Justice and the Gospel

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The Importance of Black History Month

black-history-monthThe best thing you can do this month may also be the most painful… remember. Since 1976, as a nation, we have officially recognized the month of February as Black History Month. Educate yourself. Feel. Think. Remember.

Read the Facts
Thankfully (and sadly) there is no shortage of information about the atrocities of the black struggle. Just as you study any other time period, read. And read broadly. Read people you know you agree with. Read people you know you disagree with. Read people you don’t know. In this collective reading you will arrive at the facts.

Listen to Stories
Simply reading the facts of the Civil Rights Movement though falls woefully short. It is too easy to challenge numbers or doubt history. When this history and these numbers begin to take shape is when they are attached to real people and their stories. Hollywood gets this. That’s the power of “42”… the Jackie Robinson story and “The Butler”… the story of Cecil Gaines… and other such stories. They help us to see that black history is about black people. People made in the image of God just like you and me. These same individuals were often treated like cattle and worse. Listen.

Talk About It
An important part of education is discussion. As you gather facts and hear the stories of those who lived in that hell, talk about what you are finding. Allow discussion to challenge and deepen your observances. Ask questions of friends of color. They obviously have a different perspective than you on each of the previous two categories.

Empathize
You will not always be able to understand. Reading, listening, and talking affect each of us differently. But each of us can feel. Each of us can read the facts, listen to the stories, and continue to learn by talking about it. And in so doing we begin to see black history for what it is… awful, embarrassing, and a blight to Christians who stood idly by… and much, much worse. Allow that to change you. Know the difference between sympathy and empathy. Expose your heart.

So this February and hereafter, remember what you’d rather not.

The Gospel According to Phil

Phil RobertsonDuck Dynasty has become a hard-to-explain American phenomenon. Plus nothing. People who have never even shot a gun or hunted anything find themselves glued to the television to listen in on the raw antics of the Robertson family… 14 million of us. That’s right, I said us. Before we downgraded our cable package I was one of the faithful.

This post is in response to some recent “hot water” (I’m sure he doesn’t feel the heat) into which the patriarch of the family, Phil Robertson, has stepped squarely. My main audience is composed of people who believe in Jesus… not all… but most. Like no other, this post is mainly for those of us who already believe. Perhaps to your sadness, I don’t really think there is a whole lot to talk about here. Did any of us really expect a backwoods, old school, child of the 60’s who throws his grandkid’s cell phone into the lake to have left-leaning views on homosexuality? Instead I would like to challenge our reaction to such events. Let’s do this.

Stop Expecting People Who Do Not Believe to Act Like Believers
Seriously. Why are we surprised when people who do not believe act in ways that are appropriate to their own system of belief? Do you really think that a network who, by its own admission, has been a strong supporter of the gay community would not take offense to Phil’s statement? This very simple principle has been the highest value as I have learned to have genuine friendships with people who do not subscribe to my beliefs. Please for their sake, for the sake of the gospel stop expecting people who do not believe to act like believers.

Start Educating Yourself
We have become such a soundbyte culture that we sit around waiting for the next news story to drop so that we can react to it on Facebook or Twitter or better yet, on someone’s site that we do not even know. This kind of reacting is detrimental to the cause of Christ and does not exemplify the spirit of Jesus. How many who have commented even took the time to read the initial lengthy interview? I’ll make it easy for you. You can click HERE to find it. I have said it before, but I’ll say it again here because it fits. It is my strong opinion that you should not even comment on something about which you have not first educated yourself. Responding secondarily via someone else’s opinion has a lessening and demeaning legal title… hearsay.

Stop Pretending You Know Phil Robertson
Unless you do, but I’m going to guess that would be an underwhelmingly small minority of us. You can only read about his story and his life. That gets you in the door, but not on the stage. You don’t know his family or him or what God has asked of him and/or them.

Start Practicing the Great Commandment
You know… the one that Phil paraphrased. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said that the biggest way we can demonstrate our faith to those who do not share it is to love each other (those of us who do follow Jesus). We suck at this. Am I angry with some Christians right now? Yes, I am. More about that in a minute. But the answer is not for me to dig my heels in and win an argument. My command is to love. My desire is to mirror what I find in Philippians 2:5-8. I want to…

have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

You want to keep Christ in Christmas? It happens in moments like these.

Stop Being Mean-Spirited
There are moments when people that call themselves Christians embarrass me. And, for the record, it is not just people who may have a more conservative position than my own. It goes the other way too. In this particular conversation I have heard angry pro-gay Christians say horrible things about Phil and his family. There have been equally hideous words and sentiments coming from those to the right. Christianity is not an argument to be won. It is not a debate in which you are to be the victor. Christianity is a person and his name is Jesus. And his attitude is made clear as referenced in the text above and throughout the New Testament. Are there end-of-the-discussion realities that will in an ultimate sense separate us from those who do not yet believe? Absolutely. Does that fact give us the right to fly off the handle about ____________… whatever the issue? Absolutely not.

Politics and Religion: A Few Suggestions

In a day of political polarization, Christians should be among those who are calling for and living out a spirit of kindness. Angry Democrats, arrogant Republicans, and mean-spirited Independents… none of these represent Jesus well. Is it possible to hold different political opinions and still get along? I can tell you that it is not only possible, it’s beautiful. One of my enduring memories of Process Church is the diversity that we enjoyed. We had far right wing conservatives in community with lefty liberals (and many viewpoints in between). Shoot, even in my own house we don’t always have unanimity.

More Than One Perspective
If you find yourself leaning more to the left on political issues, listen to and/or read from a source that is clearly leaning to the right… and vice versa. What’s the point of that? It gives you an opportunity to better understand where “the other side” is coming from. It’s Research 101. I don’t even think you can truly call an opinion your own when you’re just repeating what ____________ news source has mentioned as its talking points. Hearing the opposing view point allows (forces) you to better articulate why you have drawn the conclusion that you have.

How Is As Important As What
Especially because we follow Jesus, how we communicate may be as important as what we communicate. When we speak in anger or arrogance or mean-spiritedness our words are drowned out by our attitudes. This is what I was getting at with this post – https://rethinkxian.com/2013/03/21/just-be-nice/.

The Hard Question
Ask yourself this difficult question, “Have I equated politics and religion?” How do you know if you have? The answer is probably “yes” if you think that the position you hold on an issue is “the truly Christian position”. While there may be times when some political issues (and a Christian understanding of them) are spelled out clearly in Scripture, there are many others where the Scripture seems to give us a breadth of options and differing viewpoints.

A Christian View of War

war“War does not determine who is right… only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell

It may seem strange to open a piece entitled A Christian View of War by a quote from a noted atheist. I too find it strange, but likely for a different reason. I find it strange that there are too few Christian voices speaking on this subject with anything other than political talking points. To be sure, there is always a political side to war; but for the Christian, that should always be secondary. We should approach all topics first as followers of Jesus.

This topic (and reality) of war is fraught with competing tensions. Instead of pretending they aren’t there, let’s name a few of them and try to wrestle well within a biblical framework. First, and perhaps the most glaring and left un-talked about, war means ending another person’s life. We have to include this in our conclusions or we are being unrealistic. Second, there are times when war is necessary. Whether it’s to defend our own freedom or to go on the offensive to hold others accountable, sometimes we must fight. And finally, I find thought streams such as Just War theory helpful in knowing the appropriateness of war in a given situation.

War Means Ending Another Person’s Life
I find it more than slightly ironic that some of the most vocal proponents for the right-to-life movement cease to share the same zeal when related to matters of war. For some religious groups this part of the discussion has caused them to choose pacifism. At very least, this part of the reality should cause us unrest and true sorrow. Jesus clearly valued all life equally – friend or foe. We must do the same.

War Is Necessary
Just as I am stricken by the gravity of war, I am equally aware that unfortunately – at times – war is unavoidable. When we are attacked there comes a tipping point at which if we do not defend ourselves we invite even more pain and destruction. Pearl Harbor comes to mind. There are also discussions within this part of the conversation that are more difficult to navigate. For example, at what point is war the humanitarian thing to do? Is it when chemical weapons are used? Is it after a certain number of people are killed? I think these are harder waters to tread, but fair questions to ask related to the necessity of war. The New Testament reminds us that the last days will be filled with wars and rumors of wars.

Just War Theory
Just War theory was founded by religious people like many of us who were trying to figure out a Christian view of war. St. Augustine, perhaps the first to use the phrase, said,

“But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars.”

While there is a certain subjectivity that accompanies Just War theory, it is at least, a place to start. And while it demands the objectivity of those who would answer its questions, its principles lead those of us who follow Jesus to a biblical mindset and approach. Here are the main tenants of Just War theory:

  • Just Cause
    The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life. A contemporary view of just cause was expressed in 1993 when the US Catholic Conference said: “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”
  • Comparative Justice
    While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to overcome the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other. Some theorists such as Brian Orend omit this term, seeing it as fertile ground for exploitation by bellicose regimes.
  • Competent Authority
    Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war. “A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice. Dictatorships (e.g. Hitler’s Regime) or deceptive military actions (e.g. the 1968 US bombing of Cambodia) are typically considered as violations of this criterion. The importance of this condition is key. Plainly, we cannot have a genuine process of judging a just war within a system that represses the process of genuine justice. A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice”.
  • Right Intention
    Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.
  • Probability of Success
    Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
  • Last Resort
    Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.
  • Proportionality
    The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms. This principle is also known as the principle of macro-proportionality, so as to distinguish it from the jus in bello principle of proportionality. In modern terms, just war is waged in terms of self-defense, or in defense of another (with sufficient evidence).

The principles of Just War theory, when spoken to carefully and honestly, seem to best reflect the spirit of Jesus as it relates to this topic. May Christians be active in this type of consideration as it relates to discussions of war.

LGBT: It’s All or Nothing

red-equal-signI’ve started and re-started this post a dozen times. Not a big deal? Maybe not to you, but I usually write a post from start to finish and then do minor edits (usually punctuation and grammar-types). Why the hesitation? The same reason that most Christians are gravitating toward one of two polar positions: either total silence… or the other extreme… bombast. And are Christians really any different in this way than the rest of humanity? I think not. Most of us as humans seem to share the “all-or-nothing” vantage point. “You’re either for us or you’re against us”, we say. If you need further examples, just look at the world of politics (a post for another day).

When it comes to any person’s rights to humane treatment, one would think any decent person would be standing on the highest box saying , “Yes!” But, when you mix a little sexual tension in with the discussion, there is not only the loud “no”, mentioned earlier, you also get some downright ugliness.

Don’t misunderstand or misquote my heart in this matter. Do I have disagreements that are real with people who happen to be gay? Unfortunately, yes. Does that have anything at all to do with how they are treated as human beings? It better not. The equally unfortunate and bombastic Christian right seems to enjoy a near criminalization of the LGBT community. I will grant you that there is an equal arm of extremism within the LGBT fold that fires right back, but what does that have to do with anything?

As a follower of Jesus there are certain realities and jumping off points that I will always have as I attempt to wrestle well with what the Scriptures say on an issue and how that applies to life today. That said, human decency is never up for grabs. So while there may be some things on the list that I cannot agree with… for me, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. How do you wrestle with this issue?

Interracial Relationships

handsWhen a friend recently asked me to share my thoughts on interracial relationships I was actually quite surprised. It is an “issue” that I have long ago come to terms with. I think I had just chosen to suppress that part of my upbringing. Mine and the asker’s growing up years likely shared some of the same bad teaching on the topic.  I say bad teaching because an honest look at Scripture sees zero teaching on the topic. Yes, there are texts in the Old Testament where God commanded one nation not to marry with another, but this was exclusively done to keep paganism from unduly influencing Theism. It had nothing to do with race.

The thought stream from which anti-interracial understanding flows is connected to the larger pool known as bigotry. I don’t even like the word racism. I think it unwittingly perpetuates the problem. There is only one race… the human race. God did not create race. He created people. So, technically speaking, I am opposed to the concept of interracial relationships because I believe there is no such thing. If we rightly teach our kids to sing, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”, then how dare we choose when and where to apply that truth!

Yes, I have pretty strong feelings about it… mainly because of my high view of Scripture and its silence on the “issue”. Also because I have dozens of friends who have married people from different cultures or backgrounds or skin colors and it offends me to hear anyone speak to their reality in lesser-than terms.

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

friendinmeThe thing that I am most proud (actually humbled) to have passed on to our kids is that all three of them get the heart behind my oft-repeated phrase that to have good friends you must be a good friend. I’m not saying I have always been the best friend. I’m definitely not saying I know everything about being a good friend. This is not a how-to post. You will have to read your own personality into this. These are just some of the things I have done (and am doing) to have friends that include those who don’t share my understanding of faith.

It should be noted that I did not have a step-by-step plan in fostering these kinds of friendships. In fact, my opinion is that doing it that way would seem artificial and wooden, and would likely be evident (and a turn-off) to the person you are trying to befriend. So this list was formed after the fact. I just looked back at the progression of my newer friendships and analyzed the commonalities. Among them are these…

Natural connections. In most cases my new friends came through natural connections (business contacts, parents of our kid’s friends, neighbors). Admittedly there were a few times when there were less-than-natural initial connections (i.e. one of my good friends and I met first through Twitter), but I think he would say that it was our connection when we met face to face that allowed for us to become “real friends”.

Not initiating religious discussion. I know I’m sure to get some pushback on this one… and that’s ok. I’m not saying that the Bible says to do it this way. I’m not even saying that this is the best or only way to connect. Here is why I chose to do it this way. Especially in my case as a pastor, once they knew that about me (usually early on, if not immediately), there were nearly-unscalable walls erected. The only way I knew to climb those walls was to disarm the preconception that I was just being friendly so I could preach to/at them. Let me make it equally clear that in every case, to varying degrees, that kind of discussion (religious) did come up sooner than later. I think most, if not all of my friends would say that this component was a huge piece in gaining trust.

The long haul. There is simply no substitute for time. Earlier I alluded to the fact that often Christians flee these kinds of friendships because the friend doesn’t convert to their way of thinking. Here is a simple (simply confusing) fact: I am friends with my friends for no other reason than they are my friends. Do I wish for each of them to know Jesus in the way that I do? Certainly. Will I stop being friends with them at any point because they don’t? No!

In conclusion, there is no purer reflection of God’s love than to work in this direction. After all, isn’t this exactly the way he has interacted with each of us? Romans 5 says it in the strongest way possible… He sent Jesus “while we were still sinners… while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:8, 10).

Coexist? Or Something Else?

coexistFor years now I have been seeing this awful bumper sticker going around. Have you? I’m certain you’ve seen at least one version of it somewhere. Let me just go on the record (from a Christian perspective) that this cannot possibly be more wrong… but it may not be why you’re thinking.

I’m a word aficionado (a.k.a. snob). And the reason I am opposed to the bumper sticker in question may be different than your reason. It’s really about definition. The New Oxford American Dictionary says this (among other things) of the word coexist: “(of nations or peoples) exist in mutual tolerance despite different ideologies or interests: the task of diplomacy was to help different states to coexist.” This notion is ungodly, unbiblical, and not at all in keeping with the spirit of Jesus! But, once again… this may shake out differently than you might be thinking.

Coexistence is not good enough. Nowhere does the Bible command us to “tolerate our neighbor” or does Jesus ask us to “tolerate someone else the way that I have tolerated you.” Yet buried – not very deeply – within the idea of coexistence is the thought that I am putting up with your insolent, incorrect, and frankly, ignorant opinion (in this case, about religion). That is simply not the spirit of Jesus.

So, first, what am I not saying? I am not saying that we have to subscribe to all religions as equal. Anyone who has given any study to world religions knows that this is a mathematical impossibility. Though there have been many times I have wished it did, the Bible doesn’t teach that either. Neither am I saying that there is not a certain exclusivity housed in Christianity. I am saying (again) that how we talk about that matters. Unfortunately exclusivity almost always carries a spirit of joy that “I’m in and you’re out.” This is not the spirit of Jesus. At what points the gospel does separate us from others, it ought to break our hearts for them. Not condescending. Not disingenuous.

What I am saying is that the biblical view of existing with others who may not share our religious opinion has always been about one simple word that carries a lifetime of complexity… love. So it is not enough to merely coexist. Tolerating someone else is not deep enough for what we who believe are called to do. Our mission is to love. Whether or not someone ever shares or even understands our viewpoint… our command is to love.

Finally, while an everyone-gets-in-at-the-end spirituality makes heaven sound blissfully appealing (and while I even wish it worked this way), the Bible very simply does not teach this. Therefore, it is the job of those of us who believe to put up with the wrong opinions and spiritual philosophies of lesser-minded individuals until Jesus comes to rescue us from their insolence. Wrong. The strongest position we can take is to love someone, not in spite of their spiritual persuasion (or because of it); but because they have already, before the foundation of the world, been loved by God. How can I do any less?

To Whom Do Our Children Belong?

MSNBC Host Melissa Harris-Perry recently stirred an accidental (or, intentional, depending on your perspective) firestorm. Before I answer this post’s question from my own perspective, these are perhaps the most controversial of Ms. Harris-Perry’s words…

…we’ve always had a private notion of children, your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

belongAs I have read literally dozens of articles and comments about her statements, the vitriol seems to be focused on one word… belong. Having shared their vantage point for so long, I believe that I can credibly say that I know from whence the anger and outrage comes. It really is more than this, but I think it starts with a misunderstanding of definition.

The image on the right is a screenshot taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Clearly there are varying uses of the verb form of the word “belong”. My opinion is that the gross overreaction of some has come because of a deep belief that Ms. Harris-Perry was using definition 2a, when in fact, I believe she was using 2b.

For many Christians that lean right and would call themselves conservatives (though not the “moral majority” they once were), I believe this fundamental difference of opinion is fleshed out far beyond this case. There is a local church here in metro Atlanta that I will use as an example of what I’m talking about. They are big and, as such, an easy target; but I think they are reflective of a pervasive mindset that detrimentally exists at the core of many who call themselves Christian. I don’t really know exactly how many people call this church home… I would guess several thousand. They own a ginormous piece of land that is set back from a major thoroughfare. They have programs for every imaginable age-group and staff to facilitate such an approach. They are known for their beautiful buildings and landscaping and especially their almost-cinematic sign that is constantly scrolling all the news of the coming days in multi-colored splendor. At the bottom of one of those spectacular pages is a small sign that is easy to miss at 55 miles-an-hour. It simply reads, “public welcome”. These are the 2a (and maybe 2c) Christians.

communityThe 2b definition is not about ownership as much as it is about mutual responsibility. It is about community. You may not have liked Ms. Harris-Perry’s assessment about our individualized culture, but you can hardly (honestly and intelligently) deny it. Especially as Christians we have become masters of isolationism. We have created an entire sub-culture that has everything you need. From music to softball leagues. Dating sites to bookstores. You really need never set foot in a heathen establishment of any type again. But this is not the way of Jesus. He operated in stark contrast to the sanitized lives that we have scoured “clean” and then set up as the truest version of what it means to be Christian. Read Luke 13. These are all stories of Jesus’ interactions with procedures and peoples that were outside the scope of the “established religious thought”. My favorite is in verses 20-21…

He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”

You cannot effectively impact something you refuse to be known as a part of. Think you are already doing this well enough? How many people who are not just like you (especially spiritually) would call you their friend? A better question: what does any of this have to do with the original question… To whom do our children belong?” I will forego the urge to poke theological holes in arguments that they belong (in your 2a understanding) to parents. And I will even avoid the question itself because the answer to these misunderstandings of definition will answer it for you.

Especially as a follower of Jesus, I dare you to search the Scriptures, to hear the heart and observe the practices of Jesus and tell me that he preferred isolation to involvement. It is not possible. To borrow from one of my deceased heroes, Mike Yaconelli, Jesus practiced (and calls us to practice) messy spirituality. Get busy.

Christians As Environmentalists

go_green

I am of the opinion that people who say they follow Jesus… and (perhaps, especially) those who want to make one of the tests of faith a belief that God created the earth (more about that later)… should be leading the charge in terms of being environmentally-friendly. The reality seems to be that people of faith have been skeptical and silent instead of educated and innovative in matters of our global footprints.

There are some bright spots within the Christian community. My favorite title on the subject (and… disclaimer… the author has also become a friend) is Jonathan Merritt’s Green Like God.

Why does this matter? If God had any part in creating the earth, those of us who are living our lives under his direction should be the greatest stewards of the beauty that we claim comes from his hand. So how do you quote Psalm 19:1 and simultaneously mock modern science (also a topic for another post) that shows evidence that all is not well in the heavens that declare the glory of God? Could it be that we have too quickly (or thoroughly) separated theology and science? They are not, in fact, enemies at odds with each other.

I’d love to hear from some of you. How have you framed your views of stewarding the environment? How have you sought to be pro-active… instead of reactive?

The Right to Die

Death-with-DignityThis is a difficult (and personal) discussion. I have experienced firsthand the complexities of this topic. Three times in the last several years I have had to deal with this issue on a personal level. First, with my best friend from college, who almost twenty years ago was hit by a truck and until his recent death lived in a near persistent vegetative state. Then one of my students developed a rare blood disease that almost took his life and led to some of these same questions; and finally, with my grandmother’s debilitating battle with Alzheimer’s disease for the last 6 or so years of her life. I know that this is a tough one!

In many ways – certainly in specific terms – the Scripture remains silent on this issue. I concede that. I also want to make it clear that I think it is OK for people to wrestle with the issue and not have guilty feelings about wishing that someone who is suffering could leave this life for the next. All of those kinds of emotions are what make us human. But ultimately that is part of the main point… we are human. As certainly as we cannot definitively decide when a life should begin, as difficult as it may be for us to admit, neither do we have the right to decide when a life should end. Intuitively we know this. It makes sense. But those passionate feelings in us decry our good sense and render it inoperable.

What of the Scripture? Can we find any direction… even in principle? Certainly the Bible does make mention of suicide – even that done for seemingly “noble purposes”. The Bible consistently casts these actions in a negative light. There are at least 6 such times when suicide is spoken of…

Abimelech in Judges 9
Samson in Judges 16
Saul in 1 Samuel 31
Ahithophel in 2 Samuel 17
Zimri in 1 Kings 16
Judas in Matthew 27

The takeaway here is admittedly an argument mostly from silence, but God never casts these actions in any type of positive light. But the point can be made better in examining the originator and sustainer of life. Again, that’s why a future discussion about creation is so crucial. If you don’t have the beginning right, you certainly will struggle with the end.

While there are no easy answers, and each case is different in its scope, the same God who creates and sustains life must be the one to control the destiny of man. To do any other is to question God’s authority at least and purloin it at worst.

God’s control is only frightening to those who resist it. Though none of us enjoy seeing someone we love in pain, God knows all of that. He knows what that person is able to endure. He knows what things that person may need to make right before their time is up. He knows the effect that person’s life may have on others as they journey through this difficulty with them. He knows. He cares. We must do the hardest thing that we can be asked to do in difficult situations like this… trust Him.