2018 in Review

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Another year is drawing to a close.  Here’s a look back at some of the stories that caught my attention in 2018.

January
President Trump sparks a controversy by making, behind closed doors, vulgar comments about places like Haiti and Africa, and expresses concern about accepting immigrants from nations like these.  His comments are part of a long-running debate and disagreement over the kind of immigration policy this country should pursue.

February
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is shot up by a gunman who kills 17 and wounds 14.  The shooting gives rise to rallies across the country that debate the efficacy of stricter gun control policies.

March
A mystery bomber sparks terror across the city of Austin by leaving and mailing package bombs to apparently randomly selected people across the city.  As law enforcement officials close in on the subject, he blows himself up, killing himself and injuring a police officer.

April
The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, travels to Washington DC to testify before Congress and answer questions about how his company protects users’ data and what it did to stop Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

May
The nation of Ireland, which has been historically informed by Roman Catholicism in its national stances on various moral issues, votes to legalize abortion-on-demand when it votes to repeal the Eighth Amendment to its Constitution.

June
Two celebrities, Kate Spade, an iconic fashion designer, and Anthony Bourdain, a foodie and CNN adventurer, tragically take their own lives.  The suicide rate across the country continues to rise.

July
Justice Anthony Kennedy announces his retirement, effective the end of the month.  A so-called “swing” vote on the Supreme Court, his retirement sparks many questions and debate about who will replace him.

August
The New York Times publishes a bombshell report chronicling the abuse of over 1,000 children in the Dioceses of Pennsylvania by over 300 priests there.

September
Confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee for the man to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, explode after he is accused of sexually assaulting a woman while in high school.  He is eventually confirmed.

October
In the scope of one week, a bomber sends a series of explosive packages to public detractors of the president, and a gunman, armed with an AR-15 and three rifles, walks into a synagogue in Pittsburgh on the Sabbath and kills eleven.

November
The midterm elections are held.  Republicans keep and increase their lead in the Senate while Democrats flip the House of Representatives and give themselves a comfortable majority, leading many to describe the election as a “blue wave.”

December
The 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, passes away.  A state funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington DC is held in his honor.

Needless to say, it’s been a busy year.  There were many more stories I wrote about that I didn’t include in this brief retrospective.  Along with the above stories, in 2018, the famed televangelist Billy Graham died, a columnist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, was brutally murdered, a famous evangelical pastor had to step down after accusations of sexual impropriety surfaced in the Chicago Tribune, two major hurricanes crashed into continental United States, the deadliest and most damaging wildfires ever ravaged the state of California, the Hawaiian volcano Kilaeua spewed lava and destroyed homes, the US moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the stock market took us on a wild ride.

So, what can we learn from all of these stories?  Here are a few thoughts.

First, there is a lot outside of us we cannot control.  From volcanos that erupt to hurricanes that flood to wildfires that scorch, the year’s events remind us that, for all our technological achievements and manpower, there is plenty we cannot control.  Indeed, there are many natural disasters to which we cannot even adequately respond.  The limits of our power should keep us humble in the face of the cosmos.  It is big.  We are small.

Second, there is a lot inside of us we cannot control.  Mass shootings, dangerous bombings, accusations of sexual harassment, and tragic suicides have become commonplace events.  Evil is grimly efficient, it seems, at infecting and overtaking people.  It is difficult to stop tragedy when it turns out that the perpetrator of the tragedy is us.

Third, all this means we need something or someone bigger than the cosmos’s brokenness and bigger than human sinfulness.  We need a Crafter of the cosmos to step in and reorder what has gone wrong.  We need a Helper for humanity to step in and rescue us from our willingly wicked ways.  In short, we need Jesus.  2018 needed Jesus.

My guess is 2019 will need Him, too.  So let’s not only hope for a good new year, let’s pray for one.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your blessings in 2019. We ask You to guide us in righteousness in 2019 and guard us from sinfulness. Protect us from calamity, foster in us charity, and give us hearts that live in light of eternity.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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December 31, 2018 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A Carol Turns 200

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200 years ago, on this night, the modern Christmas carol was born.  A small church in Oberndorf, Austria had an organ that was in need of repair, and the parish priest there, Joseph Mohr, wanted a Christmas song he could sing with his congregants sans the usual stops and pipes.  He composed some lyrics that a local teacher, Franz Gruber, set to music, and the two of them performed the song, accompanied simply by guitar, for the first time during their Christmas Eve service on December 24, 1818.  The name of the song was “Silent Night.”

The song’s appeal is indisputably enduring.  It was sung in the trenches as a part of an unofficial Christmas truce in 1914 during World War I by German soldiers to their British enemies.  It was sung again during World War II in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Rose Garden of the White House.  When Bing Crosby recorded the song in 1935, it became the third best-selling single of all time.  And, of course, tonight, millions will gather across the world to sing the song by candlelight with warm hearts and, by God’s grace, lively faith.

Part of the song’s appeal is its utter simplicity.  Both the tune and lyrics are extraordinarily unassuming.  But the song also tells the story of Christmas extremely well.  Everything from Jesus’ birth to the angelic announcement to some nearby shepherds to the truth of Jesus’ identity is contained in this carol.  The last verse is my favorite:

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Here, in just this one verse, we find who Jesus is, why Jesus has come, and what He has come to do.  Jesus is the Lord who has come as a baby in a manger out of love to bring redeeming grace.  That’s more than a verse in a carol.  That’s the gospel.  That’s why, 200 years later, this is still a carol worth singing.  Because it tells of a birth that, 2,000 years later, is still most definitely worth celebrating.

Merry Christmas.

December 24, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Dating Apps For People Who Don’t Want To Date

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Dating isn’t what it used to be.  In fact, in some circles, dating just isn’t.  Apps like Tinder and OkCupid have begun to admit as much in their advertising campaigns.  Lisa Boons explains in an article for The Washington Post:

If you’ve seen ads for OkCupid or Tinder recently, you might notice something conspicuous: There’s little mention of love or partnership.  Instead of trying to convince users that their perfect match is just a click or a swipe or a wink away, OkCupid and Tinder are touting the joy of meeting new people yet remaining unattached…

 Appearing amid ads for Etihad Airways and Hulu, Tinder’s shows a gaggle of diverse young people throwing their hands in the air and roller-skating under dreamy pink and blue neon lights – as if footage from a night out has been put through the Amaro Instagram filter.  “Single is a terrible thing to waste” is superimposed over the carefree images.  They skate in single-file, alone together – no one holding anyone’s hand…

The dating app’s other ads proclaim: “Congrats on your big breakup”; “Single does what Single wants”; “Single never has to go home early.”

In other words, Tinder, along with OkCupid, are dating apps for people who don’t want to date.  That seems strange.  But it is also dangerous.

Last month, The Cut, which is the fashion blog of New York Magazine, published a heartbreaking letter sent to its advice columnist:

I feel like a ghost. I’m a 35-year-old woman, and I have nothing to show for it…

I have no family nearby, no long-term relationship built on years of mutual growth and shared experiences, no children.  While I make friends easily, I’ve left most of my friends behind in each city I’ve moved from while they’ve continued to grow deep roots: marriages, homeownership, career growth, community, families, children. I have a few close girlfriends, for which I am grateful, but life keeps getting busier and our conversations are now months apart.  Most of my nights are spent alone with my cat (cue the cliché)…

On top of that, I’m 35 and every gyno and women’s-health website this side of the Mississippi is telling me my fertility is dropping faster than a piano falling out of the sky.  Now I’m looking into freezing my eggs, adding to my never-ending financial burden, in hopes of possibly making something of this haunted house and having a family someday with a no-named man…

I used to think I was the one who had it all figured out.  Adventurous life in the city!  Traveling the world!  Making memories!  Now I feel incredibly hollow.  And foolish. 

It turns out the carefree, single lifestyle apps like OkCupid and Tinder are promoting is the same lifestyle that leaves many with hollowed souls and deep regrets.  OkCupid’s advertisements, which these days are emblazoned with the acronym “DTF,” referring to commitment-free promiscuity, don’t actually deliver the carefree joys and ecstatic pleasures they promise.

God’s words to history’s first single man were: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  So, for Adam, God fashioned Eve, who became his wife.  Though this is certainly not a mandate that every person should marry – Jesus Himself was, after all, single –  it does testify to the reality that the very order of creation cries out for companionship.  And it does mean that ripping certain experiences, like sex, out of the companionship and covenant of marriage by declaring that one is “DTF” is a recipe for disaster.

Make no mistake about it: marriage and family come with many burdens.  An adventurous life in the city and traveling the world are often out of the question for those who spend their days baking chicken nuggets, doing dishes, administering baths, and reading Goodnight Moon for the ten-thousandth time.  But, for all the burdens marriage and family present, these burdens, when they are carefully considered, have a funny way of beginning to feel like blessings.  A family to spend your life with and to give your life to fills your heart in a way that a life sans this often cannot.

Keep this in mind the next time you pick up your phone to swipe right.

December 17, 2018 at 5:15 am 2 comments

+ In Memoriam: George H.W. Bush +

When George H.W. Bush passed away nearly a week and a half ago, our nation lost a statesman, a war hero, and a president.

State funerals are relatively rare, but Mr. Bush, thanks in large part to his service to our nation as its president, received one.  However, when his son, George W. Bush, stood in the pulpit of the staid and storied National Cathedral to deliver a eulogy, he spoke not so much of Mr. Bush as a president, but as his father.  He reminisced:

To us, he was close to perfect.  But not totally perfect.  His short game was lousy.  He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor.  The man couldn’t stomach vegetables, especially broccoli.  And by the way, he passed these genetic defects along to us.  Finally, every day of his 73 years of marriage, dad taught us all what it means to be a great husband.  He married his sweetheart.  He adored her.  He laughed and cried with her.  He was dedicated to her totally…

In his inaugural address, the 41st president of the United States said this:  “We cannot hope to only leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account.  We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent.  A citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it.  What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there?  That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us, or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?”  Well, dad, we’re gonna remember you for exactly that and much more.  And we are going to miss you.  Your decency, sincerity, and kind soul will stay with us forever.  So through our tears, let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter can have.

It was this last line, at which the younger Bush choked up, that captured the hearts of many who were tuning into the service this past Wednesday, for his words were a reminder of what really matters in a life.  What is done from an oval-shaped office is certainly historically significant and nationally critical.  But what is done around a kitchen table is also significant and critical – perhaps even more so.  God calls us to love others personally long before He calls any of us to lead others politically.  George H.W. Bush knew this – and lived it.

In his book, The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks makes a distinction between what he calls “the resume virtues” and “the eulogy virtues.”  He writes:

Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

At Mr. Bush’s funeral, the eulogy virtues were certainly on display.  And at a time when many are openly questioning whether or not these types of virtues really matter in public service, the life of George H.W. Bush reminds us that they certainly do.  The virtues we cultivate shape the decisions we make, the wisdom we display, and the legacy we leave.

With all of this being said, we must remember that, for all of George H.W. Bush’s commendable and imitable virtues, nobody is perfect.  The younger Bush said as much about his father.  But, of course, human imperfection goes far deeper and into much more shameful territory than the humorous examples given by George W. Bush of George H.W. Bush.  The younger Bush pulled a rhetorical sleight of hand as he spoke not so much of his father’s imperfections, but of his idiosyncrasies.  But each casket is a reminder that each of us has been infected by real imperfection, the wages of which is death (Romans 6:23).  This is why, as great and as needed as eulogy virtues are, they are not enough.  Something more is needed.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pointed out that, at a certain moment in last Wednesday’s funeral service, during one of the prayers, Mr. Bush went from being referred to as “President George Herbert Walker Bush” and instead began being referred to as “our brother George.”  This was liturgically intentional.  The greatest thing that can be said about George H.W. Bush was not that he was a successful man with many resume virtues.  But it is also not that he was a good man with many eulogy virtues.  Instead, the greatest thing that can be said about George H.W. Bush was that he was a redeemed man, brought into the family of God by the blood of Christ – a brother in Christ.

The eulogy virtues extolled at last week’s funeral leave legacies, which make them of inestimable importance.  Redemption, however, gives hope, which makes it of eternal significance.  Our brother George may have been a good man, but, even better, one day, through faith in Christ, he will be a resurrected man.  His casket will be empty and last week’s funeral will be undone.  That’s Christ’s promise.  And that’s our hope.

Come, Lord Jesus.

December 10, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When A Missionary’s Zeal Turns Deadly

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The wisdom, or lack thereof, of John Allen Chau’s deadly decision to try to witness to an isolated tribe of indigenous people on North Sentinel Island, off the coast of India, is a topic of hot debate.   Initial reports portrayed Mr. Chau as a reckless explorer and mountain climber, seeking adventure in far-flung, exotic locations.  It quickly became apparent, however, that he was also a devoted missionary committed to preaching Christ to the Sentinelese people.  Although his initial overture to the tribe appeared clumsy – in his journal, he wrote about how he “hollered” to the tribespeople, “My name is John. I love you, and Jesus loves you” – he was also heavily vaccinated and linguistically and medically trained before embarking on his journey.  It turns out that Mr. Chau was not just some hotheaded adventurer.  He was a calculated planner, even if his planning finally proved to be woefully incomplete.

Among evangelically minded Christians, there is little debate over whether we should share our faith.  The call of Jesus Himself is to spread and share His message to and with the world.  There is much debate, however, over how we should share our faith.  Clawing your way onto a remote and, according to Indian law, off-limits island and confronting tribespeople who are known to be hostile toward, probably because they feel threatened by, outsiders hardly seems like an effective missionary method.

During this time of year, Christians celebrate the incarnation – that the God of the universe took on flesh in the person of Jesus in space and time in the little town of Bethlehem.  In His incarnation, Jesus carried out God’s mission by preaching God’s message and doing God’s work of dying for us and for our salvation.  Jesus’ incarnation, then, was part and parcel of Jesus’ mission.

In our outreach efforts, Jesus’ life can serve as our model.  Mission and incarnation should work together in our lives, too.  Our evangelization of any people should always be coupled with a careful contextualization.  This is what Mr. Chau appears to have overlooked.  He wanted to reach the people of this remote island, but did not have workable plan to enter into their culture and customs, as Jesus did when He became man.

The reality is that, because of the islanders’ hostility toward outsiders and the Indian laws that shield them from modern society, reaching these people will take more than one person’s plan.  Coordinated diplomatic efforts will probably be required so laws are not broken and, of course, a careful posture toward the Sentinelese people themselves is absolutely necessary.  Building trust with them will take much time and, frankly, in this case, probably nothing less than a miracle of God.  But that’s okay.  God is, after all, quite good at the miraculous.

I appreciate Mr. Chau’s passion to reach the unreached.  And I am saddened by his death.  I pray for his family and friends who are, I am sure, grieving.  Mr. Chau’s devotion to Christ’s mission is a laudable devotion for any Christian to have.  But learning from his dangerous and ultimately deadly strategy is also necessary.

The death of Mr. Chau should call every mission-minded Christian to take some time to learn and reflect so that we can better witness and love.  Jesus wants nothing less for the sake of the many souls who are still far from Him.

December 3, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Happy Thanksgiving

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Credit: Max Pixel

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  So much of my day-to-day life centers around what I must do.  There are tasks to complete and errands to run and bills to pay and conversations to have and decisions to make and Bible studies and sermons to write and preach.  These things to do are often, even if not always, joyous, but Thanksgiving reminds me that I must never get so caught up in what I have to do that I forget about what has already been done.  God has done great things for me.  He has given me a family I adore, a church I love, and a forgiveness I need.  And for these things, I am called to be thankful.

Thanksgiving keeps me humble.  When I am tempted to boast in all I have accomplished, Thanksgiving reminds me of all I’ve been given.  Even my life itself is a gift of God’s grace.  This is why I must continually and humbly rely on Him.

Each year, I make it my tradition to read a Thanksgiving Proclamation from one of our nation’s founders.  This year, I came across George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.  In it, he thanks God:

…for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

President Washington rattles of a list of the many blessings for which, he believes, a newly minted nation should be thankful.  And he’s right.  These are things for which our nation should still be thankful.  But what I love most about his proclamation comes in what he says next:

May we then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.

President Washington was under no delusion that our nation’s blessings were somehow the product of our nation’s – or her individuals’ – intrinsic merit.  This is why he offers not only a prayer of thanksgiving, but a prayer of confession.  For he knew that God had blessed this new nation in the same way He has always blessed every nation:  by grace.

When God chose Israel to be His people and gave to her a Promised Land, He made sure she knew her blessings came by His grace:

It is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.  Remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the LORD your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the LORD.  (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)

God did not bless Israel because of her righteousness, but in spite of her unrighteousness.  God works this way with every nation and every person.

Ultimately, then, to be thankful is to be repentant, knowing that we have what we have not because we’ve earned it or deserved it, but because God has willed it.  Thus, each Thanksgiving, I am called to make little of myself and my accomplishments, which are few, and much of God and His blessings, which are bountiful.

As this long weekend draws to a close, my prayer is that the holiday of Thanksgiving becomes a habit of thanksgiving.  After all, I have plenty to be thankful for.

You do, too.

November 26, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Tragedy in California

They are the worst wildfires in the history of the state of California.

Nearly 250,000 acres have burned.  79 people have been killed.  Sadly, that number will likely climb as first responders continue their search through the rubble these fires have left behind.  The town of Paradise, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has been especially hard hit, with nearly the whole town being destroyed.

California has had a rough go of it lately.  Just two weeks ago, the state endured another tragedy as a gunman opened fire at a country bar filled with college students in Thousand Oaks, killing twelve.  The shooter was a Marine Corps veteran who appears to have had all sorts of mental health issues and was, at one time, on the cusp of being committed.

The sheer number of tragedies that roll in through each news cycle can begin to feel overwhelming.  For each town that is charred and person that is shot, we ask, “How can we stop this from happening?”  Answers to this perennial and pressing question seem to elude us.  When tragedies do strike, we are thankful for firefighters who risk their lives on the frontlines of massive and unpredictable blazes and officers who run into hails of bullets rather than away from them.  Proactively, we are instructed to keep dry brush away from homes in fire zones and guns out of the hands of mentally disturbed people.  But despite our best efforts, the tragedies keep coming.  Tragedies, even if they can be somewhat mitigated and managed by us, cannot be successfully stayed by us.

On the surface, the California fires and the California shooting seem to be two different types of tragedies.  One is a natural disaster.  The other is man-caused carnage.  Below the surface, however, these two tragedies share a common core:  sin.  The fires remind us that the sin that came into the world with Adam and Eve has disordered and distorted the world in profound and frightening ways.  The mass shooting reminds us that sin is not just in the world.  It is in us.  It’s not just that we cannot eradicate the sin that distorts creation; it’s that we cannot even kill the sin in ourselves.

The message of Christianity reminds us that, even as societies scramble to address sin, we need a victory over sin that we cannot gain for ourselves.  Sin needs not only our noble actions and timely reactions, but a perfect transaction that exchanges our sad sin for a better righteousness.  This is the transaction Christ makes for us on the cross.

Tragedies are sure to continue.  And we should be thankful for those fighting on the front lines of those tragedies.  But we can also be hopeful that tragedy’s time is short, for sin’s defeat is certain.

November 19, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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