Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jumbled Thoughts About Newtown

On Friday, many people watched in horror as the news came in fits & spurts from a small town in Connecticut... and we once again witnessed a tragedy inside a school - but this time the majority of the victims were 6 or 7 years old.

I've worked & prayed for a couple of days, trying to figure out how to write something that is both pastoral and profound; something that gives hope without denying the reality of the pain & grief & anger. So far, my attempts have been an abject failure.

It's not that I don't have things to say... it's that they are all jumbled in my head and end up spilling out in fragments & disconnected thoughts. I guess that's the way they'll have to come out today. Bear with me.


Our current information-soaked culture can fool us into thinking we know more than we do about situations like this. The ease with which I can pull up video reports and read newspaper stories combines with the relentless 24 hour news cycle and the need of TV networks and websites to create new content... and what all too often happens is that conjecture and opinion become conflated with facts in an attempt to explain, assess blame & assign meaning to a massacre like this.

The reality is that we don't know very much right now - and not just because the police are being careful about releasing information. It's important to remember the lessons of Columbine:
We have learned that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not goths. They weren’t loners. They weren’t in the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” They were not disaffected video gamers. They hadn’t been bullied. The supposed “enemies” on their list had already graduated a year earlier. They weren’t on anti-depressant medication. They didn’t target jocks, blacks or Christians.
They just wanted to kill. 

Two seemingly normal, well-scrubbed high school boys went to their school in a prosperous suburban subdivision with the goal to kill thousands. Their bombs didn’t work, so they proceeded to kill 13 classmates, and wound another 24. (from "The Answer is Evil" - referenced below)

So much of what we heard in the days following the 1999 attack on Columbine High School turned out to be speculation... and wrong. It's likely that some (or a great deal) of what we're hearing right now about motivations and upbringing regarding Newtown, CT, will turn out to be rumors & myths as well.


Our tendency is to want to fix things... to jump in and find a solution so that something like this can never happen again. We're already seeing this with calls for gun control and mental health reform in response to the tragedy.

I'm not particularly interested in debating either of these subjects - primarily because I think that focusing our energies on legal solutions in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event like what happened in Newtown has more to do with making ourselves feel better/safter/like we're doing something and less to do with what is really needed.

These discussions are important discussions... but when they are conducted under the white hot spotlight of the media circus while we are awash in grief, they tend to become polarized battles where individuals and groups lob verbal grenades at each other. And the shrapnel from those battles is most likely to injure the people most directly affected by the tragedy.

What is really needed? Mourning. The time for action will come - and yes, I understand that it can take a horrible situation like this to get legislators to accomplish meaningful reform - but we ignore the Biblical injunction to "mourn with those who mourn" at our own peril. Our rush to fix does not give us the space to grieve in meaningful ways... and we can make laws & policies based on rumors & myths.


Our tendency is to want to fix things... to jump in and find a solution to all of the pain & hurt & grief.

Wait a minute! That sentence sounds suspiciously like the beginning to the last entry...

Yes, yes it does. That's because we as followers of Jesus Christ suffer from the same tendencies as everyone else - a desire to fix things. Some of us get pulled into the debates about governmental solutions, but it's more likely that we Christians will want to fix the hurt we see in the faces of the family members by attempting to explain why this mass shooting happened... or use our words to nudge the grieving process along.

It's at moments like this that we need to pay attention to Job & his friends:
Now when Job’s three friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—heard about all this adversity that had happened to him, each of them came from his home. They met together to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they looked from a distance, they could barely recognize him. They wept aloud, and each man tore his robe and threw dust into the air and on his head. Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense. (Job 2:11-13, HCSB)

These guys have the right idea... rather than jump into long-winded discussions about theodicy (the theology of evil) or give Job some quick-fix answers ("at least your kids are with God now"), they simply sit with him in silence. They are present.

Of course, the moment they start talking they downshift into saying one dumb thing after another - blame, philosophical discussion, theological musings, etc.

In the midst of the tragedy in Newtown, we need to work more at being present, of allowing people to mourn & grieve. And we need to work hard to keep our arms open to those in tears and our mouths closed unless God gives us words to speak.


A number of wise people have written about the tragedy... and while they don't all agree with each other, I'd suggest that you take the time to read what they have to say.

Joel J. Miller - The Face of the devil & the mercy of God 

In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart writes that we should see in the death of child, not “the face of God but the face of his enemy.” We believe in Providence, yes, but we should be free to say that evil had its way. In a letter to a couple who had lost their child, Basil the Great is upfront with this fact: “[S]uddenly, through the malice of the devil, all that happiness of home and that gladness of heart has been swept away. . . .”

James Emery White - The Answer is Evil 

It brings to mind Jean Bethke Elshtain’s experience on the first Sunday following the attacks of 9/11. She went to a Methodist church in Nashville. The minister, which she describes as having a kind of frozen smile on his face, said “I know it has been a terrible week.” Then, after a pause, he continued, “But that’s no reason for us to give up our personal dreams.” 
She thought, “Good grief! Shouldn’t you say something about what happened and how Christians are to think about it?” But then she realized that if one has lost the term evil from his or her theological vocabulary, then it is not easy to talk about such a thing.
I hope you will forgive my honesty, but I do not understand the shock. The grief I understand. The speechlessness, the staggering, the profound sorrow, the overwhelming sense of violation—these I understand. We are reeling from yet another assault of darkness. But our shock reveals something else altogether, something even more dangerous than armed violence.

I am describing a naiveté about the world that Christians, at least, should not be toying with.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hypnotic Power of a Bug-Zapper & The Happiest Place on Earth (Classic)

This classic post is from 2007... and I repost it today with some slight edits in honor of our trip to Disneyland last week. (I'll write more about that delightful experience later.)
Mosquito #1: Larry, no! Don't look at the light!
Mosquito #2: [entranced] I-can't-help-it. It's-so-beautiful.
A Bug's Life
I know I've got Disneyland on the brain right now (we just got back from 4 days at DLR), but this post has been fermenting in the dark corners of my brain for nearly six months now. Blame Erwin McManus... it was an off-handed comment he made during the Ethos part of The Origins Experience. He suggested that different cultures have different icons that give us clues to the underlying values that permeate those cultures:
  • the English have Big Ben - a giant clock. Is it any wonder that order & consistency are highly valued in that society?
  • for Germany, Erwin suggested the iconic value of the automobile (Volkswagon, Mercedes Benz, Porsche)... and that leads easily into a culture that finds precision & attention to detail.
  • Brazil's icon is not an object but a celebration: Mardi Gras (Carnivale) - which fits a country where living life to the fullest & enjoying the party are deeply valued.
Then Erwin asked the question he'd been leading up to: "What are the metaphors of the culture that you are in?" And since the majority of us in the audience were from the U.S., he answered the question for us: "Mickey Mouse. Disneyland."

Of course, I was prepared at that point to hear your standard anti-Disney diatribe: [snob]"Just like Disney, Americans are shallow, interested in being lulled to political & moral sleep by a Pied Piper with promises of a fantasy world & happy endings."[/snob] But that wasn't where Erwin headed...
"Disneyland stands for the promise of imagination - that we can create something bigger & better & more amazing. It suggests that every one of us can live a heroic life." (This quote, btw, is paraphrased - this is what I can construct from my personal notes & my failing memory.)
 With that nugget burrowing into my head, I began reading Erwin's most recent book, Soul Cravings (you can read a chapter that particularly moved me, 'cuz I blogged about it earlier: Pathos [Entry 24]) His premise is that each person has three needs:
  • meaning - we want to know what we can know (truth) and what we can control (security)
  • intimacy - we want to experience community (acceptance) and love
  • destiny - we want to make a difference (success, signifigance)
Mix into a pile of books I received for my birthday on Disney & Disneyland...
...along with my already well-documented obsession with the Disney parks and you've got yourself the makings of a world-class philosophical/theological rant.

I'll try to spare you most of my musings, which are probably only interesting to me & a couple of other Disneyphiles... still, I've started down this road, so join me as I address the key question here.

Why is that so many of us are drawn to Disneyland like a moth to a flame? (Or, to borrow from A Bug's Life, a mosquito to a bug zapper?)

I've come to believe that it's because Disneyland, knowingly or unknowingly, taps into all three of these core desires (or cravings):
  • meaning - In the world of Disney (and by extension, Disneyland), there are heroes & villains. Rather than a world that seems to be sometimes painted in shades of grey, the park offers a place where visitors can see good triumph over evil.
  • intimacy - From encounters with characters to the special attention to guest relations that each Cast Member is trained in, the folks at Disneyland want you not only to enjoy the attractions but also to connect on a personal level. It's telling that none of their publicity materials (that I know of) advertise this as a great vacation for individuals - instead, they emphasize how experiencing the park together brings families & friends closer with the bond of shared memories.
  • destiny - The park is designed to involve you in adventure after adventure - whether it's flying through outer space (Star Tours, Space Mountain) or dealing with pirates (Pirates of the Carribean) or facing ghosts (the Haunted Mansion) or exploring the wilds of Africa & Asia (the Jungle Cruise). Challenging your fears, diving headlong into adventure... these kind of experiences touch base with your need to do something meaningful with our lives - to escape the monotony of our everyday slog.
I'm not suggesting that Walt Disney (or anyone else who's making the "big decisions" for the park) was/is a follower of Christ... or even that they sought to satisfy these cravings in a purposeful way. I'm simply suggesting that the appeal of Disneyland is not as simple as "it's clean & has wormed it's way into a definition of the American experience." (One clue to that being false: there are now 3 "Disneyland" parks outside of the U.S. - in Tokyo, Hong Kong & Paris.)


For those of you in the reading audience who need to hear me quote some Scripture right now so you won't brand Erwin (or me, by extension) as a Mickey-ears wearing heretic, how about John 14:6?:
  • destiny ("I am the way")
  • meaning ("the truth")
  • intimacy ("and the life")
Or how about 1 Corinthians 13:13, Colossians 1:5, 1 Thessalonians 1:3 & 5:8?
  • meaning ("faith" - what is really true?)
  • destiny ("hope" - where are really we headed?)
  • intimacy ("love" - will we really know & be known?)

A final thought about movies & amusement parks & well, church (maybe?):
"Don't write stuff & produce stuff about answers - don't do that," Winter said. "Write stuff & produce stuff that will stir up cravings inside of us, because that's the DNA that God's put inside of us. You stir that stuff up, and that's where [people] want to go to church. That's when they want to talk about the good news." Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men series, quoted in The Hollywood Project by Alex Field

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Merry Holidays?! Happy Christmas!? (Classic)

And here's the Christmas classic from 2011... 

We all get "those emails" - you know, the ones where you are instructed to either pass the message on or forward it to five friends or whatever. (I've sounded off on this before here on the blog - go back to yesterday & read my post, Forward Christian Soldiers.)  

And I got another one today.
I will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas this year ... My way of saying that I am celebrating the birth Of Jesus Christ. So I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, to please do the same. And if you'll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on... maybe we can prevent one more American tradition from being lost in the sea of "Political Correctness".
You may sit now, as I did, for a moment of stunned silence at this bit of ridiculousness. OK, silent time is over. Elton Trueblood once said:
“There are those places in ministry and theology that you must draw the line and fight and die; just don’t draw the lines in stupid places!”
Here are three reasons that the above email (and the philosophy behind it) are clearly one of those stupid places:
  1. Please, please, please... any time you are tempted to use the phrases "celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ" and "American tradition" in the same sentence, you should use some of that cutesy holiday-themed scotch tape to shut your mouth. The celebration of Christ's birth is NOT an American tradition - it's a Christian tradition... and being an American doesn't make you a Christian, any more than walking into McDonald's makes you a hamburger. (Credit to Keith Green for that analogy.)
  2. "Happy Holidays" is not a frontal attack on Christianity... it's an attempt by people (and businesses) to be inoffensive in a season in which there are two major religious holidays (one Christian & one Jewish), one cultural holiday (Kwanzaa), and New Years Day as well.
  3. A methodological problem: email forwards and Facebook status updates tend to go to people who already agree with you - meaning you've created feedback loop of people who become belligerent about the way they wish people "Merry Christmas" because they're sure that everyone who doesn't do the same is opposed to all that is good & right in the world.
I'm not telling you to stop saying "Merry Christmas" - in the words of Reggie McNeal, "Don't hear what I'm not saying." Go right ahead & wish people "Merry Christmas"... you are celebrating the birth of Christ in this season. The sincere hope of those who are followers of Jesus is that more people would discover that for themselves.

However, I do want to give you a few tips in how to fulfill the command of Scripture while you're spreading holiday cheer:
  1. Stop correcting salespeople who are obligated - in order to keep their job! - to say "Happy Holidays". It's not their fault. And arguing with them or chiding them is not going to bring anyone closer to embracing the true meaning of Christmas.
  2. When you say "Merry Christmas", make sure you sound like Bob Crachit rather than Ebenezer Scrooge. Seriously, there are some folks out there who spit the traditional greeting at people like it's a bullet aimed straight at their pitiful heathen hearts. If you can't wish someone "Merry Christmas" with a heart filled with Christlike love, then don't say anything at all.
  3. Remember that the (gosh, I hate this cliche) "reason for the season" is Jesus Christ... not the preservation of tradition or winning the "War on Christmas". The Incarnation is about God clearly & completely expressing His love for us - Immanuel means "God with us". When we are just working to accomplish a cultural agenda, we are communicating the exact opposite message... what we're saying is "if you don't accept my particular way of celebration & the theological beliefs that go along with it, I'll simply stuff it down your throat."
And, since I'm a pastor, a Scripture to prove my point:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossian 4:5-6, NIV)
BTW, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Forward Christian Soldiers (Classic)

This post on one of my pet peeves originally appeared back in 2005... I've updated it a bit and posted it again as it goes nicely with tomorrow's Christmas-y blog post on a similar topic.

We all get the stuff - forwarded across e-mail from one friend to another or posted to our Facebook wall. Sometimes it's a touching story or a collection of inspirational pictures & sayings or a pithy sermon illustration. Sometimes it's heartwarming, other times just smarmy & irritating. 

 Unfortunately, way too many of these forwards end with a line or two that sounds something like this:

  • "Pass this message to 7 people except you and me. You will receive a miracle tomorrow. Don't ignore and God will bless you."
  • "If you're not ashamed of Jesus, forward this on to 10 other people."
  • "Ninety-nine percent of the people here will be AFRAID to repost this important message!"

(Those of you who've read a good bit of what I've written know what's about to happen. I'm gonna drag out my soapbox and climb up on top of it and commence to preaching.)

I just have to ask: what in the world do we think we are doing when we send stuff like this out!? Has spiritual encouragement become so impoverished in our world that we are forced to use emotional blackmail to get people to say nice things to each other?

Because what the "not ashamed of Jesus" line implies is that if I refuse to forward the e-mail, I am ashamed of Jesus. It has an element of pride in it - because, of course, the person who sent is obviously not ashamed.

Hogwash. If the test for being a devoted follower of Christ is whether I can hit the "reply to all" button on Outlook Express or click on a tiny animated thumb on Facebook, then faithfulness has been majorly devalued. In the classic illustration of the carrot & the stick (two ways to get a donkey to move), this is the "stick" methodology.

In the same vein, the promise of a miracle and/or blessing is just as big of a theological problem. This is the "carrot" approach to inspiring people to forward the e-mail... in other words, "send this on and you'll get paid off by God for your good behavior."

Now, God clearly promises to bless us and that we will experience miracles (things beyond natural explanation)... but nowhere in Scripture is that tied to chain mail. Nor is it a formula: "if A, then B". Saying it another way, "If I do this for God, He has to do that for me." We cannot obligate God to perform for us!

Yes, the Bible clearly says that if we ask anything in His name, He will do it. But take a close look at that passage:
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. John 14:12-14 (NIV)

The purpose of giving us what we ask for Jesus to bring glory to the Father... not to make our lives easier or our health better or our bank account fatter. If those things happen, well & good! Give God thanks... but when we ask Jesus for things "in His name", we must not use his name like a magical incantation.

Let me draw that out a bit... when we view God as someone we can 'force' to do our bidding by our behavior, it's as if we turn the prayer, "Jesus, please heal my son" into "Abracadabra, heal my son!" And that's not any different than "God's gotta give me something good if I hit 'reply to all.'"

(OK, I'm climbing down off the soapbox now... sort of.)

Here's what I do. When I receive a forward with one of those lines or something similar on the bottom, I delete it. Nuke it. Zap it. Consign to Deleted Items Folder for all of eternity. And I do that regardless of the quality of the rest of the e-mail.

One last thought: seems kind of nutty that I've gone off like a Roman candle about this, doesn't it? I mean, it's "just e-mail."

Well, here's something for you to chew on: I "went off" not because forwards are irritating but because the underlying theology is bad. This week, try and look carefully for the underlying theology of some things you take for granted in your life: what you watch on TV; a magazine article you're reading, a discussion you have around the water cooler at work. All part of that "taking thoughts captive" thing, right?