A prayer for 13 years of pain

Holy God, on this day of pain and division,
Bring Your Kingdom of peace to this broken and war crazed world.
Bring Your comfort to those who mourn the hundreds of thousands of Americans, Afghanis, Iraqis, and others who have died in the last 13 years.
Bring Your provision to those who still live but suffer from displacement, wounds both physical and emotional, deployed loved ones, and neglect by society because the world has fixed its gaze on hate.
Bring Your hope to those of us whose first memories of adolescence and adulthood were the images of burning buildings and falling bodies; Lord keep us from cynicism.
Teach us to rely on You, not chariots and fighter jets, gold and stocks, kings and presidents, or tribes and nations.
Forgive us when we hate and wish death upon those not like us yet made in Your image, and teach us to forgive those who hate and wish death upon Americans, equally made in Your image.
Keep us from the very real and understandable temptation to cheat on You with the comforts and perceived safeties of this world, and deliver us from evil.
Because all of this world, from the furthest foreign wilderness to the stones of our most revered American cities, is Yours and was made for Your glory.

A prayer for 13 years of pain

Monster hunting in Ferguson and Iraq

James-Foley-murderLooking back, I remember my thoughts on monsters evolving over time. When very young, the existence of the dark things on the edge of reality wasn’t even a question. Of course monsters dwelt out in the there! And sometimes, rarely, they would sneak in amongst us. Thankfully, parents and trusted strangers like police officers and firemen were there to beat them back into the abyss. I wanted to grow up to fight monsters like they did. With a powerful Lego gun or a swift broomstick sword, no monster could endure as long as I was brave enough to face it. And I desperately wanted to be brave enough to be that hero. Eventually this gave way to a cautious skepticism. They probably weren’t around, but no point in risking it. Finally, this resolved itself into the prideful, prepubescent rejection of a preteen who has seen behind the curtain and wants everyone to know he knew it the whole time.

But now in the back half of my twenties, I see the arrogance of my mistake. Monsters are very much real, and there isn’t nearly as over there as little Geoff had imagined. I’m not alone in my fear of monsters, either. A horrific hemorrhagic virus explodes from the dark places to sweep through Africa, prompting Americans to fear for their own safety an ocean away. Children travel thousands of miles to flee murderous drug pushers in their homeland, but are even worse monsters mixed in with them, streaming across the Mexican border? Either a dangerous thug tried to take an officer’s gun during a routine stop, or a racist monster gunned down an unarmed young man. In the Middle East, bearded monsters appear out of the swirling sand, beheading those who refuse to join the monsters or speak out against them. The media in all its forms devotes what little is left after discussing monsters to arguing how to kill them or who should be responsible. Monsters are quite real. Our society is thoroughly entranced by their terror. We are desperately looking for someone to slay the monsters, and unfortunately our monsters often lack the simplistic weaknesses of their fantasy and comic book counterparts.

Even now, a lot of people with special sets of skills are devoting a lot of time and energy to figuring out the identity of the masked man who beheaded two American journalists in a video released by the Islamic State militant group. They hope to identify him in order to bring him to justice. The decision has been made that this man in a black hood is a monster who must be sought and destroyed, as if that discovery will end the Islamic State’s reign of terror, or even terrorism as a whole. It’s the same attitude that tempts us to limit our focus in the case of the Michael Brown shooting to arguing whether Michael Brown was a monster put down or the officer who shot him is a monster still to be caught.

In any tragedy, we look for the claw marks of a monsters. We clamor to inspect the webbed footprints, rushing to match them to their owner whose blood we demand. Otherwise, we can’t possibly hope to be safe. But alas, no sooner have we swept away the last signs of their death throws than does the next worst terrorist group ever, biggest existential threat to America, most racist authority figure, wildest street gang, or scariest public health crisis emerges as a new monster clawing its way up from hell, robed in the fear of that which keeps even the most skeptical adults awake at night. Why won’t the grotesque parade end?

That sinking feeling snatching away victory is not a modern invention; it is as old as humanity. We see the terrible cost in Beowulf, the classic Old English epic poem chronicling the feats of the titular Geat warrior. A nearby king is plagued by a monster known as Grendel, descended from the fratricidal Cain, who routinely breaks into his hall and kills his men. Beowulf springs an ambush on the creature, ripping off his arm and sending him limping back to his cave to die. A celebration is held because another horror is dead at the hands of the accomplished hero.

But the funny thing about monsters is they always come from somewhere. Late in the night after the celebration has ebbed away, Grendel’s mother arrives thirsting for revenge. Beowulf, sleeping comfortably away from his ambush point in special accommodations granted for his victory, can’t arrive before the king’s trusted advisor is dragged away to his death. Beowulf is able to restore peace, but not without descending into the depths of the monstrous mother’s lair and not before a price is paid for the oversight.

From the smallest child to the most powerful politician or military leader, we long to be Beowulf the slayer of nightmares, and we as a society exceed at emulating his example. Rapists, murderers, charlatans, dissidents, terrorists, gang bangers, crooked cops, and even elemental forces of decay and entropy are imprisoned, killed, stopped in their tracks as the pile of trophies grows only higher. We celebrate and resolve to rest, but there is no permanent peace. Our celebrations are cut short as more monsters come screaming from there to here.

Why? Because we forget monsters have to come from somewhere, and until we remember that, more will come, many thirsty for blood in exchange for their fallen kin. Instead of attempting to understand what turns a son or daughter, a beautiful human created in God’s image, into something we fear and hate, we ostracize and dehumanize our enemies rather than realize the exact same potential rests in each of our hearts. The desperation of the inner city, the racial disparity in Ferguson, the corrupt politics of Iraq, the fears of Central American parents, and the poor medical readiness in the developing world simply do not matter; what matters is that these things are evil and must be put down. We accept no blame for the forces that turn our neighbors into monsters, desperately reassuring ourselves we’ll be safe as soon as we kill one more. If it is a monstrous group, we pick one, be they outspoken leader or videotaped executioner, and decide that their blood will grant us justice and peace. We dare not dive into the lair of the mother of monsters for fear of what we might find. Some new unimagined horror, an old foe long thought vanquished, or worse, we might even find ourselves.

Monster hunting in Ferguson and Iraq

The entire Bible in 5 weeks: resolution

resolutionNote: This is part 5 of 5 in a series looking at the overall story of God’s plan, or redemptive history, as told across the breadth of Scripture and ancient Near East history. I am preaching this series as the beginning of my time serving as pastor of Foundation Baptist Church in Rosebud, Texas. Follow these links to read week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4.

Humans have a natural fear of death. We worry about ends and crises. Our politicians and talking heads preach how to avoid each new apocalypse we’ve created or imagined. Out there, in the darkness beyond our sight, lurks an end we desperately want to avoid.

And yet we love watching the end unfold. We pack movie theaters and crowd in front of the TV with surprising frequency to watch the latest vision of our mutual destruction. From suspenseful dramas like The Leftovers and 2012, to comedies like This Is the End and Shaun of the Dead, to Left Behind and its upcoming reboot, to a treasure trove of zombie apocalypses, we are willing to spend a lot of time and money imagining how it all goes down.

While I’m sure this says a lot about us, most of it not good, I’m more intrigued by the undergirding assumption of our eschatological media: the central defining feature of the end will be destruction. Buildings burning, the land itself giving way beneath us, mass death, and our world rendered as a fiery hell (figurative or even literal). When we say end, we don’t mean transition; we mean end. But what if I told you no Christian should believe that? And what if I told you that this incorrect belief isn’t just a theological point, but it affects how we live every single day?

If we look to Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we see a lot of the dark and scary images that feed our dreams of doom. If we read this cryptic vision in its entirety, however, we see things a myopic reading can miss (a danger of myopically reading any scriptural passage). At the very end of this end, we find something beautiful:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Christians often talk about spending eternity in heaven. We imagine clouds and angels and floating around in incorporeal bliss. We waste a lot of air and spill a lot of ink making sure know we don’t think the physical things of this world matter, because its all just trials and pain that will burn away when God whisks us away from the end times. And when we do, we are wrong.

Not only are we wrong, but we cheapen God’s plan and power. God has told us in advance that his story has a proper resolution. As the protagonist of human history, God set out from the very beginning to overcome the divide between humanity and God, restoring us to community with each other. He made a covenant with Abram in order to model this and set His plan in motion. He endured as we turned against him, even using the mistakes of Israel to bring about the fulfillment of His plan. He sent His son to show us that love and power as they were meant to be take the long road, rejecting our plan for fixing things in order for a climactic sacrifice on the cross that we may be free to follow His example. And after all that, He is not about to blow up Creation and give up. It takes a good god to blow everything up and pluck out those He loves. It takes a great God to bring the story full circle, working patiently to restore Creation itself and us with it.

At the end of everything, it will begin. New heaven and new earth. The death of death. Creation restored to its planned beauty. And God, as has been promised over and over in the Old and New Testaments, will be our God and we will be His people. Christians are to place our hope not in being a spirit surviving the end of the physical, but in the restoration of God’s Creation and the perfection of our fallen bodies. This hope is not merely a finely tuned theological point, but affects our daily lives here and now. 

In God’s restoration of Creation, we see that Creation matters to God. We aren’t free to pollute or abuse Earth’s resources; all the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, and He loves it enough to pursue its restoration until the end of time. So should we.

In God’s resurrection of the dead, we see that God cares about more than just our spirits. He cares just as deeply for the physical world and its pain, and illness, and ruin. Following the example of Jesus and the apostles, physical healing and justice are worth pursuing and are not simply distractions to preaching spiritual redemption.

In God’s plan to fulfill the story, we see that we are not simply observers but characters in the story just as much as Abram, David, Mary, Paul, or anyone else mentioned in the Bible. Rather than hearing the story we get to participate and have a role to play.

In God’s power to finish what He started, we are not simply challenged to give the world back to Him but are empowered to do so. Why fear disease, death, and entropy gnawing at our work when we know God is coming to finish it all? The end of the story is coming, but it will only be the end of struggle and the beginning of glory. Until then, we have a part to play as we remind the world that another world is not just possible but promised. A day is coming when He will be our God, and we will be His people, just like He desired from the start.

The entire Bible in 5 weeks: resolution