Archive for the ‘World Events’ Category

I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not always on the cutting edge of the blogosphere…and I’m ok with that. But this week, the U.S. and other nations’ efforts to “demoralize and destroy” ISIS have extended into Syria. Generally, responses to this crisis fall somewhere on a spectrum between aggression (in Phil Robertson’s words, “Convert them or kill them”) to passivity (“We can’t win so we should just get out.”). The basic question of this spectrum is, “At what point are we justified in using force to accomplish our purposes?” Well, I have a few other questions, and then a story.

Question 1: If we zoom out from this specific ISIS crisis, what are the variety of factors that affected the rise of ISIS and what are the variety of consequences that military engagement will precipitate? In light of this, is it beneficial to use force in this situation?

  • Limiting ISIS to “an evil movement that just popped up because of some people’s bad choices” will minimize our ability to address the situation comprehensively. And beyond that, I wonder if we did “demoralize and destroy ISIS” via force–whether justified or not–what new seeds of hatred and perceived oppression might eventually grow into. For Paul, the most important ethical questions are not, “Do they deserve it?” or “Is it justified/permissible?” but “Is it beneficial? Will this thing (in this case, military force) take control of me somehow? Will this advance the Gospel and more fully establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?” Will this actually lessen violence in Iraq and Syria or will new seeds of hatred and perceived oppression be planted? Will military violence “master us” by becoming our go-to method for accomplishing what we want? Can killing bring about God’s Kingdom? These are questions Christians must answer concerning military involvement and we must discern whether violence will, in fact, accomplish our primary purposes–not necessarily our national interests, but the interests of God and God’s Kingdom.

Question 2: Is Jesus’ teaching relevant in international relations and, specifically, with the level of evil we see in ISIS?

  • As followers of Jesus and believers that Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, we must at least think twice whenever we feel like the Way of Christ is irrelevant or naive.

Question 3: Is there another way besides aggression and passivity?

  • I would suggest Jesus says the way to engage opposition is through loving engagement. Which means being willing to die, but not to kill. This is distinct from passivity, which is willing neither to die nor to kill and military engagement which is both willing to die and kill.


A Story: One day, Jesus intended to preach the Good News in a town that most Israelites would never have entered. When they did not welcome him, two of Jesus’ followers, in full faith, suggested they bring down fire from heaven. Jesus did not call on fire from heaven. On another day, Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers of crowds and to the jeers of the religious leaders. It is likely that both the religious leaders who opposed Jesus and the crowds who cheered Jesus on as he entered Jerusalem that day expected that Jesus was plotting a rebellion against the Romans by calling on the “Zealots,” a band of Jews ready to engage in a military rebellion against Rome (their main difference being whether they thought it would work). But Jesus did not call on the Zealots. In fact, he wept over the destruction that a future rebellion would level on the city. On another day, soon after that, Jesus was being unjustly arrested when one of his followers pulled out a sword and sliced off the ear of one of the guards arresting his rabbi. Jesus did not call on the swords of his disciples. In fact, he healed the destruction their violence had done.  On that same day, Jesus himself acknowledged that a legion of angels would come to fight on his behalf if he simply called for them. But Jesus did not call on heaven’s angels. On the next day, Jesus stands in front of the representative of the Roman Empire’s oppressive force. He tells Pilate that his Kingdom is not the kind where citizens fight with the world’s weapons. Jesus did not call on violence from his Kingdom’s citizens. Jesus did not call on heaven’s fire, the Zealot militia, his disciples’ swords, the angelic army, nor his Kingdom’s army to fight the greatest injustice and evil that has ever been perpetrated in God’s world. On the Cross, as Jesus died, it would seem that this Way of engaging the world with love failed. But on the third day, God raised Jesus up from the dead, and set him as both Lord and Messiah.

Sometimes the Way of Christ seems naive or even foolish. But it is neither aggressive nor passive, neither cowardly nor controlling. Rather, the Way of Christ, the Way of Love is creative. It looks for answers on a plane beyond the spectrum of aggression–passivity. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But there are a few who are trying to live this other Way. Here is one example. I’m sure there are others. But I wonder what it would look like if a growing number of people who claim to follow the Way of Christ persistently lived and advocated for ourselves, our churches, and even our authorities to think in a more creative way about engaging problems and oppositions.

I’d love to hear your questions and stories, your opinions and disagreements as we continue to live in a world where ISIS and other violence movements continue to do damage.


Sometimes you measure a war in days, sometimes in years. Other times, you measure a war in millenia. Such is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which saw yet another escalation in a conflict that traces back to…well…the Bible. It seems that a group of militants entered into Israel through an underground tunnel, prompting Israel to send troops into Gaza. There are reports of children being gunned down, hospitals destroyed, and other events that both sides call “tragedy.”

There are lots of opinions on this conflict around the world, and those opinions vary in the U.S. as well. Some have criticized President Obama throughout his time in office for slacking on our relationship with Israel, while others have welcomed a “more balanced” approach to both Palestinians and Israelis. Here are some questions I have concerning the conflict:

  • Whom do we believe?
    • Can we somehow get through the typical demonizing and dehumanizing to the “facts of the case”? And if not, how strongly should we be holding our opinions on who is right/wrong, or what this/that side should do?
  • In what ways does bad theology affect our relationship with Israel?
    • There is a theological  system called dispensationalism that grew in popularity throughout the 20th century. It closely connects a national Israel with the end times, and is now mostly espoused by televangelists and the most fundamentalist churches. (My opinion: it’s woefully bad theology.) But I wonder how much our national opinion was formed by this theology.
  • What role should the U.S. be playing in the Middle East?
    • Should we mind our own business (and ignore injustice and atrocities)? Get involved (and arrogantly pretend like we can solve a millenia-old conflict)? Are there more humble and peace-making ways to be involved?
  • As Christians, how do we approach a conflict where there are fellow Christians on either side?
    • Shouldn’t these connections trump our national loyalties?

A story: Way back after God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and was bringing them into the Promised Land, the Israelites (then a people, not yet a nation) stood outside of Jericho, a fortified city with huge walls, who didn’t seem to want to welcome Israel into their land. Joshua, the leader of the Israelites after Moses died, is contemplating what to do when a messenger from God with a sword draws near to him. He asks this man, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”What might we expect? These are God’s People after all. Of course, God is going to take their side. And yet, the messenger replies, “Neither…but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

How often do we try to put God on a side, when God has his own plans and purposes? The key to following Christ isn’t figuring out whose side God is on, but in being on God’s Path. And oftentimes, God’s Path leads us away from either of the “sides” in a conflict. What if we have a God whose fullest revelation to us shows us that he would rather lose his life than take it from others, even from his enemies? How does this affect our opinions about conflicts near and far? Rather than picking and defending a “side,” perhaps we should be prayerfully looking for God’s people and how we can join them in being compassionate and wise peacemakers and prophets. For if we asked God, “Whose side are you on? Israel’s or the Palestinians’?” God might just answer, “Neither.”

The news has been filled with Syria the past couple weeks.  And Egypt the couple weeks before that.  I have to say, there’s something refreshing about it.  At least the media is talking about something significant, something that affects lives, something that has implications for our common humanity.  Other than that, it’s anything but refreshing.  It is a global conundrum where everyone seems to agree: “The U.S. has no good options.”

But I’m not here to share my opinion on the Russian plan or what the President should do if it fails.  I’m here to talk about how this fits into the Story–you know, the Story of this world and God and humanity.  Which brings me to Food, Inc.  For those of you who don’t see the obvious connection between a documentary about the American food industry and the current crisis in the Middle East, let me explain myself.  My wife and I watched Food, Inc. a few years ago.  It was disturbing.  Not just to see the story behind what we put into our bodies.  But to look through this window into the human situation.  Not pretty.  Here’s what I saw: We humans are experts at solving problems…without paying attention to the problems our solutions will cause.  We make an adjustment to make our farming easier without attention to the ways this will disrupt the animals, plants, and ecosystem.  We mass produce food to make it more available without attention to what this does to the nutritional value of the food.  We make food cheaper without attention to how it affects laborers, jobs, and the economy.  This is the human story.  We solve one inconvenience only to create a deeper predicament.

See what I mean about Syria and Egypt?  And Iraq and Afghanistan?  And Korea and Vietnam?  And so many other situations.  There has been lots of conversation in Christian circles recently about whether Adam and Eve were historical figures and whether Genesis 1-3 even intends to present them as such.  But regardless of your position on this, it’s hard to deny the truth of Genesis 3, aka “The Fall.”  In this story, Eve and Adam face the temptation to improve their lives their way.  Eve hears the logic of the serpent, and then the text says, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In other words, she decides that her solution to her “problem” is better than God’s wisdom…and proceeds to pitch this miracle solution to the rest of humanity (who knew better). 

Hopefully, we have learned something from Afghanistan, where we armed rebels to get rid of one regime only to empower the Taliban’s rise years later.  Hopefully, we have learned something from Iraq, when a “quick use of force” to dethrone one dictator and capture another terrorist turned into a war that dragged on for a decade.  Hopefully, we might consider even the lasting effects of our own Civil War, when the use of force may have brought about one good cause, but also left divisions, hostilities, and hard hearts among fellow Americans for years to come.  Hopefully, we will learn the lesson of Food, Inc. that sometimes our brilliant solutions to certain problems actually cause THE PROBLEM (sin, brokenness, darkness, etc.) to weave its way ever-deeper into the fabric of our world. 

I don’t presume to know what Jesus would do if he were the 44th President of the United States (not that he could get elected).  I do know that with legions of angels at his disposal, Jesus chose the path not of least resistance, but of greatest sacrifice.  And told all who would follow him to do the same.  This is the path that will weave healing into the fabric of the world.  Being willing to house Syrian refugees?  Listening to our brothers and sisters who are actually in the midst of the conflict?  Using our voices to redirect national resources into serving those in need rather than enforcing our will militarily?  Encouraging our leaders to ask what is good for the Middle East, not just how can we achieve American interests?  This is just a brainstorm.  But it is what we need: creativity; thinking outside the box of war vs. appeasement; a willingness to take the narrow road that leads to Life when the well-trod wide path lures us with a quick fix.

Created in God’s image, we humans have a natural bent toward problem solving.  We will keep digging our hole deeper, however, until we are willing to sit at the foot of the Cross, listen to the Story of the Gospel, and be trained in the Way of Christ: the Way of creative love, loving sacrifice, and a sacrificial commitment to the healing of the world.

“So apparently something happened at the Boston Marathon this morning.”  My wife scrolled down on her phone.  I flipped on the tv, frustrated because I can never remember where the 24-hour news channels are in the lineup.  Since I’ll be running my first (and probably last) marathon this year, I was curious: did some Kenyan runner break a record?  was there an inspirational story? did someone else try to shave a few minutes off their time by taking the subway to the finish line?

You know the real story.  Two bombs had exploded, killing multiple people and injuring over 100.

By most standards, killing innocent bystanders like this would be labelled “evil.”  Now, generally in our culture, “evil” is not a word that tends to be thrown around.  In this culture, our civil religion tends to emphasize the inherent good in people, and holds up an ideal of universal tolerance and harmony.  “Evil” tends to throw a wrench into that worldview.  It just seems kind of negative and divisive.

In part, our reluctance to use the term “evil” is a response to poor definition and application of the term.  As I understand the term and the Bible’s use of it, “evil” is neither narrowly individualistic nor some medieval superstition.  Evil is a spiritual reality that can manifest itself overtly and discretely, in individuals and systems, cooperatively and unilaterally, in “spiritual” ways and biological ways.  Evil is not restricted to individual choices individuals make, but as something that impacts the world on many levels.

But the result of our avoidance of the term is that, when we open up our internet browser and things like the Marathon Bombing, or the Kermit Gosnell trial, or poisen-laced letters to the President pop up, we are surprised.  I mean, if everyone is really good, “How could something like this happen?” and “How could anyone do such a thing?”  We are shocked, flummoxed, bewildered.  Then we obsessively tune in to every new detail, searching for the key that will prove that we were right about human beings and the world all along; this was just an exception.

As I mentioned after the Newtown shootings, however, Christians should be anything but surprised.  Not that Boston-marathoners should have somehow seen this specific terrorism coming.  But when it comes to the general reality of evil, the awful potential of human beings, and the deep-seated divisions of this world…we should not be surprised.  In fact, as I discussed the marathon bombing with people, rather than expressing surprise that something like this could happen, I found myself expressing amazement that things like this don’t happen more often.  Perhaps that’s too cynical.  But let me tell you why evil doesn’t surprise me:

  1. Because it’s so ridiculously common.  Any worldview (overarching view of the world) that makes evil actions an exception fails to take into account a huge chunk of human and societal experience.  It’s kind of like saying, “The Cleveland Browns are one of the most successful NFL franchises of the last 50 years.”  You can only say that by dismissing a whole slew of real-life evidence.  (You’re welcome, Lions fans.  If I were feeling less humble, I could have gone another direction with that analogy.)   Philosophically, it’s difficult to hold to both a) the amazing intellectual and technological potential of human beings and b) human free will without also holding to c) the incredible potential for evil done by humans.
  2. Because I see it in myself.  We’re often afraid of using the term “evil” because we feel like it’s judgmental, self-righteous, and divisive.  And it can be, especially if we reserve it only for others.  But the Bible speaks of evil as something all of us can encounter intimately by looking into our own souls.  I know that I am accountable in thought, word, and deed for actions directly opposed to God and love; and I know that I am accountable for ways that I am complicit in systems and patterns that oppress, demean, and harm both human and non-human aspects of God’s good creation.  I know that I often act in unloving ways to get what I want, when I am under stress, and when I feel attacked or helpless.  Thus, evil of various extents does not surprise me.

But here’s the kicker.  While many of us avoid talk of “evil” or “sin” because we think it will lead to better people and a better world, I disagree.  And I think this is why talk of sin and evil is so prevalent in the Bible.  Let me offer three ways being open and honest about evil sets us up for human flourishing and for love:

  1. We can let go of control.  The next step after surprise in the face of evil is often an attempt to control and prevent.  “How can I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?”  Well, you can’t.  It’s not wrong–in fact, it’s good–to seek healing and shalom in our world.  But often that very task puts you MORE at risk to be harmed by evil rather than less.  Just look at Jesus.  If we would recognize the pervasiveness of evil in our world, perhaps we could just let go of acting like we can prevent it from happening to us.  I would far rather say with Paul, “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” than live my life afraid of death and evil.
  2. We can go deeper.  We only experience God as deeply as we are willing to allow God into our souls.  I hear people all the time say, “Well I haven’t killed anybody or cheated on my wife, and I don’t steal.”  But Jesus goes deeper.  He says that at the root of murder is anger harbored against another; adultery is the fruit of the tree of lust, truth-telling goes beyond “not lying” and love goes beyond caring for your family. Rather than dismissing a character failure as “out of character,” we must be ready to admit that most everything we do is actually in character.  Only when we acknowledge the evil woven into ourselves are we ready to experience forgiveness, healing, and redemption.
  3. We can seek true healing and reconciliation.  Failing to acknowledge evil leads to shallow souls and worthless relationships.  Acknowledging evil only in the “other” leads to war and oppression.  It is only a robust understanding of evil’s pervasiveness that allows us to connect deeply with others as fellow “sinners in need of grace.”  That actually could sum up Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul unites all of humanity first as creatures fallen short and in need of God’s mercy, and only then does he move us as a united community into our unity in Christ.  And check out the complexity of Psalm 139: known intimately by God, hating the evil of others, then quickly asking God to root out the evil he sees in himself as well.  We dare not skip any part of that Story.  Personally, I don’t think “good person” sums me up in any meaningful way.  I am a complex tapestry of God’s image and sin and hope and failure and evil and grace.  We can only begin to connect if we acknowledge all of who we are and put them into the life-giving grace-lavishing world-restoring hands of our loving God.

Not being surprised by evil does not mean we seek to be calloused, stoic cynics.  The appropriate response to evil–in ourselves and in the world at large–is sorrow.  It is humble prayer for mercy and healing.  It is to boldly and lovingly to enter into the specific brands of evil and brokenness God has called us to for the sake of healing and reconciliation, knowing full well the risks and knowing full well our own need of restoration.  Jesus’ own worldview seems to be one that is at times brutally honest, yet at the same time deeply compassionate.  May we have the same mindset of Christ Jesus: the courage to humble ourselves before God and one another.

You know when you cover your eyes because you don’t want to see something, but peek through your fingers because you need to see it?  That’s kind of how I feel sometimes when popular headlines contain something about religion.  Usually religion-in-the-news can be put into categories labeled “scandal,” “foot-in-the-mouth,” or “those crazy religious folk” (to be fair: scandalous, foolish, and crazy do tend to be the general criteria for newsworthiness in our culture).  So last week as I ran on the treadmill at the YMCA, I nervously tried to read the mildly-reliable closed captions on CNN that went along with muted images of Pope Benedict XVI  (the captions said something about the Pope’s “hair damage,” which I am about 60% sure was a typo for “heritage”).  As you probably know, the news story was not scandalous, foolish, or crazy.  The Pope had resigned.

The ensuing Sunday, I led my mainline Protestant church in prayer for the process of selecting a new Pope.  It seemed right to me.  But I got to thinking: this simple prayer may have been confusing, maybe even radical in the eyes of some members of my congregation.  Probably not that radical today, though certainly for much of the last 500 years, a prayer for the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) would not even have been a consideration for most Protestants, let alone the Papal selection process.  But definitely confusing.  Why pray for the Catholic Church?  We don’t follow the Pope, so why do we care who the next one is?  The Pope resigned.  So what?

While Roman Catholics (RCs) and Protestants of various stripes have experienced significant inter-denominational healing and collaboration in recent years, I think much of this has gone on at the “official” level.  Among congregants, I still get asked questions and try to correct misconceptions about Roman Catholicism, the Pope, and why we say “the holy catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed.  So let me offer some responses to some common questions/statements I come across, and I hope you will ask any other questions you might have either in the “Comment” area or in person.*

  • I’m not Catholic, I’m Christian.  Please don’t say this.  The alternative to Catholic is Protestant or Eastern Orthodox–or more specifically, Presbyterian, UCC, Baptist, etc.  Without getting into a long conversation about the proper definition of “Christian,” let’s just say both Catholics and Protestants (not to mention Eastern Orthodox) can all be “Christians.”  A similar error, in my opinion, is to talk about Catholics as a different “religion.”  It is probably most descriptive to talk about it as a different “denomination” within the Christian religion (a Church family tree).
  • Isn’t that a Catholic thing?/That’s too Catholic.    Firstly, Catholic history is pretty much Church history for the first 1000 (Eastern Orthodox split)-1500 (Protestant split) years of our existence.  Protestants have broken from the RCC so thoroughly in many cases, that we have cut ourselves off from 1500 years of Christian insight, meaningful spiritual practices, and encouraging stories of Christians living out their faith.  Not to mention the last 500 years of those same contributions to the Kingdom of God by our RC brothers and sisters.  Whether we are imposing ashes, practicing lectio divina, or talking about the importance of confessing to another person, we are trying to draw on the best of Church history, engaging in practices that have been and can be beneficial to our spiritual journey towards Christ-likeness.  Who cares if it’s “Catholic” or “Protestant”?  As Paul says, “test everything, hold onto what is good.”
  • Catholics believe the Pope is perfect.  Technically, the term is “infallible.”  But even so, this is not true.  Officially (as of the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870), the RCC believes the Pope speaks infallibly when he speaks “Ex Cathedra” (from the chair) in the area of faith and morals.  This official proclamation has only been exercised a handful of times in Church history and not since 1950.
  • There’s nothing in the Bible that justifies the RCC’s understanding of the Pope.  The RCC would beg to differ, pointing to Matthew 16:13-19.  While I do not agree with the RCC interpretations and applications of this passage, let’s at least say that the proper interpretation is not obvious, even for Protestants.  But the bigger point is that accusing the RCC of just making stuff up without any consultation of the Scriptures is unhelpful and false.
  • Catholics worship Mary.  Nope, at least not officially.  More accurately, Catholics “honor” Mary.  Here’s the most helpful logic I’ve heard.  Jesus was Mary’s son.  Christians are adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus.  Thus, Mary is our adoptive mother.  In the 10 Commandments, we are told to “Honor your father and mother.”  Thus, we are to honor Mary.  Make sense?  It does to me.  Practically, I think there tends to be far too much emphasis on Mary in the RCC, but the accusation of worshipping Mary on par with the Trinity is false.
  • Why do we say “I believe in the holy catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed?  Some Protestant churches have actually replaced this line with “the holy Christian Church” or “the holy universal Church” to avoid confusion.  But this is merely for clarity.  “Catholic” literally means “universal.”  You’ll notice in the Creed that “catholic” is in lower-case letters.  This is because it is an adjective, not a proper name.  We are stating our believe in the Church that exists in all times and places, not the Roman Catholic Church.
  • How does the Pope have anything to do with us Protestants?   Let’s be honest.  The history of the papal office is a squirrely one.  It is riddled with corruption, political power-struggles, and moral failures.  Unfortunately, so is the history of the Church in general, and not just “those Catholics.”  As I have engaged a bit more with Catholicism in recent years, I have found: 1) Many of the Popes (especially since the RCC got disentangled a bit from its political/empire influence) seem to be deeply spiritual, Jesus-following, God-loving, people-serving men, and 2) There is some profound and inspiring theology in the RCC and in papal writings that provide a super-helpful perspective for us Protestants, who tend to lose our historical roots quite easily.  Essentially, if we just dismiss the Pope and Roman Catholicism out-of-hand, we are missing out on a treasure trove of wisdom, fellowship, and great Kingdom work.
  • The Catholics are too hierarchical.  I like that we can do whatever we want.  I have an acquaintance who says that there are two vital values necessary for the Church to faithfully accomplish her mission in the world: Truth and Unity.  The hierarchy of the RCC emerges out of its great value on Unity–sometimes, perhaps, giving ground a bit in the area of Truth or voices that present different angles on Truth (I say this as a typical Protestant critique).  But we Protestants must be very aware that our pursuit of Truth, completely free of hierarchical influence has done untold damage to the Unity factor in the Church.  Thus, we have created serious roadblocks to the Church’s mission, which Jesus clearly says is bound up in our success at presenting a unified witness to the world.

This is very simplistic.  We could spend lots more time trying to bridge the Catholic-Protestant gap.  We could also spend lots more time talking about the very real barriers to full unity among Catholics and Protestants.  But let’s just leave it at this: the Pope is important to the whole Church, not just the Roman Catholic Church.  For us Protestants, we have a great deal to learn from whomever is appointed the next Bishop of Rome (Pope).  He will take his place with a deep understanding of the Church’s complex and valuable history, a love for God’s people, and certainly a reputation of wisdom and faith.  Beyond this, we should care about the Pope because the mission of the Church is bigger than just our individual lives, congregations, and denominations.  The world doesn’t care about all our labels and distinctions.  They need to see the light of Christ shining out of anyone who claims the name of Christ.  And when Christians of any denomination stumble, it is a black eye to the whole Church in the eyes of the world.

And so please join me in praying for our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers in Christ, that those discerning God’s desire for the next Pope would be given wisdom and insight, and that the whole Church would shine more brightly with the deep unity we find in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

*I have asked a Catholic Priest friend of mine to check my accuracy.  Graciously, he made one addition, which I have included.

There’s no script for how to respond to an event like the murder of 27 people, including 20 6-7 year olds.  And if any of us think we are going to come up with something that will fix or explain what happened in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday or if you think I’m going to provide either of those in this blog, we might just as well stop before we begin.

And yet, through the tears, the yelling, the disoriented silence, and maybe even the fear, we don’t have much choice but to go on living in a world where adults and children are killed.  And not only that, but for Christians who follow the liturgical year, last Sunday was the 3rd Sunday of Advent, traditionally the Sunday of “Joy.”  At first thought, it almost seemed cruel to me as I read the news last Friday and then went back to preparing for Sunday morning.  This tragedy seems maddeningly out-of-place at anytime, but especially in the holiday season, especially in the Advent week of Joy.

I don’t have any words that will fix or explain anything this morning, but I will simply draw on one observation from one of the many articles I read over the last couple days concerning the shooting.  What happened on Friday is, in fact, as intimately connected to the Christmas story as anything else we do during this season.  We need only read a few verses past Jesus’ birth before we arrive at the story of another massacre of children intended to stifle the work of God.

As Christians, we might be horrified by Friday’s events, or saddened, or angered, or moved with compassion, or even moved to take some sort of action.  But we should not be surprised.  No matter how much we try to shield ourselves from this reality, evil is an active and pervasive reality in the world in which we live.  And that is not to make any judgments on Adam Lanza.  We don’t know him.  But we can say that what happened in Newtown was evil.  It was unjust.  It was not what God desires for the world.  And we should feel angry and sad.

God did not become flesh in spite of things like this, but because of them.  And God did not avoid things like this, but marched directly into them.  The Bible tells us that God did this because Love is greater than evil, and it is when evil is at its worst that Love shows itself most strong.  This is the Story of Jesus.  It is not G-rated or warm and fuzzy.  It is radical; it is hard; and it is sometimes hard to believe.

On Friday, I thought to myself, “It’s tough to face God in this moment for me.  I can only imagine how difficult it might be for some of the children’s and teachers’ families.”  How could God allow such a thing?  How can we say that God is King when things like this happen in the world he is supposedly ruling over?

But what is the alternative?  We might not understand or even like or agree with how God chooses to be King sometimes.  And yet, where else can we go?  Where else can we possibly find hope that there might be some sort of comfort or redemption or justice?  Apart from God, what other grounds do we have to call this act evil?  And how else do we explain the conviction in our hearts that says, ”This is wrong.  And Someone should make it right”?

I do think this is a time where we need to talk about gun control because legislation might help.  Maybe it’s a time to look at security in our schools, though most schools already have measures in place.  But our best efforts at legislation and self-protection will not prevent evil.  Though we yearn to be in control, and we think that we can prevent evil, we cannot.  It will happen.  Neither passing laws nor increasing security nor keeping our kids home from school will allow us to avoid evil and its effects.  As Christians, it is our calling to, like Jesus, march boldly into the face of evil bearing God’s greater Love, no matter what the cost to us.  To weep with those who weep when evil strikes in our neighborhoods.  To step out of our comfort zones and befriend and to love outcasts like Adam Lanza even when they might be the hardest to love.  To make it a priority to know our neighbors, to be aware of their struggles, and to be willing to step in and bear their burdens before it turns into something like this.  Whatever it takes, to march into the heart of evil and pain and brokenness, bearing the love of Christ in places where it is most desperately needed.

In our congregation, we went ahead and gathered around the Advent Wreath on Sunday and lit our Advent Candle of Joy (after I spoke mostly these same words).  It was not an effort to pretend that everything is ok, nor to suggest that Christians should always feel joyful.  We lit the Joy Candle as a sign of our conviction that Love has taken evil’s best shot on the Cross of Jesus Christ, and has risen victoriously.  We lit the Joy Candle to help us cling to the promise that it is in the deepest darkness that God’s light shines forth.  We lit the Joy Candle as a defiant prayer that the long-expected Jesus has come and will come to release us from our fears and sins, that this Jesus is our Strength and Consolation and Hope.  And that regardless of what hands sin and evil deal us, our longing hearts will find Joy.


There are plenty of other helpful articles and blogs on this topic and some not-so-helpful.  Here are a few that I would recommend:


Big news in the science world this week: researchers at CERN can confirm the discovery of a “Higgs-boson-like” particle (aka the “God Particle”).  Now–though I did get an ‘A’ in Honors Physics sophomore year of high school–I’m certainly no physicist.  So I’ll let others explain what exactly this discovery is all about.  I also can’t say that I really grasp the gravity of the discovery; it’s still a bit beyond me.  But one of the things about the story that moved me was the image of the tears-of-joy-filled Peter Higgs, who hypothesized the existence of such a particle way back in 1964.  Just think of all the years of study, all the researchers, all the effort, and all the money (the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]–the device necessary to make such a discovery–cost about $10billion!) that built to this point.

As I read the story of the discovery and learned a bit more, I engaged in one of my favorite activities: pondering in God’s Presence.  It’s a kind of “active wondering” that seeks a “God’s-eye-view” of a certain event or topic.  More dryly, it might be called “theological reflection.”  Anyway, I thought I’d share some of these ponderings on this recent discovery.

At first, some of my thoughts were more narrow (and perhaps a bit cynical).  For instance: Were the exorbitant costs (again, $10billion for the LHC alone, plus all the researchers, physicists, facilities, etc.) really worth such a discovery or are there better uses for the money?  In addition, I sometimes feel as though the scientific community (or, better, the media on behalf of the scientific community) oversteps its place with such announcements.  Science will not make this world a better place (at least in the sense of making people more loving, just, compassionate, faithful, etc.).  Technology (even knowledge) is just as likely to bring harm as it is to bring good, and I wish more people would heed this theological warning.

But then God opened up my musings a bit.  I got to thinking about the New Creation.  You see, most people think of the afterlife in terms of “heaven,” some place rather divorced from the physical world in which we currently live, where a bunch of transparent souls float around and play harps (forgive my sarcasm).  Thanks to people like NT Wright (for one), however, many Christians are being presented with the more biblical picture of New Creation, where all those “in Christ” will live and reign, work and commune with Resurrection (physical) bodies in the presence of God forever and ever, Amen.

And that brought me back to scientific discovery.  It’s so common for Christians to say things like, “I can’t wait for heaven so God will answer all my questions.”  Perhaps this comes from 1 Corinthians 13:12, where Paul writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  We might presume this to mean that we will be all-knowing when we get to heaven.  But I would suggest that the context is more about relational knowledge than scientific knowledge.  Paul, I’m educatedly guessing, is concerned about us knowing God relationally more than knowing a bunch of facts scientifically.

So, I got to thinking: maybe scientific inquiry and discovery is one of those New Creation occupations that we might be participating in.  You see, as a pastor, I am only temporarily employed.  In the New Creation, my profession will be irrelevant.  We won’t need people to teach us about God and call us into deeper relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.  There were no need for pastors in Eden, and there won’t be in the New Creation as far as I can tell.

But the New Creation isn’t just like some eternal retirement either.  We will work, just as there was work in Eden.  Don’t worry: it will be good, fulfilling, joy-filled, communal, edifying work, to be sure.  Things like agriculture, cooking, construction, art, music, etc. all seem to me like work that will carry over into the New Creation…and, as I was pondering today, perhaps the work of scientists.  I don’t have any reason to believe that God will just give us all the answers.  Why wouldn’t God allow us to continue in the exciting and marvelous process of discovering just how his Creation works, exploring new ways to apply the creation in creative ways (with no more danger of bringing harm rather than good)?  Doesn’t that seem like a joyful occupation? Going deeper and deeper into the intricacies of God’s creation, every new level adding another level to our praise and wonder towards our Creator!

More and more Christians and scientists are getting fed up with the idea that science and faith are somehow mutually exclusive.  How does understanding better how our world works give us any less reason for praise and wonder?  I think both scientists and Christians need to ask this question.*  The Bible is not some lame science book that simply says “God did it” to all of our questions about how the world works.  Rather, the Bible is a Story about God bringing wayward humans back home where we belong: in loving, worshipping, joyful relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.  So in the New Creation, when we come to God with all scientific queries, perhaps God will assure us of his unending love for us and–like most good teachers–send us back into the world to experience the joy of exploration and discovery for ourselves.  All the while knowing that we will return from those experiences singing his praises with even more wonder and joy.

*The discovery of the “God Particle” has really nothing to do with replacing or disproving God as the Creator.  Most scientists don’t even like the nickname.  The fault for the false competition of faith vs. science, in my opinion, lies on both sides.

OK, so I’m showing up to this party about 3 months late.  I never was a cutting-edge type of guy.  Occupy Wall Street has been going on since September 17 in NYC and in that time has become quite a movement all over the country, even here in Toledo.  I don’t mind not being on the cutting edge, though, because sometimes “cutting edge” simply is a euphemism for “speaking before you think.”  The more I have researched the Occupy movement, after 3 months I’m still not sure that it isn’t too soon to draw any conclusions.  So instead, I’ll use this space as a chance to share some of what I have discovered and offer a few of my initial reactions as I hold the Occupy movement up to the light of the Gospel Story.  First, my discoveries:

1) Occupy is different from what we normally think of when we hear “protest.”   As the Occupy Toledo website distinguishes, “A protest is at first antagonism. An occupation is at first COMMUNITY.  A protest is defined by opposition.  An occupation is defined by PRESENCE.  A protest is singular. An occupation is MULTITUDE.”  The movement is seeking to be different not just in policy but in practice.  So, instead of trying to garner votes for or against a particular issue/party/candidate, the Occupy movement is advocating a different way of organizing society.  And the individual occupations seek to function in that different way: sans authority, sans private ownership, sans any set-in-stone political agenda.

2) People aren’t quite sure how to respond to the Occupy movement.  It would be easier to respond if they had a set of demands or if there were a designated leader or if there were a clear audience (ie. state/federal legislators, corporate CEOs, the American public, the judicial system).  Certainly there are implications of what the movement is generally saying for most, if not all of these.  But we’re better at responding to something concrete with a yes or no than to what Occupy is offering.

3) There are a few popular “proposals” that are being spoken.  One of the most prominent would be debt forgiveness–allusions to a biblical “Jubilee”–as a way of evening the playing field and starting fresh.  The claim is that there is so much debt (individually and even nationally), that there are only a small handful of people who are not in debt to anyone–experiencing financial “freedom.”  This is not a sustainable of just situation regardless of the causes of the debt, and thus it needs to be changed.

4) The movement is seeking to be as genuinely democratic as possible.  This is one of the reasons that there has been great hesitancy in designating leaders or a specific agenda.  That is not to say there are not some key idea people who have greatly–if mostly anonymously–influenced the movement.  But this is to say that the movement has sought to be extremely dialogical, conversational, and inclusive of as many people’s grievances and suggestions as agree with their foundational goals.  They are trying to listen to people whose voices seem to be largely ignored by policy-makers and corporate leaders.

So while these are some very cursory insights I have gained into the Occupy movement, let me now share a couple of the things I have observed.  These are not necessarily original to me.

1) The Occupy movement and the Tea Party have some distinct similarities in spite of appearing to be polar opposites.  It is true that the Occupiers tend to want government to step in to regulate businesses in order to create a more just system while Tea Partiers tend to want government to step out of regulating businesses in order to create a more just system.  Yet, the more I read on the Occupiers, the more I see them–like the Tea Partiers–wanting a system that tends to be more locally oriented than federally oriented.  In the Torah (Old Testament Law) and the New Testament Church, most of the economic laws and practices assume a relational, small community–at least compared to the U.S.  Both groups recognize that economies function best (most justly) when they are small and relational and that one of the biggest problems we have right now is that our economies are not just nationally, but globally intertwined.  Without the possibility of relationship with those we are buying from and selling to, it makes the biblical economic principle of compassion difficult to follow.  Odd, but the Tea Party and Occupy movements each see the same problem and share the goal of a more locally-driven economic system.  And I agree: while globalization may allow many of us to get more things more cheaply, I find it very difficult to see any lasting, just, healthy, or compassionate solution that does not involve some sort of re-localization of the system.

2) One of the questions we have to ask any movement is, “Who are you trusting?”  For the Tea Party, the clear answer seems to be “the Market.”  They mistrust government and are putting their faith in capitalism to take care of things.  For the Occupy movement, the question is a little more complicated.  They are obviously mistrusting “the Market,” largely based on the greed and indefensible inequality they see in corporate leaders.  But does that mean they are trusting the government?  Well, perhaps.  I suppose they believe the government might step in and do some regulation or help out in redistributing some wealth (a term I do not use pejoratively).  But perhaps they are really trusting the people or a pure democracy.  As David Graeber (one of Occupy’s key idea guys) reasons, “If democracy is to mean anything it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.”  I think they believe that since our current system seems to pretty much be a human development, if they capture people’s imaginations, they are quite capable of developing a new system.  So the idea that their lack of focus or political agenda is self-sabotage may be a bit short-sighted.  The goal is not to work within the system to alter the system, but to collectively create a new system.  This is what many people seem to be missing, and why Chris Hedges senses, “This is a goal the power elite cannot comprehend.”  In some sense, this approach is quite Christian: aim at people’s hearts, capture their imaginations, and invite them to join in in a new way of doing life.  It is based on vision and invitation before policy and legislation.  On the other hand…

3) No matter how inclusive any movement claims or tries to be, there is always an underlying worldview, a Story that drives it.  The Occupy movement does share with the Scriptures a concern for the poor, the voiceless, and the helpless.  The Occupy movement does share a Christ-commanded commitment to non-violence (yes, like all human movements, we should expect slip-ups).  In fact, the Occupiers may be far more influenced by Christianity than many of them would care to admit.  There is much, I believe, that Christians can affirm in the Occupy movement.  As Jim Wallis writes, “When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus.”  Yes, the movement borrows from pieces of the Christian vision.  No, it is not a Christian movement at heart.  As much as our trust is in anything other than God’s New Creation process, we are at best settling and at worst doing something spiritually dangerous, replacing one kind of sinful system with another.  More on that here…

4) I think the big question that arises for me is, “If the Occupy movement (somehow) succeeds in bringing down the ‘system,’ will they have the foundation of character and commitment to actually replace it with something better?”  As Jesus says, sometimes casting out one demon merely makes space for more and worse ones to enter in.  One dangerous scenario that we face individually and any reform movement faces is the tendency to get caught up in the “others’” sin without owning our own sin.  If the Occupy movement gains power and influence, how will that power affect the character of their movement?  The fear of wealth redistribution is whether we can actually trust the middleman, the re-distributor.  Again, Jesus never tells us to trust humanity.  We should hold a healthy skepticism as much as we believe that we are all susceptible to the power of temptation and sin.  So I am wary of those who jump in and embrace a movement like Occupy wholeheartedly and place their hope for transformation and new creation there.

So what is a Christian to do?  Well, let me humbly and hesitantly suggest that I think it is important for Christians to engage the Occupy movement in a positive way.  First, we are called to see where God is at work and join him there.  I certainly don’t agree with every idea or practice of the Occupy movement (if this is even possible!).  But our job is not just to participate in things initiated by the Church, but to join where God is at work.  There is enough going on in the Occupy movement that seeks to stand for the poor and stand up to injustice that it is at least worth amplifying those parts of the movement that are picking up God’s voice.  Second, it is important for the Church to engage the Occupy movement–and I say this as humbly as I can–because they need us.  Christians have been given a truly wonderful vision of what God is doing in this world and how he is doing it.  If there is hope for a new movement of justice, compassion, and reconciliation, that hope comes from God’s initiation of that work.  The Scriptures tell us that God is blessing the world through a people who put their trust in him and cry out to him, not through people who try to do it on their own.  That is our Story, and we can live out that Story among the Occupiers.  As I have mentioned above, the Occupy movement also needs to be called to humility and confession.  Someone needs to affirm that there is great sin in our systems, but the biblical Story is very clear that we all participate in sin.  Our sin that may seem small in comparison to the system’s sin, but only until we are given the opportunity to continue in those sinful patterns on a larger scale.  An arrogant revolution is a dangerous revolution.

Only time will tell whether the Occupy movement is just a flash-in-the-pan or a lasting and growing force in our culture.  As Christians, our calling remains the same regardless: to be the Body of Christ, God’s representatives in this world, partakers in a radical kind of life, seekers of justice, and proclaimers of true hope.  If the Occupy movement joins us in part of that, let’s be grateful for that.  More on Occupy soon here at the blog.  And if you’d like, join Pastor Luke Lindon and I as we Occupy Nautica Coffee in Mayberry Plaza on Tuesday, December 13th at 7pm, where we will be discussing further the Occupy movement.  We’ll discuss some of the questions I’ve posed in this blog and many more.


Articles, websites, and blogs:– Occupy website–links to info on the Occupy movement and historical context–some analysis of statistics related to the 99% number  and–some recent research on how distribution of wealth has changed over the past 30 years–Jim Wallis an his thoughts on whether the Occupy movement has some “Christian” character–a Occupy is being underestimated by the “elites” as well as an insider’s account of what goes on and how it developed–a call for protesters to acknowledge their own sin even as they hold others accountable–discussing how evangelicals can/should engage the Occupy movement based on 3 Christ-like aspects to Occupy

I woke up late that morning, just a couple weeks into my college experience.  As usual, I logged onto my computer.  I typed “hello” to a high school friend on instant messenger.  ”Have you seen what happened?” she wrote back.  She wouldn’t even give me a hint of what she meant.  ”You need to find a tv.”  That meant I had to go to the lounge of the dorm next door.  As I set eyes on the 50-some-inch tv, I watched an airplane fly into an already-smoking World Trade Center.  It was probably about the 65th replay of that second collision.  And then I watched the towers fall, along with about 20 other speechless students.

Other than a university-wide convocation to pray, grieve, and process what was happening, classes were cancelled that day.  Baseball practice was not.  Of all the planes that flew over our baseball field on a daily basis, that day it was the single plane that flew over that caught our attention.  Knowing that pretty much all flights were cancelled that day, we speculated whether it was Air Force One (or a decoy?) seeking safety at Wright-Patt Air Force Base just a few miles down the road.   It was an odd day–almost too unexpected to be sad yet.  At least, that’s how I remember it.

I remember listening to President Bush’s speech to the nation that night and the signs of resolve and unity among many of our leaders.  I remember one of my professors the next morning holding up a newspaper page with a picture of people jumping out of the doomed building and trying to help us work through what had just happened.  I remember sitting in that same dorm lounge that Sunday, watching as NFL football players sprinted out of their tunnels waving American flags and tearfully bellowed out the Star-Spangled Banner.  I have to say, I was choked up as I am even now (surprisingly) as I type these words.  I remember joining my fellow students at a candlelight vigil the following year in Wittenberg’s “Hollow.”  I could remember the feelings of the previous year, but this time had more appreciation for how meaningful that day was.

Much could be said on the 10th anniversary of these attacks.  We could speak of the uncashed “promissory note” of trans-partisanship and unity we were (too hastily?) offered by politicians; or the ways 9/11 became a litmus test for patriotism, a political power-play, and a rallying cry for unfettered nationalism; or how we could have heated debates about our rights to “homeland security” without mention of the needs of people around the world who wake up in war zones every day.  These are conversations that we need to have because 9/11 and the ensuing ten years have shed lots of light on what goes on in the political, cultural, and personal fabric of the United States of America.

But today I want to simply focus on a window that opened up–just for a moment–on 9/11/01 to give us a glimpse of the Gospel.  What I think we glimpsed as President Bush spoke, as football players sang, and as rescue workers risked their lives… was hope.  Now, sometimes we use the word “hope” as nothing more than a wish.  ”I hope I win the lottery someday.”  But biblical hope, Gospel hope, and the glimpse of hope we saw on 9/11 was a conviction, a transformative belief, an inspiration, and a source of strength.  Jurgen Moltmann, a Christian scholar who has a whole book called Theology of Hope, writes, “From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity…is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.”  In the case of 9/11, the hope we saw was the conviction or premonition that not only would we get through this, but that we might even be better for it.

Deep, Gospel-like hope is experienced and bred in the most hopeless of moments.  As Paul writes, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all.”  Real hope happens in the moments that appear on the outside to be most hopeless.  It is easy to put our hope in shallow things: money, acceptance, living in a “nice neighborhood” or the U.S.A., our own abilities.  It is in the moments when all of our external reasons for security and success are taken away that we are drawn into a deeper, beyond-ourselves-and-our-things reason for hope.  I believe that for a moment on 9/11 and the following days, we were drawn out of the self-reliant, individualistic way of life that Americans are known for, into a disorientation and grief and fear that required us to search for something deeper and more secure to hold onto.  What many found on this search was a hope in one another and in an American vision that were stronger than self-hope.  And it cannot and should not be minimized that 9/11 drove many Americans into a God-hope.

The events of 9/11/01 gave Americans a glimpse into a kind of hope that isn’t relegated to the future, but that reaches back into the present to transform, renew, and strengthen.  Such is Gospel-hope.  Contrary to popular belief, parts of the Bible that offer us a vision for the future (think Revelation) are not just spiritual candy for the bye-and-bye.  They are the main course for followers of Jesus.  We see a God who can renew, restore, and redeem, a God who promises that one day all will be made right.  And as God speaks those words to our hearts through his Spirit, that hope reaches back into our lives, captivates our imaginations, and emboldens us to participate in renewal, restoration, and redemption now.

Of course, 9/11/01 was only a glimpse.  So much of the promise of that week and hope faded back into the norm of political fighting, self-reliant individualism, and fear.  A hope in each other and in our country may be stronger than hope in ourselves, but it is not Gospel-hope in its fullness.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gushes about his own joy, and urges his brothers and sisters in Christ to “Rejoice!”  He writes this letter from prison.  In writing about Paul’s letter, Karl Barth calls this command to rejoice even amidst trials a “defiant ‘Nevertheless!’”

A defiant “Nevertheless!”  I think that describes the response we saw on 9/11/01.  And I believe this is the hope the Gospel offers to Jesus’ followers always.  Evil and sin wreak havoc on this world, on people we love, and even on our own lives.  Suffering and death move us to grief, lament, and confusion.  But then we see Jesus, our Hope.  We listen to the Story of our sins being nailed to the cross and removed from us as far as the east is from the west.  We listen to the Story of Resurrection: the defeat of death, suffering, and evil.  We shout a defiant, “Nevertheless!”  And we walk forward into the world, fueled by hope that will never disappoint, to tell the Story of God’s unfailing love.

PS. Those who sacrificed themselves to ground United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania were mistakenly omitted from this post, but are one of 9/11/01′s most profound examples of the hope I am trying to describe.

Other reflections: (coincidentally, in almost the exact life moment that I was as a college freshman) (I used most of this litany during our 9/11/11 worship service)

Two weeks ago, I criticized Pres. Obama’s announcement by saying, “It seems evident that one of the intentions of the speech writers was to make sure listeners positively associate bin Laden’s death with Pres. Obama.  We can be fairly confident that most administrations would have sought, on some level, to gain as many political points from bin Laden’s assassination as possible.”  That has proven true.  I’m not a big Jon Stewart fan (more of a Colbert guy), but I happened to catch this segment on Conservatives taking credit for bin Laden’s assassination.   I think Tom Donilon’s clip (about 3:45 in) presents a helpful, accurate, and refreshingly humble perspective.  Of course, he is criticized by Jon Stewart who wants Democrats to participate in the blame/credit game…because he thinks they can win it.  And that’s what concerns me about the political climate.  Donilon’s response is more of a Kingdom perspective than I expected to hear…and he gets mocked for it.  This is not a reason to jet from the political sphere, but what makes participating in it so difficult for Christians who don’t want to play the same games.

Stay tuned for this week’s topic: “Judgment Day.”