By / Nov 28

“Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”

I’d heard the punch line a dozen times, but it never failed to send me into a fit of giggles. That my grandma, the strongest, bravest woman I knew, would be the source of it made it even funnier.

She’d grown up in the mountains during the Great Depression, the middle child of 10. Her people were farmers who understood the goodness of hard work, laughter, and family, so once a year, we’d make our way back to their hills for a reunion where the siblings swapped memories and told tales on one another. I remember passels of cousins by varying degrees, games of softball, an outhouse, a creek, and tables full of food—potato salad, ham, and butterscotch pie.

But my favorite time for stories was curled up in my grandma’s bed on the nights I was allowed to stay over. Our days together were for work—cleaning, blackberry picking, and gardening—but the nights were for storytelling. She’d dress me in layers and socks and tuck me in under piles of blankets. Sweating, I’d throw them off, but she’d put them right back on, determined that I wouldn’t be cold.

Then in the darkness, I’d whisper, “Grandma, tell me about the time . . .”

I had a whole repertoire of stories to choose from: the time she’d overturned the churn and spilled the family’s cream for the week or how she walked three miles to high school in good weather and boarded in town in bad. But one of my favorite stories was when she and her older brothers were out making hay under a blazing summer sun.

She’d been assigned to the top of the wagon, and as her brothers threw up pitchforks of hay, she’d stamp them down to make room for more. The system was working fine until a tremendous black snake came flying through the air straight at her—an unfortunate hitchhiker on someone’s fork of hay. As quickly as it had come up, she sent it back down, where her brother stabbed it. But satisfied with nothing less than the reptile’s eternal damnation, she screamed, “Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”

The snake and the promise 

In all fairness to the snake, seeing one in a hay field isn’t uncommon, and most are entirely harmless. There’s the black racer—long, shiny, darting here and there; the northern ring- necked with its yellow collar; and the eastern garter, a striped snake that apparently to someone, somewhere, once resembled the aforementioned accessory. You will occasionally spot more harmful snakes, the kind that send a shiver up your spine and have earned the aversion we carry against the species as a whole. Timber rattlers make their home in wooded areas, blending into the underbrush, while their neighbor the copperhead prefers more open habitats like overgrown fields, dilapidated barns, and rock ledges.

When you encounter a snake, however, the best thing to do is nothing. Even a venomous snake would rather move along than bite you. So catch your breath, calm your heart, and watch it for a few seconds before it glides out of sight. If you do, you’ll see one of the most unexpected, and unnerving, spectacles in the animal kingdom.

Limbless, a snake propels itself in waves, writhing and slithering along the ground. To climb, it will coil around a tree or pole, scrunching and creeping upward. To burrow, it relies on “rectilinear locomotion,” a unique coordination of scale and muscle movements that allow it to push its body forward in a straight line. Surprisingly, this uncanny way of getting around is the first specific animal phenomenon recorded in Scripture. And perhaps even more surprisingly, the snake is the first to receive the promise of Christmas.

According to Genesis, after God made the man and woman, he placed them in a garden which they shared with the animals. For a while, everything was good and beautiful and exactly as God planned; but a twist was coming, a twist in the form a winding, coiling, curling reptile. One day a snake shows up, and with subtle, hissing words, convinces them to do the one thing God had forbidden: to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, a curse descends; the man and woman are banished from the garden; and nothing is the same again.

For its part in the deceit, God sentences the snake to its unique movement:

You are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal.
You will move on your belly
and eat dust all the days of your life.

But then he promises this:

I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel (Gen. 3:15).

Theologians call this passage the protevanglium, or the first announcement of the good news, because it foreshadows the birth of the One who will undo the serpent’s deceit along with its lethal aftermath. Eve’s hope—our hope—was that this coming Promised Son would crush the serpent and all it represents, even as he suffers in the process.

But here’s something curious: the news of a Redeemer wasn’t given to Eve, not directly at least. It was given to the snake. And it was given in the form of a warning: judgment is coming. The power you hold over the earth will one day be taken from you. So for the snake, Christmas is far from good news. Or is it?

Of course, the snake of Genesis 3 is not simply a snake, not like the ring-necked and garter snakes in my backyard. Revelation 12:9 speaks of an “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world.” And elsewhere in Scripture, snakes represent sin and our own bent toward falsehood. Romans 3:13, for example, says

There is no one who does what is good, not even one.
Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Vipers’ venom is under their lips.

But here’s something even more unexpected than the fact that Christmas was first announced to a reptile. In John 3:14-16, Jesus likens his redemptive work to a miracle that occurred centuries earlier when God healed the Israelites of poisonous snakebites by having them look to a bronze serpent on a pole. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

And just like that, those who once followed the snake into damnation, now proclaim the grace of Christ in salvation. Those cursed by their own disobedience are now blessed by the obedience of another. I wonder about this. I wonder how the snake—so long associated with sin and death—could be associated with Christmas. I wonder until I remember the heart of the Creator for his creation. The God who knows every sparrow that falls, who numbers the stars, who holds the seas in his hand—would this same God let his creation be taken from him? Would he so easily give up what he has created and called “good”?

No. This is a God who redeems. This is a God who restores—both for those who have suffered under the deceit of sin and those who have deceived others. Because one day, evil will be crushed under the heel of the Promised Son, and his blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.”

And when he does, the snake that was once a sign of sin’s dominion will become a sign of our complete and final redemption. In Isaiah 11:8–9, the prophet tells us of the day when the Promised Son will finally and fully reign over his creation. In that day,

an infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.
They will not harm or destroy each other on my entire holy mountain.

The hope of the snake is our hope. We, who with poison on our lips have deceived and been deceived, to us, the promise is given: a Savior has come, and a Savior will come. And when he is lifted up, all who look to him will find life—everlasting and eternal.

This article is an excerpt from the new book, Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson from B&H Publishing (2022).

By / Apr 13

How we face death, whether in fear or in hope, is a reflection of how we have lived. Back in February, I was asked by an elderly church member to visit her neighbor who was dying. The neighbor was in her 70s, and hospice began visiting to help her in her final days. This was the end. I was told the woman was a believer in Jesus, but had not been to church in some time and didn’t have a pastor. Of course, I was happy to go visit her.

As I drove up to her little mobile home to see her, I was reminded of Ecclesiastes 7:2, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, since that is the end of all mankind, and the living should take it to heart.”

Will we face death’s reality? 

Visiting with this woman was a very powerful experience for me. Her mobile home was small and crowded with items collected over a lifetime. I was welcomed in by a care nurse who was there to tend to her needs. He pointed me down the short hallway, and I could hear the television blaring with sounds from an old game show rerun. As I walked into the room, she was sitting up in bed halfway. Medical supplies, blankets, and other items took up the space around her. She heard I was coming from the neighbor who called me, so when I introduced myself, she was prepared.

In these situations, you don’t always know what to expect. Sometimes, people don’t want to see a pastor that they’ve never met before. They’re angry about dying. They know what the visit means. And their fear can turn into dismissal or lead them to lash out. The reaction can range from mild politeness to indifference to rudeness to anger. So, the short walk down the hall found me bracing myself for the possibilities of the exchange. 

When it comes to dying in the American context — one that seeks to hold on to this life with every drop of strength we have — we often reflect the first lines of the Dylan Thomas poem, 

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

We rightly see death as the final act of this physical life. As we fear it, we may try to put it out of our minds, loudly declaring all talk of it as unnecessarily morbid. Or, we fight it with everything we can muster, viewing the surrender to death’s inevitability as some kind of defeat. We are taught to uphold youth as the ideal, to do all we can to push away the effects of aging, and to see those who are close to dying as those who have little to contribute to our lives of production and self-fulfillment. The dying are to be cared for as an act of compassion from the living, but that final act of life giving way to death is often shunned by those of us who don’t want to face what is coming. This fear is described in Hebrews 2:14-15 as being manufactured by the devil, who holds the power of death and keeps all people in slavery to the fear of death. 

Met by God’s grace

So, I didn’t quite know what I would face as I walked down the dark hall to meet this woman who lay dying. Would she welcome my words and prayers? Would she be raging against the death closing in? I prayed that God would help me prepare her for her death and the journey to eternal life. 

In my visits with her over the next 10 days or so, I encountered a remarkable manifestation of God’s grace. After my first visit, I went out to my car and tweeted out some thoughts of reflection. I don’t normally do this after a time of ministry, but tears filled my eyes as I met with her, and I sensed the profound presence of God already there, helping prepare her for her final journey. I wanted to remember the holy:

I just sat with a dying woman. She was going down a list making calls to old friends to say goodbye. We talked about life, hurts, and her faith in Jesus and forgiveness. She said God is a fisherman and He caught her, and even though she tried to swim away, He reels her back in.

She was very peaceful. As we talked, she would cry at times. She isn’t a church member. A lady in our church knew her and asked if I could visit with her. We held hands and prayed. I read Scripture to her. As we talked about God’s love for her, tears fell from her eyes. Grace.

The doctors only give her a few days. They sent her home to die. She says she gets scared sometimes, but then she prays and the peace returns. As she is calling her friends all across the country to tell them that she’s dying, they cry, but she says, “Let’s share some memories together.”

Before I left, I hugged her. She thanked me for stopping by, but really, I was the one who was grateful. Her body is failing but her mind and spirit are clear. It was an honor to sit with her and hear her talk about her life. I told her I would see her soon on the other side.

It’s the most real thing there is, to sit with someone dying. Just to be with them, with their mind firing and laughter and tears and words and stories and to know that in just a short time the flicker of life will be gone. But, we hope in the God who raises the dead.

I went back to visit her a couple more times. She was so grateful. We talked and prayed, and she told me stories. She said she didn’t want to die, but, as I mentioned in my tweet, that Jesus was a fisherman and though she tried to wiggle off his hook, he caught her and was now reeling her in. She decided to pass that on to the pastor who would do her funeral that was already planned by her extended family back home in the Midwest. She never married and had no children, but she spoke of her nieces and nephews and the times they had together years ago. She continued to work down the list of people to call to say her goodbyes and remember the good times they’d had together. I sat there with her while she had one call and heard her congested laughter through the fluid building up in her lungs.

I told her that these days were a great gift to her and that she was dying well. She cried a lot, but would immediately say that her hope was in Jesus. We talked about how Jesus raises the dead and how she would live again. She believed that. With each visit, she was being prepared for burial and her spirit was growing in hope for the resurrection to come.

I visited her the last time the night before she died. Her physical light was dying, but an inner light was emerging. The list of friends to call was put away. All the calls had been made. She had trouble talking now as the fluid filled her lungs and she couldn’t cough it out. But, she thanked me with tears welling up in her eyes. She thanked me for being there with her, for talking with her and praying with her. She said again that Jesus caught her and was bringing her home. 

This woman who had not been to church in many years was experiencing God’s presence and hope in a profound way as she lay dying, even as Jesus overcame her fear. The full text of Hebrews 2:14-15 is, “Now since the children have flesh and blood, He [Jesus] too shared in their humanity, so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” I saw that happening before my eyes.

As they lay dying 

“As I Lay Dying” is a Southern gothic novel by William Faulkner that I haven’t read, but like most Southerners (especially if you are from Mississippi, as I am) do with Faulkner, I have pretended to know about it. The title comes from a line in Homer’s “Odyssey,” Book XI. Odysseus travels to the Underworld and meets Agamémnon, who tells how he was killed by the hands of his adulterous wife who would not close his eyes as he lay dying: “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”

Now, Agamemnon is angry about the betrayal of his wife. He’s descended into hell, but he also expresses anger over her not even closing his eyes in death. Not only did she kill him, but she didn’t even give him the courtesy of helping him die the right way. Faulkner’s use of this line for the title of the book — that I haven’t read — has served as a bit of a warning to me that when death comes (and it’s coming for us all), running from it doesn’t help. And not helping someone die well with mercy, grace, and care by ministering to them in Jesus’ name doesn’t really empower them to rage against the dying light as though they themselves had power over death. This approach of denial can often just distance them from the hope they really need.

But, as we now encounter Holy Week culminating in Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we are reminded with force that Jesus, through dying, defeated the power of death and the grave. He rose from the empty tomb and gives new life to all who believe. We need neither run from death in fear nor fight it in our own strength. Instead, we can persevere in hope as long as God gives us breath and then prepare for the new life to come. That isn’t a morbid surrender to death in defeat, but rather, it is true hope in the one who values and sanctifies our lives. He is with us all the way to death, and then carries us beyond into eternity and the resurrection of the dead. 

I now realize that as I was helping my friend prepare to meet with Jesus upon death, she was helping me meet with him now. He was there with her as she lay dying, and by being with her in her suffering and figuratively helping her to close her eyes in death, my eyes were more fully opened to the power of the resurrection of Jesus for this life — and for the life to come.

By / Apr 13

He sat against the wall, looking at his phone, seeming to pay little to no attention to our discussion leader. His wife sat next to him with her arm looped through his, occasionally patting it lovingly. She was a regular attender to our class, but this was the first time I remembered seeing him. 

As our Bible study continued, the topic of mental illness came up in our discussion. I mentioned the book I was reading, The Body Keeps the Score, and explained how it was opening my eyes to the effects of trauma on an individuals’ health, behavior and relationships, and specifically, the effects of PTSD. I explained how it was changing the way I viewed many interactions and experiences, as well as the interpersonal dynamics of ministry, including small groups. 

He raised his head and said, “I have PTSD. It is hard for me to sit in this room. We’re too close. I have friends who would have never come in. And if I had thought that I would have been expected to shake hands or hug people in the worship service, I would have never come either. A lot of churches don’t think about me. I hope more people in the church read books like you’re reading.”

My mouth fell open, and my eyes filled with tears.

An exercise in compassion

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, has spent decades working with survivors, beginning during the time when Vietnam veterans were returning home. In his book, he walks us through his education, experiences, and research to explain how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain. 

Trauma is all around us. For example, van der Kolk points out that one in five Americans has been sexually abused, one in four grew up with alcoholics, and one in three couples have experienced physical violence. These are the shocking statistics of acute trauma experienced by so many. Van der Kolk’s research has also shown that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can also be devastating to individuals.

Reading this book and the patients’ accounts it features, although painful, ushered me into imagining experiences far from my own. Compassion requires imagination. After reading this book, I found myself pondering the stories and experiences of the people within my church. It was a profound emotional experience to consider how trauma has affected those I am called to disciple, encourage, and love. I was moved to tears when considering the effects of trauma on those I know, as well as those I’ve yet to find out about. 

Hope and dignity 

This book wasn’t written from a biblical perspective or to a ministerial audience, yet I was struck by the echoes of biblical themes it contained. The cohesion between van der Kolk’s scientific findings and the truths of Scripture was fascinating. One of the fundamental truths that he presents in the book is that, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.” This truth echoes the power of the tongue as described in Proverbs, Ephesians, and James. It was a reminder of how powerfully we can influence those around us, whether positively or negatively, with our words. His findings also highlighted that simple acts of friendship, kindness, community, and encouragement are critically important in people’s lives.

While dealing with both the horrific past experiences and current realities of his patients, the author maintained hope and an uncompromising ethic of human dignity. Van der Kolk’s compassion and patience with those he helps and his work are inspiring. He attributed his mindset to his “great teacher,” Elvin Semrad. He described a formative experience with Semrad during his education. “I remember asking him once: ‘What would you call this patient—schizophrenic or schizoaffective?’ He paused and stroked his chin, apparently in deep thought. ‘I think I’d call him Michael McIntyre,’ he replied.” This reflects a biblical ethic of seeing and treating human beings according to their intrinsic, God-given worth, no matter their current mental and physical condition.

New practices

The greater awareness of trauma I gained through reading this book has shaped my ministry in the local church forever. I have changed how I situate myself and engage in group settings. I have a new focus on considering social conditions to make people feel safe, as well as a cautious awareness related to physical touch. I have lowered my expectations of participation in discussions, recognizing how difficult it is for some people to contribute. I also now believe understanding the deep physical and psychological effects of trauma is critical to helping others finding healing and freedom from shame. I have a desire to be more patient with others, as well as with myself.

Personally, van der Kolk’s research gave me a sense of permission to acknowledge how the experiences of my life, although not acute acts of trauma, do affect me, even in my physical body. My husband and I have ministered to people during the most difficult days of their lives as a part of local church ministry. The Body Keeps the Score helped me to articulate those experiences, understand the reality of the impact they had on me, and prioritize my own healing. This book was an encouragement for me to care for my body and my mind in more holistic ways. I am now convinced of the importance of physical activities such as exercise, breathing, and walking for my mental health. I see these as gifts from God, given to strengthen and equip me for ministry. 

The Body Keeps the Score influenced many areas of my life. It opened the door for conversation that day with a new friend in a God-orchestrated way that I will never forget. It gave me a vocabulary and awareness of trauma that has allowed me to discuss difficult things with friends and family in a new way. I pray that many Christians will read this book. I recommend it to everyone I know, but especially those who seek to disciple and minister to others. To love our neighbors well, we must have this holistic understanding of the way God made us, body and soul, and the way our experiences in this life shape us. 

By / Apr 2

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript from Russell Moore’s engaging conversation with prolific author and pastor, Tim Keller. They discuss fear, suffering, and how the resurrection of Jesus infuses us with a real and living hope.

Russell Moore: Hello, this is Russell Moore, and you’re listening to Signposts. And here on Signposts, I invite you every time to pull up a chair and to listen as I talk to thinkers and leaders about a whole range of issues, always looking for what Walker Percy used to call “signposts in a strange land.” And I’m really, really honored to have my friend Tim Keller on today to talk about his new book called Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter. Tim, thanks for being on Signpost today.

Tim Keller: Well, it’s an honor to be here. Thanks.

Moore: I was finishing your book last night, and as I was doing so, I was thinking about the article that you wrote for The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago that really resonated with a lot of people, talking about, sort of, the things that you learned as you were being treated for cancer. And one of the things that really struck me the most in that article, and it showed up many times in this book as well, is how you learned through this time that you could find much more joy if you didn’t try to make a heaven out of the things that could bring joy. Could you explain a little bit about what you meant by that?

Keller: Well, yes, I can. I’ll do it existentially and then also maybe a little theologically. It, basically, my wife and I, Kathy and I, recognize the fact that we set our, we rested so much of our joy in pretty material things, and they were fairly different. I tended to, in some ways, we were a little bit a little bit like gender stereotypes here. I really did rest in ministry accomplishments. Maybe a better word would be, new institutions getting started, new organizations. New, I’m a starter, I like that. And I would just find that that’s what made life meaningful. My wife actually found, a lot of different places we lived there were certain places we, especially as we got older, we went to for certain weeks of every year that were extraordinarily important to her, and also certain aspects of the actual physical environment we were in. Sights and sounds and things that we could do. And we realized that when the cancer diagnosis came that these things were being taken away from us. Not only on my side, I can read and write and do things and I can actually talk on podcasts like this. But it’s not the same thing as starting a church or starting. I can’t I can’t do those things in a way. And I shouldn’t, actually, now. 

Now, Kathy also realized that we had to sort of die to the possibility of ever going to some of the places that we have gone to every year for many years. A place where she would get respite, where she would feel like she was getting her soul renewed. And we realized it was not God, it was God’s gifts that we were really looking to. And that when you make, when you try to make God’s gifts into God, you actually don’t get as much out of them. We realized in some ways we were never really satisfied by them. And when we, we said we died to all that last summer when we first heard about the cancer, we sort of died to that, we said we may never see these things again. And we started to go really after God in prayer, we came to realize we actually did enjoy what we were getting. A lovely day. We, I do see water here. There are many things about where we live that are lovely, and we realized we were enjoying life more than we had before. Now, theologically, what Augustine means by that is you reorder your loves. And what Augustine would say, contrary to the Buddhist or the stoic, which says you detach your heart from these things so they won’t hurt you when you lose them. Or, the modern person, who says you go out and, you know, you only go around once in life, so you grab for all the gusto you can. Remember that beer commercial, Are you old enough to remember that beer commercial? But what Augustine would say is you don’t want to love anything here less because these are God’s good gifts. You don’t want to harden your heart or detach your heart from them. But your problem is you you need to love God more in relation to them. And if you do that, then, if you love first things first, you’ll love second thing second, third things third. If you love second things first or third things first, you actually lose them. They don’t give you what you want. So we were, in a way, talking about something very old, something that Augustine talked about in the Confessions 1500 years ago. But I was able to turn it into an Atlantic article, basically.

Moore: I suppose there are probably many people who haven’t yet grappled with mortality, but who might wonder, how do I know if I’m putting second things first? How do I compare love for God, which often seems sort of unquantifiable and intangible, with my loves for these secondary things?

Keller: Ok, that’s a great question. I would say that if you even ask that question, you are making progress. If you even doubt yourself, you make progress. But I do think the reality is that there are some progress that you don’t make until something goes wrong in your life. There’s some of it you can do without trouble and difficulty. 

So, for example, I can, if I’m making an idol out of my career, can I really de-idolize it without something going wrong in my career? Can I actually say I’m working too hard, I’m too driven, and maybe you see some other friend of yours life blow up, perhaps, over the same thing and you say, I don’t want to go there. I see what he did, you know. He started to lie. He started to do things because it was more important that he be successful then he be honest or be virtuous. I don’t want to do that. I’m afraid of that. So is it possible for you to actually de-idolize your career without there being some big problem in your career? Maybe. Give it a shot. Because if it’s not sufficient, God will give you some problem that will force it on you

Moore: When you face those times of sort of forcing it, whether it’s mortality or something else, what about regrets? Often people will talk about looking back and seeing regrets. And I’m not talking about sins here. I’m just talking about in terms of, say, ministry accomplishments, you look back and you say, I wish I had done this or I wish I had not done that. Do you think that an experience like this clarifies those regrets in a way that it heightens them or does it does it, for you anyway, put them into perspective?

Keller: Oh, that’s a great question. I think, certainly, the perspective. I mean, I think, what I get from C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and people like that is that heaven will make amends for all. In other words, there will be no regrets when you get there. Or, another way to put it, is anything that you were actually trying to accomplish or reach in this life is just an echo of what you’re going to get in heaven. You’re going to eat it and drink it and it’ll be there. So, in a sense, there should be no regrets. Because anything you were hoping to attain you will attain. Nevertheless, it’s actually a good, I mean, Kathy and I both look back, we actually experienced quite a bit of it regrets in the situation where, in light of our mortality, which finally hit us, we look back and see all the opportunities and things that we didn’t make use of. Now, you console yourself with what I just said. That heaven will make amends for everything. And anything that you didn’t accomplish, well in God’s plan, and “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose,” in God’s plan that wasn’t something that was part of his plan for human history. But in the end, everything’s going to be made right. Everything’s going to be made right. 

I mean, I’ll give you a quick example, I’ll be real granular here. Is that I see other people, people my age and people I know pretty well, who have been much better at mentoring a younger generation of leaders than me. And I realize, and here’s my excuse, I realize the ministry that I was running here, we got so big, that I really, it took everything I could. I mean, had a hundred full-time people reporting up to you. And when your institutions get that big, you spend so much of your time running the institution. So actually, just an example, somebody like Mark Dever. You know, Mark has almost deliberately kept their church, because it hasn’t gone to multiple services and videos and all that, I don’t know whether he had the foresight to do this, but he’s just basically kept the church kind of the size it’s been. For a long time. Which enables him to put enormous amount of capital and time over the years into raising up other leaders and putting them out there. And he’s far more, far better at that than I ever was. And it’s because my church got bigger. So you look back and you say, OK, on the other hand, out of Redeemer spun all kinds of things. City to City, which is a church planting network around the world, has worked in now thousands of churches around the world. There would be no City to City if Redeemer hadn’t gotten big. There would be no Hope for New York. There would be no Redeemer counseling services. There would be no, you know, there’s all these things that have happened. And so you look back and say, God, he knows. And yet there are times where both Kathy and I look back quite a bit and say, in light of eternity, there won’t be regrets. But right now we have quite a few.

Moore: You mention in the book subtitle fear, or well, in the actual title Hope in Times of Fear, and I was kind of surprised when I linked to your Atlantic piece in my newsletter, I was hearing back from a lot of people for whom it sort of hit home. Who were in their early 20s and people that you would think wouldn’t ordinarily be thinking about long perspective sorts of things now. But I wonder if this year of COVID has not, to some degree, forced everyone to grapple with mortality and shortness of life and so forth, and with fear. And I wonder what you would say. Hebrews 2 says that we’ve been freed from captivity to fear of death, and yet, we’re all afraid of death. We’re not in slavery to fear of death, the Bible says, but why would those of us who know Christ, who follow Christ, still have this sense of fear when we’re thinking about death?

Keller: Oh, well, OK, there’s two levels, to answer your question. The first level is, I’ll talk about the Christians in a second, I think the first level is the pandemic was a little bit like, it broke through the denial. I mean, I’ll get to you, in one second I’m going to say, all people basically live in denial of their mortality. And, by the way, I quoted John Calvin in the article, in The Atlantic, which hasn’t happened recently in The Atlantic, I’m sure, where he actually says when you see a dead body, you philosophize about mortality but then you go off and you basically believe in your own perpetuity. In his little section in The Institutes where he talks about, you know, he has got a section on, which has been pulled out and it’s called The Little Book on the Christian Life, and Calvin actually says that meditating on your future mortality is extremely important. And that we’re all living in denial. And as a result, we make bad choices. We don’t turn to God in the right way. We actually make bad life choices. It’s very, very interesting. I think the pandemic, in a way, was a cultural moment in which people said, wait a minute, all those dystopian movies where a plague comes and wipes out a third of the world or where somebody hacks the into the infrastructure somehow and all the, you know, there’s a there’s a complete depression because the bank, all the banking system around the world collapses and nobody knows what anybody’s worth. Or somebody sets off a dirty bomb and destroys half of a country and, wait a minute, those things can actually happen. 

Because actually the pandemic is a very, as you know, it’s a very close shave. This is nothing compared to what could happen. And we really aren’t in very good position to say, oh, OK, we’ve got things set up so this isn’t going to happen again. Nobody’s saying that. And so I think in a way, for the whole world, especially younger people, there’s been a cultural shattering of your denial about our mortality as a human race, as a civilization, that is very similar to what happens when you’re told on May 14, 2020, you know what, you have pancreatic cancer. And most pancreatic cancer people die within a year and a year and a half once they’re diagnosed. It’s the same thing. So that’s why I said you can talk at two levels about why the pandemic has created a basically an attitude of fear, in general, out there. 

Moore: And, why, I think a lot of Christians, when they do come up against that sense of fear, wonder, does this mean that I’m inadequate in faith? Shouldn’t I, if I know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, shouldn’t I have this sense of rushing, rushing onward toward heaven without this sense of trepidation?

Keller: Sure you should. By the way, if you believed with all your heart, everything you profess with your mouth and your head, you’d be perfect. Just keep that in mind. In other words, if I fully trusted in Jesus, why would. What I always thought was fascinating about Martin Luther’s exposition of the Ten Commandments, Luther says you never break Commandments two through ten without first breaking commandment one. What he means is, he says, you would not ever lie unless you were making something more of a god than Jesus at the moment. So I lied because, oh, you know what, if I lie here, I could make a million dollars. OK, well, then money is your true God, your true security, your true success. And that means you’re breaking commandment one, which is have no other gods before me. And the reason you break commandment one all the time is because the fact is the love of God is not as real to my heart. It is not as real to, my faith is weak. My, the love of God is not as real to my heart as the love of popularity or the love of being considered a successful person. And so if I really did believe the things I profess, that I’m going to die and that I’m going to be resurrected and that Jesus’ love is what matters and all that, I’d be perfect and you’d be perfect. You would never sin, you wouldn’t have any reason to sin. So, yeah, of course. Of course, you should. Of course you should believe this, but we don’t. And that God continues to work with very broken people and people that need grace every day, every minute, every second.

Moore: I think about, often, I don’t know if you’ve ever said this or written this anywhere publicly, but in the book club that we’re in, one night, you happened to mention about, I think we were talking about Ecclesiastes, and you said if all that we had was Ecclesiastes, we would be tempted to just a sort of nihilism. Nothing matters. And if all that we had were Proverbs, we would be tempted to almost a prosperity gospel. I can do it. If I just do these things I get these results. But you need the interplay between the two that God, in his wisdom, put both of these words in the canon and they inform one another. I wonder if the same thing is true in terms of our sense of mortality. If we had a sense only that life is a vapor, we might think nothing really matters that I do. And if all that we had is redeem the day, redeem the time we might think this is all that matters is what I’m doing right now. But we have to sort of hold those things in tension. Do you think I’m on the right path there with that?

Keller: Yeah. Yeah, not only are you on the right path and that, by the way, that idea from the Old Testament came from my friend Tremper Longman, who, you know, is an Old Testament professor who actually said that the canon was put together by God so that we would have these balancing acts. But in the New Testament, the balance comes between, which is a big part of my book, by the way, is that when Jesus rose from the dead, he brought the future kingdom into the present partially, but not fully. And I think that already, but not yet, that we are redeemed, but we’re not fully redeemed, that we should not be cynical and think that we can’t see great things happening, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be naive and utopian. And so I think that balance what, you’re talking about, is not only in the New Testament, but it’s right in the centre of the New Testament, because the kingdom of God is already, but not yet.

Moore: One of the things you emphasized in the book is that by resurrection you’re not talking about metaphor. This isn’t wellness. It isn’t, sort of, the cycles of renewal in nature, but bodily historical resurrection from the dead. You interact with N.T. Wright’s great The Resurrection of the Son of God book a little bit at the beginning. And I’m wondering, if you’re talking to a skeptic, to someone who’s an unbeliever who doesn’t accept the claims of Christianity, would you start there with the historical reality of the resurrection and work outward? Or would you make that decision sort of case by case as you’re talking to the person?

Keller: Yeah, the second. Skepticism, you know, I was just talking to my sister, who’s got a grandson who’s, I guess 16, 17, who’s starting to go into skepticism. But his mother just died last year. And so he’s talking a lot about, the resurrection can’t really happen. He’s talking to his grandmother, and my sister is a Christian. He’s trying to say, oh, you know what, the resurrection just can’t happen. So, this is a pretty obvious example. No, I don’t think you give this guy, you don’t go after him too much on the intellectual side. You do some work, but you also realize his mom died last year and he’s having real questions about those things. And so I do think you have to be careful. If I see somebody who’s just pretty, pretty confident. It does look like the skepticism is pretty much just intellectual, mostly. That they’ve been around a lot of smart skeptics, but they haven’t been around a lot of smart believers. And it doesn’t look like their skepticism is being fueled by abuse in the past or bad church experiences and things like that, I would probably, yes, I would go, I think the resurrection is, especially in light of not only Tom Wright, but other people, there’s an awful lot of interesting stuff to give thoughtful folks right now. So if the person seems to be kind of fair minded and not being driven in their doubts by other things, yes, I would go there.

Moore: You mentioned the already not yet tension. And one of the things that you said in the book is explaining what regeneration is as a fundamental, I’m trying to think of how you worded it, a radical reorientation of life. And one of the things that I’ve sort of noticed anecdotally, at the beginning of my ministry, I think I met more people who were skeptical of the possibility of regeneration because they couldn’t believe in the resurrection. And now I tend to meet more people who are the reverse. They have trouble believing in the resurrection of Jesus because they’ve lost faith that regeneration could be true, for some of the reasons that you mentioned a few minutes ago. They’ve seen institutions fail that they trusted. They’ve seen people that they really trusted as spiritual leaders fall. And then they look at themselves and they say, how do I have newness of life when I seem to be so unchanged. What word would you have to someone who’s having difficulty there?

Keller: Yeah, that’s good. I mean, there’s no doubt that, Russ, I would always say to people that faith is a mixture of reason and experience. That, I say, for example, if somebody, let’s say I’m hiring an assistant and, mainly the way I hire somebody is I interview them. I look at their references. I see what everybody else is saying about them. And there’s a sense in which my decision to choose a candidate B over A and C is pretty rational. It’s baseless. But it’s mainly a probability, frankly. It’s like saying, well, it’s likely that this is the right person. But then I actually have to, I have to actually have faith enough to hire the person. And then in a year or two, if the person really works out, then I’m actually totally sure this was the right person. Though I have an experience that takes the kind of risk, of course, and commitment. Now, Tom Wright actually says that that outside of things you can you can prove in a laboratory, you know, like, you know, compound A boils at this temperature, at this, you know, barometric pressure and that kind of thing, is that apart from that, we really can’t prove anything. We can’t prove anything in history at all, if you want to talk about proof like that. But, he says, when it comes to the resurrection, there are, there’s tons of great evidence, as much evidence to believe in it as any other historical event.

But then, he would agree, that it’s putting your faith in it and going to Jesus Christ on the basis of it that creates that commitment and experience where you go from, I really think there’s really good reasons to believe this to, I know it’s true. I just absolutely know it’s true. And so I do think that when people are finding that their experience of the resurrected life is not very strong in them, in a way, Russ, when I was told I had pancreatic cancer, I would say I did feel a certain wavering in my faith. Why wouldn’t I? And at that point, I did go back to the, you might say, the rational and reread a lot of what Tom Wright said. And it was hugely helpful. So I guess I would say, you know, if the existential is flagging a little bit, shore up the rational. If the rational doesn’t take you all the way there, it can’t, take up the existential. But I really do want to say, by the way, I want to say and I have done this, I’ve had people say to me that I’ve walked away from Christianity because I had this very, I had these, you know, I was going to this church and I found out that the pastor who I really looked up to was having an affair, and was a total hypocrite, and was abusive, and I just walked away. And I said, look, I don’t want to be a, you know, I have to be careful here, if the person himself or herself was a victim of abuse, then I wouldn’t say this. But if the person was just disillusioned, I would say, OK, let me ask you a question. Does that person’s adultery mean that Jesus Christ couldn’t have been raised from the dead? And they’ll say, well, no. I said no, of course not. I mean, in other words, that’s a non sequitur to say, well, because my pastor was a hypocrite, Jesus couldn’t have been raised from the dead. The reasons for Jesus being raised from the dead are not ultimately, you know, the quality of life of every one of his followers. And I said, you really do have to go and ask yourself the question, why was I a Christian or why did I go to that church? Did I say, did you do the hard work of thinking these things out or were you just taken up with the social, you know, the social community? And so I think you have to go back and forth and it depends. Again, like, I’m glad you’re pointing this out, case by case

Moore: When we’re talking about fear, one of the things that comes up, of course, is just cultural sorts of fear. And I’m sure you saw yesterday Gallup released a survey showing that for the first time in their recorded polling, church membership is less than 50 percent of the American public, or in any house of worship, membership down to 47 percent. And that’s a dramatic fall over over 20 years. Things seem to be kind of cracking apart for a lot of Christians when they’re looking at this. If you had to predict, sort of, where this is going in terms of secularization and what is the church in America going to look like, say, 20 years from now? Of course, you’re not psychic, we know that. But what would you guess?

Keller: Ok, you know what, I, I really feel like you need to get Ross Douthat or somebody like that on to talk about the future of the Catholic Church. I just don’t feel like I can speak to that. And they are a pretty major part. You know, when we talk about Christianity in America, sorry, they are, they’re a big piece of it. But when it comes to Protestantism, here’s what I think is going to happen over the next 20 or 30 years. First of all, the number of nominal believers, that is, people who believe and are part of churches, mainly through cultural and social pressure or benefit. Which is how an awful lot of people in this country have been part of the church, In other words, there was either social pressure or social benefit to just being part of the church or family tradition. What happens is more nominal believers, they are being shed. And we’re going to get down to people who, basically, the religion is not inherited but chosen and it’s thought out. Now, when you get down to that group, you can have attrition there, too, but there’s much more retention. So a kind of a nominal Methodist who, family, who goes to the Methodist church every so often and they were historically Methodist, but nobody’s really all that strong in their beliefs. The idea that their children will grow up and say, I’m not Methodist, I’m not a Christian, the chances of that are very high. So the retention rate of a nominal is not very high. The retention rate of more conservative and orthodox of their children is way, way, way higher. So first of all, you’re going to shrink. Secondly, white people are far more secular and individualistic than non white people. Non white people are more religious and they’re more communitarian or communal. And non-white people’s birth rates are lower, immigration is going to come in and you’re going to see, I think, a shrinking of the church down to I don’t know where it’s going to be. It could be down to like 20 to 30 percent. And then it’ll start to grow again. It’ll be far more multiethnic and it’ll be far more orthodox. 

So, when I was growing up, there was a kind of evangelical conservative sliver. The majority of people who went to church were mainline Protestant. That mainline Protestant will be the sliver and the majority of people will be evangelical or Pentecostal or something like that, and it’ll be at least more than half non-white. My guess is, if the population is, say, 50 percent white 20 years from now or forty five percent white, the church will be more like 60 or 70 percent non-white and 30 percent white. That’s like it is in New York. If you come to New York, we’ve been planting churches. I mean, literally, the evangelical church in New York City has grown from about one hundred churches to over two hundred and fifty churches in the center part in the last twenty five years, which is amazing. But probably no more than a third of the people in those churches are white. So, my guess is that what I’m seeing in New York will be the future here. You’ll shrink down. You’re not going to see 75 percent, 50 percent church membership or church attendance and that sort of thing. But it’ll get down to like, it’ll get down to twenty five to thirty five percent. It’ll be, largely, it’ll start growing again. Secularization will actually bottom out in about 20 or 30 years. Islam will grow here too. So, because, for a lot of reasons. I don’t know if you find that interesting.

Moore: Yeah. But not to this inevitable sense of secularizing everything, the future is disenchanted.

Keller: No, no, no. As a matter of fact, I mean, ask anybody in demographics, the world is actually going to get less secular as time goes on. A lot of that has to do with birth rate and things like that. But also evangelism, you know, and that sort of thing.

Moore: If you were going to give a word to, I mentioned a few minutes ago how surprised I was at all the 21, 22 year olds who really resonated with with The Atlantic article, if you had to give a word of advice to that 22 year old Christian who’s a little scared, a little nervous about the future. And you said, here’s one thing you should really concentrate on as you go forward, what would you advise?

Keller: Well, you know what, this entire podcast I’ve sort of dodged all of your questions by saying case by case. I don’t know I can quite do that on this one. Well, OK, let me just say something that Kathy and I have talked to each other about in the last year. If Jesus Christ was actually raised from the dead, if he really got up, walked out, was seen by hundreds of people, talked to them. If he was raised from the dead, then you know what? Everything’s going to be all right. Whatever you’re worried about right now, whatever you’re afraid of, everything is actually going to be OK. Because you got to remember, we’re not just talking about resurrected people. Jesus Christ is, and this is where Christianity is unique, we’re talking about a resurrected world. Meaning, there’s plenty of other religions that talk about a future afterlife, which is a nonmaterial world. In other words, you get a consolation for the world we’ve lost. Christianity says it’s not just your bodies are being resurrected, but the world is actually going to be a material world that’s cleansed from all evil and suffering and sin. If Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, then the whole world is going to be, in a sense, resurrected and everything is going to be OK. Everything. You don’t know how. I don’t know how, but it will be. So, and you know what? Actually, right now, I couldn’t possibly be convinced that Jesus was not raised from the dead, either intellectually or existentially. So whenever, and by the way, Kathy and I, listen, we cry. We cried a lot last night. Sometimes the reality of the shortness of what we have left here just overwhelms us. And we were just weeping together and crying. And then you say, if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, it is going to be OK. And then you can wipe your tears, but you don’t stop crying. It’s like salt in the wound that keeps the wound from going bad. That keeps the wound from getting infected. But it doesn’t mean that until the end of, you know, until we actually meet Jesus Christ we still have our wounds. So they are going to be healed, but they’ll be healed by his. So, I think, I still could, yeah, I would still go back to if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and he was, you’re going to be OK.

Moore: Well, that’s a good word on which to end. The book is called Hope in Times of Fear by Tim Keller. And I’m really thankful for you, Tim, and for the way that God uses you in my life. And I encourage everybody to read this book in a time of fear. Thanks for being with us today.

Keller: It was great to be with you, Russ.

Moore: And I would encourage you, if you would like more information on this book or other resources, just tap the cover art here or swipe it up. And there will be some show notes on that. And be sure also to send me your ethical questions that you’re grappling with, maybe something in your family or your church, and we’ll deal with it over on the solo podcast. And also be sure to send this along to someone you think would benefit from. This is Russell Moore and you’re listening to Signposts.

By / Dec 17

When we face a crisis, we both desperately want and are intensely skeptical toward hope. We want to know that things will eventually be better. But we inherently mistrust those who say, “Everything is going to be okay.” It feels like they’re minimizing the problem. We experience this with the coronavirus crisis, and we experience this with the sexual abuse crisis in the church.

One of the things we glean from this is the power of hope. The influence of hope is too great to be treated cavalierly. As Christians, because of the ultimate hope we have in Christ, we tend to be triumphalistic in how we speak of hope toward major temporal concerns. If we’re guaranteed heaven, what on earth really matters? This rhetorical question can be both true and unhelpful at the same time.

This attitude causes us to be poor ambassadors of Christ in the midst of a crisis. In effect, we become like an orthodontist who promises to completely realign a teenager’s crooked teeth in less than a month. While initially appealing, we quickly realize that, even if possible, this remedy would be too painful to endure. In the midst of a crisis, this is how our appeals to fast hope sound.

In our administration of hope we should follow the guidance of James regarding speech, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak (1:19).” Too often, we only attach giving hope to the words we say, and neglect the power of giving hope found in the words we hear. Listening to someone is profoundly hope giving. 

What is a primary prayer of someone in crisis? “Hear me. Believe me. Let me know I am not alone. Let me know I am worth caring for.” We best embody God’s response to these prayers with attentive ears and compassionate eyes. Remember few things alleviate shame like empathetic eye contact from someone who knows what makes you feel ashamed. 

We must realize that slow hope is not weak or lesser faith. The journey after sexual abuse is a marathon, not a sprint. Fast hope reveals that we do not realize the journey on which we are joining our friend. Slow hope ministers out of Matthew 11:28-30 (i.e., “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden”) more than Isaiah 40:31 (i.e., “you will mount up with wings like eagles). Both are biblical. But one is a better theme verse for a marathon, while the other is better suited for a sprinter.

How to minister hope

This reflection begs the question, “How do we minister slow hope?” We have already mentioned the power of listening. The suggestions are really just extensions of listening well. 

Get to know your friend’s experience. Too often we think the event of abuse is the totality of what needs to be known about the experience of abuse. Often, we are hesitant to ask about the event of abuse. We realize those details are better addressed by law enforcement or a counselor. But, when a friend entrusts us with their story, we should ask about their experience of abuse. 

  • What relationships—specific people or types of relationships (i.e., dating or authority figures)—have become more difficult?
  • What unpleasant emotions are more prevalent? What pleasant emotions are less prevalent?
  • How have your sleeping and eating habits been affected?
  • How many people do you feel like you can talk to when these things are hard? How many people would you like to be able to talk to?

This list is not exhaustive. But, hopefully, you can begin to see that showing interest in these questions validates that your friend is on a long, hard journey. It says through actions, rather than words, “You are not alone on this journey.” That gives hope.

Ask, “Are you ready for the next step.” Sometimes, as your friend receives guidance on their legal or counseling journey, the next step will be clear, but your friend won’t be ready to take that step. Completing one step sometimes puts us in a position to rest before we take the next one. 

If our friend was recovering from knee surgery, we would get this. If they just finished a rehab session where they got full range of motion and the next step was to walk a flight of stairs, we wouldn’t rush them. We would celebrate the step taken, encourage them to listen to their doctors, and let them know it’s okay to take recovery at their pace. Alleviating this kind of internal drive to go too fast removes a frequent hope-depleter. 

Be present for key events. There are many key events on the journey after sexual abuse: talking to police, each part of the legal process, calling to set an appointment with a counselor, and even attending church can be a key event. Hard things are easier—not easy—with a friend. Periodically ask your friend, “What events are coming up that you don’t want to do alone?” 

The nature of abuse is that it happens alone. Privacy is a near necessary factor to allow for abuse. This means that being alone during a key event is about more than loneliness. It is an echo of the context that allowed abuse to happen. It screams, “The world hasn’t changed.” Your presence gives hope that the world is changing.

Ask about milestones on your friend’s nonpublic journey. Not everything that is significant on your friend’s journey is significant. Yes, there is a tension in the previous sentence. When only the abuse-related big things in your friend’s life get attention, it can feel like their life is being reduced to their experience of abuse in a new way.

Showing interest in a new hobby, a step toward making a new friend, a promotion at work, and other comparable life events allows your friend to realize, “I am more than my experience of abuse.” This is incredibly hope giving. 

Engage with your friend’s non-journey joys. In addiction counseling, this might be called “occupational therapy,” meaning learning to healthily occupy oneself with enjoyable activities. When a life struggle has been life dominating it consumes our life-giving activities. In this sense, going out to dinner with a friend is very therapeutic. 

While your friend is putting a great deal of emotional energy into their recovery or the legal process, ask, “What things do you enjoy that I could regularly invite you to do with me?” Friends can be a great excuse and reminder to enjoy life. But we should always add, “If my invitation is more than you have capacity for, I will never be offended if you take a raincheck.” But enjoying life and having someone who wants to enjoy life with you is hope giving.

Slow-hope conclusion

I know this article isn’t as profound and transformative as you hoped it would be. But that’s kind of the point. After a crisis, the best hope is patient hope. Considering these things, take a moment to read Psalm 23:1-4. I will take the liberty of emphasizing one word.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 
I will fear no evil, for you are with me; 
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Why did I choose to emphasize the word “walk”? It is a pacing verb. It reveals the pace at which the Good Shepherd is willing to go. The Good Shepherd moves at the pace that is best for the sheep. The scary setting—the valley of the shadow of death—does not rush the pace. The health and ability of the sheep sets the pace. 

If we are going to be accurate ambassadors of the Good Shepherd, we must prioritize our ministry efforts the same way. We cannot let our zeal of the destination cause us to harm the sheep that have been entrusted to our care. That is what this reflection has been about: helping us pace our efforts to care well for the needs of those who have been hurt.

By / Dec 16

Like so many others across the country, our family has had to make difficult decisions regarding whether to uphold some of our family traditions as the holiday season approaches. While this pandemic persists, do we exercise caution and forego our family gatherings, or do we gather in spite of the virus’s continued spread? With a great deal of disappointment, we chose the former. 

As of this writing, COVID-19 continues its thievery, having stolen away more than 300,000 American lives, nearly every sense of normalcy that existed prior to its global spread, and, tragically, it continues robbing us of precious time, the most valuable of commodities. In many ways, life as we know it has endured its own sort of stay-at-home order while, simultaneously, time continues its forward march.

The paradox of pain

While the country aims to get this virus under control, there are inevitable losses and compromises that we must suffer. Yet, I fear we’ve neglected to address sufficiently the loss of time that being homebound necessitates. From the confines of our quarantine, we’re watching many of the moments and milestones of our lives pass by from an uncomfortable and lonely distance. As restrictions once again tighten, putting our holiday gatherings in question, the hugs, laughs, and quality time that are so much a part of this season’s cultural liturgy will, en masse, go unexperienced. And we should lament this loss. 

In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop says that “lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.” As my family and I have grappled with our decision not to attend our holiday gathering, I can’t help but imagine what that decision has cost us. There are nieces and nephews who will have left for college before we see them again, there are wounds still fresh with grief over the recent loss of grandparents, wounds that could be healed with hugs and shared memories, and there are missed late-night conversations had over cups of hot coffee with family members who we see far too infrequently. These are real, painful losses—losses of life, I would argue—and they should be processed with real lament. 

There is profound pain bound up in this season of pandemonium, and its reaches spread deeper and wider than we can imagine, beyond the loss of physical life and into the loss of experienced life and shared moments. As we’ve been shut up in our homes, and will continue to be for a little while longer, there’s a whole world turning outside our doors. We’re getting older. Our friends and family are getting older, and life continues to happen. Have you grieved the moments that you and your family have lost? Lament, while we’re quarantined in our homes, may be the most faithful and productive way forward.

The promise of God’s goodness

At every end of the spectrum, from the birth of newborn babies to the celebration of new marriage pronouncements to the grief of graveside funeral services, COVID-19 has stripped many of us of our ability to witness these milestones and countless others. As it marches forward and stakes claim on new ground, affecting now our most precious holidays, we’re undoubtedly experiencing a second wave of weariness. A season that functions as a balm for so many now seems spoiled by this persistent and vile little virus. In a year so fraught with heartache, is the practice of lament, an exercise meant to reckon with our deepest pain, really the right remedy?

In this time of plague, and the days beyond, let the pain of your lament redirect your gaze toward the goodness of God in the person of Christ. 

While the pain that prompts lament is real, pain is not its terminus; lament is a practice shrouded in pain but rooted in hope. After all, for the Christian, the cry of lament is not concerned most fundamentally with the experience of pain but with the recognition that “things are not supposed to be this way,” or, as Vroegop alludes to, “the promise of God’s goodness” yet unseen. As much as we may imagine that lament will take us deeper into the darkness of our pain (and in some sense it will), more importantly, staring squarely into the apparent dissonance between our collective experience and God’s fundamental goodness is an exercise in Christian hope. It is a guttural rendition of the language of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come.” It is a Godward plea for the lifting of the dark clouds that hover overhead. 

So, have you grieved the loss of life, both physical and experienced, that you’ve suffered during this time of plague? Are you, like me, anticipating a holiday table with seats unfilled? Does it seem that rather than the “knowledge of the glory of the Lord filling the earth as the waters cover the sea,” it is instead a destructive virus taking up that mantle? Cry out. The goodness of God, even in the throes of lament, will spur you on to hope. 

The goodness of God in the person of Christ

Life as a creature in a fallen cosmos is hard. We are vulnerable in more ways than we’re willing to admit, susceptible to the smallest of inconveniences and the largest of calamities, all marching onward to face our final enemy, death. Lamentation, therefore, should be a central part of the church’s shared vocabulary. As children cry out to their parents when in dismay, the children of God should cultivate a greater proclivity for lament.

But even as we develop greater fluency in lament, we should recognize that, because of God’s grace, it is only a temporary practice. At the soon-coming of Jesus, the language of lament will be “un-Babeled” from our lips, when he once for all wipes every tear from our eyes. This is chiefly why hope is so intrinsic to Christian lament: We pour our lamentations out to the One who took on flesh and dwelt among us, the One who modeled lament for us at the graveside of his friend, and who will one day bring all lamentations to their necessary end. When Jesus descends from heaven, planting his physical foot on this physical Earth and making it his physical home, his re-made world will have no place for the cry of lament, only the shouts of ever-increasing joy. 

For now, though, cry for a world in turmoil. Grieve the time lost and the empty chairs encircling your holiday table. Cultivate the language of lament. Stare squarely into the face of your pain and recognize that those deep, guttural groans are hopeful pleas for the coming Kingdom of Christ. In this time of plague, and the days beyond, let the pain of your lament redirect your gaze toward the goodness of God in the person of Christ. 

By / Dec 8

I didn’t know about Advent growing up. We had an Advent calendar—a blue cardboard illustration of Bethlehem with punch-out doors that revealed mini Bible verses—that my sister and I dutifully unpacked every year and remembered to open in fits and spurts. I heard the term in church from time to time during December and ultimately came away with the idea that “Advent” was just a grown-up word for “Christmas season.”

But Advent is not the same as the Christmas season; at least, not by default. A person can do Christmas-y activities every day without observing Advent. But participating in Advent inevitably leads to a celebration of Christmas.

The word “advent” simply means the beginning of something important or the arrival of someone important. In the case of Christmas, it means both. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, we think about, look forward to, and finally celebrate the advent of God’s incarnation—his showing up on Earth as a human. That’s a very big deal, and it is very hard to understand. Christ’s coming was anticipated for a long, long time, and it foreshadows another, final advent of Christ that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a lot to think about. No wonder Advent is so long.

Part of what I love so much about Advent is that it doesn’t carry the same expectations that Christmas sometimes does. There is no pressure to be cheerful, no need to get everything (or anything) just right. Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.

Yearning for Advent 

It wasn’t until I was a new mother—new not only to motherhood but to the world of rare genetic disease and medical fragility and disability—that I found myself yearning for an Advent practice. 

My son’s life started with a long stay in the NICU. Then a feeding tube. Then seizures. Then a diagnosis that told us nothing certain other than that things would be difficult. By that Christmas, I had been living in pure survival mode for months, barely functioning during some of that time. More than any other time in my life, I felt myself deeply wrestling with the thought, This is not how it’s supposed to be. And in response, I felt my soul cry, Come, Lord Jesus. Advent resonated with me that year in a way it couldn’t have before, and I wanted to participate in it meaningfully.

Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.

The sensible thing would have been to choose a simple practice, perhaps a daily reading to start with. But I craved something hands-on. My life was so messy and up in the air that it felt important to me to make something concrete and beautiful.  So, together with a couple of friends, I hatched plans and made craft store runs and worked and worked and worked. What I ended up with was a hand-crafted Advent calendar consisting of a garland of hand-sewn felt envelopes, each embroidered with the number of the day. I selected my own progression of Scripture, wrote each out by hand on fancy paper, cut it with fancy edges, slipped it inside the envelope, and fastened the hand-sewn button to seal it up like a present. 

My family did use that calendar for years, but it was the making of it that impacted me most deeply. It was unnecessary and over the top and felt desperately important. Every step of the process echoed the wonder of Christ’s birth back to me in the midst of some of my darkest hours. Christ’s coming is an affirmation that our physical world matters to God. Therefore, what happens in it matters. And, therefore, my suffering matters. Simultaneously, his coming is a reminder that our physical world isn’t everything. It isn’t the end. In a way I didn’t fully grasp at the time, making the calendar was stepping into those truths. With my hands and my time, I was crying out, I need You so much more than I ever knew. I need to be reminded of the promise of beauty and wholeness to come.

Even though the crafting of that Advent calendar was so meaningful for me, it was not a sustainable tradition. I never took on a task of that scale for Advent again. But it did teach me the importance of doing something tangible during the season when I’m turning my mind to God’s physicality, to his humanity. 

A stick-with-it approach to Advent 

As my son got older and was joined by cousins, my sister and I wanted them to establish their own hands-on Advent practice. The trouble was that we couldn’t find resources we could stick with through the whole month. Some had too many words for little ears and some required too many steps or supplies for tired moms. So, we started experimenting with designing our own activities. Over time, our project evolved into Unexpected Gift, a storybook and activity book set that was published this year

Our goal for Unexpected Gift was to provide an all-in-one resource that would make the observance of Advent meaningful and accessible for a wide range of ages, abilities, interest levels, and life situations. It needed to be simple, hands-on, and gospel-centered. For several years, the development of the books was part of our own Advent practice, and we still use the completed materials every year.

In our home, we don’t have a regimented program for practicing Advent, but more of a small handful of (more-or-less) daily rhythms that quiet us down and focus our attention. These days, our Advent practice involves three main things:

  1. Slow down. After Thanksgiving, we start to wind down for the year. We shed commitments as the month of December goes on, stopping therapy sessions, ending school early, backing away from regular social commitments. We slow down and make space wherever possible. The point of Advent is to prepare him room in your heart and mind and life, and that can be tricky if you’re cramming too many extra things, no matter how fun or good, into already full days.
  2. Do one day from Unexpected Gift. I help my son make the day’s craft (we almost always do the most basic version), we read one page and one verse (from the ornament). Sometimes we’ll talk or pray about it a little bit. It’s just right for us.
  3. Shut down early. In the evenings, we stop a few minutes early. We turn off our screens, turn down the lights, and sing one Christmas carol together. Everyone takes turns choosing and sometimes we try to learn more verses than we knew the year before. Most nights, this little ritual turns into extra minutes of closeness and quiet. Ten easy minutes well spent.

If ever there was a year to establish an Advent practice, this is it. We are all carrying more fear, more sadness, and maybe more anger into this holiday season than we have in a long time. I encourage you to choose something simple, tangible, and gospel-centered: a touchstone for the coming December days. Let it remind you that your life on those days matters and that Jesus came to us to give you the promise of beauty and wholeness.

By / Dec 1

Jeff Dodge, pastor of Veritas Church in Iowa City, recounts God’s faithfulness during the pandemic.

By / Oct 1

Dr. Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, bring a word of hope for ministry leaders in the midst of the pandemic and remind us that God is working even in the most difficult times of ministry.

By / Jun 11

In Hebrews 6, we encounter a writer who was addressing a community of believers who were struggling to hope in God. The author tells his audience, “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” In Hebrews 6:13-20, the author moves from the general exhortation to “have faith and patience” to specific details that should encourage his audience to demonstrate faith and endurance when they are struggling to hope in God. 

I believe this passage provides at least three points of guidance to help us when we are struggling to hope in God.

First, when we are struggling to hope in God, we need to consider the hope of others.

In verses 13-15, the author of Hebrews gives us a specific example of someone who placed their hope in God during an unbelievable difficult time. The example is the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, we encounter the man that God promises to make into a great nation. However, when God made that promise to Abraham (in Genesis 12 and 15), Abraham did not have any children. 

Eventually, as an elderly man with his elderly wife, Abraham and Sarah had a son, and his name was Isaac. Isaac was the promised son to Abraham. But in Genesis 22, we see God testing Abraham’s faith by calling him to sacrifice his son. This is an unbelievable call upon Abraham. Yet, with a heavy heart, full of hope in God, Abraham made his way to the mountain that God had appointed with the intention of sacrificing his son. At the final moment, just about the time that Abraham’s knife was about to drop on his son Isaac, an angel restrained him, and God provided a ram caught in a bush for the sacrifice. Abraham was committed to obeying God because he had hope in him. He believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead, if necessary. 

It is against the backdrop of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 that we are directed to consider Abraham’s obedience and patience. By hoping in God and patiently waiting, the author of Hebrews says, “Abraham received what was promised.” In Abraham’s case, the promise was that God would make him a great nation. And God kept his promises to Abraham, who continued to hope in God during exceedingly hard times.

What the hope of Abraham teaches us is that sometimes God will call us to certain things that appear to threaten all of our hopes and dreams. Sometimes we will find ourselves in the midst of great trouble, pain, and fear. And when this happens, we must remember stories like Abraham and Isaac and how God not only intervened but was actually working in the midst of the confusion, pain, and fear. While we might be uncertain, filled with confusion and fear, God is never uncertain, confused, or worried. 

When we are struggling to hope in God, we need to contemplate the promises of God.

The example of others who have hoped in God will help us to hold on to God as our hope when we face hard times. But why should we trust God in these hard times? How do we know that God will be faithful to us? While the hope of others is encouraging, it cannot be the sole reason that we hope in God. There has to be more. There has to be some good reason that God can be trusted. This brings us to the second point regarding what we need to do when we are struggling to hope in God.

Second, when we are struggling to hope in God, we need to contemplate the promises of God.

Verse 13 made this point: “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.” This is crucial for understanding why God’s promises are trustworthy. God wants us to know how serious he is about his promises. So, instead of simply giving a promise, God takes an oath. The oath serves as a guarantee of God’s promise. God is swearing by his own reputation when he makes a promise to Abraham and to the descendants of Abraham. As Peter O’Brien commented, “The idea that God swears by himself (Ex. 32:13; Isa. 45:23; Jer. 22:5) indicates that he is bound to his word by his own character. His oath provides the guarantee that removes doubt and underscores the validity of the promise.”

What this means is that God would sooner cease to exist than break his promises that he has sworn an oath to fulfill to those who place their hope in him. The promises of God to his children are as sure as his character. He can no more fail to fulfill his promises than he can fail to be God. The promises of God are sure because God himself is unshakable. He cannot lie, as verse 18 tells us. And God intends for this reality to “greatly encourage” the heirs of the promise. And who are the heirs of the promise? Those who have set their hope in God. The heirs of Abraham’s promise are not his physical descendants. It is not those who keep the law. It is those who place their trust in God. The apostle Paul addressed this reality in Galatians 3, when he said, “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.” And then again, Paul wrote, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to promise.” 

So, we participate, enjoy, and inherit the promises of God’s blessing through faith in Jesus Christ. We, like Abraham, are called to place our hope in God, even when we are facing trials and difficulties that are inexplicable and overwhelming. And why can we do this? It is because God’s promises are sure to his people. He does not break his Word. And who are the people of God? Those who trust in Christ.

Finally, then, when we are struggling to hope in God, we need to confess the work of Christ. 

When we talk about persevering, placing our hope, and enduring patiently, if we are not careful, we can come to believe that everything depends on us. We can start believing that the only way that we can receive the promised blessings of salvation is if we work hard on our own. But if we start to think like that, we will soon weary ourselves with our own work and grow exceedingly discouraged.

However, as children of Abraham, our hope must rest in Christ. And as our hope rests in Christ, we must consider what that means. Verses 19-20 gives us a glorious glimpse of Christ’s work on our behalf. The author describes “this hope in Christ as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” In other words, the One in whom we have hoped is sure and steady. While the ship of our life is tossed back and forth by the storm, the anchor of our soul, Jesus Christ himself, holds us fast to the promises of God. 

How do we know that his promises hold fast for us? Because Jesus Christ, our Hope, has entered into the “inner sanctuary” into the presence of God as our mediator. Verse 20 describes Jesus as our forerunner who has entered “on our behalf.” Right now, even in the midst of the storms of life, our hope, which is not in the things of this world, but instead, in Jesus Christ, is in the presence of God the Father, serving as our mediator. As a high priest, Jesus represents us before God and invites us to follow him into God’s presence because he has made it safe for us. Jesus has dealt with our sin and uncleanness. He has made a way for us into the presence of God. 

So, when we find ourselves struggling, wondering, asking, “Am I going to make it? Am I going to be OK? Will I inherit the promises that God has made to me?”, we need to see Christ, like an anchor for our souls, immovably fixed behind the curtain in the presence of God the Father. He reminds us that because the Father is pleased with him, he is also pleased with those who have put their trust in him. And just as sure as Jesus was raised from the dead with immortal life, so we will also be raised with him. God is committed to us. In fact, God is more committed to bringing us safely through the storms of this life than we are to ourselves. And why is this the case? Because God has sworn an oath with his promise to make sure that all who trust in Jesus endure, persevere, and enter into the fullness of the eternal life that Jesus secured for us.