Category Archives: Cultural Reflections

Yet: The Compelling Surprise of Post-Election Joy

Conservative evangelical Christian reaction to the results of last week’s presidential election has ranged from shock to irritation to disappointment to a seething, sputtering anger. There have been forecasts that the US will soon repudiate democracy in favor of full-blown socialism, that the economy will collapse within months, and even that President Obama is preparing the way for the Anti-Christ.

            There is hand-wringing, gnashing of teeth, finger-pointing and talk of secession or moving to another country. The sky really is falling.  

            Now, is there cause for concern? Yes. As one wise person wrote, “the most troubling thing about representative democracy is that it is, in fact, representative of its people.” So, the people spoke at the ballot box and approved a redefinition of marriage in 4 states—emboldening new initiatives for gay marriage in at least 8 others. Two states removed criminal penalties from recreational marijuana possession. The clear demand for maintaining abortion as a fundamental right insured that millions more babies will be murdered.  

            From a moral perspective, we tipped down the slope towards moral anarchy and  away from the high ground of God-honoring holiness. This election has clearly shown that if there has been a culture war, the secularists are winning the day.  On the one hand, that forcefully clarifies the nature of the church’s mission and presence in the culture. On the other hand it is deeply troubling to anticipate where this may lead us and how it may impact lives, families and the fabric of our society.

            All this is cause for deep and serious burden on the souls of God’s people. But there is a fine line between burden and despair. And honestly, most of what I have heard or read from evangelicals has been hopeless, gospel-less despair. 

            I fear that the emotional reaction has revealed where our hope lies—and that there may be a creeping idolatry at play in our souls. Many evangelicals have lodged our hope in a vision of a certain sort of America, one where with Biblical morality is legislatively enforced, a certain and assured economic prosperity is seen as God’s blessing and broad acceptance of Christians and their values means faith can be practiced and communicated with safety.

            That world is gone—if it ever existed in the first place.

            And since the reaction of Christians has been on the same basis as the talking heads on CNN/Fox/MSNBC  – economics, politics and national identity- we are once again being seen and heard as essentially no different from any other American, except that we go to church on Sunday mornings.

            So, how do we embrace a burden, without slipping into despair? How can we be heard as gospel people in a time of great national difficulty?

            This is where the ancient prophet Habakkuk can be such a help. Habakkuk watched as his beloved nation Israel disintegrated and what he perceived to be godless opponents took over.

            So, he boldly questioned God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry ‘violence’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity and why do you idly look at wrong?” (1:2-3) God, where are You? Why is this horrible thing happening?  And by people who will not recognize or love You like I do?

            God answers, “Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” (1:5) You wouldn’t understand if I explained it to you but this very moment is a part of My plan. I am at work right now.

            Isn’t it astonishing that the very people who loudly affirm the sovereignty of God get so bothered when He exercises it? God’s redemptive purposes are as powerfully progressing today as they were before the first Tuesday of November. But His eternal purposes do not necessarily presume the prosperity, security, supremacy, ascendancy, exceptionalism  or even existence of the United States. His purposes were well on the way before 1776!

            Habakkuk fires back: “O Lord my God, my Holy One….You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? (1:13) How can it possibly be that your sovereign plan includes the ascendancy of secular people, many who are obviously not Christian, who are morally liberal — even supporting the holocaust of abortion? This does not match God’s holy character or ways.

            So our incensed and despairing prophet says “I’m will take my stand at my watchtower and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.” (2:1) God, explain this to me where I can understand or show me how to deal with it.

            How can a lover of God even go on in this environment where the nation is going to hell in a handbasket?

            God (smiling I think) answers: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who hears it.” (2:2) Basically “Habakkuk, I’m going to say this slowly (for the slower among you) and I’m going to use a few words you can write really big so when your head and heart start spinning you’ll still be able to see it and remember.”

            “For still the vision [God’s perfect purpose] awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end-it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Behold his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous will live by his faith.”(2:2-4)

            So, here is the key. The righteous (those who have entered a relationship with God through Jesus Christ) are to live by faith. Yes, that is the very means of salvation, the way a faith-relationship with God begins. Faith trusts the gospel of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection as the power of God to rescue a sinner from certain, eternal death. (Rom.1:16-18)

            But the righteous is to live –present tense- by his faith. Faith—confidence in God, His character, ways and purposes. To use Brennan Manning’s wonderful phrase, it is “ruthless trust” in our heavenly Father.

            So, right now, in this moment, when it may feel like we are on an irreversible cultural slide; when the world feels like it is slipping away, we are to live, speak, react, relate by faith in our holy, wise, faithful, loving King.

            What does that faith look like? Does it mean we have to go underground or become glassy-eyed Stepford Christians who simply parrot “praise Jesus”? No, it first means brutal honesty about the situation and our emotions. Hear Habakkuk: “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me.” (3:16) Where we are headed and what we may experience as a country simply terrifies me. That’s the burden.

            But gospel-driven faith doesn’t stop there, and sink into despair. Faith presses deeper. Read this slowly:

                        “Though the fig tree should not blossom,

                                    nor fruit be on the vines,

                        The produce of the olive fail

                                    and the fields yield no food,

                        The flock be cut off from the field,

                                    And there be no herd in the  stalls….”

(3:17)

            [in an agrarian culture, this is roughly equivalent to saying, “if the economy goes into full-blown depression, if the stock market fails and we fall off the fiscal cliff, if there are not the slightest signs that things will get better and it looks like the whole way if life we have known is going to disappear….]

                        “…Yet I will rejoice in the Lord

                                    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

                        God, the Lord is my strength;

                                    He makes my feet like the deer’s;

                                    He makes me tread on my high places.”

(3:18-19)

            The whole world of faith funnels through that tiny word: yet. No matter what the political, economic, cultural or moral circumstances, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. No matter the weight of the burden on my soul, the fears that grab my heart, the uncertainties that plague my days or the tears that flow down my cheeks, yet, I will take joy in God.

            There is faith in that sort of stubborn joy. There is hope in that quiet yet.

            And there are unbelievable possibilities for mission in that hopeful, gospel-drenched joy. Our mission has not been changed a flicker because of an election. If anything, the necessity for making disciples by the spread of Jesus’ gospel is even more clear.

            How are we being heard? As whiners who lost and are marginalized? As megaphones for a political party or special interest agenda? Or as a people ever more confident in our God and the promise He holds out to all peoples?         

            Quiet joy in the face of certain defeat is upside-down and unexpected in our culture. It is compelling and mysterious. If we, evangelical Christians, would begin to “live by our faith”, to share honest, burdened yet peaceful, hopeful, joyful, God-ward faith in our coffee break conversations at work or with neighbors when talk turns to politics, culture or economics, I suspect questions would be raised.

            And when they ask, we can tell them of the gospel at our heart’s core, the sweet good news of Jesus that is the hope for change for all lives, all people, all countries, for all time and eternity.

            You see, we know that no matter our now, the story God is telling is not over…yet.

A Grid of Factors to Consider When Voting

It’s almost time to cast your vote. This is a presidential election that many people think is the most important in decades and has the potential to shape our society and future in profound ways.

Voting is part of your heritage and privilege as an American citizen.

So, go to the polls.

Voting is part of your responsibility as a Christian.

So pray as you go.

You may have made up your mind already. But there are a number of interlocking factors to consider. Not all are equivalent.

Consider which factors are shaping your vote…

+ the celebrity factor: some candidates enjoy celebrity, a standing of fame or

notoriety with the popular culture of musicians, actors, television personalities, etc. or with the thought leaders (commentators, etc) of a particular political philosophy, whether it be liberal or conservative. Celebrity is no qualification for elective office.

+the competence factor: every election is framed around challenges facing our nation: economic health (job creation, debt, health care), defense, foreign policy, legislative gridlock, etc. There are levels of intelligence, experience, perspective and team-building required to address them positively. Which candidate has demonstrated competence to deal with these issues in a way that is best for our nation?

+ the character factor: the candidates are men of a certain character, that becomes more evident in the stresses of a campaign. Character includes virtues like integrity, truthfulness, authenticity, humility, dependability, focus, selflessness, servanthood, stewardship, backbone, courage, wisdom and choice of companions/ advisors. Which candidate has demonstrated the depth and breadth of character necessary for this moment in our nation’s life?

+ the conviction factor: There are deeply held convictions or worldviews that shape so much outward behavior. Convictions are often matters of values, morality, ethics or social & cultural concern that arise from a man’s sense of faith and God. They are deeply personal. Convictions show up in matters concerning the sanctity of life (abortion, aging, disability), the nature of marriage and family, care for the poor, justice for the least, maintaining constitutional freedoms and more. Convictions can also shape the choice of Supreme Court justices and legislative agendas. Which candidate is demonstrating genuine, God-honoring convictions that will result in God-honoring behaviors?

+the chemistry factor: Anytime you hire a person, there is a consideration of chemistry with the current employees or the particular needs of that moment in the company’s life. A president is no different. There is chemistry, a match between a person and a moment. Which presidential candidate is the match for what our nation needs to positively move us through and beyond the next few years?

In all these cases, a Christ-follower would want to vote for a man who tracks most closely with the righteousness of God. Not that we are looking for a theocracy or for a pastor-in-chief, but that it is simply better to closely pursue the values of our Creator. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov.14:34)

However you vote, remember to trust our heavenly King who on Wednesday morning will still be reigning supreme – and good- on His eternal and unshaken throne.

      Are there any other factors that will inform your vote on Tuesday?

Our Most Endangered Species

         Today, 8000 experts from the Zoological Society of London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released a list of the one hundred most endangered species on the planet. It includes everything from a pygmy three-toed sloth on one island in Panama to the willow blister, a fungi found only in Wales. 

         The discussion about the preservation of these species revolves around perspectives about their relative value to human beings.   The director of the group that issued the report said “We have an important moral and ethical decision to make: do these species have a right to exist or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?”

            With all due respect to those who work to save the natural beauties of our planet, there is another moral and ethical decision that is most pressing for our culture. What we are rapidly driving to extinction is not a monkey or a bird or a beetle. No, we are witnessing the gradual disappearance of a simple and most basic virtue of a free society:

            Truth.

            Truth is a verified or indisputable fact or that which most evidently points to and conforms to reality.  We often hear it referred to as “the simple truth”.

            Too many places play fast and loose with truth.  For instance,

                        + baseball player Melky Cabrera was leading the National League in hitting when he was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.  On top  of that, he created a false web page to refute the charges. Victor Conte of BALCO, a known supplier of drugs to sports figures said that beating the test is “like taking candy from a baby.”

                        + Harvard University, the bastion and standard of of academic prowess in the United States is dealing with a massive cheating scandal.  Over 100 students are accused of collaborating on or plagiarizing answers on a take-home, open-note exam, in clear violation of the University’s honor code. Ironically,  the course was “Introduction to Congress”.

                        + A member of that same Congress (Al Franken), wrote a satirical book on politics called “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”. It raised the level of respect that 8th graders everywhere have for their elected officials. Not.

                        + Numerous teachers and administrators have been found guilty of manipulating standardized test scores to make schools look like they were making significant progress.  Last year, six high school seniors were found to have paid someone up to $2500 to take the SAT college entrance exam for them

                        + The Ashley Madison web site is specifically designed to assist married  persons to make the connections to cheat on their spouses.

                        + “Reality” television is often not; it is merely orchestrated      outrageousness.

                        + A Supreme Court decision has made it protected form of free speech for  any person to falsely claim orally, or in writing, “to have been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States.”  The decision effectively negated the Stolen Valor Act of 2006.

                        + And don’t even get me started on the entire political process of this election cycle. There is no genuine, substantive dialogue about the critical issues facing our nation –economic, diplomatic, civic, moral or social. From all sides— Republican, Democrat, and Independent—there is an endless succession of assertions (often of dubious fact), followed by spin, talking points and constant media manipulation.

            But here’s the thing: political dialogue requires simple truth. So does real education. And fair athletic competition. And lasting marriages. And genuine honor. And artistic expression. And a political process that results in a government marked by integrity and effective leadership that serves its citizens and helps the nation deal with challenges. 

            Why do we struggle with truth-telling? We could list lots of reasons: rationalization, pressure to succeed, avoidance of discomfort or to get around a barrier to desire, hunger for power, protection of reputation or cultivation of image, etc.

            Bottom line: as a people, we have, for the most part, lost a common standard by which we measure truth.  Truth requires an external standard, like a tape measure gives us an accurate measure of feet and inches in a space.

            What then, is our measure?

            Is there a perfect, external moral and ethical standard that can be applied across the board, to all people in all situations?

            Yes. 

            Our standard of truth arises from the God who created everything and to whom all persons, governments, situations and institutions are accountable. “Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him, “You will be proved right in what you say, and you will win your case in court.” (Rom. 3:4)

            Our standard of truth is revealed in the Word of God which is rational, understandable, totally true & trustworthy in all it affirms. ‘Lord…your word is truth….The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” (Jn. 17:17, Ps. 119:160)

            Our standard of truth is measured by a PersonJesus, the Son of God—and His gospel.  “Jesus said…I am the truth….if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 14:6, 8:31-32)

            So we simply ask three questions of any moment we speak, decide or consider:

                     1)    Does this match the character of Almighty God and         express submission to Him?

                  2)    Does this square with the written word of God?

                   3)    Is this consistent with God’s ways revealed in the life, ministry and gospel of Jesus?

            The conservation of truth must start somewhere, with someone.

            You do it.

            Be true.

            Speak truth.

            Choose truth.

            Live true.

 

What Happens If We Value Humanity?

            In a previous post, I wondered about the decline of respect for simple humanity and the impact it is having on so many aspects of our culture and of Christian ministry.  

            So, what is the alternative?

            Christians have, in many ways, struggled to express a balanced anthropology, or view of humanity.  Now to be sure, a commitment to the concept of depravity is right and true. The image of God in which we are created is distorted in us.  All human beings are rebel sinners, by nature and by choice.  Our lack of moral innocence shows up shockingly early in our lives.  There is “none righteous, no, not one”. We are marked by wickedness and selfishness, restless desires and foolish choices. There is utterly no hope for any of us to be fully human apart from the redeeming rescue of Jesus Christ.

            But….

            While the image of God is severely distorted, it has not been utterly destroyed. Isn’t this what the pro-life position vigorously affirms?  Every human being is “fearfully and wonderfully made”, purposefully shaped by the hand of the Creator, worthy of being treated with awe and dignity.

            And that doesn’t stop in the womb. The beauty and wonder of human life extends throughout all of life.  There are constant hints and reminders of the image of God in human beings.

            For instance, did you happen to catch the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics?  The costumes and sets were fanciful and strikingly original, displaying remarkable creativity that blended or blurred the lines between categories.  Colors, lighting, odd shapes and more made that event a delightful feast for the senses.

            The creativity of human beings is a reflection of their Creator. Read the first chapter of Ezekiel to get an idea of the odd creatures, unexpected shapes, colors and more that come from God.

            Or in the same vein, consider the beauty people can produce through landscaping their yards or refinishing kitchen cabinets or detailing a car or getting a new wardrobe.  Or note how often folks will point out the beauty of a sunset or a field of daisies or a cute baby or even a remodeled strip mall.

            Why? We are drawn to beauty, like an iron filing is drawn to a magnet. We appreciate it, enjoy it and want to be a part of producing it.  The beauty we pursue mimics the beauty God has already revealed in the world. 

            What caused people to drive hundreds of miles to join the candlelight vigil for the victims of the theatre shootings in Aurora, CO—when they didn’t know any of them personally? Or to rush into flood, fire and disaster zones to clean up, provide meals or just be a shoulder to cry on?

            That basic impulse towards compassion is an echo of the heart of the ‘God of all compassion”, who has a bias for people who are hurting.

            Why do people have an inner urge to elevate something to a place of ultimate meaning, to worship and engage something with abandon – even if it is falsely placed on a sports team, an entertainer, a hobby, a retirement fund, or a style?

            God has placed “eternity in the heart” of human beings.  We have a deep longing to connect and give ourselves to something beyond ourselves, and that inclination is a reminder of God’s intent for our souls.

            We express honest grief when a 7-month-old baby dies of SIDS, or a beloved grandfather ends his journey well beyond his “three-score and ten”, or when we hear another account of the anonymous (to us) hundreds dying in the civil war in Syria.

            Grief breaks our hearts because we value life so deeply.  On their most honest days, even animal rights activists and puppy-and-or-kitten-lovers admit that these human lives are of more value than any animal.

            Beyond that, there is the speechless wonder in Special Olympics athletes, in family caregivers for people with dementia, in parents who are patient with learning disabled children, in marriages that last decades, in steady work, in the elementary kids who cheered a boy named Matt Woodrum (whose left side has been twisted by cerebral palsy) to finish the 400-meter dash at his end-of-year field day (watch here—I dare you not to cry), in a preschooler’s crayon art on refrigerators, in researchers who work tirelessly for a breakthrough in a disease, in laughter over a meal with good friends, in the haunting tones of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, in nurses in the oncology unit….

            We could go on, but you get the point.  There is common grace and awe-full loveliness in and through ordinary people.   We still get the afterglow of the wonder of the moment when “the Lord God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7)

            C. S. Lewis put it this way:

            “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” (from The Weight of Glory)

            Now, what difference does this all of this make for Christian life and ministry, through individual Christ-followers and their gathered churches? It can adjust our attitude towards people—especially those who do not have a relationship with God.  All of the things of ordinary human life mentioned thus far could be said of pagans as well as the most committed Christians.  It seems important to be honest about the full reality of humanity: people are depraved but delightful, flawed and also lovely, sinners who are often sublime, corrupted and fascinating.  It is a staggering oxymoron, but holding the two in tension is essential to see people truly.

            Too often, we come across as if we are angry at sinners for being sinners (as if we are not). And too often, we act as if we do not really like people much at all.  

            But consider: if the humanity we see now is a flawed, corrupted, depraved, distorted version of the image of God, what is possible in a life that has been redeemed by the blood of the sacrifice of Jesus (1 Peter 1:18-19), purified for God’s own possession (Titus 2:14), reconciled to their Creator-King (Rom.5:10-11), and reborn as a “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24)?  Human potential is not what we can imagine, but what God alone has purposed for us in Christ by His gospel.

            So, wonder at ordinary people.  Love them as they are. Enjoy hanging out with them. Clearly share the gospel of Jesus so they can become new, the person who their Creator always meant them to be for now and eternity. And rejoice.

What Happens If We Reduce Humanity?

Foxconn is a massive Chinese company that manufactures the majority of the Apple products sold in this country.  They have over a million employees worldwide. At some individual factories in China, about 35,000 employees work brutally long shifts at astonishingly low wages to satisfy the West’s demands for I-Pods, I-Pads, Mac Pro laptops and more.

            Dealing with that many workers has its challenges. In recent months, there have been investigations about the labor practices at the primary Foxconn factory. Huge cafeterias and Spartan dormitories on site mean that many people literally live at work for days and even weeks at a time.  While some practices uniquely match the Chinese culture and mindset towards life, others have been considered abusive by observers from around the globe.

            So, Apple and Foxconn have had to make adjustments in their policies and practices to provide better conditions for the workers. But little by little, they have also been integrating more robots into their manufacturing process.

            Why? Certainly, there is an economic incentive. Robots can work 24-hour shifts for 365 days a year without so much as a coffee break. But there’s another reason. In an interview with a reporter from the NY Times last week, Foxconn chairman Terry Gou made this shocking statement:

“As human beings are also animals, to manage

one million animal gives me a headache.”

            The matter-of-fact supposition is that humans are merely animals. As mere animals, they can be trained, treated, used and replaced as animals.  And everybody knows that dealing with animals can be a real pain in the head and other places.

            This mentality towards humanity is the natural result of evolutionary theory, the ultimate implication of Darwinism. It does not elevate human beings as unique creations of breathtaking dignity, in which the simplest person is wonderfully lovely, worthy of respect and divinely stamped with the image of their Creator.       

            Instead it serves to reduce humanity.

            This reduction of humanity devalues individuals.  It cools our hearts to any sense of respectful wonder in considering or relating to a person.  It draws us to treat persons as mere tools for our production, toys for our pleasure, or toeholds to advance our agenda.  It can trivialize human life until we confuse all categories of life as equivalent, ie “a baby is an aardvark is a butterfly is a narwhal is a hummingbird”.

            What’s alarming is that this reduction of humanity is no longer a fringe viewpoint. It is showing up with increasing frequency, in many different areas of our culture. For example, humanity is reduced when we

            + embrace broad generalizations attaching  labels to any person on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, religion or socio-economic level.

            + choose violence –physical or verbal – as a means of dealing with conflict.

            + use language about others that is untrue, unkind, unloving or uncalled for.

            + treat bloody and sadistic violence as entertainment (movies and video games).

            + root our humor in put-downs, innuendo, cynicism, crudeness and rudeness that target another person’s life, family, failures or foibles.

            + view sexuality as the totality of a person’s identity, a marketing tool to move product, or an individual fantasy limited only by one’s imagination—with no responsibility for  broader consequences.

            + ignore children as a nuisance, abuse them as disposable or insist that   they think, feel and act like experienced adults long before puberty

            + treat older adults as bothersome, out-of-touch geezers rather than being worthy of respect and a seasoned source of wisdom

            + become desensitized to the poor, left-out, forgotten, weak, unremarkable, least and last in our society.

            + tolerate politicians who are disingenuous, campaign by tearing down opponents with lies and half-truths, and say (or allow) anything to get elected.

            + lose sight of the wonder of life in the womb, or in a person with Down’s Syndrome, or in someone with a failing mind in a wheelchair in the nursing home hallway, or in the person who embodies the exact opposite of your beliefs and values at every turn.  

            You see, reducing humanity takes a toll on individuals and families, and eventually on the very fabric of our society. Why?

             If people matter less, we are all reduced. 

             If we are all reduced, we are all devalued.

             If human beings are devalued in a society, 

 the moral value of everything else in that society is skewed. 

     When the moral values of a society are skewed,

  the choices of that society will be morally distorted.

When the choices of a society are morally distorted,

             the society will crumble from the inside out, 

                 and the people of that society will suffer.

 

            We are not just animals, perched on the top step of the evolutionary ladder .  God said He made us a little lower than God (Ps. 8:5) It’s crucial for our survival as a society that at every level, we find a way to elevate (and celebrate!) the value and mysterious wonder of merely being human.  More on that next time.

 

            In what ways do you see humanity reduced around you? Are you aware of it at an emotional level?

 

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