Posts filed under ‘Current Trends’

Thoughts on the Iran Conflict

It’s been a hard week on the world stage. At the beginning of this year, U.S. forces attacked and killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a man who the Pentagon says was “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more” and “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomates and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”  Iran retaliated by launching a barrage of more the 20 missiles at two large military bases in Iraq, which, according to a statement from President Trump, did not, thankfully, kill any U.S. service members.  Sadly, it has now become clear that even though the attacks on the bases did not kill any Americans, a rogue missile, launched during this attack, did accidentally down a Ukranian passenger jet, killing 176 people, many of whom were part of a wedding party from Canada. The picture above of a child’s shoe gives perhaps the most heart wrenching glimpse into the true scope of this tragedy. So-called “collateral damage” from Iran’s attack was not just damage – it was death.

One of the most roundly condemned sins in the Scriptures is the shedding of “innocent blood.” Innocent blood was shed by General Soleimani through his terrorist activities. Innocent blood was shed on this passenger flight, even if inadvertently, by Iranian forces. And now, the hearts of many families who have lost loved ones are breaking. So, at the same time we can give thanks that a full-fledged conflict has not broken out, we should also mourn with the grieving. They are the reasons we should continue to, in the words of the Psalmist, “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). By God’s grace, may we be successful in our search.

January 13, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Violence That Never Seems To Stop

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Credit: Sam Rios on Unsplash

In my blog last week, I reflected on some of the events that shaped 2019, and I noted that there have been “accelerating attacks on houses of worship.” Unfortunately, the end of 2019 demonstrated just how true that was.

First, it was an attack on a Hanukkah celebration at a home in a New York City suburb. A knife wielding assailant burst into the home, wounding five people while the people inside scrambled to flee out the back door. Then, the very next morning, a gunman opened fire at a Church of Christ congregation outside of Fort Worth. Two people were killed. Many more probably would have been lost, but the gunman was taken down by the church’s security team.

It’s difficult to see these kinds of attacks at these kinds of gatherings. Celebrations and congregations are not meant to be battlefields. They are meant to be arenas of respite and rejoicing.

On the one hand, none of this surprising. As a Christian, I follow a man who warned of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7). Those who are Jewish know well Daniel’s prophetic announcement to King Xerxes: “War will continue until the end” (Daniel 9:26). Though both of these prophecies, in their contexts, point to the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, they can be applied throughout history. People are violent. And the human inclination toward violence shows no signs of abating.

While I am heartbroken over these stories, I am also grateful that, in both of these instances, many of these people were able to escape their attackers, or, as in the case of this most recent church shooting, the security team was able to stop the attacker. Sadly, however, we will not be able to end these types of attacks altogether. Too many stories of too much violence have demonstrated otherwise. In truth, despite our best efforts at safety, only God Himself can truly end violence. As God explained to His people of old, when God returns on history’s final day, “no longer will violence be heard” (Isaiah 60:18).

Until that day, I pray for victims and their families, I pray against further attacks, I give thanks for those who protect others while risking themselves, and I look forward to the day when my hope for peace will become the sight of peace. Even when it looks otherwise, I still firmly believe that guns and knives are no match for God.

January 6, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

2019: Year in Review

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Credit: Ulrike Leone from Pixabay 

It’s hard to believe another year has come and is now nearly gone. This year has had its share of memorable moments. There were the accelerating attacks on houses of worship – synagogues, mosques, and churches. There were the wildfires that devastated California and Hurricane Dorian that decimated the Bahamas. There was the huge controversy surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX, which experienced problems with one of its automated flight control systems, resulting in two deadly crashes. Politically, there was the impeachment of a president and the death of Elijah Cummings, a fixture in the US House of Representatives. And then, of course, in a story that will reach into 2020, there is a presidential election brewing.

It’s difficult not to experience a bit of déjà vu as I look back over this year’s big stories. Deadly rampages continue to terrorize communities and cultures. Natural disasters, a staple of creation since the introduction of sin, continue to wreak havoc across our nation and throughout the world. Businesses continue to find themselves in PR nightmares. And, our political fissures continue to widen and deepen. None of these problems were new to 2019. These were just new manifestations of old menaces.

Solomon famously wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is most certainly true. But we must also remember that this is not ultimate.

The apostle Peter writes about those who, like Solomon, know that things don’t really change. But they also doubt that anything ever will change. They complain: “Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). But Peter knows that even if the axiom “history repeats itself” is true of history, it is not true for the future, which is why Peter holds out this hope:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13)

Peter says there is a day coming when all the drudgery of this age will be overcome by the delight of the age to come.

But here’s the key: Peter says that, since we know that something better and different is on its way, we ought to “look forward” to what is to come. In Greek, the word for the phrase “look forward” is prosdokeo. Dokeo is a word that denotes “thinking,” and pros is a prefix that denotes “that which is first” or “at the head.” In other words, Peter is admonishing us to “think ahead.” Think ahead to a day when mass murders will die and natural disasters will be rendered unnatural and commerce will be consecrated and politics will care only about King Jesus. Think ahead to that day. Because it will be a supremely good day.

I’m praying for a great 2020. But I’m also hoping for a perfect eternity. I don’t know how God will answer my prayer. But I do know He will fulfill my hope. For my hope is His promise.

December 30, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

All the Days After the Big Day

Multiple studies have sounded foreboding warnings about the decline of marriage rates in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, while 72% of American adults ages 18 and older were married in 1960, that number has plummeted to 50%. More people are marrying later in life, and more people are choosing simply not to marry at all. Traditionally-oriented sociological observers point out that these falling marriage rates pose real problems not only for individuals personally, but for society collectively. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, explains:

Decades of statistics have shown that, on average, married couples have better physical health, more financial stability, and greater social mobility than unmarried people.

Other studies show that the children of those couples are more likely to experience higher academic performance, emotional maturity, and financial stability than children who don’t have both parents in the home.

The social and economic costs of family breakdown are paid by everyone.

Studies show divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers over $110 billion each year. But the real victims are children.

Children raised in single-parent homes are statistically more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, exhibit poor social behaviors, and commit violent crimes. They’re also more likely to drop out of school.

And when it comes to fighting poverty, there is no better weapon than marriage. In fact, marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80%.

These are sobering statistics. And yet, there is this interesting tension. While marriage rates may be on the decline, the wedding industry continues to grow. Forbes reports that, as of 2018, the wedding industry is a $72 billion a year money-maker, with the average cost of a wedding now ballooning to $35,000. Why are weddings so expensive? Forbes explains that couples feel compelled “to create ever more extravagant wedding experiences to make their day memorable for themselves and their guests.”

This heightened pressure around creating a perfect day for couples has given birth to a cottage industry – that of wedding therapy. Alyson Krueger reports for The New York Times:

The reality for many couples is that wedding planning is a tricky time. Deep-rooted family problems sometimes rear up. Some families face financial strain or must deal with contrasting values of how money should be spent. It’s also a time when couples and their families are going through big, fragile transitions.

The problems soon-to-be newlyweds encounter include things like:

“I can’t make a decision about who to have as my bridesmaid,” or, “I don’t know how to have a conversation with someone about not picking them as my bridesmaid.”

Other concerns, of course, are more systemic and serious. But the fact that there is a “wedding therapy” industry at all says something about our cultural mores and priorities.

In pre-marital counseling, I will often tell couples that the most important day of their marriage is not the first day of their marriage, but the last day of their marriage. “When death finally does you part,” I’ll ask, “what kind of marriage will you want to have – one that is marked by coldness and bitterness due to years of unaddressed issues, or one that is marked by warmth and forgiveness as you have weathered life’s storms together?” My point is this: if you want the last day of your marriage to be a good one, the time to begin working toward that is now. Far too many couples put all their effort and emphasis into the first day of their marriage – their wedding day – while thinking little about what their life together will look like after that. The wedding therapy industry is yet another indicator of our obsession with the first day of our marriages and the stress that first day brings. We have made our weddings about, well, our weddings – the dresses, tuxes, receptions, entrées, cake, gifts, decorations, and celebrations. But the wisest weddings are not about the weddings. They are not even really about the couple. The wisest weddings are ones that celebrate the gift that marriage is to humanity and reflect Christ’s love for the Church.

Perhaps if we made God’s gift of marriage and Christ and His Church the focus of our weddings, we would not only save ourselves from needing wedding therapy for the big day, we would also limit our need for marriage counseling for the days thereafter. I’ll take a healthy marriage over a perfect wedding any day. If you’re married, or especially if you used to be married, I have a feeling you would say the same thing, too.

December 16, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Religious Persecution in China

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Credit: Magda Ehlers from Pexels

King Solomon writes:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:8-9)

Solomon calls us to speak up and speak out against oppression wherever and whenever we see it. And we can see it in spades in China right now. Last week, The New York Times published an exposé on a Chinese government crackdown on minority Muslim groups in that country:

403 pages of internal documents…have been shared with The New York Times in one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades. They provide an unprecedented inside view of the continuing clampdown in Xinjiang, in which the authorities have corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years.

The party has rejected international criticism of the camps and described them as job-training centers that use mild methods to fight Islamic extremism. But the documents confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown in the words and orders of the very officials who conceived and orchestrated it.

Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, has publicly spoken out against what he refers to as the “extremist religious thought” of Muslims, saying:

The psychological impact of extremist religious thought on people must never be underestimated. People who are captured by religious extremism – male or female, old or young – have their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.

And, in other speech:

As soon as you believe in it, it’s like taking a drug, and you lose your sense, go crazy and will do anything.

With public statements like these, it is frightening to imagine what might be going on in internment camps like his.

Mr. Xi, of course, has not limited his crusade against religion to Muslims, but has also persecuted Chinese Christians – banning the sale of Bibles, shutting down churches, and even bulldozing some church buildings.

Whether they are Muslims or Christians, Christ calls upon His faithful to speak up for the oppressed. During His ministry, Christ stood up for those who were castigated from their communities – tax collectors, the sick, people of sexual ill-repute, and even those who were theologically out of sync with the kingdom Christ taught and brought. His followers should react similarly when they see people marginalized, and, in the case of these minority Chinese Muslims, tyrannized.

Solomon also writes:

The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the LORD gives sight to the eyes of both. (Proverbs 29:13)

President Xi has the same sight as those he is oppressing. He can see what he is doing. And we can see, too. And so, we must stand up and speak up in defense of those who cannot defend themselves.

Though Christians do not share the same faith as Muslims, Christians can stand with Muslims in their persecution and point them to a way through persecution and a hope beyond persecution – Jesus.

November 25, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Faith on Trial

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that those who are portending the collapse of American Christianity are vastly overstating their case:

Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity … Recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 … And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s – and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

Mr. Douthat argues that though there is a definite statistical decline in those who have marginal faith, those who have committed faith remain strong and steady in their faith.  The Christian faith, when it actually shapes one’s life, is incredibly durable.

But now, this past week, Timothy Beal makes the contrary case in The Wall Street Journal when he asks: “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Mr. Beal opens:

The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is “Nones” – people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018. Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018-19, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this month. The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people: 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.

Mr. Beal argues that the decline in the numbers of Christian faithful is acute. Nevertheless, he does suggest that this trend may be reversible. His prescription for revitalizing faith, however, is interesting, to say the least:

Questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

Mr. Beal argues that in order to revitalize the Christian tradition, we must begin by questioning it. And he is is partially correct. There have indeed been those “who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions,” sometimes with great success and to the great benefit and betterment of humanity. But it is also important to note that, according to an orthodox Christian worldview, “inherited teachings and positions” are not so much questioned in order to change the Christian faith as they are in order to rediscover it.  The message of Christ, properly understood, does need to change, for it is the revelation of a perfect God who does not need to change. Instead, the message of Christ is meant to change us. This is why people who once held slaves in 18th and 19th century America were called to let these people go, even as God once called a pharaoh to let His people go. This is why a society steeped in legislatively enshrined racism as recently as a few short decades ago was called to love its neighbors instead of separating from them. This is why a world that is plagued by violence today is called to long for a day when swords and spears will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. These calls are thousands of years old. But they still challenge us to change to this day.

Mr. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western University where he recently, according to his column, “conducted a ‘trial’ of the Bible on the charge of being responsible for our environmental crisis.” Maybe it would have been useful, if, after this trial where his students questioned the Bible, Mr. Beal put his class in a trial where the Bible could have questioned them. After all, it may just be that our questions of the Bible aren’t the only ones that need to be asked. It may also just be that the Bible has even better questions of us than we do of it, such as, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9)?

Mr. Beal concludes his column by revisiting those who have left and lost their faith – the Nones. He writes of them: “When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.” About this much he is certainly correct. The Nones believe something. They have some faith, even if it is an ad hoc faith. The question is: Is it the true faith?

Maybe before we ask questions of faith, we ought to first ask this question of ourselves.

November 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Family Is Shattered

Massacring fourteen members of a Mormon family, including small children by burning them alive, while they were traveling from Chihuahua in Mexico to Arizona in a three-vehicle caravan is unthinkable, but it is, sadly, not uncommon in a nation where violence is rampant and drug lords really are just that – not only lords in a nation, but, in many ways, shadow lords of it. The drug cartels’ leverage over the Mexican government is astonishing.

A 2016 study rated Mexico as second in the world in terms of deadly conflicts, behind only Syria. Another study from just this September listed Mexico as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.  Most of these deaths can be chocked up to the nation’s violent cartels.

The story of this massacre is macabre.  The thought of innocent – and, by all accounts, exceptionally pious – people losing their lives in such a violent way violates our most basic instincts of justice.  Yet, out of this terrible tragedy, tales of heroism are already beginning to emerge.  One 13-year-old member of the family, who escaped the slaughter, hid his siblings from their would-be murderers and then walked six hours to find help.  Violence may be able to overtake lives, but, it turns out, it can’t overtake love for others.

Certainly, we should pray for the survivors and their families.  We should also, however, pray for and call for justice.  Drug peddling is, in its very nature, nihilistic.  It does not care about human morality or dignity, but instead seeks only money and supremacy.  Because drug peddling has no interest in humans, it eventually consumes humans – including the humans who are doing the peddling.  These drug lords may traffic in death to make money, but they cannot escape their own – and often early – deaths, even with their money.

King Solomon once said, “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). The drug cartels of Mexico do indeed oppress the poor and violate the rights of many.  By doing so, they pilfer justice.  And we have known this for a long time. So, in this way, as Solomon says, I am not surprised by what has happened.

But I am appalled.

But I am also hopeful – hopeful that, even if justice feels denied now, it is really only delayed until later.  For, on the Last Day, Jesus will “stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25) and will not be able to stand sin.  He will wipe out sin – once and for all.

That’s the Day this family needs.  Indeed, that’s the Day we all need.

November 11, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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