Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Summer of "Re-Creation" in our National Parks

This year is the centennial celebration of our National Park Service. Marsha and I have had the privilege this summer to visit three of our great parks. In May, we visited Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Earlier this month, we made our first visits to Grand Teton and Yellowstone, both in Wyoming. We had a great time!

There is so much to recommend. The peaks of Grand Teton are majestic. The quiet Jenny Lake will calm your spirit. The history of "Mormon Row" is very interesting. Yellowstone is an icon for the beauty of the American West, and the crowds of foreign tourists you encounter there will confirm this. As an Oklahoman with family of Native American heritage, the sight of vast bison herds thriving again on native prairie grasses connects me to a history that is being preserved.

One of my favorite spots is the Moraine Park Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park. Formed by the mighty power of a glacier descending from the mountains, this meadow today is a place of peace. Elk call it home, and fly fishermen walk the Big Thompson River which meanders through it. The peaks of the Rockies literally crown this beautiful valley. Sadly, none of the photos I took capture the sense of being there. I guess that means I'll have to go back!

These national parks left me with three gifts to take home.

First, witnessing the awesomeness of creation calls me back to the awesomeness of the Creator. We are small and He is great. We are temporary and He is eternal. We struggle and His purposes prevail. This truth can get hidden in our daily routines.

Second, I came home with the gift of gratitude. Our National Park Service reminds us that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Leaders cast vision and benefactors sacrificed to preserve the 59 national parks in our nation. The critics were vocal and the political fights fierce but the Roosevelts and Muirs and Rockefellers prevailed. This is true leadership, and we owe them our gratitude.

Finally, my park visits encouraged me in how much can be accomplished even in difficult circumstances. Many of the facilities we enjoy in the national parks today were built by the Civilian Conservation Corp. From 1933 to 1942, during the most difficult of times that we now call the Great Depression, two million workers constructed conservation projects across the nation and in 94 national park and national monument areas. These unemployed men needed the work, and the $30 a month they earned mostly went back home to support their families. Rather than give up on progress during these dark days in our nation, we chose to construct a solution that returned to men the dignity of work while completing necessary projects that provided infrastructure for the nation's future.

What a "re-creation" it has been this summer: to return awestruck by God's creation, grateful for all we have inherited, and encouraged by what is possible even in difficult circumstances!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Onward, with Convictional Kindness

My summer reading list has included Russell Moore's Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. It was named book of the year by Christianity Today editors. Moore leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The book is a call to the Church to move beyond the Bible Belt and Moral Majority thinking that has dominated evangelicals. Culture Christianity is dead. Instead, our future is more of what Moore labels a "prophetic minority." It's important to face the reality that our historic faith is no longer seen as a social good, but instead as socially awkward or even illegal and subversive.  

I read the book in the context of this terribly dark season in which we live. Our national politics is full of ugly name-calling much more than rational debate of the issues.

Our economy is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in a way that is causing pain and anger. Violence by and against our police is nothing less than frightening.

And just when Christians should be a voice of peace in the midst of all this darkness, we find ourselves in our own struggle seeking to maintain our religious liberty. 

Recent developments in California point to the very question of whether Christian higher education will survive as we know it (more on that in a later message).

How should Christians go onward in this time?

"We ought to stand then with conviction and contend, as the prophets and apostles did before us, against injustice," Russell writes. "But we must do so with voices shaped by the gospel, with a convictional kindness that recognizes winning arguments is not enough if one is in a cosmic struggle with unseen principalities and powers in the air around us."

I have grown weary of the "culture war" label (the war is over and evangelicals have lost.) But, Russell argues that we should continue to understand a war is underway. Not, a cultural war but a war against good and evil, the supernatural struggle that is described in our faith. 

The way forward is what he calls "convictional kindness." Recognizing that we are called by our God to be kind to all, not just fellow believers, we must show kindness even as we disagree and even as we may feel under attack. Russell says we can be kind because we understand that the enemy is not the fellow child of God in front of us, but instead the demons of evil who rule this fallen world.  

It's an important distinction. "When we don't oppose demons," he writes, "we demonize opponents."

I come from an evangelical tradition that is not comfortable talking about demons and devils. But there is no question that our Bible confirms their existence and describes even how Jesus interacted with these agents of an unseen spiritual war. Russell calls it targeting the right enemy: "We speak with kindness and gentleness and with conviction and with clarity because we are targeting the right enemy."

Overall, I find the book realistic but hopeful, and that's what I want for LETU. Even as we adjust to a post-Christian culture, I see that Moore's conclusion about the church extends to Christian higher education: "I think the future of the church is incandescently bright. That's not because of promises made at Independence Hall, but a promise made at Caesarea Philippi - "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18)