Friday, December 28, 2012

God Was Right


                Thinking more about what happened in Newtown. I heard about the family of one of the victims; they issued a statement that said that they were praying for the family of the murderer. That’s not the only time I’ve heard about that kind of unfathomable forgiveness. There was a lady whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She not only forgave the guy but now tours the country with him, speaking to groups about how real the dangers of drunk driving are. Every once in a while you’ll hear about stories like this, where the family of some murdered son or daughter publicly forgives the murderer.

                While I was at home over Christmas my dad and I started talking about Sandy Hook and how horrible it was. He then brought up the Biblical story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard. King Ahab wants the land of this Israelite named Naboth so that he can have a garden close to his palace, but Naboth says no. So Ahab gets and his wife, Queen Jezebel notices. She asks what the problem is and when he tells her, she says “Is this how a king acts? Cheer up, I’ll get that vineyard for you!”So she arranges for a couple of people to give false testimony saying that Naboth committed blasphemy. He’s tried, convicted and executed for a crime that never happened just so that Ahab could get some land. Naboth had family. He was a son, he had parents, and, in all likelihood, brothers and sisters, maybe sons and daughters who loved him, a wife. He had friends, people who cared for him, and suddenly he is ripped out of their hands so that some guy on a power trip, a guy who already has more land than he knows what to do with, doesn’t have to walk so far for his carrots.

                So, Elijah, a prophet of God, comes and confronts Ahab with what he’s done. Ahab begins to feel guilty and he repents, asks God for forgiveness. What happens next, though, is beyond comprehension. God forgives him.

                God forgives, it’s what He does. He is irritatingly, irrationally, maddeningly gracious, and although we can’t truly be sure of what the state of Adam Lanza’s soul is right now; we can be sure that if he had asked God for forgiveness, God would have forgiven him.

                That is nearly unthinkable.

                That is who God is.

                God is right.

                As much as we don’t want or like to think about it; murderers are humans. Just like all who sin – murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, dictators, and all the rest – they’re all humans. They all had mothers who looked down into their eyes and wondered in amazement at the life in their hands. They all had fears, hopes, things that made them happy and sad. Many of them had genetic or psychological problems that they had no control over which caused imbalances that they didn’t know how to handle. Some went through horrible and abnormal circumstances that caused them to approach reality with a psychological limp. Others were just like you or I who made one seemingly rational decision after another, following, in baby steps, a path that anyone of us, under similar circumstances, might have followed. Walk a mile . . . They are people. People that God made, who God loved, and who God died for.

                We as a society love progress. We like to think that generation after generation we are building toward something. Something good; something righteous. I believe that what we are building toward, whether we know it and admit it or not, is utopia. We all want to live in a world where we love our work, where suffering is at a minimum, where people don’t die too young, where evil doesn’t threaten our lives, etc. etc. But we will never reach that utopia until we understand, as a society, that God and His irrational forgiveness is right.

                By definition, utopia is a place where evil does not exist, or is, at least, kept to a minimum. To de-humanize is evil. To forget that criminals are humans is evil. Forgiveness is a necessary component of utopia, and we can never build that perfect society without it. Further, we cannot embody God’s Spirit if we cannot follow in His forgiveness. The parable of the servants and their debt comes to mind. We cannot rightfully call ourselves Christians if we don’t follow in the steps of Him who died for liars, thieves and murderers.

                God forgave Ahab.

                God was right.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Identity


                After observing humanity for some time, through general observation in the real world as well as watching humans portray humans in movies, on television, in books, literature, and music, I have come to believe that the way we perceive ourselves and our identity is one of the chief determiners of our behavior. My evidence is purely anecdotal, mostly from personal experience of seeing people misbehave and wondering why they did so; but I’ve come up with a theory. I will use myself as a hypothetical example. Let us say that I see myself as a smart and handsome man’s man, who is successful at his job and popular everywhere he goes (again this is a hypothetical example). This is, then, my self-image; it’s who I see myself as being; it is my identity. What happens then when I lose my job? What happens if I lose my income, and with it my friends? What happens, after that, if I meet someone else who is smarter, and or better looking than I, maybe younger, more in his prime and more on the cutting edge of new research? What happens if, one by one, all the wonderful things that I characterized myself with are pulled away from me? I have nothing; I am suddenly adrift, searching for my identity and for my value as a human being.

                This is what I see happening almost constantly all around me. People see themselves in a certain light; they have latched their identity onto certain characteristics or ideas. They know that if these identities are lost, then they will be, like my hypothetical self, lost and adrift, valueless and purposeless. Because of this, they guard their identity jealously, willing to go to great lengths to assure themselves that they really are who they think they are or who they want to be.  This can cause problems.

                Have you ever known that guy who always has to be right, has to “know” every fact, has to win every argument? Have you ever wondered why he does that? Maybe it’s because he sees himself as “the smart guy.” If someone else is smarter than he is, then that threatens the image he has of himself. It makes him uncomfortable and he feels a need to assert himself.

                Have you ever known a boss who simply cannot, for some reason, abide any questioning of his decisions? Have you known a boss who can’t let her subordinates have good ideas? Could it be that this boss grounds their identity in success or power? Who are they if they are not successful? What do they have left if their subordinates pass them up, or make them look bad?

                Have you ever known a girl or guy whose vanity knows no bounds?  Or the girl who has to be the center of all the most important social circles? Have you ever known the guy who simply cannot ask for help?

                 A person will do a lot to defend their identity. It seems to me our willingness to destroy, tear down, suppress, vilify, or defraud others in the interest of defending our identities is the root of much of our society’s dysfunction. This tendency can, ultimately cause not only irritation and social annoyance, but pain and destruction. The problem is that there is no ability or characteristic that we can possibly claim that is not vulnerable to the encroachments of others. There is nothing by which we may define ourselves that cannot be taken away from us. Nothing except Christ.

                By creating us and declaring us to be good; and subsequently by coming for us and dying on the cross to save us, God effectively ended the argument of our worth. If God says that we are worth dying for, then we have a value that no one and nothing can ever take away. No matter what anyone does or says to us or about us; no matter what happens to us or what we are or are not able to do, Christ died for us. Christ thought enough of me and you to undergo one of the most excruciating deaths anyone can possibly endure, all with the sole aim of getting to spend time with us; with me; with you. Nothing can change that.

                How does that change your relationships? How much better are we able to interact with people when we no longer have to use, abuse, and destroy one another in futile attempts to prove our own self-worth? How might our relationships be better if we were able to come into them from the foundation of our secure identity in Christ; if we were able to stop seeing one another as threats and start seeing each other through the eyes of Christ? What kind of world could we live in if we were all able to approach each other from this standpoint? I think I’d like that world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Time


                So, yesterday something horrible happened. Today we’re all searching for answers, for causes, for something to make some sort of sense out of it. I don’t have any of those answers.

                Some are going to dive headlong into various debates about public policy, rights, and administration. This will, no doubt, spark conversations about gun control, school policies about security, and maybe even human rights discussions concerning mental health issues, records, disclosure and therapy. These discussions are important and need to be tackled; but I don’t think that they can really address the root of what is happening in our nation.

                This year we have had three major shootings in our nation. Over the past 15 years or so, public shooting rampages have become somewhat of an epidemic.

                Two days ago I committed a sin. It was a behavior that many would not consider out of the ordinary, but for me it is a sin. This behavior hurt me, hurt my family, hurt my relationship with God, and will no doubt hurt my friends, even if they never realize it.

                My sin and this shooting epidemic are indirectly linked[1] because they are products of the same culture. We have a problem in America; and it is not our policies, our politics, our parties, our classes, or our laws. Our problem is in our hearts.

                I have found, with my own sinful tendencies, that character cannot be molded by rules and regulations. Character may be suppressed by laws for a time, but, like alcohol during prohibition, it will always find a way to express itself. We will never be able to make enough rules to change who we are; and no matter what kind of policy changes we make, new security measures we enact, or opportunities we take away, a mentally unstable individual will be able to find a way to act out on his or her delusions. I have found that there is only one answer to the problem of evil; and that is God.

                Evil is not something that is external to us. It is not embodied by Satan. It is not rooted in the oft-maligned “them,” nor is it the exclusive policy of either democrats or republicans. We cannot defeat evil through the ballot box or on the congressional debate floor. Just like the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Evil exists within our hearts; it is in us; and it is in our hearts that evil must be conquered.

                The problem that our nation is experiencing is a problem of culture. Culture is really nothing more than the collective weight of a million individual decisions made by millions of individual people in individual situations. The only way that culture changes is for those individual people to make different choices.

                School shootings are a product of our culture, and as such, they are a product of those millions of individual decisions. It is a monumental mistake to think that we as individuals are not at fault for the shooting epidemic that has gripped our nation because our individual choices are part of that collective consent, a collective complicity. My own poor choices from just two days ago are part of the tilled cultural ground from which our cultural problems grow.

                I am not defined by the mistakes of yesterday, but by the forgiveness of today. We are not defined by the good we failed at, but by the good we attempted to do. I am not defined by my poor choices, but by God’s grace. We are not defined by how we have fallen, but by the one who was raised up, on a cross, for us. Now, with the after-image of evil still burning in our vision, it is time to let that forgiveness, that grace, that love flow through us and define our world; it is time to let our individual choices be determined and defined by the same love that gave itself up for us. That is the only way in which evil is conquered; that is how we change the world.



[1] I should make it clear that my sinful behavior has nothing to do with guns, shooting, depression, physical violence or anything else remotely a part of these shooting rampages.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why I'm not a Particularist


                Last week I talked about pluralism and why I cannot ascribe to the idea that “all paths reach the same summit.” Pluralism is a particular religion with a particular truth claim which is, at heart, atheistic. Today, I’d like to alienate still more readers by arguing the other side of the coin. Today, I’m going to explain why I think there will be non-Christians in Heaven.

                First, the Bible sets the threshold for salvation exceedingly low:
Luke 7: 50 Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Luke describes a prostitute who comes to Jesus and pours perfume over his feet. The Pharisee with whom he was eating scoffed at Jesus for allowing a “sinful woman” to touch him. After a parable about debts, Jesus extols the prostitute’s actions and declares that her sins are forgiven. When the Pharisee questions his authority to forgive sins Jesus speaks the above words of 7:50. What was her faith in? Was it faith that Jesus was light from light, true God of true God; that he was begotten not made? Was it that He would die on the cross and three days later rise again? No, she knew nothing of this. Her faith was the simplest and barest of hopes that she might be accepted, not because of her own righteousness, but because of God’s grace and Jesus’ mercy. Jesus did not quiz her on theology before forgiving her, he saw the faith she had in the love of God, and that was enough. Faith in the grace of God saves us.

Acts 2:21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'
Paul quotes this same passage, originally from Joel, in Romans. In Joel the promise was restricted to the survivors still left in Jerusalem after a great invasion. Peter, speaking here in Acts, extends the promise to all the Jewish people. Paul then specifically extends the promise to all people saying in verse 12 “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,”.

Pluralism says that God is like a wise old man sitting up on top of a mountain, waiting for the people of the valley to come up to him so that he may bestow upon them the gift of salvation. Any way you can scale the mountain is fine because though there are many paths, there is but one summit. I believe that this analogy has one major flaw. It gives us too much credit. We, in our sinful and broken frame of mind and body are purely unable to scale the mountain. We have fallen too far, our instincts are too base and animalistic, the mountain is too steep, and our arms are too frail. Evil is too sticky, and greed is too pervasive. There is a categorical difference between holy God and finite humanity that we are wholly unable to cross. God, however, is able to cross that gap.

The Pluralistic “God” is not a god of love; how can he be if he never raises a finger to help the penitent who seek him? The true God of love came down off the mountain to unite His divinity with our humanity, bridging the gap between God and humans and lifting us up to the summit of salvation. He made a way for us. That way is recorded in the Bible and is the content of the Christian gospel, or evangelos (good news). This is what John refers to in John 10:19
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.
So then, asks the skeptical pluralists, what of all the poor people who don’t know about the Christian gospel or who aren’t equipped to realize its truth? They are all just callously tossed into Hell? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not the judge and it’s not my place to decide that; however, I will give you my non-dogmatic opinion.

I believe that God loved us so much that He sent His only Son to die for us. I believe that He did this for love, so that we might commune together. That said, I cannot fathom that He would love us so much as to die for us, but then turn His back because we weren’t equipped to pass a pop quiz on theology. The Bible speaks over and over again about how it is by faith that we are saved, that all who call on the name of the Lord are saved, and I wonder what that really means.

Maybe “faith in God” is not synonymous with “believing the historic story of the factual details of Jesus’ life.” Maybe you don’t need to know the name of a gate to be able to cross through it. Maybe our faith is in the grace and love of God. Maybe our confession need not be of every sin called such in Scripture but rather of our human frailty and inability to achieve salvation on our own. Maybe trust means throwing as much of yourself as you can into the hands of God, as much as you know of Him, with as much abandon as you can muster.

C.S. Lewis, in The Last Battle, tells of the end of the world when all the righteous creatures of Narnia go to commune with Aslan and the great King Beyond the Sea. As they go, they see a man from Calormene going with them, and they are confused. Didn’t this Calormene deny Aslan? Didn’t he follow the evil god Tash? Aslan says to the Calormene “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me . . . For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn.”[1]

The idea is that what truly distinguishes the believer from the non-believer is not a body of knowledge or factual acceptance but rather what is in the heart. It is the difference between those who rely on their own merit and those who rely on God’s grace and love; those who are focused on their own fulfillment, desires and goals vs. those who are focused on God’s glory, His desires, and His kingdom. It might be termed a difference between humanism and theism, or, since those terms are already used for other purposes, anthropocentrism and theocentrism.

So then, one might ask, what is the purpose of evangelism. Tell me, if two men are lost in a forest and one has a vague notion, by the sun and stars, which direction to go; while the other has in addition to this, a map and compass; even if both make it to safety, which one will have an easier time of it? Which one will make it out quicker and be able to turn around and help rescue others? This is the difference between salvation and Christianity. I believe that you may be saved without knowing all the theological facts; I also believe that it is better to know the theological facts, to read explicitly in the Bible what God’s goals are so that we may be working towards the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.

So, last week I explained why I’m not a Pluralist; now you know why and how I am not a particularist.



[1]  C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle. (New York: Harper Collins, 1984) 205.