Posts tagged ‘Fear’

Casting Your COVID Anxiety on Christ

As states, cities, and businesses begin what will likely be a long, slow, and uncertain process of reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to show signs of receding, a new normal is sure to emerge. Social distancing will likely continue for some time. Face masks will likely be commonplace. E-commerce will almost certainly dominate. And we will be encouraged to sanitize, sanitize, and sanitize.

For some, the transition out of staying at home will be exciting. They are ready to go. Others I have talked to are experiencing a fair amount of anxiety over re-entering workplaces and public spaces. There is, after all, still a lot uncertainty surrounding how far this virus will continue to spread and how much more damage this virus will continue to do.

In the early 60s of the first century, one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, was living under a lot of uncertainty. The ruler at this time was a Roman Emperor named Nero, who became a famed persecutor of early Christianity. When Peter writes his first letter to the church-at-large, though he does not quite yet know the future holds, he knows he has to encourage Christians to be ready for potential trials and persecution to come:

You greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:6)

Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:14)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you … If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:12, 16)

Such looming trials, understandably, caused a lot of anxiety among many in the early church because they did not know where, when, or if they were going to suffer and be persecuted.

Peter, however, does not want these Christians to be trapped by their anxiety. So, he writes these famous words:

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

Peter knows that anxiety often arises because of circumstances that are beyond our control. In order to deal with anxiety, Peter instructs us to give what we can’t control to the One who is in control. And He assures us that what we can’t control is safe with Him, because “He cares for you.”

When Peter invites us to cast all our anxiety on the Lord, the word “cast,” in Greek, is a participle – “casting.” This verse, therefore, can be translated as a phrase that piggybacks on the verse that comes before it:

Humble yourselves…under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time, casting all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)

It turns out that casting our anxiety on the Lord not only helps us feel better, it helps us learn humility, because it reminds us that we are not masters of our own destinies and captains of our own ships. Our calling is not to be in control, but to humbly submit ourselves to God’s control – to live under His mighty hand, which, Peter promises, will take care of our problems, even when our problems are as thorny as how to re-enter workplaces and public spaces in the midst of a still-very-ominous pandemic.

As anyone who has dealt with intense anxiety knows, anxiety is not an emotion one can simply “turn off” or “un-feel.” It bubbles up inside of us, often when we least expect it. But even if we cannot stop it, we can confront it. Clinically, we can receive help for it. And spiritually, we can cast it on Christ. He’s strong enough to take care of it. And He’s compassionate enough to take care of us.

May 4, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Safety in a World Full of Terror

Police tapes off Parliament Square after reports of loud bangs, in London

Credit: Time Magazine

First came a ban on most electronic devices – including laptops and tablets – on flights into the United States and United Kingdom from certain Muslim-majority countries.  Then, last Wednesday, terror struck London as Khalid Masood, a British-born citizen apparently inspired by online terrorist propaganda, drove an SUV into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge, leaving four dead and forty injured.  After crashing his vehicle outside Parliament, he ran, fatally stabbing a police officer before he himself was fatally shot by law enforcement.

Certainly, weeks like these remind us of the fearful reality of the world in which we live.  With the continuous news of terror attacks and warnings, it is no surprise that when Chapman University surveyed Americans concerning their fears, 41% said they were afraid of terror attacks while another 38.5% admitted they were worried about being the victim of a terror attack.

It can be frustrating that, despite our best efforts, we cannot seem to make this world as safe as we might like it to be.  In a day and age that seems and feels scary, here are a few reminders for Christians about safety.

Safety is important. 

Mosaic law set up what were known as “cities of refuge” for ancient Israelites who stood accused of manslaughter.  The goal of these cities was “safety” for these accidental killers (Deuteronomy 19:4), because, if a man killed another man – even if unintentionally – the victim’s relatives might seek the killer’s life in revenge without due process.  Keeping people safe from those who would seek to unjustly harm them, then, was a priority in Israel.  It should be the same with us.

Whether it be the security of our homeland, or the plight of refugees halfway across the world, tending to the safety of others is part and parcel of having compassion on others.  Thus, we can be thankful for the intelligence agencies who seek to keep our nation safe along with the relief agencies who tend to the safety and even the basic survival needs of endangered peoples throughout our world.

We should pray for safety.

The biblical authors have no qualms with praying for their safety and for the safety of others.  The apostle Paul, for instance, knowing that he might encounter some opposition to his ministry in Judea, writes to the Romans, asking them to “pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea” (Romans 15:31).

Martin Luther, in his morning prayer, thanked God that He had kept him “this night from all harm and danger” and, in his evening prayer, thanked God that He had “graciously kept [him] this day.”  In the same vein, an alternate version of the famous children’s bedtime prayer reads:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
Wake me with the morning light.

Prayers for safety abound.  Praying for our safety, the safety of our families, the safety of our nation, and safety across the world is, at its root, a holy and righteous prayer for peace.  It ought to be a regular part of any Christian’s prayer life.

Safety cannot be our only concern.

As blessed a gift as safety may be, it cannot be our only concern.  Sometimes, we are called to surrender our own safety for the sake of the gospel.  This is why Paul and Barnabas, in a letter to the Christian church at Antioch, honor those “who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).  This is why each of the Twelve disciples, save one, was martyred for what he believed.  A concern for safety that refuses to take a risk for the sake of the gospel does not treat safety as a gift from God to be celebrated, but as an idol that needs to be repented of.  The concern for our own safety must never become greater than our commitment to Christ.

Perfect safety is found only in Christ.

As each terror attack reminds us, we cannot ultimately ensure our own safety.  Only God can.  The Psalmist wisely prays, “You alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).   Paul similarly declares, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).  The Greek word for “safely” in this verse is sozo, the word for “salvation.”  As concerned as we might be with safety in this life, Christ is finally concerned with bringing us safely into the eternal life of salvation.  Thus, we should never become so concerned with temporary safety now that we forget about the perfect safety of salvation, won for us in Christ and given to us by the grace of Christ.  In the words of John Newton’s great hymn:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
 

The safety our eternal home is the safety we finally seek, for it is the only safety that can never be shattered.

March 27, 2017 at 6:18 am Leave a 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.

________________________

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

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Who’s Afraid of Election Day?

U.S. Citizens Head To The Polls To Vote In Presidential Election

Credit: Darren McCollester / Getty Images

Tomorrow is the big day.  Tomorrow, we the people turn out to vote for the next President of the United States.  Though literally thousands of other politicians will be on the ballots that are cast tomorrow, the presidential election is the one that looms largest in the minds and hearts of most people.  Indeed, I’ve heard it repeated over and over again throughout the course of this political season that “this is the most important presidential election of our lifetimes.”  I honestly do not know whether or not it is.  I do know that Walter Mondale told a crowd in 1984, “This is the most important election of our lives.”  I would argue that history has probably proven him wrong.  And history, eventually, may prove today’s claim about the importance of this election wrong – or, perhaps, right.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

But whether or not voters and pundits prove to be historically correct in their estimation of the weightiness of this election, I do know that the immediate perceived importance of this election is enormous and is engendering deep fear in the minds and hearts of many.  I have had conversation after conversation with people who are scared of what has happened and what will happen to our political system and to our nation.

This past weekend, I listened to a sermon on the topic of this year’s election.  The pastor who preached this sermon argued forcefully, powerfully, and, at times, eloquently for what he believed about this election and even for whom he believed we, as Christians, should vote in this election.  But what struck me most about this pastor’s sermon was its closing.  He ended by talking about two fears that he has for the future of this nation.  First, he explained his fear that there may be too many of “them” and too few of “us.”  He sees postmodern secularism winning over the masses and driving Christianity to the fringes and he is worried that there is nothing we can do politically to beat it back.  Second, he expressed his worry that we may simply be too late to make any difference.  He thinks too many Christians have been too silent for too long, and now a day of reckoning has come.

Politically, this pastor seemed very knowledgeable.  Theologically, however, if I can be so bold to say this, as I listened to his sermon, I became more and more convinced that he missed something very important.  Here’s why I say that.

First, if anyone thinks that there are too many of “them” and too few of “us,” I would encourage that person to read the story of Gideon.  When God takes the army Gideon has mustered to fight the Midianites and reduces it in force from 32,000 men to 300 men – a reduction of over 99 percent – it looks like there is no way Gideon and his tiny army can defeat the massive army of a whole tribe of people.  But God specializes in doing great things when there are too many of “them” and too few of “us.”  God made a whole nation out of one man Abraham.  God redeemed a whole people from slavery through one man Moses.  God changed the whole course of human history through twelve men He deemed “apostles.”  And God brought salvation to our whole world in one man He calls His Son.  God can do a lot with a little.

Second, if anyone thinks it is simply too late, I would point that person to the story of Jesus’ friend Lazarus.  When Jesus learns that His friend has fallen ill, rather than rushing to see him, He waits for him to die.  Why?  Because, as Jesus says to Martha, He is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  Even death is not too late for Jesus because He can snatch life from the jaws of death.  When the hour on our clock strikes eleven and we begin to struggle and scramble, Jesus can bring forth a new dawn that we never saw coming.

What struck me most about this pastor’s sermon is that although he issued a clear call to his congregation to get out and vote, he never explicitly reminded his congregation to have faith – to trust in the One who holds everything from your house to the White House in His hands.

Politics has a bias toward action.  Legislation gets passed when deals get made.  Public officials are elected when votes are cast.  Social change can be engineered when Supreme Court verdicts are rendered.  Action is important to politics.  But as Christians, we must remember that the centerpiece of who we are is not in what we do, but in whom we believe.  “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).  Faith is the centerpiece of our life in Christ.

I think it’s this that gets to the root of our fear.  Because if we get so stuck on the action of our vote and the action of our legislators and the action of some guy or gal who sits in an office that is shaped like an oval that we forget that our hope is nothing that we have done, are doing, will do, or can do, then we’ve missed what’s most important.  Because we’ve missed Jesus.  And you don’t get Jesus by action.  You only get Jesus through faith.  There’s a reason the Psalmist says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You” (Psalm 56:3).

So, if you are afraid of the outcome of this election and the future of this country, go ahead and vote, but don’t expect your vote to calm your fears.  Because your fears cannot be calmed by electoral majority.  Your fears can only be calmed by a Savior who died for you and me.

Trust in Him.

 

November 7, 2016 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Election Day Fear

clinton-and-trump

Credit: CNN

Last week, I was driving back to my office after teaching a Bible study at a local business.  I happened to be listening to a radio talk show when a lady called who took my breath away.  She was nearly in tears.  She had just seen a movie forecasting what would happen if a particular candidate was elected President of the United States.  She told the talk show host:

I am scared to death.  I don’t sleep. I’m an absolute basket case. I want what’s good for my children, my grandchildren, my family.  It’s all going down the tubes because, after watching that movie last night, all I saw was what’s coming down, what’s next, what they have planned.

Wow.  What palpable fear.  What genuine terror.  What a heartbreaking phone call.  Fear can wreak a lot of havoc in a person’s heart and life.

I know this caller is not the only one frightened right now.  It seems as though every time a presidential election comes around, people’s fear becomes more and more acute.  So here’s a gentle reminder:  fear is not helpful.  There is a reason why the most common command in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”  There is a reason Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).  Fear is like an infection.  Left unchecked, it can destroy people spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.  So if you’re tempted toward fear, especially as it pertains to this upcoming election, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Fear tends toward hyperbole.

Every four years, I hear the same refrain from candidates and political pundits alike: “This is the most important election of our lifetimes.”  Of course it is.  That is, until the next election comes along.  This claim, of course, is usually accompanied with dire predictions of what will happen if the wrong candidates get into political office.  Of course factually, this claim cannot stand up under scrutiny because logically, this claim cannot be true more than once in a generation.  And yet, it is assumed as true every four years.  How can we believe a claim that is so logically ludicrous?  Because we are afraid.  And fear tends to look toward a certain point in time, such as an election, and wonder with worry:  Is this the moment that will serve as the linchpin for the rest of history?  Is this the moment when everything changes?

Christians have a confident answer to these questions.  And our answer is “no.”  We know that history’s linchpin moment has already come with Christ.  No moment or election can even come close to comparing with Him.  Indeed, I find it interesting that the primary way we know about political figures from the first century such as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, and even Caesar Augustus is through Scripture.  But all of these men serve as paltry footnotes to the story of Jesus.  It turns out they weren’t as important as everyone thought they were back then.  Perhaps our leaders won’t be as important as we think they are right now.  So why are we afraid?

Fear fosters self-righteousness.

It was Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote:

Political controversies are always conflicts between sinners and not between righteous men and sinners.  It ought to mitigate the self-righteousness which is an inevitable concomitant of all human conflict.[1]

Niebuhr notes that, in politics, no party is completely right because no person is completely righteous.  So we ought to be humbly honest about our sins rather arrogantly defensive in a smug self-righteousness.  The problem with fear is that it tempts us to overlook the sins of ourselves and our party while gleefully pointing out the sins of the other party. Or worse, fear will justify the sins of our party by pointing to the purportedly worse sins of the other party.  In this way, fear surrenders moral credibility because it puts itself through all sorts of intellectual and ethical contortions to make that which is self-evidentially wrong look right.  This, by definition, is self-righteousness – something that Jesus unequivocally condemns.  If Jesus condemns it, we should stay away from it.  So do not let fear lead you into it. 

Fear clouds decision-making.

Psychologists have long noted that fear is a great motivator.  But fear has a funny way of impairing judgment.  Just ask any deer who has been paralyzed by the two big lights that are barrelling toward him at a rapid rate of speed.  Fear may promise to lead to rescue and safety, but, in the end, it leads to death.  So why would we settle for election cycles that are continuously driven by fear?

Decisions made out of fear tend to be Consequentialist in nature.  Consequentialism is a theory of ethics that says an act is good if it brings the least harm to the most people.  The problem with Consequentialism, however, is twofold.  First, because no one can fully predict the future, decisions based on future predictions, including the future predictions fueled by fear, usually have unintended – and often undesirable – consequences.  Second, Consequentialism tends to degenerate into deep sinfulness as people become willing to excuse increasingly terrible acts to achieve some desired result.  Consequentialism, then, may go after one good thing, but, in the process, it surrenders to and sanctions a bunch of bad things.

Decisions are much better made on principle rather than out of fear.  Decisions made on principle allow the one making them to look at all facets of a decision rather than just an end result.  They also place a high value on integrity rather than wantonly sacrificing that which is right for that which is expedient.  Decisions made on principle are, ultimately, better decisions.

I know that eschewing fearfulness is much easier said than done.  But fear must be fought – especially as it pertains to this upcoming election.  Fear about this election and about the future solves nothing.  It only manages to make the present miserable.  So take heart and remember:

The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?  (Psalm 118:6)

Mortals cannot do nearly as much as we sometimes think they can, even if one of them becomes President of the United States.  Things really will be okay, even if sinfulness does its worst.

Do not be afraid.

______________________

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr:  Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed. (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1991), 248.

October 17, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Thoughts on the Martyrdom of Rev. Jacques Hamel

FRANCE-ATTACK-CHURCH-HOSTAGE

A French police officer stands guard by Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray’s city hall.
Credit: AFP Photo / Charly Triballeau

France is under assault.  Less than two weeks after 84 people were killed in Nice when a terrorist drove a large van at high speeds through a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day, word comes that an 85-year-old priest, Rev. Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in front of his congregation in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray as he was concluding a Tuesday morning Mass last week.  ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, though there is no evidence that the attackers had been been able to make contact with the radical group.  In response to the killing, French President François Hollande remarked, “We must realize that the terrorists will not give up until we stop them.”[1]  But stopping them is proving more difficult than anyone imagined.  It turns out that, in this attack, one of the killers was wearing and electronic tag that tracked his motions because he was under house arrest after he attempted to travel to Syria in 2015.  But his tracking device did nothing to thwart his murderous rampage.

France, of course, is gripped by fear. ISIS and its sympathizers seem intent on starting nothing less than a holy war.  And managing an effective military and police defense seems next to impossible.  This is why it is important that, as Christians, we remember that even though physical defenses can fail us, we have a spiritual defense that is sure.  The apostle Paul writes:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power…Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10, 13-17)

Paul’s famous words speak of the spiritual defense we have against every kind of evil attack.  Against lies, we buckle a belt of truth.  Against wickedness, we stand with the breastplate of righteousness.  Against violence, we charge forth with the gospel of peace. Against faithlessness, we take up the shield of faith. And against the devil’s attempts to speak condemnation over us, we wear a helmet of salvation and wield the sword of God’s Word.  We are impressively outfitted.

But Paul is not yet done.  He continues:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:18-20)

Even though the NIV translates Paul’s words here as a new sentence, the Greek syntax of this passage lends itself toward being one, long run-on sentence that begins in verse 17 when Paul calls on us to take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.  In this way, then, Paul’s words in verses 18 through 20 tell us how we are to wield the weapons he outlines in verses 14 through 17.  We are to wield them prayerfully.  When we fight against evil, we are not to do so angrily or bitterly or pridefully, but prayerfully.

Granted, fighting against evil’s attacks prayerfully will not always appear to be effective.  Look at Paul!  The very man who is extolling the prayerful use of the weapons of God notes that he is “in chains” (verse 20).  He is being persecuted for his faith and his persecutors appear to have the upper hand.  But Paul knows things are not always as they appear.  Just like Christ when He was crucified, a person who appears to be a victim can ultimately prove to be the victor.  Indeed, one of the fascinating things about the Christian’s posture toward martyrdom is that although it is not to be sought, it is also not necessarily always to be fought.  The apostle Peter, who himself was eventually martyred for the faith, wrote, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).  Peter says a Christian can find joy even in things as ghastly as suffering and death.  When a Christian fights, therefore, he fights more for the truth of Christ than he does against his own suffering and death.

None of this is to say that the death of Father Hamel is anything less than tragic.  Prayers for his family, his friends, and the parish at which he served are certainly in order.  What happened last week was evil.  And Father Hamel’s voice is now added to the voices under Revelation’s altar that cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Revelation 6:10)?  The cry of Father Hamel’s blood will not fall on deaf ears.  When Christ returns, there will be a reckoning for his unjust death.

Shortly after last week’s events in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a friend of mine posted a quote from the great Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”[2]  This is most certainly true.  This gentle, aged priest, though he no longer leads in a parish, is now ruling “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).

And for that, even as I am sorrowful, I am thankful.

________________________

[1] Adam Nossiter, Alissa J. Rubin and Benoît Morrene, “ISIS Says Its ‘Soldiers’ Attacked Church in France, Killing Priest,” The New York Times (7.26.2016).

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals, Alastair Hannay, trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 352.

August 1, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Christianity, Culture, and Comparison

ChurchThere can be little doubt that Christianity is losing its place of primacy in American culture.  According to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, Americans are becoming increasingly less religious and less willing to affiliate themselves with any particular religious tradition.  As The Washington Post reports:

The “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, include atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe in “nothing in particular.” Of those who are unaffiliated, 31 percent describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up six points from 2007.[1]

A six-point increase of the religiously unaffiliated in eight years is not only statistically significant, it is an irreligious coup d’état.  Consider this, also from The Washington Post: “There are more religiously unaffiliated Americans (23 percent) than Catholics (21 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent).”

Even among those who self-identify as religious, identifying as a faith does not necessarily correlate to the practice of that faith.  One of the most striking demographic factoids of this presidential election cycle has been how evangelicals who attend church more frequently differ substantially in their candidate preferences from those who attend church less frequently.

Clearly, the religious terrain of America is experiencing tectonic shifts.  What was once America’s so-called “moral majority” is now an apprehensive minority.  So what is the way forward?

Myriads of options have been proposed and tried.  Some people want to fight the secularizing spiral of American culture while others are more amicable to bargaining with and even capitulating to it.  Still others, such as Rod Dreher, argue for a limited withdrawal from American culture, eschewing what they see as the culture’s inherently dangerous facets and foci.  In many ways, these tensions and postures toward the broader culture are nothing new, as a read through H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book, Christ and Culture, will reveal.

As worthy of discussion as all of these options may be, in this post, I would propose that it is just as important that we look at what we should not do as it is that we look at what we should do.  Here’s why.

At the root of our anxiety over shrinking Christian cultural influence is our penchant to compare.  We look at the political arena and we notice that we don’t wield the power we once did.  And we compare the influence we had to the power we have.  Or we look at demographic studies and we begin to notice that non-believers are on the increase while we’re on the decrease. And we compare the assembly of the despisers to the flock of the convinced.

Martin Luther has some great guidance when we are tempted toward comparison:

They surpass us by so many thousands, and all that we have seems to recede into nothing. But do not compare yourselves with them. No, compare yourselves with your Lord, and it will be wonderful to see how superior you will be … They would easily overcome us, but they cannot overcome that Christ who is in us.[2]

Comparing ourselves with the world as a starting place for responding to the world is dangerous business.  It can lead us to an arrogant triumphalism if the world seems to be persuaded to our side.  But it can also lead to an angry despair if the world rejects us.  It is little wonder that the apostle Paul once wrote, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves” (2 Corinthians 10:12).  If we are to compare ourselves with anyone or anything, it should be with the One who reminds us that even if we are a “little flock” in this age (Luke 12:32) – with little power, little influence, and little prestige – we are a “multitude that one one can count” (Revelation 7:9) in the next.

What strikes me about so many of our responses to Christianity’s diminishing cultural influence is not that they are wrong per se, but that they flow from the wrong place – they flow from anxious comparisons that grumble over Christianity’s diminishing cultural capital rather than from faith in Christ’s commandments and promises.

Perhaps it’s time to work less out of fear and more out of faith.  Perhaps it’s time to stop comparing and start trusting – not because the decline of Christianity isn’t sad, but because the victory of Christ is certain.

_________________________

[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 30 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 289

March 21, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Pray for Paris

Paris Eifell TowerI first heard the news on the radio when I was driving home from work Friday night. Phrases like “breaking news” and “continuing coverage” caught my attention. As more and more details of the ghastly attacks trickled in from across the Atlantic, I knew it was going to be a long night for the people of Paris. 129 dead. 352 injured, 99 critically. And ISIS was claiming responsibility for the coordinated attacks that hit six targets at once. After opening fire on their victims, all but one of ISIS’s operatives blew themselves up when police approached, hoping to kill even more people with suicide bombings.

Considering these attacks came just days after ISIS was suspected of downing Metrojet Flight 9268 over northern Sinai as it was on its way from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, it is quickly becoming apparent that ISIS will stop at nothing to intimidate the world. As of now, their tactics are working. Many, many people are very, very scared.

As Christians, we know we are commanded to be not afraid. The words of Psalmist come to mind: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2). Logically, we also know that fear does us little good at a time like this. It solves nothing. It changes nothing. It only paralyzes us and clouds our judgment. But at the same time we are called not to fear, we are also called to be in prayer. Indeed, the apostle Paul addresses both fear and prayer when he writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). At a time like this, when the world is fearing, we should be praying.

As this tragedy continues to unfold, allow me offer four things for which I think we can and should pray. My hope is that God will not only comfort you as you pray these petitions, but that He will use these petitions to help you process what has happened. After all, what has happened affects not only the city of Paris or the nation of France; it affects the world. Nous sommes tous les Parisiens.

On to the prayers.

Pray for Paris.

In one way, this goes without saying. And, thankfully, it is already happening. A quick check of my Twitter account shows #Prayers4Paris is trending. So pray for the grieving. Pray for the fearful. Pray for the people of a city who are trying to pick up the pieces of an illusion of safety that has just been shattered. Pray for Paris.

But let me take this a step farther. Because as Christians, to pray for Paris means to pray for all of Paris – even for those who support and sympathize with the attackers. Jesus admonishes us to pray not only for those with whom we share a kinship, but even for our enemies: “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). So pray for ISIS operatives in Paris and, for that matter, all over the world. Pray, yes, that any further plots would be thwarted. But also pray that their hearts would be changed. A changed heart stops evil much better than even the most sophisticated international intelligence operation.

Pray for sobriety.

The shock and sadness of yesterday’s attacks will soon dissolve into political posturing and raw outrage. Rash responses will be given. Foolhardy decisions will be made. We need to stay away from all such impulsiveness.

If history is any indication, I am especially concerned that many will fall into what logicians refer to as the fallacy of composition. This fallacy asserts that if something is true for the part, it must also be true for the whole. So in this instance, if a few radical Muslims who are part of ISIS are terrorists, then it is reasonable to be wary of any Muslim because he or she might be a terrorist.

Don’t fall for – or propagate – this fallacy!

I have many friends who own firearms. They are, of course, very responsible and cautious with their weapons. But every time a mass shooting happens – in Roseburg, in Charleston, in Fort Hood, in Sandy Hook – many of them openly worry that the actions of a few deranged lunatics will affect all firearm owners. They worry that people will take the actions of a few and use it to stifle the whole. And so they lobby not only for their rights as firearm owners, but also for their character as people.

What firearm owners do for each other, Christians can and should do for Muslims. Let’s not lose our ability to think soberly and clearly not only about these attacks specifically, but about Muslims generally. The vast majority of Muslims are people who hold much in common, especially ethically, with Christians. They love their families. They despise promiscuity. And they support traditional values like honesty, hard work, and generosity. Let’s be willing to vouch for the character of Muslims. And let’s be willing to support and love them as people.

Pray for governments.

The French government, the U.S. government, and many other governments across the world have some difficult decisions to make. ISIS must be stopped. Thankfully, God has given governments the authority to do just this. The apostle Paul explains:

He who rebels against the [governing] authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. (Romans 13:2-3)

Paul says that those who rebel against good order arranged by good governments will bring judgment on themselves. For good governments will seek to avenge and deter – often with force – evil events. The terrorists, then, have every reason to be terrified.

As governments across the world try to discern how to respond to these attacks, pray that their responses would be decisive, measured, and Godly. In short, pray that world governments would act in ways that thwart evil while honoring God’s Word.

Pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Ultimately, we know that governments, though they can do much to suppress evil, cannot stop evil. Only God can do that. In fact, shortly before Paul writes his words concerning government, he writes about God’s final judgment: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is Mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). God’s vengeance is the only vengeance that gives victory.

When does God avenge evil? On the Last Day. Then and only then will evil be wiped out once and for all. Until then, attacks will happen. Lives will be lost. Evil will rear its head. And we will “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Considering that none of this is pleasant or good, the final prayer of the Bible can be our prayer today: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). “Come and wipe out evil. Come and make everything – including those hurting in Paris – new.”

And He will.

November 14, 2015 at 4:05 pm 4 comments

On Edge…About Everything

FearLast Wednesday morning was an unexpectedly frenzied one. Within the scope of a few hours, all United Airlines planes were grounded, the website for the Wall Street Journal went dark, and trading at the New York Stock Exchange grinded to a screeching halt. The problem in each instance? Computer glitches.

It didn’t take long for people to begin to fear that we under some sort of cyber attack. Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News, opened the newscast that night with an honest acknowledgement of the anxiety so many were feeling:

A lot of us got that uneasy feeling today when within hours of each other separate computer outages grounded all United Airlines flights and halted trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Uneasy feeling, indeed. What happened was so startling, it got the attention of Homeland Security.

In the end, it was discovered that United’s problems stemmed from “a failed computer network router that disrupted its reservation system.” Trading on the New York Stock Exchange went down because of a “botched software upgrade” the night before. As for the Wall Street Journal, though no definitive explanation has been offered for its problems, some are speculating that the trouble at the Stock Exchange drove people to the Wall Street Journal for updates, which, in turn, crashed the website. Cyber terrorism had nothing to do with anything. We had no need to fear. But we did.

Fear is plentiful these days. It doesn’t take much to make us apprehensive. Sadly, fear is just as prevalent – if not more so – in the Church as it is in wider society. I have talked to Christians who are wringing their hands over what could very well be an erosion of our religious liberty. I have talked to Christians who are terrified by what is happening oversees – and, for that matter, close to home – with ISIS. I have talked to Christians who are anxious about our nation’s economic path. I have talked to Christians who are frightened by just about everything.

For Christians who are full of fear, this description of who we are as the Church from Pope Benedict XVI strikes me as timely:

Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness? Is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of His mingling with the misery of sin to the point where He actually seems to sink under its weight? Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectations of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love – love which does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the filth of the world, in order thus to overcome it?[1]

This is an impressively clear, cogent, and, I should affirm, broadly, even if not comprehensively, correct ecclesiological statement from the former leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church, Benedict reminds us, is incarnational in her character and missional in her charter. She goes to places no one else would dare to darken – filthy places, impoverished places, wicked places, sinful places. As the Church ministers in sinful places like these, she, like Jesus, in the words of the former pope, can “actually seem to sink under [sin’s] weight.” But, of course, when Jesus sank, He didn’t sink for long. Three days is all sin got of Him. So it is with Christ’s Church. “The gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18), Jesus promises. Sin may attack the Church, but it will not overcome her.

When we, as the Church, become afraid of the sinfulness in our world, we stop acting as the Church should for our world. We become so scared of sinners because of what they might to do to us that we forget to love sinners as Christ has loved us. The fearfulness of the faithful, it turns out, can be just as dangerous to the Church as the sinfulness of the world, for it stymies the Church in her mission.

In 1931, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén published Christus Victor where he wrote of how Christ “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering.”[2] To this day, his book is a standard-bearer for discussions about Christ’s work and accomplishments on the cross. But we must always remember that Christ’s victory is also our victory. Christus Victor is the promise of Ecclesia Victor.

Do not, then, be afraid. Instead, be the Church. The world needs us.

______________________________

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, Second Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 342.

[2] Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, A.G. Hebert, trans. (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 4.

July 13, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Tackling Terrorism

Credit:  Christian Science Monitor

Credit: Christian Science Monitor

First it was a chocolatier in Australia. Then it was a school in Pakistan. Terrorist attacks have been headline news this past week.

When an Iranian refugee turned self-styled Muslim cleric named Man Haron Monis barricaded his way inside a Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney, it took a police raid 16 hours after the siege began to free the hostages trapped inside. Three people, including Monis, died.

When Taliban fighters stormed a crowded school in Peshawar, they managed to kill 145 people over eight hours, 132 of them schoolchildren. Stories are emerging of kids being lined up and shot, or shot as they cowered under their desks. NBC News reports that one teacher was doused with gasoline and burned alive while students were forced to watch.

Once again, we are left grappling with grieving families and terrorized communities. And even though, in both of these instances, the attacks happened across time zones, countries, oceans, and continents, at least a little of the fear there nevertheless comes home to roost here.

This, of course, is exactly what these terrorist organizations want. CNN reports that ISIS is calling on their allies and sympathizers to carry out so called “lone-wolf” attacks in their homelands. They attacks do not have to be big, expensive, and well organized – as were the attacks of 9/11 – they simply have to be frightening. Fear, these criminals know, is a powerful thing.

Certainly, national governments need to put into place policies to try to prevent these attacks. Certainly, law enforcement officials need to have plans in place to deal swiftly and forcefully with any terrorist attack. And certainly, surveillance of and intelligence from terrorist groups and lone wolf sympathizers is needed so governments can know and foil terrorist plots them before they have a chance to carry them out.

But what about us? What about people who are normal, everyday citizens like us who are increasingly frightened that we could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be mown down by a terrorist attack?

The fact of the matter is this: we cannot control what will happen to us in the future. We do not know whether or not we will fall victim to a terrorist attack. But we can confront and control the fear we feel right now.

The apostle John gives us a simple strategy for dealing with fear: “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). When a mad man or a despicable organization terrifies people with a dastardly deed, what is the best way for the rest of us to respond? By loving those people.   Spontaneous tributes to the fallen that have arisen in the wake of these attacks indicate that, already, these communities are banding together to love each other through fear.

As of now, I have not seen any relief efforts that we in the states can participate in to express our love and support to the families of these victims in Australia and Pakistan. But with Christmas fast approaching, my guess is, you know at least one person who, though they may not be terrorized, is fearful in some way. Perhaps you know someone who has lost their spouse this year and is worried about how they will deal with their first Christmas apart from their loved one. Perhaps you know someone who is terminally ill and is facing the very real and understandable fears that come with knowingly being at the end of life. John’s words ring just as true in these cases as they do in cases of terror: “Perfect love drives out fear.”

So love who you can love. For in doing so, you bring peace where there is fear. And in a season when we remember some angels who announced “peace on earth to men” (Luke 2:14) thanks to a “God [who] so loved the world [that] He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16) so we could “not be afraid” (John 14:27), this is most definitely an appropriate mission.

December 22, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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