Archive for July, 2017

Human Smuggling Comes to San Antonio

San Antonio Walmart Smuggling

Credit: CNN

I first heard about the tractor trailer packed with people in a Wal-Mart parking lot on my city’s south side when a friend sent me a link to a news story as I was preparing for worship a week ago.  As the story unfolded over this past week, the details that have emerged have been grisly.  Up to 200 illegal immigrants may have been crammed into the back of the truck without food, water, or refrigeration as temperatures in south Texas topped 100 degrees.  Ten people died.  Thirty others had to be hospitalized.  Some suffered serious brain damage.  The driver of the truck, James Bradley, told investigators he did not know there were immigrants inside the back of the truck he was driving.  The evidence, however, points to a conclusion that he did.  He has been charged with knowingly transporting illegal immigrants.

Human smuggling is a crime.  What has happened here breaks immigration law and ought to be – and, in fact, is being – treated as a crime. But, of course, there is more to this story than just the legal concerns it raises, for what has happened here is also a terrible assault on human dignity.  People are not commodities to be smuggled, bought, or sold, even if they can be enticed by promises of a better life.  Indeed, one of the people in the back of the truck to San Antonio was from Aguascalientes and paid $5,500 to escape Mexico.  He was willing to pay a steep fee for a long shot at a new life.  And those who transported him were all too willing to take as much money as they could from him, while at the same time recklessly endangering his life.

In the New Testament, Paul writes a letter to a slaveholder named Philemon whose slave, Onesimus, had run away to find asylum with the apostle.  Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”  Paul then adds, “He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, but as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 16).  Paul, by how he assumes Philemon regards Onesimus, seeks to persuade Philemon that Onesimus is not a commodity to be recouped, but a human created by God to be loved and respected.

Philosophically, the Declaration of Independence echoes this view that human beings are to be treated with dignity when its drafters write that “all men are created equal,” and, as a necessary entailment of this, are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The framers of the Declaration insist that no person can be commoditized and stripped of their dignity because every person is created by God and is therefore worthy of respect.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska notes that, although this claim about human dignity is popularly enshrined in an American document, this is a value that should be embraced across humanity.  Senator Sasse explains:

The American idea is that God gives us rights … I think that the distinction we do well to clarify is that the American founding is a truth claim of all 7 billion people on the earth. We believe everyone is created with dignity.

In a tractor trailer that traveled to a Wal-Mart parking lot on the south side of San Antonio, this value was disregarded.  And for that, there must be an accounting.  Human life is just too precious to demand anything less.

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July 31, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

When Not Practicing What You Preach About Sex Is a Good Thing

Holding Hands

It’s no secret that we live in a sexually infatuated society.  In an article for The Federalist, Shane Morris cites research showing that 92 percent of the 174 songs that made it into the Billboard Top 10 during 2009 included references to sex.  What’s more, in another study, researchers found that from the 1960s to the 2000s, songs with sexual subject matter sung by male artists went from 7 percent in the decade known for its “make love, not war” attitude to a whopping 40 percent in the 2000s.   In another compelling factoid, Morris mentions that out of Billboard’s top 50 love songs of all time, only six are from the year 2000 or later.  Why?  Because artists just don’t sing about love like they used to.  Instead, they boast about sex.

And yet…

For all our boasting about sex, it turns out that actual sexual intimacy between real human beings is down.  In a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found that “American adults had sex about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the late 1990s” due primarily to “an increasing number of individuals without a steady or marital partner.”  Even those who are married reported “a decline in sexual frequency among those partners.”  Interestingly enough, these same researchers found that, out of all the recent generations, it was the generation born in the 1930s that enjoyed intimacy most often.

As Christians, we know that part of our culture’s quandary over what we say and what we actually do about sex comes because sex has become largely decoupled from its biblical context – that of marriage.  Our culture’s vaulted sexual revolution has not led to more or better sex.  It’s just led to the enshrinement of sex as an idol.  And anything that is idolized inevitably becomes counted on for too much, which, in turn, makes it deliver less than it could if it was kept in its proper place in the first place.  Thus, it is no surprise that our near-worship of sex has not led to an increase in sex.

There are some hopeful signs that we, as a society, know, even if only intuitively, that we have taken a wrong turn when it comes to sex.  In a post for National Review, Max Bloom notes that for all of the avant-garde attitudes Millennials might have about sex, in their actual intimate lives, they are trending toward the traditional:

Millennials are more than twice as likely to have had no sexual partners in their early 20s than those born in the 1960s. In general, Millennials have about as many sexual partners as Baby Boomers and considerably less than Generation X-ers – those born in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

It turns out that, when it comes to sexual partners and practices, what is old is new again.  There is still plenty of room for monogamy and abstinence.  Bloom notes that Millennials are trending traditional in other ways, too: “They are less likely to drink, smoke marijuana, or use cocaine than previous generations.”  But for all their traditional habits, one non-traditional trend continues:  Millennials continue to increasingly drift from traditional religious practices such as worship and prayer.

So, what does all this tell us?  First, it tells us that even as our culture drifts from any understanding of or appreciation for Christian orthodoxy, natural law, à la Romans 2:14-15, seems to still hold some sway over our concrete propriety.  Second, our trending sexual traditionalism also tells us that our God really does have, even for a society that can be as misguided as ours can be, what the Calvinists call “common grace.”  Regardless of whether or not our culture believes in traditional sexual mores, the very fact that so many of us live by a more traditional code of ethics that protects us from the pain, fear, and heartbreak that sexual egalitarianism inevitably brings is a testament to God’s broad, gracious protection of society.  To those who have walked down the road of sexual anarchy and have had their hearts and bodies broken in the process, Christians must be prepared to offer love, understanding, guidance, and grace.

Hopefully, the materializing rupture between what we as a culture believe and what we as a culture do when it comes to sex will lead us to try to reconcile our curious pockets of orthopraxy with a much-needed orthodoxy.  Our culture will be better for it.  And who knows?  We might just be able to stop boasting about sex in songs because we’ll actually be enjoying more love in life.

July 24, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Saving Marriage from the Heartbreak Hotel

Wedding Chapel

Credit: Viator.com

It seems as though declining marriage rates are not just changing our society sociologically, but are stressing the wedding capital of the world, Las Vegas, economically.  In an article for Bloomberg, Jeanna Smialek explains how:

Roland August has officiated at thousands of weddings in Las Vegas, the self-proclaimed capital of “I do.”

But these days August – who often presides dressed as Elvis Presley – has a rare vantage point from which to observe the nation’s long shift toward “I don’t.” …

The wedding chapels where August works have seen business dwindle, he said, and Vegas is pushing to reverse the decline in an industry that generates as much as $3 billion in economic activity annually. In 2015 the surrounding county introduced a $14 surcharge on marriage licenses to pay for marketing, and local business leaders helped start a Wedding Chamber of Commerce last year.

A drop in weddings, it seems, amounts to a drop in revenue for a city that is known as being flush with cash.  Of course, this is all part of a broader nationwide trend.  The Pew Research Center reports that, whereas 72% of adults 18 years of age or older were married in 1960, now, only 50% are.  But, if the graph published by Bloomberg is any indication, the nationwide decline in marriage has hit Nevada especially hard.

Marriage Decline

In one way, none of this is particularly surprising.  For all the fun and levity, which are not bad things in and of themselves, that I’m sure Mr. August brings to the weddings he performs, vows taken without things like spiritual guidance from a pastor or other religious mentor, serious prior consideration of all the things marriage entails, a commitment to make marriage alone the sacred space for sex, and, often, even a baseline of sobriety do little more than to cheapen and make a mockery out of the whole institution.  And when something becomes cheap, it inevitably becomes expendable.  After all, if Britney Spears can drunkenly marry her childhood friend in Las Vegas and then have their marriage annulled 55 hours later, one has to wonder:  why bother with marriage in the first place?

They key to reversing the decline in marriage and the denigration of marriage is not to try to repristinate the marriage-saturated days of 1960, hoping that, somehow, marriage rates will soar again if we just yell enough at the cultural forces that have damaged the institution.  No, the key to a deeper appreciation of and desire for marriage is to consider what marriage is really meant to reflect.  So here are three things that we can say, as Christians, marriage reflects.

Marriage reflects community in Christ.

One of the great mysteries of Christian teaching is that of the Trinity – that God is one, yet, at the same time, He is also three persons:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus, God is in community, in some sense, with Himself.  For centuries, professional theologians and Sunday School teachers alike have tried to explain this mystery in a way that is comprehensible.  My Sunday School teacher, for instance, mused that the Trinity is like an apple.  There is the peel, the flesh, and the core.  These are three parts, and yet they are all part of one apple.  The problem with this illustration, however, is that God is indivisible.  He cannot be divided like an apple.  He is not made up of three parts, but actually is three persons.

Thankfully, the Bible presents us with its own object lesson to help us understand the Trinity.  What is this object lesson?  Marriage.  When marriage is given by God, He explains that it is meant to be when “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).  In marriage, there are two persons, and yet they are one flesh, even as in God, there are three persons, yet He is one God.  Moreover, throughout this life, a husband and wife ought to be indivisible, as is God.  This is why Jesus says divorce is so damaging – not only because it hurts the people involved, but because it tarnishes the very reflection of God!  Thus, community in marriage, even if it is broken by sin, is meant to reflect the perfect community of the Trinity.

Marriage reflects the sacrifice of Christ.

As anyone who has been married for any amount of time will tell you, marriage requires sacrifice.  It requires laying down your own wants, needs, and desires for the sake of another.  The apostle Paul eloquently explains the sacrificial nature of marriage when he writes:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

Paul notes that the sacrifice a husband makes for his wife ought to reflect the sacrifice that Christ made for His church, even if that sacrifice includes laying down his very life, as it did for Christ.  Thus, at the same time marriage gives a community that reflects the Trinity, it also eats away at our proclivity toward selfishness.  Marriage is fundamentally centered not on yourself, but on your spouse, even as God is fundamentally centered on us and on our salvation.

Marriage reflects eternity with Christ.

The best marriage is not the one you celebrate once a year on your anniversary.  The best marriage is the one that is still to come:

I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready.” (Revelation 19:1, 6-7)

When the apostle John gets a window into eternity, he sees that every wedding on earth between a husband and wife is ultimately meant to reflect a perfect wedding in heaven between Christ and His people.  Marriage in this age, then, however wonderful it can be, is not an end in and of itself.  It is a sign pointing to something even greater.  This is why Jesus, when He is questioned by the religious leaders about marriage in eternity, says, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30).  Marriage between people till death do them part is meant to point to perfect communion with God where death no longer reigns.  Marriage, then, at the same time it fills a longing, should also create a longing.  It should create a longing for a deeper community that not even your spouse can meet.  It should create a longing for a deeper community that only Christ can fill in His wedding feast.

This is what marriage is meant to reflect.  It cannot be reduced, then, to a Vegas jag, or, for that matter, a well-planned out and exorbitantly expensive ceremony and reception.  These things are not necessarily bad on their own terms, but if they become the things of marriage, they reduce marriage to something that is entertaining, cheap, and contrived.  But marriage cannot stand if it is this.  Marriage must stand as a gift from God that gives you community, costs you your very self, and points you to the One who gave Himself for you so that, on the Last Day, He can walk you down His eternal aisle.

No neon or Elvis costumes needed.

July 17, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Charlie Gard and the Tenacity of Hope

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 5.49.30 PM

Credit:  Independent

There is a hardly a more compelling example of the ravages of disease warring against the hope for life than that of Charlie Gard.  Charlie is almost a year old now, born last August in the U.K.  Shortly after his birth, it was discovered that he had a rare genetic condition known as mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, which affects vital internal organs such as, as in Charlie’s case, the kidneys and brain.  At present, Charlie is being kept alive by a ventilator, but the hospital at which Charlie is staying asked a judge back in March to rule that life support should be discontinued, which the judge ruled in support of in April.  Charlie’s parents appealed the ruling, but did not get it overturned.  Both President Trump and Pope Francis have signaled their support for Charlie, with the pope even offering Charlie a spot at the Vatican pediatric hospital for continuing treatment.  Charlie’s parents have asked to have their son transferred to the U.S. for an experimental treatment, which has had some limited success, but the U.K. hospital has refused to do so, citing legal hurdles.

The issues in this dispute are legion.  Should a judge have the ability to trump parents’ wishes with regard to their own child, provided that the parents are seeking the genuine welfare and, in this case, the continued life, of their son?  Are Charlie’s parents seeking the correct course of action, considering their son is not able to live, at least at this point, apart from extraordinary and continuous medical intervention?  And what are the hopes for some sort of improvement or change in Charlie’s condition if he is moved elsewhere to receive treatment?

It is the last of these questions that is most captivating to me because it is the question that sits in the background of the first two questions.  The U.K. believes there is no real hope for Charlie’s recovery.  Charlie’s parents believe there is enough hope for, at minimum, some sort of improvement that they want to continue his life support and investigate an experimental treatment.  This battle royal, then, boils down to hope.

Over the course of my ministry, I have known more than one person who was terminally ill and, when presented with an option for an experimental treatment, declined and instead chose to go into hospice because they did not see any real hope for healing, even with the treatment.  This does not mean, however, that these people did not have any hope.  Their hope was simply located in a different place – not in a treatment, but in a Lord who can call even the dead to life.  Whether it is a temporary stay on death by means of a medical treatment, or an eternal resurrection on the Last Day by means of a trumpet call and a returning Christ, hope for life, it seems, will not be squelched.

Theologically, the irrepressibility of hope for life makes sense because, in the beginning, death was not part of God’s plan.  Contrary to Yoda, death is not a natural part of life – and we know it, even if only intuitively.  Death, Scripture says, is an enemy to be defeated.  And though Charlie’s parents cannot conquer death like Christ, they do seem voraciously intent on confronting death through the very best that medicine has to offer their son.

It does unsettle me that a judge would arrogate to himself the prerogative of telling two parents whether or not their son can receive a potentially life-saving treatment.  I will confess that, according to the information at hand, the hospital is probably correct in its estimation of Charlie’s recovery prospects.  But hope has a funny way of looking beyond the information at hand to divine intervention.  And that is a hope that is worth holding on to.  Indeed, as Christians, we know that is the hope Jesus died to give and rose to secure.  I hope the hospital and the British legal system can respect that hope.

July 10, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Pointing Fingers

Pointing Face Boy Portrait Finger Hand Man

At the end of his epistles, the apostle Paul often includes a section of personal greetings to people in the congregation to whom he is writing.  At the end of Romans, for instance, Paul includes a lengthy list of greetings:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.  Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them.  (Romans 16:1-15)

I would guess that, as you began to read through the list of names above, your eyes quickly skipped to the end of the paragraph.  After all, a list of names isn’t exactly riveting reading.  But take a moment to go back and note how Paul describes the people on his list.  He describes Phoebe as a faithful supporter of his ministry.  He lauds Priscilla and Aquila as ones who risked their lives for him.  He calls Andronicus and Junia “outstanding.”  He celebrates Persis his as “dear friend.” He fawns over Rufus’ mother as his surrogate mother.  Paul, it turns out, has a lot of good things to point to in lot of good people.

In both the church and in broader culture, we seem to be much more comfortable pointing at people in order to criticize them rather than pointing to people in order to celebrate them.  I am part of a church body that, sadly, can spend so much time pointing at people with whom we have theological disagreements that we can fail to point to people with whom we share a common faith, even if our confession of that faith differs at certain points.  In broader culture, one needs to look no further than our nation’s capital to see a whole political system that trafficks in pointing fingers at other people.  Republicans point at Democrats.  Democrats point at Republicans.  Sometimes, it seems as though the only ones people actually point to in Washington are themselves.

As Christians, we must never be scared to point at something that is wrong.  Wrongness, after all, needs to be corrected so it can give way to righteousness.  But let us never become so proficient in pointing at what is wrong that we forget to point to all that is good.  People in differing ecclesiastical factions still have plenty of good things to point to among each other.  People in opposing political parties still have plenty of good things to point to on the other side of the aisle.

Perhaps it is time for us, like Paul, to make a list of good things and people to point to.  Pointing at people can quickly dissolve into arrogance as we pontificate on how someone else is wrong.  But pointing to people can keep us humble and give someone else a much-needed boost of confidence as we put the spotlight on what they are doing right.  Not only that, but pointing to others is supremely godly, for it mirrors the character of Jesus, who relentlessly pointed not to Himself, but to His Father.

So, who can you point to this week?  Who can you give a glowing review to?  Who can you celebrate on Facebook?  Who can you, even if you disagree with them on some things, rejoice in as a fellow-traveler in Christ?

Now is the time to begin a list of people to point to.  You just might be surprised at how quickly that list becomes really, really long.

July 3, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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