What Happens In Vegas Won’t Stay in Vegas

Dear Church,

We woke up this morning to learn about the deadliest shooting in U.S. History. This time it was in Las Vegas. A man opened fire on unsuspecting concert-goers from the 32nd floor of his hotel. As I read about the tragedy, I couldn’t help but think, “not again.” I experienced a weird mixture of sadness, anger, frustration, and also apathy. I’m running into what some call compassion fatigue. I think it’s the response our hearts resort to when life just seems too unbearable for too long with no sign of getting better. It’s why we stop reading the news, or turn the TV off in the middle of the report. We get tired of the all the bad news. And there’s been plenty of it recently: Charlottesville still burning in our conscience, hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico and Houston, an administration that keeps making misstep after misstep, and now this – what do we make of all this destruction and hostility in the world?

I wish I could play the prophetic role for you. I wish I could say, “Thus saith the Lord…” and explain how 1-for-1, all of these events are the direct result of some prior action on someone’s part somewhere. We would see the cause and effect, nod our heads in resignation, and go on until the next tragedy unfolded. Obviously, I can’t do that. And what long-term good would it really do? In a funeral sermon for his daughter, John Claypool exposed the weakness of explanations, “it is always futile and unproductive to try to explain tragedy in some comprehensive way.”

So I won’t give you explanations, but I will try to give you some encouragement. As you process this latest (but certainly not last) tragedy, what postures and gestures should we assume? Here’s a couple of thoughts:

  1. Cry before you blame/solve. Resist the urge to get sucked into the pundit discussions about who is to blame for this and what public policies/measures need to be put into place to prevent it from happening. God’s Word tells us how wicked and depraved our hearts can be. God’s Word tells us how the world is so out of whack and how humanity is broken in the way it relates to one another. As I think about the family members of those who were murdered, as I think about the family members of the shooter who have to deal with the shame of being related to someone who has done such heinous evil, I can’t help but cry. Over the state of a world where someone can’t go to a concert without fearing for his/her life. Over the state of a world where someone is so angry and hurt that they will resort to such violence to express it. Over the state of a world where people are forced to say goodbye to loved ones in such sudden and terrible ways. This is awful. It’s totally within the biblical vocabulary to say so.
  2. Fight apathy. It’s easy to just shut our ears and hearts to what happened. There’s certainly enough distractions in our world to move us to the next headline. In some circumstances, we may need to mute all of the various perspectives on the event (see above). But fight becoming stoic and hardened to the pain of the world. How? You may want to pray for specific families affected. You may want to give to a survivor’s fund. You may want to talk with a friend or in your small group about how you are feeling and what it’s making you pray/do. Whatever you do, don’t just let it drift off into background.
  3. Remember why we are here. At the risk of getting a bit philosophical, C.S. Lewis once remarked that the world has always been a place of senseless tragedy, unspeakable violence, and unending sadness. Human history overflows with unexpected loss and grief. If it has always been this way, he goes on, what would make someone attribute the world’s creation to a good and just God in the first place? His conclusion is that perhaps the state of the world is the surest sign of the truthfulness of God’s goodness because from everything we’ve seen/experienced, no one would come up with that conclusion on their own. And maybe there’s an authentic way forward here. We know that this world is out of whack. In fact, everyone who’s feeling the pain of this is wondering the same – both Christian and not. We are here to tell the world through our tears, our powerlessness, and our frustration that this is not how it should be, but it’s the very world that Jesus entered into. And because he entered into this broken world and suffered the worst it could dish out, there’s another world that is now possible. Rather than having an immunized stance of explanation, we weep with the pain of the world and remember that Jesus knows this pain too.

In fact, the cross where Jesus died is also a place of tragedy. It, too, is a place where brutality and injustice was manifested for the world to see and feel. Yet, God was in the midst of it – both as a subject and an object – making it possible for real transformation to take place. And isn’t that what we really want? Not just prevention, but transformation. We long for a world where individuals are so healed and whole that this kind of violence is extinct. We long for a transformed world where systems cause human flourishing. We long for a world where God will say once and for all – NOT AGAIN. So in the meanwhile, keep on crying, keep on believing, keep on working, and keep on hoping. What we long for isn’t just our personal take on it. It’s what God has promised and will bring about. I can hold onto that even in the tears and frustration of it all.

My Five Best Reads of 2016

books

With the encouragement of a friend and in response to a fantastic workshop on reading for preaching (thanks to the Center for Excellence in Preaching), I accomplished my goal to read 60 books last year. Before you think I accomplished some super-human feat, the 60-book total consisted of everything from children’s books to multi-volume trilogy novels. Some books were about leadership and some books were just straight up fiction. Variety of genre and length gave me the motivation and space to read 66 books instead of 60!

About five of the books I only read halfway (I know, that sounds like cheating). The books just didn’t capture me, and I won’t be returning to them. In that sense, I consider the book “read” just not finished. Tony Reinke says you should give every book up until [100 pages minus your age]. Once you’ve read to that page number, you can drop the book if it doesn’t grab you. Thankfully, only a handful of books were cast aside.

As part of celebrating my goal, I thought I’d share my top 5 reads of last year. This isn’t a list of the top books of 2016 because many of the books I read have been around for a while. I just got to them last year. I ranked the books on sheer enjoyment of the story + impact (how many times I talked about/referred to the books in conversation, sermons, etc.) + recommendations (how often I recommended the book to someone).

So without further delay, here’s my unofficial list of 2016.  Continue reading

The Weeklong Sermon…Face to Face

As a church, we have been experiencing the Christmas story in our Face to Face series. We’ve looked at a variety of ways God meets us through the Incarnation. That Jesus came as a baby reminds us that God came to meet our brokenness, our shame, and even our fear.
I’d like to highlight two thoughts that have stayed with me during Advent:
“Shame is the belief that my brokenness makes me unworthy of connection or love.”
That’s Brene Brown’s definition of shame. She goes on to describe the ways many people deal with shame.
We can blame and manipulate people, making them feel small so we feel less unworthy (this actually makes us more unworthy in other’s eyes).
We can hide and pretend, building a wall so that no one would ever be able to know about our brokenness (this doesn’t work very well).
The only real way out of shame is to recognize that I am worthy of love EVEN in my brokenness. But how do I get there? It won’t happen by just thinking positively or getting a self-esteem boost. It won’t even come from a spouse or close friends and family. It has to come from a love that doesn’t waver, an acceptance that won’t shift in its standards. We have to experience a love that recognizes our brokenness and shortcomings, but remains strong and steadfast.
The Gospel gives us this kind of love. When Jesus died for your and my sins, he demonstrated his love for us. He demonstrated that not even the most vile and corrupt motivations, thoughts, and attitudes can keep us from him. He didn’t just sweep that stuff under the rug. He named it, displayed it, punished, and as a consequence forgave us in the death of Jesus on the cross.
Imagine that kind of love. Sacrificial. Powerful. Unfailing. It’s the declaration to the universe that we are loved even in our brokenness. It’s the ultimate shame-seizing act.
There’s so much more to say about this. If you want to dialogue more, join us for our speaker series in January.
“The Incarnation is the answer to our fears – it is God proving that he is with us. He does not promise to change our circumstances, but he promises his presence with us in them.”
The word Emmanuel means “God with us.” The Christmas story is about our God who breaks in. He breaks into our world and our existence. He doesn’t stay in the heavens waiting for us to get our act together. He comes. He gets his hands dirty. He moves into the neighborhood.
And He saves the day. No matter how hard and uncertain the circumstances, God will not abandon us. He will not forsake us.
It’s changed the way I’m praying this Advent. Instead of just praying for a change in situation, I’m praying that God would make his presence known. I don’t even need to pray that God would “be with” someone. He’s already promised and demonstrated that He is. In light of that truth, I pray that I (and those I am praying for) would recognize God’s presence in real and comforting ways. Emmanuel all over again.
As we push on towards Christmas, let me encourage you that God is with us to conquer our shame and our fear. A little baby in a manger tells us that this God isn’t far off, but close by. I pray that you would meet him in unexpected ways…face to face.