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The Bright Future of the SBC

The 2018 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was not without its share of challenging moments. Motions were made to fully defund an SBC entity, to remove all Executive Committee trustees from one of our seminaries, and to remove Vice President Mike Pence from speaking to the messengers. From one perspective, I suppose a Southern Baptist could walk away from this year’s meeting a bit discouraged and concerned. But I’m encouraged and excited.

Here’s why…

Some SBC voices are expressing concern about a growing number of Southern Baptists who are increasingly vocal and practically engaged in important issues such as racial reconciliation and the treatment of women. There is irony here. Often those who are unconvinced about the wisdom of emphasizing these kinds of issues will express their discontent with phrases such as “cultural Marxism” or “social liberalism.” And yet, from my perspective, those working toward these issues are demonstrating a zealousness for God’s Word that is undiluted with any political or societal influence. On the other hand, the concerned group – those who are lamenting a perceived rise of capitulation to culture – are themselves embracing the marriage of a political mission with the Great Commission. Some of us who love our country and respect our vice president were hanging our heads in disbelief as a stump speech for President Trump was delivered only hours after hearing passionate sermons about the SBC’s mandate to align ourselves only and always with King Jesus.

And yet, I’m optimistic because there was noticeable tension in the room during the Pence speech. There was uneasiness. Although the vice president received standing ovations and many were enthusiastically behind his speech, I sensed the room was awakened to both the danger and the damage of any political presence in a convention hall devoted to the blessed task of making disciples of all nations. This awareness combined with the election of President J.D. Greear ensures that we will not be hearing a stump speech at the 2019 Annual Meeting in Birmingham from any politician or political party. That, I hope, will set a precedent for years to come.

I’m also encouraged by the passionate and unified principles on which the SBC continues to stand. Part of what made the Pence arrival so unfortunate is because it unnecessarily distracted from the overwhelming unity in the SBC on the most essential issues. The authority and inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, the necessity of discipleship and evangelism, the work of NAMB and the International Mission Board, a priority of planting churches, and a commitment to the Cooperative Program are all positions that are rock solid and uniformly held by Southern Baptists. That is reason to rejoice.

Another encouraging aspect of this year’s meeting was the convention’s brokenness by recent developments in the SBC, especially as it pertains to the treatment of women. We heard and saw genuine repentance, multiple motions, strong seminary reports, and future collaborations to help the SBC make progress in these areas. Alongside this, on difficult motions that were potentially divisive, the messengers voted correctly. For example, the messengers correctly and overwhelmingly voted against a motion to remove all Executive Committee Trustees from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Finally, I left the annual meeting this year excited and thankful to be a Southern Baptist. I left anxious to get back to my church that I love so much and be a better pastor. I left even more convinced of the need to evangelize the lost. I left with a renewed spirit after sitting under the preaching of the word. I left with the hope of the gospel that was once for all delivered to the saints.

So yes, the meeting this year had its challenging moments. But the future is bright for the SBC. I’m excited to see what the Lord will do.

 

My Comments To My Church About The Recent SBC Concerns

As I prepare to leave for Dallas next week to attend an important Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, I want to publically share the comments I recently made to Graefenburg Baptist Church.  This statement was read to our church before Paige Patterson was removed from his privileges at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The pastors of GBC are broken over recent developments in the SBC but trust God to work all things for his glory and the good of the nations. Grace and peace to each of you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Over the last couple of weeks, some of you might have read about a controversy that has developed in the Southern Baptist Convention. An SBC leader and President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Dallas, whose name is Paige Patterson, was recorded during a teaching lecture several years ago and in the recording he tells the story of how he advised a lady in an abusive marital relationship to return to her abuser, pray for him, and try to submit in all things. Patterson was also on record saying some inappropriate remarks about a teenage girl.

As your pastor, and in agreement with my colleagues, your pastoral staff, we reject in the strongest terms any notion that an abused spouse is obligated or commanded by Scripture to return to their abuser and thereby place themselves in harm’s way. Abuse in a marriage relationship is an attack against the gospel of Jesus Christ because marriage is the most perfect human expression of the gospel.

Some of you here today and some of you watching online have experienced spousal abuse or are experiencing it. Unfortunately, some of you will experience it. Please hear me clearly – your pastors are here for you. We will listen to you. We will believe you. And we will do anything we can to help you get out of a dangerous situation.

I also want to say a quick word to those of you who might be abusers. Some of you might not know what to do with your anger. Some of you might deeply regret your actions, but you find yourself doing it all over again. I want you to know something too – we won’t abandon you. Jesus hasn’t abandoned you. His gospel of grace is bigger and stronger than your sin. We are here to walk with you as best as we possibly can.

My hope is that the SBC will use this as a growing opportunity instead of a vendetta against a single person. My hope is that God will use this controversy to open our eyes wider to the reality of the shame and embarrassment and fear of so many women who are in abusive relationships and have no idea what to do. My hope is that we as a church, here at Graefenburg, will not waiver for a second in our commitment to marriage and to the gospel, and yet we will fight against injustice and abuse even as we uphold those commitments.

Please pray with me, for our church, for the SBC, and for the church around the world.

 

The Conservative Resurgence and Moral Compromise

Albert Mohler has written a brutally honest article in the wake of Paige Patterson’s dismissal as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It will go down as one of his more important and most powerful statements on the life of Southern Baptists. If you haven’t read it yet, then stop now and take a look.

One of the most fascinating portions of the article for me personally was Mohler’s decision to return to the Conservative Resurgence in which Paige Patterson played an important role. I found his reflections to be honest, helpful, and precise. I am in, I suppose, somewhat of a unique situation in that my theological education and training in pastoral ministry afforded me the opportunity to experience both the moderate viewpoint of things and the more conservative viewpoint. I attended Belmont University from 1994-1998 – before the school split from the Tennessee Baptist Convention – and their approach to religious studies was certainly moderate. During my time there, the President of the University called a faculty meeting to ask the question, “What does it mean to be a Baptist?” It was only a matter of time before the school could no longer hold to the principles of the TBC.

And yet, I have nothing but good memories about Belmont. The school challenged me, took me into areas of study I probably never would have considered otherwise, and most importantly, the professors never dismissed me, even with my more conservative viewpoint. I’m sure that some of my professors and fellow students who attended Belmont might wish that I was not quite so evangelical in my thinking, but we respect one another, even in our different viewpoints, and I think most of us are thankful for the time we spent on that Nashville campus.

I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 2006-2009 and am currently studying there for my D.Min degree. The program was dramatically different from Belmont and it was overwhelming (and comforting) to be around some of the most well-known and brilliant scholars in the world who actually believed the Bible is without error! My passion for my education, but more importantly, my passion for the Lord skyrocketed.

So, with that background in mind, I was amazed by Albert Mohler’s comments when he said this:

“Has the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention come to this? Is this what thousands of Southern Baptists were hoping for when they worked so hard to see this denomination returned to its theological convictions, its seminaries return to teaching the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, its ministries solidly established on the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did we win confessional integrity only to sacrifice our moral integrity?

This is exactly what those who opposed the Conservative Resurgence warned would happen. They claimed that the effort to recover the denomination theologically was just a disguised move to capture the denomination for a new set of power-hungry leaders. I know that was not true. I must insist that this was not true. But, it sure looks like their prophecies had some merit after all. As I recently said with lament to a long-time leader among the more liberal faction that left the Southern Baptist Convention, each side has become the fulfillment of what the other side warned. The liberals who left have kept marching to the Left, in theology and moral teaching. The SBC, solidly conservative theologically, has been revealed to be morally compromised.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Most (not all!) of my fellow students at Belmont continued to progress to the left in their theological liberalism, and I could never in good conscience recommend the school for religious studies today. But it appears their concerns about SBC power and corruption are truths we are forced to deal with now, like it or not.

As for me, I like it. And here’s why. The Southern Baptist Convention does not have the power to dilute, distort, or alter the glorious goodness and holiness of God. But God certainly has the power to do whatever he wants with the Southern Baptist Convention. Although I do not rejoice when our denomination suffers brokenness, I trust the sovereignty of God to bring us to repentance where necessary and to turn our hearts back to him and his commission.

I have faith in the SBC not because of the SBC. I have faith in the SBC because I have faith in God. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

 

The Church Calendar and Making Disciples

People Over Programs. Eternal Over Temporal.

The idea is simple. An overemphasis on programming and its accompanying time for administration tends to make people busier, but doesn’t tend to make them more like Jesus.

It’s not that programs aren’t important. They are. And it’s not that temporal issues should be overlooked. They shouldn’t. But what should demand the majority of our time? What should be most noticeable about a church calendar?

Church revitalization director Mark Clifton recently tweeted, “…churches are often among the busiest places in our lives with much of that activity providing little in discipleship & kingdom growth. Think frequent & lengthy committee mtgs.”

I think that’s right. A Christ-centered, gospel-oriented church is one that preaches the glorious grace of God against the unbiblical burden of works-righteousness. Yet, even the most grace-focused church in relation to salvation can become a works-righteousness church in relation to discipleship. In other words, churches will be tempted to base their discipleship success on the number of events, programs, and services on their church calendar. The question, “what is your church becoming” is supplanted with “what is your church doing?”

The goal of every church program should be two-fold:  to help the participants find greater joy in Jesus and greater love for one another. When leaders are spending more time trying to plan, correct, and keep the program operating than they are investing in the people of the programs, then the program is probably failing. Programs should be designed to properly provide support for discipleship. Programs should point people to Christ and one another, not point people back to the program. In staff meetings, discussions on programming should have the freedom to focus more on the people than on the structure.  About three years ago I jokingly told my staff that I wanted to see a calendar void of programs in 10 years. What I meant is that I want our people to understand discipleship to be a product of investing in the Bible and one another. Fancy videos, study guides, and tied-up evenings during the week isn’t necessary. Although those things can be helpful and fruitful, they don’t magically make disciples, and often, they make disciple-making our families more difficult. Churches can’t preach the necessity of family discipleship while simultaneously keeping families away from home due to programming.

I believe in the power of the word of God to transform people in Jesus. In reverse, I believe nothing else has the power to transform people in Jesus. Thus, programs should be a tool by which the Bible is treasured and given the opportunity to do what it was breathed out to do – “for training in righteousness.”

Preaching remains the single greatest means by which people hear the gospel, respond to the gospel, and grow in the gospel. It is not a coincidence that preaching does not (or at least, should not) feel like a program. It happens every week. It follows a pattern of some kind. But it isn’t programmed. It involves the Bible being studied, being spoken, and being received. God responds by saving the lost and maturing the righteous.

The solution to over-programming is not to kill all programs. I’m thankful for solid programs and I’m doubly thankful for the dedicated leaders and teachers who are involved in keeping the programs running. Instead of killing programs, the more productive (and more difficult) response is to determine how well the programs are serving the people by moving them toward your church’s identity and vision. Discovering how much time is spent working on the programs versus how much time is spent discipling the people is a powerful assessment tool. And of course, determining if the programs are helping produce growing disciples should be an essential and common discussion among the church staff.

So, what does your church calendar look like?

Thank God The New Covenant Is New

On May 9, 2018, an article was placed on The Christian Post entitled, “Christians Must ‘Unhitch’ Old Testament From Their Faith, Says Andy Stanley.” The article discusses a recent sermon where Andy Stanley encourages his people to “unhitch” from the Old Testament since it is not the “go-to source regarding behavior in the church.” He says that “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.” Stanley goes on to say:

“Jesus’ new covenant, His covenant with the nations, His covenant with you, His covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures….The resurrection of Jesus created and launched Christianity. Your whole house of Old Testament cards can come tumbling down. The question is did Jesus rise from the dead? And the eyewitnesses said he did.”

Not long after these comments were published online, evangelicals responded with a swift rebuke. A few examples…

“What an absolute theological trainwreck. ” – @wesleyhill

“If Jesus did not “unhitch” himself from the Old Testament, neither should we. Period.” – @andrewtwalk

“This should sound as strange to us as it would to the apostles, who constantly preached Christ from the Jewish Scriptures.”  -@jaredcwilson

Even Rachel Held Evans chimed in, “Lest you think I only pick on the Reformed guys, I agree that Andy Stanley got this one very wrong” -@rachelheldevans

David Prince offered a lengthier response.

I agree with these concerns. The idea of “unhitching” or teaching the irrelevance of the Old Testament for the Church is a false teaching. Without the categories, patterns, covenants, and kingdom development of the OT, the arrival of the Messiah would make no sense. In this way, the NT is uniquely dependant on the OT for its clarity and purpose. My favorite preacher Alistair Begg says it perfectly: “We cannot really understand Christ without the Old Testament, and we can’t understand the Old Testament without Christ.” That sentiment echoes my position, which necessarily means we cannot “unhitch” the Old from the New.

Even more insidious is the idea that Stanley’s comments were designed and delivered in such a way as to separate himself and his teaching from the doctrines of God’s wrath and justice. In this way, Stanley’s comments would land well with those who believe the God of the Old Testament could never be the God of the New Testament. I do not know if Stanley desires such a thing, but Kevin DeYoung noted the historical similarity to Marcion’s heresy of the 2nd century.

Although these clear affirmations of disagreement with Stanley’s comments are important, more needs to be said. In rightly pushing back against this teaching, I wonder if enough is being said and clarified concerning the glorious good news that the New is, in fact, better than the Old. What we do not have in the covenants is a means of relating to God that is different but equal. Praise be to our Lord, New Covenant Christians do not approach a structural temple and perform daily animal sacrifices and look to a human high priest for intercession. All of these have been fulfilled in the true and better temple, the true and better sacrifice, and the true and better priest. Thus, the New Covenant is better in every way. (Hebrews 8:6).

But the key word is “fulfilled.” Jesus did not break from the OT, rather he fulfilled the OT. As John Piper has said, “…all the precious history and forms and structures and offices in the Old Testament aren’t merely thrown away. They are consummated. They are filled up in Jesus.”

I’ll use the Ten Commandments as an example. Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments? Andy Stanley said he was tempted to put up a slide saying, “Thou shall not obey the Ten Commandments.” That would, of course, fit in well with his language of the NT being “unhitched” from the OT. So, is he right? Should we stop obeying the Ten Commandments?

No, we should not stop obeying the Ten Commandments. But, the reason we obey them is important and germane to this discussion. We do not obey the Ten Commandments because they are binding on us as part of the Mosaic Law. We obey them because they are affirmed in the NT as part of the “Law of Christ” (1st Corinthians 9:21, Galatians 6:2).

We must emphatically teach that the law of the Old Covenant is dead to New Covenant Christians. A few examples:

“…you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4)

“by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two…” (Ephesians 2:15)

“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21)

“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)

“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Romans 6:15)

In just a few verses I listed of many in Scripture, we are taught that we have been released from the Old Covenant law and it is dead to us, abolished, and powerless.

Now, combine this with the teaching of Jesus. Here’s one example – “He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.” (Luke 5:36-37).

Making commentary on this passage, R. Kent Hughes says, “Judaism, as good as it was, had become an old, worn-out garment. It could not be patched with a few things taken from Christ’s gospel…..The gospel of the New Covenant is simply too dynamic for the Old Covenant structures.”

I could make an inexhaustible list of conservative evangelical leaders, pastors, and scholars who have emphatically and correctly taught the superiority of the New Covenant and the inability of the Old Covenant to do what only Jesus can do. Tim Keller has become famous for repeatedly emphasizing how Jesus is the “true and better” everything.

And then there is the book of Hebrews. Having recently preached through this jaw-dropping book, I came away even more in awe of what God has done through Jesus Christ that the law could never accomplish. We are now drawn near to God through the blood of the New Covenant.

None of this is an excuse for Stanley’s comments. The only way we can understand the superiority of Christ is by its link with the Old Covenant. They cannot and must not be separated. But the New is better than the Old. And Christians, especially new believers, need clarity on that point. We must emphatically teach the greater and better Christ while remaining faithful to our commitment to the entire counsel of Scripture.

The Anti-Gun Law Argument That Doesn’t Work

Many of the articles, social media updates, and blogs posted in the wake of another horrifying mass shooting will predictably be arguing from a full pendulum swing position. By that, I mean most opinion pieces work from a presupposition of either all-in support for gun control legislation or all-in denial that guns are a problem. It is rare to find a helpful opinion where the pendulum is in the middle.

Thus, I was thankful to find a link to a level-headed article written by former North American Mission Board missionary Scott Barkley, who helpfully offered this incredibly wise piece of advice:  “…a solution is going to require something that hasn’t happened yet. Each side – no matter where you stand on gun rights or funding for mental health or the importance of prayer – is going to have to consider what part of the equation they’re missing. Each is going to have to approach the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the other guy holds at least part of the solution.”  (Emphasis mine)

For me personally, I like to think my own position is fair and, I suppose, just common sense. I support the right of Americans to own certain types of firearms for sport and protection if a thorough, effective system of checks is in place. I also support the call for a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

However, my interest in this article is not to argue for my position so much as it is to point out forms of ineffective argumentation used by some who are against additional legislation for gun control. I’m not suggesting in this article that such a position is wrong, only that the following specific arguments against gun control do not work.

What I have primarily seen in response to gun control in the aftermath of recent mass shootings is most clearly typified in a tweet by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin a few months ago in the aftermath of the Las Vegas tragedy. (For what it’s worth, I have great respect for Matt Bevin and I’m thankful he is my Governor). Here is Governor Bevin’s tweet:

“To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs…You can’t regulate evil…”

Bevin highlights the two most prominent rebuttal arguments in one tweet: those who support gun control are “political opportunists” and the idea of restricting gun purchases is pointless since you “can’t regulate evil.”

The governor is correct to say that evil will never be dispelled through laws. We know this from experience, but more importantly, we know this through the biblical witness of sin and death. But even though the premise is true, the argument absolutely fails (Ignoratio elenchi) for several reasons.

First, this is what is known as a “straw man” fallacy. A straw man is an argument that paints an incorrect picture of the opponent’s position and then attempts to push back against that erroneous position. I have never seen a gun control advocate argue that gun laws will regulate evil actions or will purge evil intentions from the hearts of men. So, any rebuttal attempting to demonstrate how gun laws will fail to keep people from doing evil things is responding to an argument that doesn’t exist. Gun control advocates are not so ideological as to think that laws will regulate or remove evil. Their hope is to reduce these specific kinds of evil actions.

Second, what is the logical conclusion to Bevin’s argument? If laws and restrictions and regulations will not keep evil people from doing evil things, then why have them at all? Bevin’s argument against additional gun restrictions could equally be applied to the forging of any new law or the strengthening of any existing law regardless of the issue. Such a position is, of course, absurd.  Laws are not written or modified with the expectation of comprehensively purging evil from society, but they are nevertheless important for the good of society. This too is a pervasive biblical theme and is a significant reason why God has issued laws for his people and why the law is an act of grace. (This is Luther’s “first use of the law”).

Third, the “political opportunists” phrase is an “ad hominem” fallacy and weakens the rebuttal. Is it possible that those who are in favor of gun control are legitimately broken and determined to see fewer men, women, and children dying from mass shootings? Yes, that is a very real possibility. Calling them “political opportunists” does not advance the argument, even if there are some seizing the opportunity to push an agenda. By the way, the same is absolutely true for the other side. Calling the GOP names on social media does not work or advance the argument.

Fourth, a type of “red herring” occurs when other ineffectual laws are brought into the argument. For example, drug regulations are often used to demonstrate the law’s inability to stop criminals from selling and using drugs. If laws do not keep people from selling and buying drugs, then why create additional gun laws? But again, what does this suggest? It only suggests that the Congress should make all drugs legal since laws do not stop criminals. Speed limits do not keep people from speeding. Should we forgo interstate driving regulations? And so forth. Additionally, this argument does not take into account the unknown. We do not know the impact of the drug culture on America if drug laws were not on the books.

There are plenty of ways for those who are opposed to gun control to argue their position. But the aforementioned arguments do not work. Don’t use them. Use these steps instead:

  1. Make certain you properly communicate your opponent’s position. Couch it in language where your opponent would say, “yes, that is what I believe.”
  2. Consider the logical conclusion of your argument. How does this play out in the long run?
  3. Avoid personal attacks. It makes your argument weaker, not stronger.
  4. Stay on topic. Avoid making illegitimate comparisons that are actually red herrings.

 

Did Rice See Jack Flack in Cloak & Dagger?

Cloak & Dagger was one of my favorite films as a child and remains one of my most beloved movies. It is a must watch for every father with their children and has one of the most tear-jerking endings of all time. The movie is memorable from beginning to end and so many elements resonated with me as a kid – from the video game incorporation to the action hero to the make-believe friend who we aren’t sure is really make-believe.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Davey Osborne is a young, imaginative, video-game lover who enjoys creating scenarios where he and his friend Kim are spies and must figure out ways to solve their various “missions.” Davey has a make-believe friend whose name is Jack Flack, played brilliantly by Dabney Coleman. Coleman also portrays Davey’s father, Hal Osbourne, and is a gorgeous reminder of how most young boys think about their dads. Only Davey can see Jack, of course, and he shows up to give Davey advice and walk alongside him during Davey’s missions.

Well, Davey gets into a real-life issue that is life-threatening. At the end of the film, the antagonist, whose name is Rice, is about to kill Davey with an automatic weapon (the language and imagery of this final scene is absolutely brutal. Unbelievable that this was a children’s movie). Jack Flack shows up and tells Davey to kill Rice. But Davey won’t do it. In order to save Davey’s life, Jack goes over to draw Rice’s fire. Davey looks over at Jack and yells, “Jack, no!” Rice, who was already looking over in that direction with a puzzled face, pulls the trigger toward Jack Flack and “kills” him. This makes Davey shoot Rice.

Watch the scene below, and then I will provide my thoughts:

Now, most people (and Wikipedia) assume that Rice looks over to his left and ultimately shoots because Davey is looking over there and yells, “Jack, no!” The idea is that Rice assumes there is someone hiding over in that direction and just starts firing.

But I’m not so sure.

I have always wondered if Rice might have caught a glimpse of Jack Flack for just a second, surprising him to the point of causing him to fire. Here are my thoughts.

The biggest and most obvious reason is that Jack Flack looks different in this one scene than he does in the rest of the movie. As he is standing there taunting Rice, he appears to be transparent. Normally, he just appears like a normal human being. Why? Why at this one scene when Jack is “making himself known” do the filmmakers decide to make him look different? It might very well be because the movie is saying something special about our imaginary friends and the power of a child’s imagination.

Also, Rice looks weirded out the entire conversation. This might be because Davey keeps looking to his left, but I have always thought Rice “felt” something was off. I could understand if he was firing into a wooded area or something, but he fires at a blank wall. Why would he do that unless he saw “something?”

What do you think? Did Rice see Jack Flack?

Reflecting on 2017

There seems to be a common sentiment on social media among many of my friends:  2017 was a difficult year. I would count myself among those who affirm such an assessment. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually I have found myself driven to deep and dark places – secret places that are noticeably absent of “this way out” signs. For the first time in 19 years of being on a church staff, my mind wandered to the dangerous land of “ministry isn’t worth it” and I acquired a greater appreciation for those alarming statistics of pastors who call it quits.

And then, of course, guilt piles on top of guilt. That’s what guilt does, you know. It is never satisfied to be left alone. I thought of the endless blessings I enjoy every day. Of my church that is healthy and growing and loving. Of my family who is a daily reminder of God’s goodness. And then I think, how could I possibly be so weak and sinful that I would reach a place of darkness so quickly when others have it so much worse? Guilt on top of guilt.

All of this brings me back to the truth I know so well I tend to forget it so often. God never stops with darkness. He keeps speaking. Always.

There was darkness at creation. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Abraham fell into a dreadful and deep darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Egypt was filled with darkness for three days. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Nicodemus visited Jesus in the darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Jesus was crucified and the land fell into darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
I was living in the domain of darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.

God speaks in darkness. The beauty and brilliance of the light wouldn’t shine near as bright without it. So all of this brings me to this summary of 2017…

It was a difficult year with dark paths. And for that reason, it has been an important year. God isn’t through speaking. As my life marches on and I reflect back on 2017, I imagine I will consider the darkness and worship God with even greater zeal because of the light.

God, I’m not thankful for darkness, but I am eternally thankful that you keep speaking in it. I imagine I could watch 2017 fade away with gratitude for it simply being gone. But I think, God, I will do something different. I think I will watch it fade away with gratitude for having experienced it. For in it and through it, you have revealed and are revealing to me who you are all over again. And I love who you are. I love that you bring light out of darkness. I love that I could never appreciate the light if I did not experience the darkness. So, thank you. I’ll talk to you in the morning. And whatever you have in store for me and my family in 2018, here I am, Lord. Do to me as you will. I love you. Help me to love you more. I believe. Help my unbelief. I trust you. Help me to trust you more. All for your glory. Forever. Amen.

The Storytelling of George Lucas

*This article contains minor spoilers for The Last Jedi

Here’s my thesis:  The Last Jedi will have a surprising, unintended consequence of increasing appreciation for the storytelling of George Lucas in Episodes 1-3 (the prequels).

The nearly universal consensus is that Lucas displayed storytelling genius in the first three Star Wars films, episodes 4-6. The character development and plot progression seamlessly wove together into a “believable” science-fiction masterpiece.

And then Lucas did something crazy. He resisted the temptation to create three identical movies as he directed the three prequels. Lucas veered into dangerous territory by providing a glimpse of scientific explanation behind the force, he built episode 1 on the less-than-inspirational concept of a trade federation, and he relied on the maturity of the viewer to follow an intricate plot development connecting the Clone Wars, Palpatine/Emperor, and the Jedi Order. This was all happening while the Skywalker family remained central to not only the saga as a whole, but also to each individual film.

And that, to me, is the beauty of the prequels that goes unnoticed. Lucas managed to keep the main thing the main thing while presenting a rich and complex story that felt quite different than the original trilogy. The fans, however, were for the most part apathetic at best.

The Last Jedi is a good movie with an emotionally rich subtext. Many of the scenes are breathtaking and the film certainly answers a significant number of questions that were raised by The Force Awakens. The problem is that the film’s most glorious moments are captured by utilizing nostalgic elements from Lucas’ films, and the times the film ventures off to establish new material, there is a silent emptiness that seems to hover over the screen.

The Force Awakens was a powerhouse blockbuster the fans loved. Why? Because it was Lucas’ original trilogy repackaged. The best moments in The Last Jedi? Better give thanks to Lucas for those too. I found the story progression to be, at times, absurd in The Last Jedi. Without giving away too many details, a significant portion of the film depends on low fuel and a bunch of Star Destroyers and First Order ships “keeping their distance” from a Resistance ship.  It’s almost as if the story had to come up with some kind of structure in order to provide room for the cool visual moments, and more often than not, that structure failed. A notable exception was the relationship between Kylo and Rey. That, by far, was the strongest aspect of the film.

I may be (and deeply hope) I am wrong, but Star Wars Episode IX has the potential to be horrible, largely because there is so little left of Lucas to rely on. If the standard continues to move downward, then the stock of Lucas’ prequels will begin to rise. And in my opinion, rightfully so.

 

Trump and the Judiciary

Pro-Trump conservatives rallied behind two key campaign pledges during the 2016 presidential election:  Pro-life legislation and judicial appointments. While many conservative Christian voices were expressing disgust at Trump’s repugnant moral character, Trump supporters would faithfully return to these two concerns. How could a conservative, especially a conservative Christian, vote for Hillary Clinton when her extreme pro-choice rhetoric was unlike any the country had heard before? Additionally, the potential for the courts to be filled with radical liberal ideologies through Clinton’s judicial appointments was used to garner support for Trump.

Almost a year into President Trump’s administration, the pro-life emphasis has been less than stellar. A Republican Senate funded Planned Parenthood and initially cut the tax credit for adoptive parents (they have since reversed that decision). Where the pro-life promises might have been absent, the commitment to conservative judicial appointments is in full effect.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, could confirm his ninth federal judge the week after Thanksgiving.  As a reference, President Obama appointed three federal judges his first year in office. But what I find to be fascinating is….no one seems to care.

In my news feed, virtually every article highlights a recent Trump tweet or the ongoing problems with the tax reform bill. You would think at this point the former would be a loser for the media; the election seems to confirm that the larger conservative population does not care what Trump does on Twitter, no matter how unpresidential he may come across. The latter is certainly newsworthy, but individual pieces of legislation and public policy initiatives pale in comparison to the long-term impact of judicial appointments. These are appointments to federal courts of appeals and the appointments are for life.

In very simple terms – the long-term impact on the shape our country is determined more by the judiciary than a short-term piece of legislation, such as tax reform. Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons said concerning the judiciary, “This will be the single most important legacy of the Trump administration.” The federal court of appeals has influence over virtually every area of policy, from social policy to gun rights to Presidential executive orders. It is impossible to comprehend how the Trump presidency will impact the future of our country. But it ultimately comes down to the courts.

Should Trump continue on this path, certain conservatives will support him in the 2020 election regardless of his future shortcomings. The courts have become the battleground. But no one seems to care.

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