“Thank you to everyone who prayed ... Sammy is with Jesus.” This is how Carla Balderas told her Facebook followers last Thursday that her husband had died of COVID-19. She and their nine-year-old son had been quarantined because of the virus.
According to CNN, their west Texas oilfield town of Iraan—population about 1,200—has been “essentially closed” because so many people got coronavirus. Last week, the school district shut down after only five days of classes because 16 percent of the students and about a quarter of the staff got infected or were exposed to COVID-19. School District Superintendent Tracy Carter said, “In the last week, we’ve seen more Covid cases for staff and students than we did the entire year, last year, during school.”
The football season is postponed, but the town’s football stadium will be used for Sammy Balderas’ funeral tomorrow.
A "cradle for jihadism"?
On this day in AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted in southern Italy, devastating the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing thousands. It remains the only active volcano on the European mainland, with its last eruption in 1944 and its last major eruption in 1631. However, as History notes, “Another eruption is expected in the future, which could be devastating for the seven hundred thousand people who live in the ‘death zones’ around Vesuvius.”
Why would anyone choose to live near an active volcano?
Let’s reframe the question. The remains of two thousand men, women, and children were found at Pompeii. Over the last twenty-eight days, 270,585 people have died of COVID-19, which works out to 9,663 people per day, nearly five times as many as the number discovered from Vesuvius. Every hour, 6,829 people die around the world, more than three times the number of Vesuvius victims.
We are all one day closer to that day than ever before. Whether we live in Iraan, near Vesuvius, or anywhere else on our fallen planet, it seems we’re all living near an “active volcano.”
One response to the fact of mortality is to ignore the fact of mortality and the other bad news in the news. As someone whose calling is to respond biblically to the events and issues of our day, I understand the sentiment.
From emerging stories of brutality by the Taliban to the threat posed by the Islamic State to Americans in Afghanistan to predictions that the country will again become a “cradle for jihadism,” the news from Afghanistan continues to be frightening and painful to follow.
Closer to home, we could worry about man-made or “synthetic” pandemics, a threat which a Stanford infectious disease physician warns is “even worse” than the coronavirus pandemic. With escalating violence in America’s cities, we’re now seeing the advent of drones that can respond to 911 calls to assist emergency response personnel.
We can ignore such stories, but denying our challenges doesn’t change their reality. In fact, it often makes our problems worse, as with patients who ignore a malignancy until it is too late.
The paradox of Thomas Jefferson
The opposite response is to try even harder to do better, to double down on our self-reliant commitment to solving our problems. But this has been tried before, with tragically predictable results.
In his brilliant new book, The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom, public intellectual Os Guinness contrasts the 1776 American revolution, which was empowered by the Judeo-Christian worldview, and the 1789 French revolution, which was empowered by a radically secularist worldview.
He describes the transformational power of the Christian faith versus secularist self-reliance by pointing to the contradictory example of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the US minister to France when the revolution began there. According to the Library of Congress, he was “an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, even allowing his residence to be used as a meeting place for the rebels.” His self-reliant secularism was consistent with the revolution he applauded.
Guinness notes: “At the very time that [Jefferson] wrote the famous words ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ he was attended by two slaves in Philadelphia, and he owned sixty slaves at home in Monticello, and six hundred slaves over the course of his lifetime. He also rebuffed William Wilberforce’s plea to form a ‘Concert of Benevolence’ between Britain and America to lead the world in getting rid of slavery.”
According to Guinness, “Slavery is the norm in history and abolition is the exception. The moral triumph of the abolition of slavery was promoted by Quakers such as John Woolman and evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce, while Jefferson did nothing. It was a tribute to their passionate faith, and it was in direct and persistent opposition to the age-old fate of the slaves.” He adds that their biblical worldview was later championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement as well.
"Positive, neutral, and negative worlds"
Tragically, Jeffersonian secularism, despite all its failures, has come to dominate our culture. I recently found a perceptive analysis by cultural commentator Aaron Renn focusing on “positive, neutral, and negative worlds” with regard to the way society views the Christian faith.
Renn describes the “positive world” (pre-1994): “Christianity was viewed positively by society and Christian morality was still normative. To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms was a social positive. Christianity was a status enhancer. In some cases, failure to embrace Christian norms hurt you.”
I remember this “world” very clearly. I pastored churches which some people joined, by their own admission, for the social approval and business contacts they believed would ensue. The Church was seen as the defender and promoter of morality. Its critics sometimes complained that we were too moralistic and influential, in fact.
Renn then describes the “neutral world” (1994–2014): “Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person was not a knock either. It was more like a personal affectation or hobby. Christian moral norms retained residual force.”
This “world” is familiar to most of us. God is not our king, as the Bible proclaims him to be, but more a hobby we choose to embrace in our spare time. We ought not force our “hobby” on others, but we’re otherwise free to follow it if we wish, or so we’re told.
According to Renn, we are now in the “negative world” (2014–): “In this world, being a Christian is now a social negative, especially in high-status positions. Christianity in many ways is seen as undermining the social good. Christian morality is expressly repudiated.”
This is new territory for Christians in America. Our sisters and brothers in communist and Muslim countries would readily recognize this “world,” but its challenges are unprecedented for us.
In a culture which insists on self-reliant secularism and personal authenticity as the only path to social and personal flourishing, followers of Jesus are under greater pressure than ever to succumb and conform.
"He was made of tender flesh just like we are"
There’s a better way.
In Matthew 26, we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he said of himself, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 38). Then he prayed to his Father with such passion that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
In Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home, the insightful preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says of this startling event: “This is a lifesaver: to know that the one we call Lord and Savior also knew fear and foreboding. He was made of tender flesh just like we are. Even he had to learn what could be changed and what could not. If his courage was superior to ours, it wasn’t because he was anxiety-free but because he kept moving in spite of it.”
How did he triumph over such fears and resolve to face the cross with such faith? Hebrews 9:14 has the answer: “Through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without blemish to God.”
He was “full of the Holy Spirit” when he defeated Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). He began his ministry by proclaiming, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1). He drove out demons “by the Spirit of God” (Matthew 12:28) and was raised from the dead by the Spirit (Romans 8:11).
Peter summarized his Lord’s ministry this way: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
"Who will meet me on this ground?"
If the divine Son of God needed the power of the Spirit of God to face the crises of his day and serve his Father faithfully, how much more do we?
Yesterday, we discussed steps to take each day in being “filled” or empowered by the Spirit. Have you taken them yet today? If not, why not?
The time to prepare for a crisis is before it comes. Otherwise, no matter how good our intentions, we are likely to fall into secularistic self-reliance when we face the inevitable adversity of life.
If, however, we begin every day by submitting to the Holy Spirit and then walk through the day in his power and leading, we will experience the empowering of God as we face the challenges of our broken world. We will be able to stand boldly and courageously for biblical truth in a day that rejects both truth and biblical morality. And our example will touch lives we may never see, today and even for generations to come.
In his 1746 sermon “On the Spirit of Bondage and Adoption,” John Wesley described the change that comes to those who are empowered by God’s Spirit:
“It is [the Spirit] that sheds the love of God abroad in their hearts, and the love of all mankind; thereby purifying their hearts from the love of the world, from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life. It is by him they are delivered from anger and pride, from all vile and inordinate affections. In consequence, they are delivered from evil words and works, from all unholiness of conversation; doing no evil to any child of man and being zealous of all good works.”
Wesley knew whereof he spoke. Toward the end of his life, as a result of the Spirit’s power in his life, he could testify of himself: “Here I am, I and my Bible. I will not, I dare not vary from this book, either in great things or small. I have no power to dispense with one jot or tittle of what is contained therein. I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost, but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground?”
Publication date: August 24, 2021
Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/Tom Merton
For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.
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