I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
("I Am A Rock" Simon & Garfunkel"
Recently I was part of a group that discussed a disturbing reality of our culture these days, we are a people that are "Alone, Together." This theme comes from a book by an MIT professor named Sherry Turkle; she reports that there are some troubling effects the new technologies may be having on our kids. As we discussed these effects, I wondered to myself, "Is it not troubling that people may seem more social, but are emotionally more alone as they...
- live in their screens most of the day?"
- can cut off relationships with the touch of a button?"
- see themselves more as the image they display than the thoughts they have?"
Should we be worried, or is this just another obstacle to learn to navigate around? I can remember my parents bemoaning "Atari" video games, and my grand parents wondering what color television would mean for the family as they eat tv diners around the "boob tube." I once read an article concerning the fear of a new invention called an "escalator" being used in department stores. Doctors at the time were worried that it may cause people to pass-out once they got to the top because the human body may not be able to handle the rise in atmospheric speed. So some stores had people waiting at the top with chairs and glass of water for people to regain their strength.
Maybe the new technology does present more opportunities to develop anti-social behavior patterns than previous generations; but humans have always had to learn how to engage others (see the 1960's Simon & Garfunkel song this blog opened with). And think about it, the choices for how to spend your time are really not that different. Here are some thoughts to think about to help navigate through this current storm:
* Remember, technology is amoral: it isn't wrong in and of itself, the problem is always our "self-control." As with everything, if you can't live without it, it may be an idol. iPhone, iPad, video games, tv, sports, books, fishing, and even back in the old days reading too many books was not healthy. (Jonathan Edwards spent 13 hours a day studying while his wife raised their 11 children virtually alone. Sounds godly, but maybe a hair self-obsessive?)
* Our children need to learn to be alone without being entertained! If they don't, they will never learn the great benefits of being lonely. Boredom is the current age's new fear. "Oh no dad, I have nothing to do?" Poor kids, it makes me want to cry. I once heard a man say that we no longer know how to think deeply or enjoy the benefits of a "good sadness " like previous generations did because noise and distractions are everywhere. Like a fine wine, fermentation of thought takes quiet aging.
* Don't take yourself so serious! I know this seems rather out of place, but pride causes us to think we are more important than we are. And social media with the amazing "photo-tools", "Facebook updates," and seeing all the number of likes I got; makes us think we "really" are important celebrities. When the truth is we are living lies in the world of our dreams! Shouldn't we be learning about people sitting right next to us. "Oh you are so pretty on your post, so handsome, so funny." But is that who you really are? I remember one time I went to a party talking in an English accent the whole time telling people I was a drummer from Liverpool, England because I heard girls loved English accents. Sounds stupid, I know, but at the time I really thought I was cool. There are a lot of Liverpool, England people all over social media these days; and it is kind of silly.
I will never forget the time I was leading a youth group meeting at my church and we had over 60 students sitting jammed pack in a room discussing current issues. Right before that meeting a sad, lonely kid told me how they were thinking of leaving the youth group because they didn't belong, they felt like an outsider. It got me thinking, "I wonder how many other kids feel like an outsider?" So during our meeting I asked the kids to raise their hands if they felt like an outsider. The result was fascinating" "Over 90% of the kids had their hands raised...even the cool kids!" God said because we are living in this broken world, we are alienated "in our minds" from God and others. We need to learn that Christ first loves us, and then we will be able to reach out to others.
To fix society's problems, we don't solve things by always taking things away from our kids, instead we need to give them something: Love, the love of Christ through our words, actions and time. So maybe, mom and dad, the problem will only be fixed if you first "turn your electronics off!"
What do you do? Your 13 year old daughter sits down at the kitchen table and asks you this question, "Dad, I am not sure if God really exists. How do you believe in someone you can't see?" As a Christian parent, especially a pastor, should you tell her in harsh tones to "just believe"? Do you put your hands on your face and ask her mournfully where you have failed as a parent? Or do you thank God that your daughter feels the freedom to share her doubts with you about God?
"Sharing doubts? Isn't that dangerous, isn't that encouraging sin?"
No, doubting is not sin, it is a part of being human. Think about it, if doubt wasn't normal why would we be told to live by faith? Part of being human is our limited capacity in knowing all things fully, we don't see hardly anything clearly. In our study of John, even after talking with Jesus face to face about spiritual things, Nicodemus the brilliant teacher, was still full of doubt and confusion. The truth is, from living in this broken world, we are placed in a land that is awash in doubt. Our problem is not doubt; it is our response to it. There are two "foolish" ways to deal with it when it arises:
(1) Out of fear, you completely ignore doubt and act as if it doesn't exist.
(2) Out of pride, you relish it and act superior because it proves you are an "independent thinker."
Both approaches are deadly because, like a poisonous snake, doubt will bite you! And when it does it leads a soul toward "confirmed unbelief." So what every person must do is go to war to de-fang the snake of doubt. (You can really never kill it, but you can render it harmless). How? Let me diagram it (this concept I gleaned from Oz Guinness in his book "God in the Dark"):
I want to point out three things as you look at this diagram concerning the "Battle Ground of Doubt":
(1) Doubt Exists: You can not wish it, hope it, or dream doubt away - - the human heart is seeking for certainty all of it's life, it never stops. Why else does your wife want to know, almost daily, if you love her? Because doubt exists. And this is never more true than in the abstract realm of faith. Like Doubting Thomas, "We want to feel Christ's wounds with our own hands." I thank God Thomas has the "HOOTSVAH" to ask Jesus if he can touch! On the diagram I have listed many different areas we doubt - - they are real, and it is not a sin to wonder about these things.
(2) Doubts, when left unchallenged, slide toward unbelief. Unbelief is the sin: God has answers, he rewards seekers, he has sent his Son. But if we ignore all he has done, and choose to remain independent, we follow in the cursed path that Adam wrought on this earth. One of the biggest "smokescreens" in this battle is when people ask questions, not to find answers, but to sound intelligent. True seekers will be given answers; but when the answers are given they must treat them as gold! Pride often looks on the answers with contempt and treats them as plastic toys; but they are direct invitations by God to "Come and See."
(3) When you do "Come and See," faith is strengthened; and you will soon find that the road to belief is paved with solid stone. If you struggle with belief, read the following quote by F. Gerrit Immink that discusses how God builds faith through doubt:
Faith stands in a constant tension between human trust and divine trustworthiness. God’s truth is that God is true, that is, trustworthy and utterly dependable. And this is where our faith finds its certainty: in who God is. It is not a blind trust but a trust that is linked to what we know and understand. This naturally means a believer must nurture his relationship to grow in knowledge. As a result, believers face a continuous struggle against their own unbelief. After a while the certainty they do achieve does not result from a rational proof but from a persuasion of divine truth.”
Let me ask you this question: When there is a court trial to convict someone of a crime, what is the goal of the prosecution in order to gain a conviction? "To prove that the crime occurred BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT." It is not to prove a crime occurred with "100% CERTAINTY." That is impossible to do because we are human! Doubt will always exist, but that doesn't means we can't find a firm base to trust. In fact, as you read this you sat down on your chair because there was a strong chance it would hold you up even though you weren't perfectly certain it would. Reasonable doubt allows you to live normally and not be like Bob Wiley afraid to ever leave your house.
So, what happened with the 13 year old daughter? I spent a good hour and a half walking through the book of 1 Corinthians 15 with her; and it was one of the greatest conversations we ever had. Having your daughter reading the writings of Paul and how 500 people witnessed the risen Christ is a privilege for any father.
Don't doubt me on that!
It's Wednesday, so here we go with the topics that I consider to be the "cement" or binding "mortar" (John Potes!) for establishing a strong, life-giving faith. I believe these things to be “true truth” and the essential foundation stones if you want to grow in maturity. The first foundation stone for me is this: “God has spoken to us and he still speaks…and he made us perfectly able to understand his speech.” In other words, I believe God really wants to communicate with us, and he isn't playing games with language; he speaks clearly and directly. I have a funny illustration that perfectly frames this discussion:
Last Wednesday, my original post generated many interesting comments on Facebook. In the back and forth dialogue there were a lot of “Highfalutin” (Def: seeming or trying to seem great or important) words used to sound intelligent. Words like “new hermeneutic”, “modern constructs”, “existentialism”, and “sophistry”. (Sadly, most of these words were used by me so I gave off the impression to those who also like to give off scholarly impressions, that I read and understand “highfalutin” words.) Well, later that day a person who was following the discussion came up to me and said, “I didn't understand half of what was being said. Can you dumb it down for some of us next time?” This humble request was both an appropriate and brilliant example of the desire of people to “truly connect when communicating.” In fact, all of us expect for other people to speak to us in a way that makes sense. If you didn't, you would never read blogs in the first place.
So if human beings can adjust their language so ideas are transmitted with accuracy and clarity, don’t you think God can exercise the same ability? Some post-modern scholars aren't too sure about this; they think God is so unlike us that he is unable to be properly understood. But my contention today is that since God made us, he knows exactly how to communicate with us! So when we are looking for meaning, purpose and clear explanations I believe God has spoken and still speaks - - he is not playing a game of “Hide-n-go-Seek” with us, he loves it when we seek for truth (Isaiah 55:6)
Psalm 19:1-9 discusses how God speaks through two clear vehicles: (1) Nature (verse 3) – “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth.” The beauty of the earth, the wonder of the heavens, the brilliant fine-tuning of the ecosystem displays the mind of a genius. Sure, people try to explain it away by random chance, but deep down in the gut of a human’s soul…people know God did this. So why is there such a huge movement to push God out of public discourse, to mock “Intelligent Design,” to force a monolithic mind-meld concerning evolution? Simple: “Out of sight, out of mind.” God’s invisibility allows for the prideful man to believe his own lies about his delusion of "supposed" greatness. (Read Romans 1:18-25 if you don’t believe me).
That is why God communicated through (2) His Word (verse 7) – “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” God’s word is perfect in that it accurately represents reality, as it is. And it is perfect in the sense that it speaks to us on our level - - it is designed to be understood. Yes, God is Infinite, Holy, and Transcendent (above us in every way); but he knows how we think because he made our brain. When a dad talks to his 2 year old daughter does he use words like “existentialism”, “sophistry”, and “hermenuetics”? Of course not, he speaks in a language that perfectly connects with the mind of his daughter, and they have a real relationship. (Sometimes it is easier to communicate with a 2 year old as compared to an 18 year old). So why don’t people understand God’s word? Why does it seem so confusing? Here is my simple, non-highfalutin reply: “People don’t want to communicate, they have better things to do.”
Very simply: (1) God’s Word can be understood (Luke 1:1-4); however, you must put forth some effort to understand it (2 Timothy 2:15). I don’t buy it when people say the words are too big, the concepts too fuzzy, it’s too confusing. Just ask them questions in their area of interest: Computer geeks use big words: “Gigabyte”,“Active-Matrix”, “Hexadecimal”. Social savvy teens have their own language: BTW, CUL8R, FOCL. Brainless football fans: “Line of Scrimmage”, “Intentional Grounding”, “2 Gap 3-4 Defensive Schemes.” To find gold you must dig.
(2) God’s Word is never presented as a fairy tale, it is meant to be read seriously. Peter says he didn’t invent this (2 Peter 1:16); John says he saw Jesus with his very own eyes (1 John 1:1-3); the Old Testament writers often didn’t want to speak but they had to (Jer. 20:7-9). Proper communication must respect the intent of the person speaking. If I told you something serious, “My dad died,” and you said that “I was speaking in a vague poetic genre that was open to a wide variety of interpretations dependent on the ‘cultural community’ of the time of my utterance”, I would punch you right in the nose. The reason I would punch you is that you were purposely not trying to understand me!
(3) Finally, and this must be heard, God’s word is dangerous; don’t play around with it. 2 Peter 3:16 says if you purposely distort it’s meaning you will be destroyed. Proverbs 30:6 says God will defend it’s trustworthiness, and Revelation 22:18-19 says that … well…read it for yourself, it scares me too much to talk about.
It isn't complicated: decay in society, destruction of families, explosion of perversity, moral and intellectual ruin, even poverty all begins with the “lack of delight in God’s Word”. (Jeremiah 6:10).
I want to close on a perfect example of how, when left alone to our own devices, humans use language to complicate things, not make them clear. Just recently Gwyneth Paltrow & Chris Martin separated after 10 years of marriage. Scripture is very clear on it’s warning: “God hates divorce.” But no, not in our sophisticated day and age; divorce is a much more complex issue. Listen to this article from Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami: "when the whole concept of marriage and divorce is reexamined, there’s actually something far more powerful—and positive—at play." The doctors consider how insects might be able to tell us something about divorce. They write:
“The misunderstandings involved in divorce also have much to do with the lack of intercourse between our own internal masculine and feminine energies. Choosing to hide within an endoskeleton and remain in attack mode requires a great imbalance of masculine energy. Feminine energy is the source of peacemaking, nurturing, and healing. Cultivating your feminine energy during this time is beneficial to the success of conscious uncoupling. When our masculine and feminine energies reach equilibrium once more, we can emerge from our old relationship and consciously call in someone who reflects our new world, not the old one.” That is why they called their divorce: “Conscious Uncoupling.”
So you tell me, who is easier to understand, God or our “enlightened” experts?
Don't cry for me, but I wouldn't mind a little sympathy -- I had it terribly hard growing up because I always had to walk to school. From elementary school to high school, I had to hoof it: in sleet, snow, wind, rain, and being from Cleveland I rarely walked in sunshine. Instead of walking, it sure would have been nice to have my very own vehicle to come tooling into the high school parking lot with. I also attended a very wealthy school which made it extra hard to walk. It seemed like every student but me was given their own car once they got their drivers license. I can vividly remember one student who got a "Suped-Up" Ford pick-up truck from his rich daddy... man was it nice. I remember it well because the first day he had the truck he came flying into the parking lot squealing the tires, revving his engine and blasting Metallica. I thought to myself, "Now whoever this is, he has to be one tough dude."
As the truck came to a halt, students gathered around, and to everyone's surprise, out jumped one of the skinniest and shortest kids in the school. You sure can't judge a book by its cover! Not only that, but this single experience became a watershed moment in my understanding of the world. I realized, "Just because a person could push their foot down hard on a gas petal and can turn on a radio loud doesn't make that person tough and gritty." I had that same kid in gym class and he would be the first one to whine & complain if we ever had to run, lift weights, or put on boxing gloves. That truck, the loud engine, was all show! I call this "Counterfeit Grit."
Over the years I have learned this principle also applies when it comes to determining someone's moral strength, courage and grit as well. I have found that those who are lacking in it often hide behind loud & harsh words, threats, snap judgments, and demands for serious punishment. The problem with the counterfeit, is that we believe it to be the "real thing." I have seen time and time again where the loudest mouths and harshest words get to make most of the decisions; and usually it ends up resulting in everyone's detriment. But as they say, the best way to recognize a counterfeit is to first learn what the "Genuine Article" looks like.
The "Genuine Article" of true strength & grit is of course, Jesus of Nazareth. And I believe the most profound example of his grit is found in 1 Peter 2:19-24 -- I THINK YOU WILL BE SURPRISED:
"For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not retaliate in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."
I just want to point out two things, that's it:
(1) HE DID NOT RETALIATE: Stop and think about that for one second, this should blow your mind! First, take into account that Jesus made the world, he was perfect and yet the people he created, "Spit on him, punched him, mocked him, ignored him, laughed at him, and hung him on a cross." And he did not retaliate! Counterfeit's retaliate, usually loudly like a skinny guy stomping on a gas petal -- it takes nothing to do it. But to be patient under injustice and let God work, now that takes courageous faith! And tell me, you who live in America, do you really have it that bad? Seriously? Is your situation so tough that it seems God has treated you unfairly?
(2) HIS WOUNDS BROUGHT HEALING: His willingness to wait gave the world the opportunity to change and be healed. If Jesus got fed up, and vented his anger immediately, demanding punishment "Now!" you and I would be toast. Is it easy to wait for someone to change while you bear up under their faults and mistakes? No, it takes real strength, courage and grit to do that! Think about raising your kids: when they were babies they often kept you up a night crying and whining. Why didn't you retaliate by yelling at them and demanding them to change or you were going to put them up for adoption? Love, right!
Love sees future potential - not the present failure. Love hopes for God's Spirit to transform hearts. Love keeps no records of wrongs because it entrusts itself to "him who judges justly!" This is why James 2:13 says, "Mercy triumphs over Judgment." Showing people "Mercy" may cost you more, it will demand of you courage and grit, but when you let it accomplish its work there is the grand possibility for a transformed human being...a trophy of God's grace to be displayed!
All "judgement" can do is judge, that's easy and quick; but it shuts the door for hope and mercy to do its work! Like squealing your tires in a parking lot -- it's seems cool but it sure ruins your tread!
I couldn't ask for a better town to grow up in than Bay Village, Ohio. For an energetic boy with an equally adventurous sister, this town had everything for us to do. Lake Erie was just across the street and we would spend hours and hours there skipping stones & throwing sticks to our dog. There were numerous parks with hiking trails and bike paths galore. The public swimming pool with three diving boards was only a five minute walk from our house, as were 4 baseball diamonds, basketball courts, tennis courts, a 10 lane bowling alley and a Baskin Robins Ice Cream Parlor! Bay Village even had a planetarium...can you believe it?
Even with all these options available to chose from, my sister Stephanie and I always looked forward to the 4th of July weekend when the carnival came to town: Rides, roller coasters, fun house and elephant ears. What kid doesn't love that? But secretly, what really fascinated us were the "Carnies!" I know it sounds strange, but we loved to get to the carnival a few days early and spy on them. You know who the Carnies are, don't you? They are the people who travel from town to town to do the set-up and take down of rides, they holler at people with their "colorful vocabulary" to pull people in to play the games of chance, they blast "AC/DC" music while strapping teens into the "Tilt-O-Whirl." They are the few, the forgotten, the Carnies!
You may be wondering why we spied on them? Well, my sister has always been intrigued by the weird & strange. And being her little brother, she had a way sucking me into her covert Carnie espionage. Let me tell you, when it comes to weird & strange, Carnies as a sub-group of American society, are some of the weirdest! I have seen ladies with mustaches, guys with tattoos on their eyelids, and midgets wearing mullets. I remember one year in particular when the carnival had a mini freak show: there was a lady who had rubber skin where she could pull it 12 inches away from her body and it would snap back to place. And the craziest person we saw was a guy that could push giant needles through his tongue, cheeks and neck. This was way before piercings and plugs were even cool...watching him mesmerized and grossed you out all at the same time!
Now that I think about it, maybe my fascination with the weird & strange is why I went into ministry in the first place?
Church people have a lot of Carnie like qualities about them. (At least I know I do.). And before you protest this assessment, ask yourself: Have you ever wore a mullet? Have you ever played screaming loud music and loved it? Have you ever sat next to a person in church with piercings? Admit, we are all very strange! Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:25-29 agrees:
"For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."
Think about it: "God chose what is low and despised." Sounds like the Carnies to me. Why would he do this? It is very simple: when your skin is like rubber, or your walking around with giant needles through your neck you quickly realize you are in desperate need of a new life, you need God's mercy. Romans 11:32 makes this very clear, "For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all." Great people take pride in their wonderful humanity, they see no need for mercy; Carnies are quick to admit their need for a life change.
And when it comes to being a child of God, this reality of human nature is what allows Carnies to have a much easier time accepting God's main requirement to gain access into heaven: "You must be Born Again!" Human parents give birth to earthly beings; but to be accepted into heaven, you need to be born from above. Carnies are quick to admit they are made of clay and dust; Great people think their clay and dust is a little bit better - - of finer quality. Either way, earthly material cannot survive in the scorching holiness of heaven. (Not even Gandhi's)
This Sunday, we are going to explore what it means to be "Born Again," and why this requirement is a must. Meanwhile, sit back and look around-- you will have to admit, we are all very weird and strange: You included!
Wednesdays on this blog involve discussing whatever is on my mind...a space to talk about something that I am deeply interested in. And for the next 4 or 5 Wednesdays I am going to hammer on a theme entitled "Truth & Cement." (I invite you to join me if you don't mind listening to someone discuss & debate with himself.) Personally speaking, I have been on a hunt for something my whole life, "honest truth." I am growing weary with trying to keep up with the newest theological imaginings, cool church trends, and post-modern constructs that don't seem to clarify understanding; but rather confuse and weaken what once seemed firm. Convictions are so easily sacrificed these days on the altar of tolerance and "niceness." We want intellectuals, actors and angry women to like us so we temper our opinions and seek to prove how "open minded" we are. If someone believes the sky has a Scottish plaid-green pattern, we no longer can disagree with a look of incredulity; but now we are only allowed to look up at the clouds and smile admiring their fascinating insight. The ultimate goal of an advanced society is to find common ground in order to dialogue and seek to understand the world's wonderful diversity of ideas.
D. A. Carson in his book "The Gagging of God," talks about the poisonous influence that philosophical pluralism is having on the search for truth, "Any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong...If all interpretation is culturally conditioned it becomes a tool for domination." Therefore, he explains, in the mind of the post-modern scholar, "no interpretation can be dismissed, and no interpretation can be allowed the status of objective truth!" In the classroom of the University this sort of conclusion displays the brilliance of an open and fertile mind; but in the real world this is a load of cow manure.
Let me show you what I mean from something I learned first-hand working with simple bricklayers. How you mix cement, specifically when it come to adding the proper amount of sand, really, really matters. To the novice laborer, mixing cement seems rather trivial -- but not to the journeyman mason. You must mix it right! Too much sand makes it weak, not enough makes it stiff and unusable. I was talking with one seasoned construction veteran and he told me his dad taught him how to mix it just right. This basic formula was passed down from his dad, who learned it from his dad, who learned it from his dad. So I asked him, "Don't you think it is time to come up with a new way of mixing cement? Try shifting the focus, look for a new "cement paradigm": switch up the ingredients, try changing the mixing ratios of sand, cement, lime and water? You never know how much better and efficient you will be until you try?"
He said, "Do you want a wall that stays standing for years or one that falls apart at the first hint of rain?" I said one that stands. He said, "Then do it my way: it has been rigorously tested, it has stood strong through years of wear and tear. This cement formula has more than proven itself!"
Is he intolerant? YES! Is his opinion superior? YES! Is his opinion unreasonable? No! He lives in the real world, and he knows what "truly" works. This is what I am on the search for in all things religious. I am tired of cool square rimmed glasses guys coming around saying, "Try putting some more sand in your atonement theory. Maybe your exclusive eschatology is formed from your modernist perspective? Salvation is much more fluid than believing you simply need to be "Born Again." We need to catch up with the times, isn't it about time to let the old doctrines go? That ship has sailed." Or, "Hey, isn't it about time to stop calling heresy heresy and start letting all new ideas, new paradigms, and fresh re-imagined constructs to have an equal voice at the table of dialogue?"
It all depends: Do you want your faith to "stand for years" or fall apart at the first sign of rain? So if you are willing, come with me on Wednesdays as we go back to learn the some basic skills of cement mixing. I want my faith to stand...
HOW ABOUT YOU?
It is late at night, you come home to a dark house alone, lightning is flashing, thunder is booming, you are trembling. You light a candle because the electricity is out, and you notice under the dim flickering of the small flame, a letter sitting on the on the counter; it is addressed to you. The name on the return address is "Tony Ragu;" your old childhood friend, and he happens to also be the small loan officer at the local bank.
"Oh no," you wonder,"I must be in trouble?"
A loud crash is heard near your back window, the winds are picking up, the storm is getting close. With a slow tearing of the envelope's seal, you apprehensively open the contents of the letter -- as a soft singular beam of light shines, you see written in bold strokes, "...I'm Gonna Kill You..." The letter drops from your limp hand, beads of sweat form on the back of your neck, you tell yourself in an instance,"I must get away....make a run for it...no time to lose."
With fear driving you, you get back into your car, braving the storm, you head to Mexico!
The next day your friends begin to worry: you were a no show at work, you skipped the annual morel mushroom hunt, and you haven't "Instagrammed" for 12 hours? Something most definitely is wrong! They rush to your silent house, and they notice the front door is left unlocked? No one is home, all they find is a lonely letter thrown to the floor. It reads...
"Dear Old Friend,
It was so good to see you after all these years. I miss our talks, our games of Yahtzee; I miss the hamburgers with fried morels. I was hoping since I took the new bank job in town we could spend more time together. Remember when you borrowed my favorite white sweater and spilled grape juice all over it? It was hilarious how I told you,"I'm Gonna Kill You," in my best impression of Al Pacino and you wouldn't stop laughing? I miss those days! Anyhow, hope you have a wonderful day, and if you need a loan the rates are really low!
See Ya Soon,
Mr. Ragu (remember...you said it reminded you of Magoo.)"
"That's weird, A nice note and no sign of trouble?" Your friends leave puzzled...meanwhile, being driven by stage one paranoia you join a drug cartel, change your name to Ceaser Chavez the Third and you are never heard from again.
All because you didn't know how to properly read!
John Piper in his book "Think," says in order to have a coherent worldview that is properly rooted in the Bible, you need to work hard to understand what an author intends to communicate. He calls this the golden rule of reading, "Do unto AUTHORS as you would have them do unto you!" He says authors, both Biblical & Non-Biblical, want to be understood, not misunderstood. Sadly, most error in life and religion comes from people reading their own ideas into what is written or said.
Did I encourage unbridled drinking in my sermon and post two weeks ago? Some people think I did. Does Jesus allow you to believe whatever you want when he makes statements about, "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me?" Is it O.K. when deconstructionist philosophers & cool church leaders decide to change orthodox interpretations of scriptures and doctrines because they have a "refreshingly new take" on Biblical passages? Are they really trying their best to understand authors intent, or are they responding to their superb intuitive instincts that sometimes have nothing to do with reality?
I would rather be seen as boring, standing on thousands of years of well developed teaching than having my cool fashionably dyed-hair blowing in the new breeze of progressive post-modern theory.
In the same way I would rather be sitting with Tony Ragu eating a hamburger topped with morels, than brandishing a semi-automatic hiding in Tijuana
(* SPOILER ALERT - - material will be used for Sunday Sermon Introduction)
Satan knows something we often forget - - idolatry starts in the mind.
So he will imprint onto your mind false images of God; and there are two main ones he has people walking a tight-rope between. On one side he wants us believing that God is hard-hearted, mean & nasty: He is not for you! In Matthew 25:24 Jesus tells a parable about a man who hid his one talent in the ground, and when the master came by and asked him why, he said, “I knew you were a hard & stern man.” This is the view of God the nuns in my elementary school had me believing. Last week in my sermon, I said how as a kid I thought the purpose of church was to be ‘Miserable.’ And when you think God wants you miserable, Satan grins with pleasure. (Because he wants you to not want to be with God.)
But as we saw in Jesus’ first miracle last week, this view of God is categorically untrue. He made wine out of water, he joined in a marriage celebration, and he provided needy people with more than they could “ask for or imagine.” Hopefully, last week’s message completely destroyed that first lie in your mind? But Satan is crafty, if he can’t get you one way, he will push you completely the other way. The other side of the tight-rope is to convince you that God is a wimp: He is naïve, soft & impotent (meaning he is an old man that won’t lift a finger against our will and desires, “Ah, go ahead sonny, do whatever you want!”). Psalm 10:11-13 describes this view plainly for us: "God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees."
Personally speaking, I walked this tight-rope: As I grew older I outgrew the nuns' threats of doom; and slowly without ever realizing it, my friends became the main influence on how I thought about God. Instead of associating God with Sister Joan of Arc’s ruler; my new image of God was a raised glass of green beer.
This wasn't brought to my attention until my senior year in college during St. Patrick ’s Day Weekend. In almost every student’s mind, from Thursday afternoon to Saturday Night, it was your obligation to skip class so you could participate in the plethora of St. Patrick Day parties around campus. “Green Beer was everywhere: a 20 kegger on Thursday, a 50 kegger Friday, a 25 kegger on Saturday.” If you ever wondered where the makers of the “Walking Dead” TV series got their idea, I wouldn't be surprised if one of the writers visited my college on that St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
Needless to say, Sunday morning was awfully quiet around campus as people slept off their weekend of a "hops & barley headache." I can remember feeling compelled to go to church on Sunday at the campus chapel. Noon starting time allowed enough leeway for those who wanted to cover their guilt and shame to make it out of bed and arrive for mass. I was surprised because it was relatively full; as the half-awake students sat in their padded pews I will never forget what the priest said, “I know most of you are in no condition to really pay much attention so I will say a quick prayer and let you go home early.” As I looked around the chapel, students were smiling and murmuring to one another, “What a cool priest! Man, this is great, he really gets us.” As people filed out, I just sat there because one word haunted my mind: Hypocrite!
We all like nice Jesus - - but is that who Jesus really is? 2 Corinthians 11:4 hints at the idea that many false teachers use Jesus' name, but it may not be the Jesus who actually exists (mental idolatry). The Jesus the Bible describes is dangerous: He drove people out the temple when they were using God's house to make a profit. He yelled at Peter and called him "Satan" when Peter didn't want him to go to the cross and die. Jesus is coming again to earth in blazing fire flanked by his army of powerful angels (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). And...Jesus is Holy.
With that being said, we also should be holy. In 1 Corinthians 15:32 Paul was hypothetically speculating on what our human response should be if Jesus actually never rose from the dead. One of his answers was to "Eat Up and Drink Hearty, because we are all Doomed to Die" But Paul's whole point of chapter 15 was to persuasively argue that "Jesus did Rise from the Dead;" therefore we must live differently. He puts it like this in verses 33-34: "Do not be misled; Bad company corrupts good character. Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God - I say this to your shame."
One last question: When Jesus made a whip out of cords, was he just foolin' around?
I love sports, always have, and sadly I know I always will. I think sports teaches you hard-work, it provides you with a great supportive community of like minded friends, and it also helps you to see yourself as you really are. Often there is no better way to learn humility than when you put up a cool reverse layup and it is swatted half-way across the court. All in all, I think in a general sense, playing sports is healthy. My problem, however, is that sports can often cause you to dangle dangerously close to the edge of the “cliff of obsession.” I have found when the sports bug bites you - trivial things start to twist and morph you. I have seen grown men regress into kindergarten mentality when it comes to arguing with other men over their favorite color: “I like blue!” “I like green.” “You are both wrong, scarlet is the best!” (And we thought women on Pintrest were crazy?) Or think about this: kids in high school, both guys and even more rabid girls, now determine who their friends are by how good they are at throwing a round piece of leather through an orange metal ring. Now doesn’t that seem a little deranged?
But I have to tell you what saddens me the most is when people finally do fall off the cliff. It happens all too frequently in our society, and people like this are easy to spot because they have lost all ability to think and count. It is really weird.
NON THINKERS (Federal Headship Fallacy, Muhammad Ali Syndrome)
Since I am a pastor, I see things theologically and a very interesting concept to me is the “Federal Headship of Adam.” What this teaches is that Adam, the first man, represented all of mankind when he was placed in the Garden of Eden. When he sinned, all of us sinned - - God calls this vicarious association. Somehow in the mind of God, I am joined with Adam in his rebellion in the Garden; because he ate the fruit, I ate the fruit. Theologically this is considered true truth (Romans 5:12-14). But Federal Headship should not be applied to any other situation in life, especially sports, because you turn crazy. Some people like Superman and watching movies about him; but if they were to walk around in red underwear and cape all day, we would think they escaped the asylum. Some people like Sponge Bob, but it is ludicrous to think you can live underneath water wearing brown shoes and flipping hamburgers on a hot grill. But somehow, when it comes to sports we forget that Federal Headship does not apply: we think if our team wins, we win and we are the champions. We think if we yell louder or talk to the players while watching tv, we are connected to them. And when we beat our rival, we rub it in their face because in our mind “We are superior!” It really can become dangerous: I have seen people abandon friendships and bad-mouth family all because of team loyalty. I have seen people go into months of depression because their team lost, or their favorite player got hurt. Hey sports fans, the players on your favorite team don’t even know who you are! And guess what, they don’t even care about you. But somehow, we must still believe! They are “My Team!” (yeah, you and another one million of the most dedicated fans)
The “Muhammad Ali Syndrome” is worse. Ali’s favorite chant was, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest.” About 20 years ago I got a signature from him and he couldn’t even stand up, his body was racked by a terrible disease. But he still said and so did the people around him, "That he was the greatest." Sadly, because we play in a YMCA basketball league and score 10 points we instantly think, “We are the greatest!” We catch a touch-down pass in a high school football game and we are the next Jerry Rice. We listen to 20 hours of sports talk a day, and we know more than Troy Aikman. “We believe we are the greatest,” and so many of us really believe it!
NON COUNTERS & PLAYING BAD ODDS
Think about the time, money and effort to make your kid “the greatest?” I have major regrets because I was blinded by the Ali Syndrome for at least 20 years of my life, and in that time I barely read a book, I worked silly jobs so I could keep my time open to play more sports, and I never properly evaluated what I was good at. But think about the odds of being the greatest: (Take High School Basketball for Example)
- 34,450: these are the number of men’s High School Basketball Teams.
- 346: these are the number of men’s College Basketball Teams.
- 30: these are the number of NBA Teams.
Over the years parents will pay thousands of dollars, and drive hundreds of miles to give their kid a shot at the big time. What are the odds? Think about it? That’s the problem, we don’t. And then when our kids graduate high school, they don’t know how to meet with God, Sunday is just another day to play, they rarely experience real hard work, and after it is all said and done they become depressed because we told them they "really" have a shot.
So are you saying my kid doesn't have a shot? The real question is, “Why is this the highest goal for your kid? Why do we determine significance by dribbling skills, passing accuracy, and 100 meter dash time?” Sure, having your kids play sports is healthy, but that isn't the end for which God created them. In our quest for stardom, we have more often than we can be honest about, sacrificed them on the altar of athletic arrogance. It is killing our kids. They made the team so they think they are special (that is...better than those nerds in band), they made the winning shot so they are significant, they have their name in the paper, so they have arrived. But do they know Christ? Do they understand godly humility? Do they have any hunger for his word? (Nah, it's Sunday, we need to go to Newark for a tournament)
One more thing: the college basketball tournament is coming up, what are the odds that your team will win? Don’t mean to burst your bubble, but March Madness is designed to disappoint. If we can watch it for enjoyment, great! But don’t watch it to prove your superiority: It has failed me personally for the last 40 years…I am an Ohio State fan, so I know!
My final point: Enjoy but don’t obsess, somehow when you fall off the cliff you lose a part of your soul that you can never get back.
(*This post is a follow-up to the last one, “Wine: is the devil inside?”)
Amazing! My last post generated 10x the hits than any other post I published so far. I wonder why? I can speculate: “Hmm, maybe there are a lot of secret scalawags out there who are looking for biblical justification to keep sipping on their Rum? I know…I am being stalked by heretic hunters who want to take down another renegade liberal ‘wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing’ pastor? Or maybe people simply want to know what the Bible actually says about difficult subjects instead of just walking lock-step in man-made tradition?” Whatever the reason, the amount of perusers to my last post excites me. Not because I want to be popular; but as a pastor, I want people to think! Proper biblical interpretation and application is vital if Christians are to gain wisdom and understanding. God’s goal is for us to live as mature adults who are characterized by a “sound mind with self discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7) For far too long, churches had developed adolescent followers who make “fear based” reactionary decisions…let me give you a hyperbolic example of what I mean (exaggeration for the purpose of illustration):
Let’s say you are a mom who is just trying to maintain sanity in a claustrophobic house with two highly active toddlers who are “driving you crazy.” While you are preparing “Sponge-Bob” Mac-n-cheese on the stove for lunch, your phone rings in your bedroom upstairs. As the water begins to boil, and seeing that your kids are throwing Lego’s at each other in the living room, you have a very serious decision to make: “Do I run quickly upstairs to get my phone, or let it go so my kids don’t come in here and burn their fingers on the hot stove, or even worse, dump a pot of boiling water on their head?” Since you are a well meaning mom, you make a split second decision: “I know, I will tell my kids not to go into the kitchen at all because the floor is so hot ‘It Burns!’ Yeah, that will keep them far away from the stove.” So after you tell them how they will be fried to a crisp by just touching the kitchen floor, you run upstairs, grab your phone and happily answer it in time. “Mrs. Smith, congratulations, you won a 3 day all expense paid vacation to Scranton, Pennsylvania to visit Dunder Mifflin.” Yes, you finally won, and your little story worked! As you go back down stairs your kids are frozen in complete fear as they stare into the dark horror room called “the kitchen.” “Ahhhhh, it worked, my story will now keep my children alive for another five years. Now that is called responsible parenting!”
Or is it?
What happens when one kid notices that after they chased the kitten into the kitchen, it didn’t fry? “Hmm, chocolate puff is still alive? Maybe the kitchen floor isn’t that hot after all.” So out of curiosity your child touches a bare toe on the linoleum floor, and, nothing happens. He then bursts into the kitchen and starts running all around realizing that they are survivors! In their little brain they wonder, “Maybe, just maybe, mommy was not telling me the whole truth? Or she doesn’t know how invincible I am?” And then your child becomes convinced of their new super-powers of survival; they then see water bubbling on a cool orange glowing circle as a new challenge, and think to themselves, “Mommy told me not to touch that either…but I will survive!” Not good!
Ridiculous story, I know, but it uses the same kind of logic many people in the church have been raised on in order to avoid the dangers of this world:
* Mixed bathing is a no, no. It leads to touching and touching leads to …
* No movie theatres because you are promoting the Hollywood lifestyle and everything that goes with it. Do you want to fund Sodom and Gomorrah? “Well, didn’t you just have me over to watch the “Avengers” on DVD?” Yeah, but that is different…
* Dancing leads to swaying which leads to hugging which leads to grinding which leads to ….
* You may have the sort of tongue that once it touches a drop of alcohol, your eyes glaze over and you turn instantly into a person with an unstoppable addiction, and soon you will become a night stalking zombie craving drink upon drink…
* Rock n Roll has drumbeats that come from the jungles of Africa, which leads to pagan demon worship, and leads to….
* Hanging around Calvinists will cause you to stop loving people and see life in categories and boxes, and you will only grow tulips in your garden….
Do you see how we have been taught to make decisions out of fear? Fear makes us stupid, there is no way around it. God has given us the mind of Christ, he has given us the power of the Spirit…what shall we fear? Some of you are saying: “Yeah but you are a leader and we must set up boundaries to stop impure behavior.” But here is my problem with that statement: what happens when our boundaries are not biblical and a person steps over them and realizes we were not accurate? Well, sadly, sometimes when we finally do teach biblical truth, it is ignored and treated as another false boundary.
That is why I believe hell is no longer feared! Because rock music, movie theaters and alcohol weren't as hot as we previously warned; and maybe, just maybe, hell won’t be so bad after all?