Friday, June 26, 2009

We Owe All of Our Devotion to Michael Jackson

I'm sad for his family; I really am. The sudden loss of a family member or close friend is traumatic and will cause much anxiety. I have prayed that God will comfort them in the coming grieving process.

But for the rest of those flooding his Neverland Ranch . . . what in the world is wrong with you?! This guy was not some hero or world leader. "Beat It" and "Thriller" do not transform people. Michael Jackson was an "icon" (which for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is already a bad word) for Pop music, of course. But does this mean that we should be forced to hear about it for the next week on the news?

Michael Jackson was an entertainer. . . an entertainer. All this attention in the media is expected by Americans since we worship entertainers. American "royalty" are actors, actresses, and musicians. Entertainers. We worship them because they make us happy. And when they don't make us happy, we discard them. We vitiate and vilify them. We love it when our royalty fall. His pedophilia charges occupied the media for weeks and weeks. People couldn't wait to hear a verdict that we all knew was true . . . but we were disappointed. It pays well to have good lawyers I guess . . . and oh yeah, it's Michael Jackson. He's royalty.

If we were to apply the Hindu caste system in the US, entertainers would have to be part of the Kshatriya, or even at times, the Brahmin strata. These people are on the very top. We treat them differently. We give them free stuff at every store. Brands beg them to wear their brand of clothes, star in their movies, sing their songs, and speak in their commercials. Why? Because people in those top caste systems will bring in the all-important, chief religious offering to the head god in the US: money.

Well, technically, it's not "money," but "power." Money is just the only real way in the country to possess power. "Whoever holds the gold makes the rule" should be on our dollar.

Athletes are paid more, injured on the side-line, in one year than a good teacher will be paid in a lifetime. Why? Because they entertain us. That makes them royalty. And we give the highest offering of money to those who make us happy. They deserve it--who else will make us so happy if we don't have entertainers, right? Do you expect me to find my own happiness and joy?

However, having that privilege of being my entertainer has its price. It means that you have to behave in a way that makes me happy at all times. Have an affair, take advantage of kids, shoot someone, or do anything that this culture believes to be bad, and you're the target of all our scorn. Don't you know better? Don't you know, royalty, that our entertainers must be flawless in their pursuit of making us happy? Why did you fail us? We gave you so much "power" (i.e., money and admiration) over us and you took advantage of it.

So here we go again. Another American royalty is dead. And for our culture, this is a hard blow. We worship our entertainers, especially those who have been around for several decades. Part of being "American" is the music of Michael Jackson. Hardly any of us has any memory in the last few decades without some of his music in our heads. He has made us happy for a long time. So, now it's time to grieve one of our "idols." It's only appropriate. When someone you worship dies, it's a big deal. Who else will fill his shoes and make me as happy as he did?

"Dear Jesus. Thank you for your life, death, and the resurrection. But, I really thank you for the wonderful, incredible, life of one of our heroes, our royalty, our idols, our icons: Michael Jackson. I ask that you let him in to the world to come. His #1 hits really transformed me when I sang them in the fifth grade. I'm not certain if I could have been as happy and complete without him in my life. Regardless of the color he is in Heaven, please let him in. In Jesus name, Amen." (I sure hope you get the social commentary in my sarcasm).

Heavenly Father, please forgive us. I wish I could say that we "know not what we do," but it wouldn't be true. There's something about us that wants to worship idols. I don't look forward to the day when you strip us (including me) of all of our idols.

I know this: You won't be singing "Beat It."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fake Cigarettes

My family was walking through the zoo known as "the mall" yesterday. I saw a kiosk that was soliciting something I'd never heard of: e-cigarettes. Yes, "electronic cigarettes." The sign for the product really struck me:

"It looks like a real cigarette . . . it tastes like a real cigarette . . . it feels like a real cigarette . . . but it's not a real cigarette. E-cigaratte."

These electronic straws allow a battery-powered device to shove nicotine down your throat without having all that pesky smoke. While it's legal in most places, supposedly it's still illegal in Australia and Hong Kong.

I was both humored (as I am now, in fact) and amazed by it. I thought the sign should read, "E-cigarette. It's the cleaner way to kill yourself."

Then I was struck by the sales sign. As you might imagine, I had a theological reflection. My reflection made my smile go away, unfortunately, as I thought about how many Christians could fit that description. The haunting question was if I could fit that description.

"It looks like a Christian . . . it talks like a Christian . . . it smiles like a Christian . . . but it's not a real Christian. E-Christian."

Jesus' message was inextricably linked with who He was. That is, His message made no sense apart from who He was. The imminent Kingdom of God declared in His message was present in Him: the God-man who ate grilled fish, slept, got dehydrated sometimes, had dreams, stared at the sunset, prayed each day, made jokes with his disciples, and even cried. The same person was able to forgive sins apart from the Temple, walk on water, raise the dead, heal the sick, restore the blind and lame, and even see and hear heroes of old once Transfigured. How a person responded to His message was how they were responding to God's call to repentance. If Christianity is anything at all, it is about Christology. It is the thing that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions on the planet.

To be certain, Jesus' message of "good news" was that our repentance and forgiveness was salvation. One did not repent in order to be the benificiary of the good news. The actual act of repentance and being forgiven was the good news. After the resurrection, the Holy Spirit is promised to enable such a reception of the "good news." When we receive the good news, we are being transformed. We are not transformed because we make the transformation possible, but because Jesus has already made the human race capable of transformation.

C.S. Lewis reflects on what it means that Jesus, the Son of God, actually became human: "What, then, is the difference which He has made to the whole human mass? It is just this; that the business of becoming a son of God, of being turned from a created thing into a begotten thing, of passing over from the temporary biological life into timeless "spiritual" life, has been done for us. Humanity is already "saved" in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work—the bit we could not have done for ourselves—has been done for us. We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual Me by our own efforts; it has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it was fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, He will do it in us and for us. . . . One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him" (Mere Christianity [New York: Touchstone], 157-58).

The Incarnation has made the human race capable of being made new. We just need to receive it.

How do we receive it? By coming under the discipleship of Jesus of Nazareth. Without repenting and trusting in Him; without actually knowing what the Kingdom of God is about; without living a life of obedience and love, there is no way that we can be the real thing.

It sounds as if I'm talking about a give-and-take relationship, as if it's up to me to respond faithfully before He can transform me. Yes. Such is the nature of discipleship.

What would the Church, not to mention the world, look like if there were no "E-Christians," but the real thing? Could it really be that the risen Christ could be in us, working through us, saving us each day?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Negotiating with God

Exodus 3:12 He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain" (NRS).

When God was negotiating with Moses about Moses bringing God's people out of slavery, Moses gives every trick in the book. It starts out with (and I paraphrase), "Um . . . and which god are you? Who do I say sent me?" God answers something. Moses says, "Cool, cool. Um . . . how in the world would I be able to do this? Do you have any idea how much I am unimportant in Egpyt right now?" God says two things: "(1) I will be with you, and (2) you will know I have been with you when you get back here and look back."

There are several stories in the Bible with which I can relate the most. This is one of them. Moses continues to tell God why he can't do it; God continues to negotiate. I'm struck by how God does not make Moses do anything. He does not threaten or bully Moses or his family. God doesn't act like the mafia. He negotiates; He invites; He asks.

And God's twofold promise is striking. He doesn't say, "Because you'll cause destruction with the plagues (which might be implicit in the "my presence will be with you" phrase)," or "because I said so." God takes the time to comfort Moses, but without telling him all the details.

Though, at times, I do envy Moses. At least he knew he'd be back to his mountain.

We serve a God who asks and negotiates with us, not forcing anyone to do anything. And to guarantee that we have the courage to listen to him, he gives us reasons to hope. "Don't worry Moses, I'll be with you. And you'll see--once you get back here, it'll all make sense."

My son gets scared sometimes to swim long distances or go certain places. It's funny how much I say these exact things. "I know son; it's ok to be scared. But, I'll be with you each step of the way. And I promise, I know how this will end. You will make it to the end."

I often wonder if God is asking me to do something else. I tend to wonder it the most when I haven't been praying faithfully. I get the feeling, in those times, like a conversation is waiting to happen.

So I listen . . . and negotiate . . . and trust.

Why Don't I Feel Like God is There?

There's a Reba McEntire song called, "What Do You Say?" that has a line that is repeated several times: "Just close your eyes and let your heart lead the way." She's talking about knowing what to say in difficult situations, but that line really stood out to me. It reminded of nearly every Christian I've met in my life.

Part of the major attractions of Post-modernism is that fact that deconstructionalism (i.e., the attempt to dismantle any sense of "absolutes" in reality, truth, etc.) attempts to make everything relative. Therefore, if truth is not the standard, but a preference, then I get to decide what I consider truth to be. Isn't this great? We no longer have to say things like, "we all know that's wrong or right," or "that's not fair." We can only say, "that does not keep the societal preferences." Now, this blog is not about how silly and inadequate this notion of ethics is; this blog is only about how this fundamentally-flawed philosophical position has been bought -- wholesale -- by the Church. And it's devastating.

This is not a novel observation. There have been plenty of pundits before me who have noticed it; even predicted it. Nearly every Christian I meet today (and in the last decade of my ministry) really do believe, or are highly tempted to believe, that Christianity is right for him or her. It's what "floats my boat," "makes me feel better," "helps me know that granny is waiting on me," and so forth. Rarely do I meet modern Christians who believe Christianity to be valid because it's True; they believe in Christianity because it's good for them. That is, at bottom, most people pick a religion because they are utilitarian - if it "works" or meets some need of theirs, they keep it.

If there is one thing that Christianity cannot be, it cannot be merely a preference. People did not suffer crucifixion, get burned alive, get shunned by all family members, lose social and political positions, and live in fear lest authorities come drag them away during prayer meetings for centuries because they believed that Christianity simply "made them feel good."

Believing in Santa Claus made me feel good when I was a child. It really did. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I would never -- never in a million years -- offer myself to be tortured because of Santa.
The early Christians and early Church Fathers were so convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead that their entire lives were radically changed. They gave up everything that got in the way of living out that belief. Even when they did not feel like God was present (e.g., if they were killed, like Jesus felt while on the cross), they knew He was present because the gospel was True. Nothing could change the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead; nothing could change the fact that the manifestation of the Kingdom of God had begun as manifested in the several, small communities spread throughout the Empire.

What they felt about God while in despair had nothing to do with facts, with history. They were not ashamed of the gospel because they believed it to be true, not because they always felt God's presence.

Sometimes I'm tempted, like those Reba McEntire lyrics, to "close my eyes" and simply let "my heart lead the way." And sometimes, when I do that, I feel very happy and "close to Jesus." But for most of the time, in the "real world," those moments cannot be sustained. My feelings come and go. And they are supposed to do that; God designed my feelings that way.

Christianity is either true or false. Jesus and the Apostles never claimed to be spreading some new preference, but a fact. And they were either right or wrong, true or false.

If we Christians think that God has to feel close in order for Him actually to be close, then we are trying to manufacture a feeling. And this reduces Christianity and the promises of God's presence and love to mere feelings. Moreover, like the perfect relativist, it makes Christianity all about me. It says, "For Christianity to be true, I must feel God at this moment."

My wife is not always in the same room with me. I cannot always "feel" her presence. But, I never doubt her existence. She exists. This is a fact. It is either true or false, regardless of how I feel.

So it is with God. Praise God it is this way. I want a God who is not controlled by how I feel.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Since we are surrounded . . ."

My wife competed in her very first triathlon last weekend. It was a great event. To see 2500 women of various body sizes and ages wandering the landscape with multi-colored rubber hats on their heads was an intriguing sight. I was so proud of my wife. She looked just like the veterans (well, like the younger veterans).

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was barely breaking over the clouds when the event began. Her group was one of the last to begin. When she got into her group of purple-headed women to wade into the water, we all awaited for the announcer to commence the count-down. I teared-up several times: that was my wife; she was a bit scared; would she be safe? "Ready women?! 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Go!" Off she went like a minnow into the murky lake.

I cheered her on as she came out of the water, video camera in hand. “Yeah Elaine! You did it! You just swam over a half-mile! Wow! Keep going! Don’t stop!” I still fought back the tears. Up the hill she went to the bikes. One third of the event was over. As she and the other athletes ran up the hill, they stripped off their goggles and rubber hats.

Around forty-five minutes later, I recorded her as she came up the final hill, beet-red from hustling up and down several daunting hills on that bike. “Yeah Elaine! You did it! Don’t stop now! You just biked twelve miles! Keep it up!” The crowd around me cheered as well. Strangers were cheering on everyone, not just their favorite(s).

Then she was off to run over three miles. She put down her bike in her allotted spot and immediately began running. She was tired. Her gait wasn’t too fast, but it was steady. But this was the last leg. I prayed for her. And yes, I even teared-up for her again. I was so proud. I watched her in the distance as she disappeared into the arboreous running path. The next time I’d see her, she’d be running for the finish line.

I went to the finish line where a huge crowd had already gathered. People were running through the final gate and cheering, crying, panting. The crowd’s polyphonic cacophony was deafening. The announcer was broadcasting the finishers names as they crossed the finish line. Loud music was blasting over the speakers. Families and friends were standing almost in the way of the track as the runners would approach the finish line. Everyone was clapping and exhorting.

“Yeah!!! Come on Susan! Jane, don’t give up!! You can do it! You’re almost there! Don’t give up! Come on; just a little more! Don’t stop; don’t quit!”

At last, my wife came running around the corner to the last bit of track. She could hear the voices; she could hear the cheers from the huge crowd. Her pace sped up. I had my video camera ready. I came up to her in the last 100 feet, running beside her.

“Go honey!!! You can do it!”

I ran ahead of her through the finish line so that I could turn around and video her. She ran over the finish line and threw her arms in the air.

She exclaimed, “Yeah!!! I did it!!” The crowd continued to cheer. I gave her a big, long hug. And yes, I cried a little. For eight months, she trained. She had done it. And hundreds of people witnessed it. They were cheering her on too.

The author of Hebrews said it like this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, . . .” (12:1; ESV).

We’re being watched, says the anonymous author of Hebrews. We’re being watched and exhorted. Anyone in the ancient world would have immediately gotten the image: an ancient sporting event. Ancient Greek athletes competed in the nude (all males, of course). Here, the author of Hebrews uses such practice metaphorically: just like they cast off their clothes to run unhindered, we too, should cast off sinful habits.

And run. Run like’s there’s no tomorrow. No holding back; no stopping now. Why? Because we’re being watched. We’re not alone. There are cheerleaders. There are those who actually want us to finish the race well.

The respected professor and author Ben Witherington, III, tells a story (which I adapted a bit from
Some time ago I was pastoring in Coleridge N.C. and had gone to Charlotte with my wife for a few days to visit my folks. One of our most stalwart church members, Bertha Albright, suddenly and unexpectedly became ill on a Saturday and was dead by the time we returned. This was in an age before cell phones, and when I arrived back in Coleridge my neighbor, Roger Whitehead, was frantic and asking me to come to his house. He was worried his mother had gone bonkers. You see, Mrs. Whitehead had been Bertha Albright’s best friend, and about 4 or so that afternoon she had received a phone call from Bertha, which her son Roger had overheard. The phone rang, they talked for a while, and then Mrs. Whitehead hung up. She had been talking to Bertha. The problem is, Bertha was already dead some hours!
When I came across the street and was told all of this, because of course now Mrs. Whitehead had learned Bertha was dead and was distraught, I tried to calm her down and ask her some questions. I asked her was she sure it was Bertha? Oh yes, she had known this person for many many years. How did Bertha sound? “She sounded far away.”
I remember saying “I guess so, it was truly a long distance call.” But when I asked her what Bertha said, one of her remarks struck home: “She asked if Ben would be back to preach on Sunday, and to tell him not to be discouraged but to keep giving those good sermons and doing the ministerial work.” I was a pastor of four churches, and it was difficult. And indeed I was discouraged, and wondered whether I belonged in the pastoral ministry. And that message was precisely the word of hope and help I needed on that weekend.

Cheerleaders. They actually want us to finish.

When my wife was running down the final stretch, the sun blazing, the crowd cheering, the music playing, and my heart racing, time slowed down. For a brief moment, colors blurred, voices faded off in the distance, and all I could focus on was my wife’s smiling face looking at me. She was proud. She was happy. She was joyful. Her time was fulfilled; it was complete. And she was soaking it in.

And for a brief moment—ever so brief—when time slowed down, I could have sworn that I saw something else. I can’t prove it; I can’t even explain it well. But, it’s almost as if I saw a huge crowd of people smiling and cheering around us all, or better still, through us all. I saw a glimpse into another world where we were being watched and applauded. And for a brief moment, I could see us at the end of time.

I can still hear those voices in the distance . . . “Don’t stop! Don’t quit! You’re almost done! You’re almost home!”

And it makes me smile.

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