Archive for August, 2014

On Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

They are the protests that just won’t stop. The cries of activists in Ferguson, Missouri are loud and only seem to be getting louder. One cry in particular caught my attention. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was reporting from Ferguson when protestors began to throw rocks at him. Some of them yelled, “Tell the true story!” But one man shouted what I think is perhaps the most profound insight into this whole, sordid affair I have heard to date. “This isn’t about Mike Brown no more,” he said. “It’s a civil rights movement. It’s about all people.”

I agree with the protestor. Though they are often conflated, what’s happening in Ferguson today can and should be distinguished from what happened in Ferguson on August 9. This is not about Michael Brown anymore. This is about – be they real or perceived – civil rights grievances.

On the one hand, this is not all bad. This tragedy has ignited some important national conversations. On the other hand, in these conversations, we have taken the very real pain of two very real families – the Brown family and the family of the officer who shot him, the Wilson family – and turned it into an expedient talking point for rallies, protests, and cable news brawls. But their pain deserves more than our marginal mentions. We need to do more. We need to go deeper. We need to take some time to empathize with these families.

Empathy is when you take the human experience and personalize it. In other words, you use what you know from the human experience in general to try to understand one human’s experience in particular. What has happened in this case is the exact opposite. We have taken the personal experiences of two families and de-personalized them, hoisting their pain on our petard.

Michael Brown and Darren Wilson have become emblems. Michael Brown has become an emblem of racial tensions that have plagued Ferguson for decades. Darren Wilson has become an emblem of mistreated law enforcement officials. But these men are much more than impersonal emblems. Michael Brown was a son with college aspirations. Darren Wilson is a man with a family at home.

In an effort at empathy, I’ve been pondering what questions these families must be asking themselves as they watch all this unfold. I’ve been thinking about the questions I would be asking if was in their situation.

As I’ve been thinking about Michael Brown’s parents, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Did Officer Wilson really have to use deadly force to subdue our son? He has lots of ways to subdue suspects.
  • It was broad daylight! How in the world did the officer not know our son was not pointing a weapon at him?
  • Did Officer Wilson overreact because he was scared of a black man?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

As I’ve been thinking about Officer Wilson and his family, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Why can’t people understand how difficult it is to make snap decisions as a police officer?
  • Why do people always assume officers have the worst of intentions?
  • Don’t the protestors realize that their threats scare our whole family?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

Of course, I don’t know for sure what questions they’re asking. And I would never claim to understand how these families are feeling. But empathy is not about claiming to know how somebody feels. It’s about caring how somebody feels. And we should care about and for these families.

To this end, I would ask you to pray for these families – both of these families – and for peace to be restored in Ferguson. Try to empathize with them – their pain, their fear, their confusion – and then pray that God would give them strength, comfort, and hope during this difficult time. Remember, these families are more than causes, they’re people. We cannot forget that.

Allow me to add one final note. Just because I seek to uphold the value of empathizing with the Brown and Wilson families doesn’t mean I don’t believe larger discussions around race are unimportant. But I pray we don’t have these conversations like it’s 1963. I pray we’ve grown since then. I pray our discussions are more civil, our thinking is more compassionate, and our hearts are more, well, empathetic toward those who have different experiences and perspectives. But for now, my prayers are with the Brown and Wilson families. I hope yours are too.

August 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm 1 comment

Robin Williams: 1951-2014

Robin Williams

Credit: Ticketmaster

I first heard of Robin Williams’ untimely death thanks to Facebook. My wife Melody was scrolling through her newsfeed when she let out a gasp of disbelief and exclaimed, “Robin Williams died?!” My immediate thought was, “That’s fake.” Celebrity death hoaxes are common, after all. On Facebook alone, I’ve learned of the Rock’s death while filming Fast and Furious 7. I’ve read of Sylvester Stallone’s demise in a snowboarding accident. And I’ve heard that Miley Cyrus took her own life. Of course, none of these death stories are true. But I found out very quickly that Robin Williams’ death story was.

As the world began to grieve, the gruesome details began to emerge. The Marin County, California Police Department held a press conference in which they offered up details – perhaps, too many details – on Williams’ demise. Whatever the gory specifics might be, the overarching cause of death is tragically clear. Robin Williams died by suicide.

Suicide.

Just the word makes people shudder. And ponder. And question.

There are two questions that people often ask me whenever an individual – or, in the case of Robin Williams, a culture – is confronted by the harsh realities of suicide. The first is an explicitly Christian question while the second is more generally transcendent.

First, people ask me, “Can a person who commits suicide go to heaven?”

The short answer to this question is, simply, “yes.” From a theological perspective, all of us commit what I call “slow-motion suicide.” Scripture is clear that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Do we know this? Yes. Do we still sin intentionally and willingly? Yes. Thus, we’re killing ourselves with sin. The only difference between what we do to ourselves and what Robin Williams did last Sunday evening is the speed with which he did it. He took his life quickly. We take our lives bit-by-bit, sin-by-sin. If the person who takes his life in an instant can’t be saved, neither can the person who takes his life over decades. News of a suicide, then, is never an opportunity for judgment, but a call to introspection.

I should add that, when Jesus speaks of His forgiveness, He never singles out suicide as some sort of an unforgivable sin. Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them” (Mark 3:28). How many sins does the word “all” include? All of them. Even suicide. Thus, a person who takes his own life can be forgiven by Jesus and saved by Jesus just as well as any other sinner can.  If you want to know more about suicide from a theological perspective, you can check out a blog I wrote a couple of years ago here.

Second, people ask me, “Why?” Why would a person who had so much going for him snuff out his life so recklessly?

The question of “why” has become especially acute in Robin Williams’ case because he left no note. Sadly, where facts are in short supply, gossip and speculation are plenty. I would point out, however, that even when a note is left, the question of “why” is still left unanswered. Even if a person writes of “having nothing left to live for,” or how “people will be better off without me,” those left behind still wonder: “Why didn’t he realize that he had so much to live for?” Or, “Why didn’t he realize what his death would do to us – how it would tear us apart?”

I have come to understand that the question of “why,” when it comes to suicide, has no answer – mainly because the suicidal person himself cannot answer the question. The darkness and confusion that surrounds a person when he takes his own life is so deep that genuine reasoning falters under the crushing weight of depression.

So where does all this leave us? Allow me to offer two parting thoughts.

First, a thought to those contemplating suicide: suicide is a lie of Satan. Satan entices people into suicide by making promises to “free you” or “fix you.” But he wants no such thing for you. He only wants to end you. This is why he seeks to either kill us slowly by enticing us into sin after sin or, if he can, he’ll be delighted to kill us quickly at the bottom of the barrel of a gun or by the brink of a blade. So, if you are contemplating suicide, remember: everything it promises is a lie. Get help from someone who will tell you the truth.

Second, a thought to those who have lost loved ones to suicide: life is the truth of our God. God is the master of snatching life out of the jaws of death. He did it with His Son. And He can do it with those who take their own lives. Indeed, on the Last Day, He will do it with all who trust in Him. Wherever Satan peddles his lies, God crushes them with His truth. And His truth is this: by faith in Christ, your loved one is not beyond hope. Suicidal sinners can be saved too.

I’m looking forward to seeing more than a few of them in heaven.

August 18, 2014 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Serving Others In Jesus’ Name

Credit: CBS News

Credit: CBS News

A state of emergency has been declared in Liberia.  Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria have lost more than 930 people to the virus.  Monrovia has set up a military blockade to keep people from regions known to have high instances of infections from entering the city.[1]  And the World Health Organization is meeting to discuss whether or not to use experimental drugs to try to help those infected by the virus.[2]

All this over a virus called Ebola.

The problem is that there is no known cure for Ebola and, as President Sirleaf of Nigeria noted, “ignorance and poverty, as well as entrenched religious and cultural practices, continue to exacerbate the spread of the disease.”[3]  Indeed, many people infected by the virus, rather than being quarantined at medical facilities to stem Ebola’s spread, remain at home and pass the virus on to their families.

The fear surrounding this outbreak is intense.  When Dr. Kent Brantly, a medical missionary who contracted the disease while treating patients in Liberia, was brought home for treatment here in the States, some questioned the wisdom of bringing a man infected by a dreaded disease into this country.[4]  Others took their criticism farther, like political pundit Ann Coulter, who lambasted Dr. Brantly for going to Africa in the first place:

I wonder how the Ebola doctor feels now that his humanitarian trip has cost a Christian charity much more than any services he rendered.

What was the point?

Whatever good Dr. Kent Brantly did in Liberia has now been overwhelmed by the more than $2 million already paid by the Christian charities Samaritan’s Purse and SIM USA just to fly him and his nurse home in separate Gulfstream jets, specially equipped with medical tents, and to care for them at one of America’s premier hospitals …

Can’t anyone serve Christ in America anymore?[5]

I would point out to Ms. Coulter that there are, in fact, many people and organizations that do indeed serve Christ in America like, well, Samaritan’s Purse.  You can learn more about their local relief efforts here.  I would also point out that Christ’s commission is to make disciples of “all nations” (Matthew 28:19), which, by definition, includes nations other than our own.  Finally, I would point out that the Christian Church has a long and storied history of reaching out to those in dire medical need.  For instance, in the 160s, and again in the 260s, a series of plagues struck the Roman Empire.  These plagues were so devastating that during one smallpox epidemic, a quarter to a third of the population died.  When these plagues swept through, most people – scared of becoming infected – took the sick and threw them into the streets to die.  But Christians, rather than casting the sick out, brought the sick in.  Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria during the second sweep of plagues, writes about how Christians responded to these outbreaks:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.[6]

The Christians in Dionysius’ day, like Dr. Brantly in our day, cared for the sick – many of them dying because of their efforts.  Dr. Brantly’s faithfulness is to be commended, not derided as Ann Coulter has done.

With this being said, all Christians need not travel to Liberia to respond faithfully to this worldwide health crisis.  We can be faithful in our prayers that the spread of Ebola would be stemmed, and we can certainly join in prayer for Dr. Brantly and others like him.  Finally, we can reach out in Christian love to the sick in our own communities, offering them our prayers and support.

When I think of Dr. Brantly’s efforts, I can’t help but believe he will hear some very pleasant words one day:  “I was sick and you looked after Me” (Matthew 25:36).  Let’s make it our goal to hear these words too.

__________________________________

[1]Liberia declares state of emergency over Ebola virus,” BBC News (8.7.2014).

[2] Sydney Lupkin, “World Health Organization to Debate Ethics of Using Experimental Ebola Drug in Outbreak,” ABC News (8.6.2014).

[3]Liberia declares state of emergency over Ebola virus,” BBC News (8.7.2014).

[4]  Joel Achenbach, Brady Dennis, & Caelainn Hogan, “American doctor infected with Ebola returns to U.S.,” The Washington Post (8.2.2014).

[5] Ann Coulter, “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded To ‘Idiotic,’” anncoulter.com (8.6.2014).

[6] Dionysius of Alexandria in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 1997), 82.

August 11, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Limits of Human Freedom

Statue of LibertyWe, in America, like freedom.  We talk about it.  We write about it.  We even sing about it.  Anyone who has ever attended a sporting event where our national anthem was sung has heard in soaring melody how we live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

We, in America, like freedom.  And we will fight, protest, and lobby to protect the freedoms most near and dear to our hearts.  Some fight, protest, and lobby to protect the freedom of religion – to practice their beliefs as they choose.  Others fight, protest, and lobby for the freedom to keep and bear arms.  Still others fight, protest, and lobby for the freedom to marry whoever they want – even if whoever they want is of the same gender.

Perhaps it is our love of freedom that makes the doctrine of predestination so offensive to so many.  Jesus summarizes predestination thusly:  “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16).  The doctrine of predestination, then, is simply this:  it is God, not us, who is in charge of our salvation.  When it comes to our salvation, we are not free!

This is where the hackles of our freedom-loving hearts can get raised.  Indeed, the most common objection that I hear whenever I teach on predestination is, “But what about our free wills?  Doesn’t predestination mean that God turns us into automatons – unable to accept or reject Him?”

I have addressed this question many times and in many ways.  But to address it this time, I would turn your attention the midcentury American sociologist Philip Rieff who, I believe, writes about the limits of our free wills – and the goodness of these limits – in a poignant and powerful way.  Rieff writes:

There is no feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen.  After all, one does not really choose; one is chosen.  This is one way of stating the difference between gods and men.  Gods choose; men are chosen.  What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely that sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take their subsequent choices seriously.[1]

To choose without first being chosen, Rieff explains, is a miserable manner of existence.  After all, if there is no God who loves you enough to choose you, what does your choice of Him – or of anything else, for that matter – matter?  Who would want to choose a God in their limited power who doesn’t care enough to first choose them out of His infinite power?  This is why the apostle Paul speaks of predestination in such glowing terms:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves. (Ephesians 1:3-7)

Paul is thrilled by the doctrine of predestination!  For Paul knows that the only way he is free to make decisions worth making is when believes and sees that he himself is a decision that God thought was worth making in predestination.  Paul’s limited free will is of no consequence if it cannot come under the tender loving care of God’s perfect free will.

So, do you long to be free?  Do you fight, protest, and lobby to protect the freedoms that are near and dear to your heart?  If you do, remember that your freedom of choice is only as good and meaningful as your bondage to Christ.  Without being under Christ’s rule and reign, your freedom is futile.  Under Christ’s rule and reign, however, your freedom is purposeful.  And I don’t know about you, but I want my freedom to mean something.

_______________________

[1] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966), 93.

August 4, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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