Celebrating Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

President Kennedy concludes his Thanksgiving Proclamation with this admonition:

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

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

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

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

And our world could use more of both.

December 2, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Religious Persecution in China

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Credit: Magda Ehlers from Pexels

King Solomon writes:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)

Solomon calls us to speak up and speak out against oppression wherever and whenever we see it. And we can see it in spades in China right now. Last week, The New York Times published an exposé on a Chinese government crackdown on minority Muslim groups in that country:

403 pages of internal documents…have been shared with The New York Times in one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades. They provide an unprecedented inside view of the continuing clampdown in Xinjiang, in which the authorities have corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years.

The party has rejected international criticism of the camps and described them as job-training centers that use mild methods to fight Islamic extremism. But the documents confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown in the words and orders of the very officials who conceived and orchestrated it.

Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, has publicly spoken out against what he refers to as the “extremist religious thought” of Muslims, saying:

The psychological impact of extremist religious thought on people must never be underestimated. People who are captured by religious extremism – male or female, old or young – have their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.

And, in other speech:

As soon as you believe in it, it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything.

With public statements like these, it is frightening to imagine what might be going on in internment camps like his.

Mr. Xi, of course, has not limited his crusade against religion to Muslims, but has also persecuted Chinese Christians – banning the sale of Bibles, shutting down churches, and even bulldozing some church buildings.

Whether they are Muslims or Christians, Christ calls upon His faithful to speak up for the oppressed. During His ministry, Christ stood up for those who were castigated from their communities – tax collectors, the sick, people of sexual ill-repute, and even those who were theologically out of sync with the kingdom Christ taught and brought. His followers should react similarly when they see people marginalized, and, in the case of these minority Chinese Muslims, tyrannized.

Solomon also writes:

The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the LORD gives sight to the eyes of both. (Proverbs 29:13)

President Xi has the same sight as those he is oppressing. He can see what he is doing. And we can see, too. And so, we must stand up and speak up in defense of those who cannot defend themselves.

Though Christians do not share the same faith as Muslims, Christians can stand with Muslims in their persecution and point them to a way through persecution and a hope beyond persecution – Jesus.

November 25, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Faith on Trial

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that those who are portending the collapse of American Christianity are vastly overstating their case:

Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity … Recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 … And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s – and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

Mr. Douthat argues that though there is a definite statistical decline in those who have marginal faith, those who have committed faith remain strong and steady in their faith.  The Christian faith, when it actually shapes one’s life, is incredibly durable.

But now, this past week, Timothy Beal makes the contrary case in The Wall Street Journal when he asks: “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Mr. Beal opens:

The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is “Nones” – people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018. Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018-19, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this month. The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people: 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.

Mr. Beal argues that the decline in the numbers of Christian faithful is acute. Nevertheless, he does suggest that this trend may be reversible. His prescription for revitalizing faith, however, is interesting, to say the least:

Questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

Mr. Beal argues that in order to revitalize the Christian tradition, we must begin by questioning it. And he is is partially correct. There have indeed been those “who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions,” sometimes with great success and to the great benefit and betterment of humanity. But it is also important to note that, according to an orthodox Christian worldview, “inherited teachings and positions” are not so much questioned in order to change the Christian faith as they are in order to rediscover it.  The message of Christ, properly understood, does need to change, for it is the revelation of a perfect God who does not need to change. Instead, the message of Christ is meant to change us. This is why people who once held slaves in 18th and 19th century America were called to let these people go, even as God once called a pharaoh to let His people go. This is why a society steeped in legislatively enshrined racism as recently as a few short decades ago was called to love its neighbors instead of separating from them. This is why a world that is plagued by violence today is called to long for a day when swords and spears will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. These calls are thousands of years old. But they still challenge us to change to this day.

Mr. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western University where he recently, according to his column, “conducted a ‘trial’ of the Bible on the charge of being responsible for our environmental crisis.” Maybe it would have been useful, if, after this trial where his students questioned the Bible, Mr. Beal put his class in a trial where the Bible could have questioned them. After all, it may just be that our questions of the Bible aren’t the only ones that need to be asked. It may also just be that the Bible has even better questions of us than we do of it, such as, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9)?

Mr. Beal concludes his column by revisiting those who have left and lost their faith – the Nones. He writes of them: “When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.” About this much he is certainly correct. The Nones believe something. They have some faith, even if it is an ad hoc faith. The question is: Is it the true faith?

Maybe before we ask questions of faith, we ought to first ask this question of ourselves.

November 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Family Is Shattered

Massacring fourteen members of a Mormon family, including small children by burning them alive, while they were traveling from Chihuahua in Mexico to Arizona in a three-vehicle caravan is unthinkable, but it is, sadly, not uncommon in a nation where violence is rampant and drug lords really are just that – not only lords in a nation, but, in many ways, shadow lords of it. The drug cartels’ leverage over the Mexican government is astonishing.

A 2016 study rated Mexico as second in the world in terms of deadly conflicts, behind only Syria. Another study from just this September listed Mexico as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.  Most of these deaths can be chocked up to the nation’s violent cartels.

The story of this massacre is macabre.  The thought of innocent – and, by all accounts, exceptionally pious – people losing their lives in such a violent way violates our most basic instincts of justice.  Yet, out of this terrible tragedy, tales of heroism are already beginning to emerge.  One 13-year-old member of the family, who escaped the slaughter, hid his siblings from their would-be murderers and then walked six hours to find help.  Violence may be able to overtake lives, but, it turns out, it can’t overtake love for others.

Certainly, we should pray for the survivors and their families.  We should also, however, pray for and call for justice.  Drug peddling is, in its very nature, nihilistic.  It does not care about human morality or dignity, but instead seeks only money and supremacy.  Because drug peddling has no interest in humans, it eventually consumes humans – including the humans who are doing the peddling.  These drug lords may traffic in death to make money, but they cannot escape their own – and often early – deaths, even with their money.

King Solomon once said, “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). The drug cartels of Mexico do indeed oppress the poor and violate the rights of many.  By doing so, they pilfer justice.  And we have known this for a long time. So, in this way, as Solomon says, I am not surprised by what has happened.

But I am appalled.

But I am also hopeful – hopeful that, even if justice feels denied now, it is really only delayed until later.  For, on the Last Day, Jesus will “stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25) and will not be able to stand sin.  He will wipe out sin – once and for all.

That’s the Day this family needs.  Indeed, that’s the Day we all need.

November 11, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Church’s Durability

The Christian faith has staying power. This is both a biblical promise and a statistical reality. The biblical promise is that Christ’s Church is so strong that not even “the gates of Hades will overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).  The statistical case for the endurance of the faith was laid out by Ross Douthat in a column for The New York Times this past weekend:

Long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s — and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom …

The recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

The case for the Church’s remarkable sociological durability is not new with Ross Douthat. Several years ago, Ed Stetzer, then the executive director of LifeWay Research, argued:

Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it’s not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.

So, what does all this mean?

For churches whose attendances are dropping, there are no easy answers, but there are some things we can and should consider in light of what we know about churches that are growing. Two things specifically come to mind.

First, pandering isn’t helpful. Hospitality, however, is. Pastors and church leaders have, in some corners, tried to pander to a progressive cultural zeitgeist that has a deep-seated distrust in and disgust at the Christian faith.  These leaders have discounted biblical authority and downplayed Christ’s ipseity.  In their rush to make the Christian faith palatable for the world, they have wound up with nothing to offer to the world.  These churches are collapsing.  In other more traditional corners of the Church, pastors and church leaders often spend more time pandering to longtime donors and power brokers within their congregations than they do reaching out to those who have questions about the Christian faith or to those who are skeptical of the Christian faith.  In these types congregations, traditions often trump mission.  These churches, too, are foundering.

Pandering stymies the Church’s mission.  Hospitality, on the other hand, calls churches into mission.  Hospitality is not focused on indulging people’s whims, like pandering is.  Instead, it is focused on loving them. This is why, when he writes about hospitality, the apostle Paul explains:

Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:13-16)

For Paul, hospitality’s proving ground comes in how one treats their enemies.  How does the Church treat its enemies?  Do we lie to them by telling them what they want to hear like some supposedly “enlightened” and non-orthodox congregations do?  Do we reject them by catering to insiders and their preferences as some other congregations do?  Or, do we love them by living for them as Christ lived for us?  The Church must recover its hospitable spirit – especially to outsiders.

Second, faith is meant to be deep and go deep inside of us.  In a culture that is, in many pockets, post-Christian, a shallow or simple faith simply will not answer people’s big questions or stand the test of life’s terrible trials.  The studies above show, as other studies have before, that it is people with shallow faith who are falling away from the Church – not people with deep faith.  This means pep talks that pretend to be sermons will not keep people in church – but neither will dry doctrinal treatises that recycle theological buzzwords ad nauseam by pastors who are more concerned with brandishing their orthodox bona fides than they are with communicating Christ.  Only preaching that exposits the content of the Scriptures, explains how the Scriptures concern us and convict us, proclaims from the Scriptures what Christ has done for us, and then calls us to live out of what Christ has done for us will do.  The Scriptures present a deep faith in a clear way.  The Church should do the same.

Obviously, the Church has not done any of this perfectly – nor will it.  But we should consider how we can do things better.  Blessedly, in spite of our shortcomings, the Church will continues to endure because the Church is as durable as the One who died – and conquered death – for it.  Because Christ conquered death, the Church will not die.  He, finally, is the Church’s durability.

November 4, 2019 at 6:15 am 2 comments

Suicide Rates Keep Climbing

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Credit: cocoparisienne from Pixabay 

Suicide has become a national mental health crisis. Story after story bears this out. Take this, for instance, from Brianna Abbott of The Wall Street Journal:

The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 years old climbed 56% between 2007 and 2017, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention … Around 2010, the death rate of suicides among adolescents and young adults surpassed the rate of homicide deaths, according to the report.

This spike in suicides comes after a period of relatively stable suicide deaths between 2000 and 2007.  And it’s not just young people who are taking their own lives at an exponentially increasing rate. Ms. Abbott goes on to note:

Suicide rates in general have increased in the U.S. across all ages and ethnic groups, rising roughly 30% from 1999 to 2016. 

This is terrifying, especially since we can’t seem to figure out precisely why suicide rates are increasing so dramatically. EJ Dickson, also writing about the latest CDC statistics for Rolling Stone, explains:

Alarmingly, public health experts have no idea why the suicide rate for young adults is increasing so rapidly. “The truth is anyone who says they definitively know what is causing it doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Ursula Whiteside, a researcher with the University of Washington, recently told the Washington Post. “It’s a complex problem with no easy answers so far” …

Most mental health experts caution against isolating one “cause” or factor when discussing suicide. Though we know there are certain factors, such as a history of mental illness or substance use, that put teenagers at increased risk for taking their own lives, the mental health establishment simply doesn’t have enough research to draw “firm scientific conclusions” about what causes spikes in suicide, Dr. April Foreman, a psychologist and a board member at the American Association of Suicidology, previously told Rolling Stone. Regardless of what external factors may or may not be contributing, it is “much more likely there are complex things going on in society. We just don’t understand suicide well enough,” she said.

Dr. Foreman’s reference to “complex things going on in society” is ominous. We know monumental societal shifts are taking place. From the ascendency of social media, the overuse and misuse of which has been linked to depression, to the glorification of suicide itself, there are plenty of potential culprits behind these scary statistics, even if we can’t pinpoint precisely how much of a role these culprits play.

With societal shifts affecting how we see the value of our lives – even if their precise effects remain statistically vague – it has become clear that we need a way of seeing ourselves that does not shift with society, but is instead steady in spite of society. Christianity has consistently affirmed and defended the value and dignity of the human person and human life. Our value and dignity are not derived from our status, our income, or even our own feelings about our own selves. Instead, they are grounded in our Creator who, when He created us, called us “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Jesus affirms the value of humanity with a small, but powerful analogy:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

“If God takes good care of the sparrows,” Jesus says, “it should be self-evident that He will take great care of you. After all, if the sparrows are valuable to Him, imagine how much more valuable you are to Him.”

Indeed.

So, if you are feeling worthless or like life is not worthwhile, Jesus invites you to drop the societal estimations of your value and find your value – and hope – in Him. He has given you a life worth living.

October 28, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Is The Bible Reliable?

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Credit: KML from Pexels

Over the past few weeks, there have been some astounding archaeological discoveries related to the Bible.  First, researchers have found possible evidence of the existence of the biblical people of Edom, a people long dismissed by scholars as mythical rather than historical.  Reporting for the Daily Mail, Joe Pinkstone writes:

The Biblical kingdom of Edom was long thought to be a myth, but scientists now think they have found proof of its existence in a controversial new finding. 

Analysis of copper mines and slagheaps dating back to the 11th century BC reveals evidence of improvements to smelting in mines throughout a 60-mile wide region …

Researchers from the University of California and Tel Aviv University concluded that due to its age and location, the authority controlling the mining and smelting could only be Edom, the kingdom which stood in the way of the expanding Israelites. 

The book of Genesis refers to the Edomites, who were thought to be descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau.

That’s incredible.  But that’s not all.  In another fascinating find, archaeologists uncovered a 1,500-year-old fresco that depicts Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 people.  Rory Sullivan reports for CNN:

A colorful mosaic recently found in an ancient church in Israel appears to depict a miracle Jesus is said to have performed nearby – the feeding of the 5,000 – archaeologists say.

The discovery was made in the “Burnt Church” in Hippos, an archaeological site on a mountain a mile east of the Sea of Galilee. The church was built around 1,500 years ago and destroyed by fire in the early 7th century AD.

Christian scholars have long argued that the Bible is a remarkably historically reliable document.  These recent finds simply contribute additional credence to these claims.

Of course, findings like these do not answer every question or criticism people have about the Bible.  But they should at least lead us to consider just how truthful this book just might be.  The peoples and places of the Bible seem to be exceptionally archaeologically accurate.  So, perhaps we should wonder: What else in this book is accurate?  Could the miracles described by the Bible be factual?  Could the teachings proffered by the Bible be wise?  Could the God confessed by the Bible be real?  Could the Bible be what it claims to be – divine revelation?

Archaeological discovery can help us verify the Bible’s accuracy.  But the Bible claims to be much more than just accurate.  It claims to be authoritative.  It is meant to guide and shape our lives.  As the Psalmist puts it: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).

It is important to ask the of the Bible: did the events described therein happen way back when?  But it is just as critical to answer: how do the events described therein apply to me now?  For the Bible is not just a history book.  It is a helpful book.  And it is not just a helpful book.  It is a holy book.  May we treat it as such.

October 21, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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