A pastor addressing a group of seminary students uttered that phrase Monday afternoon and it has been swirling in my mind ever since as I have tried to distill my feelings and thoughts in the wake of the horrendous events that unfolded this past Sunday in Texas. It has been a challenge for me to give voice to everything in my heart regarding this tragedy, In this post I don't intend to offer a theology of suffering or a recommendation of what a practical "gospel" response to the threat of violence looks like.
When the shooting at Sandy Hook happened I was a school teacher and I couldn't help placing myself in that situation and realized that, given how I knew I would have responded had it been my school, Kelsey would have been a widow that day. That event hit close to home in a way no other tragedy ever has. Until Sunday.
I couldn't help but think of my congregation and to put myself in the place of the Pastor Frank Pomeroy. I can easily imagine the special variety of survivor's guilt he will struggle with. Shepherds always feel that they are responsible to be present with their flock, especially in times of great trial. He is simultaneously mourning the loss of his daughter and 25 members of his church. He is simultaneously juggling his personal grief, the ordinary burden a pastor carries when ministering to a grieving family times 25, and a national spotlight as the country's attention asks him to already render decisions about the future of his facility.
So while there are many thoughts I have regarding many theological and practical matters, none of them are clear because I can't shake the thought of what that pastor is experiencing and what I would be doing if in his place. Because whether we like it or not, what was said to me on Monday is true: the sanctuary is not secure. For centuries it was true that church buildings served as physical sanctuaries from violence because even the most lawless brigand respected the sanctity of the church. That has not been true for some time and Sunday was just the most recent reminder. And yet it is important for all of us to lean in to the other truth I encountered Monday from Isaiah 49:16 - "Yahweh has engraved you on the palm of his hand." In an insecure time, we as his people, sheep and ungdershepherds (aka sheep), are always and ultimately secure, carved into the hand of our heavenly Father. So we can say with another sheep: what can separate us from the love of God? Shall terrorists or madmen, trucks or guns, hurricanes or wildfires? No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ.
See you all Sunday at the sanctuary.
As I drove in to work this morning, I heard on the radio that Gord Downie passed away earlier this week at the age of 53. For those of you, who like me haven't the faintest idea who he was, let me share what I have learned. He was apparently a big deal in Canada as the lead singer of the band The Tragically Hip. A big enough deal that Canadian PM Justin Trudeau spoke about his passing and got fairly emotional doing so. The radio station I was listening to played a portion of his remarks and a phrase stuck out to me. He said that Gord loved Canada and not in a nebulous way but that he loved every corner and story and aspect of the country. He then said that as great as Gord believed Canada was he knew it needed to be better and that he worked towards that end.
Hearing that emotional statement from Canada's leader about a musician's life and impact got me thinking. It reminded me of what Alaina shared with us on Sunday from Jeremiah 29. Most of us know verse 11 in which God assures the exiles that He has good plans for them. We are less familiar with the verses that precede it and are foundational to it and that Alaina reminded us of. Verses 4 through 7 tell the exiles to seek the good of the city that has exiled them. They are instructed to seek its "shalom", its holistic peace, because in that will be found their shalom.
As I connected these two thoughts, I realized what is so distressing at times in this day of deep divisions, strife and protest. So often the voices railing in our culture are one-note voices and that note is anger. It is usually either the anger of protest or the anger of defensiveness. Too often it seems that it is hard to tell whether the angry people love the people or the country they are angry with. And far too often, our voices as followers of Jesus are of that one-note variety. It is not only possible, it is necessary, as ambassadors of the gospel of reconciliation that we seek the shalom of our cities. This means that we are neither complacent about those things that hinder shalom, nor that we approach those hindrances without a deep love for our city. Not an abstract love of a nebulous idea, but the kind of love that Trudeau praised in Gord Downie. Like I said, I don't know anything about the man other than what I heard this morning. I do know that if I died, I'd want someone to be able to say of me that I loved my city that deeply and truly and that that love drove me to seek its shalom.
Some thoughts from yesterday's sermon application. I know many of you were not there and for those that were, I sometimes find that seeing something in writing after hearing it can reinforce it. So here are the three key takeaways from the story of Gideon in Judges 6-8.
1. Faith Not Fear
Writ large across the story of Scripture, from Genesis 3 until Revelation 20, we see this theme. Adam and Eve are invited to live as image-bearing royal priests and administer God's good world, trusting in the goodness of his grace to give them everything they needed as an unmerited gift. In eternity we will live in constant grateful recognition of that grace, and trust it fully so that our lives will be truly eternal and blessed. In between that beginning and end, we see people struggling with various degrees of faith's dark twin, fear. It is ultimately fear of God, fear that He does not love us or have our best in mind, or that he is not really good or that he is not really powerful enough to save us. That is the root of sin and it replaces godly fear of God (faith) with the cowering fear of man. Our response is to hide from relationship with God and others, to cover our shame and to fill the void that the absence of genuine relationship creates. Gideon demonstrates all of this. He hides from his family, he covers the shame of his weakness in repeated tests of God's goodness and power and he fills the void by tyrannically abusing his position among his fellow Israelites. We must ask ourselves what we fear and replace it with faith in the God who has called us into His service.
2. 300 by the Numbers
In all of Gideon's doubting, God never abandons him and as the God Who Hears, is faithful to respond to all of Gideon's doubts, tests and questions. Part of that is the famous whittling down of Gideon's army of 32,000 that is "too many" for God to save Israel from the countless army of Midian and their allies. The two-stage reduction leaves Gideon with 300 men. These were chosen by God and it occurs to me that they could have left when looking at the odds but they chose to stay. It also occurs to me that God could have used zero people, but chose to use 300. So as I reflect on our church, I hear the call of God for each of us to be committed to His service with our time and treasure. Here are some numbers for you.
People who call Berean "home": about 400
Average Sunday attendance at present: between 225 and 275
Implication: Most of us are here only 2 or three times a month and that's just Sunday worship. The church (that's all of us) exists to "Honor, Grow and Serve". It is not unreasonable to suggest that our commitment to weekly worship attendance be matched by a weekly commitment to serve. On an annual basis this would mean 52 active points of service per member, or roughly 20,000 total commitments per year. Many of our ministries (Gathering, Choirs, Bible Studies) meet only half the year and do not require an every week commitment. Other opportunities (committees, praise team, Treehouse) are monthly commitments. Each of us should examine how much we are currently doing, and candidly, too many of us are not yet doing anything. Gideon needed all 300 and so do we.
Number of "Giving Units" in the church: 211
Number that have given during 2017: 129
Number that have given to the Capital Campaign overall: 106
Implication: nearly half of our people have not invested any financial resources in the mission of our church. We invest in things we believe are important and our giving should never be out of guilt or obligation but out of an irrepressible enthusiasm for God's mission.
3. Changing Clothes
There's a fascinating statement made of Gideon in Judges 6:34. The English translations render it "The Spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon". The Hebrew is fairly clear, if oddly worded, that it should read "The Spirit of Yahweh clothed himself with Gideon." Think about that. God put Gideon on in order to work his salvation for Israel. Now Gideon, inexplicably managed to ignore this powerful reality of God's empowering presence and continued to act in fear, immediately testing God with the double fleece experiment. That's what Paul calls "quenching the Spirit" I think. In New Covenant terms though, the church as the Body of Christ and the dwelling place of the Spirit uses the same language. The Spirit puts on the Church (that is, Jesus) in order to work God's deliverance. And so we are commanded in Romans 13:14 to "put on Christ". While I cannot explain the mystery of why God, from Creation and into eternity, insists on working in and through fallible and finite humans when He could just do it Himself, it is abundantly clear that he does. He wants to put us on and do His work through us. Will we let Him or will we quench the Spirit within us?
“They literally own a day of the week.” This line from last year’s film Concussion, which chronicles the NFL’s concussion/CTE scandal, references the central place the league holds in American life. The last week has seen an escalation of a year-long controversy surrounding that same league on an entirely different issue: the use of the anthem by some players as a platform for protest. It has led to the expected, but still striking, barrage of social media debate, diatribe and demonization. A nerve has clearly been struck.
The debate is framed as a two-sided affair. On the one hand, those who value free speech, emulate the best of America’s long tradition of peaceful protest, and pursue the constant quest for a more perfect union. Their champion in this affair is Colin Kapernick. On the other hand, those who love this country, respect its flag and honor the men and women who have served and died in its defense. Until Friday they lacked a clear champion and then President Trump cast himself in that mold to great acclaim. And so the weekend unfolded in a dramatic display of pageantry and rhetoric. Each side told the story from their perspective with the appropriate hailing of heroes and deriding of villains. On Sunday I posted to FB the line from Fiddler on the Roof “Wait, he’s right and he is right? They can’t both be right!” to sum up how I felt about the whole thing.
I was troubled by Kapernick’s original choice of display but I had to admit that he was protesting injustice, about which Scripture has much to say, and often the prophets to Israel cast their protest in the most shocking possible ways in order to jar people into repentance (often intentionally desecrating sacred national symbols), so I couldn’t bring myself to fault him. I was likewise troubled at the President’s remarks on Friday, feeling that for a president to call for someone to be fired was a misuse of his position. And yet, the NFL as a business, especially as an entertainment business, should take seriously that the anthem is a huge piece of the gameday pageantry and that athletes using it as an opportunity to protest tarnishes their product. All the while I have felt that something deeper about this troubled me, but until today I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I discovered it as I continually tried to discern my view of the whole thing amidst the push and pull of the various issues and could find no settled approach. I was then reminded that Jesus was often confronted with impossible “either-or” dilemmas. In every case he pointed to a third way. This was not manipulative or deceptive or merely clever. No, he was showing that the arguments we often find ourselves in are rooted entirely in a sinful warping of two half-truths so that no matter who loses the argument, our Enemy wins and we miss the point. So I had a revelation as I watched the games on Sunday (and yes, I plan to keep on watching football this season).
Quite simply I was struck by the fact that anyone sincerely and deepy cares about what happens on an NFL field before the kickoff. I was impressed by how central this league is to our nation’s psyche such that it somehow informs and impacts our collective national identity. It has been buried in the undercurrent of the discussion that football is something that unites us as Americans. Think about that. It’s not being said glibly or as a cliché. The activity of 22 grown men trying to move an inflated piece of leather over 100 yards of turf for an hour is something that defines what it means to be American. In my mind I was transported back to the Roman arenas of the first century where sports of all kinds were conducted as a function of the civic religion and devoted as acts of worship to the emperor. So I was reminded that there is (or should be) a third group in this discussion.
On the third hand are those who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God; who bear the fruit of love (against which there is no law); those who know that true authority is found in humble service and who are on a diplomatic mission of reconciliation to the whole world. Their champion in any and every arena is Jesus the Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. Their citizenship is in heaven, their temple is not a stadium, their venerated symbol is a wooden instrument of torture and death and their anthem sings of an empty grave and the defeat of death. Before their champion and His symbol they are grateful to kneel, as every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth is destined to.
So to that group, among whom I had to remind myself that I belonged yesterday, I would remind you that you do not have to care about what happened on any field of play this past Sunday or any Sunday. You live under the truth of what happened in a cave on That Sunday. So while we have a right, responsibility and privilege of engaging in issues of politics and justice as ambassadors of our King, we must be more than protesters for American ideals, we must be prophets of Kingdom mandates. We must be more than patriots who love the American people, we must be pilgrims who love and labor for the Kingdom vision of one people drawn from every tribe and tongue and language and nation. So on Sunday remember that despite what everyone else seems to think, it really is just a game and not a matter of eternal significance.
“Can’t we just move on?”
That was the question I was recently asked in an exchange with someone over the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA. We all were struck by the force of the reactions and the deep divisions that were exposed in the ensuing days and weeks. At some level, we all knew we were wrestling with a past that is controversial and yet no voices seemed to be moving us towards healing. In a sense of wearied frustration, then, this question came to me and I freely admit that it found a sympathetic hearing in my spirit. I wish we could just move on and be done with these conversations. But I know that those of us who are faithful followers of Jesus cannot just move on and be done. I have thought and prayed long and hard over what to say and how to say it. I have realized that I desire to give a definitive word on the subject but that since I am still being confronted with my shortcomings in this area, I cannot give such a word. I can only share what I feel convinced of at this point and invite others to join me in seeking God’s face and will for His body to be the redemptive force he designed it to be (Eph. 3:6-11).
...the slavery in Scripture bears little, if any, resemblance to the institution that was in place in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th to 19th centuries
“A Peculiar Institution”
This past Sunday, I preached through Paul’s Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon) at our service. Three of these books interact with the idea of slavery. In the course of a 35-minute message I could not address all that could or should be said on that subject. One thing I did not say, but which does need to be said regularly and clearly to American believers is that the slavery in Scripture bears little, if any, resemblance to the institution that was in place in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th to 19th centuries. Here are five points that highlight these differences.
1. In the OT, slavery was entered into voluntarily as a solution to the problem of debt
2. The motivation behind slavery was a mutual benefit to slave and master. The master
received the productive labor of the slave and the slave’s challenge of poverty and debt
was alleviated through the master’s generosity. (Lev. 25:35-43)
3. Treatment of slaves in both the OT (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27) and NT (Eph. 6:9, Col. 4:1) is
regulated and restricted. Laws are addressed to masters and they are held accountable
for excessive and harsh treatment. Significantly, Sabbath laws and observance of
festivals were applied equally to masters and slaves.
4. The legal status of slaves (implied by the above realities) in the OT was as persons
with rights that were protected by the law and thus were not merely property.
5. Exiting slavery in the OT was relatively easy as there was a release of slaves every
seventh year as well as a release of all purchased land back to ancestral families every
50th year, (the Jubilee). Also, family members could redeem someone from slavery by
paying the debt owed to the master. (Lev. 25)
Slavery addressed in the NT was often similar in purpose (alleviation of debt) but also would have included the Roman Empire’s acquisition of slaves from wars of conquest. It was not regulated by OT law of course, but rather Roman law and so was outside of the scope of the church to deal with in its totality. However, the book of Philemon as well as the statements about equality of believers in Christ (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11) suggest a trend in the church away from slavery and towards more equitable economic arrangements. To the extent that slavery in the world of the NT conformed to OT standards, however, it could not be regarded as sinful and should be thought of more in line with modern contract employment.
That being said, New World slavery had none of those attributes. It was entered through the practice of kidnapping and slave-trading which is explicitly condemned in both Old and New Testaments (Ex. 21:16; 2 Tim. 1:10). The motivation of New World slavery was exclusively the good of the master and not that of the slave. Masters were routinely not held accountable for the treatment of their slaves and slaves had no legal standing as persons in courts to seek redress of grievances or abuses. Slavery was permanent and perpetual and so exit was exceedingly unlikely and entirely at the discretion of the master. Furthermore, since slavery in the New World was based on race, even once a slave was freed, they were not given legal status to afford them the same opportunities for advancement as whites in their society.
Thus it must be said that the slavery practiced in the New World generally, and in this country particularly was correctly named our “peculiar institution” in that it was unique among slaveries practiced in antiquity. It also stands condemned as sinful and immoral by the principles of Scripture not least because of the racial basis that falsely divides humanity along biological lines, denying that those enslaved bore the image of God.
Remembering vs. Honoring
So now I come to the topic of monuments built in honor of Confederate generals and soldiers. Given that there is debate over the causes for which each of them fought (and they did individually choose to pursue their “Cause” for a variety of reasons) and over what the Civil War was “about”, I will leave that aside for the moment. I will simply observe that to my knowledge, the United States is the only country to erect monuments in honor of people guilty of mass treason. I have thought long about what this means and where the attitude comes from that leads over 80% of Americans (by one poll I heard) to support keeping these monuments in place.
I would suggest that it lies in a root belief as Americans that our nation represents the greatest hope of mankind for living and flourishing in the way God intended us. Our founding and the principles enshrined in our documents are consistent with biblical truths such that mankind experienced a leap forward in the elevating and protecting of human rights and dignity thanks to the “American Experiment”. This is often referred to as “American Exceptionalism” and as a historical fact I would not disagree with it.
...it is hard to address honestly some of the episodes in our history because they threaten to undermine our identity as the world’s heroes
What this belief in America often results in, however, is a defensive desire to see our nation as the hero in every story in which we take part. We are always to be seen as the “good guys”, while the “bad guys” are always “out there”. Thus, America only fights good wars on the right side and we always win (I think this is part of why Vietnam posed such an identity crisis for the country). Therefore, as a nation, it is hard to address honestly some of the episodes in our history because they threaten to undermine our identity as the world’s heroes.
For instance, on any objective understanding, our treatment of the native people of this continent over the space of nearly 300 years was grossly unjust. No Christian approach to thinking about war would condone a massive migration that results in armed conflict and transfer of massive tracts of land and the deaths of whole tribes. Rather, it would be condemned as criminal. Likewise, our conduct of both the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars as well as the ensuing Filipino-American War were land grabs that mirrored imperialist actions for which we have rightly condemned other nations. And certainly our institution of slavery subjecting millions of Africans to bondage and many to death is an injustice of the highest magnitude.
And so we have difficulty facing these national sins because it would force us to concede that for all of our nation’s virtues, strengths and laudable acts in history (and there are many), we are prone to the same failings and abuses as very other nation in the history of humanity. So we are reticent to take down memorials to Confederates and have trouble identifying Robert E. Lee as a villain in our history. And here I will make a comparison between our experience and Germany’s. Germany has been able to identify the villains of its past without erasing its history. It has preserved the camp at Dachau as a witness to their sins and they have converted Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden into a history of the Nazis’ atrocities. But there are not statues of Adolf Hitler or Hermann Goering to be found anywhere.
Protestants, not Protesters
This brings me finally then to the issue of the protest of both these memorials here in our country as well as the protesting of their removal and the question I opened with, “Can’t we just move on?” As strongly as I feel about this issue, I have reached the conclusion that protest is not the primary vehicle for the church to engage in as an agent of progress. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we would do well to apply the gospel of grace that Luther recovered to this situation.
protest is not the primary vehicle for the church to engage in as an agent of progress
Scripture is clear that healing, restoration and growth are always preceded by seasons of confession and repentance. It is equally clear that sin is not only an individual reality but also a corporate one. It is possible to bear responsibility for sins that we did not personally participate in. So the church at Corinth is held responsible for the sexual sins of one of its members (1 Cor. 5). It also indicates that sins can have generational impacts. It is thus that both Daniel (Dan. 9:3-19) and Nehemiah (Neh. 9:6-38) personally confess the sins of their contemporary countrymen as well as their ancestors going back to the wilderness generation. In the same vein, it fell to David to make right what Saul had done to the Gibeonites in order to remove God’s judgment through a famine on the nation (2 Sam. 24).
Paul tells us that we are ambassadors of reconciliation and that such reconciliation lies at the heart of the gospel mystery. If we are to faithfully declare that message it must be from a posture of confession and repentance as individuals, as churches and as a nation. Protests, while they have a place and a role to play in this discussion, position us as adversaries of our neighbors. The goal of protest is to bring force to bear to stop behavior. The goal of repentance is restoration of relationship so grace can flow and bring healing. So what if instead of fearfully or angrily defending our own, we stood vulnerably with our neighbors, confessing our collective sins and seeking to repent and be reconciled to those who have been sinned against? I think then we might, by God’s grace, be able to finally move on together.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.