Malaysia Airlines Mystery Flight

MH900442499A Fox News report begins: “The world is riveted by the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, and the world media has focused on it non-stop for over a week.” CNN managed to dramatically increase their ratings on the back of this mystery story, which, let us not forget, still includes families waiting in terrible anguish to hear the fate of their loved ones on flight 370.

What is it about this mystery that drives people and news organizations to follow every twist and turn of the story, even when there aren’t that many actual twists and turns? The past few weeks we’ve seen news media cover this story like they cover an action-packed basketball game (I feel guilty even blogging about it), except there isn’t much genuine action happening in the reporting of the story, just the contrived illusion of “breaking news.” The actual pace of this story is much slower than the media portrays. I don’t just blame the news media; I blame consumers (me included) of news. Our attention spans and our ability to discern the difference between actual news and hype have become dangerously compromised. As a result, we are easily seduced and manipulated into spending copious quantities of our precious time glued to the “news.”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the fascination of a compelling mystery. Human beings have an innate need to solve mysteries. We crave answers to questions. We love to discuss theories about what happened. After all, people are still looking for Amelia Earhart’s plane, and it disappeared in 1937. To me, the core of the Malaysia Airlines story is a reoccurring one: a blend of human tragedy brought on in part by humanity’s often arrogant confidence in our own technology (think Titanic, the unsinkable ship). We have a powerful curiosity about what went wrong because the fact that something did indeed go wrong makes us uncomfortable. Sure, we want to learn and prevent things from going wrong in the future, though we know in our heart that the complete elimination of tragedy is unlikely. It is part of the compromise we make to risk in order to learn and improve the human condition. Even the most timid among us can’t navigate this life without taking on some degree of risk. Thinking about risk makes me wonder if God takes risks. My gut tells me God risked more than we will ever know by breathing life into the lungs of humanity and, later, sending his Son to the cross. What’s the risk to God? Answer: rejection.

The mystery of flight 370 will likely be solved, one day. And until the day when all mysteries are solved, we can enjoy the mystery of our faith.

“If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
Psalms 139:8

Thinning the Church Herd

800px-Cattle_herdA megachurch pastor was once asked if he thought too many people were coming to the church for the wrong reasons. He said as long as people come, he would not change a thing. Such an approach to organizational structure and culture is fine . . . if you are managing the U.S. Postal Service. The question to the pastor came up in response to the observation that this particular megachurch was perhaps getting too entertainment oriented in worship and other facets of church life. Granted, the contemporary church model often gets wrongly accused of a showy and shallow focus in worship and spiritual growth. Not all big churches with growing numbers become mere venues for entertaining the masses.

Still, I have some misgivings about the as-long-as-people-come-we-won’t-change-a-thing approach to church. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of THOSE people who think all change is good because it leads to improvement. (If I exchanged my wife for a newer model, my life would not improve after I got out of the hospital.) But I find it fascinating that while we tend to believe growing numbers of people attending church is a good thing, Christ often felt wary of growing crowds of “followers.” Why? Read John 6 where it describes how the crowds were starting to follow Jesus after he performed some astounding miracles. Jesus had healed the sick, fed the five thousand with a couple pieces of bread and fish, and walked on water. Many in the crowd focused on Jesus’ miracles and his ability to take care of their physical needs. Jesus confronted the crowd about their motives for following him. He tested them with an uncomfortable teaching about himself. Near the end of the chapter, Jesus teaches the crowd that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. He was speaking metaphorically, but the crowds were grossed out and offended because they thought he spoke literally. Most of the crowd stopped following Jesus and he was left with a few committed followers.

I believe Jesus was thinning the heard, culling people who were showing up for the wrong reasons. Granted, it was easier for Jesus to thin the crowd because he knew their hearts. A pastor who leads a church can’t always discern the motives of people in the congregation. Some people go to church for the business networking opportunities. Some go because their family members attend. Some go to belong to a community of people and make friends. Some go because they believe it is part of the American way of life. Some go to place their children in wholesome activities. Some go for an emotional experience. Some go because they have a significant need in their life. Of course, not all of these reasons are bad.

Even if a large number of people go to church for the wrong reasons, there will be a precious group who attend to get closer to Christ and discover what he has to offer, which is not always what we think we need. Nevertheless, too many people coming for the wrong reasons can derail those who come for the right reasons. Leaders can unwittingly begin to cater to the desires of the masses, even if those desires are not the right direction for the people of the church. I believe this is one reason why Jesus felt it necessary to thin the crowd. Rapidly growing churches do well to periodically examine why folks in their congregation are coming to the church. As for the mechanics of thinning the crowd, I am not sure how church leaders could do it in a healthy way. (Hey, I know what would thin the congregation—compulsory service in the nursery.) All I know is that Jesus had to say some uncomfortable things to whittle down the crowd. The first step for church leaders is to recognize the need, and they must also have the will to act.

Twitter Martyrs

Lewes Bonfire, Martyrs Crosses/Andrew Dunn

Lewes Bonfire, Martyrs Crosses/Andrew Dunn

Recently, during a weekly Bible study, some friends and I got sidetracked with a discussion about martyrdom. We are not usually so lugubrious in our explorations of faith and life (Unless discussing the prospects of the Oakland Raiders). Anyhow, later on I realized that we had focused on how we would or should endure the gruesome realities of physical persecution and death for our belief in Christ and the teachings of the Bible. Certainly there are places in the modern world where Christians still pay the ultimate price for their faith. But here in America, physical persecution and death for the faith is rare. That doesn’t mean Christians do not suffer a form of persecution and martyrdom in civilized America. The secular culture in America and other places around the world has simply become more sophisticated in their stoning of the saints. Christians and the tenets of the faith are attacked in many ways that do not involve physical violence. Here are some examples of how the civilized world stones Christians and the faith (metaphorically):

Stoning by tweets. Stoning by blogs. Stoning by blog comments. Stoning by political correctness enforcers. Stoning by opinion editorials in newspapers. Stoning by the news media. Stoning by books. Stoning by teachers and professors. Stoning by marketing messages. Stoning by political rhetoric. Stoning by the movie industry. Stoning by television programs. Stoning by the courts. Stoning by corporate PR on social issues. Stoning by the IRS. Stoning by science. And so on.

I do not know if these current forms of religious persecution portend a decline into future physical violence against people of faith. But all believers would do well to remain informed as to what transpires in the world around us. It’s easier to prepare when we know the stones are headed our way and what they look like. Sometimes it is necessary that we respond to persecution, other times we should let God deal with the situation. But we can’t make a decision as to the correct course of action if we are not even aware of the persecution. I know fellow Christians who valiantly try to maintain a positive attitude by burying their heads in the sand. Hey, it’s OK to speak up now and then. Even Jesus didn’t remain silent when some of his accusers attacked him verbally.

House of Cards: Hard to look away

Kevin Spacey / Steve Jurvetson

Kevin Spacey / Steve Jurvetson

House of Cards, a Netflix miniseries, pulled me in like a book you can’t put down. The main character is Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. Underwood is a shrewd U.S. congressman with a perverse moral compass. He worships no god other than himself and his almost-as-ruthless wife, Claire. Frank and Claire have strong feelings for each other, though their marriage is atypical in that it is a marriage for political advantage and selfish ambition. Season two, which recently came out, has a darker tone than season one.

The acting is very good though there are few redeeming qualities about Frank and Claire. The series prompted some uncomfortable questions for this viewer, such as: What is the allure of watching the schemes of someone in high office who makes immoral decisions solely for the sake of selfish ambition? Perhaps the allure is the open display of crossing boundaries of decency that society has traditionally held in high regard. Maybe it is simply that we are fascinated by people who appear good yet are utterly pernicious. I started out liking Underwood because I thought he was a flawed person who would eventually do something noble. But like a classic tragedy, his character digs himself into an ever deeper hole while leaving a growing pile of human wreckage behind. I don’t know if I can bear to watch any more episodes. Hopefully our real-life elected officials do not rise to the level of evil personified by Underwood, but some probably come close.

Perhaps the series provides viewers with an addictive feeling of moral superiority (if so, Underwood is terrible benchmark) or confirmation that what we have occasionally suspected about some of our leaders might contain grains of tantalizing truth. The latter is a disturbing thought. Whatever the allure, House of Cards will not improve the public’s perception of our real political leaders.

All stories have just a few possible outcomes, such as: Evil prevails, good prevails, evil partially prevails, good things happen despite the evil, or a greater evil overcomes the evil. I wonder which outcome the writers for House of Cards will choose.

If you are thinking about watching House of Cards, be aware that it contains rough language and strong sexual content. Maybe I will skip to the last episode to find out if good prevails. Or maybe it is better not to know.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: The long fight

Philip Seymour Hoffman / Justin Hoch

Philip Seymour Hoffman / Justin Hoch

Philip Seymour Hoffman was an excellent actor, in my book, partly because he was unencumbered with dashing good looks like Tom Cruise, George Clooney, and Pierce Brosnan. While Hoffman surely used his physical appearance in his craft, he had to develop strong acting skills to connect with audiences. In a culture enamored with beautiful people, it was good to see a guy who didn’t fit the mold make it in the entertainment industry. I don’t know if he was a good person or if he had a faith in God. I don’t know if he struggled with mental or physical ailments, though it would seem so. Certainly his death was tragic. It was self-destructive and will affect his family for the rest of their lives.

In Christendom, we tend to react to the type of death suffered by Hoffman as sad but also confirmation of our opposition to the evils of alcohol and substance abuse. Read Proverbs 23:31-32 and Proverbs 31:6 for a Bible perspective on substance abuse. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the abuse of alcohol and drugs can indeed have tragic consequences for many people. Addiction is a lethal enemy that comes dressed in many disguises. For instance, I knew a wonderful Christian man who ate so much food and put on so much weight that it resulted in his early death.

Stories like Hoffman’s beg some uncomfortable questions, such as: What is a person supposed to do if they are in constant mental or physical distress for which modern medicine has no cure? What is a person afflicted by chronic pain supposed to do when God does not heal in response to prayer? Sure, there are trite answers that we Christians offer in an attempt to comfort the suffering and guard our faith. Answers like: “Because Jesus was also human he can relate to your suffering.” If I am in chronic pain, hearing clichés like that does not help. Chronic pain (whether physical or mental) walks over reason, morality, and the ability to choose wisely. Pain is an adversary that is often beyond our ability to cope with. Even so, we must continue petitioning God for relief. God does not react to us the same way we react to a child who keeps pestering us for a new toy. We are told in the Bible to keep asking God for what we need.

Here is where I have a problem with some people in chronic physical pain or mental distress—when there is a cure or treatment that can reduce or eliminate their suffering, but they reject it. Hoffman at least tried to defeat his addiction using the tools available to him. Many people don’t even try, or they try by using the wrong tools. Anyhow, knowing Christ doesn’t guarantee we will overcome our addictions, pain, and all problems in this life. If that were the case, the entire human race would flock to Christ for the wrong reasons. Our biggest problem is our sin and separation from God. And Christ, if we let him, always forgives our sin and leads us back to God. Forgiveness of our sins and friendship with God are what improves our odds of overcoming addiction, pain, and life’s problems.

Pope Francis The Red?

Pope Francis / Agencia Brasil

Pope Francis / Agencia Brasil

Pope Francis recently committed a cardinal sin (I crack me up) by criticizing unfettered capitalism and its effects on the poor. This earned him a bit of ire from conservatives across America. Then an Oxfam report came out claiming that 85 of the richest people have as much wealth as half the world. If true, it is an uncomfortable statistic, to say the least.

Conservative and liberal zealots read stories like these and double down on their preferred worldview. Within Christendom, conservative Christians cite Bible verses that promote personal responsibility, hard work, and freedom. Liberal Christians cite verses that have a socialist feel promoting the sharing of wealth for the benefit of all. For a sample of each, read 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and Acts 4:32-35. (Oh which to choose?)

Conservatives blame our economic and social woes on the ruling class within a growing, intrusive government that impedes free markets which could improve the lives of more people if allowed to function with less government meddling. Liberals decry the greed of big business, the wealthy, and systemic flaws that stack the economy against the little guy. My point is that elements of BOTH of these divergent worldviews—capitalism and socialism—are mentioned in the Bible as having value in the correct context. Therefore it is theologically shaky ground for Christians to embrace one worldview and demonize ALL elements of the other. There is an ethos behind each worldview that the Bible conveys to humanity—personal responsibility AND responsibility for our neighbors is not mutually exclusive in the Bible. Granted, there are good arguments regarding whether government is the best middleman for taking care of our neighbors who can’t care of themselves.

Each worldview has weaknesses because it exists in a corrupted world. Sinful people will take advantage in either of these worldviews. These days, leaders in Washington, business, media, and labor game the system for their own personal enrichment while pandering to followers of these worldviews.

Do I favor one of the two primary worldviews over the other? Yes! I favor capitalism. But the real source of our economic and social problems in America has more to do with deteriorating ethics among the general population and at the highest levels of our formerly venerable institutions. Some forms of unethical behavior in business and politics have become so pervasive that it is now just considered business as usual. We have become sophisticated in our unethical ways. Even if we adopt more of a socialist approach in America, we will still have big problems because our ethics and tolerance for unethical behavior sucks.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife recently pled not guilty to corruption charges. (Google “Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell” for some of the details on the case.) According to news reports, McDonnell has steadfastly insisted that he did nothing “illegal” in his dealings with businessman Jonnie Williams. This statement caused me to reflect on the possibility that many of us rely too much on the “legal” versus “illegal” benchmark when evaluating our actions. When making choices, perhaps considering “right” versus “wrong” is healthier and less problematic than leaning on the strict letter of the law. The law can’t lead us to a good heart, though a good heart can help us obey the law.

Of course, healthy ethics won’t prevail unless the majority of people believe pure ethics originate with God. Why? God doesn’t change and the Bible tells us that he is more concerned with the spiritual health of our heart. Without the higher and flawless authority of God, we adjust our ethics to suit ourselves or the culture around us.

Oscars: Not the weenies

360px-ACMI_14When I was a child, our family gathered around the TV (or as my dad called it, “the boob tube”) each year to watch the Oscars. It was a chance to glimpse the glamorous world of actors, actresses, directors, and writers. Either I was too young to know or the media, back then, didn’t do as much reporting on the private lives of movie stars. I don’t recall any stories of paparazzi hounding the mundane activities of celebrities. When a star took the stage to accept their Oscar, we didn’t know much about the star’s private life. It was an opportunity for fans to briefly see their favorite actors in a mostly unscripted setting. These days, celebrities can’t go to the loo without their movements (no pun) photographed and reported. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like to know when Jennifer Lawrence gets her hair cut just as much as the next person (sarcasm alert), but will the information and visuals improve my life? (I know it wouldn’t take much to improve my life, but that’s not the point.)

Are we an overly entertained society? Most likely, yes. It feels like the entertainment industry is everywhere. It certainly feels like an element of entertainment has blossomed in the modern church, as well. Still, entertainment is not necessarily a bad thing even in a church context. Christ often used storytelling to add emphasis to his teachings. Give most of us straight information and we nod off. Insert the message in an entertaining story and we pay more attention. Jesus was and is a celebrity, except he is worthy of adoration for more profound reasons. With Jesus, what you see is what he is. He is the embodiment truth.

Some celebrities may be good people, but we really don’t know them. We connect in some way with their image, style, or the characters they portray for our entertainment. But if we had an opportunity to hang out with them for a long time, I doubt their real personality would be what we project it to be (unless they are capable of acting 24/7). For example, my wife recently spoke several times by phone with a woman she had never met in person. When she finally saw the woman on the other end of the phone, she didn’t look anything like the image my wife had created in her mind.

Celebrities may have a talent we enjoy, but it is healthier for us to view them as flawed people with many of the same shortcomings, hang-ups, hurts, and idiosyncrasies that plague the rest of us. Their celebrity status does not immunize them from problems. The greater danger for us is the insidious propensity of our entertainer-worshiping culture’s ability to influence the way we treat people who don’t have much status in our society. For instance, if I always have time to share a story and a laugh with the senior pastor at my mega-church but I don’t have the time of day for the church maintenance staff, then I have misunderstood the teachings of Christ. Everybody wants to hobnob with the well-know.

So when the Oscars air on TV in a few weeks, we can relax and root for our favorite flicks and actors, just so we don’t let the entertainment industry corrupt our soul. Go ‘Captain Phillips!’

The “Wolf” of Wall Street: Really?

Alaska_WeaselThe Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo Dicaprio, should have been called the Weasel of Wall Street (though PETA might not appreciate the defamation of weasels). In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen the movie. But I do know a film enthusiast who saw the movie. She told me the movie overflows with debauchery that pushes the boundary of its R rating in the areas of language, substance abuse, and pornography. In other words, it’s a 5 star flick by Hollywood standards.

The movie is based on a true story in which Dicaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who was eventually convicted of fraud for stock market manipulation. Prior to his conviction, Belfort lived a life of unfettered self-indulgence via avarice, prostitutes, substance abuse, materialism, and partying. Basically, Belfort was a sophisticated thief with big appetites. How much of Belfort’s story of debauchery is true and how much is exaggeration remains a matter or speculation.

In a way, Belfort’s story reminds me of the Teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The Teacher tried wine, pleasure, work projects, wealth, and folly in an effort to discover something of value to counter the pointlessness of life. One apparent difference between the Teacher and Belfort is that the Teacher sought wisdom. Who knows what need Belfort tried to fulfill in the depths of his soul. Sadly, there were unpleasant consequences for Belfort, though I’m sure his victims would argue they suffered some unpleasant consequences, as well. The loss of investor money can cause a great deal of emotional pain to innocent victims. In a way, I suppose the title “Wolf” is appropriate for Belfort (perhaps he’s more like a cross between a wolf and a weasel). Wolves prey on others. Tragically, our culture often treats theft as a crime less reprehensible than it deserves. The Bible calls Satan himself a thief who comes to “steal, kill, and destroy.” Thievery is more serious and has worse consequences than we often realize. But I digress.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes discovered that “God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please God.” He also learned God’s gift: “that all people should eat, drink, and enjoy the results of their hard work.” After all his searching and trying different experiences, the Teacher concludes that the best way to live is to worship God and keep His commandments. I wonder if Belfort ever came to the same conclusion. If not, he hasn’t learned much of value, yet.

To Yield or Be Right: An Experiment in Acquiescence

MH900431111The British Medical Journal recently published the results of a pilot study that didn’t go so well. A purpose of the study was to find out if people lead “unnecessarily stressful lives by wanting to be right rather than happy.” The study instructed one husband to “agree with his wife’s every opinion and request without complaint,” and to continue doing so “even if he believed the female participant was wrong.” The man’s wife was not aware that she was participating in the study.

The experiment had to be cancelled after just 12 days because the man descended into a deep depression. During the trial, the man found his wife to be “increasingly critical of everything he did.” Her measure of happiness increased only slightly during the experiment. (I suspect my wife may have signed me up for some sort of secret experiment, but that’s OK with me.)

Granted, the results of an experiment with one couple can’t be taken too seriously. But it does beg the question: do we often harm ourselves and others when we abandon what is right in pursuit of peace? One positive conclusion from the experiment might be that we trigger better mental health through expressing ourselves when we believe strongly that we are right about a given topic or situation. In other words, acquiescence as a mechanism to achieve peace and happiness does not always lead to either in human relationships. Of course heavy-handed approaches when expressing what we believe to be right are wrong. Statements like “You dimwit, how could you believe something that asinine?” do not improve anybody’s mental health (plus they hurt my feelings).

Proverbs 16:13 says, “Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves him who speaks what is right.”
Proverbs 24:26 says, “Whoever gives an honest answer
kisses the lips.”

The Bible encourages the speaking of what is right, but there is a caveat: we are imperfect people and can misconstrue falsehood as truth. That is why stubbornness (aka hardheadedness) must not dominate our lives. And one more thing: acquiescence to God is ALWAYS appropriate and healthy. He is the best teacher of what is right.

Is Phil Robertson Still Happy, Happy, Happy? PART 2

safe_imagePhil Robertson, from the Duck Dynasty TV show, has a wonderful ability to convey to the masses (via his appearance and antics) that the life of any Christian can be fun, edgy, and meaningful. In other words, all Christians don’t have to aspire to look and act like Billy Graham or Francis Chan (don’t get me wrong, I think Billy and Francis are dashing fellows, even though I’ve never seen them in camo and full beards). But it is encouraging that the Robertson family and Duck Dynasty are extremely popular with such a wide range of people right now. Even so, we ought to remember that America has become a fickle nation of fadaholics. The Roberson’s personify the meme. But how long will it last? I hope it lasts a long time and in a good way. Perhaps there is a third generation of Robertson’s waiting in the wings to take the reins.

No doubt the Robertson’s will have their struggles going forward. The paparazzi are always on the prowl to catch celebrity drama and screw-ups. I hope the Robertson’s financial success remains above board. I hope their marriages survive and thrive and that they don’t suffer a tragic moral fail along the way. I hope their children don’t suffer from the harmful side effects of celebrity. But even if some of the Robertson’s mess up because they are human, perhaps their fans, especially Christians, will be prepared to forgive their shortcomings.

Here’s the part that blows my mind: God may be directly using the Robertson’s to inspire millions of Americans (who might otherwise never give God or Christianity a second thought) to ponder the meaning of commitment to family, redemption, transformation, and choosing to live a life that follows Christ while at the same time enjoying life and being industrious. I find it exhilarating and ironic that God has used the Robertson’s to spread the message of God on such a large scale. American church leaders and congregations may have been waiting for a skilled and charismatic speaker, author, mega-church pastor or evangelist to reintroduce God to the people, but God may have other plans. It fascinates me that God may have raised-up the Robertson’s from the ranks of a congregation rather than relying mostly on the heavy hitters in pulpits around the country. But God is known for doing the unexpected now and then. The Robertson’s demonstrate a powerful reality for each person in the congregation: every believer does not need a doctorate in theology, a job as a pastor, and flawless skills in oration to communicate the faith.

The question remains: is Phil Robertson still happy, happy, happy? Other than Phil, Miss Kay may be the only person who knows for sure. I don’t know Phil but I’ve know men similar to Phil, and not much bothers them. I believe Phil Robertson is most likely still happy, happy, happy, because he’s had a life-changing encounter with God. Prior to God entering his life, Phil had seen first-hand how bad life can get. This brouhaha over Phil’s comments regarding sin probably doesn’t come close to the dark places he’s been in the past.

If nothing else, Uncle Si Robertson’s character proves that God has a tremendous sense of humor.

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