By / May 20

Jeff Pickering and Travis Wussow welcome Dr. Kevin Smith to the podcast to talk about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and why Christians should lament this tragedy and work to seek justice in their communities. 

This episode is sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of Talking Points: Abortion by Dr Lizzie Ling & Vaughan Roberts.

Guest Biography

Dr. Kevin Smith leads the staff of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. He has experience as a pastor, chaplain, church planter, conference speaker, and short-term missionary. He has studied at Hampton University, the Church of God Theological Seminary, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, subsequently serving on Southern’s faculty for over a decade. In 2015, while serving the Highview Baptist Church in Louisville (KY), he was elected president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Kevin and his wife, Patricia, have three adult children and two great-nephews. His hobbies include whatever sports his kids were playing and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. His ministry is animated by Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His followers in John 17.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Feb 15

Yesterday we witnessed another mass shooting. As students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., were preparing for the end of another school day, a lone gunman entered the building and opened fire, and in an instant their lives were changed forever. Another school shooting. Another horrific tragedy.

I watched on television from my office as the events on the ground unfolded in real time. I stood there, grieved and horrified, watching in disbelief as the news anchor set forth the details. First there were reports of serious injuries, and then numerous fatalities. And in those moments, witnessing a scene that has become too familiar, I felt a few well-known emotions welling up inside of me.

It’s not a secret that tragedy evokes our strongest emotions. But beyond my sense of grief and horror, the strongest emotion I experienced in those moments was fear; not so much a fear related to the physical safety of myself or the people I love most (although certainly that to a lesser degree), but fear concerning the question that I knew countless thousands, if not millions, of people would ask themselves after learning of these events. In the face of unspeakable acts of violence, many people will ask: How can a good God let this happen?

It’s not the actual answer to that question that fills me with fear and dread. It is my awareness that in the middle of such tragedies, many people will rightly recognize the evil in the world for what it is yet wrongly conclude that such a world could not exist under the watchful care of an all-powerful and benevolent God. My is fear that their grief and horror and outrage will drive them farther from grace. But in addition, I am also fearful in these circumstances as I anticipate the cheap, rote answers that some of my fellow believers will put forth to assuage these concerns.

Evil presents difficult questions. How indeed can a good God allow the world to be so violent and cruel? Such a question deserves no pat response. And the truth is, that isn’t what people are even looking for. They don’t want easy answers, and that is good, because the church really doesn’t have any. During times of apparent suffering or tragedy, we are often quick to remind those who are hurting that “God works all things together for good.” But even this assertion that seems so straightforward and simple is neither easy nor cheap. Yes, God is working together all things for good. But at the very center of this tapestry of “good” that God is knitting together are two, perpendicular, blood-soaked pieces of wood.

The ache of our hearts and the pain in our souls bears witness to the truth: things are not supposed to be this way.

Our world was so broken and our hearts were so evil that we could not be saved, and the creation could not be redeemed, apart from Christ. The gospel is a message of love and redemption, but it is founded upon the suffering of God’s Son. And even as Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” he promised that those who would be his disciples will live lives of bearing crosses, experiencing afflictions and tribulations, and following him in his suffering (2 Tim. 1:10; Luke 9:23; Acts 14:22). Jesus himself taught us that the presence of suffering is no sign of God’s absence, nor is the presence of evil a sign of God’s indifference.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, we look to reason. We seek to understand the various details in order to find peace and move on. But sometimes, indeed it is often the case that acts of violence and tragedy are beyond our ability to rationalize or comprehend. Still, there is more good news. Our hope is not based on our understanding. There are many things about yesterday’s events that we may never fully grasp. Still, we can grieve with hope, not because we understand, but because we know. “I know whom I have believed,” the Apostle Paul declared (2 Tim. 1:12). It wasn’t that Paul understood how each trial and hardship fit into God’s plan: indeed much of his pain remained a mystery to him (2 Cor. 12:7-8). Rather, Paul was filled with hope in the midst of suffering because Paul knew God. He did the only thing he could do, entrusted his suffering and his soul to a faithful Creator. And in the face of tragedy, often we can do nothing more.

Days like yesterday, we feel the full force of the curse’s sting. But even there, in the midst of our grief, in the midst of the deepest sorrow and pain and despair, we experience the longing for redemption. The ache of our hearts and the pain in our souls bears witness to the truth: things are not supposed to be this way. Ultimately, our response to these tragedies shouldn’t be to question God’s goodness, but to beg for his mercy and to extend his comfort to those who are suffering unbearably. These are the birth pangs. In our darkest moments and our lowest points, may God give us grace to place our hope where it belongs, in his promise of redemption.

When we speak to tragedies, we don’t need easy answers. We never need to minimize pain or explain away evil. We need the gospel. Even now, our God is working. He makes beauty from ashes. He brings light out of darkness. And he brings peace to chaos. Even as we grieve, we can remain full of hope because we know whom we have believed. And he is making all things new.

By / Jul 31

My church body recently walked (and is continuing to walk) through one of the greatest tragedies I’ve ever witnessed. Our community is suffering, mourning and asking difficult questions.

Initially, it was one of the most exhausting weeks my husband and I have ever experienced in ministry. In many ways, we felt unqualified for the task before us. Yet, my husband, a pastor, visited faithfully with grieving family members, counseled church members—some in office and some by phone—led our church staff through their grief, and preached a funeral, all in a span of five days.  

For those who serve in ministry, tragedies cannot be avoided. Although a devastating event may not be personally affecting, it strikes at your heart and mind, and in the overflow, it strikes your home. When others have experienced a personal loss, the sufferings within a minister’s home may be overlooked during a time of crisis, and rightly so. However, that does not diminish the difficulty of the days you are experiencing.

As we weather this current storm, we are clinging to these life-giving truths in order to minister well and take care of our own bodies and souls. I pray this provides you encouragement in whatever you may be facing.

1. This is a spiritual battle. Begin by remembering Ephesians 6. Every tragedy involves people, and at times, it’s easy to see a person as an enemy. Avoid this temptation. The truths found in Ephesians 6 allow us to remove antagonists and protagonists from the narrative, and rightly focus our eyes on and prayers against the devil’s schemes.

Every tragedy involves people, and at times, it’s easy to see a person as an enemy. Avoid this temptation.

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand (Eph. 6:11-13).

2. Soak in the gospel. My husband and I have read and re-read Romans 8 together. Its reminders of what Christ has done for us, that the Spirit is alive in us, and of how the Spirit and Christ intercede for us offer such sustaining grace.

No matter what we may face, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38).

And this too, is what we have to offer others in their grief. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to The Problem with Pain, “When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”

3. Create temporary boundaries. When your church body is in the middle of a crisis, many people are affected. Everyone and everything feels urgent. However, there are simply logistical and physical limits to your ability to respond to all the requests for counsel, while still maintaining your own rest and emotional energy.

It is likely that you will need to set boundaries with some people for a period of time in order to be able to minister well to those who are truly affected. Tragedies will reveal those who are ill-equipped to handle trials. You will need wisdom to discern those people and set boundaries.

4. Rest. My husband and I have done everything we can to rest well these days, cancelling some morning appointments and leaving housework undone. There have been some evenings when my husband turned off his phone for a few hours to spend time with our children. You will need physical strength to sustain your emotional strength.

"But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one" (2 Thess. 3:3).

5. Call in the troops. This might not be able to happen right away, but as soon as possible, I seek to create life-giving scenarios for me and my husband. I invite over friends who are easy and understanding. I sit at a friend’s kitchen table and let the kids play. I ask for our parents to come to town. Whatever you can do, take advantage of it. We are made for community and strengthened by community.

In the midst of experiencing such sadness, God has also provided people who have encouraged me and my husband in this work. We have seen how he was sustaining us through the prayers of others that we didn’t know were praying. We have seen our church body serve and love and encourage each other in ways that has blessed us as well. We can see that God is working in so many lives through this experience, redeeming what was meant for evil, and that he “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Gen. 50:20; Phil. 1:6).

By / Jul 14

Over the last several weeks news headlines have carried pronouncements of unspeakable tragedy and carnage. Well-known singer Christina Grimmie was senselessly murdered in Orlando. Then, just a day later, the world awoke to news of the worst mass shooting in American history. France witnessed another terror attack, the brutal and intimate murder of a police officer and his girlfriend in front of their son. A member of Britain’s parliament was murdered. Each story elicited a similar sadness, outrage, and empathy.

Interspersed among these headlines were two incidents with related plots. In Cincinnati, a 4-year old boy was nearly killed when he climbed into a zoo’s gorilla enclosure. Then in Orlando, a 2-year old boy was attacked and killed by an alligator in Orlando. Responses across the media and in the general public were more diverse than following the human-precipitated tragedies, which surprised some.

When deplorable acts of violence occur through human agency, blame is ultimately laid at the feet of the perpetrator. Certainly social structures and institutional realities come into consideration, but an individual person is finally deemed responsible.

It is much more difficult, however, to determine a path of agency and justice in the wake of animal perpetrated violence. Some cast aspersions on the mother of the 4-year old boy who fell in the gorilla enclosure: Why wasn’t she paying attention? How could she let her child wander? A petition was even begun, asking police to investigate the mother for neglect. A few blamed the zoo for improper procedures. Many were outraged over the subsequent killing of Harambe, the gorilla who resided in the enclosure. Similarly, in Orlando some were asking why parents would allow their 2-year old to play near a lagoon in Florida when “No Swimming” signs were clearly posted.

These incidents provide a window into our society and, despite the unthinkable and horrific nature of their tragedy, provide opportunities for reflection.

For much of society, worship of God has been replaced by worship of the created order. Paul pointed out this sociocultural shift in Romans 1:23, “…and [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men and birds and animals and creeping things.”

Stephen Webb argues environmentalism is a type of broadly acceptable and palatable civil religion; he says it is good politics and tolerable religion to worship nature. We saw this briefly last year when a Minnesota dentist was barraged with death threats over the killing of a “beloved” lion in Africa (this incident in particular showed the inadequacy of prevailing American cultural narratives). While the veneration of Harambe and hypothetical purported willingness to choose his life over the 4-year old boy is clear evidence of that, I do not think such a simple analysis sufficiently bears forth the intricate thoughts and emotions at play.

James K. A. Smith says a hallmark of our secular age is the possibility of belief. For 1,000 years Christianity served as the dominant worldview for much of the Western world, rendering unbelief almost entirely unheard of. Today the inverse is true: Where belief in a transcendent God is considered untenable for vast stretches of society, the possibility of belief – and subsequent poorly suppressed yearning for it – appears to lurk in the most unanticipated spaces. Frankly, we should not be surprised when so-called “ecosexuals” facilitate ceremonies in which humans are encouraged to marry the ocean, and then consummate said marriage.

Christians recognize it is precisely the distortion of orthodox Christianity that permits – and even supports – a misguided and disproportionate love of nature. Cognizant of how idolatry warps worship of the one true God and of the increasing secular pressure exerted on America, it is no wonder the imago dei has taken a backseat to animal activism and environmental worship. When nature is an object of worship, humans are subservient to its capricious and merciless whims. The created order is due sovereign respect, and we humans have no recourse save to spew vitriol at those poor parents who dared allow their children to interfere with its matchless wisdom and authority.

Stephen Webb, however, also argued since the decline and distortion of Christianity gave birth to the pathology of environmental worship, it is a pathology for which only Christianity holds the cure. How, then, does the church embody that cure?

First, we must never hesitate to remind a weary world of the dignity of life and the beauty of humanity. The world is fallen and humans bear the indelible marks of total depravity, but that doesn’t change the reality that all humans bear the imago dei and are worthy of charitable and generous love. Our world is losing sight of the preciousness of humanity – its loveliness and redeemability. In a society where the lines between human and animal are blurring, we must resolutely proclaim the beauty and uniqueness of humanity – rejoicing in our embodied reality.

In light of the Orlando nightclub shooting Scott Sauls challenged the church to embody the gospel’s humanitarian pulse and ethic. We value human life because it is created in the image of God; we value human life because God sent Jesus Christ to redeem it. This is the church must not tire of championing. Certainly we mourn the loss of Harambe, but far greater would have been the death of that 4-year old boy. And most tragically do we look on the death of a 2-year old in Orlando. The more we talk about the value of human life, the more opportunities we have to remind people that Jesus valued humanity so much He was willing to sacrifice Himself on its behalf.

Second, we must remind the world there is a larger frame from which to view these tragedies. In Genesis 1 and 2 God made mankind steward over the animals and creation, but in Genesis 3 that stewardship was rendered much more difficult. The fall introduced enmity and strife into the world, and as a result we cannot expect congenial interactions with wild animals, even animals residing in a zoo or a theme park.

What we can expect, however, is the glorious hope of a new heaven and a new earth. In that soon-coming reality we will never again know the pain of a dead 2-year old or 49-murdered souls. We will not fear animals because we are promised the wolf and lamb shall graze together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food; truly in that day animals will neither hurt nor destroy (Isaiah 65:25).

Animals cause tragedy, nature is unpredictable, and humans commit unthinkable acts of cruelty because we’re not home yet. There is a day to come, however, when Jesus will illuminate heaven by His very presence and wipe away every tear. Let us speak generously of the inherent value of all human life, the unimaginable glory of a new heaven and new earth, and of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to ensure that men could dwell in that new creation of fellowship with God, with one another, and with the animals for all eternity.

Christopher Divietro

By / Apr 22

Each New Year brings new stories of catastrophic events. In 2013, we saw the Boston Marathon bombing, firefighters dying while trying to save others and then an Indiana bus crash that killed a youth pastor and his pregnant wife. And 2014 has proven to be a difficult year for many as well. In March a plane carrying 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers mysteriously disappeared. Earlier this month a FedEx truck slammed into a bus carrying students, a deranged white supremacist opened fire and killed three at a community center in Kansas City, and a ferry in South Korea capsized killing at least 87 with 215 passengers still missing.

The terrible stories of lives lost and sadness go on and on. Perhaps tragedy struck your life in a very real and personal way. It can be tempting to look to the rest of 2014 with fear, but we can face the future in faith because God is loving, sovereign and the provider of ultimate hope.

In Matthew, Jesus encouraged the disciples not to fear. In doing so, he provides us with a glimpse of the protection, care and sovereignty we all receive from God:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10: 29-31). 

In this passage, Jesus challenged his disciples not to deny him in fear of bodily death. Through this we see that we too have a great hope in God. Jesus reminds us that God is mindful of man (Ps. 8:4). We are of more value than sparrows. He also reminds us that God is sovereign—knowing even when two sparrows are sold for a penny.

We don’t have to fear because we have a loving God who is sovereignly reigning over the events of our lives. He is good, and though he doesn’t promise that we will live carefree lives (1 Peter 4:12 warns that trials will come), he does promise to finish the good work he began in us (Phil. 1:6). He promised a Savior who would bear our grief, carry our sorrows, be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:4-5). Our hope and peace is ultimately found in Jesus.

So as Christians we can look to the future, and even the possibilities of danger and disaster, but not as those who are uninformed. We are informed. We know the truth of the gospel and we know that there is life after death. We live by faith and with hope, and we grieve with hope (1 Thes. 4:13-14). We don’t have to fear the worst for the remainder of 2014. We can trust God’s sovereign hand and pray that whatever comes our way he would fulfill his promise that it would be for our good and his glory.