Our Crisis of Empathy

{Note: I wrote the following post four years ago at the height of Ferguson-related protests and riots. Feels timely to me. But you be the judge.}

It was dark, but I could still discern in the headlights’ glare that a shotgun was pointed directly at my chest.

“Son, that’s a good way to get your head blown off,” said the voice behind the gun.

Perhaps I’d better back up and offer you some context here.

This was the mid-to-late seventies in rural Oklahoma. I was only 17 but this was not the first time a rural law enforcement officer had taken a look at my shaggy hair and fast car and decided I was a trouble maker. (That’s right, kids. I had long, thick brown hair.)

Only an hour earlier I had graduated from high school. At that moment, many of my classmates were headed out to keg parties to celebrate by getting blitzed.

Three other friends and I were headed over the mountain to a larger town to grab a nice dinner. You see we were the good kids. (eyeroll) We were walking the straight and narrow. Trying to stay out of trouble.

Halfway to our destination, as we passed through a tiny town notorious for being a speed trap, I noticed a pickup behind me with a flashing yellow light. I assumed it was some sort of road construction or utilities vehicle, so I eased over to the shoulder to let it pass. It didn’t pass, but rather stayed right behind me.

So, I pulled on over on a pitch black stretch of two-lane highway and stopped my vehicle.

The pickup stopped at a distance behind me, as a powerful door-mounted spotlight, commonly used in that part of the country for illegally hunting deer at night, illuminated the back end of my ultra-sweet 1972 Cutlass S. As I looked in my rearview mirror, all I could see was the blinding glare of that spotlight.

Deciding this might possibly be some sort of weird law enforcement traffic stop, I did what I had been taught to do in my Driver’s Ed classes. I remained in my vehicle, rolled the window down, shut off the engine, and waited. And waited.

Eventually I heard a person from behind my vehicle shouting for me to get out of the car. So I did so and started walking back toward that retina-burning light. That’s when I met Mr. 12 Gauge.

“Son, that’s a good way to get your head blown off.”

“Okay,” I agreed. I had no clue what he was referring to but I wasn’t feeling inclined to explore the matter.

He fired off a series of questions: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Who is your daddy? (Seriously, he wanted to know who my dad was.)  Then he looked at my drivers license for a minute, handed it back, and sent me on my way with no explanation.

It was a terrifying, traumatizing experience. But quickly the residual fear I felt morphed into anger. In fact, nearly 40 years have past since that night and thinking about it right now still cheeses me off.

So do my memories of another run in—roughly six months earlier—with a local Neanderthal deputy sheriff. He, having made about a half-dozen incorrect assumptions about me, pulled me out of my after-school job bagging groceries, hauled me down to the sherrif’s department, and tried to intimidate me with foul, abusive language and crazy accusations that made absolutely no sense to me.

I can vividly recall my feelings of powerlessness and anger when dealing with a person with a badge and a gun who (wrongly) thought he knew something about me based upon the way I looked.

For a long time I really wanted to hate that guy.

Perhaps this gives me a tiny headstart in understanding why so many of my black friends and acquantances are battling a storm of mixed emotions at this moment.

I can’t possibly know what it’s like to live in their shoes (or their skin), but I can empathize. And I do.

I wish more of my fellow white brothers and sisters could find their way to some of this empathy. We’re so quick to minimize the real wounds good, decent black citizens carry around; and minimize the fears and resentments they live with every day.

This isn’t helpful.

On the Other Hand

I pray every one of my black brothers and sisters in Christ battling feelings of resentment and bitterness today (I see your social media feeds) can find some empathy for what law enforcement officers face daily—and especially nightly.

Being a cop, particularly in a major city, means dealing with the worst aspects of our society for a lot of your work-life hours. The job involves seeing and mopping up after the very worst that fallen, broken humans are capable of.

Addicts, pimps, prostitutes, child abusers, wife beaters, pedophiles, muggers, rapists, con men, thieves . . . the violent, the self-destructive, the drunk, the stoned, the cruel, the amoral, the twisted, the psychotic, the psychopathic. Police work requires wading around in all of these all the time—all while surviving and maintaining an awareness that the next person you encounter may very well be a decent human being.

It also means receiving training about staying in command of situations and speaking authoritatively. It is, by necessity, drilled into the police officer that losing control of a situation can easily get them killed.

I wish every one of the Black Lives Matter protesters throwing rocks and rebar at St. Paul police last night would do a few overnight shift “ride alongs” with a police officer. I suspect it would be an eye-opener.

Perhaps they might find some space in their wounded, angry souls for a little empathy as well.

Social Media Bubbles and Echo Chambers

Empathy for others has always been a challenge for all of us—for some more than others. But the advent of social media has ampflied this problem many fold.

We have built our own newswires out of sources that confirm our biases and people who see things just as we do. It feels good to have your assumptions validated. It feels bad to have them challenged. We prefer to feel good.

So, if a source or person brings us information that we don’t like—that doesn’t comport without preferred way of viewing things—we can mute or unfollow with the click of a mouse.

Thus the custom-made information bubbles we live in get purer and purer.

And we get surer and surer that the world is exactly as we believe it to be.

This Woman of Mine

I’m working from home today and Mrs. H is out of the house, throwing herself headlong into  a long list of tasks for me, her work, her family, and for friends. As all who know her will attest, she is a force of nature. Some wonder what her secret is. I know all of her secrets.

In fact, as I sit here on our sofa where we share morning coffee, one of them is visible just to my left. The evidence is visible in the photo above. She is a woman of the Word.

All is just as she left it this morning. And every morning. As she is prone to reminding herself, me, and those she loves:

Wisdom shouts in the streets.
She cries out in the public square.
She calls to the crowds along the main street,
to those gathered in front of the city gate:
Come and listen to my counsel.
I’ll share my heart with you
and make you wise.

She has heeded, wisdom’s call, this woman of mine. Father, “Reward her for all she has done.” (Proverbs 31:31)

On Earth as in Heaven

Many believers have misinterpreted Jesus’ words in John 18:36, wherein Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

They take this to mean that Jesus’ Kingdom has no earthly manifestation. In other words, that until His physical return, His kingdom remains exclusively spiritual and therefore invisible.

The unavoidable implication of this is that the believer should not expect the advance or expansion of Jesus’ kingdom to impact the natural world—including our physical bodies, nature, or earthly institutions.

Consistent with this view, many believers gauge the expansion of His kingdom by one measure alone . . . souls saved.

But is this an accurate understanding of Jesus’ words to Pilate? I don’t think so.

Understanding the words, “My kingdom is not of this world,” hinges on the meaning of the word “of.” I’m convinced that Jesus was saying that His kingdom’s legitimacy and validity did not derive from any earthly source. Rather, the authority and legitimacy of His rule was (and is) rooted in Heaven—a much higher source.

Consider the context. Jesus is being questioned by an earthly ruler, Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the ruler of the prefect of Judea because the Roman Emperor Tiberius designated it so.  Pilate’s authority and legitimacy was rooted in the earthly power of the Roman Emperor and the Roman Senate.

In other words, Pilate’s kingdom was of Rome.

Jesus knew this was Pilate’s frame of reference when he asked Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” The implication behind the question is, “If you are the King of the Jews, then some earthly authority must have declared it so.”

Perhaps the Jewish people took a vote. Maybe the Sanhedrin had convened a secret council and determined that Jesus was indeed the rightful heir to David’s throne. Maybe an enemy foreign government was trying to destabilize the eastern edge of the Roman Empire by installing a rival ruler.

With a single phrase, “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus swept away all of these unspoken questions. Meaning, “Yes, I am a king, but not because any  earthly legislative body or governmental authority says so. The throne that declares me a king is not anywhere on this planet.”

The words Jesus spoke immediately following this response validate this interpretation:

“If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)

In other words, “If my kingdom were rooted in earthly authority then earthly people would use earthly force to keep me from being killed.”

Nothing in Jesus’ response should keep us from expecting that the expansion of His rule—seeing His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven—will impact the physical realm here and now.

That physical realm includes your physical body; your family and home; your neighborhood, community, and the entire culture. But we don’t see these impacts if we don’t believe they are legitimate.

In the light of all this, it’s not surprising that an era in which the dominant evangelical theology has marginalized the concept of Jesus’ kingdom to being wholly invisible and largely in the future . . . is the very era in which the earthly institutions such as the arts, academia, the sciences, and government have been overtaken by darkness and godlessness.

The kingdom of Jesus is a present and progressively unfolding reality.

No, it is not of this world, but it is very much in it.

He Arose in the Dark

He arose in the dark.

Our familiar Easter sunrise services have trained us to associate the resurrection with sunrise. This is because the discovery of the empty tomb by the women occurs around daybreak. All four gospels record their arrival at the tomb at or just before sunrise on the day after the Sabbath. As Mark describes it, “Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb at the rising of the sun.”[1]

This means they assembled and began their journey to the garden while it was still quite dark. When they arrived, as every Sunday School child can tell you, the tomb was already quite empty.

So, I emphasize this once more. He arose in the dark. There is a large message in this small detail of the resurrection narrative.

We ought not wait for our circumstances to brighten to put our hope in a faithful God. We must not say to God, “Show me some improvement and then I’ll believe in your goodness and mercy.”

No, it is when things seem the most hopeless and grim that we should anchor our faith to the rock of expectancy. It is when it seems “too late” that we must muster words of praise and thanksgiving.

We all recall that Paul and Silas sang a hymn of praise from the depths of a filthy Philippian dungeon, but do we remember when? I summon Acts 16:25 to rise and testify. “At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God . . .”

When did these shackled saints find their song of praise? At midnight! When things seemed the most hopeless! You know the result. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s shackles were loosened.”[2]

Oh, dear child of God, do not wait on the dawn to find your shout of confidence in God. Sing your song now, in the middle of your midnight hour, when trouble seems to be pressing in all around you. Anyone can sing a hymn at noon under a clear blue sky. That kind of faith doesn’t alarm principalities and powers.

The day doesn’t begin at dawn. It begins at midnight. Likewise, that is when God’s resurrection power comes. Tombs open in the middle of the night. Graves burst open in the middle of the night. Jesus comes walking on the waves in the middle of the night with a message for you and me. It is that very one He spoke to Jairus who had just absorbed the news that his daughter had died, “Do not fear. Only believe . . .”[3]

Don’t be afraid of the dark.

[1]Mark 16:2

[2]Acts 16:25-26

[3]Luke 8:50

A Glance Back in Gratitude. Forward in Hope.

Mrs. H and I are suffering from Full Heart Syndrome here on this morning after Christmas Day. The last few days have been rich and sweet. In fact, the whole year gifted us with things for which we are profoundly grateful.

Yes, they’re real. And they really are that cute.

2017 was a year of four milestones.

April brought our first grandchildren into our lives. That’s right—plural—as our oldest and her sweet husband blessed us, and the world, with twin girls.

Meet Instagram stars, Cora Lee and Winnie Ruth. Many immediately remarked that they resembled yours truly. It’s possible. But I’ve discovered that when you’re bald and doughy, there is a sense in which nearly all newborns resemble you.

In any event, I can say without fear of contradiction that they are the cutest little things on the planet.

If we can get the names to stick, Mrs. H and I will be “Gigi and Pop.” Of course you never know. I’ve observed that the adorable mispronunciation that comes out of a todder’s mouth often becomes the moniker that endures for the rest of your grandparenting career. So it’s very much a theoretical possiblity that we will end up as “Gaggy and Poop.” These are the risks you take in life.

Around their six-month birthday, the little ladies got to attend their first formal affiar—the wedding of their auntie Olivia. This was the second major milestone event in our 2017. As I explained in a previous post, our youngest was married a few weeks ago, in October—our third and final chickadee to leave the nest.

Speaking of nests . . . In the midst of that celebration, we learned the wonderful news that our middle daughter, who was married the previous October, was expecting as well. This was milestone three. (See my previous post about this blessing.)

Over the last few days we had the opporunity to have all four households together under one roof. This is no small blessing, of course, as our sons-in-law have wonderful extended families of their own who want and deserve to have some time with them as well.

Thus we were delighted and grateful, here on our first Christmas with three married daughters and two girly grands, to observe our cherished traditions together. And particularly happy to have Tracy’s mom with us to savor the history-making, memory-making milestone.

Not Pictured: Me, two baby girls, five dogs.

We spent a good chunk of Christmas day watching old home movies so the sons-in-law could see how cute their brides were when they were little. For a couple of decades I, like many dads of the 90s, viewed every major family gathering and church/school event with one eye through the tiny viewfinder of a bulky camcorder. But it was worth it to be able to preserve those moments for days like yesterday.

Lots of lights begin to come on when you grow up and get married. Even more pop on when you have kids of your own (or are about to). You can find yourself viewing well-remembered events through a new lens. So, as the happy ghosts of Christmases 20-years-past danced across our television screen yesterday, Mrs. H and I enjoyed watching the girls see themselves (and their parents) with new, adult eyes and grown up understanding.

What I believe they saw and heard on those videos were two people who adore and respect each other, doing their best to love well the children God had placed in their care.

They saw a mother who went to extraordinary lengths to create a home filled with beauty, warmth, order, harmony, and delight. A woman who transformed every place we landed into a cozy little echo of the garden of Eden on earth. Who made every day a party, and every party a grand affair.

They saw two people striving, as best they knew how, to teach them gratitude and selflessness and generosity and empathy. To help them feel both safe and courageous. To instill in them confidence, character, and compassion.

Most of all, to initiate them into the most vital mysteries of all:

  • That God is.
  • That He is good.
  • That He unfailingly rewards those who seek Him by allowing Himself to be found.
  • That we’re all born broken, flawed, and in desperate need of a Savior.
  • And that such a Savior—the wonderful Jesus—ever stands at the door knocking; ready to come in and feast with all who will simply open to Him.

All these thoughts and many others swirled in my mind as Mrs. H and I crawled into bed last night. We talked of how precious the last few days had been to us. And of how quickly this just-completed chapter of our lives seemed to pass. How is it possible that many of those events we watched on video transpired 25 years ago?

In that moment last night, I looked across the bed at my God-given life’s companion and spoke the truth my heart was holding:

“Honey, I’ve adored every day of it. I have absolutely loved living this adventure with you more than I can express, and wouldn’t trade a single minute of it. I’ve loved being your husband. I’ve loved being their dad.”

Hand to heaven, it’s the truth. From the “I do” to the “It’s a girl” (three times) to the “Sir, I want to marry your daughter” (three times) . . . every thread of it is pure gold to me, and I have no regrets. Certainly not about the husband-father aspect of my life and choices.

Our fourth milestone came just a few days ago as we celelbrated our 30th wedding anniversary.

Of course, this adventure isn’t over. As I’ve noted previously, life is a play in three acts. Act 1 is Birth to Marriage. Mrs. H and I have just completed Act 2—Marriage to Empty Nest.

The curtain has just risen on Act 3.

I have some specific hopes for this next leg of the voyage. I believe days of impact, influence, and legacy-building lie in the decades ahead. Days of teaching and writing and mentoring. They will be good days. But if it all ended today, I’d be okay. I’d head home with a heart filled with gratitude for the abundance of gifts already received. And for the legacy already in motion.

Merry Christmas. And blessings in the new year.

 

 

 

Tetelestai Indeed

The Savior’s final words from the cross were a prayer of faith:

“Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.”

Only moments earlier, the witnesses gathered around the dying Prince heard Him shout something else. A single word. The Word-Made-Flesh yells a Greek accounting term . . .

tetelestai!

Our English Bible translations of John’s gospel render that term in a way that tends to drain it of the legal and financial connotations it carried for hearers of Jesus’ day. The best we can come up with is the bland and colorless, “It is finished.”

Charles Spurgeon called this declaration, “Christ’s dying word to the Church. Yet tetelestai does not mean merely that a thing has concluded. It does not simply indicate that the curtain has come down and the show is over. “The End.”

No, to declare a thing tetelestai is to decree all has been accomplished. Everything formerly lacking has now been supplied. The wound has been healed. The obligation met. The debt satisfied to the uttermost.

But Jesus’ tetelestai declaration carries yet more dimensions of meaning.

It also means that all the types, shadows, and symbols of the Old Testament have now been fully realized (in Him). All to which the Law, the Prophets, and the prophetic narrative pointed has been fulfilled.

Three years prior to this royal proclamation John the Baptist had asked, “Are you the One or should we look for another. Jesus’ answer at that time was suggestive but indirect. Now, in his final minutes, He speaks plainly.

His tetelestai! declares:

“You can stop looking! The promised one has come and accomplished the prophesied task. I, the Second Adam, have rectified, remedied and restored what the First Adam forfeited. Dominion of planet earth has been restored to its rightful steward.”

Furthermore, in that one-word cry of consummation, Jesus declared an end to Man’s Babel-ish, religious striving to build a ladder back to God. God Himself has come down and done what no fallen man could do. That is, satisfy Mankind’s staggering legal-spiritual obligation.

”In an 1861 sermon titled “It is Finished!,” Spurgeon said of that cry of tetelestai:

“The Savior meant that the satisfaction which He rendered to the justice of God was finished. The debt was now, to the last farthing, all discharged. The atonement and propitiation were made once for all, and forever, by the one offering made in Jesus’ body on the tree.

There was the cup; hell was in it; the Savior drank it—not a sip, and then a pause; not a draught, and then a ceasing; but He drained it till there is not a dreg left for any of His people!

The great ten-thronged whip of the law was worn out upon His back; there is no lash left with which to smite one for whom Jesus died! The great bombardment of God’s justice has exhausted all its ammunition; there is nothing left to be hurled against a child of God! Sheathed is your sword, O justice! Silenced is your thunder, O law!

There remains nothing now of all the griefs, and pains, and agonies which redeemed sinners ought to have suffered for their sins, for Christ has endured all for His own beloved, and “It is finished.”

Yes, “Finished!” we hear Him cry.  Then He slowly bows that thorn-pierced head. Of course, he bows. His monumental work of redemption is complete, and there is nothing left to do but to say a benediction.

“Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.” 

 

Some Words of Gratitude for the Gospel on International Women’s Day

Permit me to point something out that isn’t widely understood or acknowledged in our Postmodern, Bizarro-World times.

Whereever the gospel of Jesus Christ has spread and taken root, the lot of women has radically improved. Conversely, the places where Christianity is least historically present and welcome . . . these are the most hellish places on our planet to have the misfortune of being born a girl.

For the whole of human history, the default setting in our fallen world has been to treat women as property or sex slaves. Paganism is the original “rape culture.”

Jesus shocked the sensibilities of the dominant culture in His day by welcoming women into His inner circle–accepting their worship and follower-ship. And wherever the movement He launched has spread—relentelssly, progressively, although imperfectly—women’s lives have improved and their status has risen.

This, in part, because redemption produces more civilized, responsible, peaceful, compassionate men.

Western Civilization is, in essence, a manifestion of Christian civilization, a.k.a., the Kingdom of God. The Gospel is the greatest force for human equality ever unleashed. The seeds of the end of slavery in Europe were scattered from Britain’s Protestant pulpits. It took longer, but the same was true in North America.

 The Gospel is the greatest force for human equality ever unleashed.

The Abololitionist movement was born and fueled by churches. Just as most of the concern, energy, and money for fighting modern slavery (in the form of human trafficking and sex slavery) is coming from Christian people in Christian ( and formerly Christian) nations.

Perversely, a majority of the self-identifying feminists of our day view Christianity as Enemy Number One, while being inexplicably willing to accommodate Islamic Culture and actively embrace Hindu Culture in the form of Eastern Mysticism.

A few facts for your consideration on this International Women’s Day:

I am a husband to an extraordinary  woman, and father to three more of the same. A few weeks from now, twin girls will be added to our clan. How grateful I am they were born in a Gospel-infused, Gospel-informed culture.

It is a privilege I seek and pray for every little girl in every corner of the world.

 

An Informal Little Bible Study

Attention DFW readers,

I’m launching a short new Bible study series in our home next week.

Beginning next Wednesday night, February 1, and continuing for the next four Wedneday nights, I’ll be teaching a series I’m calling:

“Honeycomb Lying on the Ground: The Sweet Reality of Living in Kingdom Grace.”

Open to all. 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm.