A Journalist Is Murdered

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Credit: POMED

When Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, he was planning to pick up some documents for his upcoming marriage.  Instead, he walked into an ambush that took his life.  The purported details of the ambush are grim – from dismemberment to acid being used to dispose of his remains.

Mr. Khashoggi wrote articles for The Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic tendencies.  Suspicions are running high that behind Mr. Khashoggi’s murder is a furious Crown Prince.  In a phone call with President Trump, however, the royal vehemently denied any knowledge of or participation in the crime.

On the one hand, as an article by Kevin D. Williamson cautions us, there is still plenty we do not yet know about Mr. Khashoggi’s death.  This is why investigators are hot on this case.  Leveling ironclad accusations and jumping to confident conclusions now may damage our credibility later. Patience, to modify an old Latin proverb, often winds up being the mother of accuracy.

On the other hand, even as new facts continue to tumble in, there does seem to be a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that points to the Crown Prince’s involvement.  Thus, provisional, measured, and appropriately humble suspicions that call for further investigation are appropriate.

As it stands right now, this story could have all the makings of a modern-day crime of Cain.  Like Cain cultivated bitterness against Abel for bringing to light his faulty sacrifice, a ruler may have nursed jealously against a journalist for uncovering his ruthless rule.  Instead of rethinking his ways, he may have exacted his vengeance.  If this is, in fact, the case, this we can know:  the truth of this crime, one way or another, will come to light.  God discovers Cain’s crime against his brother when Abel’s blood cries out to Him from the ground (Genesis 4:10).  The victims of sin, it turns out, do not stay silent – even in death.  Sin always seems to get discovered and uncovered.

Thankfully, as Christians, we know that sin is not only inexorably revealed, it will also be eventually routed.  Abel’s blood spoke the truth of Cain’s crime.  But, as the preacher of Hebrews reminds us, there is a “blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24).  For this blood doesn’t just speak of foul play; it secures a holy redemption.  The blood does not just cry for justice; it confers justification.  This blood does not just point to death; it defeats death.  And this blood does not just spill because of man’s sin; it flows from the side of a perfect Savior.

Mr. Khashoggi was ruthlessly murdered in an ambush.  Jesus was ruthlessly murdered on a cross.  But Jesus was also raised.  And He is returning to raise those who have died in Him to live with Him.  And there will be nothing any royal regime, no matter how repressive and resentful, will be able to do about it.

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October 22, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Hurricane Michael

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It’s been a busy hurricane season.  This time, it was Hurricane Michael that slammed into the Florida Panhandle with Gulf-churned sustained winds of 155 miles per hour – the strongest storm ever to hit the region and the third most intense storm to make landfall in the United States.  The storm moved fast – some 13 miles per hour – but that kind of wind does not have to be around long to do serious damage.  So far, the death count stands at 16.  Tens of thousands are still without power.  Mexico Beach, where the storm made landfall, is devastated.  And now begins the long, slow process of cleaning up and rebuilding.

Last week, I was delighted when a cold front moved through San Antonio – not only because it brought us clear blue skies and lower temperatures, but because I recently had new grass installed in my yard and the rain meant my sprinklers could take a break and my water bill could take a dive.  Rain is good – except when there’s too much.  Then we call rain a flood.  Sun is also good – except when there’s too much.  Then we call sun a drought.

A hurricane is the poster child for “too much.”  With a hurricane comes not a cooling breeze, but a battering gale.  With a hurricane comes not a needed shower to quench a parched land, but a torrential downpour to deluge an already saturated ground.  With a hurricane comes not a peaceful wave on a picturesque beach, but, in the case of Hurricane Michael, an eight-foot storm surge that floods neighborhoods and guts homes.

The book of Jonah famously tells the story of a reluctant prophet who does not want to carry out his God-assigned preaching mission to a town called Nineveh, which is, in Jonah’s day, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  Jonah cannot stand the city of Nineveh because it represents, in Jonah’s view, all that is wicked and vile – violence, decadence, and religious irreverence.  So, Jonah seeks to scuttle his preaching obligation by hopping a ship heading in the opposite direction of this miscreant metropolis.  But God is having none of it.  A storm comes upon the ship in which Jonah is stowing away.  The sailors, who quickly realize that this storm is bigger than they can handle, each cry out “to his own god” (Jonah 1:5).  But the sailors’ gods sit silent.  It isn’t until Jonah calls upon his God, and surrenders his stubborn will to his God by allowing Him to transport him to Nineveh via a titanic tuna, that the sea is finally calmed.

Storms like Michael and like Jonah’s are reminders of just how little power we have over the wind and the waves.  In an article for The Atlantic, Sam Kemp recounts a time when a Nobel Prize winning chemist, Irving Langmuir, led a 1947 experiment to slow a hurricane:

On October 13, 1947, a mild hurricane named King sliced through Miami and began drifting northeast, out into the Atlantic Ocean. Because King seemed to be dying anyway, Cirrus officials decided to seed it the next day. A B-17 puttered out to meet it and scattered 180 pounds of dry-ice pellets into the eyewall. Everyone sat back and waited for the eye to widen and for King to collapse. Instead, the storm grew stronger, fiercer. To everyone’s horror, it then pivoted – taking an impossible 135-degree turn – and began racing into Savannah, Georgia, causing $3 million in damage ($32 million today) and killing one person.

Though, at the time, people blamed Langmuir for making the storm worse, in reality, he didn’t make the storm do anything at all.  The storm was simply beyond even a Nobel laureate’s control.

The Psalmist reminds us that it is the Lord alone who can still “the storm to a whisper” and hush “the waves of the sea” (Psalm 107:29).  Yes, storms may be out of our control.  But they are not out of God’s.  And although we may not understand why God does not always still storms before they collide with coastlines, we do know that God Himself willingly goes through them.  Jesus, after all, claims to be another Jonah: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).  Jonah’s stormy salvation finds its counterpart in Jesus’ tempestuous tomb.  Jesus went through the storm of sin – and conquered it.  And if He can go through a storm that fierce, I’m sure He hasn’t left – and He won’t leave – anyone alone in the aftermath of Michael.

Today, then, Jesus lovingly stands with the people of Florida.  He knows how they feel.  Perhaps we should stand with them too.

October 15, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Who Is God’s Enemy?

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There is a fascinating exchange between Joshua and an unnamed man right before he fights the battle at Jericho.  As Joshua is nearing the city and mustering his troops, he looks up and sees a man with a sword drawn in his hand.  He asks him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”  The man replies, “Neither, but as a commander of the army of the LORD I have now come” (Joshua 5:13-14).

This exchange, though somewhat cryptic, is extremely revelatory.  In this exchange, this man reveals who He is.  He is part neither of Israel’s army nor of the army of Israel’s enemy.  Instead, He commands the forces of God Almighty.  In other words, He is not just a man.  He is divine.  This is why this commander echoes the words that God speaks to Joshua’s predecessor, Moses, from a burning bush.  “Take of your sandals,” this commander says to Joshua, “for the place where you are standing is holy” (Joshua 5:15).  This commander speaks the same words God once spoke to Moses because He Himself is God, who is now speaking to Joshua.

But the revelation that is given to Joshua in this man does not end here.  For this man reveals not only who God is, but who God cares about.  Before one of the biggest battles in Israel’s history, this commander comes to Joshua and tells him that He is not somehow blindly for Israel and against Jericho.  But neither is he for Jericho and against Israel.  Instead, He is for God who, ultimately, is for all.  It is indeed true that God does rain down His wrath on Jericho’s sin in this story.  But this does not mean that He does not love Jericho’s people.  God is much more interested in saving people than in siding against them.

In our current milieu, I think it can be all too easy to forget that God cares about not only us, but those who we call “enemies.”  But if we took the time to actually ask Him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” God’s answer might just surprise us.  It might just be, “Neither.”  God is much more interested in loving the world than He is in making enemies.

The next time you are tempted to hate your enemy, remember this commander’s interaction with Joshua.  And remember the admonition of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  And, most importantly, remember the action of Jesus: “While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10).  Paul says that God’s enemy, before the cross, was you.  So, ask yourself, “How did God treat me when I was His enemy?”

Go and do likewise with your enemy.

October 8, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Jekyll, Hyde, and Mr. Cosby

Last Tuesday, Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in state prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand.  Though it was Mrs. Constand’s charges that ultimately landed Mr. Cosby in prison, she is just one of 60 women accusing the famous actor and comedian of sexual assault.

In an age where the ugliness of sexual immorality is bubbling to the top all around us, Mr. Cosby’s case is another reminder of what happens when power, lies, and lust all coalesce.  People get used.  Tracks get covered.  Spirits get shorn.

One of the things that makes Mr. Cosby’s case so difficult to process is the massive disconnect between the doting dad America knew as Dr. Huxtable on the Cosby Show in the 80s and the sickening nature of his alleged and, until recently, secretive crimes with multiple women.  “Hypocrisy” feels like too weak a word to describe his actions.

Dallas Willard once wrote, “We are a whole being, and our true character pervades everything we do.”  In other words, people may try, as did Mr. Cosby, to be one person in public while being someone completely different in private.  Eventually, however, everyone gets revealed for who they really are.  Dr. Jekyll inevitably gets mown down by Mr. Hyde.  Or, as Jesus puts it:

“There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17)

The secret sins of Mr. Cosby eventually caught up to the perfect persona of Dr. Huxtable.  And now a legacy of laughter is clouded and a whole string of abused women are shattered.

The Bible testifies that human sexuality has been disordered for a very long time.  King David used the power of his throne to commit adultery and murder his lover’s husband.  A group of religious leaders tried to stone a woman caught in adultery, all the while speciously ignoring the sins of her male counterpart.  From marital unrighteousness to incorrigible self-righteousness, there is plenty of sexual sin to go around.

God calls us to something different and better than sexual licentiousness and laziness.  God calls us to a sexual commitment that is ultimately selfless instead of selfish.  The apostle Paul writes of marital intimacy:

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)

In a cultural milieu that can egg people on to chase what they want sexually, Scripture invites husbands and wives to serve each other tenderly.  Intimacy is not meant to be taken, but given.  It is not meant to be violative, but restorative.

Let’s take what intimacy is meant to be, and let’s make a promise:  this is what intimacy will be for me.  And this is how I will use intimacy for thee.  Your spouse will thank you.  And others who are struggling in sexual brokenness just might take note of you.

October 1, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Judge and #MeToo

Credit: Wikipedia

Last week was a raucous one in politics.  Last Sunday, The Washington Post published a bombshell investigative report detailing allegations of sexual assault against President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.  Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of clinical psychology at Palo Alto University, claimed that Judge Kavanaugh, at a party in the early 1980s, when they were both in high school:

…pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.

The details of this account, if true, are deeply distressing.  Yesterday, another accusation was leveled against the judge, this one concerning some sexually aggressive behavior in his college years during an alcohol-fueled party.  Hearings on the initial accusation are tentatively set to begin on Thursday.

While these stories continue to unfold, and facts, evidence, and debate continue to trickle – and, in some instances, flood – in, there are some important lessons for us to consider from what we already know.

We can learn something about honor.

Whether or not these accusations ultimately prove to be credible, this much is indisputably true:  we live in a culture that has lost its way sexually.  These allegations may turn out to be false.  But so many others have turned out to be, if the preponderance of evidence is to be believed, true.  Harvey Weinstein.  Les Moonves.  Charlie Rose.  Bill Cosby.  Al Franken.  Roy Moore.  Matt Lauer.  Kevin Spacey.  Steve Wynn.  And there are many more.

This must stop.  Sex is not a right, a rite of passage, or an unrestrainable drive.  Sex was created to be an expression of love and commitment, which sometimes results in the blessing of children, between a husband and a wife in marriage.  Committing to a woman publicly before God and a group of witnesses to be a faithful, gentle, and servant-hearted husband till death do you part is the most honorable thing a man can do for a woman before he lays a hand on her sexually.  Ripping sex out of this commitment and context provides a seedy breeding ground for sexual entitlement instead of gentle chivalry.

We can learn something about power.

Dr. Ford’s allegation against Judge Kavanaugh first came to light in the middle of a contentious and hyper-politically-charged Supreme Court confirmation hearing.  Sadly, partisans on both sides have proven to be more concerned about the political power in play than the moral rectitude at stake.  From a supporter of Judge Kavanaugh came an argument that it doesn’t really matter if the judge is guilty of sexual assault, because his good deeds clearly outweigh his bad deeds overall.  The judge should get a pass.  Conversely, a detractor of the judge who knew of these accusations as early as late July and decided to sit on them and not address them, now appears to be using them to maximize the political chaos surrounding Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination.

When partisans on either side engage in these kinds of arguments and actions, they insult justice.  The treat the terrible truths of two women’s claims or the shameful besmirching of a man’s character as less important than a political victory.  Human lives get trampled for the sake of maintaining and extending political power, which, by definition, sounds less like a democracy where human dignity is supreme, and more like a tyranny.

We can learn something about truthfulness.

There is really no way to assert that both Judge Kavanaugh and his accusers are being truthful.  Two women have made accusations.  Judge Kavanaugh has categorically denied them.  Contrary to some clumsy efforts to try to exonerate all parties, someone is almost certainly lying.  In a cultural consensus that seems all too content to bake deceit into some sort of pragmatic cake because “everybody lies,” and to downplay the need for the truth as secondary to other, supposedly larger, concerns, this case reminds us that the truth really does matter.  Lives, reputations, and, in this case, the public good are stake.  This is why, for the sake of justice, and for the sake of our country, I hope the truth comes out.

For now, we’ll have to wait and see.

September 24, 2018 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Hurricane Florence Batters the Carolinas

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Credit: NASA Johnson

The remains of Hurricane Florence continue to pummel the East Coast.  The devastation already done by the monster storm is startling.  The death toll seems to rise nearly by the hour.  Nearly one million are without power.  And by midday Saturday, North Carolina received over 30 inches of rain from the storm, shattering the previous rainfall record of 24.06 inches, set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

As the storm sluggishly dissipates and the recovery begins, we are once again left grappling with the chaos that is endemic to a creation disordered by sin.  The pictures pouring in of wind-battered beaches, tree-split homes, flood-ravaged communities, and terrified-looking residents speak for themselves.  The cleanup and rebuilding process will most certainly be long and arduous.  This summer, I vacationed in Port Aransas, Texas with my family, the spot where Hurricane Harvey came ashore last summer.  The condo complex at which I stayed still had whole buildings that were missing their roofs.  The amount of work yet to be done in that family-friendly beach town is simply more than contractors can complete in a timely manner.  I have a feeling the coastal towns of the Carolinas will be enduring much the same experience.

When Jesus’ disciples find themselves in the throes of a massive storm of the Sea of Galilee, they come face-to-face with the chaos – and the danger – of a disordered creation.  As they are battered by the wind and the waves, they cry out to Jesus, who is in the storm with them, “Lord, save us” (Matthew 8:25)!  And He does.  He “rebukes the winds and the waves, and it is completely calm” (Matthew 8:26).

The disciples’ simple and desperate prayer is still a plea worth making, even as Florence passes.  The Lord can still help, even after the wind and the waves have been stilled and the floods have receded.  He can give us empathy for the injured and a resolve to rebuild.  And so, we pray that God would provide us with all that we need during a time that is fraught with exhaustion and heartbreak.

J.I. Packer, in his book on prayer, quipped that we should ask God “what we ourselves might need to do to implement answers to our prayers.”  As the Carolinas begin the process of rebuilding, this is certainly a question worth asking.  We can make donations to the victims.  We can help our loved ones – and, perhaps, even strangers – rebuild.  And we can refuse to forget that, long after the headlines of the hurricane fade, the need will continue to be real.

For all the damage that Florence has done, we must never forget that Jesus was in the storm, lovingly caring for all those who suffered – and continue to suffer – from the storm.  Jesus does not always stop storms, but neither does He shirk them.  He stands in them with us.  And He’s a good guy to have when you’re in the wind and the waves.

September 17, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Who Needs Friends When You Have God?

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A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that those who have a strong faith in God are often isolated from others.  Todd Chan, a doctoral student at the university, explains:

For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide.

This is an interesting hypothesis, but studies like these do not seem to provide consistent results.  W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has found that:

…religion generally fosters more happiness, greater stability, and a deeper sense of meaning in American family life, provided that family members – especially spouses – share a common faith.

In other words, contrary to what Mr. Chan found, faith in God can actually deepen and sustain relationships instead of serving as a substitute for relationships.

Certainly, there are people of deep faith who find themselves bereft of human companionship and, consequently, lonely.  The Bible admits as much, while also seeking to offer comfort and a promise of companionship to those in isolated situations:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.  (Psalm 68:5-6)

God does indeed promise to be there for someone when they have no one.  But He doesn’t stop there.  He also “sets the lonely in families.”  In other words, He doesn’t just serve as a substitute for human companionship, He actually grants human companionship.

Christianity has always confessed a Triune God, in relationship with Himself from eternity, as the model for and the giver of deeper and better relationships with others.  This is part of the reason why Christianity first took root in the more densely populated urban areas and why it was initially less prevalent among more rural areas.  As Rodney Stark notes in his book The Triumph of Christianity:

The word pagan derives from the Latin word paganus, which originally meant “rural person,” or more colloquially “country hick.”  It came to have religious meaning because after Christianity had triumphed in the cities, most of the pagans were rural people.

Christianity first flourished in cities because those were where the largest communities of people were.  Christianity, it turns out, is irreducibly communal.

Jesus famously summarizes the whole of Old Testament law thusly:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus is clear.  A relationship with God can and should lead to better relationships with others.  Regardless of what Mr. Chan’s study may assert sociologically, theologically, God is not a second-string substitute for human relationships.  Instead, a human, who had an intimate relationship with God and was Himself God, became our substitute on a cross so that we could have a relationship with God in spite of our sin.  God is not a last resort relationship when you’re lonely, but a first love relationship who promises never to leave you alone.  And there’s just no substitution for that.

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

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