It is my privilege to serve the kingdom of God as a pastor in the North Hills of Pittsburgh at North Park Church. I love to learn, and God granted me the opportunity of pursuing master's degrees at Talbot School of Theology and Ph.D. at Duquesne University. I am indebted to all my teachers and professors over the years and am grateful for what they have instilled in me. In addition, my wife has been my teammate along the way to make these dreams realized.

Can You Hear the Angels Sing?

The atheist Albert Camus retooled the Greek myth of Sisyphus and fitted it as an allegory of the human plight.  The gods had doomed Sisyphus to the senseless task of rolling a rock up a mountain only to watch it fall back down again.  It all seemed pointless and empty, like much of modern life, and this was where Camus found the parallel.  To be sure, Camus was wrestling with something more foundational than just the mundane and hurried nature of much modern life.  As an atheist, Camus was forced to reckon with the fact that once God is removed from one’s beliefs, life itself appears hollow.  The universe, after all, cares nothing about our existence and did nothing to bring us into being.  Our great accomplishments are simply the absurd quest of meaning-making beings in an otherwise meaningless world.  Such things might be significant for us now, but even this significance will dissipate when we exhale our last breath.

Despite the pointlessness of modern life and Sisyphus’ task of repeatedly rolling the rock up the mountain, Camus calls us to view Sisyphus as in some sense fulfilled.  He concludes his analogy by writing:  “But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises the rocks.  He too concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” <accessed on December 23, 2021>).

That last line has always struck me as the Achilles’ heel of the allegory.  Up to that point, Camus had written with such conviction that Sisyphus’ plight had meaning, even if the universe be without a master.  Saying that “each mineral flake of the night filled mountain, in itself forms a world” strikes one initially as compelling, if not inspiring.  Maybe that could fill a person’s heart.  However, at the end, he must appeal to imagining that Sisyphus is happy.  That, to me, is really the crux of the issue.  Is this all just wishful thinking?  Is Sisyphus really happy in this master-less world?  Is the long hard slog of working just to get by or watching our bodies age and decay really a merry process?  This world of incredible beauty can still be cruel and harsh.  Can Sisyphus successfully overcome that?  I, for one, am not convinced.

For this reason, I was particularly struck by the words of “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” as we sang them this past Sunday.  The reality the third verse depicted mirrored Sisyphus’ plight:  “And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.  O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”  While the words paralleled the drudgery that Sisyphus faced, the carol offered a different response.  Rather than grinding away at the task and trying to imagine it as more enjoyable than what it is, the verse invites beleaguered travelers to rest and listen to the angels sing.  What do they sing?  The first verse of the carol tells us the angels sang:  “Peace on earth, good will to men, from heaven’s all-gracious King.”  There is peace because this King has come to earth to reclaim what is rightfully his.  He will remove the forces of chaos and evil so that, as the last verse says, “peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendor fling.”

Perhaps this Christmas season, you resonate with the pointlessness that dogged Sisyphus.  If so, maybe it is time to rest and listen to the angels sing.  Their voice might strike our disenchanted hearts as a mere whisper, but that doesn’t mean their song is any less true.  It might just be that their melodic tones will lift our gaze from our burdens to see that we are part of a larger, more meaningful story full of peace and glory that was set in motion by the Christ child.  In the midst of this hurried Christmas season, make time to rest and hear what the angels sang.  For if the God of heaven has become one of us so we could share in his blessedness, then we certainly do not have to resort to imagining that “each mineral flake” needs to fill our hearts.  Maybe he wants to fill our hearts with himself.

The Real Demand of Being Salt and Light: A Response to Larry Taunton

            In a world of polarizing rhetoric and deepening political divides, the path for Christian political involvement has become ever murkier.  One way out of the fog is to label one side as the bastion of evil and the other the guardian of righteousness.  This approach was taken by Larry Taunton in a recent article, “The Salt has Lost its Savor:  the Woke Church and the Undoing of America” where he questions the positions of Tim Keller and John Piper.[1]  Keller told his audience that one could not mandate another Christian must vote Republican or Democrat without a biblical command to that effect.[2]  While Taunton thought that was a reasonable approach in bygone eras, he was incredulous about its application in the most recent election and asked:  “But in 2020, a year when Democrats represent all that is unholy?”[3]

            Why might the Democrats “represent all that is unholy”?  He explains that he “…can think of several biblical commands that made the choice for any Bible-believing Christian absolutely clear in this election.  I mean, would Jesus endorse a radical pro-abortion and pro-infanticide policy; every sordid sexual agenda, even the sexualization of small children; a complete disregard for the rule of law; and open hostility toward His followers?  I don’t think so.”[4] 

            The allure of Taunton’s rhetoric is palpable.  Who wants to be on the side of unequivocal evil?  Who wants to fail in being salt and light?  No serious Christian I know would answer yes. 

            But is the current political landscape carved up so neatly between good and evil?  I only wish it were.  As a Reformed Christian, a camp within which Taunton also identifies, I affirm the often unpopular doctrine of total depravity which says that all human capacities have been corrupted by sin and that all humans are touched by it in some way (Rom. 3:9-20).  This does not mean all are equally evil or act on it to the same extent, but it does mean that none of us (except for Jesus) can claim to be a representation of pure goodness.  If none of us can claim to be purely good individually then it would seem nigh impossible for our political associations, which are collections of vast amounts of individuals, to be any different.  The line between good and evil cannot be so easily drawn between Democrats and Republicans.

            Solzhenitsyn once put it this way:  “Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts” (Gulag Archipelago).  Solzhenitsyn summarizes my point well, but I think he touches on why we might find Taunton’s option an attractive one.  If we can think ourselves on the side of righteousness simply by voting a particular way, then I don’t have to face the evil within.  Indeed, part of what concerns me in Taunton’s article is that it leaves us with a false sense of goodness and does not build Spirit-led discernment about the truth in our hearts, a truth that Scripture affirms.

            What is more, Taunton’s article sabotages the very thing he wants to inculcate.  He wants Christians to be “salt and light.”  He wants us to “push back at a culture that, in the words of Isaiah 5:20, ‘call[s] evil good and good evil….’”  Yes, that is precisely what we should be doing!  The things he lists as problematic in the Democratic platform are things we should speak against.  However, being salt and light is not just about delivering a prophetic word to Democrats; it is also making sure the Republicans do not get a pass and that God’s Word sifts them just as fully.

            The problem with Taunton’s totalizing approach to the issue is not that he is too hard but rather too soft and therefore not enough “salt and light.”  If he is worried about the “election-rigging” of the Democrats what about the former president’s repeated, court unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud?  While we have the fortune of reflecting on these things in light of January 6th, which Taunton did not have when he wrote the article, such repeated claims and their widespread acceptance within the Christian community before the publication of the article led to “Jesus Saves” flags waving as the Capitol was being breached.  Is that effective salt and light?  Would Jesus be breaking into the Capitol when his preferred candidate didn’t win (John 18:36)?[5]  What about separating families at the border?  This is not to legitimate their illegal entry and thereby support open borders, but to ask how we go about dealing with illegal entries by families.  Would the God who created family applaud?  What about the former administration’s restrictions of refugees and asylees under the guise of national safety that leaves then languishing in refugee camps?  How does this square with the biblical commands to care for the foreigner (Exod. 22:21) and when will we admit that the rhetoric from the conservative side of the aisle seems to be influencing the attitudes of Christians negatively toward those to whom they are called to be salt and light, especially Muslims?[6]  The former administration has done a fine job of bringing the vaccines into production at a record pace through Operation Warp Speed.  However, instead of unifying the country around conquering the virus, it proceeded to politicize mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing, and lockdowns.  If we are concerned about the deaths due to the intentional taking of unborn life, should we not also be concerned about the preventable virus deaths that have occurred through negligence and the preference of personal freedom over love of neighbor?  I could go on.

            The point is this, living in a world where evil runs through every heart and every party is a much more complicated and time-consuming way to live.  I see why people would want to seize on Taunton’s rhetoric as a way forward.  You can.  It’s easy, but you will just lose some of your savor.  Then the evils and moral ills of the party and platform you lionize uncritically will be the millstone around which you’ll drown any hope of fully being salt and light.  This is not to say that one party will not represent the kingdom more than another on particular issues, nor is it to retreat into moral relativism as if all views are morally equal.  It is to say that truth and goodness require a prophetic voice that speaks to all and doesn’t turn a blind eye on any, especially to those most ideologically similar to you.  The sooner we learn that the more we’ll actually be salt and light. 

[1] I concentrate here on the short form of the article because this is how it has been passed around in my circles (  The longer form is more robust, but it is this short form that has influenced people close to me and to which I now respond. In addition, this short form was also one he consented to publish as it is.




[5] I understand that some will object to this point.  One side has obviously succeeded in a great deception about the election; that much is for sure.  From where I sit, only one candidate warned about fraud before the election ever began.  It is this same candidate who then claimed fraud after the election loss and initiated dozens of court cases that never went beyond the judges, even those who had been appointed by him.  Many of those cases were not even really about fraud.  Trump also proved unable to overturn Georgia’s electoral votes, even after multiple recounts, a signature audit, and pressuring attempts to overturn it.  Then, we have the fact that people like Barr and others defected from Trump as he continued to press the fraud issue.  For the sake of intellectual humility, I admit I could be wrong and that there are credible facts I don’t yet have before me to influence a different decision, but these are the factors that lead me to my current conclusion. 


Are We Lost and Alone on Existentialist Sea?

There is something true in Kierkegaard’s version of existentialism that summons the individual to step forth from the mob.  If one is to take up a religiously oriented life, especially faith in the order of the New Testament, it must ultimately come down to a personal choice and decision to follow the rabbi from Galilee.  For Kierkegaard, this choice, this leap of faith, was a subjective commitment.  Jesus Christ could not remain merely a historic figure constructed by what scientific and historical research could support.  Such objective study could only result in a historic probability but it could never deliver the true promise of Christian faith:  eternal happiness.[1]  The existentialism promulgated by Kierkegaard was an important corrective for its time, reinfusing the subject’s will and passion into what was otherwise perceived as a clockwork universe.  Humans were not just detached objective observers; they were meant to live, to will, and to choose. 

The waters upon which we sail today still bear the stain of this existentialist river and thankfully so.  However, these waters also bear the color of other rivers and streams that have mixed in their own peculiar intellectual minerals and sediments.  Perhaps what is most important is not what these waters now contain but what they now appear to lack.  The idea that there is a reality or truth external to the self that could inform and guide the existentialist project has seemingly evaporated from these waters.  For many today, truth, especially truth about oneself, can only be found within. 

Consider the following excerpt from my daughter’s reading book, which records a conversation between a girl who is trying to figure out what vocation she should pursue and her father:

“And how do you know which are the things you should try for?” [said the daughter].

“Well, this is a hard question for so early in the morning,” Dad said.  “Hmm, I guess it’s different for every person.  You have to know yourself what you can do.”

“Can’t someone just tell me?” I said.  It’s too hard to figure it out.”

“No, no one can tell you,” Dad said.  “Only you can decide, because only you know who you are.”

“You know who I am,” I said.  “And Mom, too.  You’re my parents.”

“We are your parents,” Dad said.  “But that doesn’t mean we truly know you.”[2]

This episode is quite surprising.  Here is a young girl asking for help and guidance and being flatly rejected for the parents are ultimately helpless in this sacrosanct endeavor. 

There are several things that are wise and true about the parent’s response and yet, as we will see, something very concerning.  On the positive side, it honestly concedes that a parent’s knowledge of a child is not exhaustive.  The full depth of who someone is rarely, if ever, is plumbed even in marriage let alone in other relationships.  In addition, the ultimate decision of what a child should pursue vocationally is given to the child since it is her future.  On the negative side, however, the father seems to cut himself out of the child’s growth in self-knowledge and discernment too quickly.  Is there no longer a place for a parent to reflect back to a child and say, “I have seen you have interest in science and math.  Would you like to talk to Mr. Skillen about how he uses science in his engineering work?”  Just because there are parts of the child that might be hidden from the parent, one cannot thereby conclude the parent is useless in the child’s development as this father seems to concede.  Such comments and observations can be offered without dictating a particular future.  The child can still own the choices made upon this information, but anyone about to make a life-altering decision would want input from those closest to them. 

Probably the most problematic thing, though, is that the father avers that only the child is positioned to know who she truly is.  This is, unfortunately, not true.  If the depths of the human heart are a mystery that no others can fully know, then why should we believe that we could exhaustively know ourselves or that we are the only ones who could know what lies therein?  Psychologists often talk about the different domains of self-knowledge with the Johari window (  While there surely is a quadrant containing what one knows about oneself that has not been disclosed to others, there is another quadrant that comprises knowledge which is known to others about oneself but not known to one’s own self.  Common wording simply refers to the things in this quadrant as “blind spots,” things that we cannot see or refuse to admit about ourselves.  Regardless of why it is a blind spot, these things are still true about us.  If they are true, then our future success and flourishing will hinge upon them or else be sabotaged by them.  The point I wish to underscore, though, is that the only way we can come to know about these blind spots is through conversations with other people.  Who would be better able to see these for a young adolescent than one’s parents?  The missing element in the entire exchange is the fact that we are meant to be in relationships with others and that the process of self-discovery and growth cannot attain their maximum potential with a fully isolated self.  Unfortunately, the dialogue with her father leaves the girl peering down into her soul alone with no helping words to decipher figures in the darkness. 

By cutting out the inherent human need for others in the journey, this story elevates some distorted form of individualistic existentialism.  Not only does this particular account diminish the human need for others in the process of growth and self-discovery, it lays a crushing burden on our youth.  Instead of enlisting others as aids in the process, the lone youth is forced to look down deep inside to find the passions and interests that will motivate her for a lifetime.  All alone on a sea of passions that rise and fall like the tide, some will no doubt be paralyzed by the daunting task.  Some who embrace the offered freedom will head down blind alleys that wise counsel would have had them avoid.  Other helpful guiderails might be torn up only to discover they were best left there in the first place.

I do not think we need to be lost on Existentialist Sea.  As Christians, there is a map of the seas so to speak to guide us.  God’s creation of the world, his positioning of humans within this world as image bearers, and his outlines for living the fullest human life comprise at least a generic if not a more intricate mapping of the seas.  This “map” has always been the key point of demarcation between the Christian existentialists from the atheistic existentialists.[3]  In fact, having some kind of “map” to the sea of life shapes how we choose to navigate it.  Rather than peering down into the abyss of our hearts, hoping to find some solid ground upon which to build an identity, in the gospel God gives us an identity as his beloved children, holy and righteous before him (Eph. 1).  This is not an identity that we have to attain through our good behavior, but one we receive because we are now united with Christ.  By being united with Christ, we are placed in a community, the family of God, that has been tasked with discipling and calling forth in people the fullness of who they are in Christ.  Together, we pursue the upward call of God until Christ is formed in us.  That should be enough to fill a life.[4]  That should give us moorings as we seek to navigate the churning seas of life.  We no longer need to be tossed to and fro.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1992), 1-49.

[2] Grace Lin, “The Year of the Rat,” in Into Reading:  My Book 1, Alma Flor Ada, Kylene Beers, F. Isabel Compoy, et al (Orlando:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), 64.

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialist Ethics,” in Classic Philosophical Questions, ed. James A. Gould and Robert J. Mulvaney, 11th ed (Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson), 381.

[4] Intentional reference to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” 

Can Anti-Masking Christianity Endure New Testament Conditions?

Over a century ago, Kierkegaard attacked the cozy Christianity he observed in his homeland of Denmark as a mutation into something other than New Testament Christianity.  In his Attack upon “Christendom,” he rails against a Christianity that no longer disciples its people to anticipate suffering and instead led people to be worldly wise. 

While Kierkegaard’s invectives rang true of the Denmark of his day, one can also wonder whether it would also ring true of contemporary American Christianity.  In some significant ways, the pressures of dealing with the pandemic has revealed our inability to endure some simple displeasures for the sake of Christ.  I am referring to the varied ways in which people responded to masking requirements, especially in the context of the church service. 

Some, and perhaps most, Christians have no doubt enthusiastically embraced mask-wearing as their form of Christian neighbor love in the time of pandemic.  Others, though, see it is a harbinger of the oppression and persecution to come and oppose it as a government overreach or even as a symbol of the ease with which the media can cultivate fear and conformity in social behavior.  To other skeptics, universal masking is a triumph of phony science.  For some watchdogs, masking requirements are a direct infringement upon constitutional rights, even the right to freedom of religion.  There is no single Christian response to the masking requirements, and I don’t have all of them in mind here. 

What strikes me as peculiar is how some of the Christian pushback to wearing masks in church has played out.  Some have switched to churches that don’t require masks.  While I can understand the desire to have a more comfortable experience on Sunday morning, it seems to be just one more dimension of consumer Christianity.  To the panoply of denominations, worship styles, and preaching ability, we now get to add the option of face coverings.  I heard of one church that seems to have headed worshippers off at the pass by holding two separate services:  the first required masks for the entirety and the other made masks optional.  Though there is wisdom in this approach, it too seems to be dictated by the market of churchgoers and just what they’re willing to endure or prefer.     

Perhaps more worrisome, though, is the claim that face coverings directly impede one’s ability to worship (see #7 of  One recent appeal to a local church’s leadership asking them to reconsider its mask policy stated that some of the people “just do not find an hour under a mask to be a rewarding, connecting time with God and the saints.”  This struck me as an odd way of presenting the issue.  How pray tell, does a face covering disconnect one from God?  I can see it making personal communication more difficult, but connection with God?  Does God now move a socially distant 6 feet away when we put one on?  Can he no longer here his muffled praises when we sing with a mask?  Is it truly possible that a simple cloth covering would keep one from connecting with the transcendent God of the universe?  I surely hope not, or we have much bigger problems, folks!  Our God is bigger than that and closer than we can imagine (Acts 17:27-28).  Perhaps we mistake our comfort too often as connection with the divine. 

Let’s return to Kierkegaard’s point.  If contemporary Christians find the slight discomfort of a mask enough to disconnect us from God or cause us to switch churches, what happens when we face real persecution?  What would happen if we were physically tortured for Christ and the bruises throbbed constantly, not permitting us a clairvoyant thought?  What would happen if our children or loved ones were martyred before our eyes, shortly before we were thrown into long term imprisonment and we had to live with that haunting memory for the rest of our lives?  Could we connect with God then?

If we should find that masks distract us and keep us from celebrating the goodness of God displayed in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, then I contend we are much more attuned to our own comfort and displeasures than we are to the true God.  If we find the discomfort of a mask enough to warrant a change in our faith community or disconnection from it altogether, then what will we do when Christ calls us to take up our cross in a much more painful and difficult way? 

A brief look at Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians provides a stark relief as to how far we might be from New Testament Christianity.  In this beautiful book, Paul recounts his suffering on several occasions.  Paul refers to his suffering in order to bring light to the fact that it is only God’s power at work in him and not his own.  In chapter 4, we read these beautiful words:  “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:7-10). 

Paul realized that we are fragile “jars of clay” afflicted with a good many forms of suffering.  However, in the midst of life’s hardships, which for him was actual persecution, Paul discovered God’s living power.  Please, note that Paul did not discover God’s power apart from suffering, but in suffering.  More specifically, it is the kind of suffering that took Paul to the brink of despair, to the last proverbial straw.  In chapter 11 he rattles off a host of things that have happened to him.  He received 39 lashes on at least five different occasions.  He was stoned.  He was shipwrecked three times!  The list goes on and on.  Needless to say, I have had none of these happen to me, and my guess is that you haven’t either.  Just as Christ in his incarnation was not immune to suffering and death, so with Paul.  It is through this vulnerability, though, that we get to behold something truly transcendent:  “the life of Jesus” being “manifested in our bodies.” 

Are we prepared to endure these kinds of hardships with this kind of outlook?  If the first thing we can think of is switching churches when our church requires us to wear a mask or not conforming to a state mandate that has the wellbeing of our fellow citizens in view, do we have the Spirit-grounded fortitude to endure actual suffering for Christ?  I would like to think we do, but I have my doubts and genuine concerns.  What should we do?  For those of us who find face coverings and masks to be a trying part of life in the virus era, I would encourage us to approach our mask wearing as a form of discipleship, as a means of training our hearts and desires to be ready to suffer more severely should God ever require that of us.  Perhaps we’ll discover that the God of the universe is not constricted by masks and still delights in the praises of his people.  Perhaps we’ll discover that our natural comfort is not the chief end of the universe.  Instead, we might just find that the God of the universe is nearer than we ever imagined.  Maybe, we’ll be able to say with Paul that “…our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17, NIV).

Is There Life after the Plague?

As COVID-19 continues colonizing the globe, it is not clear how long this will go on and what the ultimate impact will be in terms of lives and economic cost.  Towards the beginning of the outbreak, I had the privilege of watching a webcast with Andy Crouch who encouraged us to stop thinking of this like a snowstorm and instead to start thinking of it as a longer season like winter and perhaps a miniature ice age.  While I was just beginning to accept the reality of what 2 weeks of school closures meant for family life, I realized then and there this would be a long haul.  It looks more and more like a mini ice age with each new day.

At some point, whether through the discovery of a vaccine, the build up of immunity, or some other set of factors, the world will emerge from the pandemic.  When we do, things will be different.  Many will have lost jobs.  While some will be there, others will be permanently lost or altered.  Like a series of dominoes, this will trigger other losses like foreclosures, bankruptcies, and the like.  For as hard as the financial loss will be, though, the most difficult and permanent losses will be the amount of lives lost to COVID-19.  Some of the people who are near and dear to us will not be with us in the world after the plague.

What will life be like when COVID-19 no longer dominates the daily headlines?  We don’t yet know because we are not there.  However, our ignorance of the future should not keep us from living in the present with the unwavering assurance that God is at work.  He may, in fact, have surprising things in store for life after the plague that seem unlikely to us now.

Some of you might be wondering if this is just wishful thinking.  Perhaps it is.  However, this is not the first time that disease or plague has struck the world, nor is it the first time that God has allowed his people to suffer.  In the book of Joel, the prophet describes wave upon wave of locust swarms that gobble up every green thing in the land.  He writes:  “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten.  What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4, ESV).  The incessant waves of locusts leave a wake of desolation behind them:  “The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes” (Joel 1:10, ESV).  Everything green is gone. 

We might have a hard time connecting with what this meant, but imagine that you live in a world without a freezer (yes, that thing that most Americans filled as soon as they heard the meat processing plants were closing down).  You have no ability to store fresh food long term.  Now, add to that picture the fact that your daily bread does not come sliced in a plastic bag at the store but from the fields in front of your house, which you have cultivated and planted by hand.  In the past few months, as those little green shoots have emerged from the earth and stretched their wavy fingers toward the sun, you have had a swelling satisfaction that there will be food in a few short months.  The dwindling supplies in the grain bin—the pantry of sorts—have not concerned you. 

This verdant vision is shattered one morning.  Instead of the usual morning glow, the sun seems unusually dim as you rise from your bed.  You wonder initially if some storm clouds have rolled in.  As you emerge from the door, you realize that these are not storm clouds.  No, these are grasshoppers, millions of grasshoppers.  As you look over at what was once a lush field of barley, you see bare stems like scrawny fingers pointing to the sky and clinging to them are ravenous grasshoppers munching any last bit of green they can find.  Horror sinks deep.  You run to the granaries to check.  There’s not much there now, and you’ll have to keep enough to sow for next year.  Fear strikes a little deeper.  Will there be food to eat when it all runs out? 

A locust plague would have wiped out their economy and brought many of them to the brink of starvation.  There was no government safety net, no unemployment to file, nor was there any hope that some scientist in a lab could concoct a pesticide to stem the locust hordes.  Their only recourse was God.  In the book of Joel, God calls his people to “return to me with all your heart… and rend your hearts and not your garments (Joel 2:12b-13a, ESV).  Turn to God they did. 

Because God is a gracious God, he heard their cries.  In response, he delivered an astonishing promise through Joel:  “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyers, and the cutter…” (Joel 2:25a).  Imagine that!  God promises there will be bumper crops that will more than compensate for the losses of those lean years.  If God can restore the years of the locusts, then he can also restore the years that COVID-19 has taken.  Furthermore, if God can restore what is lost, then we can live in the present with hope that God can surprise us innumerable ways, even if the present road is hard and full of pain.

Still, even with the hope that God can restore the years the locusts have eaten, I have found myself praying a simple prayer: “Why?”  Why would God allow his people to go through such a devastating time?  Why might he allow us to go through such a time?  After all, many non-profits will face a setback.  Many people badly in need of food, water, medical supplies, and the Gospel will go without.  What good could possibly come from this?

Just a few verses after delivering the promise that he would restore the years devoured by the locusts, God reveals the ultimate result and goal of the locust plague:  “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else” (Joel 2:27a).  In other words, through the locust plague, God was revealing himself to a new generation who would come to know that he is Israel’s covenant God.  He is the one who responds to their pleas for help.  He is the one who watches over them and supplies their need.

I wonder if God is not doing something similar now.  What if those of us who have claimed this God as our own are being invited into a deeper way of knowing him?  What if we are being invited to trust him and him alone in a whole new way and the only way to get there is to watch our 401k’s shrink precipitously or to get that sinking feeling as our boss hands us a pink slip?  Even as someone who follows this God, I sometimes find myself operating from a form pragmatic deism where God seems to be up there doing his thing and I just need to make wise, moral decisions down here.  Folks, this is not the God of the Bible who is living and engaged with human life.  Perhaps our plague is also an invitation to watch God chisel through these apathetic layers of our hearts to discover that God is already at work and closer than we currently imagine.

If God is doing this, if he is inviting us into deeper ways of knowing him, how does that change your heart’s posture to the pandemic?  Where have you already seen him at work in this way?  What new ways of trusting God and knowing him have already begun to take root?  God may restore to us what we have lost financially in a few years.  For as great as that sounds, I think it would be far better if we enter that future with a fuller knowledge of who God is and a deeper trust and awareness that he is God.  God seems to have wanted that for the Israelites after the locust plague.  I imagine he wants that for us after this plague as well.

The Silent Victim

“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.” (Isa. 53:7, NIV)

    There is a deep irony in this verse, which is read in Christian circles as prophetically anticipating the suffering of Jesus Christ.  On the one hand, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the most well-known events in history, regardless of whether one follows the Christian faith or not.  Here was an innocent man executed on fabricated charges, caught between the wheels of political expediency and religious protectionism. On the other hand, he was a stunningly silent victim.  The Gospels have preserved only a few phrases of this man during the most intense moments of his suffering, and none of them depict him fighting to make sure this story would be told until the end of the world.  Other parts of the Gospels have lengthy discourses, even sermons from him. By contrast, the Gospel of Luke has Jesus speaking a mere three lines from the cross. The first is a prayer of forgiveness for his persecutors:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34b).  In his second statement, he affirms that the blessed hope of the world to come would include his fellow victim by saying, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43b).  His final words placed his spirit into the hands of the Father as life itself faded from him. Surely, this was a victim who “did not open his mouth” in anger, bitterness, or spite.  

    This aspect of Jesus’ suffering attains its fullest relief when we juxtapose it against the background of our cultural values and tendencies.  In our day, a new ethic has arisen demanding that victims’ story be told in order that the suffering of past atrocities and suffering not be lost before the march of time and narratives of “progress.”  The victors of history have been able to write the story in the way they have chosen since the dawn of time, and by telling the suppressed stories we hope to recover the stories of suffering and victimization that were dismissed.  We must, we believe, speak truth to power, and in doing so find our own redemption and do our part to right the injustices of history. This desire to rescue other victims has also birthed in us a desire to make sure others know how we have personally been victimized.  Among warring groups and ideologies there is often a race to be the first to claim the status of victimhood. The one with the martyr mantle wins. In a world where everyone wants to be regarded as the real victim and thus the worthy object of sympathy, Jesus stands as a peculiar outlier.  

    To be clear, I am not saying that we should reverse course on this cultural tendency and continue suppressing the stories of history’s victims.  The victors of history have rarely stopped to hear the stories from the margins, and I have been guilty of that myself. For most of my life, I operated with an idealistic view of the American story, namely, that we were founded as a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were the natural rights of all who lived within our borders. It was only through the gentle reframing of that story by African-Americans and others who helped me see the American story as more complex. Yes, some did immigrate to find a religious asylum as my ancestors did.  Others, however, were confiscated from their homelands and brought here as property, not as humans entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When they try to trace their family histories, they find their ancestors listed as property in slave deals, not refugees from religious persecution. We need to learn the truth, and the quest for truth will involve hearing stories from the margins that might require a more complex story than the one we’ve adopted.

    What then does the example of Jesus speak into this cultural moment?  The point, I think is this, namely, to probe our need to have the world know of our suffering and see whether it is all from the Spirit.  While Jesus saw his death as an integral part of his mission, he did not walk the road to Golgotha making sure the crowds were aware of the injustices of the Roman empire, and that Pilate was nothing more than their marionette.  He did not shout for all to hear, nor was he compelled to defend himself. Content to suffer the ignominy of crucifixion—and let’s not forget that crucifixion for the Romans was not just about torture but about debasing the executed as a public icon of shame—Jesus’ words reveal where his attention was.  He was not driven to justify himself or to cultivate the sympathies of the spectators. What little clairvoyance he could likely marshal in the midst of the throbbing pain and jeers of the crowd was directed to praying for their forgiveness and comforting the criminal dying next to him. What allowed him to live his last tortured minutes this way?  I would suggest his final words, where he commits his life to the Father, give us an insight into the repose that guided his life and even his last gasping breaths. He did not need to be on the right side of history because his Father would make history right. All the things necessary for this story to be redacted from the victor’s account of history are certainly there, yet it has probably been told more than any other for the past two thousand years.  

    There certainly is a place for telling the truth about injustice.  Jesus’ silence does not mean that all should be silent always, but it should be an option on the table.  Jesus’ example shows us that not all is gained by making sure others know of our suffering. Jesus was content to let his Father write a surprise ending to the story on Easter morning and for his followers to continue telling the story after that.  Because of this, a wider hearing was certainly gained.  

The issue is not whether we should tell the truth about the injustices we might have suffered.  We certainly do not want to propagate lies. The questions confronting us are how we tell the truth and for what reasons we tell the truth.  In The End of Memory, Miroslav Volf notes that a false or embellished retelling of an injustice perpetuates injustice by making the perpetrators out to be worse than they actually are.  The temptation of one who has suffered, and Volf has personally, is to hurt others out of the hurt one has received. In a world where we feel the need to be first to claim the status of victim in order to win an argument or culture war, the pernicious desire to attack and defend can quickly become the subterranean motives behind our truth-telling, even stories of our own suffering.  Those who follow Christ have before them a unique example. The God-man was content to suffer injustice quietly. He sounded no trumpets, took no platforms, and started no resistance movements. Like a sheep before the slaughter, he was silent. Could we be content to suffer as quietly, full of faith that the One who Sees (Gen. 16:13) will know our story and judge rightly in the eschaton?  Could we suffer alone without needing others to be on our side? Perhaps we should only tell such stories after we can answer these questions in the affirmative, for only then are we willing to walk with Christ along the path to Golgotha.