Archive for August, 2017

God’s Presence in the Storm

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I took the above picture two years ago when I was out for one of my early morning walks, cup of coffee in hand, along the beach of Port Aransas.  Each summer, my family and I vacation in this charming Gulf town.  The pictures I have seen of Port Aransas after Hurricane Harvey, along with its surrounding communities of Rockport, Aransas Pass, Port O’ Connor, Refugio, and, of course, Corpus Christi, are devastating.  Homes have been flattened.  Businesses have been destroyed.  And now, our nation’s fourth most populous city is feeling Harvey’s wrath.  Houston has been deluged by than 20 inches of rainfall.  Forecasters predict that, by the time this is all said and done, some spots in Houston may receive in excess of 50 inches of rain.

None of this is easy to watch.  I have called Texas home for 21 years and have many friends who live in the affected communities.  To see places I know that are home to people I love be destroyed by nature’s worst is heartbreaking.

As Christians, we are never called to be idle in the face of devastation and distress.  Here are a few things to consider – and to do – as this tragedy continues to unfold.

Pray

One of the many wonderful things about prayer is that it operates both as a support from God and an encouragement to others.  When we cry out to God in prayer, He does hear and He does care.  But prayer is important not only because of the connection it affords us with God, but because of the reassurance it can give to others.  Not only praying for people, but letting people know that you’re praying for them is important in a situation like this.  Pick up the phone.  Send a text message.  Pray for those in the Coastal Bend and Houston and then tell them you are.  A note from you about your prayers for them could be just the boon their souls need in this troubled time.

Give

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine went through a disaster relief class being held by the Red Cross.  He said so many people are volunteering to help victims of Harvey that the Red Cross is overwhelmed.  What a great problem to have!  Of course, just because lots of people are volunteering doesn’t mean there’s not lots of work still to be done and lots of resources still to be provided.  You may want to consider giving to a reputable organization like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or the Disaster Relief Fund of the Texas District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

Trust

In Adult Bible Class this morning at the church where I work, we were studying the story of Joseph.  When Joseph is sold into slavery to the Egyptians, there is this interesting line: “The LORD was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2).  If Joseph looked only at his circumstances, it would have seemed not that the Lord was with him, but instead that the Lord had forsaken him.  But we must never confuse the sweetness of our circumstances with the reality of God’s presence.  The cross of Christ reveals that God’s presence is not ultimately indicated by the comforts in our lives, but by the compassion of His Son, who endured the worst of human suffering to see us through all of human suffering.  Christ is there with the people of the Coastal Bend.  And He is there with the people of Houston.  The same Savior who was with His disciples in a storm on the Sea of Galilee and who was with the children of Israel as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea is with the Texans who are being pummeled by this storm and trying to get through some very deep waters of some very big flooding.  Harvey may be catastrophic, but this storm is no match for our Savior.  He will see us through.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” (Isaiah 43:2)

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August 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

Killing Racism: When Self-Preservation Meets Self-Sacrifice

Charlottesville Violence

Credit:  Getty Images

When James Alex Fields killed one person and injured nineteen others by purposely plowing his Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters at an event called “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia, which itself was protesting a decision by the city to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, racial animosity once again bubbled to the top of our national headlines and discussion.

President Trump, in the least controversial of his three statements on this tragedy, declared:

Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

As Christians, we can agree that “racism is evil.”  But it is evil not just because, as the president noted, it is an affront to the dignity that is inherently ours by virtue of the fact that we are created by Almighty God; it is evil also because it is fundamentally antithetical to the Christian gospel.   One of the hallmarks of the gospel of Christ is its power to reconcile us not only to God in spite of our sin, but with each other in spite of our differences.  The apostle Paul explains:

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles…were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household. (Ephesians 2:11-14, 19)

Paul here identifies two groups of people – Jews and Gentiles – and says that, in Christ, the things that once separated them have now been destroyed.  The faith they share trumps any racial and cultural differences they might have.

This theme of different groups being brought together in Christ is not unique to Paul.  This is the centerpiece of the day of Pentecost where “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) all hear the gospel declared to them in their own languages.  This is also the centerpiece of eternity itself, as people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9) come together in worship of the Lamb of God.  It turns out that it is awfully hard to have a Christian view of and hope for heaven while espousing racism, for, in eternity, all people of all races will be glorified as precious and redeemed in God’s sight.  Heaven has no room for racial divisions.

With all this being said, we must now ask ourselves:  how do we fight the racism that continues to plague our society?  Perhaps the best way to fight it is to strike at its root.  And although there is no singular root, I agree with Ben Shapiro when he argues that identity politics is one of the primary causes of many of our modern-day manifestations of racism.  Although identity politics is classically associated with the political left, Shapiro notes that groups like “Unite the Right” engage in “a reactionary, racist, identity-politics…dedicated to the proposition that white people are innate victims of the social-justice class and therefore must regain political power through race-group solidarity.”  In other words, it is the drive for self-preservation that fuels much of the racism we see today.

In order to confront our modern-day manifestations of racism, we must take our tendency toward self-preservation and exchange it for something else – something better – like the beauty of self-sacrifice.  Thankfully, the call to self-sacrifice is one that Christianity is perfectly poised to make, for we follow a Savior who sacrificed Himself for our salvation and who reminds His disciples that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Mark 8:35).  Jesus calls us to lives of self-sacrifice.

What does self-sacrifice look like practically?  The Declaration of Independence famously claims that “all men are created equal.”  But in order to truly adopt this claim as our own, we must clarify what is meant by “all men.”  In many people’s experience, “all men” includes two groups: “us men,” meaning those who are like us and share our background and beliefs, and “those men,” meaning those are unlike us and conflict with our background and beliefs.  Human nature tends to prioritize “us men” over “those men.”  In other words, even if we believe, in principle, that “all men are created equal,” we tend to concern ourselves with those who are like us – “us men” – before we stop to consider the needs of those who are unlike us – “those men.”  Christianity calls us to flip this order and first consider “those men” before we attend to the concerns of “us men.”  The apostle Paul makes this point when he writes, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  This, it should be noted, is precisely how Christ lived.  For Him, every man belonged to the category of “those men,” for He alone stood as the God-man.  No one was like Him.  And yet, rather than preserving Himself, He sacrificed Himself for us.  Christ is the very essence of self-sacrifice.

Last week, I came across an article written several years ago by Bradley Birzer, a professor of history who holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College.  In his article, Professor Birzer tells the story of a priest named Maximilian Kolbe.  The story is so poignant and compelling that it is worth quoting at length:

St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest, had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, as had been vast number of his fellow men, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans. The Nazis seemed to avoid discrimination when it came to state sanctioned murder.

On the last day of July 1941, a prisoner had attempted to escape the terror camp. As punishment, the commandant called out ten random names – the names of those to be executed in retribution for the one man trying to escape. One of the names called had belonged (or, rather, had been forced upon) a husband and father. As the man pleaded his case, Father Kolbe came forward and offered his life for the one pleading. The commandant, probably rather shocked, agreed, and Kolbe, with nine others, stripped naked, entered the three-foot high concrete bunker. Deprived of food, water, light, and toilets, the men survived – unbelievably – for two weeks. Madness and cannibalism never overcame them, as the Nazis had hoped. Instead, through Kolbe’s witness as priest and preacher and as an incarnate soul made in the image of Christ, grace pervaded the room. When the commandant had the room searched two weeks later, only to find the men and Father Kolbe alive, he furiously ordered them all to be injected with carbolic acid.

The man who removed Kolbe’s body offered a wondrous testimony under oath. Kolbe, he said, had been in a state of definite ecstasy, his eyes focused on something far beyond the bunker, his arm outstretched, ready to accept the death of the chemicals to be injected in him.

Father Kolbe lived a life of self-sacrifice, even when a life of self-sacrifice meant offering himself unto death.  As he awaited his fate, he preached the gospel, which burnished in his bunker-mates love for each other instead of competition against each other over the meager resources of the Nazis’ concentration camp.  And because of Father Kolbe’s willingness to sacrifice himself, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans were able to stand together.

Do you want to confront racism?  Just live like that.  It is difficult to be racist when you put others before yourself, because instead of being suspicious of others, you learn to love others.  And love and racism simply cannot coexist.  In fact, love, when it is embodied in self-sacrifice, not only confronts racism, it kills it.  And it’s much better to kill an evil like racism than to kill a person like in Charlottesville.

August 21, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Kim Jong Un, Power, Politics, and Christ

north-korea-military-parade

Credit: Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Last week, when The Washington Post reported that North Korea had successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads that can fit inside the long-range missiles it has been so publicly and ostentatiously testing, the world snapped to attention.  The U.N. Security Council had already voted unanimously the previous weekend to impose new economic sanctions on Pyongyang in response of North Korea’s launch of two intercontinental missiles.  National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that continued provocation from North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is “intolerable, from the president’s perspective” and warned that the president is leaving “all options…and that includes the military option” on the table.  President Trump himself declared that any further threats from the Kim regime would be met with “fire and fury.”  Kim Jong Un responded to the president’s warning by threatening an attack against the U.S. territory of Guam.  Tensions have crested dangerously.

As the world grapples with a dangerous and potentially deadly conflict, how do we, as Christians, process this battle of words between the United States and North Korea that could quickly degenerate into a battle of bombs?  Here are a few thoughts.

Pray for a peaceful solution.

Jim Geraghty of National Review outlined three ways the U.S. can potentially respond to North Korea’s latest threats:

A) Learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can strike the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles; B) a conventional war sooner to eliminate the threat, that will involve massive casualties on the Korean peninsula and possibly elsewhere; or C) a nuclear exchange with North Korea sometime in the future.

While U.S. officials weigh what Geraghty admittedly calls “three bad options,” Christians should be praying for an option beyond these options:  peace.   I have never been ashamed or afraid to pray what appear to be quixotic prayers.  When someone is terminally ill, I still pray for healing – along with praying for comfort if an earthly healing doesn’t come.  If a marriage seems inexorably headed toward divorce, I still pray for reconciliation – along with praying for each person’s best possible future if reconciliation does not come.  In the case of this latest conflict between the United States and North Korea, I have no problem praying that God would bring peace – that weapons would be laid down and that threats would turn into productive talks – along with praying that our national leaders would be able to respond with other-worldly wisdom to Kim Jong Un if he continues in his menacing ways.

If God can bring peace between Himself and us through His Son, Jesus Christ, peace between nations cannot be dismissed as unrealistic or impossible.  With God, even the impossible can be possible.  So, let us pray for peace.

Don’t let the scope of the threat fool you.

Part of what makes this threat appear so ominous is its scope.  The very word “nuclear” brings to mind visions of mushroom clouds, radiation fallout, and mass casualties.  But the scope of destruction does not have be extensive to be egregious in God’s sight.  Every murder that is committed, every lone wolf terrorist attack that is carried out, and every life that is lost angers God, for all of these things pervert the goodness of God’s creation by destroying the lives of God’s creatures.  The destruction of life offends God deeply, even when it does not make headlines in the form of a nuclear missile.  God is not just concerned with international crises.  He is concerned with every single life – including yours.

Remember, Christ has triumphed over every rogue authority.

One of the fascinating features of North Korean culture is how it has deified the Kim regime.  A North Korean defector, Yeonmi Park, admitted in a 2014 interview that she believed Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was a god who could read her thoughts.  Of course, such deification of earthly leaders is nothing new.  The first century Roman emperors fashioned a whole cultus around themselves.  In Jesus’ day, Tiberius Caesar had coins minted with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of divine Augustus,” with the obverse side declaring Tiberius to be “the high priest.”[1]  The early Christians rejected such deification of political leaders because they knew that Caesar was not Lord.  Christ was.  This is why the apostle Paul can write that Christ has disarmed the powers and authorities [and has] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).  There is only one God – and He is not in North Korea, the White House, or any other human seat of power.  He is enthroned “in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).  Christ is the authority over every earthly authority.

Caution is certainly needed as we head into an uncertain future with North Korea.  Fear, however, is not.  Kim Jong Un may have nuclear weapons, but we have the sword of the Spirit.  And the Spirit’s sword will continue to wield its power long after human weapons have been beaten into plowshares.  For that, we can be thankful.  And because of that, we can be hopeful.

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[1] See Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 325.

August 14, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Herod, John the Baptist, and Sharing Our Faith

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St. John the Baptist before Herod, by Mattia Pretti (1665)

In Mark 6, we are treated to a fascinating flashback.  The chapter opens with Jesus teaching and then quickly turns to Him sending out His twelve disciples to preach, drive out demons, and anoint the sick.  The chapter then shifts again, this time to a ruler named Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the ruler who tried to kill Jesus when He was just a toddler because he considered the lad a threat to his throne.  Herod Antipas, however, was not so hostile toward Jesus as he was curious about Him, especially when he heard a rumor that Jesus was “John the Baptist…raised from the dead” (Mark 6:14).  Cue Mark’s flashback.

In his flashback, Mark recounts how John the Baptist died.  It turns out that Herod Antipas had thrown John in prison because he had preached against Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias.  But it was not just Herod who was upset with John.  It was also his new wife, Herodias.  In fact, Mark says that she “nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him” (Mark 6:19).  And one day, she saw her opportunity.  When Herod was throwing a party, Herodias’s daughter came and danced for Herod and his inebriated guests.  Herod was so pleased by her performance that he offered this girl anything she wanted, including up to half his kingdom.  Prompted by her mother, the girl asked Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Interestingly enough, Herod, instead of being delighted that he would finally be able to get rid of this man who had preached against his marriage, was devastated.  Mark 6:26 explains that “the king was greatly distressed.”  The Greek word used for “distressed” is perilupos, a word that Jesus Himself uses the night before He goes to the cross when He says to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).  The Greek word used for “sorrow” is again perilupos.  Clearly, Herod was deeply grieved, even to the point of death, by this girl’s request.  But why?

As it turns out, Herod had what might be called a “love-hate relationship” with John.  Mark describes their relationship like this: “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20).  The same man who threw John in prison also protected him, because he knew there was something different about him.  He knew he had a righteousness and holiness that went beyond anything he had ever encountered before.  Moreover, he liked to listen to John, even though he had a hard time understanding what he was talking about and, obviously, did not always heed what he said.  Herod, even as he was offended by John, was also attracted to John.

Herod’s relationship with John can serve as a model for what the world’s relationship with us, as Christians, can look like.  When people watch you, do they see a righteousness and a holiness beyond anything they have ever encountered before because, instead of your righteousness and holiness being merely meritocratic, it is Christocentric?  And when you speak about your faith to others, even if they are puzzled by what you have to say, do you leave them wanting to hear more?

Just as Herodias hated John, there will be some who hate us simply because we are Christians.  But there will also be others who are intrigued by us.  May we never forget to engage these people, model Christ for these people, and speak the gospel to these people.  For what they are puzzled by today may just be the very thing they believe in tomorrow.

August 7, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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