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Month: August 2017

When the world went strangely dim: God’s glory amidst suffering and hate

My wife and I traveled down to my sister’s house in Albany, Oregon to experience the great eclipse a couple of weeks ago. From Oregon to South Carolina, the moon blocked out the sun, casting a 70-mile-wide shadow across the United States. Albany happened to be in the path of totality. Portland would get a 99.2% showing of the eclipse.

But what a difference .8% makes.

My wife and I sat in my sister’s backyard and donned our dorky eclipse glasses.

For an hour, we watched the moon slide slowly across the surface of the sun. A show like one we have never seen was about to begin. About fifteen minutes out of totality, Albany grew darker—a strangely dim type of darkness, not quite twilight, not quite dusk. It was like looking through oddly-tinted sunglasses.

Then, in the final moments of totality, the sun went completely dark.

For a moment.

A ring of fire burst out from around the perimeter of the moon. Cheers erupted throughout the neighborhood. Dogs barked. I snapped some pictures and then watched in quiet awe. Words cannot describe the event. The only thing going through my mind were the words of the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

For two minutes, a wondrous act of the Creator brought the nation to standstill. Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about my life. I wasn’t worried about the upcoming semester of classes, or my anxieties, or even what I was going to each for lunch that day. Heck, I wasn’t even worried about the drive back to Portland—a normally ninety minute journey that would take almost seven hours. All that mattered at that moment was the dazzling display high up in the heavens.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

The heavens declare the glory of God. Summer 2017 had been quite eventful, emotional, and one of great transition.

Early on, my wife and I planned a trip back to my home state of Montana. Originally, the plan was to attend two weddings only ten days but five hundred miles apart—one in Billings and the other in Spokane, Washington.

However, that simple plan quickly turned sideways. my grandfather had a massive stroke that took his life just a few days later. Then, my father’s gall bladder attacked him during our special Father’s Day dinner, sending him to the hospital. This, of course, was followed by emergency surgery. Then, if that wasn’t enough, my dachshund Copper decided to get in on the fun when his mouth unexpectedly swelled up, requiring an urgent visit to a vet. My wife and I bounced around Montana like a ball in a pinball machine—Helena to Coeur ‘d Alene, Idaho and back to Missoula, then Great Falls, then Billings for the first wedding, then the mega-metropolis of Savage, back to Missoula, and finally to Spokane for the second wedding.

All in three weeks.

When it was over, my car aged over 3200 hundred miles. I didn’t fare much better.

It was a strange blend of laughter, sadness, celebration, stress, adventure, and of course, transition. A niece on my wife’s side of the family and a nephew on my side transitioned into the world of marriage. For us who are merely uncles and aunts, our relationships with them would transition into something entirely new as they cling to their new spouses and start a new life. My grandfather transitioned into his heavenly home, and those of us left behind transitioned into an unknown life completely without him. My father’s health transitioned back and forth on a daily basis, and I transitioned into a new experience of dealing with an aging dad.

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s a light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!

The heavens declare the glory of God. The last several months have seen an escalating in the great American Civil War—one that has been fought largely with stilted rhetoric. Then violence started to creep in, slowly—almost unnoticeably. All this violence didn’t have the impact on us as a nation.

Until a woman was run over and killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I am afraid this rhetorical civil war is escalating into a violent one.

On August 26, a category three hurricane named Harvey pummeled Texas in one of the most violent displays of nature since, arguably, Hurricane Katrina. Watching the suffering and loss on TV, I couldn’t begin to fathom what is going on in the minds and hearts of people who lost everything. Also present were endless examples of people helping each other—lifting them out of harm’s way, providing financial resources, food, and lodging, and even encouragement.

Sadly, not to be outdone, brutality and malevolence found its way back into the trending headlines. In the days following, the devastation on the lives of countless Texans was eclipsed by sorry souls who have the heart of Swiss cheese—some of it is missing, and the parts that remain stink. The faces of Harvey were replaced with debates about climate change, whether or not Trump’s response to disaster was better than Obama’s, how Joel Osteen’s church responded or didn’t respond, and whether Melania Trump’s shoes were inappropriate. A professor tweeted the Harvey was karma on Texas for supporting Trump. Politico ran a cartoon mocking victims giving glory to God for their rescue while at the same time making government its own god. And the French satirical magazine Charlie Habdo, who twice was the victim of radical Islamic terrorists, published a cover with Nazi salutes coming out of the water and the headline: “God exists! He drowned all the neo-Nazis of Texas.”

I shake my head in sadness.

It’s almost hard to remember that between Charlottesville and Harvey, a great eclipse brought the United States—from sea to shining sea—to an halt. For two minutes, the nation’s eyes turned upward.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

The heavens declare the glory of God. To the conservative and the liberal, to the believer and the atheist, to the oppressed and the oppressor, to the human of every race and even to the beast—we all looked in awe to the skies. No one worried about their lives. Political causes moved to the back burner. No one fought or called each other names. No one listened to beltway pundits and arrogant journalists flap their gums. We were all humans again. We were community. For two minutes, the heavens declared the glory of God.

Sure, some tried to turn our attention away from the wonder. One writer tried to argue that science is greater than God because predicting the path of the eclipse is somehow greater than actually creating it. Another tried to use the eclipse as a hook to discuss racism. Fortunately, those attempts got little to no traction. Majesty blurred human nature.

Two minutes later, it was done. Light returned.

“Normal” once again pushed out the “extraordinary.”

Even though the eclipse was only a few weeks ago, it already seems so distant. Allowing life and sin to overwhelm God’s glory is not at all difficult.

It is also sad when it happens.

Perhaps it is time to step away from our personal causes, our debates, our vindictiveness toward others, and our hatred toward those who don’t see things the way we do, and once again look up to the heavens. Everything that matters to us—no matter how important we may think it is—will, in the words of Helen Lemmel’s great hymn, “grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

Lyrics from the song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” by Helen Lemmel, 1922.

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With the world coming apart, the church still must be the church

I haven’t said much during this week following the violence in Charlottesville. I have followed the rhetoric on social media and have been saddened by what we have become. But I felt it unwise to say anything, even if it meant not expressing sadness. In truth, I really don’t know what to say that wouldn’t merely contribute to the growing cesspool that is social media. I have no idea how to fix this ugliness.

But my heart is churning.

Although I lean conservative, I am finding it impossible to take sides. I cannot, in the name of Jesus, stand with the white nationalist groups. Their ideology is repulsive and un-Christlike. Any attempts to hijack the name of Christ to their cause is an abomination. And nothing could justify the violence done.

On the other hand, I have watched the violence, intimidation, and hate perpetrated by the Antifa movement over the last several months, and also despise what they stand for. Using violence and silencing people who don’t agree with you isn’t the best way to persuade. Oppression used in the name of fighting oppression is still oppression.

Both groups are two sides of the extremist coin, one that historically never goes well. If either side truly gets their way, freedom ceases to exist. There seems to be no heroes, no “good guys.” Both sides effectively dehumanizes the other so successfully that when one group physically attacks the other, it becomes nearly impossible to express any kind of grief or outrage—even when an individual’s life is tragically snuffed out.

It is imperative to remember the person who was killed as a person and call out the violence against her for what it was—evil.

It is also imperative, as Christ-followers, to not allow ourselves to take sides. Both the Evangelical Right and Progressives are making the exact same mistake: instead of calling out the evil of the extremes for what it is, we are minimizing, justifying, or ignoring the evil if it comes out of the narrative with which we identify. We sacrifice our prophetic voice in the name of what we consider the “greater good.”

Karl Barth once said, “When the church weds itself to the spirit of the age, it will find itself a widow in the next.” Our nation, and even our church itself, is experiencing a serious identity crisis. We don’t know who we are anymore. We must not give in to the temptation to side with one extreme or the other.

Church, in the name of Jesus, be the church.

We are not the church if we allow our prophetic voice to fall under the submission of a political cause or politician. We are not the church if we justify or minimize evil acts from either extreme of the political spectrum. We are not the church if we are selective in our outrage. We are not the church if we liken the kingdom of God to any political cause. We are not the church if we take any side to the left and right extremisms for the cause of the “greater good” no matter how we define it.

We must be the church. We are the church when we are a church of love, loving and showing that love in the face of all forms of extremism. We are the church only when Jesus is our cause, not a political side (note: there is not a single political cause worth fighting for can fully represent the Kingdom of God). We are the church only when we are a church of prayer. We are the church only when we sacrifice our political voice at the expense of conservatism or liberalism. We are the church only when we look to Jesus as the answer and not some political cause.

We don’t know what this nation will look like if or when we ever solve this identity crisis. But rest assured that no matter how it turns out, Barth’s warning is accurate: if we allow our churches to wed to the spirit of the age—whether political conservativism or progressivism, then the entire body of Christ will be a widow in the years to come.

That is something we cannot allow to happen.

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