Recently a story about hackers gaining access to electronic photos of nude celebrities really rattled me. What, after all, would I do if hackers gained access to my electronic photos? I’d hate for pictures of my glorious naked body to go public. Wait, I don’t have any photos of my glorious naked body. Nobody does (except those lascivious TSA agents at the airport). But seriously, many people blamed Apple and the hackers as the bad guys in this incident. Granted, quite a few people blamed the celebrities for taking and storing naked pictures of themselves. Wherever you point the finger of shame and blame, it can’t be denied that technology is revealing unsavory human behavior that heretofore remained mostly hidden.
When the public saw the elevator video of NFL football player Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend out with a brutal punch, the finger pointing went viral. Fortunately I have heard nobody condone Rice’s punch heard around the world. Rice’s punch in no way resembled those old comic images of Ralph Kramden flashing his fist and threatening “To the moon, Alice.” Domestic violence is a serious issue that deserves attention. Yet during the brouhaha over the Rice video I noticed the following statement by Christopher L. Gasper in the Boston Globe:
“The coaches, the general managers, the owners, the commissioner don’t really want to know what malice their players are capable of off the field, as long as they’re producing for them.”
Many fans feel the same way. In fact, I’ve heard some NFL fans decry Rice’s domestic violence and in the same breath the NFL for policing the morality of its players off the field. Leave issues of vice and criminality to the police, they say. Indeed, some NFL teams have taken this stance. But leaders of the NFL want to maintain the image of professional football as the clean cut all-American game (though some of the players have redefined clean cut). The NFL wants football to remain something for the entire family to watch. And what a splendid job the NFL has done with its image. Why, even NFL cheerleaders look like the girls you’d see at choir practice.
Sarcasm aside, aren’t most of us guilty of looking the other way when it comes to human flaws in the purveyors of our preferred entertainment? And yet in this brave new world of diminishing privacy it will grow increasingly difficult to look the other way. Technology’s prying eyes are a disconcerting reminder that even though much has been gained through technology, much has been lost. Specifically, we can no longer take privacy for granted. On the positive side, it will be more difficult to lie and keep our secrets. As the Good Book says, “. . . your sin will find you out.” Technology giveth and technology taketh away.
As an endangered species (a male homosapien who cares little for professional sports) I find myself pondering how adults can believe that issues of unchecked immorality won’t eventually infect the performance of even the most gifted athletes and celebrities. Sin resists compartmentalization in our life. It wants to spread like a virus. Genesis 4:7 warns us that sin waits at the door ready to strike. We don’t get to tell sin it can wait by some doors in our life but not others, such as the door to our career where our performance is excellent. That’s vanity. The destructive nature of sin seeks out areas where it can wreak the most damage. The only antidote is confession, repentance, and Christ.
So, to all those fans who just want entertainment without questions of morality muddying the waters: good luck with that.
If you have the stomach to watch the news lately, you know that Michael Brown, a young black man, was recently shot and killed during an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This tragic event (whether it has anything to do with racism or not) inspired me to ponder if ethnocentrism still rears its ugly head in the modern church. Thinking back on my years in the pew, the answer is sometimes yes.
I once knew a worship pastor on the leadership team of a church plant. The church plant was located in a multi-ethnic community. After a couple of years, the worship pastor unexpectedly resigned and moved back home to an almost entirely white region of North America. A mutual friend later told me that the worship pastor had moved because he felt uncomfortable in a multi-ethnic community.
I know of one church that partnered with a smaller ethnic church in the same denomination. They shared the same building. The minority church, for many years, had to schedule their worship and their events around the needs and schedule of the dominant church, which was mostly white. The children from the minority congregation were criticized for being more unruly and messy than the children of the dominant church. Some leaders of the dominant church talked down to the pastor of the minority church. The dominant church didn’t think twice about expecting the minority church to make last minute changes to better accommodate the operation of the dominant church. Don’t get me wrong, the minority pastor had his flaws. All humans do. But most of the congregation in the dominant church remained oblivious to these discrepancies. They would be appalled if you accused them of racism. They take pride in being a multi-ethnic friendly congregation.
While visiting a church in another region of the country, I was told of some in the congregation who were enthusiastic that a smattering of black families had started attending services in their church, a church that had been white since its inception. Unfortunately some in the church looked askance at this change in the makeup of the congregation.
Granted, some of these suspect behaviors might have nothing to do with racism. For instance, it could be that the dominant church leaders who were critical of the ethnic church were merely jerks or self-centered and didn’t have a racist bone in their body. Either way it had the appearance of bigotry, albeit subtle.
I think these scenarios are more prevalent across churches in America than most Christians would like to admit. It makes us uncomfortable because we prefer to think the children of the Lord have moved beyond the ugly sin of racism. We don’t like to gaze deep into our hearts and think about how we view and treat people who do not share our skin color. Do we feel like we are better than them, like our race somehow has it more together? Yes, that’s a disconcerting question . . . especially if you were raised in a family that held these insidious views when you were growing up. How much of it rubbed off?
Tension naturally exists between what we know Christ would have us feel towards others and the way we have formulated an all-too-human (and flawed) opinion and stereotype about other races. Laws, protests, movements, and policies can help restrain racism, but ultimately they can’t fix the human heart. Only Christ can do that, and it must be modeled by the church. As an aside, America is not the problem; the human heart is the problem. I do not deceive myself into thinking America is perfect. She is not. But America has the best system in the world to live out “all men are created equal” . . . if her citizens join Christ in confronting sin in their hearts.
When a celebrity like Robin Williams commits suicide, ostensibly due to struggles with depression, public discussion about mental illness becomes a hot topic . . . for a while. Everybody has an opinion, but it is difficult for people who do not have depression to understand the disease.
All people have days or life situations that trigger sadness or depression. But the clinically depressed, such as me, don’t necessarily experience a trigger or causation. It can come on without warning and little can blunt the edge of the depression, other than anti-depression medication. During a bout of depression, I feel as if I’ve lost part of my connection to the world. The ability to enjoy anything, or any other emotion, dissipates. I’ve heard some people describe it like falling down a dark well with no bottom in sight. For me, I can see the wind blowing in the branches, but it’s like watching it on TV with the volume turned off.
One of the most frustrating things for many depressed people happens when the un-depressed try to get us to do things that would lift their spirits if THEY felt gloomy. This does not often work. Recently the humor site BuzzFeed posted “15 Things You Shouldn’t Say To Someone Struggling With Depression.” Here they are:
1. Other people have it much worse than you do.
2. You’ll feel better tomorrow.
3. Life isn’t fair.
4. You just have to deal with it.
5. Life goes on.
6. I know how you feel, I was depressed once.
7. You’re being selfish.
8. Go out, have fun, have a drink, and forget about it.
9. You’re bringing me down.
10. What do you even have to be depressed about?
11. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
12. You need to go on a run.
13. You just need to get out of the house.
14. Everyone else is dealing with life, so why can’t you?
15. You’re strong, you’ll be fine.
Given these pearls of wisdom, it’s no wonder the suicide rate isn’t higher. Sometimes it is best to resist the urge to try and cheer the clinically depressed. Food, wine, books, movies, children playing, puppies, walks in the park, funny cat videos on Youtube, even tiramisu; all these things have little effect on battling clinical depression. (And sometimes they make it worse . . . damn you Youtube.) I find it helpful when someone I trust sincerely asks how I’m feeling and then patiently listens. I also find it helpful when friends let me know they are willing to listen if I want to talk, but they are also willing to give me space to let the darkness pass. It helps when friends pray for me.
Depression DOES NOT necessarily indicate a person is demon possessed or oppressed. It doesn’t mean their walk with the Lord is off course. It doesn’t mean you should feel uncomfortable around them (unless they are sitting nude in front of the computer watching funny cat videos on Youtube). I suspect that many Christians pooh-pooh the notion of clinical depression in believers. Pooh-poohers don’t understand how a person with Christ in his or her heart, and their sins forgiven, can be depressed. Here’s how: The brain is inside a flawed body.
Actor Todd Bridges said of Williams:
“You don’t think that my life has been hell and I’ve had so many ups and downs now?” Bridges told TMZ. “If I did that [commit suicide], what am I showing my children [is] that when it gets tough, that’s the way out. You gotta buckle down, ask God to help you. That’s when prayer really comes into effect . . .”
Yeah, that’s the proper response, Bridges. NOT! I am going to share a hard truth here: Given enough agonizing physical or mental pain over a long period of time, almost anybody is capable of suicide. By the way, physical pain often accompanies depression. The depressed can experience pain in the hip, neck, various muscles, just about anywhere in the body . . . sometimes for years. So think twice before yammering on about how suicide is a selfish act, and it’s a permanent solution to a short-term problem. These statements are true, but they usually come from ignorance. People who do not live with chronic pain are ignorant of its effects on mind, body, and soul. Pain is the enemy, not the person IN pain. Pain wears you out. It affects family members, often in ways they are not aware of. It destroys one’s ability to think rationally. Chronic pain is death by a thousand cuts. So let’s not be too quick to castigate Williams. On the other hand, let’s not be too quick to glamorize IN ANY WAY the terrible tragedy of suicide.
This week the news broke about a community of thousands of Christians stranded on a mountain in Iraq. They face death at the hands of Islamic State (aka ISIS) barbarians surrounding the mountain. Knowing this, I just can’t bring myself to pray first for healing of the rash on my border collie’s rear leg (even though he and I are very close). I think God’s heart yearns for those of who are blessed with peace and freedom to at least pray for our brothers and sisters in harm’s way. There are Christian women, children, seniors, and infirmed on that mountain. They face evil that would like to kill them simply because they believe in the same Christ we freely worship in our hip churches on Sunday morning. It is essential to the health of our faith to set aside our needs and wants for a while in order to implore God to deliver them. We should also pray that our government responds to the crisis in the right way.
I’m not suggesting that you go to your nearest church cathedral, climb the steps on your bare knees, light a candle, and throw yourself prostate before the altar (especially if there is a wedding going on) where you remain for hours in fervent prayer for adherents to the faith on that mountain in Iraq. Just a simple “Lord, please guard your children in Iraq” is sufficient, especially if you offer this prayer BEFORE praying for your dog’s rash. The events in Iraq are a spiritual war as well as an actual war. We should be willing to shoot back via prayer. I’m just saying.
Yes, if you want to end up like Howard Hughes (without the money). People who lose the ability to trust can find themselves, later in life, living in a darkened studio apartment, chain-smoking, watching television 24/7, and nursing a bottle of vodka. OK maybe that’s an exaggeration. Or is it?
Of course a healthy dose of mistrust is necessary for protection. Spiritual discernment, and our gut-feeling, can often warn us about untrustworthy people. Unfortunately there is not a 100 percent effective formula we can follow to protect us from untrustworthy people. If an employer betrays you, or a partner stabs you in the back in a business venture, or a spouse cheats, it can trigger a lifelong negative effect on your interaction with others. If we overreact with mistrust we can end up harming our significant relationships by directing mistrust towards people who do not deserve it. The following is an excellent article on the symptoms and consequences of excessive mistrust: http://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-trust-issues.html
When we openly direct our mistrust without evidence at innocent people we are, in a way, bearing false witness. (See Exodus 20:16 . . . and yes, it is one of the big Ten.) I suspect God included it in The Ten Commandments as more than a protection of the innocent, but to also dissuade accusers who do not trust anyone. In other words, it is there to get would-be accusers to examine their own hearts and minds.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bible seemingly confuses us regarding trust in people. For instance, Psalm 118:8 says:
“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”
But then 1 Corinthians 13 talks at length about the ways of love. Verse 5 says love keeps no record of wrongs people inflict on us (paraphrasing). Clearly love cannot exist without some degree of trust. So what is the solution? Should we go through life blindly trusting like Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, or should we plod through life trusting only our self and the hell with everyone else? The answer is a little of both. The Bible says we should be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. If I trusted everyone who came to my door I would be locked into at least three pest exterminator contracts, two cable TV contracts, three home security contracts, a dozen magazine subscriptions (I love my monthly edition of Hummingbird Enthusiast), and I’d own two sets of solar panels as well as two home heating and air conditioning systems . . . AND I’d be going door to door with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the other hand, because I have the capacity to trust with discernment, I get a cupboard full of delicious Girl Scout cookies every year. (The day one of those cute little Girl Scouts embezzles my cookie money is the day I embrace my inner paranoid personality disorder.)
Most importantly we have to embrace the truth that despite what happens here on earth, God can be trusted. It’s a hard truth to practice consistently throughout this life of tears. But if we can’t often return to a God of trustworthiness, we can’t hope to live wisely in this life where we will, no matter what defenses of mistrust we erect, encounter occasional back stabbers. I don’t want to miss out on relationships with people who bless my life because I am afraid of encountering a few rotten apples. (And I don’t want to end up on the wrong end of that bottle of vodka, either.)
Some might accuse me of an obsequious manner when I’m at work. “Obsequious” is a highbrow word for brown-nosing. I resent the implication. After all, it’s not like I mow my supervisor’s lawn on weekends. (She prefers that I wash her car.) Aside from my “obsequious” endeavors on the job, I do indeed appreciate the work itself. Work provides a strong sense of purpose and human dignity. God himself worked when he created our world. God gave humanity work that included purpose right from the start. Rick Warren wrote a famous book titled “The Purpose Driven Live.” Agent Smith in the Matrix told Neo: “There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose, for as we both know, without purpose we would not exist. It is purpose that created us, purpose that connects us, purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines us, purpose that binds us.” I don’t agree with all of Agent Smith’s assertions, but he does make a valid point about the significance of purpose.
During a Sunday sermon not long ago, I daydreamed about work, purpose, and retirement. (Before you judge me for not paying attention to the sermon you should know that the Bible says old men will dream dreams.) As someone with one foot in the workplace and one almost in retirement, I am beginning to understand how disconcerting it can be when the routine of daily work begins to fade away. For some folks, it gets abruptly yanked away. Advanced age, declining health, organizational restructuring, family issues, a host of reasons can move a person from productive employment to a completely different stage of life we call retirement. It can feel like the death of one’s purpose.
I used to look forward to retirement with joyful anticipation. It would be a chance to do what I want with my time. But the reality of advancing years and creeping problematic health issues that threaten to catapult me into retirement have made me realize how much work is essential for survival . . . or I should say the survival of purpose. Aging has revealed something startling about me: I was not ready to give up on dreams of advancing my career or doing something great in service to God, though the reality of life’s limitations say otherwise. I am not in absolute control of my destiny. The fear of losing purpose is a terrible thing. You see, I felt certain God was taking me in a specific direction . . . the direction I wanted to go. It turns out that was not the case. (Go figure.) Accepting this reality has been a classic study in denial and resistance. Here’s the thing: The more I deny and resist, the more painful it is.
Just because I can’t see what lies beyond a fading responsibility to rise and go to work each day does not mean there is nothing more to do or be, no purpose. In other words, this is one of those times in life where faith is either real or lip service. Ecclesiastes 3 talks about the seasons of life under the heavens. When one season ends another begins, and the new season can be the opposite, or very different, from what we did in the previous. And the thing about seasons is we do not always get to pick when they begin and end. Ultimately, when the time comes to hang up one’s work shoes we discover if we really have the peace in our heart we claim to have as Christians. I believe the purpose we crave will arise somewhere other than at the job site . . . if we have a malleable heart. We are not a piece of unused furniture gathering dust in God’s garage. Or so I hope.
My point is not to blast Limbaugh for hypocrisy. I just want to use his example to demonstrate how easy it is for ALL of us to be hypocrites. (I prefer to focus on the hypocrisy of others rather than my own . . . and that of course is the point.) We are told in the Bible not to judge, and yet a recent Church Leadership article titled “7 Signs You Are ‘Judging’ Others” pointed out that Jesus did a lot of judging. The article rightly points out that Jesus did not follow-up his judgments with condemnation. The article goes on to state:
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that one of the first signs of Christian maturity is a frustration with the hypocrisy of the church and a desire to separate from it.
But the next sign of growth is recognizing that the same hypocrisy in the church is present in oneself.”
Bonhoeffer had a gift for striking a little too close to home. I have been there . . . am still there. It is soooo easy to see hypocrisy and faults in other people and institutions. It ain’t so easy to face up to them in oneself. Facing up to our hypocrisies chokes that exquisite sinful feeling of moral superiority. I am not suggesting that we can never speak up about an issue for fear of revealing our own hypocrisy. The Bible instructs us to confront one another with a spirit of love, not moral superiority or condemnation. Accepting that we might be a hypocrite regarding faults we see in others should inspire us to have an attitude of love, or so I hope.
Matthew 23: 1-3 says:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.’”
This is a hard lesson to live. Some leaders and key people in our lives have tremendous wisdom and spiritual and moral instruction that we would be wise to implement. But then we see them fail to practice what they have preached. And wham bam the virus of hypocrisy gets passed to us. Even young adults who decry the hypocrisy they see among their elders (with a certain flair of self-righteousness, I might add) wake up one day and realize they too are hypocrites in many ways.
What is a Christian to do with this dilemma? The healthiest thing is to focus on our own hypocrisy and concern ourselves less, if at all, with the sins of others. Or we can refuse to acknowledge our own hypocrisies and remain in a place of stagnation. I don’t know about you, but I have enough hypocrisy on my own plate to deal with.
A few days ago a video went viral showing a California Highway Patrol officer punching a woman on the ground beside a road. The video elicits a visceral reaction from viewers, resulting in an emotional public outcry. (I know, thank you Captain Obvious.) But let’s set aside the video for now and think about the broader issue of the relationship between the California Highway Patrol and the public they serve.
Years ago, the California Highway Patrol had a reputation as being the best of the best in the world of uniformed law enforcement. They put the safety and trust of the public above their own interests. I don’t know for certain, but I hope that is still true today. This incident with the officer punching the lady on the ground is an opportunity for the Highway Patrol to conduct a transparent investigation that leads to the truth, or as close to the truth as humanly possible. Whatever their leadership does, it is hoped their response will focus exclusively on even-handed justice AND the trust of the people they serve and police. We give them a badge and tremendous authority and we pray they do not abuse our trust.
What does this have to do with faith and the church? It has to do with trust. Trust is similar to virginity; once it’s gone it’s gone. I’ve read studies that indicate people don’t trust as much as they used to. They are suspicious and fearful of other people and they don’t trust formerly venerable institutions, and sometimes that includes the church. People instinctively know that most institutions have a tendency to prioritize the needs of the institution and its leaders above the people they serve. Of course institutions would never admit to such a culture within their ranks. They may not even be aware of the ways they damage trust. They proclaim to always put their customers and constituents first.
Jesus was clearly more interested in advocating for the common people. He did not participate in maintaining the positions and nests of those in power, and that included the religious machine of the day. In fact, he did just the opposite. He shook the foundations of their entrenched corruption. Luke 11:45 says:
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
I am fearful that the modern church has lost a great deal of public trust, at least here in America. There could be legions of reasons for this loss of trust, some valid and some imagined. For instance, some point their accusatory finger at highly public failures of institutions to protect the most innocent and vulnerable among their ranks; think Catholic Church or Penn State sexual abuse of children scandals. Others believe institutions just want their money and do not care about them as a person. Still others see their political leaders as blind and deaf to the situations of average people, pandering more to the wants of the wealthy and connected. Restoring the trust of the people could be a long process, and it won’t happen unless we first admit that the trust has been damaged and something needs to be done about it. I suspect Christ’s church is the most appropriate place to start focusing on rebuilding trust. And here’s a hint: it can’t be accomplished with a six week sermon series. I’m just saying.
Gird your loins Christians of America, the day of television reckoning has come upon us. Barna Research released a fascinating report about which TV programs we watch in 2014. They found that the top five programs Christians watch are:
The Big Bang Theory (ironic)
Dancing with the Stars
Only one of my favorite programs made the list. (This shook my faith and caused me to question whether my name really IS written in the Book of Life.) Fortunately my sense of self-righteousness took over and reassured me that there is nothing wrong with me or my viewing preferences. I simply prefer a more highbrow television experience. For instance, I watch Downton Abbey (only because my wife refuses to surrender the TV remote when DA is on). Nevertheless, there are times when my faithful wife acquiesces to my authority as lord of the manor (specifically, when she is away from the manor) and, like Frodo in possession of the precious ring, I take possession of the TV remote. Lest you doubt my snobby taste in television, here are MY top five programs:
Man vs. Food
Fox News and CNN (Wait, are they news programs, reality, propaganda, or drama? . . . It’s hard to tell.)
Now that’s what I call a sterling lineup of classiness. The good folks at Barna also discovered that 74% of Americans turn on their TV every day. This begs the question: Who are the remaining 26% who do not turn on their TV every day . . . household pets? It wouldn’t surprise me if my own quadrupeds were watching TV all day while I’m at work, given their propensity to swipe snack foods from the kitchen counter and lounge on the sofa in perpetuity. Barna also found that 30% of people watch five or more hours in a typical day. Viewers no longer have to wait for each episode of their favorite miniseries to come out week after week. They can go online and watch them all in one sitting, like binge drinking.
The problem with TV is that it jams a lot of vicarious living into short amount of time. Real life is much more mundane. Personally, I have to be careful about letting TV make me feel like I’m not living an exciting life like everybody on TV. Hey, after all, who wouldn’t want the glamorous life of Si Robertson on Duck Dynasty? Anyhow, I recently read a devotional that described how the writer of Ecclesiates warns us about many of our strivings that are meaningless under the sun. The writer goes on to explain that it is OK to enjoy the simple pleasures, so long as we accept them for what they are—simple pleasures. The point being that we have a human tendency to want more out of just about everything. TV feeds that beast. The Bible reminds us that a lot of the “more” that we crave can’t be had in this life. And that is why it is OK to enjoy the simple pleasure in this life. It helps us live more richly in the present.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNCzSfv4hX8 When I was a child, the church taught me the great Bible stories. The Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah in the belly of a fish; these are classics we grew up on. It was easier as a child to accept without hesitation the miraculous and supernatural elements of these stories. But soon after entering my fifties some doubts began to creep in. Having spent a fair amount of time in the Bible I began to wonder if some of those stories were allegories or didactics meant to teach a moral lesson. After all, Jesus himself used parables to convey spiritual truths. By the way, allegory is defined as:
“A representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another; a symbolical narrative.”
As the years passed, it became easier to entertain the possibility that extraordinary Bible stories such as the Garden of Eden or lions lying down with lambs might be allegory instead of literal. It just seemed like the path of least resistance given the constant assault by the scientific community to discredit such stories. But then I occasionally come across things like this video (click link above) of Kevin Richardson, a park ranger in Africa. I don’t know if Richardson is a believer, but the image of the male lion embracing him like a friend reminds me that God does indeed pull off supernatural events and those events are not as far from our “real world” as we might think. This video is a glimpse into what it might be like when God is finished making all things new and the lion indeed lays down with lambs. And it ain’t no allegory.