures that followed were not. An arctic air mass pushed way south and brought Texas record-shattering low temperatures that, in many areas, dipped into the single digits. The rock bottom temperatures managed to freeze out coal and gas power plants, a nuclear power plant, and a host of west Texas windmills, which forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the power for the state, to quickly ration power in order to prevent a catastrophic blackout that could have stretched on for months. Everyone who was not part of a grid that provided power to critical services like hospitals was left in the dark – and in the cold.

A natural disaster like this is certainly perspective-shifting. On the one hand, this kind of weather, and the havoc it brings, can make you feel powerless. Human ingenuity can constrain – but it cannot restrain – the effects of the natural world. On the other hand, a disaster like this can remind you of the things for which you should be thankful, but that you also usually overlook. Reliable power. Running water. Climate control. You don’t notice these things until you don’t have them.

Of course, a time like this can bring out the best in people. Neighbors did help neighbors. People who had power opened their homes to those who did not. The long line I waited in to buy groceries at a dark H-E-B that had only enough generator power to operate a few checkout lines was full of generally chipper and friendly people who were thankful that the chain was doing everything it could to provide Texans with the staples they needed.

In Acts 27, the apostle Paul is sailing for Rome when he encounters a massive storm. For fourteen days, Paul and the crew on the ship hang on for dear life. They finally wash ashore on the island of Malta, where they encounter some friendly residents:

The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. (Acts 28:2)

I’ve come to appreciate a good fire when it’s cold.

But just when it looks like Paul’s luck is finally changing, tragedy strikes again:

Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts 28:3-6)

Of course, Paul is neither a murderer nor a god. But he does serve the one, true God – the God who saw him through this terrible storm. And this is what Christians still believe – that for every crisis, every storm, and every difficulty, there is a God who sees us through. And even though He doesn’t protect us from every tragedy, He is present with us through every tragedy.

As Texas’s power grid continues to stumble back online, there will be changes to the grid that will need to be made, officials who will need to be held accountable, heroes who will need to be thanked, and people who will need our help. But through it all, we can be thankful that the God who made the world – and us – cares for us. This is why He sent the One the prophet Malachi called “the sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) – Jesus Christ – to us.

The “sun” sounds awfully nice right now.

February 22, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Unleavened Living

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While writing to the church at Galatia, Paul issues the Christians there a warning in metaphor:

A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9)

Though this may sound strange to us, it would have been powerful to its first-century readers.

Yeast plays a prominent role in a seminal event in Israel’s history – the Passover. When God is preparing to rescue His people from their slavery in Egypt, He gives them some instructions on a meal they are to prepare:

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.

This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD – a lasting ordinance. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. (Exodus 12:3, 6-8, 10, 14, 17)

On the night of the Passover, God promises to rescue His people from their slavery in Egypt. Before their rescue, God calls upon them to prepare a meal. But it has to be prepared and eaten “in haste.” Thus, rather than preparing leavened bread and having to wait for the yeast to rise, they bake and eat unleavened bread.

When the Israelites slipped out from their surly bonds of Egyptian slavery, they did not have time to do much of anything – even bake properly leavened bread. But that’s okay – because God did everything. He was the One who rescued them. He was the One who redeemed them. He was the One who saved them.

When Paul writes to the Galatians, he writes to a group of Christians who have been infiltrated by some false teachers who argue that, in order to be saved, even Gentile converts must be circumcised according to Jewish Old Testament law. Paul is forceful in his denunciation of their position:

I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:3-4)

Paul argues that to follow one part of the law in order to somehow add to your salvation means you must follow the whole of the Old Testament law, which negates the need for Christ. After all, if you can follow the Old Testament law perfectly, then you are perfect and do not need a Savior. Paul follows this assertion up with his metaphor:

A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. (Galatians 5:9)

In other words, even a bit of self-salvation like, let’s say, adding a requirement of circumcision to what Christ has done won’t stop there. More and more laws will be added. These laws will work their way through the whole batch of your life. And the harder you work to follow these rules, the more puffed with pride you will become – just like yeast puffs up dough. But you will only be fooling yourself, for even your best efforts will be revealed plainly to be pitiful when measured against God’s perfection.

Paul’s invitation, then, is this: live unleavened. Don’t live puffed up. Just as God did all the work to save the Israelites on that Passover night, God has done all the work to save you on the cross. You do not need the yeast of self-righteousness and your works, but the bread of life, who is Jesus Christ, and His work.

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:6-7)

February 15, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Cain, Kenites, and Relationships

File:The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 31. Cain and Abel make an offering. Genesis cap 4 vv 3-7. De Vos.jpg
Cain and Abel make offerings / Credit: Phillip Mendhurst / Wikimedia Commons

Right now, at the church where I serve, we are in a series on relationships. One of the points we made this past weekend is that no relationship is perfect. Even those who are very close to each other and have a deep love for each other can offend and hurt each other – often unintentionally. If such offenses and hurts are not confessed and addressed, envy, bitterness, and resentment will take root and the relationship will fracture.

The problems of envy, bitterness, and resentment in relationships, of course, are nothing new. Near the beginning of history, we read of a relationship that not only fractures; it is violently ended:

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering – fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:2-8)

The story of Cain and Abel is tragic. But perhaps what makes it most jarring is that it is not particularly unique. Countless relationships throughout history have ended in terrible violence due to envy, bitterness, and resentment.

Perhaps you grew up in a household where envy, bitterness, and resentment were common. Perhaps these sinful roots resulted even in physical violence. Or perhaps these roots resulted in anger, mistrust, verbal altercations, or divorce. No matter what you have come from, for you, things can be different. In your relationships, things can be better.

Later in Scripture, we read of a people called the Kenites, which, in Hebrew, means “of Cain.” There is some debate over whether these people were actual descendants of Cain or whether they simply shared a name with Cain. I tend to favor the latter view, but regardless of where one stands on the debate, this much is clear – they chose a different relational path than their namesake Cain did. Moses’ father-in-law was a Kenite and his descendants lived among the tribe of Judah:

The descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, the Kenite, went up from the City of Palms with the people of Judah to live among the inhabitants of the Desert of Judah in the Negev near Arad. (Judges 1:16)

The ancient envy, bitterness, and resentment that was so apparent in Cain and separated him from his brother gave way to a desire in the Kenites to be brotherly to the Judahites. And this brotherhood ran quite deep. Just a few chapters later, in Judges 4, Jabin, the king of the Canaanites, and Sisera his general, are oppressing the Israelites. The leader of Israel at this time, Deborah, leads a campaign against the Canaanites that is broadly successful, but Sisera manages to escape – that is, until he flees to the tent of a Kenite named Heber. Heber’s wife, Jael, invites Sisera into the tent only to seal the Israelites’ victory in battle by driving a tent peg into his head while he is sleeping. Yes, it is a gruesome episode, but it is also revealing. The Kenites, it turns out, were fully vested in and fully loyal to their brotherhood with the Israelites.

So, what does this mean for us? Like the Kenites with Cain, we can do relationships differently than those who have gone before us. We can form relationships that are stronger. And we don’t even need a tent peg to do so. The Israelites were commanded by God to fight their enemies, the Canaanites:

The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: “Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.” (Judges 4:6-7)

We are commanded by God through Christ to love our enemies:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43)

Jael drove a tent peg into Sisera in judgment of his sin and proved himself a brother to the Israelites. God drove nails into the hands of His Son because of our sin and made Him a brother to us:

Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 2:11)

Jesus’ relationship with us as our brother is the inspiration and foundation for our relationships with others. Envy, bitterness, and resentment really can give way to brotherhood.

February 8, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A March for Life

This past Friday was the 48th annual March for Life. As with many other events, this year’s march looked different from every previous year. It was held virtually in response to the continued spread of COVID-19. The virtual nature of the march, however, did not mute its message. Since abortion was legalized in 1973, an estimated 62 million babies have been lost. And though the number of abortions is going down overall, there have been some pockets of increases.

The fierce fights over abortion show no sign of abating. Sadly, the topic has often been treated more as ammunition in a culture war instead of a pressing moral question with life and death consequences. So many pay a hefty price each time an abortion is performed.

First, there is a baby who pays the price of his or her very life. The heartbeat of a child in utero can usually be detected between the third and fourth week of development. This means that any abortion performed after this stops a beating heart. Scientifically, there is a broad consensus that the life of a human organism begins even earlier – right at conception. In a recent study at the University of Chicago, 95 percent of biologists surveyed, many of whom self-identified as pro-choice, agreed that life begins at fertilization. Many Christians believe that life begins at conception because, Scripturally, life is celebrated and sacralized throughout a child’s development in utero. As the Psalmist says to God about his own creation and gestation:

You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16)

Second, there is the mother who pays a price. For every high profile incident of people celebrating abortion, there are other instances of women who struggle with regret or outright emotional trauma. And these struggles can present themselves long after the event – often 10 to 15 years later. The price of a broken or guilt-ridden heart cannot and must not be overlooked.

Third, low-income communities pay a price. Half of all women who get abortions live below the poverty line, and 75 percent of women who get abortions are low-income. Many of these women choose to abort because they know they will be single mothers if they carry their babies to term and they are scared that they will not have the resources or support needed to raise a child. Their decision to abort, then, is less of a freely-willed choice and more of a perilous predicament that forces the hands of already hurting women.

We must count the cost of abortion. We must stand up for those who bear the burden of abortion. We can stand up for children in utero and advocate for their lives. We can stand up for women who struggle and lovingly present alternate ways forward if they are considering an abortion or offer grace and support to those who are struggling with the decision they made to have an abortion. We must stand up for impoverished communities by promoting the value of families, by holding men who would run from their responsibilities as fathers accountable, and by offering what we can in the way of financial resources, friendships, and modeling to demonstrate different and more hopeful paths forward for at-risk women who become pregnant.

For me, abortion is personal. I have two children because of the choice of two incredible women to put their babies up for adoption. I have a family because two women chose life. To them, I offer a teary-eyed “thank you.” Your choice for life changed my life. And the chain can continue. More choices for life can change more lives.

What a great choice to make.

February 1, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Perfect and Imperfect People

In Leviticus 22, we read about the kind of sacrifices that are acceptable to God:

When anyone brings from the herd or flock a fellowship offering to the Lord to fulfill a special vow or as a freewill offering, it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable. (Leviticus 22:21)

What the ancient Israelites offered to God was the be the best of the best. What is often overlooked, however, is that Leviticus speaks not only to what could be offered to God, but to who could offer it:

No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. (Leviticus 21:18-20)

These restrictions concerning who may bring an offering to the Lord may seem eyebrow-raisingly blunt to us, but their core implication is inescapably clear:

Only perfect people are allowed before God.

Not only did the sacrifices to God have to be perfect; the people who made them had to be perfect, too.

This requirement for perfection is one of the reasons Jesus’ ministry so scandalized the religious professionals of His day. Jesus gladly interacted with precisely the kinds of people Leviticus 21 barred from service to God. Jesus healed the blind, made the lame walk, and even reconstructed a man’s deformed hand. These were not just healings; they were testimonies to a new day and a new way. Under the Levitical covenant, to which the religious professionals of Jesus’ day subscribed, only perfect people could approach God. But now, Christ, in word and in deed, was announcing that God was approaching imperfect people.

Jesus addresses the scandalized religious professionals’ concerns by summarizing His ministry like this:

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2:17)

Jesus takes the core of Leviticus 21 and turns it on its head. With these words, He announces:

Only imperfect people are allowed through Christ.

Only imperfect people are allowed because, if we are honest with ourselves, we have nothing perfect to offer to God in the form of either ourselves or a sacrifice. This is why the preacher of Hebrews writes:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:11)

These sacrifices never took away sins because they never met the demands of Leviticus 21 and 22. They simply were not perfect enough. But Jesus was. And Jesus is. This is why God offers Jesus as a sacrifice for us.

The temptation to point fingers at the defects and blemishes of others can be acute. Those who are different from us can sometimes seem to almost invite criticism by us. But Christians must remember that our mission is not to demand perfection from people, but to point them to the One who already is. May we do so gladly.

January 25, 2021 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Pandemic Fatigue

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The book of Leviticus is filled with all sorts of rules and regulations, many of which address cleanliness and purification in the face of infectious diseases. Here’s a sample:

When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on the skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is a defiling skin disease. When the priest examines that person, he shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean. If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days.On the seventh day the priest is to examine them, and if he sees that the sore is unchanged and has not spread in the skin, he is to isolate them for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest is to examine them again, and if the sore has faded and has not spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce them clean; it is only a rash. They must wash their clothes, and they will be clean. But if the rash does spread in their skin after they have shown themselves to the priest to be pronounced clean, they must appear before the priest again. The priest is to examine that person, and if the rash has spread in the skin, he shall pronounce them unclean; it is a defiling skin disease. (Leviticus 13:2-8)

This passage was the kind that used to make people roll their eyes and groan with boredom and wonder why God bothered to include such pedantic instructions concerning something as seemingly insignificant as a skin rash. Now, passages like these feel strangely relevant and current.

In these verses, we have it all: a health screening for signs of disease, a quarantine, a demand that a person test negative for that disease, and special concern with disinfecting practices. Sound familiar?

Beyond the specific instructions for addressing sicknesses, passages like these make a larger point: God cares about our health and wellbeing.

As we enter into the eleventh month of our battle with the COVID-19 pandemic, a fair amount of pandemic fatigue has set in. At least, it certainly has for me. I am looking forward to the day when the vaccine for this virus will be available for anyone who wants it. In the meantime, however, Leviticus 13 with all its regulations can serve as an encouragement to us: God sought to take care of His people by attending to their health. We can do the same as we continue to endure screenings, quarantines, testing, and disinfecting. Remember, we’re getting closer to having this pandemic under control! And for that, I rejoice and am extremely thankful.

January 18, 2021 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Stinky Sacrifices and Sweet Offerings

When God is giving Moses instructions for the tabernacle, one of the things He instructs him to build is an incense altar:

Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come. (Exodus 30:1, 7-8)

This incense altar served a couple of different purposes. On the one hand, it was used in worship. When the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, famously receives word from the angel Gabriel that he will soon be a father, even though he is well past his child-rearing years, he is stationed at the altar of incense while “all the assembled worshipers were praying outside” (Luke 1:10). On the other hand, this altar served a much cruder purpose. With all the sacrifices that were made at the tabernacle and later at the temple, the fetor from the dead animals would have been overwhelming. The incense helped cover the stench of death.

The stench of death, as offensive as it may have been, was a reminder to the Israelites that sin came with a cost. As the apostle Paul explains: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The question was: is there anything that can stem the stench of sin and death?

In Ephesians 5, Paul writes about a unique sacrifice:

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Sacrifices were stinky! But when Christ gave Himself up as a sacrifice, it was “fragrant.” Why? Because Christ was both an “offering and sacrifice.” He was the sacrificial “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) as well as “an aroma that brings life” (2 Corinthians 2:16). He was slaughtered as a sacrifice and sweet-smelling like incense, all at the same time.

I’ve had more than one person tell me that life stinks right now. Nationally, culturally, and personally, we have our share of struggles thanks to sin. And yet, the fragrance of Christ can still overwhelm and overcome the sin of this world. This is the hope we have. And this is the message we are called to share:

Thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14)

May we spread Christ’s aroma and make someone’s life sweeter with Him.

January 11, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Jarring Protest at the Capitol – How Do We Respond?

Not that we needed any more convincing, but yesterday’s events reaffirmed that we live in tumultuous times. The events that unfolded in and the pictures that came out of our nation’s Capitol were disturbing. As we try to process what we saw, felt, and experienced, I have noticed two main reactions to these historic – and infamous – events.

The first reaction is that of anger. The protestors who stormed the Capitol were angry that Congress was moving to formalize the electoral college results because they believed the election results were infected with fraud. Others are now angry at those at the Capitol who were angry, seeing their actions as an attack on American democracy. And the anger continues to boil.

The second reaction is that of fear. The scenes at the Capitol were undeniably scary. The level of distrust of Americans at American institutions and at other Americans is startlingly high. We are scared of what we are seeing at places like the Capitol and we are scared of each other. And this fear shows no signs of abating.

As in our time, the night before Jesus’ death was a tumultuous time – for Jesus and for His disciples. And as things turned increasingly dark, the disciples’ reactions were utterly predictable. Sometimes, they reacted with anger. When Jesus is arrested by a mob of His detractors in the Garden of Gethsemane, for instance, Peter responds in violent fury:

Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (John 18:10)

After Peter’s violent protest fails and Jesus is nevertheless arrested, the disciples react with unalloyed alarm:

Then all the disciples deserted Him and fled. (Matthew 26:56)

The disciples’ reactions, like our reactions, are understandable. But Jesus has a better way for them – and for us – to react to tumultuous times.

When Peter reacts with violent anger to Jesus’ arrest, Jesus rebuffs him:

Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

And right before Jesus and His disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus calls on them to not fall prey to fear:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in Me. (John 14:1)

So, if anger and fear are off the table, how does Jesus want us to respond to tumultuous times? After Jesus tells His disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, He tells them how to be rescued from fear:

Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)

The way forward when the world feels like it’s closing in around us is the way of peace. This is why, when tempers flare at injustices and offenses – be they perceived or real – we are called to respond peacefully:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:17-18)

This is also why, when we are scared of others, Christians, just like Jesus did with His disciples after His crucifixion and resurrection, are called to offer peace to others:

When the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:19)

Growing up, I remember being told, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” It’s a truism, but I’m not so sure it’s actually true – at least biblically. Biblically, “Peacefulness is next to godliness.” As the apostle Paul writes:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

No matter what we may believe politically, listening to Paul’s appeal would be good for us – and for our nation – spiritually. May we be people of peace rather than anger or fear. May we demonstrate our godliness by our peacefulness. And may we pray for our leaders. They need it. And we do, too.

January 7, 2021 at 1:31 pm 6 comments

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