Archive for May, 2017

Terror in Manchester

Manchester Town Hall

Terror struck again, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.  What began as a night of fun for fans of the pop music diva ended with 22 dead, many of them children, and 59 others wounded when a suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of the concert arena.  ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by 22-year-old Salman Abedi who seems to have become radicalized after travelling to Syria.

Once again, the world is left struggling with what can only be described as a senseless and ghastly act of violence.  As I have after other similar attacks, I want to offer a few thoughts on how to process yet another week marred by a terrorist’s malice.  Here are three things to consider.

Sin is real.

In general, we want to believe that people are good.  Sure, there may an occasional evil outlier, but, overall, we like to assume that people are hardwired for goodness.  The steady stream of terrorist attacks, however, indicates differently.  Indeed, the tragedy in Manchester was the most widely reported terrorist attack of last week, but three additional attacks were also launched this past week – one in Egypt, another in the Philippines, and yet another in Indonesia.  Heinous acts of evil are rampant.  Sin is all too real.

It is true that the vast majority of people, thankfully, will never be party to a terrorist plot.  Every one of us, however, will struggle with some kind of sin.  Whether it be the sin of deception, or lust, or pride, or anger, none of us can escape the sirens of our sinister sides.  Because we live in a broken world, we have to live with the sad fact that the sin of terrorism will continue to be “out there.”  But because we ourselves are broken people, we also have to live with the sad fact that we will continue to struggle with sin in us.  The apostle Paul is right when he writes, “For all have sinned” (Romans 3:23).  Sin is real and is everywhere.

Righteousness is real.

We may struggle against sin, but we also yearn for righteousness.  We recoil in disgust against terrorism precisely because we know it’s wicked and we yearn for what is right.  But how do we know what is right and that terrorism is wrong?  Paul explains that, even if we do not know God, we know what is right and wrong because God has written righteousness on our hearts: “When [people], who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15).  This is why, in the face of evil, we appeal to and press toward righteousness.

Justice is coming.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”  At a time when racism was rampant, Dr. King believed justice would ultimately triumph.  And although racism still spreads its ugly tentacles through our society, justice has been slowly but surely bludgeoning the evil of racism over the 54 years since Dr. King’s speech.  What is true of racism is also true of ISIS and other organizations like it.  The evil of ISIS is simply no match for the justice of God.  ISIS may delight in the death of the innocent, but a day will come when “there will be no more death” (Revelation 21:4), for “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54) through Christ.  Indeed, Christ has already defeated death by His resurrection.  And because of Christ’s resurrection, those who lose their lives in Him do not lose their lives forever.  Death, for them, is but a pause in the drumbeat of life.  Their resurrections are soon to come when Jesus comes.

So after a week when a terrorist did his worst, we can take comfort in the biblical promise of everlasting life.  To quote the poet and pastor John Donne:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

May 29, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Trump, Lavrov, Comey, and Flynn

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What a week it’s been at the White House.  Last week brought what felt like a one-two punch of political crises.  First, The Washington Post reported this past Monday that President Trump, in an Oval Office meeting, shared highly classified information concerning terrorist activity with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  Because the information the president shared was first shared with us by one of our allies, the potential exists, according to some experts, to compromise our intelligence sharing relationships with these allies.  Then, the very next day, The New York Times published a story claiming that President Trump had asked the now former FBI director, James Comey, to end his investigation into the president’s fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn.  As soon as the story broke, many began to raise questions about whether or not the president potentially obstructed justice.  The president has since denied The New York Times’ report.

As politicians and pundits debate the consequences, the legality, and the constitutionality of the president’s alleged actions and their implications for our country, and as our political discourse continues down a path that seems to be increasingly marked by fear, distrust, and anger, here are a few reminders for us, as Christians, to help us navigate these heady times.

Pray for the president and for all our leaders.

Whether you love him, hate him, or are on the fence about him, President Trump needs our prayers.  Scripture commands us to pray for him along with all those who serve in our nation’s government: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).  This means Republicans should be praying for Democrats and Democrats should be praying for Republicans.  Political leadership is not only geopolitically treacherous because of the power it wields, it is spiritually perilous because of the prideful temptations it brings.  Politicians need our prayers.

Love the truth more than you love your positions.

In February, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”  In it, she cites a Stanford study in which researchers rounded up two groups of students:  one group that believed capital punishment deterred crime and another group that believed capital punishment did not deter crime.  Both groups of students were then given two studies, one of which presented data that showed capital punishment did deter crime and the other of which presented data that showed capital punishment had no effect on crime.  Interestingly, both of these studies were completely fabricated so the researchers could present, objectively speaking, equally compelling cases.  So what happened?  The students who were pro-capital punishment applauded the study that bolstered their position while dismissing the study that called it into question.  Likewise, the students who were anti-capital punishment applauded the study that agreed with their position while dismissing the other study.  These two groups were so entrenched in their positions that they dismissed, out of hand, any information that called their positions into question, even if that information was presented as factual.  In other words, they loved their positions more than they loved the truth.

Politics seems to be custom-made for the kind of thinking that is more interested in holding positions than in seeking truth.  I have seen several social media posts where people boast openly that they no longer watch this or that news channel.  Instead, they receive their news only from outlets that are sympathetic to their positions.  As Christians, we should humbly recognize that there is truth in all sorts of sources – even in sources that disagree with and call into question our political positions.

The nature of truth is that some of it will always make us uncomfortable.  Sin, at its root, is based on lies, which means that some lies will inevitably appeal to us more than some truth, for all of us are sinners.  Indeed, if some truth never makes us uncomfortable, then we are probably missing the truth!

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska offered a great bit of moral clarity on the subject of truth in political discourse when he said recently on a morning news show:

Both of these parties, going back a couple of decades now, regularly act like your main duty is to – if here’s the truth, and you think the other side’s going to say this – you think you’re supposed to say this to try to counterbalance it.  I think that’s a bunch of hooey … You’re supposed to say what you think is true and try to persuade people to come alongside with you.  You’re not trying to counterbalance one falsehood with another.

This is exactly right.  You don’t fight one political tall tale with a tall tale of your own.  Truth trumps political posturing.  In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, we are to “deal honestly and seek the truth” (Jeremiah 5:1).  We are not to blindly and sycophantically defend the positions of our favorite politicians.

Trust in the Lord; not in an earthly leader.

In politics, crises will always abound.  Politicians, after all, are fallen human beings who are prone to making the same mistakes we are and can, at times, even intentionally and malevolently sin.  This is why we cannot trust in them for deliverance from our plights and blights.  Only the Lord can deliver us from these things.

Perhaps the thing that disturbs me the most about our current political environment is not what our politicians do, but what so many of us believe our politicians can do.  So many of us seem tempted to fashion our politicians not as public servants, but as civil saviors. Sometimes, we can be tempted to believe our politicians can usher in a humanly wrought utopia (think of some of the hopes that rested on the chant, “Yes, we can!”) while at other times, we can be tempted to believe our politicians can repristinate a bygone America full of wistful nostalgia (think of some of the discourse that surrounded the slogan, “Make America great again!”).  As Christians, our hope lies not in utopia or in nostalgia, but in Parousia – the day when Christ will return and sin and death will be conquered by Him once and for all.  That is our hope.  He is our hope.  So let’s devote ourselves to proclaiming Christ, Him crucified, Him resurrected, and Him coming again.

May 22, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

No-Win Situations

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George Jones once sang a song called “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win.”  I imagine Jesus felt much the same way when He uttered one of the tersest parables of His ministry:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.” For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  (Luke 7:31-34)

It seems no matter what message the kingdom of God was offering, the people of Jesus’ day were determined to reject it.  When John came preaching a message of somber repentance from sins, the people thought him to be mad.  When Jesus came and welcomed sinners and preached to them the gospel of grace, the people thought Him to be licentious.  Sometimes, you just can’t win.

A while back, my son Hayden was a little under the weather.  He was also teething.  So when I held him, he cried  And when I put him down, he cried.  When I sat down with him, he cried.  And when I stood up with him, he cried.  At that time, I just couldn’t win.

I have been a pastor long enough to watch quite a few people put themselves in what I call “no-win situations.”  Sometimes it’s a financial no-win situation.  “There is no way I have enough money to live on!” a person will say.  Sometimes it’s a relational no-win situation.  “There is no way I can ever forgive this person for what they have done to me!” another person will say.  And when I suggest some ways that someone can, in fact, navigate toward a winning solution, I will hear a whole litany of why there is no way to fix the problem.  Sometimes, a person just won’t let himself win.

When Jesus invites us to Himself, He invites out of the no-win situations of our sin and into the comforts, promises, and delights of His grace.  Like John the Baptist came before Jesus, there is an element of repentance that comes before forgiveness – sorrow that comes before joy.  But whether it is in dirge or in dance, we are invited out of our sin and into Christ’s arms.  The question is:  will we be like the people of Jesus’ generation, refusing both to participate in repentance and to receive God’s forgiveness?

The apostle Paul writes that his desire is to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  Paul has a desire to win what matters most.  But he also knows that his win will come not by his effort, but by his loss:

Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  (Philippians 3:7-9)

Paul’s win is the righteousness of Christ that leads to everlasting life.  This is the win to which Jesus invited the people of His day in Luke 7.  And this is still the win to which Jesus invites us.  And there’s no win that’s better than this win.

May 15, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Search for Meaning

Meaning of Life

In his 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl candidly and insightfully reflects on his time as a concentration camp prisoner in Auschwitz and how he struggled to find bright spots of meaning what felt like a deeply dark vacant evil.  In one particularly moving passage, Frankl describes how he found meaning by thinking about his wife as he was forced into hard and humiliating work:

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp.  The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles.  Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm.  Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk.  Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now!  I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife.  Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.[1]

As Frankl thought about the woman he loves, he found meaning for life in that love.  He writes, “Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”

The human desire for meaning, it seems, is a desire that is nearly impossible to extinguish, even when it is confronted with the horrors of a concentration camp.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, everyone lives for something.  Some people live for riches.  Others live for fame.  Still others live for pleasure.  Some wiser and more mature souls find meaning in, if you will excuse the somewhat circular logic, more meaningful things.  For example, I was talking to a single mom some time ago who lives for her kids. She works long hours and she has gone back to school so she can better provide for her two daughters.  She finds her meaning in motherhood.

What is particularly fascinating to me about this mother’s search for meaning is that she is, by her own admission, not a Christian.  “Religion,” she admits, “is just not my thing.”

I have known this mom for quite a while and, on the one hand, I am proud of how far she’s come.  There was a time, not too long ago, when she reveled in a shallow hedonism – drinking, carousing, and doing drugs.  All that has ended.  She has fled those demons.  On the other hand, however, I can’t help but notice that, as admirable as her investment into motherhood is, she has only kicked her search for ultimate meaning down the curb a bit.  Here’s what I mean.

If my friend finds her meaning for life in being a mother, what happens if her kids rebel against her and ultimately reject her?  Will she lose her source of meaning because they have pulled away from her?  Or, what happens if she falls back into her old habits of substance abuse and fast living?  Will she lose her source of meaning because she will not have been the mother she could have been?  Or, less dramatically, what happens when her kids grow up and move away?  When she no longer has little children to nurture, what will provide her with meaning and purpose?

It is in light of questions like these that Christianity’s answer to man’s search for meaning becomes critical.  For Christianity asserts that man can only find ultimate meaning in God and in the hope of an eternity with Him.  To use the formulation in the opening salvo of the Westminster Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”  This is where man finds his ultimate meaning.

The problem with finding ultimate meaning in anything other than God is that no other source of meaning lasts.  Every other source of meaning only kicks the search for meaning down the curb, for every other source of meaning eventually fades and expires, which compels another search for another source of meaning.  Only God ends such searches permanently.

It is not until my friend finds her ultimate meaning in Christ that her search for meaning will find its final answer.  There are greater sources of meaning and lesser sources of meaning to be sure.  But there is only one eternal source of meaning.  I pray that she, along with others like her, discovers this eternal source.  For when she does, she will find that this eternal source leads to eternal life.

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[1] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006), 36-37.

May 8, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Secularism’s Struggle

Church

Last month, a group of social scientists from the United States, Malaysia, Finland, and Denmark published an article in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science titled, “The Future of Secularism.”  In it, the researchers noted that even though social scientists have generally assumed that secularization would increase as scientific inquiry and discovery continued to mature, thereby sidelining the need for religious beliefs to explain the machinations of the cosmos, secularization has not burgeoned the way these scientists had predicted.  Instead, internationally at least, religiosity is actually on the rise.  This article put forth some theories as to why this is the case.  First, because religious people tend to have more children than non-religious people, religious parents have more opportunity to pass along their beliefs and values to their children than do non-religious people.  Second, these researchers see a correlation between secularization and smarts.  The smarter one is, the more secular he tends to be, these researchers say.  And since there has been an overall decline in people’s IQs, these researchers suggest that such declines have led to increases in religiosity.

Obviously, there is much that could and should be said about a study such as this.  For starters, the story these researchers tell about how secular societies arise is hotly disputed.  These researchers assume what has been called by philosopher Charles Taylor a “subtraction story.”  A subtraction theory of secularization asserts that as science is able to explain more and more, less and less space becomes available for the explanations of religion.  Taylor rejects this theory and instead sees that, in more religious societies, people’s concerns are centered not just on imminent things that science can observe, but on transcendent things that are beyond the purview of science as a discipline.  In other words, people in religious societies are not simply asking questions that, one by one, have been answered by science so religion is no longer needed; instead, they are asking questions that are fundamentally beyond the realm of science – questions of meaning and purpose and morality and perfection.  Hence, religion occupies a primary place in some people’s imaginations because of the questions they are asking.

It should also be noted that though these researchers’ glib assertion that as intelligence decreases, religiosity increases may be the finding of some isolated social science studies, it is certainly not born out by the overall the arc of history.  The contributions of Christianity to architecture, literature, and even science are innumerable.  So much of what we know now was driven by Christian intellectuals.  Indeed, a quick look at the histories of our nation’s auspicious ivy league universities demonstrate that we owe a great debt to Christianity intellectually.

For all that is questionable about this article, certain aspects of this study are not surprising.  For instance, it is not surprising that religious parents tend to raise religious children.  This is what they should be doing.  In fact, this is part of what is commanded by Scripture:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

Faith formation begins at home, Deuteronomy says.

It is also not surprising that the reports of religion’s impending death always seem to turn out to be premature.  There appears to be a religious impulse in humanity that just won’t quit.  The apostle Paul notes that this religious impulse finds its root in the religious reality of the creation of God:

Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.  (Romans 1:20)

In their study, the social scientists acknowledge that even some fellow researchers have suggested “that human needs for a spiritual life are actually strong evidence for the reality of a supernatural realm.”

Beyond a family’s religious heritage and humanity’s general religious impulse, it should also be noted that, from its inception, Christianity specifically has been an evangelical faith.  To know of good news and not to share it, in the Christian conception of things, is cruel to people in need of a Savior.  So share we do.  And, every once in while, through the Spirit’s ministry and by the power of God’s Word , when we share Christ, a person is converted to Christ and religiosity increases.

All of this is to say that the belligerent endurance of religion is due to much more than higher birth rates and lower IQs.  Indeed, religion endures not just because it stands athwart secularism yelling, “Stop!”  It endures because it looks at all that is around us and processes the human experience and says, “There’s something more.”

Religion is the search for that “something more.”  And, I believe, Christianity reveals the One who is more.

May 1, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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