Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Little Bit of "Worm" Theology

John Vasconcellos died this past May. Most of you don't know him, but this powerful California legislator was a very common name back in the late 1980s when he led the creation of and chaired the state's "Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility." This monumentally misguided effort introduced all sorts of self-esteem mandates to the California public schools, believing that low self-esteem was the root cause of crime, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and nearly every other social ill. He helped the state's "crazy" image, but gave voice to what many secretly believed--the solution to our deepest problems is lack of self-esteem: we all should believe in ourselves!

Even among Christian thinkers, this kind of positive attitude led many to caricature and demonize older theological minds that often spoke of the smallness and even "vileness" of the human heart. It was called "worm" theology, from OT references by Job to himself as a "worm, and not a man" and echoes of this in the Psalms. The idea is one of self-abasement and humiliation, and was picked up on in an number of old hymns.

Such an attitude, it was thought, was unduly negative for those who are the crown of God's creation--his very image. Sadly, this kind of "either/or" thinking has led us to a continuing dearth of balance in our thinking about ourselves, and more importantly, of God.

Don't get me wrong. We should take great joy in the fact that "God loves us right now, as we are." He is always compassionate to us when we come to him, no matter what our state. But, as the rest of the thought needs to go, "He loves us too much to leave us as we are." For the way in which we come to God, whenever we come, is less than what it it meant to be. 

John Owen has two very practical pieces of advice for those of us seeking to "mortify" (a nice word for "kill") sin--"Think greatly of the greatness of God" is the first. We ought to fill our minds with the biblical imagery of God as highly exalted above and beyond us, of his perfections, his holiness, his zeal for his own people and name, and so on. Secondly, make sure you also fill your mind and thoughts with the guilt of the sin you seek to eradicate from your life. Don't be so quick to pass over just how offensive it is to God, how much it grieves the Spirit, the price Jesus paid to free you from it, and the lack of holiness and ability to be "righteous" that you have on your own. Unless you really hate your sin, you won't want to kill it, only tame it. And sin will not be tamed.

It is this thinking on one's own inability and remaining sin that undoes "self-esteem," and requires us to develop a higher "God-esteem." Generally, sinners do not need to learn to think better of themselves, they need to think worse of themselves and better of Christ who is making us into something we are not by nature--saints!

Friday, September 12, 2014

9/11, Remembering and Wondering...

I'm writing this note on Thursday, September 11, 2014 (yesterday by the time you read this). It's Patriot Day officially, the day we recall attacks on airplanes that led to the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, much of the Pentagon, and a lone airliner crashing in Pennsylvania. 

There was a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit the first tower. Flags are at half mast. Remembrances have appeared all over Facebook, as well as pictures of the towers, before, during, and after the attack. Many talked about where they were at that time, and what they remember. One friend was on his way to mail a letter. He never did. He lost 9 acquaintances in the towers and Pentagon. Others talked about not leaving their TVs, and wondering what else was going on. For those of us in California, we woke up to the towers on fire, and I wasn't even dressed before the first one came down. Various people I knew, including missionaries, were in the midst of international travel and were basically locked in place for days. Meanwhile there were no planes overhead except fighter jets.Many stories began to emerge of people who were going to be in the towers or on those planes but were not. And then there were the stories of people who wound up there at the last minute, thinking they had gotten "lucky." One particular story belonged to one of my church members in Santa Clarita. George is a United Airlines pilot, and flew the Boston to LA route that month. As it turns out, the rotation was such that he was scheduled to fly on September 12. Had the attack been one day later, it would have been his plane.I still remember Todd Beamer's story, told by his wife, Lisa, and the phone call from his hijacked plane that gave us that memorable line, "Let's roll!"There were so many stories we heard in the aftermath of that day--stories of bravery, of self-sacrifice, of courage, and of faith. It was a horrible day that yielded so many individual evidences of extraordinary acts of heroism.It was a little more than a month later that I was catching a flight back to LA from Seattle when the news broke that we were attacking Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. All the passengers in the newly created extra security lines were more nervous as they heard the commentators talking about Osama bin Laden. The war that began then still drags on--even as we have sought to disengage from it. 

By the week after 9/11, we were already hearing some calling for all out war against every suspected enemy, and others saying that we must show mercy as a nation and turn the other cheek--war was not the answer. People were expressing confused ideas. So I preached on justice and mercy, what the Bible says to governments and individuals about both, and the difference between justice and vengeance. I called on us to think biblically even as we dealt with our own reactions. President Bush was "our president" no matter the party at first. His words at the national  memorial services and on the rubble at the World Trade Center made everyone proud. But politics revived, and national unity foundered as the Patriot Act was debated, and disappeared as the Iraq war went beyond the defeat of Saddam to "nation building." Politics seemed to trump any thought of national unity or resolve. Neither of those commodities seem to have been recovered since then. President Bush was not just wrong in the eyes of his detractors, he was evil. Now the same is true for President Obama. People who had been first in line to promote the war now were falling all over themselves to say they really hadn't favored it. Now we see a President elected on the promise to get us out of Iraq, who did so very quickly, but now is having to decide how to respond to what happened in the vacuum we left. I see people posting notes today saying that we were attacked but emerged stronger and more united. I wish that were the case, but I don't see a lot of national strength of will (we don't know what to do), or national character (we don't know right from wrong). We seem to have developed a patriotism that is more akin to wishful thinking.What has made America unique (and I would argue great) was that God, in his providence, allowed a nation to come into being that was powerfully shaped in its founding by principles and ideals largely derived from Scripture (even when those espousing them didn't see or acknowledge that). Believing that mankind generally and governments especially were prone to evil when empowered, they crafted a republic of laws, divided power (both nationally among branches of government and between the nation and states), individual liberties and rights, and made citizens sovereign. It was an incredibly novel experiment that worked. And while we have never been a "Christian nation," we have historically been a nation that acknowledged the God of Christians and Jews as God over the nation, though not enforcing any state religion. This "God sense" permeates our history, culture, songs, and ideas of morality--even when we ignored those ideas in our actions. This is what made the US a nation of "do-gooders" through much of our history. It also is why we were such a desirable target for those who associate a god and a religion with a nation, and see all of life as a contest between religions. We survived. But so did our enemies. One might argue that they control more people and geography now than they did in 2001. Parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Libya, other pockets of north and eastern Africa--these are now places where enemies of our nation thrive. Add Iran, Cuba, and North Korea to the mix as well. Qatar funds terrorists. Wahhabi Islam (a militant branch bent on global expansion and virulently anti-Christian) is largely funded worldwide by its strongest adherents, the royal family of Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, since 9/11 (and even before) the effort to gut the God-awareness from our national consciousness has only sped up.

Our nation's enemies do not think of the aftermath of 9/11 as a defeat, any more than Israel's Palestinian foes do. They just see this as a continuing battle, where we've not been able to defeat them.

After the fall of communism in the 1990's, people talked about the "end of history" and America as the world's only superpower. And though it was only a faint shadow of what it had been, there was still a residue of moral fiber instilled from our past. As one who knows that history is headed toward judgment, I remember wondering when our inevitable decline from that singular dominance in the world would come. I now wonder if 9/11 was that turning point? I don't know. I was born after America's first stalemate at war (Korea). I was raised during the time of our first defeat (Vietnam). I rejoiced to see the end of the Cold War as Communism crumbled in Europe and the former Soviet Union. As we mark another 9/11, I think about victories that have turned sour in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the current butchery of ISIS. My heart is not filled with nationalistic pride or belief that we will always win.

Instead, I'm praying for a nation that was given so many providential blessings and advantages, but has lost its way and its soul (if one can speak of a nation having one). Perhaps the growing danger of the world that is coming home to us will be God's instrument to awaken repentance and faith. Maybe our abandonment of the national "civic religion" that acknowledged but did not truly submit to God will open the way for the true Gospel to stand out boldly and lead to the true conversion of many. Let us hope that we who believe that all the nations of this world are ultimately under the power of the evil one will abandon the false hopes we have had in government, politicians, and military might. These are all adequate for specific earthly tasks assigned by God to rulers, but they all make terrible saviors.

I'm remembering those stories that need to be remembered, and praying that I might be as true to my Lord, my family and friends, and my neighbors as countless numbers were  to theirs on that unforgettable day.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ray Rice Saga: Hearing vs. Seeing

Ever since last spring, it has been well known that Ray Rice, 7 year veteran running back of the
Baltimore Ravens, had been in a fight with his then-fiancee (and now wife) in an Atlantic City casino.  What was known (and seen in a previously released video) was that she had slapped him, and he followed her into an elevator. It had also been seen in the same early video that Rice dragged his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator. Rice was charged for his actions, but before trial was accepted into a diversion program. The National Football League took a lot of heat from a number of groups for only giving Rice a two game suspension. Rice, according to all reports expressed remorse and sorrow over the incident. He was straightforward in interviews with the league and with his team about what went on--how he had hit his fiancee and she had been knocked out. She sat next to him when he held a press event to apologize. She married him. And though many were still very upset about the light penalty he had experienced, it looked like the matter was history.

Then a gossip website/TV show released the video from inside the elevator. No new facts were released. No new information was gained. But the sight of a football player throwing a punch and a woman being knocked unconscious, left on the floor, and then dragged out of an elevator became the big news story of the day. By noon, Rice was released by his team, and minutes later, suspended indefinitely by the league.

I have a number of reactions to all of this. First, I was in agreement that the league had done much too little to punish Rice's behavior earlier. Second, I think the punishment Rice now faces is correct. Third, I was impressed by his coach who said he had been talking to Rice, and that he and his wife stood ready to help Mr. and Mrs. Rice, and would be praying for them--hoping that this couple that seemed to be working on their personal matters would succeed.

But one major reaction I have is the power of what we see over what we know through written or spoken report. Ray Rice had told investigators from various places that he had punched his fiancee. According to one spokesman in the investigations, Rice didn't "sugarcoat it." But seeing him do what he said he did caused players who had been previously silent to jump on social media to call for his banning. Reporters on ESPN could hardly get air time fast enough to join the ban bandwagon.   Everyone, including the President of the United States, had to weigh in.

I don't disagree that he should be out of the game. What he did was horrendous. But why could our society not understand that truth from words, but only from images? I wonder what would have happened if a now retired football player who went to prison for killing a man would have been celebrated and idolized at his retirement or during his career if there had been video of the crime?

We have known for a long time that video footage has incredible power to change perspective, just as photographs did in an earlier era. They don't make something more true (and we know from sad history that photos and videos can be altered to promote false narratives). But our visceral reaction to visual imagery changes the equation almost every time.

In this case, the video of Ray Rice's assault will forever shape his life and our perceptions of him. It has, at least for now, ended his career. That is fair. It may make keeping his marriage together harder. That is sad. And having gone viral, we have no idea what cultural impact it will have. That is sobering.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Tomorrow's Worries

“Don’t worry about tomorrow…tomorrow will worry about itself.”  Jesus, in Matthew 6:34

I’ve often wondered about this verse, and two things, one small and one not, have made me think about it again. The small thing is my son’s specific interest in the reference, and so this is for you, Nathan.

The bigger matter is life—specifically the near-daily onslaught of bad news, global and personal. News from around the world is particularly grim—wars, rumors of wars, atrocities, Christian persecution, racial tensions, and a
general message of helplessness coming from political leaders with serious speeches and no actions. I have a daughter and nephew in the military. I have a son in law who is a police officer. I have friends in many of the affected regions.

Worry creeps into the picture. What kind of world is this? Are children—including mine—going to be safe? Will my friends be harmed? Are Christians going to be silenced? Will our nation become a powerless observer of world evil, will war erupt and envelope much of the world again, or both?

At first blush, this verse sounds almost fatalistic—and these words, spoken outside this context would indeed be fatalistic. But Jesus is not saying that “que sera, sera” should be your thinking. The immediate context of Matthew 6 before this is about God’s amazing  and specific provision and direction of all things for the good of his creation generally and his people particularly. The preceding verse tells us to “seek first” God’s kingdom and righteousness, and what God provide what is needed as you pursue him. This means that the correct response to circumstance is not worrying about what is going on around us or what we need, but trusting in our Father’s understanding and provision. If we are pursuing God, Jesus says, everything else that we need will be taken care of as he sees fit.

Alright, but what about tomorrow’s needs or problems? We may be OK right now, but there are clouds on the horizon. I maybe safe right now, and my needs met, but just for today. Such thinking about what may come tomorrow will rob us of our joy in God’s provision today. So Jesus takes these commonly used words and gives them a better context. “Tomorrow and its needs? That’s tomorrow, not today. God has taken care of you for today. Seek him. And since when you wake up tomorrow it will be “today” you will have what you need then.” As another old saying goes, “tomorrow never comes.”

Tomorrow isn’t your reality—today is. So, don’t be worrying about tomorrow’s needs, tomorrow’s crises, tomorrow’s questions. In most cases, they won’t materialize as you anticipate. In every case, God has said he takes care of you—right now. Tomorrow’s worries? Let “tomorrow” have them, because God is with you today. Pray about future needs, and give those things to the Lord, but worry should be “permanently postponed,” because you are trusting in your God today.