Hurricane Florence Batters the Carolinas

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Credit: NASA Johnson

The remains of Hurricane Florence continue to pummel the East Coast.  The devastation already done by the monster storm is startling.  The death toll seems to rise nearly by the hour.  Nearly one million are without power.  And by midday Saturday, North Carolina received over 30 inches of rain from the storm, shattering the previous rainfall record of 24.06 inches, set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

As the storm sluggishly dissipates and the recovery begins, we are once again left grappling with the chaos that is endemic to a creation disordered by sin.  The pictures pouring in of wind-battered beaches, tree-split homes, flood-ravaged communities, and terrified-looking residents speak for themselves.  The cleanup and rebuilding process will most certainly be long and arduous.  This summer, I vacationed in Port Aransas, Texas with my family, the spot where Hurricane Harvey came ashore last summer.  The condo complex at which I stayed still had whole buildings that were missing their roofs.  The amount of work yet to be done in that family-friendly beach town is simply more than contractors can complete in a timely manner.  I have a feeling the coastal towns of the Carolinas will be enduring much the same experience.

When Jesus’ disciples find themselves in the throes of a massive storm of the Sea of Galilee, they come face-to-face with the chaos – and the danger – of a disordered creation.  As they are battered by the wind and the waves, they cry out to Jesus, who is in the storm with them, “Lord, save us” (Matthew 8:25)!  And He does.  He “rebukes the winds and the waves, and it is completely calm” (Matthew 8:26).

The disciples’ simple and desperate prayer is still a plea worth making, even as Florence passes.  The Lord can still help, even after the wind and the waves have been stilled and the floods have receded.  He can give us empathy for the injured and a resolve to rebuild.  And so, we pray that God would provide us with all that we need during a time that is fraught with exhaustion and heartbreak.

J.I. Packer, in his book on prayer, quipped that we should ask God “what we ourselves might need to do to implement answers to our prayers.”  As the Carolinas begin the process of rebuilding, this is certainly a question worth asking.  We can make donations to the victims.  We can help our loved ones – and, perhaps, even strangers – rebuild.  And we can refuse to forget that, long after the headlines of the hurricane fade, the need will continue to be real.

For all the damage that Florence has done, we must never forget that Jesus was in the storm, lovingly caring for all those who suffered – and continue to suffer – from the storm.  Jesus does not always stop storms, but neither does He shirk them.  He stands in them with us.  And He’s a good guy to have when you’re in the wind and the waves.

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September 17, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Who Needs Friends When You Have God?

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A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that those who have a strong faith in God are often isolated from others.  Todd Chan, a doctoral student at the university, explains:

For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide.

This is an interesting hypothesis, but studies like these do not seem to provide consistent results.  W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has found that:

…religion generally fosters more happiness, greater stability, and a deeper sense of meaning in American family life, provided that family members – especially spouses – share a common faith.

In other words, contrary to what Mr. Chan found, faith in God can actually deepen and sustain relationships instead of serving as a substitute for relationships.

Certainly, there are people of deep faith who find themselves bereft of human companionship and, consequently, lonely.  The Bible admits as much, while also seeking to offer comfort and a promise of companionship to those in isolated situations:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.  (Psalm 68:5-6)

God does indeed promise to be there for someone when they have no one.  But He doesn’t stop there.  He also “sets the lonely in families.”  In other words, He doesn’t just serve as a substitute for human companionship, He actually grants human companionship.

Christianity has always confessed a Triune God, in relationship with Himself from eternity, as the model for and the giver of deeper and better relationships with others.  This is part of the reason why Christianity first took root in the more densely populated urban areas and why it was initially less prevalent among more rural areas.  As Rodney Stark notes in his book The Triumph of Christianity:

The word pagan derives from the Latin word paganus, which originally meant “rural person,” or more colloquially “country hick.”  It came to have religious meaning because after Christianity had triumphed in the cities, most of the pagans were rural people.

Christianity first flourished in cities because those were where the largest communities of people were.  Christianity, it turns out, is irreducibly communal.

Jesus famously summarizes the whole of Old Testament law thusly:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus is clear.  A relationship with God can and should lead to better relationships with others.  Regardless of what Mr. Chan’s study may assert sociologically, theologically, God is not a second-string substitute for human relationships.  Instead, a human, who had an intimate relationship with God and was Himself God, became our substitute on a cross so that we could have a relationship with God in spite of our sin.  God is not a last resort relationship when you’re lonely, but a first love relationship who promises never to leave you alone.  And there’s just no substitution for that.

September 10, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Everybody Wants To Be Famous

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Credit: Wikipedia

Simon Cowell has finally received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – an honor that was long overdue, at least if you ask Mr. Cowell.  He began his remarks at a ceremony honoring him by quipping, “Before we start, I would just like to ask you: why did this take so long?”  He quickly added, “I’m kidding.”

Mr. Cowell rose to fame in the early 2000s when he joined Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson as a judge on the hit show “American Idol,” which he created.  His acerbic personality, which often revealed itself in biting criticisms of the show’s singing contestants, garnered him both affection and hatred from the millions who watched him.  But whether you loved him or hated him, you knew him.  He was – and still is – famous.  Hence, his newly concreted star in Hollywood history.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Mr. Cowell noted how much he enjoyed being famous: “If anyone says fame is a bad thing, I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s the best thing in the world.”  I appreciate that Mr. Cowell admits what many of us only secretly think:  fame is awesome!

People covet fame because it generally rests at the intersection of money and power.  With fame, there often comes a fat paycheck as people are willing to pay top dollar for a star’s appearances and work.  With fame, there also normally comes throngs of people who hang on a star’s every word and an entourage of handlers who attend to a star’s every wish.  It’s no wonder Simon Cowell thinks fame is awesome.

But, of course, this is not a complete portrait of fame.  Scripture is clear that with great fame comes great responsibility – and no shortage of great danger.

One of the most famous figures in the Bible is King David.  David gained his fame by his monumental military accomplishments.  2 Samuel 8 outlines David’s victories in battle and includes this note: “David became famous” (2 Samuel 8:13).  But David’s fame went to his head.  He not only set out to conquer Israel’s enemies, just three chapters later, in 2 Samuel 11, he set out to cover up his own sin.  After having an affair with a woman who was not his wife, he had this woman’s husband Uriah, a famous warrior in his own right, killed when it was discovered that she was pregnant by David and that her husband would be able to quickly discern that the baby was not his.  A man who had made a name for himself in battle killed another man who had made a name for himself in battle all in an attempt to ensure that his fame would not become infamy.

Nearly 400 years after David, the prophet Habakkuk wrote:

LORD, I have heard of Your fame; I stand in awe of Your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)

Habakkuk knew what fame chasers often forget – the most important fame we can desire is not our own.  It is the Lord’s.

The Lord freely grants fame to people out of His grace.  The Lord gave Israel “fame and honor high above all the nations” (Deuteronomy 26:19).  He made Joshua’s “fame spread throughout the land” (Joshua 6:27).  Fame, in and of itself, is not bad.  But man’s fame, as the old saying goes, lasts only briefly – 15 minutes or so, if you believe Andy Warhol.  God’s fame, however, endures.  Which is good.  Because God is famous for His compassion, grace, and salvation.  And everyone should know about that.  Because everyone needs plenty of that.

September 3, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Senator, A Pope, And A Shooter

This past weekend was a busy one in the news, to say the least.  Friday, it was announced that Senator John McCain would discontinue treatment for his brain cancer.  24 hours later, he passed away.  Around this same time Saturday, news broke that Pope Francis may have known of accusations against one of his closest confidants, former Washington D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned this summer after it was discovered that he may have sexually abused a minor some 50 years ago.  Then, yesterday afternoon, a gunman opened fire in a Jacksonville, Florida bar during a Madden 19 video game tournament, killing three and wounding eleven.

After a weekend like this one, it is easy to be left reeling and restive.  When cancer takes the life of an American hero, when a spiritual leader is accused of covering for sexual abuse, and when another – yes, another – mass shooting unfolds on another soft target, it can be extremely difficult to take everything in, much less to make sense of much or any of it.

So, how do we process any of this?

During relatively peaceful times, which seem fewer and farther between these days, we can be lured into a false sense of security.  We can be tricked into forgetting that, in the words of God to Cain, “sin is crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7) and it can rear its head at any moment.  However, during tumultuous times, which seem to have become all too common, we can become drawn into alarmism and catastrophism.  We can have a false sense that, in the words of Chicken Little, “the sky is falling.”  Both senses are false.  Generally, things are never quite as bad or quite as good as we think they are.

The message of Christ can provide us with a reality check after a weekend like this one. Jesus has no problem warning the world of the full damage and devastation that human sinfulness can wreak.  Jesus warns that, in this age, there will be an “increase of wickedness, and the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).  But Jesus also is clear that He has come to overcome sin.  In the words of Jesus’ dear friend John, Jesus is “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).  Sin will not ultimately get its way.

Christians can respond to the tragedies of our world with both a sober realism and an indefatigable hope.  The death of a man as well regarded and as widely celebrated as John McCain can serve as a reminder of the brokenness of our political system and the often illogical rancor that eats away at any generative discourse.  The promise of the man Jesus Christ is that He has come to bring peace between divided peoples and parties.  The alleged secrecy of a man like Pope Francis in the face of a terrible crime like the one allegedly committed by Theodore McCarrick reminds us that sin runs for cover so it can continue its damaging and damning work.  The promise of the man Jesus Christ is that He has come not only to reveal sin, but to heal those ravaged by it.  The murderous intentions of a man like Jacksonville’s mass shooter is a reminder that death comes for everyone – sometimes at the times we least expect it.  The promise of the man Jesus Christ is that by His death, He has conquered death.

Every tragedy yearns for a Savior.  Christianity promises that every tragedy has a Savior.  And after a weekend like this one, that’s what we need to know most – and believe deeply.

August 27, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Dioceses of Pennsylvania

In what is the biggest sex scandal to rock the Roman Catholic Church yet, a report from a Pennsylvania grand jury, released last Tuesday, found that over 300 priests from across six dioceses in that state abused sexually abused more than 1,000 victims over a period of 70 years.

As The New York Times explains, the report:

…catalogs horrific instances of abuse: a priest who raped a young girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils out; a victim tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest; and another priest who was allowed to stay in ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion.

Even more tragically, the report also notes that there are likely many more victims who were and are too afraid to come forward.

How was this able to continue for so long among so many?  According to the grand jury, church officials seemed to have a method of intentionally and even maliciously obfuscating what was happening.  For instance, the grand jury reports that when a sexual assault came to light, church records would never clearly identify a horrific crime like rape.  Instead church officials would employ euphemisms such as “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues” to describe the crime.  Many priests who sexually assaulted children, instead of being defrocked, would simply be moved to another parish where their sins were not known.

This is gut wrenching stuff.  But it is more than that.  It is downright wicked.  It is godless.  It is satanic.  But it is also, terrifyingly, human.

What humans are capable of is truly shocking.  History is littered with numberless testaments to the bottomlessness of human depravity.  The prophet Jeremiah aptly describes the horrifying proclivities of the human heart when he says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?  Jeremiah is not being hyperbolic here.  The human heart and all it entails – emotions, desires, and drives – really is deceitful above everything else.  There is nothing so dangerous as the human heart.

Jeremiah’s question of the heart – “Who can know it?”, or, as another translation puts it, “Who can understand it?” – takes on fresh meaning in light of this scandal.  It seems nearly impossible to fully understand how any heart can commit this kind of sin for so long against so many.  But even if we could understand the darkness in the hearts behind these crimes, it would, ultimately, do us no good.  Understanding cannot undo a crime, restore a violated little body, or comfort a crushed soul.  What we need is not understanding, but change.  We don’t need to analyze the human heart; we need to guard our own hearts.  In the words of Solomon, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).

Yes, indeed.  What we do flows from what’s in our hearts.  That is why our hearts must always be Christ’s home.

August 20, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Another Revelation Rocks Willow Creek

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This year was one unlike any other for the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit, which was held last week.  The annual event, which began in 1995 at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, has drawn some of the biggest names in the world as its speakers – from U2’s Bono to President Bill Clinton to Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The Summit is broadcast all over the world, including at over 600 locations in the U.S. alone.  But when the Chicago Tribune published an expose last March accusing the Summit’s founder and former Senior Pastor at Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, of making sexually inappropriate advances toward multiple women over a period of decades, the event found itself facing an unprecedented crisis.  Over 100 congregations withdrew as satellite host sites.  Speakers who were scheduled to teach at the Summit, including Denzel Washington, cancelled their appearances.

This past week, the Summit and Willow Creek suffered yet another blow as the New York Times published its own bombshell report chronicling a new story of another woman accusing Mr. Hybels of making sexually illicit advances toward her.  The revelations were so shocking that the church’s lead teaching pastor, Steve Carter, resigned his position the next day, citing his grave concern about the:

…church’s official response, and its ongoing approach to these painful issues. After many frank conversations with our elders, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference in judgment between what I believe is necessary for Willow Creek to move in a positive direction, and what they think is best.

This past Wednesday, the congregation’s other lead pastor, Heather Larson, along with the elder board, resigned their positions after apologizing for not more sensitively and thoroughly addressing and investigating the accusations leveled against Mr. Hybels.  A church that was once the gold standard for leadership, witness, teaching, and worship has been laid low in a matter of months.

As I have written before, Willow Creek has had a formative influence on me in my ministry.  I am thankful for all the congregation has given the worldwide Church.  Unfortunately, it is now offering the Church a lesson it certainly never planned or wanted to – a first-hand warning of what happens when hypocrisy and secrecy overtakes integrity and transparency.  The results speak for themselves.

Several years ago, Bill Hybels wrote a book titled, Who You Are When No One’s Looking.  In it, he extolled the value of character, which he defined as “what we do when no one is looking.”  Character is being the same person in private as you present yourself to be in public.  He was right in what he wrote.  It appears he was very wrong in how he lived.  And now, not only are he and his legacy left in tatters, the church and Summit he founded, the staff he led, and the family who thought they knew him are paying an inestimably steep price.  Lapses in integrity never affect only the perpetrator.

Because we are all sinful, none of us live with full integrity.  We are all, to one extent or another, hypocrites.  The best way to deal with inevitable lapses in integrity is to tell the truth about them fully and immediately.  Sin is killed by confession.  Unfortunately, our reflex is not to confess our sin, but to cover it up.  When Adam and Eve committed history’s first sin by eating fruit from a tree of which God had commanded they should not, Genesis 3:8 says, “They hid from the LORD.”  Adam and Eve thought it would be better to keep the secret of their sin than to tell the truth about their sin.  They were wrong – a fact to which all of history is still testifying as we endure the effects of their first sin and cover-up.

Secrets, especially when they cover shameful realities, can be awfully easy to keep.  And the truth, when it is embarrassing and damaging, can be awfully hard to tell.  But secrets come with a steep price, as Willow Creek is painfully learning.  The truth, however, even when it is tough to tell, comes with a blessed return of freedom.  Which, in the long run, do you think is better?

August 13, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Biggest Humanitarian Crisis In The World

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Credit: USAID

Katherine Zimmerman, a Middle East expert, has called it the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world.  In 2014, war broke out in the poverty-stricken nation of Yemen when Iranian-backed rebels stormed and occupied Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa.  Since then, a Saudi-led coalition, along with the Yemeni government, has been trying to take back the city.  Over 10,000 people have died, half of which have been civilians, as a direct result of the fighting.  Indirect casualties are even higher.  Save the Children reports that 130 children are dying every day in Yemen.  Ms. Zimmerman fears that conditions in the country will continue to deteriorate, explaining, “As the conflict goes on, the people are suffering, and it’s to the point now where we’re looking at a cholera epidemic, and massive risk of famine.”

Sadly, this crisis, half a world away, has been regularly eclipsed by a steady stream of riveting domestic intrigue.  But the cries of these victims of war deserve our listening ears and concerned hearts.

One of the most common prayers in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, is that the Lord would hear the cries of the oppressed:

  • “Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to You I pray.” (Psalm 5:2)
  • “Hear my cry for mercy as I call to You for help, as I lift up my hands toward Your Most Holy Place.” (Psalm 28:2)
  • “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.” (Psalm 61:1)

The glorious promise is that the Lord does hear the cries of the oppressed:

  • “The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer.” (Psalm 6:9)
  • “Praise be to the LORD, for He has heard my cry for mercy.” (Psalm 28:6)
  • “I love the LORD, for He heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy.” (Psalm 116:1)

If the Lord hears the cries of the downtrodden, we should too.  So please join me in lending your prayers to the cries of the Yemenis, asking God to bring this crisis to an end.  Pray also that famine and disease would not overtake this land.

In a world where our news cycles regularly revolve around the powerful, it can be all too easy to forget about those on the margins of our societies.  The gospel, however, reminds us that we worship a God who marginalized Himself by being born into a poor village called Bethlehem and growing up as a poor carpenter from Nazareth only to become a poor rabbi who was executed by His enemies on a cross.  Jesus lived His life as a marginalized man.  This man on the margins, however, has promised to use His very marginalization on the cross to draw all people to Himself (cf. John 12:32).  This man on the margins has turned out to be nothing less than the very center of history.

Jesus’ method of marginalization should most certainly inform our mission of reaching and loving the world for Him and in Him.  So, let’s keep our peripheral vision peeled to see those others miss and love those our world overlooks.  For this is what Jesus has done with us.

August 6, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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