Archive for December, 2017

The Dogs of North Korea

The more we learn about North Korea, the more sickening the regime there looks.  Recently, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley held a meeting on human rights in North Korea, which featured Ji Hyeon-A, a woman who escaped from North Korea to South Korea in 2007.  Fox News reported on her remarks:

“Pregnant women were forced into harsh labor all day,” she said. “At night, we heard pregnant mothers screaming and babies died without ever being able to see their mothers.”

North Korea does not allow for mixed-race babies, she said. At one detention center, she described how inmates starved to death. Their dead bodies, she said, were given to the guard dogs for food.

This is horrifying.  But it is also tragically common in this isolated nation.  So, how are we to respond?

First, we should pray for the protection of the citizens of North Korea.  Living under the nation’s current dictator, Kim Jong-un, or its prior dictator, Kim Jong-il, as did Ji Hyeon-A, has to be terrifying emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and physically.  Just this past week it was reported that North Korea’s top military official, Hwang Pyong-so, second only to Kim Jong-il himself, is suspected dead after falling out of favor with the supreme leader.  In North Korea, there is no reasonable assurance of life.  Thus, prayers for the thousands whose lives are in danger every day are in order.  In Psalm 22, the Psalmist prays:

But You, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.  (Psalm 22:19-20)

The Psalmist’s prayer echoes an all-too-literal North Korean fear.  For those who face the grisly specter of being fed to dogs, we must pray.  For those who are oppressed or threatened in any way in North Korea, we must pray.

But we must go further.  Our prayers must include not only petitions for protection, but cries for justice.  The evil of the North Korean regime must be stopped.

When John has a vision of heaven in Revelation, he sees both those saved by God’s grace and those condemned by God’s judgment.  He explains the scene thusly:

Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.  (Revelation 22:14-15)

John offers a laundry list of those who will be “outside” salvation on the Last Day.  But what is most interesting about this list is who heads it: “the dogs.”  Considering dogs are such a ubiquitous part of American families that they have garnered the moniker of “man’s best friend,” the idea that dogs would be excluded from God’s kingdom may puzzle us.  But in the ancient world, dogs were considered to be not pets, but dangerous, disease-ridden scavengers.  They were reviled.  In his vision, then, John sees dogs as symbols of all that is evil.

Those who feed people who have died to literal dogs can only be called dogs themselves, in the biblical sense.  Yet, we have the assurance that, one day, these dogs will find themselves on the “outside,” just like John foresees – whether this means they lose power in this age, or in the age to come.

In Psalm 22, shortly before the Psalmist prays that God would deliver him from the dogs, he declares:

Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. (Psalm 22:16)

This psalm, it turns out, is not only a prayer for deliverance, but a prophecy of things to come – a prophecy of One who, just like in the psalm, would be surrounded by His enemies and pierced for them (Psalm 22:16; Luke 24:39), a prophecy of One who, just like in the psalm, would die humiliated as His enemies divided His clothes and cast lots for them (Psalm 22:18; Matthew 27:35), and a prophecy of one who, just like in the psalm, would cry out in despair, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46)?

Jesus, just like the North Koreans, knew the horror of being surrounded by dogs while in the throes of death.  Jesus, just like the North Koreans, experienced the most diabolical evils humans could perpetrate.  But Jesus, while suffering death at the hands of evil, was not overcome by it.  The dogs that surrounded Him were defeated when His tomb turned up empty.  And the dogs that surround many in North Korea will be defeated when our tombs turn up empty too.

The dogs may maul.  But Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of their defeat, and it is offered to all.

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December 18, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Christmas When Disaster Strikes

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Though wildfires in Southern California are not an unusual occurrence, the ones now tearing through the Los Angeles area are truly historic.  Hundreds of thousands residents are under mandatory evacuations, hundreds of thousands of acres have been burned, and many of the fires are not contained.  The fires are effortlessly jumping major freeways, including the 405, and engulfing everything in their path.

The stories emerging from the wildfires are heartbreaking.  On NBC Nightly News, images and stories of grieving and tearful people who have lost their homes have been commonplace.  In one image, a man stands on his roof staring down a massive wildfire with a garden hose in hand.  He doesn’t even look hopeful.  He knows it’s futile.

Even as I see tears and hear sobs, it is difficult for me to imagine how these people must feel.  At a time of year that is known for its bounty of gifts, there are thousands who have suffered the loss of so much.

One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Joy to the World.”  Its famously bouncy melody, however, can mask its realistic estimation of the trials of this world:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

This world, the carol concedes, is full of sins, sorrows, and thorns.  And yet, the hope of Christmas is that a Savior has been born who “comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  The tension of this lyric is thick.  A catastrophe like the California fires is certainly a result of the curse – a world broken by sin.  Natural disasters were never meant to be part of God’s good creation.  But God comes into this world, cursed by sin, to make His blessings flow.  In other words, even in the midst of the fires, God’s blessings are not withheld, but bestowed.  But when you’re fighting a massive fire with a garden hose, God’s blessings can be awfully tough to spot.

Christmas can help us see how God’s blessings arrive, even when all we see is the curse.  God’s blessings arrive not in brash and bold and bawdy ways, but in small and poor and humble ways.  They arrive in little towns like Bethlehem.  They arrive through peasant people like Mary and Joseph.  They arrive with a baby who sleeps in some hay.  In other words, they arrive in ways that are easy to miss in a world where the curse looms large.  But those who take the time to see these blessings cannot help but be changed by them.

One story coming out of the California fires involves a family whose mansion burned to the ground last week.  When firefighters ordered an evacuation of the area shortly before the fires engulfed this family’s home, one firefighter asked the homeowner, “If we could save just one thing, what would you want it to be?”  The homeowner replied, “Please save my Christmas tree for my kids because it’s got so many memories.”  The family no longer has a home.  But they still have their tree.  They still have a reminder of this season and what it’s all about – the greatest blessing of God’s Son.  The curse may have taken this family’s house, but it did not take this family’s Christmas.

He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He really does – even if it’s in the smallest of ways.

December 11, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

ISIS and Sufis

Because it was over the long Thanksgiving weekend, the ISIS attack on an Egyptian Sufi mosque that killed 305 people a week ago Friday received some attention, but not as much as it might have normally.  But it is important.  The sheer scope of the tragedy is gut-wrenching.  The mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas claimed 59 lives.  The mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs claimed 26.  The attack on this mosque killed over 300.  It is sobering to try to fathom.

Part of what makes this attack so disturbing is that one group of Muslims – or at least self-identified Muslims – in ISIS perpetrated this attack against another group of Muslims who are Sufi.  At its heart, this attack was driven not by political or cultural differences, but by an all-out holy war.  Rukmini Callimachi, in a report for The New York Times, explains:

After every attack of this nature, observers are perplexed at how a group claiming to be Islamic could kill members of its own faith. But the voluminous writings published by Islamic State and Qaeda media branches, as well as the writings of hard-liners from the Salafi sect and the Wahhabi school, make clear that these fundamentalists do not consider Sufis to be Muslims at all.

Their particular animus toward the Sufi practice involves the tradition of visiting the graves of holy figures. The act of praying to saints and worshiping at their tombs is an example of what extremists refer to as “shirk,” or polytheism.

Certainly, the veneration of the dead is a problem – not only for many Islamic systems of theology, but for orthodox Christianity as well.  When the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land, God warns them:

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.  (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

On this, many Christians and Muslims agree: venerating the dead is not only superstitious and paganistic, it smacks of polytheism by exalting a departed soul to the position of God, or, at minimum, to a position that is god-like.  Yet, one can decry the veneration of the dead without creating more dead, an understanding that many others in the Muslim world, apart from ISIS, seem to be able to maintain with ease.  Theological disagreements can be occasions for robust debate, but they must never be made into excuses for bloodshed.

There are some in the Christian world, who, like Sufi Muslims, venerate those who are dead in ways that make other Christians very uncomfortable.  Catholicism’s veneration of the saints, for instance, is rejected as unbiblical and spiritually dangerous by many Protestants, including me.  But this does not mean that there are not many theological commitments that I don’t joyfully share with my Catholic brothers and sisters, including a creedal affirmation of Trinitarian theology as encapsulated in the ecumenical creeds of the Church.  I may disagree with Catholics on many important points of doctrine, but they are still my friends in Christ whom I love.

Jesus famously challenged His hearers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Part of what I find so compelling about Jesus’ challenge is not just its difficulty – though it is indeed very demanding to try to love someone who hates you – but its keen insight into the devastating consequences of hate.  If you love your enemy, even when it’s difficult, you can most certainly love your friends, and, by God’s grace, you may even be able to make friends out of enemies when they become overwhelmed by your love.  But if you hate your enemy, even your friends will eventually become your enemies, and you will hate them too.  Why?  Because hate inevitably begets more hate.

ISIS has made a theological system out of hate.  Thus, they have no friends left to love.  They only have enemies to kill, including other Muslims.  Christians, however, worship a God who not only has love, but is love (1 John 4:16).  For all the Sufis who are mourning, then, we offer not only our condolences, but our hearts, and we hold out the hope of the One who is not only the true God, but the one Savior, and who makes this promise:  ISIS’s hate that leads to death is no match for Jesus’ love and His gift of life.

December 4, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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