Posts tagged ‘Christ’

Who’s In Charge? The Self As the Source of Authority

Protests

Authority issues are nothing new.  Conflicts over the source, scope, and systems of authority can be found in every socio-political upheaval, in every teenager who rebels against his parents, and in every rebellion going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

In our current cultural mise en scène, we seem to have two ascendant loci of authority:  that of personal experience and that of corporate solidarity.  The authority of personal experience claims that, simply by virtue of experiencing something, a person can speak conclusively, decisively, and intelligently on issues that intersect with his or her experience.  It is assumed, for instance, that a person who identifies as gay can speak conclusively on LGBTQ concerns, or that a person who is an immigrant can speak decisively on border policy.  These personal experiences, in turn, coalesce around a corporate solidarity where LGBTQ people come together to form the LGBTQ community, or where immigrants come together to form coalitions like the Dreamers.  These communities then develop their own canons of orthodoxy and heresy, with individuals whose personal experiences or commitments do not conform to the broader communal experiences and commitments finding themselves marginalized or, sometimes, even shamed.

In many ways, our current secular assumptions about the wellsprings of authority parallel the experiments with authority in nineteenth-century theological liberalism.  The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, located the foundation for authority in individual experience, claiming:

If the word “God” is in general originally at one with its attendant notion, and thus the term “God” presupposes some notion of it, then the following is to be said.  This notion, which is nothing other than simply a declaration of the feeling of absolute dependence, or the most direct possible reflection of it, is the most primary notion with which we have to do here, completely independent from the primary knowing proper just mentioned.  Moreover, the notion we have to do with here is conditioned only by our feeling of absolute dependence, with the result that for us “God” signifies, first of all, simply that which is codeterminant in this feeling and that to which we push back our being, that being viewed as what we are.  Any content of this notion that would be derived from some other quarter, however, has to be explicated based on the fundamental content just specified.[1]

Schleiermacher claims that notions of God are founded on feelings of dependence.  One’s feeling of the need for God becomes the basis for a transcendent understanding of God.  In this way, divine authority is found first in personal feeling even as today’s authority is grounded in personal experience.

Likewise, the authority of corporate solidarity finds its advocate in another German theologian of this period named Albrecht Ristchl, who put a heavy emphasis on a theological authority that arises out of the Christian community.  As his famed dictum summarizes: “the immediate object of theological knowledge is the faith of the community.”  More fully, Ritschl writes:

Authentic and complete knowledge of Jesus’ significance – His significance, that is, as a founder of religion – depends on one’s reckoning oneself part of the community which He founded, and this precisely in so far as it believes itself to have received the forgiveness of sins as His peculiar gift.  This religious faith does not take an unhistorical view of Jesus … We can discover the full compass of His historical activity solely from the faith in the Christian community.[2]

Though I am more sympathetic to Ritschl’s emphasis on community than I am to Schleiermacher’s obsession with individual feeling, Ritschl nevertheless strays when he not only celebrates the faith of the Christian community – that is, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) – but calls for faith in the Christian community, supplanting Christ Himself as the object of faith.  Ultimate theological authority for Ritschl is found in the Christian community even as ultimate secular authority today is found in ascendant activist coalitions.

Whether it be the locus of personal experience or the locus of corporate solidarity, these loci are fundamentally one in the same, for they both ultimately point back to the self.  And authority that is grounded in the self cannot endure because, even as many selves can come together in a corporate solidarity, inevitably, such alliances will fissure as factions arise and their lust for authority will lead to the horrors of war.

One of the fascinating features of our modern notion of the self as the ultimate source of authority is how regularly we seek to elide the responsibility that comes with authority.  Many tout their personal experiences not only as authoritative testimonies, but as grievance litanies that explain why the problems they face are not their fault.  Likewise, some corporate solidarities have a habit of tying the legitimacy of their authority to the severity of their oppression.  Thus, while many may want to have the authority to complain about what’s wrong, they don’t want their authority to include responsibility for their own part in what’s wrong.

Orthodox Christianity grounds ultimate authority in a place quite different from that of the self or of the community.  Christianity’s message is that ultimate authority is in no way humanly grounded, but is instead divinely founded.  Ultimate authority is not in the self, but in a Savior who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18).

Christianity invites all of us who have been unraveled by our own authority to trust in Jesus’ authority.  For where our authority stumbles, His authority stands.  Maybe it’s not so bad not to be in charge.

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[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, Volume 1, Terrence N. Nice, Catherine L. Kelsey, & Edwina Lawler, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[2] Albrecht Ritschl in Wilfred Currier Keirstead, “Theological Presuppositions of Ritschl,” The American Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (1906): 425.

March 12, 2018 at 4:15 am 1 comment

Predictions Come and Predictions Go

Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld,_Ludwig_Ferdinand_-_Apocalypse

Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Apocalypse, 1831

Well, things are still here.

There was some doubt as to whether or not they would be, at least in the mind of one man named David Meade.  Mr. Meade is a self-styled “Christian numerologist” who believed this past Saturday would bring a super-sign that would mark the beginning of the end of the world.  He based his prediction on the number 33:

“Jesus lived for 33 years. The name Elohim, which is the name of God to the Jews, was mentioned 33 times [in the Bible],” Meade told The Washington Post. “It’s a very biblically significant, numerologically significant number. I’m talking astronomy. I’m talking the Bible…and merging the two.”

And September 23 is 33 days since the August 21 total solar eclipse, which Meade believes is an omen.

Mr. Meade also pointed to a mythical planet named Nibiru, which he said would pass by the earth, causing all sorts of calamities.

The difficulties with Mr. Meade’s odd eschatologizing are legion.  For starters, by one count, the Hebrew word for “God,” Elohim, doesn’t appear in the Bible 33 times, but in the Old Testament 2,570 times!  Mr. Meade’s count isn’t even close.  And the planet Nibiru, which was supposed to be central to his apocalyptic super sign, according to NASA scientists, doesn’t even exist.

Of course, whenever anyone – even if they are someone as obscure as Mr. Meade – makes this kind of sensationalistic prediction, reporters rush to interview Christian leaders to ask for their take on the prediction.  In this instance, thankfully, the leaders who they interviewed responded, to paraphrase, “Give me a break.”

Unfortunately, implausible apocalyptic predictions have become something of a matter of course for some who love to traffic in the dramatic.  In 2011, it was Harold Camping who predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21.  But predictions like these go back much further than that.  One of the earliest ballyhooed apocalyptic predictions dates all the way back to the end of the fourth century, when the church father Martin of Tours announced that the Antichrist had already been born and that the world would end by 400.  1,617 years later, we’re still waiting.

One problem with predictions like these is that they have the effect of discrediting the Christian message because those who trumpet them attach them to the Christian message.  And when these predictions inevitably fail, other parts of Christianity begin to look suspect.

Another problem with predictions like these is how they tend to portray the end times.  These predictions tend to focus so much on the destruction of earth that they forget about the return of Christ.  Mr. Meade, in his prediction, highlighted things like “volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes,” but he seemed to overlook the thrilling trumpet call, the breathtaking new Jerusalem, and the joyous resurrection to everlasting life.

The return of Christ, for those who trust in Him, is not meant to terrifying, but encouraging.  In one way, then, we should feel a twinge of disappointment that Mr. Meade wasn’t right.  For when Christ returns, all the depravity, devastation, despair, and death will be set right, which, for all the charms of this world, makes what comes next something I am looking forward to and praying for.

So, although I would never be so bold as to try to chronologize the end times, I do pray that Jesus will come.  Mr. Meade’s prediction doesn’t have to be right for that prayer to be good.

Maranatha!

September 25, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The International Hurricane

As Hurricane Irma tore across the Atlantic, it had its sights set on ___________.

How you fill in this blank depends on where your focus lies.  For most of us in the states, we saw Irma targeting Florida.  Floridians themselves might have gotten a little more specific.  Hurricane Irma had its sights set on:  Key West, Marco Island, Naples, Fort Myers, and, even though it is on the other side of the state, Miami.

But, of course, Irma affected – and devastated – more than just our nation’s southeastern-most state.  Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, and Antigua and Barbuda, among others, were all hit.

In a piece for NBC Nightly News a week ago Sunday, Joe Fryer tugged at the heartstrings by showing a parade of pictures of those overwhelmed by Irma’s wrath while delivering a monologue:

These are the faces of Hurricane Irma – victims who found themselves in the long path of a heartless storm, forever connected by what they’ve endured.  Looking at the damage, it’s impossible to tell which territories are American or British, French or Dutch.  The hurricane did not discriminate.

Mr. Fryer reminded us that the story of this hurricane cut across peoples and nations, islands and mainlands, nations and territories, rich and poor.  Irma indeed did not discriminate.  Irma was sweeping in its devastation.

Sweeping problems need sweeping solutions.  Mr. Fryer ended his piece on Irma by musing: “The human spirit – every bit as powerful as the storm.”  This is certainly a sweet sentiment.  And, in one way, I suppose I agree.  The human spirit that has been on display across the regions now affected by two major hurricanes – Harvey and Irma – has been indefatigable.  People are determined to recover from these storms.  But as much as the human spirit may help us recover from storms like these, it does not help us restrain storms like these.  We cannot turn a category 4 hurricane into a sunny day.  We cannot steer the “cone of uncertainty” we’ve heard so much about over these past few weeks in whatever direction we might like.  The human spirit may be strong, but it is not omnipotent.

But we know Someone who is.

We know a God of whom the Psalmist writes, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed” (Psalm 107:29).  And we know a Man of whom the disciples ask, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey Him” (Mark 4:41)!  We know Someone who has power that the human spirit does not.  We know Someone who has sweeping solutions to the sweeping problems of this world.

In Acts 15, the Christian Church is meeting in Jerusalem to debate and discuss whether or not Gentiles should have to follow certain old rules of Israel.  Specifically, there are some Jews who are teaching, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  Peter, himself a Jew, speaks into this debate and asserts that God does not “discriminate between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9).  Peter says that whether a person is Jew or Gentile, they are purified from sin in the same way – by faith in Jesus Christ.  God does not give different paths to purification to different people because God does not discriminate. He purifies all the same.  He has a sweeping solution to the sweeping problem of sin in this world – faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

The God who is sweeping in His solution to the problem of sin is also sweeping in His love for the people who struggle through the effects of sin.  Just like Hurricane Irma did not discriminate in its destructive power, God does not discriminate in His love and care.  He sees every lost life in Cuba, every now-homeless person in the Bahamas, every hungry soul in Turks and Caicos, every exhausted worker in the Virgin Islands, every forgotten resident in Antigua and Barbuda, and every hurting family Florida, and He says, “I care about that and I have come into that through Jesus.”

A hurricane that hurts the world needs a God who loves the world and a God who can still the storms of the world.  And we have a God who does and a God who will.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“In front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.” (Revelation 14:6)

September 18, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Christianity ≠ Morality

One of the topics I address often on this blog is that of morality.  With a collapsing cultural consensus on what morality looks like around issues like human sexuality, childbearing, childrearing, gender, justice, and political discourse – to name only a few examples – offering a Christian perspective on what it means to be moral is, I believe, important and needed.

There is an implicit danger, however, in spending all of one’s energy arguing for a Christian morality in a secular society.  Far too often, when we, as Christians, do nothing more than argue for a Christian morality in the public square, it can begin to appear that Christianity itself is nothing more than a set of moral propositions on controversial questions.  Like in the 1980s, during the height of the Christian Moral Majority, Christianity can be perceived to be conterminous with a particular system of morality.

A couple of years ago, an op-ed piece appeared in the LA Times titled, “How secular family values stack up.”  In it, Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, argues that godless parents do a better job raising their children than do godly parents.  He writes:

Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the “cool kids” think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. When these teens mature into “godless” adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.

Much of what these kids raised in secular homes grow up to be is good.  A resistance to peer pressure, an eschewing of racism, a willingness to forgive, a measured sobriety about the positives and negatives of one’s country, a desire to avoid violence, a willingness to serve instead of to command, and a charitable tolerance toward all people are certainly all noble traits.  Professor Zuckerman argues that since secular parenting has a statistically higher probability than does Christian parenting of producing children who act morally in these categories, Christian parenting serves no real purpose.  But it is here that he misunderstands the goal of Christian parenting.  The goal of Christian parenting is not to make your kids moral.  It is to share with your kids faith in Christ.  Morality is wonderful, but, in Christianity, faith comes first.

James, the brother of Jesus, describes the proper relationship between Christian morality and Christian faith when he writes:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  (James 2:14-18)

James here explains the absurdity of claiming to have faith apart from any sort of moral deeds.  He says that if someone claims to have faith and no moral deeds, he really has no faith at all.  He even goes so far as to challenge his readers to show him someone who has faith, but no moral deeds.  This, in James’ mind, is an impossibility.  Why?  Because James knows that faith inevitably produces some sort of moral action.  The real danger is not so much that someone will have faith and no moral action, but that someone will have plenty of moral action and no faith!  Indeed, this is the problem Jesus has with the religious leaders when He says of them, “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Matthew 15:8).  The religious leaders were supremely moral.  But they did not have faith in Christ.

In our crusade to argue for a Christian morality in the midst of a morally relativistic secular society, let us be careful not to spend so much time trying to make people moral that we forget to share with them faith in Christ.  For a Christianity that only makes people moral, ultimately, leads them the to same place that a secular moral relativism does – it leads to death.  Morality, no matter what type of morality it is, cannot offer life.  Only Christ can do that.

We are not here just to try to make people good.  We are here to show people the One who is perfectly good.  Let’s not forget what our real mission really is.

June 26, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Physician-Assisted Suicide and Who We Really Are

Euthanasia

Physician-assisted suicide has gained limited acceptance in many regions of the country because it has been peddled, in part, as an option for those suffering from the excruciating pain of certain types of terminal illnesses.  Supervised suicide was sold as a way to alleviate physical misery.  A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, however, suggests that the actual reasons people choose assisted suicide are quite different from that of physical suffering.   One of the researchers in the study, Madeline Li, explains that many people consider assisted suicide because of:

…what I call existential distress.  [For some people,] their quality of life is not what they want. They are mostly educated and affluent – people who are used to being successful and in control of their lives, and it’s how they want their death to be.

In one instance cited in this study, a marathon runner found herself confined to her bed because of cancer.  She wanted to take her own life because “that was not how she saw her identity,” Li explained.  In another case, a university professor wanted to die because, according to Li, “he had a brain tumor, and he didn’t want to get to the point of losing control of his own mind, [where he] couldn’t think clearly and couldn’t be present.”

This study reveals that physician-assisted suicide can turn out to be not so much a palliative response to physical pain, but an angry response to the loss of how we see ourselves.  A marathon runner wants to end her life when she can longer run marathons.  A university professor sees no reason to live if he is no longer able to think at the level he once was.  It turns out that when people lose what gives them their identities, they often lose the very will to live.

If nothing else, this study should serve as a warning concerning the dangers of finding your meaning, purpose, and identity in something you are or in something you do, for these types of identities can all too easily be shattered by the wily ravages of this world and this life.  This is why, as Christians, we are called to find who we are in Christ.

When a rich man comes to Jesus in Mark 10 and asks Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by citing a sampling of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”  When the man boasts to Jesus, “All these I have kept as a little boy,” Jesus responds, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”  The rich man, the story says, “went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  It turns out that this man found his meaning, purpose, and identity in his wealth.  And when Jesus asked him to give up the source of his earthly identity, he could not – even to follow Jesus eternally.  May we never make the same devastating mistake.

Physician-assisted suicide carries with it a whole host of ethical problems, including the temptation to place profits over people.  Just last week, The Washington Times reported on a doctor who claimed that some Nevada insurance companies refused to cover certain life-saving treatments he requested for his patients because they were too expensive.  Instead, these companies offered to help his patients end their lives.  If this story is true, such a practice is nothing short of appalling.  But sadly, far too many people do not need a creepy suggestion from a greedy insurance company to consider taking their own lives.  They only need to be so turned in on who they are in this life that they forget about who they are in Christ.

Suicide may be some people’s answer to a loss of identity.  But suicide cannot give someone a new identity.  It cannot give someone hope.  Only Jesus can do that.  So let us find ourselves in Him.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

June 5, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

No-Win Situations

maze-1

George Jones once sang a song called “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win.”  I imagine Jesus felt much the same way when He uttered one of the tersest parables of His ministry:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.” For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  (Luke 7:31-34)

It seems no matter what message the kingdom of God was offering, the people of Jesus’ day were determined to reject it.  When John came preaching a message of somber repentance from sins, the people thought him to be mad.  When Jesus came and welcomed sinners and preached to them the gospel of grace, the people thought Him to be licentious.  Sometimes, you just can’t win.

A while back, my son Hayden was a little under the weather.  He was also teething.  So when I held him, he cried  And when I put him down, he cried.  When I sat down with him, he cried.  And when I stood up with him, he cried.  At that time, I just couldn’t win.

I have been a pastor long enough to watch quite a few people put themselves in what I call “no-win situations.”  Sometimes it’s a financial no-win situation.  “There is no way I have enough money to live on!” a person will say.  Sometimes it’s a relational no-win situation.  “There is no way I can ever forgive this person for what they have done to me!” another person will say.  And when I suggest some ways that someone can, in fact, navigate toward a winning solution, I will hear a whole litany of why there is no way to fix the problem.  Sometimes, a person just won’t let himself win.

When Jesus invites us to Himself, He invites out of the no-win situations of our sin and into the comforts, promises, and delights of His grace.  Like John the Baptist came before Jesus, there is an element of repentance that comes before forgiveness – sorrow that comes before joy.  But whether it is in dirge or in dance, we are invited out of our sin and into Christ’s arms.  The question is:  will we be like the people of Jesus’ generation, refusing both to participate in repentance and to receive God’s forgiveness?

The apostle Paul writes that his desire is to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  Paul has a desire to win what matters most.  But he also knows that his win will come not by his effort, but by his loss:

Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  (Philippians 3:7-9)

Paul’s win is the righteousness of Christ that leads to everlasting life.  This is the win to which Jesus invited the people of His day in Luke 7.  And this is still the win to which Jesus invites us.  And there’s no win that’s better than this win.

May 15, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Turkey, Germany, Power, and Love

berlin-christmas-attack

Terror doesn’t take a break for Christmas.

This past Monday was a tragic day in Europe.  In Istanbul, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “Do not forget Aleppo!” in an apparent protestation of Russia’s recent bombings of the embattled city.  Then, later the same day, in Berlin, a Tunisian man, Anism Amri, is suspected to have driven a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring scores of others.  ISIS has claimed involvement in the attack.

In one way, this is all too predictable.  Terrorists are trained and indoctrinated to be callous to human carnage.  They seek power through the exercise of brute force.  ISIS has made no secret of its goal of a global caliphate and, even if it knows it can never realize such a theocratic dream, it will lash out at every opportunity possible to, at the very least, wield power through fear.  Terror attacks will continue.

It is difficult to imagine how Christmas must have felt for the loved ones of those lost in these attacks.  A day that celebrates history’s greatest birth is now tinged by the stain of death.  And yet, Christmas is precisely the message this world needs in the face of these continuing attacks.  For Christmas reminds us how such attacks will ultimately be overcome.

On the one hand, we should be thankful that responsible governments work tirelessly both to prevent these attacks and to bring attackers to justice. On the other hand, we should never forget that such efforts, no matter how noble they may be, are ultimately stop gap measures.  The defeat of terrorism lies not in the power of human governments, but in the meekness and weakness of a babe in Bethlehem.  N.T. Wright explains why this is the case when he writes:

You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means.  If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins.  Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love.[1]

Terrorism is rooted in a lust for power.  But a lust for power cannot, in an ultimate sense, be exorcised by a use, even if it’s an appropriate use, of power.  A lust for power can only be defeated by, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “self-giving love.”  And this is where Christmas comes in.  For it is self-giving love that moves God to give His one and only Son to the world as a babe at Christmas.  It is self-giving love that moves God’s one and only Son to give His life for the world on a cross.  And through the meekness and weakness of the manger and cross, victory is won over every sinful use of power.  To use the words of the apostle Paul: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

In the 1980s, one of TV’s most popular shows was MacGyver.  At the heart of the show’s popularity was the fact that no matter how perilous a situation he may have found himself in, MacGyver always seemed to find a way out of it using the simplest of means. A pair of binoculars that deflected a laser beam.  A paper clip that shorted out a missile on its countdown to launch.  MacGyver’s strange and unexpected hacks to disarm every danger imaginable have become so eponymous with MacGyver himself that his name has turned into a verb.  If there is a problem that calls for a creative solution, you can “MacGyver” it!

In a world that knows only the use of force in the face of force, Jesus pulls a MacGyver.  He solves the problem of the abuse of power in a way no one expected.  He uses a manger to enter the brokenness of our world.  And He uses a cross to overcome the sin of our world.  In this way, a Turkish assassin is no match for the manger.  And a Tunisian terrorist is no match for the cross.  Why?  Because though the former things may engender fear, the latter things hold forth hope.  And hope will win the day.

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[1] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York:  HarperOne, 2016), 222.

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Castro’s Death and the Christian’s Hope

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When news first came a little over a week ago that the longtime brutal dictator of the island nation of Cuba, Fidel Castro, had died, the reactions to his death ranged from the viscerally ecstatic to the weirdly and inappropriately sublime.  Many reports simply sought to chronicle the events of Castro’s life without much moral commentary, but, as Christians, we know that a man who, over the course of his raucous reign, murdered, according to one Harvard-trained economist, close to 78,000 people is due at least some sort of moral scrutiny.  As Cuba concludes a time of mourning over the death of a man who himself brought much death, I humbly offer these few thoughts on how we, as Christians, should ethically process the life of one of history’s most famous and infamous leaders.

We should not be afraid to call wickedness what it is.

It is true that there were some bright spots in the midst of Castro’s morally dark oppression of Cuba.  Cuba’s literacy rate, for instance, stands at 99.8 percent thanks to its government’s emphasis on education.  It has also been reported that the robust healthcare system there has resulted in one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world at 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births, although The Wall Street Journal has called this number into question.

Whatever good Castro may have done should not excuse or serve as rationalization for his gruesome human rights violations.  As ABC News reports:

Over the course of Castro’s rule, his regime rounded up people for nonviolent opposition to his government and subjected many to torture and decades-long imprisonment.

In a January 1967 interview with Playboy magazine, Castro admitted there were 20,000 “counter-revolutionary criminals” in Cuba’s prisons…

Under his dictatorship, Castro arrested dissidents and gay citizens and forced them into labor or prison, according to human rights groups. He is also responsible for mass executions of people who spoke out against his government.

There is simply no way to mask or minimize the atrocities that Castro committed.  They were – and are – evil.  As Christians, we should be willing to call evil for what it is – not only for the sake of upholding moral standards, but for the sake of being honest about the way in which Castro’s immorality took countless human lives.

We should remember those who Castro brutalized and pay attention to those who are currently being brutalized.

The website cubaarchive.org is devoted to remembering those Castro murdered.  The stories in the “Case Profiles” section of the site are heart-rending.  In one case, a tugboat carrying children was intentionally sunk by order of Castro himself because the people on it were trying to escape Cuba.  In another case, U.S. citizen Francis Brown was given a lethal injection at a Guantanamo hospital that ultimately killed him while, on that same day, his daughter’s full term unborn child was murdered by doctors at a Havana hospital.  These stories should not be forgotten.  These are victims who should not fade into the recesses of history, for they remind us who Fidel Castro really was – an egomaniacal madman with no regard for any life besides his own.

These stories should also lead us to seek justice for those currently suffering under oppressive and brutal regimes.  The stories of people in places like Syria, Iraq, and Sudan should demand our attention and touch our hearts.

Though we should not eulogize Castro’s life, we also should not revel in his death.

It is understandable that many have celebrated the death of a despot like Castro.  Indeed, Scripture understands and points to this reality: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy” (Proverbs 11:10).  But even if this is an understandable and natural reaction to the death of a dictator, we do well to remember that God’s reaction to the death of the wicked is more measured: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways” (Ezekiel 33:11)!  God refuses to rejoice at the death of the wicked because He understands that such rejoicing ultimately serves no purpose. For when the wicked die, they stand eternally lost and condemned.  This helps no one and fixes nothing.  This is why God’s preference is not death, but repentance.  Death is merely the result of wickedness.  Repentance is the remedy to wickedness.  God would much prefer to fix wickedness than to let it run its course.

As Christians, we are called to mimic God’s character in our responses to the death of the wicked: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Proverbs 24:17-18).  These verses caution us not to revel in the death of an enemy while also reminding us that God will render a just judgment on the wicked.  And God’s justice is better than our jeers. 

We should find our hope in the One over whose death the world once reveled.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of God’s refusal to rejoice in the death of the wicked is the fact that the wicked once reveled in the death of His perfectly righteous Son.  The Gospel writer Mark records that when Jesus was on the cross:

Those who passed by hurled insults at Him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save Yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but He can’t save Himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”  (Mark 15:29-32)

For God not to rejoice in the death of the wicked when the wicked rejoiced in the death of His Son reveals not only God’s gracious character, but His perfect plan.  For God deigned that, by the mocking of the wicked, wickedness itself should be defeated.  Indeed, at the very moment the wicked thought they had succeeded in defeating God’s Holy One, God’s Holy One had accomplished His mission of opening salvation to the wicked.  Our hope, then, is not in the death of a wicked man, but in the crucifixion of a righteous One.  His righteousness is stronger than Castro’s wickedness.  That is the reason we can rejoice.

December 5, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

At God’s Core: Service

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Credit: Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475

A while back, I was having a conversation with a friend who was going through a difficult time.  He was struggling relationally, vocationally, and financially.  And yet, throughout his struggles, he had managed to keep a remarkably clear head about what was most important.  “No matter how bad things may get,” he told me, “I still want to find ways to help and serve others.  It helps me take the focus off my own pain and remember just how important other people really are.”

I could not agree more.  This is wise insight from a good friend.  Serving others is a surprisingly great salve for a troubled soul.

In Philippians 2, the apostle Paul writes about the difficult times Jesus endured – specifically, His most difficult time of dying on a cross.  Paul also explains that as Jesus endured these times, He did so with the heart of a servant:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (Philippians 2:5-7)

The Greek behind this passage is interesting and worth a moment of our reflection.  The passage above is taken from the ESV, which notes that though Jesus was God, He became a servant.  The ESV translates Jesus’ servanthood concessively.  That is, the ESV makes it sound like Jesus’ divinity and His servanthood are somehow logically antithetical to each other, or, at the very least, in tension with each other.  Jesus is God and has all the power, perks, and privileges that go along with being God, and even though He could have retained all those power, perks, and privileges when He came to this earth, He conceded them to become a servant.

The actual grammar behind this passage, however, is more ambiguous.  The word for “though” in Greek is hyparkon, a participial form of the verb “to be,” which, at the same time it can be translated concessively as the word “though” as the ESV does, it can just as easily and legitimately be translated causally as the word “because”:  “Jesus, because He was in the form of God…emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant.”

If I had to choose between a concessive or a causal translation of hyparkon, I would opt for the causal translation.  Here’s why.

To translate hyparkon concessively makes it sound like somehow the nature of God and the nature of a servant are at odds with each other.  But what if God is, in His very nature, a servant?  What if, as John Ortberg says, “When Jesus came in the form of a servant, He was not disguising who God is, He was revealing who God is”?[1]  What if the grandeur of God and the servanthood of Christ don’t conflict with each other, but correspond to each other?  What if Jesus not only explaining His mission, but revealing God’s nature when he said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28)?

Sometimes, we can be tempted to treat service as a bother, a burden, or, worse yet, as something that is beneath us.  But being a servant should never conflict with who we are.  It should reveal who we are.  Jesus was a servant not in spite of who He was as God, but because of who He was as God.  God is a servant at heart and so it only makes sense that Jesus would comes as a servant!  Likewise, we should be servants not in spite of who we are as business people, managers, or people who can command respect, but because of who we are as God’s children.

This is what my friend understood when he talked to me.  He wanted his service not to be incidental to his life, but core in his life.  May we want the same.

_________________________

[1] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 115.

September 5, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Terror Hits Brussels: How Should Christians Respond?

Brussels

It happened again.

Just four days after Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam was captured by Belgian law enforcement officials, two coordinated attacks – one at the airport and another on a subway – were carried out in Brussels at approximately 8 am local time.  ISIS is taking responsibility for both.

Most of the scenes on the news right now are coming from the airport attack, and the pictures are ghastly.  Physicians treating the wounded are describing severe nail injuries, indicating that the explosives were packed with materials designed to inflict maximum injury.  As of the posting of this blog, CNN is reporting the provisional death toll at 34:  14 dead at the airport with 20 people killed in the subway bombing.  We do not know whether or not the toll will rise.

At a time like this, it is always worthwhile to pause and reflect on how we, as Christians, are called to respond and react to a tragedy such as this.  Christians are, after all, in a unique position to respond and react to tragedy, for our very faith was born out of tragedy, as this Good Friday will remind us.  Our faith is rooted in “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) – a gruesome thought if left by itself.  So here are a few things to keep in mind.

Pray for Brussels

When terrorists attacked Paris, I wrote, “Pray for Paris.”  The first thing we should do in an event like this is pray – always.  For the vast majority of us, there is no help we can offer Brussels physically – we are not omnipresent.  And there is no way we can thwart another attack in this beleaguered city – we are not omnipotent.  So we must entrust Brussels and its future to the One who is omnipresent and omnipotent.  We must entrust Brussels and its future to the One who can actually help.  Such is the power of prayer.  It not only offers real help to hurting people because it turns to a God who is in the business of helping hurting people, it also grows our faith when we cannot take charge of a situation like this because it teaches us to trust the One who is in charge of every situation like this.

Mourn for Brussels

The old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  We have become all too familiar with terror attacks.  With another one in the news this morning, although we may not be tempted to become outright contemptuous of what has happened, we may be tempted to respond to it with a mild dismissiveness.  We see.  We react with a bit of a groan.  And we move on.  I would encourage us to saunter at the scenes from Brussels for a bit.  Look at the damage done at the airport.  Look at the horrified faces of the people escaping from a bombed subway car.  And grieve.  Terror may be common nowadays, but that shouldn’t make it any less tragic in our hearts and minds.  What has happened in Brussels is worth our grief.  It is worth our sadness.  It is worth our pain.  We worship a Savior who shares in all our pain.  He never passes us by “on the other side” (Luke 10:31).  We should be willing to share in each other’s pain as well.  For when we do, we “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Hope for Brussels

Christianity may have been borne out of the tragedy of death, but it is carried forth by the glory of life.  This is what this Holy Week is all about – death on a Friday followed by life on a Sunday.  The hope we have for Brussels, then, is the hope we have for all the world – that no matter how many people terrorists may kill, they cannot win by death because “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).  Christ portended our ultimate ends when, on Easter, He conquered His would-be end by walking out of His grave.  We now share in the promise that our graves will not be our ends.  Resurrection is coming.

One of my favorite Bible stories is the story of Armageddon – that great cosmic battle between good and evil at the end of days.  The reason I love it so much is not just because of who wins, but because of how the battle is fought.  The forces of evil, John says, are gathered “to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘It is done’” (Revelation 16:16-17).  And that’s the end of the battle.  There are no swords drawn.  There are no bullets fired.  There are no bombs dropped.  The forces of darkness combine to bring their worst.  But they are no match for God’s simple declaration: “It is done.”  In Greek, the declaration is just one word:  gegonen.  It turns out that even just one little word, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther, really can fell Satan and his sympathizers.

We live in a world where deranged terrorists wage twisted jihad.  But as Christians, we hope for a kingdom where battles are not won by an armed detachment, but by a divine decree: “Gegonen.”  “It is done.”

And it will be.

March 22, 2016 at 10:53 am 1 comment

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