The Value of Honesty in a Non-Confrontational Culture

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It is 60 degrees and cloudy outside with smatterings of rain.  Last week I drank not one but two Pumpkin Spice Lattes.  Yesterday I finished off the last of a jug of Simply Lemonade and sadly don’t plan on buying another one until late April, early May.  And due to the weather, I seriously debated not wearing shorts today.  In the end I put the shorts on because you can’t let go of summer al at once.  Yet still, it must be Autumn.

Nobody is happier about that than me.  I love the Fall.  I love football games and cross country races and pumpkin flavored everything and brown leaves that crunch beneath your foot.  Everything about this time of year is simply amazing, with one huge exception.

In the Autumn, because I am pastor, I have to spend huge amounts of time recruiting people to do things for me.

Of course us pastors are not really asking people to “help us out” but more to “help the church out.”  Yet it is hard to see it that way.  The church and its pastor get so closely intertwined during this time of year that we feel like we are asking everybody for deeply personal favors.  In fact, what little political capitol we have been storing up all summer is spent quite quickly through carefully worded, overly polite requests to “invest in discipling our children,” to “assist us in making our building more hospitable” to “aid our worship service in making it more vibrant” and to “help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus.”  (See the key below for translations of all that Christianese.)

Not surprisingly most Christians in America don’t want to do any of those things.  After all it is the Fall, which means their personal lives have all become ten times busier than they were just one month ago, which is crazy because they were really busy a month ago.

So throughout the country church goers have specialized in the polite and non confrontational rejection that is barely a rejection.  Most times your poor pastor doesn’t know they have been rejected until they reflect back on it the next day.

“I just don’t feel like that is my calling.”

“I just need to focus on my family right now.”

“I have too much going on and can’t give it the attention it deserves.”

“I’ll pray about it.”

Once again, see the key below to translate all those Christianese cliches.

And I appreciate polite non confrontation as much as the next person.  In fact, I suppose the fact that nobody is willing to just say “no” outright symbolizes that there is just enough positional authority in the title “Pastor” to warrant some degree of nicety.

And yet I have found over the last couple weeks that I deeply appreciate outright “no’s” way more than the overly polite avoidance tactics adopted by most Christians.

In fact, those few times someone has just said, “no, I don’t want to do that,” I have found myself going back to tell them “thank you” because I would rather a blunt and honest truth than an overly polite lie.  I think there is biblical warrant for that.  Politeness is rarely, if ever, extolled in our great book but honesty is a downright basic requirement.  And sadly one that most Christians today sorely lack.

For that reason, when someone lies to me about wanting to help with the children’s ministry, I always wonder what else they are lying about and who else they are lying too.

But when someone just flat out tells me, “No, that isn’t my thing” I at least know I can trust them.

After all, the worse thing that can happen is that someone says yes out of obligation and then ends up hating the church and hating me because they felt coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.

So this gorgeous Autumn, as you sip those Pumpkin Spice Lattes and watch those Sunday night football games and feel the cold rain fall across your brow, feel free to be honest with your pastor(s).  Be polite and respectful as can be about it for there is a big difference between being honest and being a jerk.

But trust your pastor enough to tell them the truth about that halloween event or that children’s program or that lawn maintenance project.  Seriously, if your pastor can’t deal with a little bit of honesty they are probably in the wrong profession anyways!  Instead, I hope they reward you richly for it!

Christianese Dictionary

“Invest in discipling our children” means showing up once a week to color pictures with them.

“Assist us in making our building more hospitable” means taking time to fix a broken toilet or mow the lawn.

“Make our worship service more vibrant” means joining our worship team in whatever capacity.

“Help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus” means showing up on Halloween and passing out candy to the trick-or-treaters.

“I don’t feel like it is my calling” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I have too much going on right now and can’t give it the attention it deserves” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I’ll pray about it” means no.

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Conversations on Holiness

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I want to begin by apologizing.  A few weeks ago, amid the chaos and stress of moving, I managed to put up a review of the book “Renovating Holiness.”  In that review, I promised to post a follow up.  The last two weeks have been so crazy that I have not yet had time to do so until now.  So I am sorry.

However, things have calmed a bit and I have had some time to think more about holiness and its renovation.

If you recall, I described the book “Renovating Holiness” as the introduction to conversations happening all over the world.  These conversations have been going on for decades  but “Renovating Holiness” gives you everything you need to know in order to enter these conversations intelligently.

As such, I encouraged people to not only read the essays but to use them to lead conversations in Sunday School classes, book studies, worship services and the like.

So, for the sake of follow up, here are some of the more crucial conversations that Renovating Holiness addresses which I think deserve priority.  Each one will also include a suggestion for where to discuss it.

1: What does the Bible really say about holiness?

Location: Sermons (and maybe Bible Studies)

Almost every Renovating Holiness essay dealt with exegetical frustration of some kind.  As a tradition, we have not always read Scripture well and the essays outline the ways we have fallen short.

Part of the confusion certainly flows from Leviticus where both eating pork and committing adultery are impure (so I can eat pork but not cheat on my wife? or can’t do either? or now can do both? or now cheat on my wife but not eat pork?).  Another part of the confusion comes from trying to figure out just what “baptism of the Holy Spirit” means and how and where Acts illustrates it.

With that said, pulpits are a great place to give a more honest and complex reading of the Bible.  For the pastor who ventures into it, the essays on the Bible in Renovating Holiness serve as great commentaries.

2: How should we preach and teach holiness?

Location: Colleges and Seminaries

After (or rather, as) you wade through the exegetical issues, you naturally will have to figure out what metaphors, language and logic structures to use from the pulpit.  Once again there are several essays that offer much guidance and they can serve as useful tools for those training for ministry.

3: How do we live holy lives?

Location: Everywhere a Holy church gets together.

Awhile back someone in a Facebook group asked, “what are the markers for a Holy life.  How do we really see someone is holy?”  The responses all fled to the abstract, things like “pure, love, merciful, righteous, kindness, gentleness.”  Those words are all well and good but they all beg the question, “okay, what does love look like?  What does mercy look like?  What does it mean to be kind?  How do we see it?”

These questions are at the very center of the doctrine of Holiness.  We should seek to answer them whenever we get together.  Does kindness involve recycling?  Does it involve abstaining from alcohol?  Does it involve reducing your carbon footprint or paying to repair your neighbor’s huge diesel truck?  Do I give 10% or 90?  What causes do I give too?  Who do I vote for in National elections?  Do I even vote at all?  These are the practical questions we must wrestle with constantly.

In that Spirit, I would recommend we stay away from paltry descriptions like, “finds a way to recycle dirty diapers.”  Instead we should maybe point to the very concrete examples of saints who have lived among us.  In those conversations we might not say, “Holiness is recycling,” but instead, “Holiness is my prayer warrior grandma.”  “Holiness is not abstaining from or drinking alcohol.  It is my uncle who was an abusive drunk but now buys his wife flowers every week.”

4: Do we really want a new legalism?

Location: Small group Bible studies

I have noticed that younger Christians tend to be more legalistic than their Baby boomer parents.  They aren’t legalistic about things like dancing and alcohol but if you eat meat around them they will assure you of your un-sanctified state.  If you don’t recycle they will cast you out of the “holy” community and if you drive your car when you could have walked get ready for the seat of judgment!

Holiness does have something to do with things like physical exercise and creation care.  However, these rather judgmental, bicycle riding, vegetarians pretend to hate legalism.  They loathe how legalistic their parents were and then they breathe out harsh and angry judgments in their very next breaths.  It is a little bit hypocritical.

And, not surprising, some of them wrote essays for Renovating Holiness.

I am certainly in favor of a return from “antinomianism” (a theological word for “no ethic at all”) to some sort of community covenant of conduct.  The conduct should include socially responsible practices and take into account the preservation of God’s gorgeous creation.

But as we talk about what “shalts” and “shalt nots” we commit too, I hope we can dial down our judgmental rhetoric and create an inclusive covenant that invites others in, instead of fencing them out, even if “they” are our Christian parents who drive SUVs, eat steak every night and hasn’t touched alcohol since they disinfected an open wound 10 years ago.

5: How do we move forward?

Location: Everywhere.

Recently a panel was formed to discuss the Church of the Nazarene’s stance on drinking alcohol.  It was caused in part by the complaints of Millenials about that legalistic and Biblically unsubstantiated claim from the 1950s that said alcohol contaminated the purity of the body of Christ.

The panel dealt with that concern, not by moving forward but by rewinding the clock even further to the 1890s.  The panelists reclaimed our social gospel ethic whereby we abstained for the benefit of the alcoholics among us.  We have a great historical reason for our stance on alcohol and today alcohol is still destroying many families but history is, well, history.

The problem isn’t that we stopped in the 1950s when we should have stopped in the 1890s.  The problem is that we stopped at all.  The conversations need to always be about how we move forward as a church and as a tradition, not back.  Therefore, the last section of essays in Renovating Holiness bring the book wonderfully home.

After all, by my reading of Revelation, the Holy People living in the Holy Jerusalem with our Holy God lies before us, not behind us.  Let us keep charging forward toward that city with our wonderful watch word and song, “Holiness Unto the Lord.”

Lessons Learned From Answering “Why?”

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My daughter turns 3 on Thursday.  This brings to a close a wonderful year full of growing and learning.  Last year she had mastered the words “no,” “daddy” and “mommy.”  Now she is an expert at the English language, even beginning to read it.

Last Summer we went through the “no” phase where every hour was littered with the infamous two letter “n” word.  During that phase she tried all kinds of tones and volumes, sometimes screaming, “NO!”, other times lengthening the word to “NNNNNOOOO!” and still other times whispering, “nah.”

Then we went through the “mine” phase where she laid claim to all the objects of our house.

After that her vocabulary broadened and she flled our days with, “let me do it!”

Then last November came, “why” and this phase is not going away.

“Can you please close the door?”

“Why?”

“It is time to go home.”

“Why?”

“Stop strangling your brother with a blanket!”

“Why?”

And so I am learning what every parent learns around this time, that a lot of our lives are not well philosophically thought out.  This has become evident during the 3rd round of “why” when I find myself resorting to a one word answer, “BECAUSE!”  Of course, that is not an answer at all, just a cop out.

It is unclear whether she is genuinely curious about why I do not want her to strangle her brother or if she just wants to keep doing it and knows that the one word, “why” will prolong the enjoyment.

At other times I try to figure out if she knows how annoying the question is and if she is asking it to infuriate me.  Regardless, 2 year olds do tend to be evil geniuses.

Still, I have become fascinated with how many times the answer to her “why?” lies in my personal comfort or preserving the comfort of others.

For example, earlier today we walked in our house and, with full hands, I said, “Can you please close the door for me?”

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t close the door it will let all the heat out and living in a cold house is uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like the cold!”

A few days ago we had a similar conversation.

“Can you please clean up your toys?”

“Why?”

“Because I really don’t like messes.  They make me frustrated and uncomfortable and angry.”

“Why?  Why do I have to pick up my toys?”

“Because I told you I don’t like messes and also because your mom hates them as much as I do and I don’t like it when mommy gets mad.”

Or consider this conversation:

“Stop hitting your brother?”

“Why?”

“Because hitting people is mean.  It hurts them and we don’t like it when other people get oowies.”

“Why?”

I don’t know if there is actually anything lying under the surface of these conversations but thinking about them has made me wonder a lot about comfort.

Is the impetus of most of my actions the creation or preservation of comfort, either for myself or others?  Is this a bad thing?  Is the chief end of love providing for the comfort of others, or even yourself?

Be that as it may, my children are growing up in an incredibly comfortable world.  They have 3 times as many toys as the average child.  They have a warm house, good food and lots of hugs and kisses from relatives and church friends.  They have coats to keep them warm.  They have parks to play at and coats to wear if the temperature is below average.  They have warm beds and plenty of clothing.  More than that, through the internet, my wife and I have access to thousands of research studies that let us know just exactly how to increase and preserve the comfort of my children.

And I don’t know how much of this is a good thing.

Meanwhile I am reading a great book called “Renovating Holiness” that was just released this week.  The book is a compilation of essays that seek to begin new conversations on Christian Holiness.  Not surprisingly, the essays talk more about love than they do holiness because most of the contributors (myself included) believe holiness is rooted in the love of God, neighbor, enemy and all that is in between.

But I have been mindful as I read through the essays how much our theologies of love takes us back to comfort.  In the book there are upper class hipsters arguing that the 1st world hasn’t done enough to make the 3rd world comfortable.  There are internationals arguing against the evils of apartheid, slavery, terrorism and the like by making the case that those evils made people less comfortable.  And there is my essay on alcohol that considers drinking in light of how comfortable and uncomfortable alcohol makes people.  I argue that alcohol decreases comfort for addicts but for casual drinkers it increases it.  Then I call both to a holy community where their love for each other respect the comfort of both.  Now, I did not use the word comfort in my essay and I don’t think the word appears in the book.  Yet my daughter’s questions have made me realize comfort really is at the heart of the matter.

And I like comfort.  I am a big fan of warm blankets and soft beds and comfy couches.  I hate stuffy noses, headaches and sore muscles.  I like feeling water run down the back of my throat, especially first thing in the morning.  Hot showers are just short of heaven, especially after cold runs.  Caramel Brulee Lattes and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are even closer.

But is holiness really helping other people experience this level of comfort?  At its heart, is love really about forgoing a warm shower or an expensive latte so that someone else can have one?

I think, probably, yes.

But I am not quite so sure I could tell you “why?”

Dead Mice in the Kingdom of God

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Last November I began running on a beat up old treadmill in my garage for 4 days a week.  As I spent an hour running my legs to the rhythm of the treadmill’s clangs, I noticed another sound in the background.  It was similar to a scratching or clawing.  Now I am usually a very curious person, but my curiosity failed me.  I blame the treadmill.

At the end of November we pulled our Christmas tree out and found mouse droppings.  .  .a lot of them.  So we bought two traps.  They were the new confangled kind that sought to bait the mouse with food and then enclose them in a round container.

We set them, placed them in the garage, waited for a month and caught nothing.  I assumed the mouse had died or moved on, though the scratching sound did not go away and the droppings increased.

In January my wife finally saw the mouse run across the floor.  She insisted we do something about it, claiming there is a disease you can get from mouse droppings that infects you by breathing.  Considering the majority of droppings were right beneath the treadmill, where I spent a half hour breathing hard every day, I decided to look into it.

So I researched it and found that %15-%20 of mice are infected with the hafta-virus.  The hafta virus is especially sinister.  It is an uncurable flu that can kill people if it gets into the lungs.  The virus itself is killed by direct sunlight but still very lethal if inhaled.  After reading about it, I panicked and bought the old school spring-load traps.

I set one with peanut butter one evening and left the garage.  I came back five minutes later to find a mouse.  “That was quick!” I exclaimed before I realized the mouse was still living.  Its ear and the side of its head were caught in the crossbar but the rest of it was fine.  It looked at me trembling and frightened and immobile.

“Oh, no, poor mouse,” I muttered.  My daughter, who was standing behind me, repeated it.  I stood there looking as equally terrified as the mouse and also immobile.

After ten seconds I knew what I had to do.  I grabbed an old dusty broom and a plastic bag and sought to sweep the trap and the mouse into the bag.  It didn’t work.  The first time I moved the trap, the mouse pulled its ear free, spurting blood onto the garage floor.  It shot like a lightning bolt underneath an old television stand.  For a second I thought it had run clear through it and emerged into the maze of boxes on the other side.

I muttered, “nuts.”  My daughter repeated it.

I turned to go inside when it occurred to me I should at least check under the television stand.  So I carefully pulled it back and there was the mouse, on its side, breathing heavily with the trembling eyes.

I knew what I had to do but I didn’t like it.  I lifted up the broom and brought it down swiftly to end the mouse’s life.

For the rest of the evening, my daughter repeated, “aw, poor mouse” over and over to remind me of what I had done.

The whole event brings into clear focus the true brokenness of creation.  In Genesis there is a wonderful picture of all animals living together in harmony.  In that world mice didn’t carry lethal viruses that could be spread by breathing the same air they do.  At the same time, humans didn’t have boxes of junk sitting in dark garages that mice could chew up and destroy.

But now our world is less than that utopia.  It is full of things like disease and death and boxes of junk.  Still, the Apostle Paul teaches us in Romans 8 that all creation is groaning while it waits for the children of God to be revealed.  I think that includes mice.  The hafta virus and the destroyed Christmas decorations and the disgusting smell are all signs of a groaning creation, waiting for redemption.

As I stood over that mouse and the trap that (let’s face it) is less than merciful when it works properly, I found myself groaning as well.

As I brought that broom down to mercifully end the life that I myself had all ready mutilated, I longed for a better world.

Poor mouse.  Poor humans.  Poor creation.

Come Lord Jesus.

The Activity of God: 2 Case Studies

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Two things happened fairly close to home this weekend that have dominated national headlines.  The first happened within 100 miles of my house on a stretch of highway I drive often.  The second happened just a few hundred meters away from where my brother in law works and my brother in law watched the whole thing from a few meters away.

What caught my attention about both was not their nearness to me but that God was given credit for both.

The first happened Saturday morning, on Interstate 84 right outside of Baker City.  Icy roads and foggy conditions led to a 20 car pileup affecting more than 100 people.  Although several dozen were injured, the picture (right) that made the incident viral was of a man named Kaleb Whitby, who is younger than I am.  Kaleb walked away from the accident with two band aids on his face, but sadly, without a truck.

He probably should be dead, or at least on life support or at the very least on crutches.  Instead he is alive with 2 band aids.  His exact quote, according to the press was, “Thank God that I’m still alive.  Now I’ve got to go figure out why.”

As a pastor I find that quote endearing.   The laws of probability (laws which God created, a random number generator of sorts) dictate that he should be dead.  With that said, it might have been dumb luck and stranger things have certainly happened, though not often.  Yet as a believer I have no problem stating that God would reprogram that random number generator to keep Kaleb alive.  We call that a miracle.

The second thing that happened was that the Seattle Seahawks won both an onside kick and a coin toss, which then led to a conference championship and a trip to the Super Bowl.  My brother in law, who works for the Mariners, was on the sidelines watching the whole thing.  I am in a family of Seahawks fans and cheer for them when I am not cheering for the Chiefs.  I was thrilled they won but their game had been ugly up to the final minutes of the 4th quarter.  They had thrown 4 interceptions and received a ridiculous amount of avoidable penalties, the majority of which were because a player was on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage.

Still a great defensive line, a few miracle plays, the onside kick that bounced into their player’s hands and the luck of a coin toss led to the Seattle victory.

Moments after the game an understandably emotional Russell Wilson gave his team credit for staying in the game and stated how he “had no doubt.”  Then he said, “God prepared me for this game.  God prepared the team for this.”  Then the camera switched to a shot of the Seahawks’ players praying in a circle with one Packer in the mix.  I do not know, nor would I judge if I did, what they were praying.  Still, the entire event was one example of many that football is inventing a spirituality all its own.

Still, I wonder about Russell Wilson’s claim that God prepared them to win the game.  If I were not a Christian I would wonder at the absurdity of such a God, since Seattle was so unprepared they threw 4 interceptions and couldn’t keep their players on the right side of the line of scrimmage half the time.  I might argue that it seems to be the luck of a bouncy football and a coin toss that won the game, alongside an incredible defense that more than covered the offense’s sins.

Still, I am a Christian believer and must treat Wilson’s statement, along with Whitby’s above, with theological earnestness.

As a pastor, I would ask, “Does God really overrule the random number generator that governs the rest of us to save young men’s lives and help Seattle win football games?”

This question has many answers but I will focus on two.  The first is a philosophical one.  What can we say about a God who easily saves Kaleb Whitby’s live but leaves our high school secretary, who is an incredibly devout Christian and loving servant to our teenagers, with cancer?  Why easily override the laws to save Kaleb and not override those same laws to save the secretary?  Is such a God even good?  At the very least, philosophers argue, God should account for why the angels saved Kaleb and won’t save the secretary.

It gets worse with Seattle’s win.  I know very devout servants of Christ who are Packers fans and they feel wronged and robbed of a victory they probably deserved.  (I admit this, even though I am a Seahawks fan.)  More than that, a God who overrides the laws of a coin toss to help Seattle win is even more a tyrant for not doing so to save the lives of countless others who are starving to death or dying of cancer or being annihilated by extremists in the middle east.  Is a God good who prepares people to win football games, but has done lousy at preparing football teams to eradicate hunger and death?  Once again, philosophers would argue such a God should at least give an account of why.

However, I am not a philosopher.  I took required philosophy classes in college and seminary and went no further in the subject.  Perhaps because of that, I think that if God did indeed save Kaleb’s life and prepare Seattle to win, God would certainly be able to give us an account of why.  I trust God completely in those situations to do what is right.  In fact, if God were to show up and give an account it would probably be a lot like the one given to Job, “Who are you to contend with me?”

There is a second way to consider this question.  It is from a theological and Biblical perspective.  Luckily I took my fair share of Bible and Theology classes in college and seminary so I feel a bit more prepared in those areas.  In fact as I have thought about these two situations over the last day, I cannot get away from the 3rd Commandment which is, “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain.”

To call someone by name is to evoke their entire presence and bring their entire being to bear in the situation.  So a better translation of the 3rd commandment might be, “Don’t bring God into vain contexts” or “Be careful when you bring up God that it is not to address a foolish subject.”

This idea plays out in all of Scripture.  It certainly does so at the end of Job, where God seems to be mad that his name was brought haphazardly into Job’s conversation with friends.  In Isaiah 29:13 God speaks through the prophet saying, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”  Jesus quotes this again in Matthew 15 to describe the Pharisees who led the way in talking about God and bringing God’s name and presence into situations but did not lead the way in actual service to God.

With this in mind what do we say about the claims made of God this past weekend?  I know most Christians are delighted that God was even brought up in such high profile cases and I struggle to not be happy as well.  I also do not want to violate another commandment of Jesus’, mainly that of being hyper critical.

Still, it would seem to me that the God of Scripture would certainly break the rules of probability to save Kaleb Whitby’s life.  I do not know Kaleb.  He might be a model Saint or a lousy sinner.  He probably is like me, somewhere in between.  Regardless, Scripture reveals a God who works miracles to save the lives of all types of saints and sinners.  I hope that Kaleb finds a great mentor to help him answer his question about why God would save his life and what he should do next.  At the same time, I am sad that God is not doing the same for our High School secretary and pray often that God will.  Still, the God of Scripture would absolutely save Kaleb’s life for no other reason than love of the world and of Kaleb and his family.

The Seahawks are a different story.  We know that football certainly is vain.  It is a fun thing we do and a great pastime and I enjoyed the game yesterday as much as anybody.  Furthermore, I would never invent a new legalism by insisting people not watch it or play it.  Still, it is not an area of great spiritual meaning.  Football is vanity.

To attach God’s name and presence to something as vain as football would surely be a violation of the 3rd commandment.  It would be similar to telling people my wife loves green peppers.  My wife hates green peppers and if she overheard me saying she liked them she would either assume I was an ignorant husband who refused to notice even the rarest thing about her or she would assume I was a liar.  Both would not bode well for me.

I wish sometimes the church would give God the same attention.  Instead we try to attach God’s name to everything and anything that comes our way without stopping to ask whether God really wants to be a part of it.  In so doing, we might be force feeding God green peppers.  Or, to dispense with the metaphor, we are honoring God with our lips but our hearts are a universe away.

The God of Scripture does not prepare people to win football games nor would the God of Scripture rewrite the random number generator of the cosmos (a number generator God invented) to help one team win a vain and silly game over another.

With that said, I am delighted Seattle won and I am even more delighted that Kaleb Whitby is still alive.  I attribute the second to a God of life and love who overwrites the rules so that both may continue.  The first, I attribute to the random number generator that the God of life invented but doesn’t micromanage.  I guess you might call Seattle’s win dumb luck.

Still go Seahawks!  May that luck continue against the Patriots.

Kaleb, my prayers are with you and your family.  May the God of life and love continue to shower both to you as you seek to live a fruitful life.

The Apostle’s Creed and Our Cynicism

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There are 12 lines in the Apostle’s Creed.  I know this because I memorized the Apostle’s Creed and also because I just looked it up on Wikipedia.  On that Wikipedia page are 12 numbers next to 12 lines, one for each apostle, or tribe of Israel, or Day of Christmas.  Actually it is one for each thing we believe as Christians.

However, the list of things we “believe” far outnumbers 12.  For example, Christians also believe God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by killing firstborn sons.  I am kind of glad I don’t confess that in the creeds though.  We also believe Jesus walked on water and taught us to love our neighbor, neither of which are confessed.  Most of us also believe that Scripture has some authority over what we believe but the creeds don’t mention that.

But there is another belief confessed among current Christians that might be a contender for line number 13.  It currently is not in any creed or statement of faith, but its popularity and potency make it unavoidable.  And to contradict this belief is to be regarded as a heretic of the worst type and maybe even.  .  .a liberal.

If codified by an ecumenical council, this 13th line should read, alongside the 12th line, “and the life everlasting and that the world will get worse until then.”

Most Christians confess this 13th line in conversations I have with them.  They say things like, “Things are bad but I guess the Bible says they have to get that way.”

Sometimes they hide their pessimism behind a veil of optimism, “Man this is such a great time to be alive!  Things are so bad Jesus is going to come back tomorrow!  I am so happy and I hope I don’t die today.”  People have actually said that to me, like 10 of them.

And I disagree with them.

I do not do so lightly, nor am I a “pie in the sky” optimist that refuses to see the great evils and challenges among us.  However, if I were born two centuries ago and time traveled to today I would conclude that we were living in a utopia, not a dystopia or even a post-apocalypse.

I would do this because most of the raw data available to us reveals that our age is a golden one.  In fact, a few have even compared it to the Pax Romana or the Renaissance.

However the average person isn’t listening.  Instead they are waiting for an apocalypse that is not happening nor guaranteed to happen.  And I fear our cynicism might be a self fulfilling prophecy, one where the world gets worse simply because we all act as if it is getting worse.

Therefore, the real threat is our perceptions because us humans have a nasty habit of making perception reality.  In order to help us disarm this threat, it is important to look at how our cynicism came about over the last century.

The 19th century ended on high notes of “pie in the sky” optimism, even among conservative Christians.  It was to be a century of progress and peace and revival.  The Holiness Movement (also known as the 2nd Great Revival) was in full swing, though about to die down.  New technologies had increased understanding among nations and tons of treaties had been signed between those nations to guarantee a lasting (and eternal) peace.

On the domestic front, the economy was running strong, prohibition was actually a thing and people filled churches on Sunday mornings with their entire families.

Then it all shattered.  The assassination of one diplomat brought Europe into a very nasty war, and all because of those super logical and “effective” treaties.  After the war, the roaring 20s brought alcohol back, along with promiscuity and a host of other sins.  Then the entire world economy crashed overnight.

Then Hitler emerged as a ray of hope, using clever economic logic to bring Germany back to life.  Then Hitler declared war on the world and tried to annihilate the Jewish people.  The war ended when a group of highly intelligent scientists used the scientific method and new advances in the understanding of atoms to annihilate 100,000 people in a half second.

So about the time the Allied troops were liberating concentration camps and dropping A bombs, western optimism had died a cold, hard death.  The logic that was supposed to save us and the God of perfect logic who was supposed to keep us safe had failed us miserably.

At around the same time a new eschatology was taking over Christianity, particularly the conservative Evangelicals.  This theory of the end times is now labeled “premillenial dispensationalism” and holds that the world must get worse and worse by divine decree.  It goes one step farther and argues that things have to get really bad before Jesus will come again.  At best this meant Christians should shrugg off the world’s evils.  Worse, some Christians find themselves rejoicing in the world’s evils because they are signs of our impending salvation and “their” impending doom.  Even worse, some Christians believe they need to actively make the world a worse place so that we can force Jesus’ hand.

This eschatology brings with it the idea of a rapture which claims that after the elect forces Jesus’ hand by actively destroying everything, God will rescue them so they wouldn’t experience  the consequences of their sin.

Meanwhile, in the secular world, the Cold War was brewing and The US and USSR built enough A-bombs to destroy the world 20 times over.  Very creative artists, used this reality to create a new genre of post-apocalyptic literature.  All of these novels, movies, paintings and TV shows envisioned the world being destroyed in a hundred different ways.  They proved to be good entertainment and even healthy warnings about what could be if we did not get our act together.

Then we did get our act together, which is remarkable, but today, though the cold war has ended without nuclear annihilation, post-apocalyptic literature is more popular than ever before.  For examples you can look at the Terminator series, World War Z, Contagion, The Walking Dead, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and a number of other examples.

In turn, Christians have been quick to co-opt this genre and even help advance it with books and movies like the “Left Behind” series that preach the apocalyptic, premillenial dispensationlist view that we must make things bad before Jesus can come rescue us.

All of this fuels the assumption that things are getting worse and that one day very soon the whole world will quite literally “go to hell” over the course of a week or a day or even a moment.  The average person fully expects the robots or the viruses or the zombies or the nuclear bombs or Jesus himself to rise up and destroy us all sometime in the next year.

But while we turn on the television and go to the movie theaters and visit book stories to study our impending doom, in reality the exact opposite is happening.  Violence is on the decrease.  Wars are no longer fought between first world nations with millions dying as the result.  They are fought against small but violent factions in deserts with a few thousand, sometimes just a few dozen casualties.

At home the mechanisms that sustain us, while being far from perfect, actually do an okay job at keeping us safe, not only from human threats but from things like viruses and tornadoes and earthquakes and even bad economies.  Two hundred years ago, to have Ebola in the US would mean to not have a US.  Last year it was contained quickly, though I, like most people, am disturbed that it even got here.

Furthermore our politicians continue to discuss ways to help the least and most vulnerable.  They disagree about how to do that and they use impolite tactics to do so.  Yet the fact they are discussing it and refuse to stop discussing it is quite unique from a historical perspective.  Let us not forget that in the not so recent past a King’s job was not to provide for the citizens but to get the citizens to provide for him.

But perhaps the best thing fueling this golden age is that the average human is more aware of the global problems now than ever before.  A century ago I probably could have told you that someone was hungry somewhere.  Now I can go online and show you pictures of them and give you their names.  And I can spend 3 minutes donating money to build that person a well or to donate them a donkey or other livestock.  People are doing this in incredible amounts.  In fact the citizenry of the USA is the most generous people ever and we are closely followed by the citizens of a hundred other countries.  We do not give so much because we are better than others were.  Generosity has always been commonplace.  But we are generous because our technology, and our government, has made giving easy.

So I don’t buy the cynicism and I am not going to add it to my creed.  Instead, I believe in the Holy, Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

And that fills me with hope.  Happy New Year.

For The Joy of It: Video Games Pt. 4

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I like Batman.  I do.  He is the only superhero without any super powers which makes him more “super” in my book, despite what the nay-sayers say.  Plus Batman is far more 3 dimensional of a character than any other super hero.  He is a protagonist that struggles to find the limits of his own power and morality.  Christopher Nolan brought much of this to light in his brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, but the Arkham games, which were released during the same time, perfected the character.

The original game, Arkham Asylum, was meant to be a low budget affair with mild sales.  However, brilliant game play along with incredible boss fights, an excellent original story penned by the comic book scribe Paul Dini, and an open map format with gadgets that resemble the Zelda franchise all launched the game to a 92% rating by Metacritic and a Guiness Record for “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game of Modern Times.” (You can read a bit more on the wikipedia page.)

I bought it for a few dollars at Wal-Mart and fell in love with it almost immediately, well.  .  .after I spent an hour dialing down all the graphics so my lousy laptop would run it.  To my (not) surprise, a sequel called Arkham City had all ready been released so I bought it for a few bucks.

Arkham City is just good fun.  It has the right amount of everything.  The story is thought provoking and passes all the tests I have spoken about in the other posts.  The game play is delightful and opens the player up in those conscious and subconscious ways to the struggles of good and evil.  The puzzles are complex and intricate and take a good amount of time and creative thinking to solve.  And the ending asks all the right questions without leaving the player with any easy answers (you can tell I am big on that.)

However, the game also introduced me to the online video game marketplace called Steam where you can pick up old and new games for a fraction of what they are worth.  However, Steam also tracks your game play statistics including achievements earned, the percentage of the game you have beaten, special things you have unlocked and how many hours you have spent playing the game.

It is that last statistic that annoys me completely.  It has been around since the Super Nintendo days.  Almost every game tells you on their opening screen how many hours a player has logged on a save file.  I don’t know why the developers included it.  I personally think they are being arrogant and bragging to you about how much time you have wasted.  It is akin to the victory lap you sometimes see after Track races.

But the number always unsettles me, especially for Arkham City.  I won’t tell you what it is but let’s just say when it passed 100, I gave the game up for several months.  100 hours is 4 days.  I have spent more than 4 days of my life being Batman.  And the more I think about that number, the harder it is to justify it.

I have never, nor will ever, add up all the hours on all my save files on all the games I have ever played.  Sometimes I think that God might know that number and will probably share it with me in eternity.  You can blame that on my Evangelical Protestant upbringing, that despite emphasizing grace, seemed to care a lot about silly things like hours logged playing video games.  Still I wonder what my response will be if God ever gives me that number.  Will I try to justify it?  Will I be ashamed?  Will I ask for more time to beat that one final mega boss?  I have no idea.

What benefits and what consequences have come about in those hours?  There was probably a great deal of both but still 4 days is a long time and it reminds me that simple enjoyment of great art can turn into a dark obsession.

So I want to end this blog series by addressing some practical concerns when it comes to video games.

1) Time: To repeat what I said in the first post, there should be a line drawn concerning how much time one spends on a game.  My own rule is that a game needs to tell me to stop playing it, which means the game has to end.  There are a lot of open ended games out there and those seem to be the most dangerous when it comes to addictions.  Despite your policies, every person should have a limit and it should a rule formed in conversation with mentors, family members and friends.

2) Money: Not much needs to be said here except that in all things work with a budget.  When I discover a game I want to play I will regularly look at my finances and say, “I will not buy this game for more than this amount of money” and then watch sales until I can find it.  This means there are some games I haven’t played because they never dropped below my set amount.

3) Quality of Games:  Like every other artistic medium there are video games that are just a waste of time and money.  Although all engagement is risk, if you are going to spend 100 hours on something, it probably shouldn’t be trash, even if it is addicting trash.

4) Video Games At Church:  I have known several church groups that fellowshipped while playing Mario Kart or Halo or Wii Sports.  Those times are just as fun as playing cards or board games.  However, like any movie, song or TV show, I think church leaders should be mindful of both their members (are any of them addicted?) and of the games they choose to play.  This brings me to number 5.  .  .

5) Multi-player Games:  If I wanted to extend this series into next week I would talk about multi-player gaming and the way it both benefits and detracts from true community.  Instead I will limit myself to this paragraph by stating that if you are playing games with a group, care should be taken about the subconscious nudges of the game.  Does this game really add to group identity, increase cooperation and love among its members?  Or does it increase hostility and divisions?  These concerns go for the greater culture of online video gaming.  What cultures are cropping up around these games?  Are these cultures true, noble, right?  Or do they increase hostility?  I know I avoid playing with people I don’t know because I have heard the “F” word used in hostile ways too many times.

6)  Christians in the Video Game Industry: As with any other industry, I think the world and the church can only be helped by Christians being employed by video game manufacturers.  With that said, some companies only seem to make games that are grotesquely violent or focus on paranormal activity to a fault.  As a Christian I would pray long and hard about joining such companies.  However, I think a Godly influence from within would be great for even such companies, so long as the Christian employee is well defended with the armor of God and willing to quit if the Lord so leads.

I want to close on a more devotional thought.  I think God calls us to be a people of enjoyment.  I think ultimately Philippians 4:8, which calls us to dwell on things that are true, noble, right, etc., is ultimately about enjoyment.  As Christ followers we are a people who delight in all good gifts whether those gifts come to us in sunrises or on our televisions.  So before we critique a game’s message or a game’s truthfulness or a game’s aesthetic qualities, we should set out to have some fun while dwelling upon the things in the game that open us up to further enjoyment of the world.

In Arkham City, after a confrontation with one of the villains, Batman looks at the villain and says, “You seem stressed.  What is really going?”  That line is incredibly impacting.  Here is one of Batman’s arch nemesis’, a villain who had moments ago tried to kill him (and had succeeded in giving me a “game over” message about twenty times). And yet Batman looks the villain in the face and with compassion engages him as a friend, “You seem stressed.”

That is a true, noble, right, loving moment and it is one of many in that great game.  To not enjoy that gift would be shameful.

Until Jesus returns, thanks for reading these unnecessarily long posts.  I hope they inspired you to love and see you all next week.