“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.”
A man entered a church in Texas over the weekend and killed two people only to be shot and killed himself by an armed congregant. What is the lesson? Of course all the 2nd amendment supporters have come out of the woodwork with headlines like "Good Guy With A Gun Shoots Alleged Texas Church Shooter." I can certainly sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the headline. No one wants to see churches, schools, and movie theaters shot up by anyone. No one wants additional deaths and stopping the shooter by whatever means necessary is the right response in that moment, but what about now? How should we respond now?
The headline hurts my soul. The shooting was recorded as the service itself was being live streamed or recorded. I took the time to go and watch the video. Watching a video like that is horrifying as you see people get shot and immediately fall to the ground. One might be tempted to praise the heroism of the security who took down the shooter in a high pressure situation from about 15 yards (my guess) with a single shot. That may be appropriate, but we should think deeper about this. Church shootings are not new and as I sit and write this I don't know what this man's motive was. We can argue about whether guns should be available (all hand guns in this case) to the general public, whether conceal carry is a good idea, or the need for universal background checks. All that is fine as far as it goes, but not matter what policies we think are right, we must come to another conclusion. There is real evil in this world and no matter what policies we employ it isn't going away!
What motivates someone to go into a church and start shooting up the place? it could be so many things! Mental illness always seems to be somewhere in the mix. It could be political, ideological, or even relational. Whatever it is, it's evil. We don't like to talk about evil because it is a strong word and we live in a relativistic world. There is no real evil, just personal preference...or is there. Politicians will spin this to promote whatever gun policies they want to see passed, but even that misses the point. Real evil exists and everybody intuitively recognizes it. Real evil cannot be legislated out of existence, it exists in the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). So what do we do?
Pray for God's grace. The world likes to mock those who pray during times of tragedy. They say, "what good are your prayers? Do something!" Often this is said to promote some kind of legislation they believe will rid the world of this darkness, but there is only one light of the world and his name is Jesus! It is to him we must turn. The heart of humanity is fallen and evil apart from the grace of God. Pray for God's grace, not the kind of grace that leads to salvation, but what theologians call prevenient grace. The kind that is given to all of humanity because without it there would be no good at all in this world. Violence is not contingent on the ability of any person to acquire guns.
Mourn with those who mourn. Tragedy is real and it isn't going away. We look forward to a new year and we often do so with great hopes. We should, but we ought also to know that it will come with great tragedy. When it does, mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Jesus reminds us that those who mourn will find comfort and it is a part of how people are good, how the flourish as humans (Matthew 5:4).
Don't ask why, pray for redemption. Answering the why question is easy and I am always baffled that people don't know the answer. Perhaps the answer seems too simple when it is boiled down to its root cause. People want to think there is an answer that can be addressed with policies, politicians, and procedures; when it turns out those things wont fix the problem I suppose people have a hard time accepting the answer. The answer is the sin nature and the reality of evil in the human heart. Now that you have the answer, pray for redemption of the human heart. Pray that God would turn hearts of stone to living hearts (Ezekiel 36:26).
Share the gospel of Jesus. Redemption comes only through Jesus. It isn't enough to pray for redemption if we are not willing to share the gospel and communicate the means of redemption to a world in desperate need of hope for that kind of redemption. It is the responsibility of the church to speak of the hope of the gospel at all times, but it offers the most contrast to the darkness of the world at the greatest times of darkness.
We can certainly do more than these things, but we ought not to do less. Evil, tragedy, and violence will continue to be part of this world until the prayer, "...your kingdom come your will be done" is brought to fruition in all its fullness when Jesus returns and the new heavens and the new earth are brought into existence.
Are you thinking about New Years Resolutions? You should, it can be a good time to make some changes. Just because most people will give up doesn't mean you will, if you make the right kind of changes. Last year I decided to read through the Old Testament. I almost did, but I did much more. I read through a significant portion of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. I'm going to finish, I basically have the minor prophets left. Which means, I didn't reach my goal...or did I?
What is the point of a goal? Some people set weight loss goals only to return to eating poorly and not exercising as soon as the goal is reached. Then they put the weight back on and need another goal. The same goes with reading or some financial goal. What if you approached this a little differently?
Don't set a goal, change a pattern. If you think reading and learning is important, change your pattern. When can you MAKE time in your day to read? Is it right away when you get up, your first 10 minutes in the office (show up early), before you go to bed, when is it? Start with something fairly easy to read and read 10 minutes every day. don't take any days off for he first three months. Be disciplined and strict, nothing gets in the way of reading for ten minutes. This isn't so you can read a certain number of books, it is so you can fill your life with good habits that will replace the bad habits you already have.
Some times good habits and patterns need refreshing. One reason people lose weight and then put it back on is because the pattern they have embraced became stale. Change it up, don't get rid of it. Maybe you have been working on a lot of cardio in your work out, but you are tired of it. Go from running to riding a bike or focus on gaining strength and muscle mass for a while and back off (don't quit) the cardio. Sometimes good patterns need revision to keep us interested. This last year I was reading through the Old Testament. This coming year I am going to pick a book of the Bible and read the same book along with a commentary every month. It will either be Isaiah or Revelation.
Goals aren't any good if they don't develop good patterns in our lives. If the goal isn't reached, but the pattern is changed, that is success. So, make a new years resolution. You can even set a goal, but remember success is not defined by whether or not you reach the goal, but by whether or not the pattern is changed.
I've been on both sides of the physical fitness spectrum. For years I worked hard in my ministry, but ate horribly and didn't work out nearly enough. I've been in ministry on a part or full time basis for 25 years and most of that time I was out of shape and the BMI chart said I was "obese." I didn't think it was right because it didn't take into account muscle mass as apposed to fat. To be fair, I wasn't completely wrong, but I had deceived myself about how much was muscle and how much was fat. Now, as I look back, I was fat!!! But, nobody cared.
I don't need to go into the details of my story, but let's just say I got in shape, perhaps the best shape of my life (at the age of 45). That process wasn't just about my physical fitness, it impacted my spiritual life and my ability to pastor well in ways completely unexpected. Let me explain.
When I decided I needed to get serious about my physical fitness it was because I simply wanted to make sure I was able to play ball with my son, go hiking, hunting, and other active things for many years to come. I realized I wasn't able to do those things like I wanted to. My knees hurt when I went hiking, skiing became more difficult, and running a mile was out of the question. I also knew that more significant health concerns were just around the corner if I didn't do something about weighing 250 lbs. I wasn't thinking about how this could help me from a ministry perspective, but I think about it now!
Benefit #1: Discipline. Being disciplined in one part of your life spills over into others and this is a good thing. Generally speaking, I was not a very disciplined person for most of my life. I'm still not in comparison to some, but I have grown a great deal in that area. When I went back to school to get my MDiv I was married, had two kids, and worked at a church. I had never been a good student and I was nervous about whether I would be able to do the work, so I knew that if I stood a chance of doing well I would have to become disciplined. So I buckled down and worked hard (the key to discipline) to develop certain school habits in my life. For three years I focused on school and became very disciplined. Once I got through school I realized that discipline would help me in other areas. It wasn't that I didn't believe discipline was good prior to that, but I wrote it off as a personality trait...my mistake! I have become more disciplined in my eating, study of Scripture, time management, and working out. Don't get me wrong, I will never be as disciplined as some and being flexible with my schedule will always remain important to me, but I have come a long way, and you should think about where you can develop discipline in your life too. First Timothy 4:8 reminds us that physical fitness is of some value, but our spiritual fitness is more important than that.
Benefit #2: Credibility. Do you stand up and teach people or preach about being obedient to God? I hate to say it, but it has to be said, if you are obese you are participating in gluttony (unless there are some other medical things going on, but don't use them as an excuse if at all possible). If you want people to take you seriously you need to be in decent health. I am not suggesting you need to run marathons or compete in cross fit competitions. I am suggesting that you take care of your physical body. People who are in good shape or great shape will have a hard time taking someone seriously if they don't take care of themselves. That might not be fair or right, but it is true. By the way, skinny people can be in bad shape too!! Some people just have high metabolisms and others just don't have much of an appetite for junk food. That doesn't mean they are in good shape, it just means they are skinny.
Benefit #3: Stress relief. Leading an organization or part of an organization is often incredibly stressful. Not only is there often conflict, relational issues, and financial struggles, but if you are sitting at the top of the organizational structure, it's all your fault (not really, but that is how you probably feel). Working out makes your body produce chemicals and hormones that that help you relax and promotes feelings of joy and contentment. That doesn't mean if you do one work out you will feel better, but a consistent supply of those naturally produced chemicals and hormones will help you deal with stress.
Benefit #4: It keeps you in the game. Many pastors who are in bad physical shape will find themselves going to the doctor more, having less endurance in ministry, and perhaps having to retire sooner than they would like. Maybe you want to retire as soon as possible, but I want to stay in ministry as long as possible. I hope you do too. The better I take care of myself, the longer I can continue in ministry unless something unexpected happens. God didn't create us to retire, he created us to work! Take care of your body and your soul so you can stay in the game.
Benefit #5: It's good for your soul. Yes, I think physical fitness helps you spiritually. Not only does the discipline of physical fitness spill over to spiritual discipline, it can give you unexpected time to pray and meditate. I do several things for my physical health, but two of those things are running and lifting. You can do them with partners, but for me I like the alone time, so I do them alone or I should say without another human being. I often find myself praying, listening to teaching in my headphones, or meditating on Scripture. All of those things are good for my soul.
You might be thinking you aren't an athletic person and you don't enjoy running or working out...you missed the point. This isn't about your enjoyment, it is about your health and your ministry. I hated running when I started running. I still don't love it, but I've made friends with it. Sometimes I even enjoy it, but not most of the time. I have to force myself to run, lift, or whatever. Find ways to work out, don't get discouraged. Make it work for your schedule even if it means working out during the day when you have meetings at night. Fix your diet, quit drinking soda, and start eating greens. It's good for your soul and your ministry.
Two different teenagers with two different circumstances and they were treated very differently. How should they have been treated? Nick Sandmann was unwittingly caught in a difficult situation while attending a pro-life rally in Washington DC. While waiting with his classmates from Covington High School a Native American named Nathan Phillips and a group of Black Israelites started heckling and confronting the group of kids because of their MAGA hats and clothing. The video went viral and the media went apoplectic condemning Nick Sandmann and Covington High School calling all associated in any way racist, bigoted, and a variety of other ad hominem attacks.
Greta Thunberg, recently named Time Magazine's person of the year, started skipping school on Fridays to protest climate change and soon found herself leading a movement of students who did the same thing. Her rocket like climb into the spotlight as a world renowned climate activist has been a sight to behold. She sailed around the world to travel to the United States in order to avoid using fossil fuels (doing her part to save the world...literally). Greta has Aspergers, as a result, she sees things very black and white (by her own account). Time magazine has called her person of the year, as you see in the picture above.
Now, some on the right have begun to criticize Thunberg including a tweet by President Trump that has been widely reported on. The main stream media has shot back defending Greta as a minor, a child who should not be criticized. In fact, they have lauded her bravery and courage to stand up for what she believes in. Indeed, when we see these characteristics we should laud them as positive things regardless of whether we agree with the cause or belief. We can disagree without ad hominem attacks. We can even laud positive characteristics and adamantly disagree with someone.
While Trump often lacks tact or a filter of any real significance, I can't help but think underneath it all he has a point. Trump tweeted, "So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!" To be clear, I think Trump was out of line and I'm not sure why he cares about Time magazine or who their person of the year is. That said, it seems unwise to allow a kid to be put in the spotlight on that level, especially on a controversial issue that draws the attention and ire of some many (where are her parents?). Greta is a child. She is not a climate expert, public relations expert, and she doesn't have a lot of life experience and the kind of wisdom that I hope comes with age and experience. It seems to me that trump is suggesting that she should enjoy her age. Of course, Greta clearly believes the end is near and that the climate alarmists predictions of doom are in fact true. She likely doesn't see "staying in her lane" as a viable option since doom is eminent. It would probably be too much for me to hope that her parents had the wisdom to temper her passion with some caution and restraint. Her parents likely fed her the apocalyptic climate change messages so prevalent in the media.
Whatever the case, Greta is the media's darling. Not because she is wise beyond her years, I sincerely doubt that is the case, but because she serves a political purpose; she's a pawn. She echos their message and provides them cover since any criticism can be condemned as an attack on a minor. In other words, rather than having an adult conversation about the realities of climate change and what if anything can be done about it in an adult manner, they put a microphone in the hands of a 16 year old and hide behind her. Shame on the press!
While Greta is lauded for her courage to stand up for the environment, Nick Sandmann was condemned as a racist and bigot for simply standing there as a Native American yelled and beat his drum in Nick's face. I'm not going to defend everything that group of students did in that situation. In fact, I wondered where the adults were. The chaperones should have known better than to allow the kids to chant and elevate the situation and they should have stepped in and diffused the situation; shame on them. Nevertheless, the Covington kids were at a pro-life march defending the most vulnerable and voiceless group of people possible, the unborn. It is hard to think of a cause more worthwhile. Yet, instead of seeing the nobility of these kids to stand up for their belief, the media had no problem condemning them, especially Nick. People ridiculed his "smirk" and accused him of making racist statements. The "smirk" was undoubtedly a nervous reaction. I watched the whole video at the time, not just the outtakes and clips provided by the media. At worst, these kids were guilty of being kids, not racists and bigots. The chaperones deserved some chastisement for sure. Nick did not deserve to have his face plastered all over media as a racist and bigot. In fact, as more information came out and people started watching the whole video, the Black Israelites (who aren't actually Israelites) and the Native American group verbally attacked the kids and elevated the situation...and they were adults.
While Nick and the Covington group shouldn't have been lauded as heroes, they should not have been drug through the mud either. The media did to Nick what they say no one should be allowed to do to Greta, they attacked him. The difference, Nick wasn't looking for attention and Greta was.
Culturally we should be careful about elevating any kid to hero or villain. Kids are kids, they should engage in the conversation, but they do not have life experience, wisdom, and so on. That doesn't mean their voices aren't welcome, but that we should grant them grace because of their youth and adults should act like adults. The media should be criticized for its lack of discernment. Time magazine made headlines, and Trump did them a favor by responding, but maybe Greta and Nick should be allowed to grow up without the spotlight before we crown them as the model of virtue or condemn them as the face of evil.
It's Christmas time, and these days I am the one pushing the idea of Christmas lights, decorations, and so on. It wasn't always that way, this has only happened in recent years. I used to really despise Christmas time for some justified reasons, at least I thought they were justified. Like many people I couldn't stand the commercialization of what should be a celebration of one of the most important events in all of human history. But, there is more to that story.
I often found myself in a family that didn't have much money so Christmas gifts were so much less than those around me. That wasn't true across the board, there were years where we had a lot as well. Nevertheless, those skimpy years stuck in my memory as I watched others get these amazing gifts compared to what I got...or so I thought. Envy and jealousy don't look good on anyone! Even as a parent I often wish I could spend more on my kids, but that is another conversation for another time. Money is one of the reasons I have struggled with Christmas.
The narrative of the true Christmas story often felt a little empty to me. Most of the sermons I heard regarding the Christmas story lacked theological depth. That isn't to say they weren't Biblical, but they were about Mary, Joseph, wise men, shepherds, and so on, but they missed the incarnation of the eternal, divine, son of God almost all together (at least that is how I remember it). Instead, I got messages on how we should have the faith of Mary, the integrity of Joseph, or something along those lines. Don't get me wrong, those aren't bad points in a larger theme, but the gospels weren't telling their story, they were telling the story of Jesus. Sometime we get a little sidetracked, even as pastors. Pastors are always trying to be creative around Christmas because they don't wan't to preach the same sermons year after year...I get it, but maybe that isn't the best approach.
I could go on, but this is about how I am reforming my attitude. I love Christmas, or at least I am working on loving Christmas. While I could do without all the commercialization, the buying of gifts, and so on, I love the real story of Christmas. The story of the incarnation is rich and meaningful on multiple levels. The prophecy that foretells the coming of a messiah, the twist in the story when that messiah is born in such modest circumstances, the cliff hanger that looks forward to a divine reality on earth, and so much more. Even the resurrection leaves us with a cliff hanger, a story of sacrifice that awaits a triumphal entry that is yet to come and will dwarf the one recorded in the gospels the week before the crucifixion. What a story, and we are in the middle of it, but that is the point isn't it? The story is still unfolding in front of our very eyes. Someday when Jesus returns, literal eye are going to watch that event happen whether they are our eyes or our descendants eyes.
This Christmas I await, not just the entrance of the divine, eternal, son of God into this world for the first time, but the fullness of time that will bring him back again to establish his kingdom for eternity. The lights, Christmas presents, and so on should be fun as long as we remember this epic story we are a part of and the role Christmas plays in that story. There are so many ways to keep Jesus central this Christmas season. What an opportunity to talk about Jesus openly and proclaim the good news of the gospel! Christmas is exciting, and it should be. Not because of lights, gifts, or fun movies, but because it is the unfolding of God's redemptive plan in history. Merry Christmas!!
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.