Archive for September, 2017

Predictions Come and Predictions Go

Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld,_Ludwig_Ferdinand_-_Apocalypse

Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Apocalypse, 1831

Well, things are still here.

There was some doubt as to whether or not they would be, at least in the mind of one man named David Meade.  Mr. Meade is a self-styled “Christian numerologist” who believed this past Saturday would bring a super-sign that would mark the beginning of the end of the world.  He based his prediction on the number 33:

“Jesus lived for 33 years. The name Elohim, which is the name of God to the Jews, was mentioned 33 times [in the Bible],” Meade told The Washington Post. “It’s a very biblically significant, numerologically significant number. I’m talking astronomy. I’m talking the Bible…and merging the two.”

And September 23 is 33 days since the August 21 total solar eclipse, which Meade believes is an omen.

Mr. Meade also pointed to a mythical planet named Nibiru, which he said would pass by the earth, causing all sorts of calamities.

The difficulties with Mr. Meade’s odd eschatologizing are legion.  For starters, by one count, the Hebrew word for “God,” Elohim, doesn’t appear in the Bible 33 times, but in the Old Testament 2,570 times!  Mr. Meade’s count isn’t even close.  And the planet Nibiru, which was supposed to be central to his apocalyptic super sign, according to NASA scientists, doesn’t even exist.

Of course, whenever anyone – even if they are someone as obscure as Mr. Meade – makes this kind of sensationalistic prediction, reporters rush to interview Christian leaders to ask for their take on the prediction.  In this instance, thankfully, the leaders who they interviewed responded, to paraphrase, “Give me a break.”

Unfortunately, implausible apocalyptic predictions have become something of a matter of course for some who love to traffic in the dramatic.  In 2011, it was Harold Camping who predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21.  But predictions like these go back much further than that.  One of the earliest ballyhooed apocalyptic predictions dates all the way back to the end of the fourth century, when the church father Martin of Tours announced that the Antichrist had already been born and that the world would end by 400.  1,617 years later, we’re still waiting.

One problem with predictions like these is that they have the effect of discrediting the Christian message because those who trumpet them attach them to the Christian message.  And when these predictions inevitably fail, other parts of Christianity begin to look suspect.

Another problem with predictions like these is how they tend to portray the end times.  These predictions tend to focus so much on the destruction of earth that they forget about the return of Christ.  Mr. Meade, in his prediction, highlighted things like “volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes,” but he seemed to overlook the thrilling trumpet call, the breathtaking new Jerusalem, and the joyous resurrection to everlasting life.

The return of Christ, for those who trust in Him, is not meant to terrifying, but encouraging.  In one way, then, we should feel a twinge of disappointment that Mr. Meade wasn’t right.  For when Christ returns, all the depravity, devastation, despair, and death will be set right, which, for all the charms of this world, makes what comes next something I am looking forward to and praying for.

So, although I would never be so bold as to try to chronologize the end times, I do pray that Jesus will come.  Mr. Meade’s prediction doesn’t have to be right for that prayer to be good.

Maranatha!

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September 25, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The International Hurricane

As Hurricane Irma tore across the Atlantic, it had its sights set on ___________.

How you fill in this blank depends on where your focus lies.  For most of us in the states, we saw Irma targeting Florida.  Floridians themselves might have gotten a little more specific.  Hurricane Irma had its sights set on:  Key West, Marco Island, Naples, Fort Myers, and, even though it is on the other side of the state, Miami.

But, of course, Irma affected – and devastated – more than just our nation’s southeastern-most state.  Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, and Antigua and Barbuda, among others, were all hit.

In a piece for NBC Nightly News a week ago Sunday, Joe Fryer tugged at the heartstrings by showing a parade of pictures of those overwhelmed by Irma’s wrath while delivering a monologue:

These are the faces of Hurricane Irma – victims who found themselves in the long path of a heartless storm, forever connected by what they’ve endured.  Looking at the damage, it’s impossible to tell which territories are American or British, French or Dutch.  The hurricane did not discriminate.

Mr. Fryer reminded us that the story of this hurricane cut across peoples and nations, islands and mainlands, nations and territories, rich and poor.  Irma indeed did not discriminate.  Irma was sweeping in its devastation.

Sweeping problems need sweeping solutions.  Mr. Fryer ended his piece on Irma by musing: “The human spirit – every bit as powerful as the storm.”  This is certainly a sweet sentiment.  And, in one way, I suppose I agree.  The human spirit that has been on display across the regions now affected by two major hurricanes – Harvey and Irma – has been indefatigable.  People are determined to recover from these storms.  But as much as the human spirit may help us recover from storms like these, it does not help us restrain storms like these.  We cannot turn a category 4 hurricane into a sunny day.  We cannot steer the “cone of uncertainty” we’ve heard so much about over these past few weeks in whatever direction we might like.  The human spirit may be strong, but it is not omnipotent.

But we know Someone who is.

We know a God of whom the Psalmist writes, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed” (Psalm 107:29).  And we know a Man of whom the disciples ask, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey Him” (Mark 4:41)!  We know Someone who has power that the human spirit does not.  We know Someone who has sweeping solutions to the sweeping problems of this world.

In Acts 15, the Christian Church is meeting in Jerusalem to debate and discuss whether or not Gentiles should have to follow certain old rules of Israel.  Specifically, there are some Jews who are teaching, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  Peter, himself a Jew, speaks into this debate and asserts that God does not “discriminate between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9).  Peter says that whether a person is Jew or Gentile, they are purified from sin in the same way – by faith in Jesus Christ.  God does not give different paths to purification to different people because God does not discriminate. He purifies all the same.  He has a sweeping solution to the sweeping problem of sin in this world – faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

The God who is sweeping in His solution to the problem of sin is also sweeping in His love for the people who struggle through the effects of sin.  Just like Hurricane Irma did not discriminate in its destructive power, God does not discriminate in His love and care.  He sees every lost life in Cuba, every now-homeless person in the Bahamas, every hungry soul in Turks and Caicos, every exhausted worker in the Virgin Islands, every forgotten resident in Antigua and Barbuda, and every hurting family Florida, and He says, “I care about that and I have come into that through Jesus.”

A hurricane that hurts the world needs a God who loves the world and a God who can still the storms of the world.  And we have a God who does and a God who will.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“In front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.” (Revelation 14:6)

September 18, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Debating DACA

DACA

Credit: NBC News

When President Trump sent his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, before the cameras to announce the reversal of the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals policy – an executive order signed by President Obama that allows certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors to receive a renewable two-year deferral of deportation –  he had to suspect that his announcement would spark controversy both on the right and on the left.  In his statement, the Attorney General explained:

As the Attorney General, it is my duty to ensure that the laws of the United States are enforced and that the constitutional order is upheld…

To have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest, we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. That is an open border policy and the American people have rightly rejected it.

Therefore, the nation must set and enforce a limit on how many immigrants we admit each year and that means all cannot be accepted.

This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way. It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them.

It is with these principles and duties in mind, and in light of imminent litigation, that we reviewed the Obama Administration’s DACA policy…

The Department of Justice has advised the President and the Department of Homeland Security that DHS should begin an orderly, lawful wind down, including the cancellation of the memo that authorized this program.

Acting Secretary Duke has chosen, appropriately, to initiate a wind down process. This will enable DHS to conduct an orderly change and fulfill the desire of this administration to create a time period for Congress to act – should it so choose. 

Key to understanding the Attorney General’s remarks is his acknowledgement that Congress can act to pass a bill that addresses the issue of immigrants brought to this country illegally as minors in the time that DACA is winding down. President Trump, in a Tweet, explicitly encouraged Congress to pass some sort of legislation that addresses this group of immigrants:

Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!

– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017

Though the issues involved here are many, I believe there are three specific concerns we must take into account in order to address the questions and controversies that surround DACA faithfully and sensitively.

The first concern is that of constitutionality.  Many are arguing that the action President Obama took when he signed his executive order on DACA was indeed constitutional.  Others are arguing just the opposite.  Just the fact that there are so many questions surrounding the legality of this executive order should at least encourage us to consider what other, less constitutionally questionable, options are available.  Operating squarely within the law brings a stability and sustainability to governmental actions that flirting with policies and positions on the legal periphery does not.  The Attorney General put it well in his statement when he said:

No greater good can be done for the overall health and well-being of our Republic, than preserving and strengthening the impartial rule of law. Societies where the rule of law is treasured are societies that tend to flourish and succeed. 

Societies where the rule of law is subject to political whims and personal biases tend to become societies afflicted by corruption, poverty, and human suffering. 

The law, when it is written morally and enforced equitably, can indeed be a force for great good and a guard against dark evil.  Thus, constitutional questions ought to be carefully weighed when considering the future of DACA.

A second concern in this discussion should be that of safety.  Since its inception, about 1,500 people who were once eligible for DACA have had their DACA status revoked because they committed some sort of crime.  Since President Trump took office, arrests and deportations of DACA eligible immigrants have increased, pointing to a more rigorous prosecution against those who commit crimes.  In the interest of “providing for the common defense,” those who appear poised to do citizens harm should be carefully monitored and those who have done citizens harm should be appropriately punished.  A well-ordered society where wrongdoers are held accountable “promotes the general welfare” by allowing people to live in reasonable safety and societal prosperity.  The safety of people has been – and should continue to be – a focus not only of this government, but of any government.

A final concern in this discussion should be that of morality.  We must never forget that the legality of something doesn’t necessarily ensure the morality of something.  Abortion, for instance, may be legal, but it is certainly not moral.  This is why, for decades now, biblically minded Christians have been speaking out against it.  We must grapple with the question of morality when dealing with issues of unlawful immigration.  What is the right thing to do with this or that group of undocumented immigrants?  Are we called to help others, even if they are here illegally?  In Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, a priest and a Levite missed an opportunity to be a neighbor to a man who had been badly beaten and was laying on the side of the road because of some legal concerns over helping such a man.  Mosaic law stipulated that touching a dead body rendered a person ceremonially unclean.  The beaten man, although he was not in actuality dead, looked dead.  Checking on him, then, if he did turn out to be dead, would have legally defiled them.  So, they passed by as far away from him as they could “on the other side” so as not to risk defilement.  A Samaritan, however, when he saw this man, opted to take a risk and help him.  Jesus commends the Samaritan for having done the right thing.  A spirit of helpfulness and neighborliness can and should be paramount in how we address this issue.

Most of the angry polemical positions people take on this issue come when one of these concerns – be that the concern of constitutionality, safety, or morality – is exalted to the exclusion of the others.  Some are concerned only with legal questions and never bother to ask, “How can I be a neighbor to everyone, even to those who are here illegally?”  Some love to paint themselves as morally superior neighbors, but are loathe to do the hard work of studying, supporting, and, when appropriate, critiquing immigration law for the sake of the long-term stability and equitability of our nation’s immigration policy.  Still others are so concerned with safety that they see threats where, sometimes, there are none and take a by-any-means-necessary approach to security, even when the security measures they support harm innocent people.

Taking into account all of these concerns, though difficult, may just offer us a path forward that will be legal, reasonably safe, and neighborly all at the same time.  Let’s see if we can’t find such a path – and then walk it.

September 11, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Hurricane Harvey and Human Selflessness

The news in the wake of Hurricane Harvey just seems to get worse.  18 counties in Texas have been declared federal disaster areas.  Meteorologists are calling the flooding in Houston a 500-year event, though they admit that, by the time all is said and done, the effects of this storm may be closer to a 1,000-year event, or perhaps even bigger. In Beaumont, a toddler was found was shivering in the water, clinging to her drowned mother.  Scenes and stories like this are simply heartbreaking.

Of course, for every heartbreaking story, there are hundreds of heartwarming stories.  The picture below shows Cathy Pham, holding her sleeping baby, being carried to safety by a member of the Houston SWAT Team.

Then there was Spiderman who took some time to visit some of the children who were sheltering at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Images like these have made many people wonder out loud: Why can’t we always act this compassionately toward each other?  Why can’t we put the differences that normally divide us aside and come together like the Coastal Bend, Houston, and the Golden Triangle have?

On the one hand, it’s important to remember that the selflessness we see demonstrated in tragedies like these is not quite as universal as it can first appear.  Disasters bring out the best in many.  But they also bring out the worst in some.  From looters looking to pillage the possessions of displaced homeowners and damaged businesses to storm chasers who run from disaster zone to disaster zone trying to turn a quick profit off of beleaguered survivors by overcharging for a service and performing it poorly, or, sometimes, even not at all, there are still plenty of slick characters who will gladly trade the virtue of altruism for a windfall from opportunism.

In an article for Slate that has been widely criticized, Katy Waldman offers a somewhat cynical take on the staying power of human goodness, writing:

Humans may possess inherent goodness, but that goodness needs to be activated. Some signal has to disperse the cloud of moral Novocain around us. Some person, or fire, or flood, has got to say: now.

Ms. Waldman has serious doubts whether the goodness we see now in Texas can last beyond the storm.  The selflessness we’ve seen, she says, has only been activated by the terrible trials people have had to endure.  Once the trials pass, selflessness will ebb.  Sadly, she might be right.  But she doesn’t have to be.

One of the most compelling stories in the Bible is that of Job.  Job was a man who had it all, and then lost it all – his house, his cattle, his children, and even his health.  Job’s story recounts his struggle to come to terms with God’s faithfulness and providence in the midst of his suffering.  Throughout his terrible ordeal, Job maintains that he has done nothing to deserve the calamities that have befallen him, even boldly demanding to speak with God to protest his circumstances: “I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God” (Job 13:3). Throughout Jobs’ protestations, however, God remains silent – until He doesn’t.

At the end of the book, God speaks:

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures My plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell Me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1-7)

God’s basic point to Job is that even when life feels unfair and God seems either absent or incompetent, He is neither.  God really does know what He’s doing.  He really does have a plan.  And He really is quite competent at running the universe, for He put the universe together in the first place.

What is especially important for our purposes, however, is not only what God says to Job, but where God says it: “Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1).  Job’s stringent sufferings have constituted a personal storm of epic proportions.  But God has been there with him in the storm the whole time.  Out of the storm, God speaks.

What was true of Job’s storm is true of Hurricane Harvey.  With so much human suffering on display in the headlines and on our television screens, it can be tempting to think God is either absent or incompetent.  But He is neither.  God is in the storm.  This is why, for all the suffering we see, we see even more selflessness.  God is in the storm, leading people to help each other through the storm.

This is also why Ms. Waldman’s contention that when a storm subsides, selflessness wanes doesn’t have to ring true.  Human selflessness in the midst of extraordinary suffering is not a result of suffering, but a gift from God.  Suffering may be a vehicle through which God reveals human selflessness, but suffering itself is not the source of human selflessness.  God in the storm – and not the storm itself – is the true source of our selflessness.  And though God is in the storm, He is also beyond the storm.  He will be there when the floods of Harvey have dried and the recovery and reconstruction projects have reached completion.  Which means that the kind of selflessness that has been so beautifully on display in this storm can last long beyond this storm.

Hurricane Harvey has put on display the divine gift of human selflessness.  And we have liked what we’ve seen.  So let’s make sure this precious gift doesn’t go back into hiding once Harvey fades from our headlines.  After all, if places like Houston can be wonderful because of people even when things are terrible because of weather, imagine what things could look like on a sunny day.

I’d love to see.

September 4, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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