49 Years Later

The Reversal of Roe v. Wade and What It Means for American Evangelicals

Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan, Flickr

I grew up in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. For my entire life, abortion was legalized, accepted and hailed as the right of all women. And I was part of a sub-culture that fought, hoped, and prayed to end it. 49 years after the landmark decision, those hopes and prayers were answered on Friday, November 24th. But when I heard of the Supreme Court’s official ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, I didn’t feel relief and joy but a distinct sense of dread. 

Let me make one thing clear, I believe that a human fetus is a human life and that it must be protected. So while I see the importance of having laws in place to protect these unborn lives, I also recognize that there is more at stake here. Consider another recent ruling. 

When evangelicals lost the “culture war” on gay marriage in 2015, several things happened. Same-sex marriages (at least legal ones) became a lot more common. Legislation began to be passed that guaranteed additional rights and protections for LGBTQ+ Americans. These were controversial but certainly not all bad. In addition, there were many on the side of defending traditional marriage who eventually changed their views to align with the prevailing culture.1 

But those who remained did not simply tuck their tails and turn away. In fact, non-affirming evangelicals in some ways were strengthened by the new “underdog” status. There was less pretense about what we stood for, and no one sided with us for popularity’s sake. There was an opportunity to be bolder about our beliefs and stop hiding behind arguments2 about the effect on families or society and focus on displaying our unique calling as Christians to live lives that are set apart. At the same time, there was a sense of humility in recognizing ourselves as the odd ones out. 

Evangelicals no longer have underdog status when it comes to abortion. And with the right to an abortion no longer a guarantee, and states quickly adopting legislation to restrict such abortions, we are about to see what the opposing side will do to hold onto that right. There’s a fight coming. 

This brings me to the dread I felt when the Supreme Court handed down its decision. I fear for how the church will respond to the rage of millions in the pro-choice camp. I fear for what we will do with our newfound victory. Will we show love to those have had abortions, are considering one, or would have one, given the right circumstances? Will we actively work to ensure that every child that is born into this world has a safe and nurturing home in which to grow? Or will we just walk away with smug grins, proud to finally have our opinion legitimized. If we truly care about the lives of every child, we have a lot more work to do, and I will be the first to own up to my hypocrisy in failing to fight for those lives in jeopardy. 

Please hear me when I say, I am grateful for what this decision could mean. And I hope that many lives will be saved because of regulations resulting from it. But I also hope that the church will continue to listen to those who do not yet see it that way and refrain from anger or judgment. Because our hope for society is not in defending an ideology but in Christ claiming his rightful place. I hope we will remember, until he does so, to let truth and love be our guides as we live our lives as ambassadors for Christ in a secular world.

1. I remember at one time “liking” a Facebook page dedicated to defending marriage as “one man, one woman,” only to later happening to visit the page and discovering, to my chagrin, that the owner had edited the description to reflect his intent to support “marriage equality.” Sadly, many evangelical thinkers and influencers have had similar changes of heart. See two articles from 2015 documenting the shift: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/the-man-who-dismantled-the-ex-gay-ministry/408970/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/06/09/from-franklin-graham-to-tony-campolo-some-evangelical-leaders-are-dividing-over-gay-marriage/

2. Recently, I have seen similar arguments, on social media and otherwise, presented in response to the push for trans rights. For example, the effect on women’s sports, opportunities for sexual predators in opposite-gender restrooms and changing rooms, etc. While I agree with some of these points, the primary reasons I do not support expanded rights for the trans community are religious rather than political in nature.

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Hope and Healing

Praying with sick people makes up a significant part of a hospital chaplain’s day. As simple as this task may be, it inspires a lot of reflection. The patients I see request prayer for a lot of different things. Some yearn for peace and acceptance; others want God to take care of their families; and of course many ask for physical healing. Some chaplains disagree on whether or not we should pray this kind of prayer, especially when physicians tell us their patient is beyond the hope of healing.

I do fear giving false hope to a patient or family member. Things can get ugly when someone dies in spite of the most fervent, well-intentioned prayer; yet I feel that the decision not to pray for physical healing serves only to protect the chaplain rather than the bereaved.

I grew up in a Pentecostal church. Naturally, when my grandfather was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, my family’s church prayed for him to be healed from the disease. Although the resistance of Granddad’s body to the cancer surprised his doctor, it eventually became clear that this illness would claim his life. I cried with the rest of my family when he finally passed away, but I never felt any bitterness toward God. Granddad had put his faith in Jesus, and he lived a good, long life. Perhaps these facts made his death easier to swallow, but it was not what my family had hoped for – certainly not what we had prayed for.

Was it wrong to pray as we had? Would it have been different had he been twenty years younger? Thirty years younger? Or if his death was due to another cause? While I am not prepared to lay out a theology of healing, I will wholeheartedly defend the prayers offered by family and my church. And I continue to pray this way. Is this not exactly what King David did in 2 Samuel? According the story, the child born out of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba became sick. Although David had been told by Nathan the prophet that the child would die, he fasted and prayed for seven days. But when his son died, he got up, washed himself, and ate, saying “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23, ESV)

David’s behavior may appear strange, yet it reflects the hope that the Word of God gives to us in the midst of sickness and death. I have heard that the loss of a child is one of the worst forms of grief a human being can experience. Imagine all of the dreams that died with that child. Everything that his father must have hoped and prayed for him to become and to accomplish were suddenly gone. Yet David was not destroyed by the grief. How? He had a hope of something beyond the grave. He must have believed he would see his son again by the power of God.

Most of the families I serve as a chaplain believe in heaven in some form or another, but they still want more time to spend with their sick loved ones on earth. I do not think God judges anyone for this desire. He understands what it is like to see a son suffer and die. And he even commands us to pray for healing. (James 5:14) Where is the sin in hoping that the one who made the blind see would also take away cancer, pneumonia, Alzheimer’s, or heart failure? But for believers, that hope is always superseded by a greater one. That Jesus Christ will make all things right and restore our bodies when he returns in glory and establishes his reign on the earth.

So when someone is sick and near death, we need not say some vague prayer that the Lord’s will be done so that we are “safe” no matter the outcome. We can ask for our heart’s desire. And if God chooses to answer our prayer differently than how we expect, we still have hope for life and healing in a more perfect way.

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A Mind That Is Full

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Colossians 3:1-2

The Need for Balance

I have been told that I am a good listener, and this is one of the reasons I chose to pursue a career in chaplaincy. But over the past few months, I have learned that my listening is not always as effective as it could be. As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently enrolled in a CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program, which equips prospective chaplains with the skills needed to do pastoral work in a clinical setting. One of the techniques I learned from CPE is called “reverent acknowledgement.” This is a certain type of listening that requires us to attend to the content, feeling, and affect of a person’s story. Many times, I find that listening never goes further than observing the content of a message. As my CPE supervisor helped me to realize, this is partly because I take little heed to my own emotions. It is difficult to read the feelings and affect (overall inner experience) of another person without first attending to and understanding one’s own feelings and affect.

To improve my ability to give pastoral care as well as my own relationship with God, I have turned to practices I never expected I would try before. If you are from a similar background, you might find what I am about to describe as a bit strange, but hear me out.

Communication and Communion

All Christians would agree that prayer is an essential practice for all who wish to follow Christ. But if you ask ten Christians “What is prayer?” you will probably get ten different answers. Rev. Timothy Keller has defined prayer as “continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him.”1 Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for his Highest says, “Prayer is not simply getting things from God, that is a most initial form of prayer; prayer is getting into perfect communion with God.”2 Kenneth Boa calls prayer, “personal communion and dialogue with the living God.”3 In a sense, there are two aspects to prayer. On the surface, it is communication, but at its core, prayer is communion. As a chaplain, my goal is never merely to communicate with people. I hope to commune with them as well. My ministry is to extend the gift of God’s presence to others. Chaplaincy is often referred to as “a ministry of presence.” But the practice of being present is not one that comes naturally to me. How can I truly be present with another human being if I am not taking time to be present with God through prayer?

This deeper aspect of prayer is often termed meditation. The word meditation is not only ambiguous but also scary for some Christians. It might conjure images of people sitting on yoga mats murmuring “ohm.” Certain forms of meditation are associated with eastern religions and therefore stand at odds with Christian spirituality. But there is also a strong tradition of meditation within Christianity, especially within the Catholic faith. Famous proponents of the Christian contemplative approach to meditation include Teresa of Avila, and Brother Lawrence, author of The Practice of the Presence of God. These individuals aimed to experience God by directing their mind and affections toward him. Teresa went so far as to claim receiving visions of Christ himself. “At certain times it really seemed to me that it was an image I was seeing; but on many other occasions I thought it was no image, but Christ Himself, such was the brightness with which He was pleased to reveal himself to me.”4

This talk of images and visions quickly turns down the path to mysticism, which is not my intent, but I believe that meditation does have the potential to bring us into the presence of God, and that is something for which every Christian should strive. E. Glenn Hinson explains, “The ultimate goal is usually expressed as union with God, but contemplatives may state the same hope and aspiration in a variety of ways . . . It is a fundamental conviction of contemplatives, however, that we may see God or be united with God, though fleetingly, while we are still living in this present state of existence.”5 This description of meditation reflects the biblical concept of bringing eternity into the here and now.

The Things Above

Meditation View Sunrise - Free photo on Pixabay

The Bible commands us in the book of Colossians to adopt a heavenly mindset. The English Standard Version of Colossians 3:1-2 reads “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Two Greek verbs are used to describe our orientation toward that which is above. In verse one, the verb is zaeteo, which involves the heart and will. In verse two, phroneo is used. This involves the intellect. In other words, the command is twofold. We should direct both our desires and our intellect toward God.

The latter comes naturally to me, but I have only just begun to employ the former. With the intent of bringing my heart into alignment with Christ, I started investigating meditation techniques. I learned that mindfulness is a simple practice used by those of many different faiths. Rather than emptying the mind, mindful meditation involves slowing down to focus in on your feelings. When combined with Scripture and prayer, mindful mediation can be a powerful way to abide in the presence of God. For instance, I begin my meditations by choosing a passage of Scripture and engaging it with my mind. I move from there to allowing the truth of the passage to penetrate from my mind to my heart. As I allow my mind to be filled with the presence of God, I feel different. My stress dissipates, I experience less anger, and I am bolstered against temptation. This is not because of my own work but because I have surrendered to Christ the time and the space to transform my heart.

How to Practice Spirit-Led Mindfulness

At its most basic form, this practice involves simply sitting in a neutral position and focusing on breathing for a few minutes. I recommend studying a passage first, drawing out the main theme, which can be expressed in a few words, such as “abide in me,” and repeat these words out loud or silently while waiting for the meaning to sink in. As the mind wanders, the goal is to gently bring one’s attention back to the purpose of the meditation. As one encounters distracting thoughts and feelings, simply surrender these to God. This is only one strategy among many that have been proposed. The result is repeated union with Christ, which is both transformative and satisfying.6

Just as I may be called to be present with someone as a chaplain, Jesus is ready to share His presence with me at all times. I will not claim that mindfulness is the only way to enjoy God’s presence, but I do believe it is necessary to approach him with both the heart and the intellect.

To truly love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength it is necessary to intentionally offer each aspect of our being up to Him. This cannot be done in a quick perusal of Scripture and a prayer. It matters not how much knowledge we gain of God or what we do to please Him if we do not spend time in his presence. Commune with Him. Allow him to transform your mind.

Notes

  1. Timothy Keller, Prayer: Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 48.
  2. Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 83.
  3. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for his Highest (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Co., 1963), 260
  4. Teresa of Avila, “Experiencing God,” in Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, ed. Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 193.
  5. E. Glenn Hinson, “The Contemplative View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 171.
  6. For more tips visit https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/10-things-you-should-know-about-christian-meditation.html.

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You Are Essential

Hating on 2020 is the thing to do right now. With the list of catastrophes and bizarre developments getting difficult to keep up with, there is ample fodder for jokes and memes about this year being the worst in our history. While the world seems to be spinning in cartwheels, however, 2020 has launched me forward in my own personal journey in an amazing way. I completed my seminary education in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown and this fall began an internship in clinical pastoral education (CPE). CPE is a program designed to equip ministers to provide spiritual care in a professional environment. Although not all chaplains work in health care, my internship takes place in a hospital, where I visit patients each day. 

A hospital may seem like the scariest place to work right now, but I do not find it that way. COVID has certainly affected day-to-day operations, but this does not mean I walk between walls of dying people in a plastic bubble. Much like the rest of the world, the pandemic has touched the hospital in more subtle ways, drawing certain things into focus and throwing others into sharp relief. 

This shuffling of priorities has been taking place since the initial outbreak of the pandemic, when our nation shut down to slow the spread of the virus and states were forced to determine which activities were “essential” and which were not. When our lives came to a halt, we were forced to prioritize our families and our health. And when everything re-opened, we were faced with hard choices about how and where to work, to get our kids to school, and to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. 

More than anything, this year has served as a reminder that every life matters. And as a chaplain, I have the honored duty of letting people know that they matter. So many faces I encounter betray fear and loneliness. People are afraid of being forgotten or neglected. When people are alienated from the things that are important to them, a crisis of identity takes place. And the question that haunts them is, “Do I really matter? Is my life significant?” 

Jesus Christ answered this question for all of us. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” Each and every person on this earth is loved by God, not because of their own merit but because of God’s goodness. And He loved them enough to die for them. 

If you feel like the world has neglected you, or if you are just unsure of your place in it – if you feel lost, you are still loved. Your life has meaning and purpose, and you do not have to discover it on your own. Is that not comforting? You are essential, and you have something unique to give to the world.  

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Of Those Who Are Asleep

We have reached the halfway point of the year. And many people are wondering, “Can it get any worse.” With pandemics, racial injustice, and political unrest, 2020 has already earned a spot in history, even inspiring apocalypse-related humor as the world tries to guess what the second half of the year could bring. But is 2020 really so unique? After all, death by disease has always been part of our reality. Death at the hands of wicked men is also, sadly, nothing new. Either way, it is that dark shadow, death, that haunts us.

We mourn those whom death has overtaken, and we fear death will come for us. So much of our way of life is designed to keep death at bay – to control how and when we die. But no death is easy. No death is right. What we have seen in recent months is the new face of an old enemy. Some (notably an editor from The Gospel Coalition) have hearkened back to the words of C. S. Lewis in describing the atomic age.

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

Lewis’s words indeed hit home during this age of fear and death, but I see in our time a situation akin to an even older age. In the years immediately following the ascension of Christ, a group of his followers assembled in a city called Thessalonica. These disciples worried that their Lord had tarried in his return, and some within their congregation had already passed out of the land of the living. Men and women had died waiting for Christ to rescue them from the evils of this world. Their faith seemed to be in vain, for death still claimed them in the end. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians not to be alarmed, for surely none who died believing in Christ would miss his glorious appearing.

File:Sun Rays Through The Clouds.jpg - Wikipedia

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (I Thessalonians 4:13-18, ESV)

This was not a false hope or an escapist fantasy but a firmly held conviction in the promise of Christ himself. What Paul said was true. Whether we die believing in Christ or live until his return, we will always be with the Lord. This does not mean we should be idle while we wait. By all means, we should reform what is corrupt and protect those who are weak and defenseless. We should strive for justice, equity, and peace. But we need not do so in fear or cynicism. Those who have put their faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins have a hope that is more powerful than any crisis our nation or world will face. “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:8-9, ESV)

2020 has brought many challenges to the faith of believers. But I hope that it will also be a reason for many to seek an object for their faith. Call it naiveté or whatever you like, but my faith is fixed on Christ and his return. Death does not have the final say.

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What Does Church Look Like During a Pandemic?

It has been four months since the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States. With the spread of the disease, which the World Health Organization classified as a pandemic on March 11, the nation has entered varying degrees of lockdown. Starting in parts of California and New York, most states eventually issued stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of COVID cases and prevent as many deaths as possible. Even as restrictions begin to lift, government and health officials warn that the danger is still very real. The initial panic now gives way to a lingering anxiety as we search for a way forward and attempt to establish a new normal. 

Despite all the question that remain unanswered, one thing is certain. We will never return to the way things were. As individuals, as a nation, and as the human race, we have had to adapt and will continue to adapt. Now the church of Christ must also decide how to adapt to the changes resulting from this virus. If we dare to call ourselves the body of Christ, our actions and identity must emanate from our obedience to Scripture. Since there is no book or chapter that provides instructions on how to be the church in a pandemic, we need discernment on how to apply the teachings of Christ. I cannot pretend to answer this question adequately, and I expect that a diversity of responses will emerge. But if the Holy Spirit guides us, I know that we can find a way forward together. With that goal in mind, there are few points to consider.

Brittain Church

Our idea of church as the building where Christians gather has already been shattered. Since physical gatherings are not recommended or, in some cases, strictly prohibited, most congregations have moved to an online format for Sunday services. While the technology that makes virtual gatherings possible is a blessing, we cannot pretend that these meetings function as well as the traditional model. For this reason, a few churches have defied the orders of their governments and chosen to gather for in-person services. Is this a bold act of obedience or reckless disregard for the common good? 

While the American church has had the distinct privilege of coming together free from government control, restrictions on worship are nothing new. Perhaps this is way the New Testament is bursting with warnings about persecution. Yet the writer of Hebrews commands, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 9:23-25) At the same time, the Bible instructs us to submit to secular authority. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1) If it comes down to obeying our leaders and obeying God, the church must obey God. But only out of an abundance of conviction with reasonable cause should we ignore the direct orders of our government. 

The government has asked us to sacrifice a lot because of the threat of the virus. While American Christians are accustomed to large sanctuaries and foyers brimming with activity, handshakes, and perhaps a coffee bar, such trimmings have vanished for the foreseeable future. The church is not up in arms because of the trimmings but the idea that the government can dictate when and how we worship. I acknowledge that it is troubling to see political power exerted over the church in a way this is virtually unprecedented in the nation we call home. If the intent behind government restrictions were to repress the gospel, I hope I would be the first to call for resistance. But that is not the situation as I see it. All businesses and establishments have been subject to restrictions for the sake of public health. Granted, certain businesses are exempt due to their “essential” status, but everyone has had to adjust and modify their daily operations to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. The church must also adapt to meet the needs of our communities while holding fast to our mission. 

In times like this, we must remember that Christ attended to both the spiritual and physical needs of those around him. He went further than anyone in love for his neighbors, and as his body we are called to follow that example. Somehow a balance must be struck between protecting those physically vulnerable and reaching those spiritually lost. These categories overlap, of course. A simple touch could be deadly for someone with a weakened immune system, yet the pain of isolation is just as deadly. The ministry of touch plays an important role in the lives of the poor and needy. When Jesus healed the leper in Matthew 8, he did so with a touch of his hand. He could have healed him with a mere word, just as he healed the centurion’s servant just a few verses later. But the leper was suffering from the lack of human contact he had endured since contracting his disease. His spiritual suffering was worse than any pain in his body. 

It would be too great a cost to sacrifice the spiritual well-being of our communities for the sake of physical safety. I hope we are not forced to choose between the two, but let us not forget why Jesus came to earth. He came as Immanuel, God with us, to live among sinful men and to redeem us from the curse of sin. The church’s primary task is to carry the good news of his death and resurrection to the world. We cannot carry out this mission while distancing ourselves from everyone who needs to hear the gospel. Neither can we consider ourselves disciples without the love and accountability that occurs in Christian community. We do not simply meet together to have a good time or to get our minds off the state of the world for a while. We are the keepers of the good news. We are a city on a hill, salt and light, a voice in the wilderness. As we consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, our methods might look different compared to the past. Instead of meeting in large groups, we may be limited to two or three. We may not have a formal ministry for singles or seniors, but we still have a responsibility to visit widows and shut-ins. 

The church has endured all kinds of obstacles throughout history. Our triumph is a testament to the Holy Spirit’s power. COVID-19, with its unique challenges, need not hamper us in our mission if we adapt properly. The gospel is a cause worth sacrificing for. But we must choose wisely what to sacrifice, where to compromise, and where to stay firm. If we understand what the church truly is, no virus can change that. 

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Is This the End?

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We live in strange times. During the past week alone, I have encountered more disruptions in my life than I would care to count, and I have it easy compared to many parts of the world. The spread of COVID-19 has led to unprecedented restrictions and incited panic all over the world. Several people have asked me things like, “What is God doing?” “Is this the end?” Those are heavy questions, but natural in times like this.

Reading the Signs

We cannot afford to ignore the Word of God on these questions. The Gospel of Matthew records what Jesus said regarding his second coming. The passage is controversial because Jesus’s words appear to indicate he will return within the lifetime of the disciples; therefore, it is best to understand the passage with both a near and far fulfillment in mind. Without delving into the nitty-gritty of eschatology (that’s the study of last things, by the way), I want to look at a few of the things Jesus said will happen before his return. First, he tells of false Christs “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” (Matthew 24:5) He also foretells of “wars and rumors of wars.” His followers will be persecuted and put to death, and some will abandon their faith. Finally, he says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed through the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Many of these signs seem to have been fulfilled. Various individuals have claimed to be the Messiah and even led large numbers of people astray. War seems to be practically our default. If the U.S. is not at war with another nation, we are preparing for it at all times. Although many people groups are still considered “unreached” because of the lack of professing Christians among them, the gospel reaches more of these people every day. Countless books have been written in an attempt to interpret the “signs of the times.” My entire life I have heard preachers proclaim that we are in the last days and that the return of Christ is imminent.

Is a Global Pandemic a Sign of the End?

How do pandemics factor into the signs of the times? Revelation 6 foretells pestilence, when the fourth horseman is released to inflict death on the earth. “And I looked and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” It is difficult to say if this means a quarter of the world population will be destroyed. There is a lot of symbolic language in the book of Revelation, so this is not necessarily a literal number. The only thing we can know for sure is that there will be many deaths from disease and other causes

The message of Revelation, as well as Matthew 24, seems to be that things will get worse before they get better, but no one knows the exact day when Christ will return. Jesus gave this warning, “But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would hot have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:43-44) Christ may just as well return today as many years from now, and he expects his people to be ready.

Be Ready

So how de we prepare? We must adhere to the commands of Christ. Namely, to love God and love one’s neighbor. It is sad yet true that the things we take for granted – like, say, toilet paper – must be removed from our live for us to realize that God is truly all that we need. In the time that you spend in your home, waiting for whatever happens next, do you worship God and ask for his will to be done, or do you simply worry and try to plan for the worst-case scenario? If God is sovereign, he deserves our trust in both security and distress.

In addition, we must not forget to care for those around us. One of the advantages of this crisis is the increased amount of time families have together. We must use this time to demonstrate our love for spouses, parents, and children, but also remember those outside our own households. Social distancing should not become an excuse to neglect the sick, lonely, and hurting people in this world. Take the time to check on those in your community who may be suffering from the mayhem that is occurring. Volunteer to run errands, prepare meals, or just talk with those who need companionship.

Above all, we can prepare for the end by preaching the gospel. No one could have said this better than Charles Spurgeon, “There are the evils, brethren. I have tried to set them forth; you will not forget them. But we have, only one remedy for them; preach Jesus Christ, and let us do it more and more. By the roadside, in the little room, in the theatre, anywhere, everywhere, let us preach Christ. Write books if you like, and do anything else within your power; but whatever else you cannot do, preach Christ.” If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would want to share the gospel of Christ with as many people as I could. There are so many ways to do this. This post, for example, can be read by anyone in the world with an internet connection. Even in quarantine, we have the ability to connect with so many people through technology. Why waste this on mindless videos and amusing memes? We should use every tool we have to share the good news we have.

And what is the good news? It is the cure for a sick and dying world. Though we were created by a good and loving God, we rejected him, bringing a curse upon ourselves. The effects of this curse are undeniable, but the gospel says that God redeemed us from the curse by sending his Son in the form of human flesh to pay the price of our wrongdoing. This gospel promises life to those who are dead and dying through faith in Jesus Christ, who will establish his kingdom on the earth. His kingdom is one of justice and righteousness. While it is yet to come, this kingdom penetrates the here and now so that those who believe can stand strong even in the midst of disease and fear.

We do not know when or how the world will end, and it is for this reason that we must prepare for the return of Christ. Love God . . . love others . . . preach the gospel. Every day until he returns.

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Evil

Reading through Psalms feels like a quest for justice in a cruel world. Though the book contains many genres of song written by various authors, one resounding theme is righteousness and wickedness. At times they express the conviction that “the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Yet other psalms seem to indicate that the righteous have no hope against the schemes of the wicked. Few songs could be more transparent than those of David.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.” (Psalm 22:6-8)

David spent a good portion of his life pursued by enemies who hated him without cause. Although not everyone has been victim to the kind of evil David suffered, his words are extremely relatable. Evil pervades the world and affects everyone.

There are almost as many attitudes toward wickedness as there are kinds of wickedness. Should evil deeds be punished, prevented, or tolerated? How do we take evil seriously without returning evil for evil? It is easy to say “be kind to one another,” or “treat others as you want to be treated,” but how does a parent practice this when their child is brutally murdered? One cannot help but wish for the murder to be punished. In fact, to think otherwise seems a betrayal of justice.

God does not take evil lightly. Psalm 33:4-5 says, “For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.” God can be counted on to establish justice, and he will hold the wicked accountable for their deeds. This is where many people get uncomfortable with the Bible. The fate of the wicked is declared in no uncertain terms. In the New Testament, Jesus describes a future judgment on the wicked, when they will be condemned to Hell. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” (Matthew 25:41) The only way to secure justice is to destroy evil.

Belief in Hell, though unpopular, ultimately allows us to give up on personal vengeance against those who may have wronged us. Because God takes justice so seriously, we are not responsible for meting out punishment on our enemies. In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus explains that judgment will come at the proper time. His analogy is that of a field containing both wheat and weeds. The master of the field commands his servants to wait until the harvest to destroy the weeds, “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” This story should remind us that we are not always the best at distinguishing wheat from weeds. Every person has made some choices that were wrong and others that were right. It is our acceptance or rejection of Jesus that ultimately determines our eternal destiny, and as long as someone is breathing, they have a chance to repent of wickedness and choose Jesus.

Since God alone knows the final destiny of each person, we must treat everyone as potentially redeemable. When we submit to the authority of God, we can respond to evil with good without betraying justice. To show mercy to those who have wronged us does not deny the evil of their actions. It simply allows God to judge the person in the proper way at the proper time. Evil will meet its end. If David could trust God even when there seemed to be no hope, we can demonstrate the same faith when facing evil of all kinds – faith that God will demonstrate his justice, whatever it takes.

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Gifts in Clay Jars

Image result for christmas

If aliens were to observe a day in the United States in December, they might conclude that everyone on earth falls into one of two categories. First, there are those who live, breathe, eat, and drink Christmas. These people are the ones who put up the lights and garland on November 1st, belt Christmas carols at the top of their lungs, and pack as many holiday parties into their schedule as they possibly can. Then there are the people who roll their eyes at the festive cheer of the first group and perhaps even mutter a “bah humbug” under their breath. These people breathe a sigh of relief when the 25th has passed so they can finally get back to life as normal.

Although I love Christmas as much as anyone, even I can grow weary of all the excitement that comes with this season. After all, does it really make sense to build so many expectations around a single day of the year? Can we help feeling empty when all of the decorations are revealed to be a mere façade? Of course, if Christmas doesn’t have that magical hold on you, there is bound to be something else that does. Maybe it’s a place, a hobby, or a person. We all have something that stirs our affections.

I confess I can be a compulsive television viewer. Netflix is my kryptonite. One of the shows I have enjoyed recently is The Crown. It portrays members of the royal family in a beautifully detailed tapestry that often involves stirring monologues. In Season 3, episode 7, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, obsesses over the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. For a short time, he finds excitement in following the journey of Armstrong, Aldin, and Collins through space to take that giant leap for mankind. His awe for the astronauts on that mission wanes, however, when he finally meets them and discovers they are ordinary, unremarkable people.

In a tender moment at the end of the episode, Philip admits he has lost faith in anything that truly matters. “The loneliness, and emptiness, and anti-climax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing but haunting desolation, ghostly silence, gloom. That is what faithlessness is. As opposed to finding wonder, ecstasy, the miracle of divine creation, God’s design and purpose.”

One might say the disappointment Philip describes is typical of the human experience. We long for something that nothing in this world can seem to satisfy. Our dalliances with romance, food, entertainment, and pleasure of all sorts are an attempt to transcend our everyday experience, but they always fall short. Christmas also fails to deliver the joy it promises.

As a Christian, I’m expected to attribute greater significance to Christmas because it is a celebration of Jesus’ birth. But what makes this event so significant? How does the birth of a baby to a poor Jewish couple in a stable 2,000 years ago bring joy to my average, uneventful, insignificant life? It isn’t the scene of a Precious Moments nativity display that makes Christmas special. It was the man that baby would become, the death that he died, and the reason he chose it that gave me hope.

“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 Corinthians 4:7-10) God has given me a gift, and that gift is knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While this world is corrupted by sin, God has promised to establish his kingdom on earth through his son Jesus. Even though that kingdom has yet to come, I am part of it now because I know Jesus. I dare not keep such a hope to myself but must share the meaning of Christ’s birth, what came after, and what’s still to come.

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Before Christ

Growing up evangelical means you’re trained relentlessly in the art of the testimony, or the story of how you came to know Jesus. I’ve heard far too many of these stories to count. Some clean and simple; others bordering on melodramatic. But they all share the same basic pattern. First the person describes what their life was like before Christ, then they explain their conversion experience, and finally they share how their life is different afterward. 

The testimonies I’ve heard of people abandoning lives of drugs, lawlessness, and promiscuity after discovering Jesus are certainly powerful. I have no doubt that these transformations are genuine miracles of God. At the same time, they make me feel uneasy because my own testimony is so different.  I struggle with a sense of shame when expected to give my testimony simply because the first part – the “before Christ”—is boring. I’ve even been guilty of making things up or extrapolating to the point that I’m not even sure what I’m sharing is true. All because, if I’m completely honest, I don’t remember what my life was like before I came to know Jesus Christ. I came to faith at a very young age, and I simply cannot recall what led me to that decision. I’m afraid that if I tell people this, they’ll think my conversion never happened. 

It’s only recently that I’ve come to see both Scripture and reason prove this isn’t the case. If any can lay claim to the most extraordinary testimony ever, it’s Paul the Apostle. Once a devout Jew and persecutor of the Church of Christ, he had a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus while on his way to put Christians in prison. His sight was lost and then restored, and Paul was sent to tell the world the good news that Christ had arisen. Yet he chose not to dwell on his past. Instead, he says “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8) The word “rubbish” is really the G-rated version of Paul’s writing. The Greek word used actually refers to fecal matter – you get the idea. The point is that Paul considered everything in his life before Christ as less than nothing because of what he gained.  

Scripture confirms that whatever came before Christ is not the most important part of anyone’s story, and this should make sense. You can probably think of something or someone you love so much you couldn’t begin to explain how or why you came to love them. In fact, that’s essentially what my mother said when she renewed her wedding vows to my father after 25 years of marriage. That she could neither remember nor imagine life without him. Tell me that isn’t the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard! 

I won’t say that I can’t imagine my life without Christ, but I certainly don’t want to. His life has become so much a part of mine, that I simply wouldn’t be me without Him. No matter what failures or unexpected changes I encounter, no matter what atrocities occur in the world around me, I am secure. Knowing that Christ offered up his life to save me from sin means I will never be unloved. Knowing Him gives my life meaning that is infinitely greater than all I could ever accomplish, and my heart’s desire is to see Him glorified before the eyes of heaven and earth. That is my testimony to the risen Christ, and I hope it becomes your testimony as well. 

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