Processing a Pandemic

“When the pandemic is over…”

I’ve heard these words spoken over and over again by many people. And, I agree with them. I do believe this pandemic will eventually pass. But in my darker moments, I must admit that I also wonder about these words. I want to ask: “You say, ‘When the pandemic is over.’ When, pray tell, might that be?”

I have a feeling I’m not alone in asking this question. Not only am I not alone in asking this question among those around me; I am also not alone in asking this question among those throughout history.

In a really interesting long form piece for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan takes his reader on a whirlwind tour of plagues throughout history. His descriptions of many historic plagues are gruesome. Take, for instance, the plague that swept through Rome in 536:

Black rats arrived in the Roman port of Alexandria. They carried with them their own parasite, a flea that lived on the rats’ blood and could survive up to six weeks without a host – making it capable of enduring long sea voyages. And as the bacteria spread among the rats, and their population began to collapse, the fleas, desperate for food, sought alternatives. Living very close to the rats, humans were an easy target … For several days after infection, you were asymptomatic, then grotesque black buboes appeared on your body – swollen lymph nodes near where the fleas had bitten. Death often came several days later.

John of Ephesus noted that as people “were looking at each other and talking, they began to totter and fell either in the streets or at home, in harbors, on ships, in churches, and everywhere.” As he traveled in what is now Turkey, he was surrounded by death: “Day by day, we too –  like everybody – knocked at the gate to the tomb … We saw desolate and groaning villages and corpses spread out on the earth, with no one to take up [and bury] them.”

This is not even the worst of Mr. Sullivan’s descriptions. His recounting of the 1918 flu pandemic here in the States is even more jarring:

In her book Pandemic 1918, Catharine Arnold notes that “victims collapsed in the streets, hemorrhaging from lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue with the characteristic ‘heliotrope cyanosis’ caused by oxygen failure as the lungs filled with pus, and they gasped for breath from ‘air-hunger’ like landed fish.” The nosebleeds were projectile, covering the surroundings with blood. “When their lungs collapsed,” one witness recounted, “air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise which sounded like Rice Crispies [sic] when you pour milk over them.”

But as the summer of 1918 began in the U.S., relief spread. Maybe it was over. And then, in the fall, confident that a vaccine was imminent, several cities, notably Philadelphia, hosted war-bond parades, with large crowds thronging the streets … In the coming weeks, the city morgue was piling bodies on top of bodies, stacked three deep in the corridors, with no ice and no embalming. The stench was rank. City authorities were reduced to asking people to put their dead loved ones out on the street for collection.

This is horrifying.

But Mr. Sullivan is not simply content to leave his reader with dreadful descriptions of plagues past. He also invites us to grapple with some hard truths that our being revealed by our present plague, like this one:

We are not in control.

This is most certainly true.

Christians, for millennia now, have known this and proclaimed this. But they have also trusted in and told of One who is in control – One who can, and even does, heal the sick and raise the dead.

Mr. Sullivan notes:

Reminding humans of our mortality, plagues throw up existential questions. 

They do. Whether we take the time to grapple with these existential questions, however, is up to us. Historically, people have answered threats to their existence in one of two ways:

Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die! (Isaiah 22:13)

Or:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

Some are confronted by a time like this and simply resign themselves to revelry, for they believe that this is all there is. Others are confronted by a time like this and hope for a restoration, for they know this is not how things should be – but they also believe that there is One who will make things as they can be. And they believe that this One remains with us to comfort us, even during a pandemic.

Which way will you respond to this present moment? Choose wisely.

August 17, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Disaster in Beirut

When I first saw the video footage out of Beirut, I, like so many, was horrified. As so many others have noted, what began as a raging fire turned into what looked like an atomic bomb explosion in the heart of Beirut’s harbor – complete with the mushroom cloud that literally knocked people down for miles around.

But it was not an atomic bomb. It was not an attack by some nefarious force or enemy nation. The culprit here was negligence. It is now being reported that at the site of the explosion, there were thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored alongside a cache of fireworks. How they got there is a case study in incompetence. The Guardian interviewed a former port worker, Yusuf Shehadi, who explained that the Lebanese military had demanded that the ammonium nitrate be housed there. Mr. Shehadi explained:

We complained a lot about this over the years. Every week, the customs people came and complained and so did the state security officers. The army kept telling them they had no other place to put this. Everyone wanted to be the boss, and no one wanted to make a real decision … The port workers did not put the chemicals there in the first place. That outrage rests with the government.

The fireworks stored there date back all the way to 2010, after customs confiscated them and needed a place to put them. Apparently, a decade was not long enough for customs to find a more suitable storage spot for the fireworks. In other words, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Of course, now that the disaster has happened, there is plenty of finger pointing, but little to no responsibility taking.

After history’s first disaster – humanity’s fall into sin – just like with Beirut, there was plenty of finger pointing, but little to no responsibility taking. When God discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree He had forbidden to them, both of them are quick to try to pass the buck:

The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12-13)

Sadly, this finger pointing did not solve anything. It only led to death – just like in Beirut. In that town, the latest death toll stands at 154 with more than 5,000 people injured.

When Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate, there is plenty of finger pointing going on. “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king,” some say as they point at Jesus (Luke 23:2). “He stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here,” others accuse (Luke 23:5). And just like in the Garden and just like at Beirut, this finger pointing leads to death – Jesus’ death. But this death is different.

The prophet Isaiah says of Jesus’ crucifixion:

Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering. (Isaiah 53:4)

Rather than taking the fingers of His enemies and pointing them right back at them in their sin, Jesus willingly took up their finger pointing and he took up responsibility for the sinfulness and brokenness of the world.

It is unlikely someone will actually step up to take responsibility for this tragedy. In reality, no one person can. There are no doubt dozens if not hundreds of people who were complicit in this dangerous storage setup. And besides, no amount of human finger pointing or human responsibility taking will bring back those who have lost their lives in Beirut’s tragic explosion. There is only One who can take responsibility in a way that will actually solve this tragedy – in a way that will actually bring those who have lost their lives back in a resurrection. And His name is Jesus.

He takes responsibility for what we cannot.

August 10, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

John Lewis: 1940-2020

John Lewis’s 80 years of life on this earth were electric. As a child, he aspired to be a preacher, practicing his sermons on the chickens on his family farm. He was ordained as a Baptist minister, but never served at a congregation. Instead, he devoted himself to the Civil Rights Movement – becoming a Freedom Rider, speaking at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and nearly losing his life on what has become known as Bloody Sunday – March 7, 1965 – in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Alabama State Troopers beat demonstrators who were marching there for voting rights. Mr. Lewis had his skull fractured by the troopers, and bore a scar on his head in testimony to their brutalization of him the rest of his life. In 1987, Mr. Lewis was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served Georgia’s 5th congressional district until his death. In 2011, Mr. Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Mr. Lewis passed away July 17, 2020. His funeral was held this past week at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where he was honored by three past presidents and many other dignitaries. He also became the first black lawmaker to have his body lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Many disagreed with his politics, especially in his later years. But people on both sides of the aisle respected his character and so many of his accomplishments.

For all of John Lewis’s accomplishments – and for all the ways he has been honored as a watershed figure in American history over these past couple of weeks – he never lost sight of his simple faith in Christ.

In his book, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, he wrote:

Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done.

This, in many ways, is a summary of what it means to believe the gospel. The world around us looks broken and terrible – especially these days. We see a pandemic raging and racial tensions flaring and political coalitions clashing. It looks like sin is encroaching and death is marching and Satan is winning. But Christians believe that sin, death, and the devil – even if they look like they are triumphing – have been defeated. The cross is the declaration that the work of salvation against all evil has already been accomplished by Jesus. As Mr. Lewis would put it: “the work is already done.”

John Lewis continued his meditation on faith by writing:

Even if you do not live to see it come to pass, you know without one doubt that it will be. That is faith.

John Lewis saw many things come to pass. Just five months after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But, of course, there are still many things for which we are still looking to be. There are still many problems that we face, not the least of which is the hatred and vitriol that has come to mark so much of our public discourse. But to quote the congressman again:

Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.

These are words we need now more than ever. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for leaving them to us. Rest in peace until the resurrection of all flesh.

August 3, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Desperate Plight of the Uighur Muslims

In a story that, in my opinion, has gone disturbingly under-reported, the United Kingdom has leveled shocking allegations against the Chinese government of serious human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims living in that country. The BBC reports:

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against its Uighur population… 

Reports of forced sterilization and wider persecution of the Muslim group were “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time,” he told the BBC…

China’s UK ambassador said talk of concentration camps was “fake.” 

Liu Xiaoming told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the Uighurs received the same treatment under the law as other ethnic groups in his country. 

Shown drone footage that appears to show Uighurs being blindfolded and led to trains, and which has been authenticated by Australian security services, he said he “did not know” what the video was showing and “sometimes you have a transfer of prisoners, in any country.”

When a nation is accused of forcefully sterilizing an ethnic and religious group and shipping them by trains to camps, it is difficult not to reflexively conjure images of the abuse and genocide of countless Jews under Nazi Germany in World War II.

If the charges against the Chinese government are demonstrated to be true, the world must stand together in opposition. Persecuting or murdering any group of people is simply unacceptable.

In a speech from 2018, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska spoke out against Russian corruption and authoritarianism. He said:

The American people are a people, and we are a nation that believes in human dignity. We believe that this isn’t just true of 320 million Americans. It’s true of 7.5 billion people across this globe. We believe in free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right of protest not because the government gives us those rights but God created us with dignity.

Senator Sasse’s point is critical to keep in mind as we seek to address this current crisis. What is happening in China should matter to us in America not because China has violated some arbitrary American principle of human dignity, but because China has violated the true and righteous reality of human dignity. That humans have certain immutable rights is true, as Senator Sasse points out, not only for Americans, but for all 7.5 billion people across the globe. When these rights are violated, we should stand up. When ethnic and religious groups are tortured, we should yell, “No!”

Though we may not share a common faith, Christians and Muslims share a common humanity. We also both understand that there is something beyond what we can merely see, taste, touch, smell, hear, and discern with our senses. We believe that there is a God who is all-powerful. Because Christians also believe in an all-powerful God who is all-loving as well, we should reflect His love by loving our Muslim neighbors and speaking out for their welfare and against those who would seek to rob them of their dignity – and lives.

People everywhere have a right to life. May we pray to the God who has not only given a right to life to the Uighurs, but also gives hope for a life that is eternal through Christ.

July 27, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Considering Cancel Culture

person-with-flicking-at-person-illustration.jpg

It used to be a term reserved for struggling sitcoms. Now, it’s something that happens to businesspeople, politicians, stars, and journalists.

Cancellation.

Recently, a variety of voices have expressed concern over what has become known as the “cancel culture” that seems to be running roughshod over our society. “Cancellation” refers to an attempt by one group to destroy and discredit some person or some other group with whom they disagree.

In a letter published in Harper’s Magazine, a group of progressive luminaries expressed their concern that:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. 

It turns out that this letter caused such a stir that some signatories asked for their names to be removed. Why? Because some others who read the letter wanted to destroy and discredit those who signed it. They wanted to cancel those who expressed concern over cancel culture.

Just days after the above letter was published in Harper’s Magazine, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Beri Weiss, published a scathing public resignation letter, also decrying the pernicious “cancel culture” she perceived to be prevalent and personally directed toward her within the halls of America’s paper of record:

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are. 

It is critical to understand that “cancel culture” is not the coin of just one particular political party, culture, or time period. Humans have been cruel to each other and tried to destroy each other when they have disagreed with each other for a very long time. The question is: what do we do about it?

In one sense, we must begin with ourselves. We cannot stop the unscrupulous from being cruel, but we can be measured in how we respond to the unscrupulous. Here are some responses to cancellation to consider:

  • Love. Responding to those who hate you with love is not only biblically orthodox, it’s generally wise. Responding kindly instead of in kind to those who want to destroy your reputation or livelihood will almost certainly throw your enemies off because it is not the response they want or expect. Speaking well of your enemies disarms them and garners the goodwill of others toward you.
  • Humility. If others are angry with you for something you have said or believe, it is worth it to ask: Do they have a point? This question does not assume that the person who is upset with you is completely correct, nor does it imply that they are handling their disagreement with you well. It simply means that they could be right on something even if they are wrong on many things. And if they are right at all, you want to learn from them. As strange as it sounds, those who hate you can also be those who teach you. Whether you’re willing to learn is up to you.
  • Truth. Responding with love and humility does not mean you forsake what you believe to be the truth. Love and humility do not equal appeasement. Even if the person who is trying to “cancel” you refuses to listen to you, others will. Don’t be afraid to make your case.
  • Gentleness. Sometimes, people become offended not so much by what someone has to say, but by how they say it. Don’t argue a point with the deleterious intent of triggering or offending someone else. Instead, argue a point in the hope of coming to a consensus with someone else. A little bit of gentleness in how you argue can prevent a lot of cancellation when you argue.
  • Empathy. As easy as it is to become defensive and upset when someone angrily disagrees with you, it can be just as easy to become cold and calculating when you disagree with someone else. You secretly wish them ill rather than well. You dream of humiliating them in a debate. When they fall prey to calamity, you feel a spark of schadenfreude. Resist these urges. Listen to and learn from those with whom you vehemently disagree. If you want others to give you a hearing, you need to give them a hearing. Cancellation is no better from you than it is for you.

With all this being said, we must admit that certain people and philosophies do hold views that are deplorable and unacceptable. But more often than not, destroying people’s lives does not lead to the destruction of their views. Their views, when confronted in anger and vitriol, often wind up being merely hardened. So, instead of trying to cancel those with whom we disagree, we could try something else: we could try persuading them. And we could remember: debating ideas does not mean demeaning people.

People are more than their positions.

July 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The God Who Catches Us

fire-truck-nyc-1465664761xIJ

A week and a half ago, in an act of desperation, the mother of a three-year-old boy threw her son from her third-floor apartment balcony to Phillip Blanks, a former wide receiver and Marine veteran, who happened to be passing by in the parking lot below. She was trying to save her son because her apartment was engulfed in flames.

Mr. Blanks made the catch.

“There wasn’t much thinking,” he said, “I just reacted. I just did it.” He continued by crediting his time in football and in the Marine Corps:

I just did my best. His head landed perfectly on my elbow. I know how to catch. I’ve learned how to catch a football. So I’ll give some credit to football. I can definitely credit to the Marine Corps for instilling this good training in me to save a life. I don’t see myself as a hero. A person trained to do my job is trained to protect people.

The real hero, Mr. Blanks argued, is the boy’s mother:

She’s the real hero of the story because she made the ultimate sacrifice to save her children.

When the mother of this boy, Rachel, dropped her son from the balcony, she was on fire, but she ran back in to try to rescue her daughter, too. Her daughter survived when another passerby kicked in the door of the apartment to rescue the girl. Rachel lost her life.

When Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, Satan says:

If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: “He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Matthew 4:6)

Jesus, however, is not interested in falling for Satan’s temptation. He responds:

It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7)

Satan, in his temptation, quotes Psalm 91, but he misquotes it. The original quote reads:

He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Psalm 91:11-12)

Satan leaves out a key phrase: “to guard you in all your ways.” This is not meant to be a promise that God will rescue us from our own foolish choices – like recklessly throwing ourselves off high places – but a promise that He will be with us no matter where the path of life may take us, even if that path takes us into a burning apartment.

Rachel faced a parent’s worst nightmare. She saw no other option for her son than to throw him down from a high place. But Psalm 91 was waiting in the parking lot below, in the form of Mr. Blanks, and her son was saved.

Even though Satan misquotes it, he is right to quote Psalm 91 to Jesus, for this psalm is ultimately about Jesus. In the very next verse, the Psalmist says:

You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. (Psalm 91:13)

A lion and a snake are images for Satan. There is coming a man, the Psalmist says, who will defeat the devil. And He does. He does in the wilderness when Satan tries to tempt Him. And He does on the cross when Satan thinks he has killed Him.

Though the lives of her two children were saved when their apartment caught fire, the life of a mother was lost. But make no mistake about it: Psalm 91 is waiting for her, too. For one day, on the Last Day, she will be lifted up from under her tombstone and brought into the presence of God – and a terrible tragedy will turn into a terrific triumph.

July 13, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A More Perfect Union

flag-america-patriotic-veteran-6895.jpg

Credit: Snapwire / Pexels

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union… 

These words, from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, have inspired millions over the past 232 years. But as we celebrated our nation’s independence two days ago, they’re also cause for reflection.

A more perfect union…

It certainly doesn’t feel more perfect. We have a political system that is broken. We have a pandemic that is raging. We have nagging questions about racism that are perplexing. And we have plenty of anger and distrust that is disheartening. 2020 does not seem to be the year to talk about a more perfect union. Just last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a poll on Americans’ satisfaction level with how things are going in our nation. The results seem to indicate that most people think our union is becoming “less perfect” rather than “more perfect.”

Moreover, this same survey found that only 17% of respondents feel proud of the state of our nation, while 71% feel angry and 66% feel fearful.

Our dream of a “more perfect union” seems to be dimming.

Of course, a “more perfect union” has always been framed as a receding goal. The founders wisely realized that though human beings might desire perfection, they can never achieve it. They may work toward “a more perfect union,” but they can never arrive at simply “a perfect union.” Human aspiration is always thwarted by human depravity. The very people who can dream of perfection are too sinful and broken to achieve it.

This is why, ultimately, our hope for perfection cannot be found in something that we form, but in what Christ gives. If we desire perfection, we must fix “our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

This does not mean that the Constitution’s aspiration is a bad one. Quite the contrary: it is a very noble and good one. But it is also a convicting one. There is still plenty of work yet to be done in our union even as there is much to be thankful for about our union, which is what Independence Day is all about. Our union may have plenty of room to grow, but our union is also free. For this, we can – and should – be thankful. We should also be thankful that even if our union is not perfect, Christ is. And ultimately, our union with Him is what matters most.

If we have been united with Christ in a death like His, we will certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His. (Romans 6:5)

July 6, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

All The Stuff We Don’t Know

COVID-19 continues to be stubbornly confusing. As researchers push to discover treatments and develop a vaccine, their efforts and preliminary conclusions concerning the virus and its treatments have been plagued by some embarrassing mistakes. Most recently, a study that appeared earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has come under fire. The New York Times reports:

The study claimed that mask-wearing “significantly reduces the number of infections” with the coronavirus and that “other mitigation measures, such as social distancing implemented in the United States, are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public.” It also said that airborne transmission was the primary way the virus spreads.

Experts said the paper’s conclusions were similar to those from others – masks do work – but they objected to the methodology as deeply flawed. The researchers assumed that behaviors changed immediately after policy changes, for example, and the study failed to take into account the seismic changes occurring across societies that may have affected the reported incidence of infection.

It turns out that even when it’s generally agreed that a particular study’s conclusion is broadly correct, the methodology researchers use to arrive at their conclusion can still be suspect, which is part of the reason so many of these types of studies raise more questions than they answer. The more we try to learn, the more our enduring ignorance about this virus becomes apparent.

An article in The Wall Street Journal summarizes the state of our ignorance sharply:

What is the true mortality rate? What is a safe social distance? How contagious is the virus? What percentage of carriers are asymptomatic? We still don’t know any of these facts with certainty.

There was a time when we had a certain bravado about what our scientific studies could solve. The 19th century patron of scientific positivism, Auguste Comte, once confidently proclaimed: “From science comes prediction; from prediction comes action.” But Comte’s aphorism now seems to be a summary of the struggles with our response to COVID-19 rather than a pattern for how to get our response to it right. Predictions are consistently changing. And our actions must be continually revised to keep up with these provisional predictions.

When the apostle Paul writes to the Christian church at Corinth, they, too, like we once were, are quite confident in their knowledge. He says about their confidence:

We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! (1 Corinthians 4:10)

The Corinthians, however, do not know as much as they think they do. The Corinthians are divided over their spiritual leaders, so Paul has to admonish them:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (1 Corinthians 3:16)

If the Corinthians are one spiritual temple, they should not be fighting over different spiritual leaders. The Corinthians should know this – but they don’t seem to.

But Paul isn’t done yet. The Corinthians are also ignorant of the proper boundaries for sexual morality as they celebrate a man among them who is sleeping with his mother-in-law. Paul must warn them again:

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? (1 Corinthians 5:6)

Paul says that the sexual immorality of one man affects the spiritual vitality of the whole Corinthian congregation. The Corinthians should know this – but they don’t seem to.

But Paul still isn’t done. A couple of chapters later, Paul has to remind the Corinthians that they need to support their spiritual leaders so they, in turn, can support their families:

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:13-14)

The Corinthians should not be stingy with their leaders, but generous. And again, the Corinthians should know this – but they don’t seem to.

It turns out that human ignorance is as old as the Scriptures and part and parcel of our finitude. There is so much that we should know – or would like to know – but simply do not. Thus, instead of living with arrogance, we are called to approach the mysteries of life – the spiritual as well as the scientific ones – with a healthy dose of humility. One of the most important things for us to know is that there is so much we don’t know.

None of this is to say that we should end our efforts to combat COVID-19, nor is it to say that we should abandon our search for effective treatments and a vaccine. Science’s value to discovery and progress is not in question. But its limits must still be admitted and respected. The positivism of a prior age simply cannot face all the facets of a pandemic like this one.

So, let’s show grace, patience, and pay appropriate respect to our scientific researchers as they continue to carry out their important work while also holding onto faith as, together, we continue to walk into the unknowns of COVID-19 with the One who knows all things – God Himself.

With Him, we can face what we don’t yet know.

June 29, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Rayshard Brooks and the Human Heart

The cuts seem to keep getting deeper. The pain seems to keep getting sharper. The questions seem to keep getting bigger.

Another week has brought another unfolding story of a black man shot and killed by a police officer. It all began a week ago Friday when an employee at an Atlanta-area Wendy’s called officers because a man had fallen asleep in his vehicle while waiting in the drive-thru line and was blocking traffic. When officers arrived at the scene, they found 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks asleep behind the wheel and, after rousing him, it became quickly apparent he was intoxicated. The conversation between the officers and Mr. Brooks remained friendly until 40 minutes in when the officers explained to Mr. Brooks that he was under arrest. He began to violently resist the officers, took a taser off one of them, and then, while trying to escape, he turned and attempted to tase them and was shot and killed by Officer Garrett Rolfe.

Mr. Rolfe was immediately fired from the Atlanta Police Department and then, this past Wednesday, felony charges were filed against both officers by the Fulton County District Attorney, who alleges that Mr. Rolfe kicked Mr. Brooks while he lay dying. According to The New York Times:

At a news conference on Wednesday to announce the charges, prosecutors said that Mr. Rolfe declared, “I got him,” after firing the fatal shots at Mr. Brooks. Mr. Rolfe kicked the victim, prosecutors said, while his partner stood on the fatally wounded man’s shoulder.

Mr. Rolfe and his partner, Devin Brosnan, both of whom are white, then failed to render aid for more than two minutes, said Paul L. Howard Jr., the Fulton County district attorney.

These charges, however, are now being called into question in light of the fact that the District Attorney is himself under investigation for corruption, as reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The GBI has opened an investigation of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city of Atlanta funds to supplement his salary …

The criminal investigation comes at a time when Howard, Fulton’s DA since 1997, is being challenged in the Democratic primary for reelection and is facing allegations of sexual harassment, which he strongly denies.

Some are accusing the District Attorney of pressing charges against the two officers involved in Mr. Brooks’ shooting merely to distract from his own legal troubles. Moreover, the legal counsel for Mr. Rolfe flatly denies the charges the District Attorney has brought against him, saying in a recent television interview that they are simply not true.

Is anyone else wondering which way is up in this case, or am I the only one?

There is still much about this case we don’t know, but this much we do: this case is devastating. It is of course devastating for Mr. Brooks’ family. A wife has lost her husband and four children have lost their father. It is devastating for the Atlanta Police Department, which is now grappling with a deeply disturbing case of alleged police brutality. It is devastating for the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, whose integrity and motivations face serious scrutiny. And it is devastating for our nation, as we not only rightly debate and discuss – but also sadly divide ourselves over – questions of racism, policing, and brutality.

Whenever we are faced with a case like this, and ether of disbelief tends to permeate the air. “How in the world could this happen?” we wonder. “How could people behave so recklessly, so dishonestly, or perhaps even wickedly?”

The prophet Jeremiah famously said:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Both Jeremiah’s statement and question are important. His statement reminds us that the human heart harbors all sorts of sin. Congresswoman Val Demings from Florida, who used to work in law enforcement in Orlando, recently held a press conference where she outlined the problems she sees in policing. She explained:

When I see things go wrong, just like I did at the police department, there were either one of three things: bad mind, bad heart, or bad policy.

This strikes me as fair summary. But it’s not just a fair summary of a police department; it’s a true summary of human beings universally. We all have “bad hearts.” Indeed, the deceit in our hearts runs so deep that, often, we don’t even recognize the wickedness of our hearts. Hence, Jeremiah’s question of the heart: “Who can understand it?”

The apostle Paul once complained:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Romans 7:15)

Like Jeremiah, Paul knew that he did not and could not understand the deceit of his own heart that led him into the wiles of wickedness. His heart was craftier than his goodwill.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, by our confusion at a case like this one. We can’t quite seem to make moral sense out of it because human hearts, as the Scriptures say, often do not operate morally. Which is why we need not only the warning about the human heart from Jeremiah, but this promise for the human heart from Jeremiah:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke My covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

God wants to overwrite the wickedness of our hearts with the righteousness of His way. For this promise, we should most certainly pray.

We need better hearts now more than ever.

June 22, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Someone Needs Your Encouragement

A little bit of encouragement can go a long way.

Take, for instance, the story of Raquel and Derek Pearson, who live in Idaho with their eight-month-old son, Lucas. Lucas has a cardiovascular condition that puts him at high risk for serious complications should he contract COVID-19. His parents, working to minimize their family’s contact with the outside world, are having everything they possibly can delivered to them. They also posted a note on their door, thanking the delivery people who risk their health delivering packages far and wide. You can imagine how touched Raquel and Derek were when they caught an Amazon delivery driver, Monica Salinas, on their video doorbell stopping to say a prayer for little Lucas as she delivered a package to them. The story has since gone viral, being featured on NBC Nightly News. Her little bit of encouragement went a long way.

There is also the story of Kassandra Diaz, a server at Che Restaurant in Delray Beach, Florida. She has been struggling to make ends meet in an industry that has been crushed by COVID-19 and is struggling to recover under the strict social distancing guidelines in place in many regions. So, you can imagine how shocked she was when she saw a $1,000 tip from a customer on a $164 check. The big tipper was Andre Drummond of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who left her this note along with his tip: “Thank you for being amazing!” For Andre, the tip was generous, but not bank-breaking. He’s worth $27 million. But for Cassandra, the tip was life-changing. She didn’t even know who Andre was when she was serving him, but after figuring it all out, she posted on Instagram: “I was shaking and had tears of happiness after what he left me.” His little bit of encouragement went a long way.

In Acts 9, we meet a man named Barnabas who brings a new convert to Christ named Saul –who was a former persecutor of the Church – to a skeptical group of apostles:

When Saul came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:26-27)

Barnabas’s name means “son of encouragement” – a name he certainly lives up to. When the apostles want to reject Saul because they don’t believe his conversion to be genuine, he encourages them to give Saul a chance. Because of his encouragement, Saul, who is known better in the New Testament as Paul, becomes the greatest missionary in the history of the Church, planting congregations all over the ancient Mediterranean basin. Barnabas’s little bit of encouragement went a long way.

Who can you encourage? Is it someone for whom you can pray? Can you leave a larger-than-usual tip to make someone’s day? Can you welcome someone who has been marginalized by those around you?

In a time that feels plenty discouraging as we wade our way through peaks of a pandemic, questions of racism, and waves of civil unrest, we all need some encouragement. After all, a little bit of encouragement can go a long way.

So, let a little bit of encouragement begin with you.

June 15, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Older Posts Newer Posts


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,079 other followers


%d bloggers like this: