A Hug of Forgiveness

It was the hug felt round the world.

When Brandt Jean, the 18-year-old brother of Botham Jean, who was murdered by Amber Guyger, asked if he could hug his brother’s killer, the courtroom flooded with tears.  Mr. Jean’s hug capped an extraordinary – and, honestly, supernatural – expression of love, compassion, and forgiveness toward Ms. Guyger.  When Mr. Jean first took the stand last Wednesday, he was supposed to, following Ms. Guyger’s conviction, offer a victim impact statement – something common in cases like these.  But Mr. Jean’s impact statement was unlike any other and is worth recounting in full:

If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you.

And I don’t think anyone can say it – again I’m speaking for myself and not on behalf of my family – but I love you just like anyone else.

And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do.

And the best would be: give your life to Christ.

I’m not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.

Again, I love you as a person. And I don’t wish anything bad on you.

I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please? Please?

I’m not sure how he did it, but Mr. Jean managed to honor his brother’s memory, extend forgiveness to his brother’s killer, and invite her to trust in Christ, all in a matter of moments.

This was a complicated case.  Ms. Guyger claimed she shot Botham Jean because she believed she was entering her apartment while accidentally entering his.  When she saw him, she thought he was an intruder and was afraid, so she shot him.  At the same time, there was plenty of evidence introduced at the trial to call into question her character.  She, herself a police officer, was having an affair with another married officer, to whom she also sent several racially tinged text messages.  Then, she shot an unarmed black man.  There were plenty of reasons Mr. Jean could have been suspicious of her and angry at her.  Instead, he decided to extend forgiveness to her.

As conversations about Mr. Jean’s offer of forgiveness have ricocheted across cable news networks, I heard one commentator worry that Mr. Jean had extended to Ms. Guyger “cheap grace.”  I would respectfully disagree.  There’s nothing cheap about the grace Mr. Jean extended to Ms. Guyger.  The grace Mr. Jean extended came at the cost of his brother.  And there’s nothing more valuable than a life.

But, I suppose, this is the way grace always works.  For the grace that God extends to us comes at the cost of God’s Son.  And there’s nothing more valuable than His life.

There’s a lot of pain – especially along racial lines – that has bubbled to the surface because of this murder.  Ms. Guyger’s ten-year sentence feels to many like justice denied.  And make no mistake about it: justice is important.  Crime and time go together appropriately and importantly.  But it also must be understood that what Mr. Jean offered in that courtroom was not injustice.  It was something totally outside of justice.  It was Jesus.

To Mr. Jean, I offer my condolences.  What happened to your brother is not only tragic, but sinful.  But to Mr. Jean, I also offer my thanks.  For what you did in offering forgiveness was not only inspirational, it was incarnational.  You brought Jesus into that courtroom with you.  And a whole nation noticed.

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October 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Is the news stressing you out?

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Credit: Roman Kraft on Unsplash

It’s been a wild week in politics. President Trump has found himself enmeshed in controversy over a phone call he had with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. In a summary transcript, which was released by the White House last Wednesday, the president speaks briefly to the Ukranian leader about former Vice President Biden, suggesting that he look into an accusation that the vice president impeded a Ukranian investigation into a company on whose board his son sat.

The phone call has ignited a firestorm, with Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against the president, claiming that his conversation with President Zelensky amounts to a demand for an investigation of a political opponent in exchange for U.S. aid.

It’s been a wild week in politics. But, of course, this past week hasn’t been the only wild week. It seems as if some scandal, controversy, or outrage is continually brewing in the White House, Congress, or Supreme Court.

All this political adversity is affecting some people’s mental health. A study of 800 people conducted by Kevin Smith, a political scientist professor at the University of Nebraska, found that:

Nearly 40% of respondents said that politics was a cause of stress in their lives. About 20% reported losing sleep, feeling fatigued or being depressed owing to politics.

Between 10% and 30% of the respondents said that politics took an emotional toll on them, by causing anger, frustration, hate or guilt, or caused them to make comments they later regretted.

About 20% reported that politics had damaged their friendships. 

The histrionics of politics, it seems, is having an outsized influence on our lives and relationships. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not just the perpetual political panics of the daily news cycle that are affecting us, it’s the place of politics in our hearts.

When politics become primary to us, its influence over us becomes immense. We begin to believe that each political crisis becomes the final political crisis – the one that will undo once and for all our culture and our future. So, we become edgy, angry, and suspicious of anyone who does not share our political sensibilities.

The call of Christianity is to submit to Christ as Lord over all – even over our politics. We do not need to fear the vicissitudes of politics, for no political upheaval is so great that it can pull us out of Christ’s care. This should provide us with a sense of peace, hopefulness, and perspective that reminds us that we should ultimately be more concerned with someone else’s faith than with someone else’s vote. For no matter how we vote now, there is only One to whom we will bow on the Last Day. No matter what is happening in Washington, in Christ, we can find peace.

September 30, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Lamentation and Restoration

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Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled. Our carefully curated posts on social media often show only the best moments of our lives, any pain being artfully disguised behind filtered photos of smiling faces in exotic places. At funerals, we often hear about how a deceased loved one would not want those left behind to cry. Instead, they would only want a celebration! And, of course, there is the ubiquitous answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” Any answer other than “fine” may draw some disinterested eye rolls. After all, the question is not really a request for information, but the product of polite social expectation. Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled.

And yet, in the Bible, there is a whole book called “Lamentations.” It describes the despair and despondency of the Israelites after their nation falls into the hands of the Babylonians and they are carried off from their homes into exile. The book opens with a haunting picture:

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

The capital city of Israel, Jerusalem, once the center of Israel’s life, now lies abandoned. So Israel laments.

But Israel does not just lament over an empty city. Israel also laments over her own sin, for she knows that her exile is a divine punishment for her rebellion:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have all seen her naked; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. (Lamentations 1:8-9) 

In very picturesque language, Israel describes the blight of her sin and the resulting plight of her people. It is brutal.

So, what is Israel’s way forward? Is this the end of her story? We know the answer is “no.” She, however, is not so sure. Lamentations ends like this:

Restore us to Yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:21-22)

Israel is hoping for God’s grace, but she is not sure of God’s grace. She wonders if God has not rejected her forever.

Ancient Israel is not the only one who sometimes doubts God’s grace. We do, too. I have talked to many people over my years in ministry who struggle to believe that God’s grace could be for them. Their guilt feels too heavy. Their sin seems too deep. They truly wonder if God would ever, or even could ever, help people like them.

When Jesus is speaking with His disciples, He says to them, “The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12). And Jesus is rejected – on a cross. He is rejected by men and, ultimately, by God as He takes on Himself the sins of the world – all of the things that God rejects. But because God rejected Jesus then, we have the promise that He will not reject us now. He will always restore us, even when we fall into sin. He will always invite us to return, no matter how far we stray. We have no reason to wonder about God’s grace. It is for us.

Lamentations ends with a doubt about whether or not a nation’s sin can be forgiven. We, however, have received a confident answer to that doubt in Christ. There is no sin too great for grace.

September 23, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Hope in the Valley: In Memory of Jarrid Wilson

Any story of anyone who takes their own life always rends my heart. When it is the story of a pastor, it has a special poignancy for me. I would be lying if I said ministry is never difficult. It is. I would also be lying if I said I have not, at times, been haunted by deep sadness over a broken situation, an angry person, or a lost soul. I have been. In my theological tradition, pastors often wear stoles – a piece of cloth draped over a person’s shoulders. This is to remind a pastor that he carries a yoke – a burden – as he goes about his ministry. Ministry can be heavy.

What is true of my ministry I am certain was exponentially truer of Jarrid Wilson’s ministry. He was an associate pastor at a Riverside, California megachurch. He was a respected author. And he was the founder of Anthem of Hope, a nonprofit organization advocating for those struggling with depression. Hours before Jarrid took his own life, he preached at the funeral of a lady who herself had committed suicide. As a pastor myself who has preached at such funerals, I know they are some of the heaviest moments in ministry. But on top of all these responsibilities and burdens was Jarrid’s battle with depression. In his most recent book, Love Is Oxygen, he opened up about his own mental health struggles and described how he had contemplated suicide on multiple occasions. This past Monday, his struggles overtook him.

Depression can come for you regardless of your gender, age, success level, or even faith. There is no life hack a person can deploy or mind trick a person can play to shoo depression away. It is an ongoing struggle against darkness in life and heaviness of soul.

Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist knew something about darkness in life and heaviness of soul. In one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, he writes:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23) 

The Psalmist did not try to downplay his struggles and sadness. Life, the Psalmist says, can sometimes feel like a “valley of the shadow of death.”  And yet, the Psalmist refused to give up hope.

There is an interesting switch in language that takes place in the midst of this psalm.  The Psalmist opens by talking about the Lord. He is the Psalmist’s shepherd. He makes him like down in green pastures. He leads him beside still waters. But then, suddenly, when the mood of the Psalmist changes, so does the orientation of the Psalm. Instead of talking about the Lord, he begins talking to the Lord: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The Psalmist no longer talks about the Lord as “He.” Instead, he talks to the Lord as “You.” This is because the Psalmist knows that even when life feels its darkest and heaviest, the Lord is not far. He is right there, personally, with the Psalmist – and with us.

But there’s more. It is interesting that the Psalmist speaks of “the valley of the shadow of death” in the singular while speaking of “green pastures” and “still waters” in the plural. It’s almost as if no matter how dark this world may feel, the blessings of God always outnumber the sin in this world. The valley of the shadow of death may encroach on a person’s soul for a time. But more green pastures and still waters are on their way and are ultimately punctuated by a promise of eternity: “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

The language of this ancient poem is not a prescription that can take away depression and suicidal thoughts, but it can offer some perspective if you do struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. No matter how dark your valley may feel, the Lord walks with you. And no matter how tempted you may be to take your own life into your own hands, the Lord has something for you. He is your Shepherd who wants to lead you lovingly through this life even if you feel like you want to escape from this life.

So, if you’re struggling, pick up the phone. Reach out for help. Ask someone to help you find those “green pastures” and “still waters” that feel so lost and distant. And remember, not only does God love you, many others do, too. There are plenty of reasons to keep on fighting for the life God has given you.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

September 16, 2019 at 5:15 am 4 comments

In and After the Storm

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Credit: Wikipedia

The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.  When God appears to Moses on Mount Sinai’s summit to give him the Ten Commandments, the mountaintop is covered in “darkness, gloom, and storm” (Hebrews 12:18).  When Job endures great suffering, he complains: “God would crush me with a storm” (Job 9:17).  When God speaks to Job after his trials, it says, “The LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  When God calls Jonah to preach to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but the prophet instead hops a ship heading the opposite direction, the Lord sends “a great wind on the sea, and a violent storm” (Jonah 1:4).  When Jesus is sailing with His disciples across the Sea of Galilee one day, out of nowhere comes “a furious storm” (Matthew 8:24).  The Bible has a lot of stories of storms.

These days, our headlines have been plastered with stories of a storm.  The pictures that have come out of the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian are horrible.  Halves of islands are underwater.  Debris fields stretch for miles.  And the death toll has yet to be fully counted.  And, of course, Dorian’s destruction did not end with these islands.  The storm carved a path up our nation’s eastern seaboard, dumping rain, flooding communities, and disrupting and endangering countless lives.

Whenever we face a storm like this, a common question arises: Where is God?  Though there is no complete answer to this question, here are a couple of thoughts Scripture invites us to consider.

First, God is in the storm.  When God speaks to Job after all his trials, he speaks to him “out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  This means that in all of Job’s trials, God was right there, even though Job did not know it.  When Jesus’ disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus does not avoid the storm they sail into, but is there with them in the storm.  And when Jesus dies on a cross, He does so in the midst of storm clouds so dark that they black out the sun: “From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).  God, then, does not avoid our storms even if He does not still every storm.  He is with us in the storms.

Second, God is after the storm.  When the prophet Elijah, at God’s behest, goes to meet with God on a mountain, instead of finding God, he experiences a storm:

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. (1 Kings 19:11-12) 

Elijah goes to meet with God.  But he finds only hurricane force winds, an earthquake, and fiery lighting.  It seems like God is nowhere to be found in these storms.  But then:

After the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  (1 Kings 19:12-13)

It turns out that God was there for Elijah after the storms.

Dorian’s destructive path has now been cut.  The damage has been done.  People’s lives and livelihoods have been uprooted.  But God did not run from this storm.  He was in the storm with those who suffered from it.  But, perhaps even more importantly, now, He is still standing tall after the storm with those who have come out of the storm.  The question is: as God’s people, will we also be there for those who need us after the storm?  There are multiple ways to help the victims of Dorian.  I pray that you will.  After all, God is there after the storm.  So, we should be, too.

The Psalmist famously writes:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. (Psalm 46:1-4)

The Psalmist reminds us that God is in the storm.  He is “an ever-present help in trouble.”  But he also reminds us that God is after the storm.  For He has prepared for us and now dwells in a celestial city, not with waters that are destructive like a storm surge, but with waters that bubble and babble with gladness.  In other words, God is not only in the storm, nor is He even only after the storm, He is there even after this life, waiting to welcome those who have lost their lives – including those believers who have lost their lives in storms like Dorian – into His eternal city.  A storm may end this life – but it cannot drown out eternal life.

September 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Grace in the Wilderness

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Credit: Angelique Downing from Burst

There are some incredible words the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. (Jeremiah 31:2)

These words are written for Israel while Israel is in crisis – when she is being defeated and decimated by the Babylonians who will carry her people into exile.  While Israel is at her worst, then, God says to her, “In a place you might least expect it – the wilderness that is your exile – you will find My grace.”

God’s people have a history of finding grace in wilderness. When the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness, where they received grace upon grace. A miracle at the Red Sea. Manna and quail from the heavens. Water to drink from a rock. There was grace there in that wilderness.

When God decided it was time to send a Savior, His coming was announced in where else, but the wilderness:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3)

The grace of God’s kingdom was being announced in the wilderness.

And when the Savior did arrive, where did He go to begin His public ministry? Into the wilderness, of course:

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

While Jesus may have been tempted by the devil, He did not succumb to the devil. He defeated the devil and his temptations so that there may be grace for everyone who does not fare so well under temptation.

I think sometimes we might prefer to find grace in places other than the wilderness. In the lushness of an awesome spiritual experience, perhaps, where we feel the warmth of God’s love surrounding us. Or in the comforts of an abundance of material possessions, perhaps, where we can breezily and easily praise God for the amazing things He has given to us.

God can show us grace through these things, but this does not mean He only shows us grace through these things.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness. Like when we feel spiritually cold inside and all we can do is cling to God’s Word. Or when our pocketbooks feel strapped and our savings accounts are depleted all we have is God’s promise of daily bread.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness.

This should not surprise us. For God’s grace was most fully expressed on some rough-hewn timbers, cut down from the wilderness of ancient Israel. Grace did not feel good to Jesus. But the grace of the cross is the greatest grace there is.

So, don’t let a time in the wilderness crush you. There is grace there because Jesus is there. If there’s one place He knows, it’s there. And if there’s one person He wants, it’s you.

September 2, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Deadliness of Loneliness

Loneliness is killing us – literally.  This is what a lengthy article in the National Post argues:

Studies suggest loneliness is more detrimental to health than obesity, physical inactivity or polluted air. Chronic loneliness, and not the transient kind that comes with a significant life disruption, such as moving cities for work, or the death of a partner, has been linked with an increased risk of developing or dying from coronary artery disease, stroke, elevated blood pressure, dementia and depressed immunity.

 A study published in May found lonely people have shorter telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes, like the tip of a shoelace. Telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides, and shorter telomeres are considered a sign of accelerated aging.

This is serious stuff.  So, what is the solution?  Some are arguing that the solution may be pharmacological:

Studies in animals suggest that a single injection of pregnenolone can reduce or “normalize” an exaggerated threat response in socially isolated lab mice, similar to the kind of hyper vigilance lonely people feel that makes them poor at reading other people’s intentions and feelings.

 The researchers have every hope the drug will work in lonely human brains, too…

 Loneliness increases both a desire to connect with others, and a gut instinct for self-preservation (“if I let you get close to me, you’ll only hurt me, too”). People become more wary, cautious and self-centered.  The idea is to help people see things as they are, “rather than being afraid of everyone,” [neuroscientist Stephanie] Cacioppo said.

This is all very interesting.  But I’m not sure that masking a problem medicinally is going to cure an ill socially.  The problem is not just that many of us are lonely – although that certainly is concerning.  The deeper problem, though, is that many of us are, quite literally, alone:

“Nearly 30 million Americans live alone, many not out of preference,” said Christophe Lane, author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. In Canada, the proportion of the population living in one-person households has quadrupled over the past three generations in Canada to 28 percent in 2016, from seven percent in 1951.

 Life expectancy is growing, fertility rates are falling and the population is aging. We’re marrying later and having fewer children, if any at all. Technology means we can do almost all we need to do from home without physically interacting with a single human soul.

Solutions to problems like these cannot be solved by a pill. They can only be solved by other people.

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God once said of the first man He had created (Genesis 2:18). So, God made for him a companion in Eve. And He’s been making companions ever since. We are called both to find companions and to be a companion. We simply cannot live – at least not well – any other way.

Community is critical for so many things. It is critical to hold us accountable in sin. It is critical to encourage us in dark times. It is critical to celebrate with us good times. It is critical to help us in tough times. There are too many things in life that we simply cannot face alone.

A feeling of loneliness may be able to be helped along by picking up a prescription. A state of aloneness, however, can only be solved by reaching out to another person. So, reach out and help wipe out aloneness. Together, we’re better.

August 26, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

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