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. 


Think On These Things

It’s Sunday night and I check Twitter one more time before bed. I see someone has posted something about a social issue but did so in a way that I don’t think gives proper historical context to the situation. Feeling full of wisdom (or is it pride?), I decide that I need to reply to their tweet to offer up my expert insights and ensure that the record is correct. 

The alarm on my phone buzzes at me at 6:15 on Monday morning. Bleary eyed I reach for the phone and silence the alarm. Time to check on all of my usual habit websites: Facebook, the news, hobby websites, Twitter…Oh there seems to be a lot of notifications on Twitter. Turns out that the author of that original tweet responded to my tweet. The author of that tweet also happens to be the creator of a popular animated Christian tv series for children and many of his followers felt the need to join the conversation. I should be getting ready for work, reading my Bible, praying….really anything other than responding to people on Twitter but there I was. And that set the tone for my entire day. I could have started my day differently. I could try and form better habits with my use of time. 

How often do we create these situations for ourselves? How often do we get into political disagreements online? Or even if we aren’t participating, just simply consuming all the world has to offer via the internet or our televisions. All day every day, a staggering array of voices from various sources compete for our attention and try to push us to feel one way or another about other people in society. There’s always someone trying to sell us something and most often, especially with politics or social issues, what someone is trying to sell us is fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 tells us that God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear. The purveyors of fear are not of God. Politicians and their associates are some of the guiltiest parties in this regard. If candidate A gets elected, your rights on issue X will be lost! If candidate B gets elected, then our country will be lost!…fear. I’m speaking from an American point of view here and I apologize to our international readers if these experiences are not relatable in your local context. 

 I think about Philippians 4:8 a lot. 

 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

I don’t know about the rest of you but for myself, there’s not much on social media or the news, or TV that resembles anything like what Paul tells us to think about in Philippians 4:8. What are we spending our time thinking about? Is it true and noble? Is it right and pure? Lovely? Admirable? Praiseworthy? 

There was recently a #CancelNetflix campaign circulating around social media that was sparked by a movie Netflix purchased and distributed that many felt was sexualizing young girls. I haven’t seen it but the descriptions and movie poster seemed pretty despicable. However, when the #CancelNetflix tag was gaining steam, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were all just going to pretend like this is the first morally questionable content Netflix has released. Millions of Christians subscribe to Netflix and consume any number of morally bankrupt tv shows and movies on that service. Is this really the first objectionable thing you’ve seen on Netflix that makes you think that maybe financially supporting them isn’t being a good steward of the money God has given you? Is there much of anything true and pure about that service?

When I see the anger, outrage, broken relationships, and broken people lashing out on social media or posting attention seeking photos just for some validation of who they are as a person, I can’t help but think that so many of us have forgotten to think on what is lovely and admirable. To seek things that are excellent and praiseworthy. I write this article pointing a finger directly at myself and how I choose to use my time and the media I consume. We are called to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16) and for most of the history of the world people not only used salt as a flavoring but it was also a primary means of preserving food before the invention of refrigeration. Salt is a preserving agent that slows the decay of food. How can you be a preserving agent in the world? This phrase has been used a lot by many different people but maybe part of the answer is to consume less and create more. And if we are thinking about things that are true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable and praiseworthy, then maybe what we create will have a bit of that preserving nature of salt in it. Maybe we can create little slices of lovely content in a world intent on consuming messages of fear.

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.” 

Do You Want to Be Well?

There you sit by the pool. Another day of waiting and hoping. For 38 years you’ve been unable to walk, and, for some time now, you’ve been by this pool of water that is said to heal the sick when the waters are stirred and the first person enters it. But because of your disability, you’ve never made it into the pool in time and further, no one is interested in helping. Today is different though. A man takes notice of you. You avert your eyes from his gaze but then he speaks to you. “Do you want to be well?” 

“Do I want to be well?! Of course I do,” you think. Long years of depending on the charity of others has conditioned you to respond more meekly than that though. You explain to the stranger that you can’t get into the pool by yourself, and no one will help you. And then something amazing happens! He tells you to take up your mat and walk and in that instant you are healed! 

If you are familiar with the Bible, then you know that I just described the scene in John chapter 5. This man whose name we never learn was looking for healing from somewhere it would never come. Did the pool at Bethesda actually heal people when the waters were stirred? It seems unlikely just based on the number of sick and lame people who were still gathered around it when Jesus arrived. Also, the description of the man’s situation and being unable to reach the water in time seems like it would be out of character for God. 

This is a story of Jesus physically healing a man but what struck me in this passage was that he had been an invalid for 38 years, and I couldn’t help but feel in that moment that I have been a spiritual invalid for most of my 38 years. Without Christ, all of us are. None can come to the Father but through him. Just as that man was seeking physical healing from somewhere it would never come, so often we seek to be made spiritually whole through earthly means that ultimately cannot bring us into communion with God. Being a spiritual invalid could mean that a person has never known Christ. It could also mean that even though we have experienced the saving grace of of Jesus, that our day to day lives are not often reflective of that.

Whether it is our careers, hobbies. family, or even just wasting time with the TV and internet to avoid confronting the dark parts of our hearts, we all do it in various ways, and so long as we turn to anything but Jesus we can’t be made well spiritually. That is what Christ is offering us. A simple question, “Do you want to be well?” Salvation, which cost Him so much, is offered to us freely. It was that phrase that Jesus spoke that stuck with me this past week during church. Me, a spiritual invalid of 38 years, and Jesus through his death and resurrection has offered to make we well.

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.

Prepare Yourself for the Work of Christ

We have a cliche in our culture that when men are lost, they will refuse to ask for directions. Preferring instead to forge ahead, relying on our gut instinct to guide us down the highways of America toward our intended destination. For sure there is at least some truth in the stereotype but does it extend beyond navigational concerns while behind the wheel of a vehicle? 

I originally intended to title this article, “Prepare Yourself for the Work Christ has Called You To.” But Christ has called us all to the same thing. The same mission, given to us by Jesus after his resurrection. 

Matthew 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 

There it is. That is the calling of every Christian. How do we prepare ourselves for that great work? Well, much of that preparation comes from reading God’s word, the Bible. To quote a song from the 90’s Christian ska band, The O.C. Supertones, “How can you stand if you don’t understand? Fight like a man, scriptures in hand.” We need to read and study the Bible to better understand the character of God and His love for His people, we must read the words that He inspired men to write thousands of years ago. I say that as someone who is a constant failure at forming good scripture reading habits. 

Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” When we don’t know God’s word, when we don’t seek God’s wisdom, we end up leaning on our own understanding to interpret all the things that this broken world throws up in front of us. If you are a new Christian, then now is the time to pick up a Bible. If you are an older Christian who has spent your life in a church pew but never read the Bible for yourself, now is the time to pick up a Bible.

My son once asked me who he was supposed to believe, me or his Sunday school teacher. I don’t recall what the question was specifically about but my answer to him was that he needed to believe the Bible first and foremost. Men and women are fallible, God’s word is true and steadfast. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t seek wise counsel from other Christians. There are times when our own understanding and grasp of God’s word is lacking and we seek wisdom from God through prayer and through other Christians. But whatever a fellow believer tells us must be able to be tested against the Word of God. 

Many years ago, my wife and I kept a horse in a borrowed pasture that we shared with the farmer who was gracious enough to split time with us between his horse and ours. One snowy night our horse ran through the wire fence. I had no choice but to go out in the dark, in the snow and fix that fence. The break was nearly half a mile from the house and I trudged out there in the dark with only the moon as my light. I found the severed section of electric fence wire and slowly began to untangle it from the weeds. As it became less entangled I started to feel a little jolt of electricity through my gloves. Uh oh, I thought. I didn’t unplug the fence. But the gloves seemed to be protecting me from the worst of it and it was a really long walk back to where the fence was plugged in and I did not like the idea of heading back to unplug it. So I kept working and the more I got it loose from the weeds the more pronounced the shock became through my gloves. And then it happened. The wire touched an exposed section of skin on the inside of my wrist in between my glove and my coat. WHAM! It felt like someone had kicked me in the wrist. I have touched electric fences before but that was definitely the worst I’ve ever gotten shocked. 

And that’s when I decided to walk back and unplug the fence. You see, I didn’t prepare for the job I needed to do and even when warning signs appeared, like getting shocked through the gloves, I kept pushing forward. I was foolishly leaning on my own understanding of the situation because I thought I knew what I was doing. That’s what it is like when we go through life as a Christian who doesn’t know the Christ of the Bible. In this life we will always face struggles and temptations but if we are ill-prepared then struggles more easily become stumbling blocks and temptations can be invited in more readily. 

I don’t mean to minimize prayer or seeking knowledge and counsel from more mature believers. Both are invaluable but do not neglect to read your Bible. God speaks to us through his Word. After all, as the Supertones said, “How can you stand, if you don’t understand?”

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.  

The Heartbreak of Being a Pastor

There are a lot of things that stink about being a pastor.  There’s the long hours, the low pay, the unending meetings, emergency phone calls and hospital visits, and sometimes dealing with Christians who act worse than children.  Being a pastor is a calling and I truly believe that if you are not called to do it, those things will eat you alive.

To me though, those are all part of the job.  They might not be the most enjoyable parts of the job but most pastors have some understanding of those expectations before they get into it.  Maybe the number of meetings or the sheer immaturity of Christians comes as a surprise but overall the difficulties are not hidden.

To me the real heartbreak of a pastor comes with the realization that we can’t change hearts.  There are numerous reasons why pastors become pastors but probably the biggest reason is that we want to make a difference in people’s lives.  This means different things to different pastors and it will be colored by their spiritual giftedness.  Counselors will counsel, evangelists will evangelize, preachers will preach; regardless of the emphasis, pastors want to make a difference with their lives.

The problem is that we cannot make people do anything.  That’s not to say that we don’t make a difference.  What it is saying is that we don’t win every battle that we’re in.  The best counselors can’t be assured that someone will take their advice.  The best evangelist isn’t going to win every person to Christ.  And the best preacher will not touch the heart of every person in the pews.

There are different measures of success and there’s no way to score a pastor’s true reach.  The reality is though that we’re not always going to succeed and this hurts the most of all.  Certainly there can be some measure of pride that causes hurt anytime we fail to change a heart but there is a real spiritual agony to failure as well.  Every marriage that fails, every gospel that is rejected, every sermon ignored hurts on a real and personal level.  It’s not because we think we know better, it’s because we know the likely consequences for the people we are trying to reach and that inability to reach them hurts almost as much as if we were going through it personally.

It’s easy to think that the church is full of people who have it all together and who have gathered together with a common purpose of worshipping their Lord and Savior.  This is an ideal that probably does not exist in any church.  Hopefully the church has some mature Christians who provide responsible leadership.  At the same time, there are people who are barely holding their life together and the only thing they really know is that they need Jesus and He is getting them through day by day.  And at the other end of the spectrum there is quite possibly someone who has attended the church for decades who clings to church traditions and an heir of self righteousness but doesn’t actually have a personal relationship with God.

The pastor loves these people and wants to save each one of them from whatever circumstance is dragging them down.  He wants to cure every drug addict.  He wants to resolve every financial hardship.  He wishes he could heal every illness.  And he absolutely wants every person to have a real relationship with the Lord.

What breaks the pastor’s heart is that he can’t fix everything.  Even if he had every answer and the energy to address every situation, not everyone will follow his advice.  Not everyone will follow biblical teaching even if they claim to be or really are a Christian.  While the pastor can make a great impact in the life of a lot of people, it’s the people that he can’t reach that keeps him up at night.  If he has 9 successes out of 10, the tenth one will haunt him.

It might seem overdramatic to obsess over failures that didn’t stand a chance of being successes because a person’s heart was hard to begin with.  But the pastor recognizes the stakes that he lives with constantly.  If a lawyer fails at his job, the worst thing that happens is that an innocent person goes to jail.  If a doctor fails at his job, the worst thing that happens is a person dies.  If a pastor fails at his job, lives can be ruined and people go to hell.

No, the pastor is not responsible if he fulfilled his duty and a person did not listen to him.  But he will wonder if there wasn’t another way to reach the person.  He will ponder if perhaps the outcome would be different if he had prayed more.  Maybe he has strong coping skills and can continue on knowing that he won’t win every battle.  He might not beat himself up for the losses.  But he’s still likely to wonder if something else could have been done.

A pastor defines himself as much by his failures as his successes.  The successes get reported – conversions, baptisms, church growth – and hopefully these are celebrated by the church as well as the pastor.  But only the pastor knows about the advice not taken, the people who are still hurting within the church, the well intentioned church attendee that just seems unable to get their life on track.

There a lots of joys as a pastor.  Leading a group of believers in worship of Almighty God is an experience few will ever have.  There are lives that are forever changed for the good.  There are wins in ministry that are worth celebrating.  But all of this does come with heartbreak as well because we know some will just never get it.  They see others live a joyful Christian life but they’ll never humble themselves and submit to it.  It hurts the pastor to watch it happen but he will most likely soldier on because there is always another person who needs help.

Where Should our Loyalty Be?

Today is Independence Day in the United States and there will be a lot of celebrating along with hemming and hawing about what the Founding Fathers would think of our country today.  There has been nearly endless discussion over what flags are appropriate to fly and what our Constitution says about free speech and marriage.

Perhaps though, we take far too much of our identity from the nation and/or state that we were born in.  This is not to imply that I would want to live somewhere else.  It’s just the fact that we should identify ourselves as Christians first and foremost.  If the laws and morals of our land do or don’t match up with our biblically defined values is almost secondary.  We must obey God rather than men.

The author of Hebrews shows us where our loyalty should be.  Hebrews 11:13-16:

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

No matter how much you believe in your country, the fact remains that we are citizens of something greater.  We can discuss all we want about how the country was founded on Christian values and it is getting away from them.  An earthly kingdom – even one founded on Christian values – still pales in comparison to the heavenly kingdom we await.

Each of us may have a certain responsibility to stand up for our beliefs and hold fast to what God teaches us rather than what man says we should or shouldn’t do.  In the end though, we are surrounded by people who are not Christians and they will act as non-Christians act.  While there are good Christian men and women in government, there are many non-Christians in government as well and they will pass laws that are not in line with our values.

Our nature is to despair over the laws of our country changing and moving away from how we understand the Bible.  And certainly there is some reason to despair and be concerned over the moral decay that we see around us.  On the other hand though, we must keep things in perspective.  Whatever nation or state we pledge allegiance to is not the one that God intended for us.  True Christians long for a better country – a heavenly one.

Whatever you do today, whether it is celebrate the founding of a country or despair over the loss of the values it once had, remember that this home is only temporary.  We are strangers and foreigners in this land.  Our citizenship lies elsewhere in a place that is perfect.  We are awaiting that place.  Jesus has gone ahead to prepare that place for us according to John 14:2-3:

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

While we may disdain over what our earthly nation has become, let us keep in mind that this is not our true home.  Our true home is being made ready for us.  And with that in mind, the best we can say is “Come quickly Lord Jesus.”