Aliens in a Strange Land

In Galatians 1:3-4, Paul writes that Jesus “gave himself to rescue us from this present evil age.” It seems like every day we’re confronted in new and more blatant terms just how evil this present age is.  On the one hand, it can be heart-breaking to see a culture in constant decline and that reality should push us towards it with the desire to communicate hope in Christ.

On the other, it serves to remind us that disciples of Jesus are not of this world (1 Peter 2:11) and this place isn’t home.  The deteriorating condition of the world should push us closer to Jesus, longing for another land with a Father-King who rules with strength and grace, protecting His children and welcoming them into His presence, face-to-face.

…but does it?

Are you homesick?

I know too often I’m not.  That’s what is frightening.  It’s when I don’t long for home.  That’s when I know I’ve gotten too comfortable in a world I wasn’t ultimately designed for.  It’s when I have to pull back a bit and remember I’m not to be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12:2).  That comes through the Word–spending time absorbing the Truth, meditating on the reality of another Kingdom that I’ve been born into and fitted for, and praying for a fresh perspective on why I’m still here.  Only then will I be ready to engage the world in a way that brings glory to God and healing to the hurting.  Only then will I experience what it means to be rescued from this present evil age.

More Thoughts on Refugees

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote some initial thoughts on the refugee crisis.  I mentioned that there is so much we cannot know in order to determine whether or not we should support taking in refugees.  After listening to endless officials and pundits over the last several weeks analyze and argue their views, I still don’t know if letting refugees in is safe or not.

What I do know is that the idea of absolute physical safety is an illusion.  I’m sitting in front of the TV now watching reports of a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California that is unfolding live before my eyes.  There are no details yet on who did it or why, but if follows closely on the heals of another shooting that took place in Colorado less than a week ago.

My point is simply that whether or not there are refugees, there will be danger.  Always.  Danger is already here.  The potential for and reality of mass killing is a domestic problem as much as a foreign one.  Terrorists can already get into our country and reports are they’re already here.  All of this is outside of my control.  What is not outside of my control is how I think about and what I do for people in need.  I can allow myself to become fearful, paranoid and cynical, or I can choose to live a life of fearless compassion in a dangerous world.

I have no control over who does or does not come into the Unites States.  So, with so many unknown variables, I fall back on who I am, who I’m called to be and what I believe about God and about people.  I am called to love and care for those God brings to me to love and care for.

Because of what I don’t know, I neither argue for nor against the acceptance of refugees.  As I stated in my last post, there are really good arguments on both sides.  Frankly, I don’t see a reason to pick a side.  I can look at it philosophically, theologically and ethically and argue a position, but last I checked, those who make the decision don’t ask what my views are.  That’s not to say that speaking up isn’t important, but on this issue, I can’t know what I don’t know; I can’t make a fully informed opinion (and there are enough uniformed opinions already out there).

What I CAN do is respond to what actually happens.  I can work towards helping those families who might enter the Country and do what I can to show them the love of Christ, if it is determined that they will be allowed to do so.  That’s what I’m called to already, even though I so often do an inadequate job as it is…but I can work on improving.  I can refuse to operate out of fear. I can trust in a sovereign God who will ultimately determine whether or not refugees from Syria or any other nation enter our borders.  Many times, God calls us out to the Nations…sometimes, God calls the Nations to us.

I can’t decide what will happen.  I can decide how I will respond.

Quick Thoughts on Refugees

As hard as it is, I am trying to look at the current refugee crisis carefully, thoughfully, morally and ethically.  As I think about this, I have to realize there are so many unknowns behind the scenes that make it impossible for me, with all certainty, to take a “right” position.  I find I have to remind myself to approach this very humbly.  

On the one hand, it is true that as a Christian, I am called to care for the poor.  I believe that something must be done for the refugees.  I’m not sure what that something is, because, at the same time, it seems incredibly unwise to open the door for what could allow terrorists to attempt a “trojan horse” operation as it has been reported that at least one did in Paris, and kill more.  God calls us to be compassionate, but He also calls us to be wise.

It is hard for me to outright support an influx of refugees, whatever their religious orientation, if it cannot be guaranteed that the people who are already here will not be safe.  We have a responsibility for them, too.  To be perfectly candid, there is no way I would welcome someone who looked potentially dangerous into my house with my family present, yet that is what we are doing if we are not careful and get this right.  At this point, I don’t have that confidence.  

So, what do we do?  Honestly, this is a tough one for me.  I am not at all comfortable with the extremes I’m reading about on Facebook.  I’m not comfortable hearing Christians speaking coldly about those who are running for their lives, thinking only about ourselves, and speaking poorly about the refugees, in general.  It doesn’t sound like Jesus talking.  On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with people saying that we are not acting like Jesus or aren’t being Christian unless we blindly welcome in whoever says they are a part of those legitimately escaping persecution.  I think it’s a bit more complex than that.  

Personally,  before I make a statement about how we need to take in and care for refugees, I need to answer the question, “What am I, personally, willing to do to help these refugees?”  It’s easy to take a position if I’m not directly affected; if it’s going to cost me nothing but a few more tax dollars.  So, am I willing and ready to personally get my hands dirty and provide for refugees?  If not and yet I say that it is un-Christlike not to take them in, I have to question if I, myself, am actually being Christlike.

It’s so easy to post a picture, share someone else’s profound-sounding post, or like comments made who share my position.  It’s harder to step back, think soberly and honestly about what really is Christ’s position; to consider Christ’s call…I’m talking about the one that says that, like the apostles sent out among wolves, we are to be both wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).  I’m not sure how much of either of those are being put on display at this point.

So, maybe we can ease up on the rhetoric, the chest-bumping, the guilt trips and the finger-wagging and spend a little more time sincerely praying for the mind of Christ and asking how we, as Christ-followers, can be part of the solution and live, first, as citizens of Heaven rather than citizens of the world.  

I’m not there yet.  I don’t have an answer.  In this very emotionally charged time, mine are all over the place and I vascillate between the different options with almost every news report of victims being killed in Paris and Beirut or displaced families running from ISIS.  I don’t see an easy answer.  That shows me that I’ve yet to find the mind of Christ here.  So, until I do, I will be quiet.

God, have mercy. 

Looking for God in the Whirlwind

OKTornadoI have been following the reports about the Oklahoma tornado since it happened yesterday. The more I watch, the sadder I get.

As I’ve seen the images, my mind has involuntarily weaved together scenarios of the lives that have been decimated. I’ve pictured the lives of those little children who woke up yesterday morning, got dressed similar to the way mine did, headed off to school, ate lunch, passed notes in class, played at recess, then headed into the hallways when they heard the tornado alarms. For so many, that was it. They’ve yet to be removed from the rubble at this point. It’s really hard to wrap my mind around it.

It’s always in times like these that the theological questions arise: How could God allow this to happen? Why didn’t God stop this? Where was He?

I understand the questions. Typing this right now, I am overwhelmed by the pain that is left in the wake of something like this. Couldn’t God have stopped this? Couldn’t He have answered so many prayers for protection over these people? Did it have to happen this way?

Answers aren’t easy and for some, certainly won’t be sufficient. It seems to me that the answers are yes, He could have stopped it. He is all-powerful. He could have answered those prayers for protection. He could have prevented death in the midst of destruction. So, why didn’t He?

I don’t know.

That leaves the final question: Did it have to happen this way?  The only thing I can come up with is that I suppose it did only because it is, in fact, what happened.  I’ll try and explain what I mean.  I believe that God is sovereign and, therefore, in control over every aspect of creation. I believe that nothing happens outside either the prescriptive will of God (meaning that He causes something to happen) or the permissive will of God (He allows something to happen; doesn’t stop it).  I also believe that God is not capricious, so because He allowed it, there was a reason for it to happen as it did, though you and I may never know why.

Someone on the radio this morning was trying to answer the “Where was God?” question. The response was something like this: “God was there in the people who responded. He was there in the love that was shown by those who survived and came in and helped with the recovery.”

While I agree with that, in part, I’m not satisfied. It makes it sound as if God was absent during the storm. Those are the moments we don’t know about. Maybe it would be more understandable if God had been away on His lunch break and just missed it, otherwise He would have stopped it. That’s not the case, though. We have to acknowledge a hard fact: God was there during the storm and He allowed it to happen. You just have to accept that or reject Him outright, which plenty are doing (Frankly, I would be more concerned to think that God would “check out” for a while).

Why would He allow this?

Specifically, I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know the motives of God in what He does. He doesn’t ask me (or you) for counsel or permission, nor does He give an explanation for Himself to us.  I just know that He is good. I also know that even though He could stop the storm, we aren’t in any position to blame Him or get mad at Him. Instead, we should run to Him.

The storm is our fault.

That’s right, our fault. Please read on before you tune me out.  Scripture is clear that it is the rebellion of man from God that has caused all form of destruction in this world, including storms and earthquakes and other forms of natural and man-made disasters.

Ironically, I preached from Hosea 7 and 8 this past Sunday. I talked about “The Calamity of Sowing the Wind”. The verse from which that title was taken was 8:7: “…they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” In this passage, the whirlwind that God is talking about is metaphorical. However, the principal applies to all forms of judgement: If we sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind, metaphorically and sometimes literally.

OK, stop right there.

I am NOT going “Pat Robertson” on this situation and saying that this tornado is judgement on the people of Moore, Oklahoma.

As I already said, I have no idea of God’s purpose for allowing this or any other storm. My point, instead, is that storms are the result of sin, in general. When Adam sinned in Genesis 3, the affects were felt throughout creation. The earth was cursed, making it difficult for him to grow food. This is a very different picture than the one we get when God created the earth, declaring it to be “good.” Post-Genesis 3, we don’t get a picture of “good.” We get a picture of chaos, a result of the sin of Man.

Does this mean that innocent people must suffer? No, only because there are no innocent people in the world. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), so no one is immune from the natural or man-made disasters in this world, whether a child of God or not. My sin in Tennessee is as much to blame for tornadoes in Oklahoma than anybody who had to endure it. That is humbling.

So, what do we do about it?

If we embrace this explanation, what should our response be? I can only say that it leads me to repent*. I am drawn into a place of confessing my failure before God, begging for mercy, realizing that my sin has contributed to this broken world we live in.

It’s also led me to a place of worship. In the midst of this tragedy and the realization that it is the sin of man that has caused it, I am thankful that the work of Christ on the cross has led to mercy so that, though we have to deal with a broken world now, those who trust in Christ don’t have to dread a broken eternity.

If you’re going through the tragedy on the ground, I’m sure it can feel hopeless…at least until the storm is over and you can see that God was there throughout. You hear testimonies of people who feel the strength and hope and peace arise where there should be none. That is God. He is there. He was there during this storm and through the tragic shooting in Connecticut and through every other disaster that has ever occured throughout history.

Honestly, I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around the level of devastation I am seeing in Oklahoma, but I am not struggling with my belief in a faithful, loving God. When I understand the nature of sin, I understand how God could allow it and I look forward to the day that He culminates His redemptive work in a restored heaven and earth, where sin has been abolished.

So, in the end, all I can say is don’t run from Him. He is good and He really is in control, even in the whirlwind.

Run to Him.

 

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* Repentance is not just about feeling sorry, but about actually being remorseful for our sin and turning away from it (as in a military call to “about face!”). If we’re serious about repentance, we don’t want to continue in it, we ask God to forgive us and to give us strength to forsake it.

Reflections on a Boston Massacre

BostonI have been heart-broken to see the images and hear the stories coming out of one of my favorite adoptive towns. Boston is a city that I spent a lot of time in during my eight years in Massachusetts and a city that Karen and I came to love immensely.

Yesterday was just the latest reminder that we are vulnerable; that there is truly no way to protect everyone at all times.  It is a reminder of the terror that can be inflicted on whole cultures and the changes in life that come as a result: heightened anxiety, tightened security and fear of the most insignicant items, like backpacks and garbage cans.

At any point and any place, explosions can happen or shots can ring out and mayhem ensue.  What do we do?  Well, I suppose the answer depends on your worldview; your source of hope or ideas of the future.  For me, I hope in Christ.  I hope in the God who created, who secures, who cares…who is there.  In all of the situations, both good and bad, the God who is there.  I understand that He doesn’t always prevent.  He doesn’t always stop it.  Sometimes He probably does but we probably wouldn’t know, because it didn’t happen, but in some form or another, He always shows up.  He’s always there…in hope during recovery, in comfort during grief.  

Often, God allows the result of sin and rebellion to run it’s course in this world.  He doesn’t owe us deliverance in this life, though He often provides it.  That doesn’t mean He doesn’t care and it doesn’t mean He’s absent.  I trust that.  I hope in that.

So, I respond by praying for His presence and comfort in the lives of those who need it…right now.  In the pain. In the loss.  

I hope for a better day.  I’m not talking about utopia in this life.  That will never come.  I hope, meaning I wait for with great anticipation, for the day that Christ comes back (and He is coming back) and He puts an end to all of this garbage.  Honestly, it’s days like yesterday that make me long for it more and more.  

Maybe that’s part of God showing up.  Maybe it’s part of the process of allowing sin to strike in order to draw us in to that place where we realize we need a savior.  Maybe it’s to remind those of us who have trusted Him not to hold on too tightly to this life because it really is just a vapor, isn’t it?  Instead, I start to think less of my hopes and dreams right now and long for the dream and hope I have for a day that makes this broken world seem so insignificant.

Even so, I’m still here.  Right now.  I live.  I breathe.  I act.  I respond.  I think.  I grow…and I love.

The most heart-breaking story I’ve heard so far is of the little 8 year-old boy who was eating ice cream, enjoying cheering on the finishers one moment, then killed only moments later from the blast.  In the blink of an eye, a family is literally torn apart.

Life is but a breath and it’s gone. 

So, I determine to love well.  I hug my wife and my kids and thank God for them, hoping He gives me years and years with them, but so thankful for today.  Time is fleeting, my friends.  Last month I wrote a post about that in the Saving Daylight Series.  You can read it here, if you’d like.  

I hate death.  I really do.  As a pastor, I have such a love-hate relationship with funerals because, on the one hand, I get to celebrate the escape and deliverance from this world of those who have made it home. That’s such a good thing.  But I have to go through the agony of separation and absence with those who remain.  God, I long for the day when you bring that to an end! 

Where is your hope?  Where are you spending your time?  How do you respond when tragedy strikes?  Don’t let tragedies go to waste without reflecting on YOU.  What happens if the next one lands in your backyard; affects your family or friends and rocks your world?  

Life happens…but hope remains.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But ktake heart; I have overcome the world.” ~Jesus  (John 16:33)

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