+ In Memoriam: George H.W. Bush +

When George H.W. Bush passed away nearly a week and a half ago, our nation lost a statesman, a war hero, and a president.

State funerals are relatively rare, but Mr. Bush, thanks in large part to his service to our nation as its president, received one.  However, when his son, George W. Bush, stood in the pulpit of the staid and storied National Cathedral to deliver a eulogy, he spoke not so much of Mr. Bush as a president, but as his father.  He reminisced:

To us, he was close to perfect.  But not totally perfect.  His short game was lousy.  He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor.  The man couldn’t stomach vegetables, especially broccoli.  And by the way, he passed these genetic defects along to us.  Finally, every day of his 73 years of marriage, dad taught us all what it means to be a great husband.  He married his sweetheart.  He adored her.  He laughed and cried with her.  He was dedicated to her totally…

In his inaugural address, the 41st president of the United States said this:  “We cannot hope to only leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account.  We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent.  A citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it.  What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there?  That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us, or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?”  Well, dad, we’re gonna remember you for exactly that and much more.  And we are going to miss you.  Your decency, sincerity, and kind soul will stay with us forever.  So through our tears, let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter can have.

It was this last line, at which the younger Bush choked up, that captured the hearts of many who were tuning into the service this past Wednesday, for his words were a reminder of what really matters in a life.  What is done from an oval-shaped office is certainly historically significant and nationally critical.  But what is done around a kitchen table is also significant and critical – perhaps even more so.  God calls us to love others personally long before He calls any of us to lead others politically.  George H.W. Bush knew this – and lived it.

In his book, The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks makes a distinction between what he calls “the resume virtues” and “the eulogy virtues.”  He writes:

Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

At Mr. Bush’s funeral, the eulogy virtues were certainly on display.  And at a time when many are openly questioning whether or not these types of virtues really matter in public service, the life of George H.W. Bush reminds us that they certainly do.  The virtues we cultivate shape the decisions we make, the wisdom we display, and the legacy we leave.

With all of this being said, we must remember that, for all of George H.W. Bush’s commendable and imitable virtues, nobody is perfect.  The younger Bush said as much about his father.  But, of course, human imperfection goes far deeper and into much more shameful territory than the humorous examples given by George W. Bush of George H.W. Bush.  The younger Bush pulled a rhetorical sleight of hand as he spoke not so much of his father’s imperfections, but of his idiosyncrasies.  But each casket is a reminder that each of us has been infected by real imperfection, the wages of which is death (Romans 6:23).  This is why, as great and as needed as eulogy virtues are, they are not enough.  Something more is needed.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed out that, at a certain moment in last Wednesday’s funeral service, during one of the prayers, Mr. Bush went from being referred to as “President George Herbert Walker Bush” and instead began being referred to as “our brother George.”  This was liturgically intentional.  The greatest thing that can be said about George H.W. Bush was not that he was a successful man with many resume virtues.  But it is also not that he was a good man with many eulogy virtues.  Instead, the greatest thing that can be said about George H.W. Bush was that he was a redeemed man, brought into the family of God by the blood of Christ – a brother in Christ.

The eulogy virtues extolled at last week’s funeral leave legacies, which make them of inestimable importance.  Redemption, however, gives hope, which makes it of eternal significance.  Our brother George may have been a good man, but, even better, one day, through faith in Christ, he will be a resurrected man.  His casket will be empty and last week’s funeral will be undone.  That’s Christ’s promise.  And that’s our hope.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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

When A Missionary’s Zeal Turns Deadly

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The wisdom, or lack thereof, of John Allen Chau’s deadly decision to try to witness to an isolated tribe of indigenous people on North Sentinel Island, off the coast of India, is a topic of hot debate.   Initial reports portrayed Mr. Chau as a reckless explorer and mountain climber, seeking adventure in far-flung, exotic locations.  It quickly became apparent, however, that he was also a devoted missionary committed to preaching Christ to the Sentinelese people.  Although his initial overture to the tribe appeared clumsy – in his journal, he wrote about how he “hollered” to the tribespeople, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you” – he was also heavily vaccinated and linguistically and medically trained before embarking on his journey.  It turns out that Mr. Chau was not just some hotheaded adventurer.  He was a calculated planner, even if his planning finally proved to be woefully incomplete.

Among evangelically minded Christians, there is little debate over whether we should share our faith.  The call of Jesus Himself is to spread and share His message to and with the world.  There is much debate, however, over how we should share our faith.  Clawing your way onto a remote and, according to Indian law, off-limits island and confronting tribespeople who are known to be hostile toward, probably because they feel threatened by, outsiders hardly seems like an effective missionary method.

During this time of year, Christians celebrate the incarnation – that the God of the universe took on flesh in the person of Jesus in space and time in the little town of Bethlehem.  In His incarnation, Jesus carried out God’s mission by preaching God’s message and doing God’s work of dying for us and for our salvation.  Jesus’ incarnation, then, was part and parcel of Jesus’ mission.

In our outreach efforts, Jesus’ life can serve as our model.  Mission and incarnation should work together in our lives, too.  Our evangelization of any people should always be coupled with a careful contextualization.  This is what Mr. Chau appears to have overlooked.  He wanted to reach the people of this remote island, but did not have workable plan to enter into their culture and customs, as Jesus did when He became man.

The reality is that, because of the islanders’ hostility toward outsiders and the Indian laws that shield them from modern society, reaching these people will take more than one person’s plan.  Coordinated diplomatic efforts will probably be required so laws are not broken and, of course, a careful posture toward the Sentinelese people themselves is absolutely necessary.  Building trust with them will take much time and, frankly, in this case, probably nothing less than a miracle of God.  But that’s okay.  God is, after all, quite good at the miraculous.

I appreciate Mr. Chau’s passion to reach the unreached.  And I am saddened by his death.  I pray for his family and friends who are, I am sure, grieving.  Mr. Chau’s devotion to Christ’s mission is a laudable devotion for any Christian to have.  But learning from his dangerous and ultimately deadly strategy is also necessary.

The death of Mr. Chau should call every mission-minded Christian to take some time to learn and reflect so that we can better witness and love.  Jesus wants nothing less for the sake of the many souls who are still far from Him.

December 3, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving Dinner, Autumn, Fall, Food

Credit: Max Pixel

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  So much of my day-to-day life centers around what I must do.  There are tasks to complete and errands to run and bills to pay and conversations to have and decisions to make and Bible studies and sermons to write and preach.  These things to do are often, even if not always, joyous, but Thanksgiving reminds me that I must never get so caught up in what I have to do that I forget about what has already been done.  God has done great things for me.  He has given me a family I adore, a church I love, and a forgiveness I need.  And for these things, I am called to be thankful.

Thanksgiving keeps me humble.  When I am tempted to boast in all I have accomplished, Thanksgiving reminds me of all I’ve been given.  Even my life itself is a gift of God’s grace.  This is why I must continually and humbly rely on Him.

Each year, I make it my tradition to read a Thanksgiving Proclamation from one of our nation’s founders.  This year, I came across George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.  In it, he thanks God:

…for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

President Washington rattles of a list of the many blessings for which, he believes, a newly minted nation should be thankful.  And he’s right.  These are things for which our nation should still be thankful.  But what I love most about his proclamation comes in what he says next:

May we then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.

President Washington was under no delusion that our nation’s blessings were somehow the product of our nation’s – or her individuals’ – intrinsic merit.  This is why he offers not only a prayer of thanksgiving, but a prayer of confession.  For he knew that God had blessed this new nation in the same way He has always blessed every nation:  by grace.

When God chose Israel to be His people and gave to her a Promised Land, He made sure she knew her blessings came by His grace:

It is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.  Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the LORD.  (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)

God did not bless Israel because of her righteousness, but in spite of her unrighteousness.  God works this way with every nation and every person.

Ultimately, then, to be thankful is to be repentant, knowing that we have what we have not because we’ve earned it or deserved it, but because God has willed it.  Thus, each Thanksgiving, I am called to make little of myself and my accomplishments, which are few, and much of God and His blessings, which are bountiful.

As this long weekend draws to a close, my prayer is that the holiday of Thanksgiving becomes a habit of thanksgiving.  After all, I have plenty to be thankful for.

You do, too.

November 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Tragedy in California

They are the worst wildfires in the history of the state of California.

Nearly 250,000 acres have burned.  79 people have been killed.  Sadly, that number will likely climb as first responders continue their search through the rubble these fires have left behind.  The town of Paradise, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has been especially hard hit, with nearly the whole town being destroyed.

California has had a rough go of it lately.  Just two weeks ago, the state endured another tragedy as a gunman opened fire at a country bar filled with college students in Thousand Oaks, killing twelve.  The shooter was a Marine Corps veteran who appears to have had all sorts of mental health issues and was, at one time, on the cusp of being committed.

The sheer number of tragedies that roll in through each news cycle can begin to feel overwhelming.  For each town that is charred and person that is shot, we ask, “How can we stop this from happening?”  Answers to this perennial and pressing question seem to elude us.  When tragedies do strike, we are thankful for firefighters who risk their lives on the frontlines of massive and unpredictable blazes and officers who run into hails of bullets rather than away from them.  Proactively, we are instructed to keep dry brush away from homes in fire zones and guns out of the hands of mentally disturbed people.  But despite our best efforts, the tragedies keep coming.  Tragedies, even if they can be somewhat mitigated and managed by us, cannot be successfully stayed by us.

On the surface, the California fires and the California shooting seem to be two different types of tragedies.  One is a natural disaster.  The other is man-caused carnage.  Below the surface, however, these two tragedies share a common core:  sin.  The fires remind us that the sin that came into the world with Adam and Eve has disordered and distorted the world in profound and frightening ways.  The mass shooting reminds us that sin is not just in the world.  It is in us.  It’s not just that we cannot eradicate the sin that distorts creation; it’s that we cannot even kill the sin in ourselves.

The message of Christianity reminds us that, even as societies scramble to address sin, we need a victory over sin that we cannot gain for ourselves.  Sin needs not only our noble actions and timely reactions, but a perfect transaction that exchanges our sad sin for a better righteousness.  This is the transaction Christ makes for us on the cross.

Tragedies are sure to continue.  And we should be thankful for those fighting on the front lines of those tragedies.  But we can also be hopeful that tragedy’s time is short, for sin’s defeat is certain.

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

The Only Sacrifice You Need

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 030.jpg

“David Plays the Harp for Saul” by Rembrandt, circa 1650

The downfall of Saul began with a sacrifice.

We usually think of sacrifices as being noble – like when parents sacrifice for their children or when soldiers sacrifice for their country.  And these sacrifices certainly are noble.  But King Saul’s sacrifice was different.  King Saul’s sacrifice was not noble, but self-serving.

In 1 Samuel 15, the prophet Samuel instructs Saul, “Go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them” (1 Samuel 15:3).  Saul does attack the Amalekites.  He does defeat the Amalekites.  But he does not destroy all that belongs to them:

Saul and the army spared…the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs – everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.  (1 Samuel 15:9)

Saul disobeys Samuel’s – and, by extension, God’s – instruction.  When Samuel confronts Saul in his disobedience, Saul first tries to deny that he disobeyed at all.  He says to Samuel, “I have carried out the LORD’s instructions” (1 Samuel 15:13).  When Samuel catches him in his lie, Saul claims, “The soldiers spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest” (1 Samuel 15:15).  Samuel, though, is having none of it.  He asks:

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams … Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has rejected you as king. (1 Samuel 15:22-23)

Saul thought he could use a sacrifice to weasel out of his disobedience.  He was sorely mistaken.

What was true of Saul’s sacrifice, the Bible says, is true of all sacrifices.  God cannot be somehow bribed to overlook sin by a sacrifice.  The preacher of Hebrews says of the Old Testament sacrificial system:  “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).  Sacrifices do not fix sins.  That is, except for one sacrifice:  Christ’s.  For by Christ’s “one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).

Whereas kings and priests would offer broken sacrifices in their sin, Jesus offered a perfect sacrifice for our sin.  The one man who needed no sacrifice for Himself because He was sinless was the one man who made a sacrifice for all in their sinfulness.  And His sacrifice changed everything.

The next time you are caught in a sin, then, do not try to hide your sin, like Saul.  Instead, confess your sin freely.  And do not try slyly redeem yourself by making a sacrifice, like Saul.  Instead, rejoice that you have been forgiven by a sacrifice already made.  Jesus is all the sacrifice you need.

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

Midterms 2018

I read somewhere that there’s an election tomorrow.

Actually, unless you haven’t turned on any TV, scrolled through any social media feed, or driven anywhere and seen any billboards or yard signs for the past few months, it’s difficult not to know that there’s an election tomorrow.

For a midterm election, the rhetoric has been unusually hot.  The stakes feel unusually high.  And, if early voting reports are any indication from across my home state of Texas, people are turning out in record numbers because they are unusually engaged.

Sadly, though much of the voter turnout is surely driven by a sense of civic privilege and responsibility, at least some of it is driven by fear and anger.  The thought of having the “other party” or the “other candidate” in power – whichever or whoever the “other party” or the “other candidate” is for you – terrifies and enrages some folks.  Civic privilege and responsibility take a backseat to despising and disparaging one’s political enemies.

George Washington, in his farewell address of 1796, warned:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.

Sound familiar?

Do we live in a political climate marked by “the alternate domination of one faction over another”?  Do we ever engage with and exhibit a “spirt of revenge”?  George Washington calls this kind of political fist fighting “a frightful despotism.”  Why?   Because rather than honestly and thoughtfully debating the ideas and principles necessary to maintain any robust republic, we begin to bludgeon and berate other people we see only as evil enemies.  We trade our humanity and humility for indignation and domination.

Early each Saturday, I go for a 5 am stroll, cup of coffee in hand, around my neighborhood.  This hour of the morning may seem crazy, especially since it is the weekend, but it can’t be that crazy – or, at least, that’s what I tell myself – because I’m not the only one out walking.  Each Saturday, my neighbors a couple doors down are also out, walking their dog.  We wish each other a good morning and, occasionally, we catch up on neighborhood news.

I noticed the other day that in my neighbors’ yard is a sign for the Senate candidate from Texas for whom I did not vote.  I have some deeply held principled differences with this candidate and I gladly voted for his opponent.  And yet somehow, despite our differing candidate preferences, my neighbors and I still manage to like each other and care for each other and talk to each other.  Why?  Because the same principles that lead me to vote in certain ways also remind me that it is “self-evident that all men are created equal” and are therefore worthy of my respect and care even if I disagree with their political positions.

I’m not averse to good political humor and satire.  Sometimes, it’s the only way to stay sane in what can often feel like a political circus.  I am also all for folks arguing forcibly and persuasively for positions, principles, and even particular politicians as they see fit.  And I think it is honorable to go out and vote.  And tomorrow, we’ll have the opportunity to do just that.  But remember, through every joke that is made, debate that is had, and vote that is cast, we are still called to love our neighbors.

I read that somewhere too.

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

A Package Bomber and a Synagogue Shooter

It’s been a tragic week in our nation.  And that’s putting it mildly.  Beginning last Monday, a series of packages containing explosive devices began to turn up at homes, at business, and in post offices.  These packages were addressed to Democratic politicians, including the Obamas and the Clintons, as well as to financier George Soros, actor Robert De Niro, and CNN.  Though none of the packages detonated, they were sent by a man who was, to put it mildly, devotedly partisan in his views.  He drove a van covered with bumper stickers showing Democratic politicians in crosshairs.  He also posted violent and threatening rhetoric on social media.

Then, on Saturday, a gunman armed with an AR-15 and three rifles showed up at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  He shouted, “All Jews must die,” and opened fire.  By the time his shots fell silent, eleven were dead and a number of others were injured.  As investigators looked into this shooter’s past, he too was found to have posted violent and threatening rhetoric on social media.  He was also a member of an egregiously anti-Semitic online community.

It’s no secret that we’re a nation on edge.  A lot of people hate a lot of other people.  This hate, in turn, when coupled with a mental health crisis that seems to be creeping across our society, erupts in violence – just as it did in the case of these two men.

At this moment, when hatred is hot, Christians must be on the frontlines advocating for love.  Our culture is fighting the wrong demons.  Our culture sees demons in politicians and positions it doesn’t like.  It sees demons in religions and races it doesn’t like.  But Scripture is clear.  We are called to fight:

…not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

If we’re fighting other people, we’re doing it wrong.  Our struggle is against the demons the Bible identifies as truly demonic – not against the demons created for us on social media.

In his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How To Heal, Senator Ben Sasse offers a convicting analysis of our cultural milieu:

It seems clear that in America today, we’re facing problems that feel too big for us, so we’re lashing out at each other, often over less important matters.  Many of us are using politics as a way to distract ourselves from the nagging sense that something bigger is wrong.  Not many of us would honestly argue that if our “side” just had more political power, we’d be able to fix what ails us.  Fortunately, we can avoid addressing the big problems as long as someone else – some nearer target – is standing in the way of our securing the political power even to try.  It’s easier to shriek at people on the other side of the street.  It’s comforting to be able to pin the problems on the freaks in the pink hats or the weirdos carrying the pro-life signs.

At least our contempt unites us with other Americans who think like we do.

At least we are not like them.

Senator Sasse speaks specifically to our political climate, but his words can be applied to our broader cultural problems as well.  There is an attitude prevalent among many that does not want to solve problems.  Instead, it only wants to grab power.  There is an attitude prevalent among many that does not seek understanding.  Instead, it only traffics in character assassination.  And the results, even if they are, thankfully, generally not violent, are certainly not good.  People begin to trade transcendent commitments for tribal grievances.  They stop looking at others as people who are precious by virtue of being created in God’s image and instead see them as enemies needing to be eradicated.  They make demons out of mortals.

The Psalmist describes God’s patience with the Israelites of old like this:

He was merciful; He forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time He restrained His anger and did not stir up His full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return. (Psalm 78:38-39)

God was patient with and merciful to the Israelites because He remembered who the Israelites were – mere, fragile mortals.  Their lives were so short and fragile that they were like passing breezes.  God is patient with and merciful to us because He remembers who we are – mere, fragile mortals.  Our lives are so short and fragile that we are like passing breezes.  Perhaps we should see each other like God sees us.  Perhaps we should restrain our anger and wrath like God does for us.  I hope this past week has taught us at least that much.

Life’s too short to hate.

October 29, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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