The Parkland Innocents

It happened again, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Near the close of the school day last Wednesday, a gunman opened fire in the high school’s freshman hall, killing 17 and wounding another 14.

The scenes that unfolded in Parkland have become achingly familiar. There were law enforcement officials swarming the campus.  There were kids filing out with their hands on their heads.  There were paramedics, rushing to stabilize the wounded and, awfully, to confirm the dead.

Besides the horror of the shooting itself, there is the added tragedy that the sheer volume of these kinds of events has, in some ways, deadened their effect on our collective psyche.  And yet, long after the SWAT teams and paramedics leave, long after the news crews move on to the next story, and long after the national attention fades, for the students and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the pain and terror of this shooting will remain.  Days like these may be forgotten by those who watch them on the news, but they will not be forgotten by those who live through them in real time.

Sadly, these types of tragedies have also become occasions for hot takes filled with political rancor, with those who offer their “thoughts and prayers” being labeled as disingenuous by some while those who argue for a debate on gun control being accused as opportunistic by others.  Fights erupt on social media while comfort and aid to victims often get overlooked.

As Christians, we are called to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).  It is incumbent upon us, then, to care about and, if opportunities arise, to care for those who are affected.  While many in our culture are fighting predictably, we should be thinking critically about what events like these say about and mean for our culture so that we can offer a hopeful voice on behalf of the innocents who have had their lives unjustly extinguished.

According to the liturgical tradition of the Church, this past Wednesday was both Ash Wednesday and the Feast Day of Saint Valentine.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, when the Church focuses on Christ’s death and resurrection for us and for our salvation.  Saint Valentine was a third-century bishop in Rome who was beheaded for his faith, tradition has it, on February 14, 269.

The death of Saint Valentine reminds us that, all too often, innocents can unjustly lose their lives at the hands of evil perpetrators, as did the innocents in Parkland.  The season of Lent promises us, however, that even when innocents are killed, their lives are not ultimately lost.  For Lent points us to a moment when an innocent – The Innocent – was unjustly killed on a cross by evil perpetrators.  But in this instance, the evil perpetrators didn’t win.  The Innocent did when He conquered their cross.  And this Innocent promises life by faith in Him to the many innocents who have lost their lives since – be that by beating, by beheading, by blade, or by bullet.

A gunman took the lives of 17 students this past Wednesday.  But Jesus has plans to bring their lives back.

A rifleman, it turns out, is no match for a resurrection.

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February 19, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Wall Street’s Wild Week

Are we in a bull or a bear market?  It’s hard to tell.

Last week was a roller coaster ride for Wall Street, to put it mildly.  The Dow Jones opened the week down over 1,100 points on Monday for the single largest one-day drop by raw points, though certainly not by overall percentage.  This freefall followed another precipitous drop the previous Friday of over 650 points.  On Tuesday, the Dow rebounded by 568 points.  But this was followed by another mammoth drop of over 1,000 points on Thursday.

Though the financial ride over these past several days has been bumpy, most economists believe the fundamentals of our economy remain strong.  This has not stopped investors from being jittery, however.  These kinds of swings are simply too disorienting not to have an effect on investor confidence.

After a financially tense week like this one, it is worth it for those of us who are Christians to remind ourselves of what a proper perspective on money looks like.

On the one hand, we are called, as Christians, to be stewards of money.  This means we can earn money, save money, invest money, and, of course, share money!  As people who steward money, financial news should be of interest to us.  Having at least a passing awareness of what is happening in the stock market, the commodities market, the derivatives market, the futures market, and the many other types of financial markets can help us steward whatever resources God has given us as best as we possibly can.

On the other hand, we are also called, as Christians, not to put our hope in money.   For when we put our hope in money, we don’t just manage it wisely; we look to it for our security, our identity, and our future.  When we put our hope in money, all it takes is a slide in the stock market for our hope to be shattered and our joy to be sapped.  When we put our hope in money, we are putting our hope in something that is volatile instead of in Someone who is solid.

To steward money means we think about the future of our money.  To hope in money means we think about our money as the future.  But as this latest stock market roller coaster ride has reminded us, hope that is placed in money is no real hope at all.  Money can be earned and lost.  Investments can rise and fall.  Financial futures can soar and sag.  Hope that is placed in money will always be a hope that eventually falters.  This is why hope does not belong in money.  Hope belongs in Jesus.  After all, the return on His investment is far better than the return on our investments of a few dividends.  The return on His investment of blood is our salvation.

Try finding that payout anywhere else.

You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
(1 Peter 1:18-19)

February 12, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Advocating for Life

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 10.36.33 AM

Over these past few weeks, lots of big news has been breaking regarding the abortion industry.  Perhaps most notably, it was announced a week ago that Cecile Richards, who is the president of Planned Parenthood, has decided to step down from her position.  Mrs. Richards’ time at the helm of Planned Parenthood has been marked by scandal, as a series of exposés were published accusing her organization of trafficking fetal parts, and by a total of some 3.5 million abortions.

Also in the news, new research has been published in the controversial Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, which claims to shed light on the emotional pain that many women experience after going through an abortion.  If the study’s findings are even close to accurate, they are shocking:

13% reported having visited a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor prior to the first pregnancy resulting in an abortion, compared to 67.5% who sought such professional services after their first abortion. Only 6.6% of respondents reported using prescription drugs for psychological health prior to the first pregnancy that ended in abortion, compared with 51% who reported prescription drug use after the first abortion.

Abortion, this study asserts, has deep, lasting, and adverse effects on women’s emotional health.

Digging deeper into the study, some of the individual responses given by women to researchers concerning how their abortions affected them are nothing short of heartbreaking.  When asked, “What are the most significant positives, if any, that have come from your decision to abort?” one woman responded:

None, there are no positives.  My life is no better, it is much worse.  I carry the pain of a child lost forever.  Although I know I am forgiven and have worked through the guilt and shame, the heart-wrenching pain is still there.  I would rather have been a single mother of two and have my baby here to love and dote on than the pain of empty arms.

Another woman explained:

My child is dead and by my own choice.  I spent years of anger, shame, and grief.  It damaged my relationship with my husband, my children, and my God.  For 30 years I did not speak of it to anyone but my husband.  My grief overwhelmed him and left him powerless and ashamed.  For years I cried every Sunday in church, experienced dark depressions, thoughts of suicide, and flashes of anger.

Clearly, the abortions these women endured were devastating to their emotional health.

Along with this research, there is also a proposed bill that addresses the care of babies who are born alive in failed abortion attempts.  Representative Marsha Blackburn has introduced the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” which requires doctors, if a baby is born alive during an attempted abortion, to provide the same level of care for that child that would be offered to any child born at the same gestational age and to immediately admit that child to a hospital for further care.  The House of Representatives has already passed the bill.  It now awaits consideration in the Senate.

In all this news, opponents of abortion, among which I count myself, have much on which to reflect.  A successful and, I should add, gigantic March for Life in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago demonstrates that the advocates for babies in the womb are both many and organized.  Through academic investigation, state and federal legislation, mass demonstration, and, of course, one-on-one conversation, the cause of life marches forward.  It marches forward for the babies who have yet to be born, and it marches forward for the women who have been emotionally scarred by their decisions to terminate their pregnancies.  Babies in the womb deserve our protection and advocacy.  Women who are hurting because of a decision to abort deserve our sympathy and support.  The devastation abortion leaves – both in the lives of mothers and the deaths of children – must be revealed for what it is.

As a Christian, I am a firm believer that life is stubborn.  It wants to triumph, even over death.  This the promise of Easter.  And this is what leads to hope for a world without abortion.

February 5, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Victory, Truth, and Politics

Trump Mueller

When there’s the potential for dirt on everyone’s hands, it is easy to turn that dirt into mud to sling against your political opponents.  This is what we are learning from the ongoing saga of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.  News broke last week that Mr. Mueller has interviewed some of the most powerful officials in Washington, including former FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  Many are speculating that Mr. Mueller is close to asking for an interview with the president himself, and is moving beyond his initial collusion investigation and is now building a case for obstruction of justice against the Trump administration.

But it’s not just the Trump administration that is the subject of severe suspicion.  Mr. Mueller and the FBI are too.  Recently uncovered texts between two FBI agents who once worked for Mueller’s team seem to reveal a manifest “anti-Trump” bias.  Coupled with the fact that some of the texts between these two agents seem to reveal that the FBI intentionally tempered an investigation they were conducting at the time into Mr. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, many people are becoming worried that something foul is afoot.  Calls are now coming to appoint a special counsel to investigate the special counsel.

None of this, of course, is good.  But neither is any of this particularly surprising.  Politics, after all, is a dirty business and can often evolve into nothing far short of outright combat.  It is also not surprising that, depending on your political convictions, you may find yourself rooting for one of these stories to overtake the other.  Democrats are hoping that the Mueller investigation will reveal something that will discredit and perhaps even destroy the Trump presidency while Republicans are hoping that the Mueller investigation itself will be discredited and destroyed by the anti-Trump bias that was apparently harbored by some of the FBI agents connected to it.

Sadly, in politics, there seems to be an ascendant attitude that victory over an opponent is more important than the truth about an issue.  Thus, overlooking shady dealings in the president’s administration if you’re a Republican, or ignoring serious questions of integrity in the FBI if you’re a Democrat, is simply an expedient necessity to achieve what many believe to be “the greater good” of their particular political party’s continued empowerment.

Christianity knows that real victory cannot be gained without a commitment to truth.  The two go hand in hand.  This is why, for instance, the Psalmist can implore God: “In Your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility, and justice” (Psalm 45:4).  The Psalmist knows that victory from the Lord is inexorably connected to the truth of the Lord.

As Christians, our hope and consolation are that what has been written about Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil is actually true!  If it’s not, then there is no real victory.  Thus, in a culture and in a political landscape that can sometimes love victory more than truth, let’s love both.  Otherwise, we just might wind up with neither.

And that would be a tragedy.

January 29, 2018 at 5:15 am 3 comments

One Perfect Parent

Turpin House

The Turpin House / Credit: Reuters

One of their only contacts with the outside world was when four of the kids were allowed to step outside their house in Perris, California to install some sod in the front yard, with their mother coldly watching from inside the front window.  A neighbor who passed by and offered a friendly greeting to the children was surprised when none of them spoke a word in return to her.  But one of the children, a 17-year-old girl, had been plotting her escape from the family compound where her parents, David and Louise Turpin, had held her and her twelve siblings, who range in age from 2 to 29, captive for years.  She ran away and called the police using a cell phone she had found in the house.

As details of the children’s living arrangements have emerged, the picture that they paint is nothing short of horrifying.  To keep their abuse from being discovered, the Turpin parents made their children stay up all night and sleep all day.  They also tortured their children by feeding them next to nothing while they ate pies in front of them, by punishing them for getting water on their wrists while washing their hands, by allowing them to shower only once a year, and by tying them up with chains and padlocks.  The couple has pleaded not guilty to the accusations and are each being held on $9 million bail.

Obviously, it is difficult to deduce and decipher the pure evil that would move two parents to commit such heinous crimes against their own children.  Then again, it is also difficult to overestimate and over-celebrate the righteous bravery of a 17-year-old girl whose phone call to the police not only led to her own rescue, but to the rescue of her brothers and sisters.

It is at a time like this in the face of a story like this that we need to be reminded that, even as some earthly parents do their worst, we have a heavenly Father who loves us well.  The Turpin children were forced to stay up in the dark.  We have a heavenly Father who invites us to walk in His light (Isaiah 2:5).  The Turpin children were deliberately starved.  We have a heavenly Father who gives us food at just the right times (Psalm 104:27).  The Turpin children were denied basic hygiene needs and baths.  We have a heavenly Father who invites us to joyfully bathe in the waters of baptism (1 Peter 3:21).  The Turpin children were tied up.  We have a heavenly Father who sent His Son to untie us from that which binds us (Luke 13:15-16).

As a pastor, I have heard story after story of people who have been hurt by their parents.  Though, thankfully, none of the stories I have encountered have been nearly as horrific as the story of the Turpins, there are many children – both young and grown – who carry around deep scars.  There are many children who need the Father to fill what their father, or mother, would not or could not give to them.  There are many children who need the Father to love them like their father, or mother, would not or could not love them.

Our Father in heaven has the love that we need.  He loves us so much, the Scriptures say, that even our worst sins need not incur His eternal wrath.  In the book of Hosea, the nation of Israel is repeatedly betraying the one true God by chasing after many false gods.  Yet, even in the midst of their deep sin, while the Father declares His displeasure, He nevertheless promises, “I will show love…and I will save them…they will be called ‘children of the living God’” (Hosea 1:7, 10).

While some earthly parents may abuse their children for no apparent reason, we have a heavenly Father who loves us in spite of our sin for just one reason – the reason of His grace.  His grace is a grace so strong that it makes us His children through His Son.

Now that’s some awesome parenting.

January 22, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Persons, Nations, and Immigration

President Trump Meets With Bipartisan Group Of Senators On Immigration

What a week it has been in politics.  Immigration took center stage this past week with President Trump first holding a meeting with both Republicans and Democrats in front of the cameras, discussing everything from the DACA to a border wall to chain migration to comprehensive immigration reform.  This televised meeting, however, was quickly eclipsed by some comments the president allegedly made behind closed doors, where he expressed, supposedly in vulgar terms, dismay at accepting immigrants from places like Haiti and Africa and wondered out loud why the U.S. was not more interested in encouraging emigration from places like Norway.  The president has since denied that he made the disparaging remarks attributed to him, tweeting:

The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made – a big setback for DACA!

– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018

Whatever the president’s actual remarks were, his alleged remarks, predictably, ignited a firestorm of a debate over how we should view other countries and the peoples from those countries.  Some found the president’s alleged remarks to be simply a realistic diagnosis of the awful living conditions that plague third-world countries.  Others decried his remarks as racist.  Is there any way forward?

The famed poet Dorothy Sayers once wrote:

What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.  A certain amount of classification is, of course, necessary for practical purposes … What is unreasonable is to assume that all one’s tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs.[1]

In the midst of a white-hot debate over immigration, Sayers’ insight is a good one for us to keep in mind.  The problem with making or defending disparaging remarks concerning whole countries with regard to immigration is that whole countries do not immigrate.  Individual persons do.  And individuals ought to be treated as unique, precious, and worthy of our consideration and compassion.

But, as Sayers also notes, this does not mean that we should dismiss any and every classification.  For instance, the Scriptures themselves use the classifications of “image” and “child.”  “Image” is a classification that applies to creation.  Every person, Scripture says, is created in God’s image.  “Child” is a classification that applies specifically to redemption.  When one believes in Christ, they are adopted as God’s child.  And though these two classifications are certainly not comprehensive, they can be instructive in that they remind us that the classifications we use, first, should be generous.  Disparaging classifications are generally not helpful or productive.

Scripture cautions us against both an arrogant individualism and a dismissive collectivism.  It is important for us to remember that we are not solely individuals who have only ourselves to thank for who we are.  We are who we are due in large part to our cultural backgrounds, our experiences with others, and the help we receive from others, among many other factors.  All of these things collectively shape us.  At the same time, we are still individuals, specially and preciously created and redeemed, one at a time, by God, and we are always more than the sum total of our cultural backgrounds, our experiences with others, and the help we receive from others.  This is why, in Christ, we come to realize that so many of the classifications we once used to define ourselves, and that others use to define us, are not ultimate or unabridged.  As the apostle Paul writes:

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:26-28)

In the middle of a debate over what does and does not constitute appropriate classifications for nations, let us never forget who we are as persons.  And, by God’s grace, let us treat each other accordingly.

__________________________________

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 24-25.

January 15, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

All You Need Is the Sermon on the Mount

Sermon on the Mount

In what has become a kind of tradition for him, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed piece a couple of days before Christmas with this question: “Am I a Christian?”  This time, he asked the question to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, but he has posed the same question to President Jimmy Carter and Pastor Timothy Keller in past columns.

Mr. Kristof is an admitted skeptic of many of the claims of Christianity.  He opens his conversation with Cardinal Tobin like this:

Merry Christmas! Let me start with respectful skepticism. I revere Jesus’ teachings, but I have trouble with the miracles – including, since this is Christmas, the virgin birth. In Jesus’ time people believed that Athena was born from Zeus’ head, so it seemed natural to accept a great man walking on water or multiplying loaves and fishes; in 2017, not so much. Can’t we take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural?

Mr. Kristof holds a view of Christianity that sees Jesus as a talented and even a uniquely enlightened teacher.  Believing that He was a worker of supernatural feats, however, is a bridge too far.  Mr. Kristof’s Christianity is one that would prefer to, in his own words, “take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural” behind.

Mr. Kristof, of course, is not the only one who stumps for this kind of Christianity.  President Obama, when he was making a case for same-sex unions back when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, stated:

If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.

Instead of pitting against the miracles of Christ against the Sermon on the Mount, as does Mr. Kristof, President Obama pits the letters of Paul against the Sermon on the Mount, but the net effect is the same:  if one wants a Christianity that is palatable, passable, and practical for the 21st century, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the place to go.

Really?

Surely Mr. Kristoff can’t be talking about the Sermon on the Mount.  He must have some other sermon in mind.  For in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says all sorts of things that are unmistakably contrary to our enlightened and modern sensibilities.

If Mr. Kristof finds a virgin birth impossible, what can he possibly find plausible about Jesus’ claim in the Sermon on the Mount to fulfill all of Scripture?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  (Matthew 5:17)

It should be pointed out that Jesus’ claim to fulfill “the Prophets” would include a prophecy about a virgin who will give birth, as Matthew so aptly notes at the beginning of his Gospel:

An angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:20-23)

To hold to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount would be to hold to who Jesus claims to be: the perfect fulfillment of around 1,000-years-worth of ancient literature.  Is this really what Mr. Kristof believes?

Of course, Jesus says lots of other things in His Sermon on the Mount too, like:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:27-28)

And:

It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  (Matthew 5:31-32)

And:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:48)

And:

Seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

And:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Do people who want to take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount while leaving behind other portions of the Scriptures take Jesus at His word in all these matters?

I have a suspicion that when people argue for the primacy of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, they are arguing for the primacy of a very abridged version of the sermon, which usually amounts to some nice thoughts about loving your enemies, except, of course, if they are our political enemies, along with some other nice thoughts about not judging others, except, of course, when someone holds a position we deem worthy of mockery.  It turns out that a Christianity that strips away the rest of the Scriptures in favor of the Sermon on the Mount only winds up stripping away the Sermon on the Mount itself.

So, allow me to make a suggestion.  If you think all of Christianity can be competently considered using Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, fine.  But then take the whole Sermon on the Mount seriously.  Believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of every jot and tittle of the Old Testament.  Decry lust and divorce.  Aim not just for respectable goodness, but for perfect righteousness.  Put God’s kingdom first in every decision. Learn to love all those who hate you in a way that you are willing even to sacrifice for them.  Guard against being judgmental, even of those you find intolerable.  See Jesus as your narrow road to salvation.

Live like that.

But be warned:  if you do live like that, you might just find yourself in agreement not only with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but with the rest of the Scriptures as well, which means that perhaps Jesus’ sermon was actually what a sermon was always meant to be:  not some stand-alone speech that can be divorced from everything around it, but a testimony to all of God’s truth as contained in the Scriptures.

Try as you might, to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, you must take the rest of the Scriptures seriously.  And if you take the rest of the Scriptures seriously, you will take Jesus seriously, for the Scriptures testify to Him.  And if you take Jesus seriously, you may find out that He was not just another teacher, but One who has perfect authority over us, insight into us, and salvation for us.

Now, if you’re willing to believe all that about Jesus, which is what the Sermon on the Mount calls us to believe, is a virgin birth really all that difficult to fathom?

January 8, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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