Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

Matthew 11:16-19

August 17, 2017

One of the irritating things of the past couple of weeks have been the recurring demands from various directions that the Church condemn publicly the activities in Charlottesville.  Specifically, that the Church condemn the Neo-Nazi marches and white supremacist groups, ideologies, and individuals.

I condemn Neo-Nazism and white supremacy ideologies.  I believe the Bible refutes these ideologies in principle and theology.   But let’s be careful about what is going on here.  I’m going to preach about the situation in our country in the aftermath of Charlottesville.  Not because some random person demanded that I do.  This certainly isn’t the first time that people have attempted to dictate what the Church preach.  Personally, I find the Church to be one of the greatest perpetrators of this error, designating numerous Sundays throughout the year  for special topics and focus on special issues or special interest groups.  This bugs the heck out of me and I generally refuse to comply (complicity is always voluntary in our polity, but there is no shortage of encouragement!).

Responding to demands on the Church to preach what culture thinks it should preach are perilous, at best.  This is not the Church’s job.  Fundamentally, the Church exists to preach the Biblical narrative of reality, emphasizing the Incarnation of the Son of God to suffer, die, rise again and ascend to heaven with the promise of return.  The Church can and should apply this central narrative to current events, but I worry that these days, such an application is not the Church leading the charge towards cultural change as it has in the past, but rather attempting to please and placate the larger culture so that culture will regard the Church better.

In other words, calls for the Church to preach against an ideology is not acknowledgement or agreement with the Church.  It’s an attempt to co-opt the Church for political and ideological reasons.  Sometimes these may overlap.  But not always, and the Church needs to be careful.  In general, I believe that culture will ultimately be hostile to the Church, even if it overlaps it or falls under Church influence for a period of time.

The cultural call for the Church to preach on a given topic no longer stems from a shared understanding of human nature, human history and divine existence.  Culture has jettisoned the Church and the Bible as unnecessary and actually problematic in terms of telling us who we are and whose we are.  Culture assumes things directly contrary to the Biblical narrative.  It assumes that the problems of our day can be routed out through education, indoctrination, and population control.  As I’ve already written, I believe this is the source of the shock and terror by many at the events in Charlottesville.  I believe it is similar shock and terror to Trump being elected president.  This wasn’t part of the cultural narrative.

The cultural narrative is that we are in control of our destiny and that, through the careful application of education and science and technology, we will further ourselves as a species.  This means the eradication of anyone and anything that is seen as contrary to a narrative of continuous progress and upwards movement towards our highest potential.  This allows for the destruction of millions of babies that might hinder personal and therefore societal progress.  It promotes the destruction of unborn children who exhibit (or might exhibit) genetic indicators that are deemed unproductive and undesirable, such as Downs Syndrome.  The cultural narrative is that the State is the best agent and overseer of this progress, and that the State is responsible for enforcing such progress when necessary.

So the shock of a president who doesn’t appear to share the same progressive ideology or assumptions about education or science or the media is a shock, literally.  An outrage.  This wasn’t supposed to happen!  He’s supposed to play along with the overarching cultural narrative and only tweak certain things to continue the illusion of real change, real diversity in our institutions.  And so the shock of finding out that there are numbers of people who still hold to ideas that have been deemed flawed and hateful.  This wasn’t supposed to happen!  Sesame Street and public education and mainstream media were supposed to have beaten these misguided concepts out of people!   UN Ambassador Nikki Haley preached this message this week when she asserted “People aren’t born with hate.  We have a responsibility to stand up and condemn it.”

The Bible says we are born with hate.  And lust.  And greed.  And envy.  And self-absorption.  And all the other problems that plague us as a people.  And the Bible claims that we aren’t going to be able to eradicate them because we have no objective, clean base from which to do so.  These things exist in everyone.  To different degrees.  In different ratios.  But everyone deals at some level with them in thought, word and deed.  Those calling out the hatred in Charlottesville are just as sinful and broken.  And it is for all our sinfulness and brokenness that Christ died, and it is for each of our sinfulness that we need to be saved.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t stand up and condemn hate when we see it and hear it!  We do!  Scripture calls us to this and entrusts us with this.  But if we have the mistaken idea that in standing up to it and condemning it we somehow also have the ability to eliminate it, we’re fundamentally mistaken.  Dangerously so.  It is at that point that we are most at risk for becoming the thing we hate – for utilizing power or cultural influence to damage others, believing our cause to be justified and the people we battle against to deserve nothing less.  We also have to recognize that hatred as culturally defined can be misleading and even incorrect.  A purpose or agenda doesn’t become true or right just because there are people crusading for it.  And just because someone claims something or someone is hateful doesn’t mean it necessarily is.

This became apparent with CNN’s publication of a listing of hate groups.  One group gets to define what is and what isn’t a hate group?  On what basis?  Are we to just take their word for it?  I looked at the map created by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  There’s a group labeled as a hate group right here in my city.  What is their hate?  They are for immigration reform.  This makes them anti-immigrant, according to the SPLC.  Other groups (some Christian) are labeled as hate groups for being anti-LGBTQ.  What does that mean?  Does it mean they’re preaching the Bible and holding to Biblical standards on sexuality and gender that are thousands of years old?  But now they’re lumped in with the Black Panthers and radical Islamic groups?

So it’s OK to post the identities of the Neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville with the call for their employers to fire them.  But if a woman was identified being virulent in one of the women’s marches in January and was fired for her participation, I can only imagine the firestorm that would descend upon her employer.  It’s OK to threaten people for some ideas and beliefs, but not for others.  We need to be very careful about this line our culture is treading, and we as Christians and as the Church need to be the most skeptical and wary of all.

Jesus dealt with this in his day as well and warned his followers about it.

But to what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  

Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.  (Matthew 11:16-19)

The Church needs to be wise.  The Church condemns hatred, but all hatred.  The Church points out sin, but all sin.  This means at some times our culture will embrace us and at other times they will try to stone us to death.  Preach the truth in all seasons.  And that means preaching it to ourselves, to our fellow Christians, and to the culture around us.  That means trying to make sure we aren’t being co-opted for other purposes, and that our preaching of the truth truly is in love and not for personal or cultural agendas.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.  (Ephesians 4:25)

So I’m preaching.  The texts justify it to some degree, but the texts further still drive us towards the realization that God the Father desires that everyone come into his grace and forgiveness through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.  This means that regardless of what someone is guilty of believing or saying or doing, as I stand up against hatred, I do so with the goal that this person will not simply tow the cultural line of the moment, but will place their faith in Jesus Christ for their eternal salvation.

That’s something I’m pretty sure the larger culture is not going to call us to preach about Sunday, or any other day.

Explaining Hatred

August 15, 2017

Everyone has been weighing in on the events in Charlottesville.  Almost all decry the ideologies of white supremacy and neo-Nazism, and rightfully so.  Almost all decry the violence and bloodshed, and rightfully so.  And almost all are shocked to realize that such ideas can exist in our country.  I use that word – shocked – intentionally.  They aren’t just saddened, but rather deeply shaken and horrified.  It is this particular aspect of the social response that I find so fascinating and disturbing, a clear demonstration of just how shallow Biblical and Christian theology and doctrinal understanding are in our culture, or at least are among those in positions of public influence and celebrity.

One response stuck in my mind came from Jimmy Fallon.  As much as I’m a fan of anyone (not very much), I’m a fan of Fallon.  He has great comedic instinct and demonstrates real creativity – like helping to arrange covers of popular music on children’s instruments.  But I found his comments on Charlottesville troubling.  They were also very awkward and uncomfortable, but I chalk that up to him speaking in a non-comedic voice he doesn’t use publicly very often.

What particularly caught my ear was when he mentioned (at the :22 second mark) how he struggled to figure out how to explain to them hatred in the world.  What shocked me is that he phrased this as some sort of new dilemma.  As though, prior to Charlottesville, this wasn’t something that he was going to need to explain to them.  It hadn’t occurred to him, perhaps.  Or he didn’t think it necessary.

Which baffles me.

Literally hundreds of people killed in very visible terror attacks over the last few years, and it’s never occurred to him that he needs to find a way to explain hatred to his children?  Millions of people driven from their homes in Syria due to a violent civil war and he hasn’t realized that this is an example of hatred he’ll have to explain to his daughters?  Hundreds of young girls kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Chibok Nigeria to be sold into sexual slavery and forced marriages, and this didn’t strike him as something that required an explanation?  Bickering between nations large and small, not an example of hatred needing an explanation?


Perhaps the issue is that these things happened somewhere else.  I suspect this is part of the issue, actually.   It happened in other places, among primitive and backwards people, allegedly.  People who haven’t been exposed to progressive ideals and carefully nurtured to be tolerant by a public education system and through public television.  These are examples of a lack of education, a lack of cultivation.  If only the perpetrators could be taught properly, formed properly, they wouldn’t act in this way.  We wouldn’t have these problems if everyone benefitted from the progressive and enlightened way we raise our children here in America these days.

Except for the young woman recently convicted of encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide.  Is this be a form of hatred?  Just this past weekend in Chicago there were 30 shootings with nine resulting deaths, but this isn’t a form of hatred?  The ambush and murder of five police officers in Texas last year isn’t an example of hatred?  What about children that are still routinely bullied and driven to despair both in person and through social media, despite years and years of anti-bullying propaganda?

It seems that there are a plethora of hateful things happening here at home.  Yet none of these give Fallon pause to consider the role of hatred in our country or world?

Or are these also examples of primitive behavior?  Demonstrations of backwards thinking, of irrationality, of rebellion, of a failure to properly assimilate?  How many different ways do we have of describing hatred, or more broadly and accurately, to describe the power of evil in human hearts?  Yet how rigorously our culture insists that these are aberrations, occasional blips on the radar screen of otherwise glorious progress towards kinder, gentler, better human beings!

I explain hatred and evil to my children because I have to.  I have to explain it to them to prepare them for the world.  And I can explain it to them.  We’re broken.  Fundamentally.  Beyond repair.  Beyond rehabilitation.  There is nothing in this world that can fix our brokenness.  Sometimes that brokenness is minor like when I rage-quit a video game that I shouldn’t take so seriously.  Sometimes that brokenness is major, when it marginalizes and destroys other people.  Except those distinctions are really pointless and inaccurate.  They are both expressions of the same brokenness, just on different scales.  They aren’t qualitatively different even if they are different in a quantitative way, in the amount of measurable damage that results.

This is the explanation I see every day around me and within me.  It isn’t that we don’t know what to do, that somehow we aren’t clear that it’s wrong to kill someone, or get inordinately angry about a video game.  The issue is that despite knowing, we aren’t able to fully control ourselves.  There are parts of our thoughts, words, and deeds that are out of control, and our attempts to rein them in are inadequate at best.

I don’t accept Naziism, but last I checked that ideology existed in one form or another in pretty many places around the world.  I don’t agree with it or think it should gain power, but I’m not shocked by it’s existence.  The KKK has existed in various forms in our country for over a century.  I find racism repugnant but not shocking.  It’s brokenness.  Sin.  It exists.  It will continue to exist.  And you can’t just legislate it away, and you can’t just educate it away.  The only thing you can do is what we’re headed for – kill the people who profess it.

That is shocking.  Not that it can happen – it’s happened repeatedly through human history on a large scale and still goes on around the world today.  What is shocking is that it could be me in the gas chamber, or preparing for the firing squad or the noose or the lethal injection.  Once you begin down the road of killing those people you disagree with – no matter how repugnant their ideas – it’s a slippery slope of who else gets added to the death list.

What should give the biggest cause for pause in all of this isn’t fundamentally the reality of racism or Nazism or fascism or any other –ism.  Rather it’s the inability of so many people to both realize that of course there will always be -isms of one form or another that are repugnant or deeply flawed.  There will always be hatred, there will be always be evil, because there will always be sin.  This is the fundamental incompatibility in world views that exists in our culture and our world.

I prepare my children for the hatred and evil in the world by showing it to them in themselves.  Making them aware that they are broken already.  Teaching them how to cope with that reality – both in terms of discipline but also in terms of repentance, confession, and acceptance of forgiveness by the only entity not only capable and willing to save them from themselves, but who actually already has begun that process in a tangible way 2000 years ago through a man who claimed to be divine and dying for my sins, with his resurrection from the dead as evidence that I should believe him.  I teach them that this is their hope, their only hope.  I teach them to be good, of course, to the best of my ability to teach and their ability to learn.  But I also remind them that they aren’t going to be perfect, they won’t always be good.  And what this means isn’t that they have failed as human beings and have only despair left to them.  But rather that they will struggle with their sin until they die, but they can struggle with it because they don’t struggle alone.  The God who created them and died for them is with them, here and now and forever.

I don’t like evil and hatred.  I will stand against it as I am called to.  But I can’t ever forget that the hatred and evil exist in me as well and always will.   Perhaps in more socially acceptable ways, but still sin, still brokenness and separation from the God who created me and therefore has died to save me from myself.  Which means I can try to persuade others that their ideas are wrong and misguided and at odds with the God who created them as well, but I can’t come to classify them as the Other, as somehow different from myself.  I can’t presume that if I kill them off, things will be better.  The only thing that can make them and myself better is to acknowledge our complete inability to fix the fundamental brokenness we share, and to go in repentance to the God who created us and died for us, accepting his promise to do for us and in us  and despite us what we cannot do for ourselves or one another.

To heal us.  Not through education but through the blood of the Son of God.  The only innocent blood that has ever been shed in our world.  In that blood you and I have the real hope for healing and new life, for the brokenness to be perfectly and eternally healed, and for the voices of hatred or lust or anger or whatever that plague us to be finally and eternally silenced.  It’s only the blood of Jesus that can extinguish the torches and beat the swords into plowshares.  Imperfectly here and now, but perfectly and forever when He returns to reclaim creation from our rebellion.

Come Lord Jesus, come.


The Surprise of Sin

August 14, 2017

I haven’t been following the events in Charlottesville too closely.  But it has been interesting to see the very emotional responses to the demonstrations there.  It has led me to wonder why so many people are so deeply affected by the demonstrations.  After all, white supremacy and the KKK – these are not new entities in American culture and politics.  They are, I trust, still minority movements.  Fringe elements – far more so than they were decades ago.  Yet their very existence has suddenly struck many folks as completely unacceptable.  Why is this?

Let me first pause to say that I condemn racism, I condemn points of view that posit God’s blessings exclusively to any particular people or race.  Such opinions run directly contrary to Biblical theology.  They may attempt to use the Bible to foster a nationalism that is racially based, but I think this is faulty at best.

More accurately, what it is, is sinful.  But sin is hardly anything new.

This is not to discount sin or the events in Charlottesville or anywhere else that sin breaks out.  My point is rather that we should hardly be surprised by sin.

But I think that there is a segment of our society that is surprised by sin.  Surprised and personally offended.  It isn’t just sinful, it’s a personal issue, a personal affront.  I think that segment are progressives and liberals.  The same folks who are personally offended that anyone might question the sanctity of the State as the supreme authority for caring for the poor and marginalized.  These folks are deeply shocked and offended that there are still white supremacists in America.  Why is this so?

I think it’s because the assumption is that nearly 50 years of progressive agendas and power in educational systems has presumably helped to weed out such negativity.  Big Bird and Elmo, Barney and the rest of the gang were supposed to have helped squelch primitive notions of racial superiority.  School curriculum was supposed to further eliminate mistaken and undesirable notions.

Yet here we are 50 years later, and sin in the form of prejudice and racism still exists.  How are we to account for this?  Aren’t we as a species moving forward?  Aren’t we progressing?  Isn’t our country a role model for egalitarian concepts and tolerance?  How could we possibly be confronted with the horrors of racial prejudice in public, unmasked, even?  Modern notions of education and birth control and abortion were supposed to be gradually eliminating these elements from our midst.

But they’ve failed.  Sin is far more pernicious and pervasive, far more invasive and insidious.  It can’t be eliminated with education or birth control or abortion.  It can’t be eliminated by updating our Facebook status’ or condemning it on Twitter.

Sin remains.  In myriad ways, but certainly in racism and prejudice.  And sin will continue to persist despite our best efforts to weed it out.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take sin seriously, but it’s a reminder that sin is not simply a matter of education or breeding.  It is deep within us, and bursts forth in unpredictable and unflattering ways.  Sometimes it takes us by surprise and other times we’re well familiar with the demons who lurk under the surface.

Please, go ahead and disapprove of those who espoused Nazi ideas this past week, or any other time.  Please, go ahead and condemn those who imagine some sort of divinely sanctioned Utopian society based on real estate and pigmentation.  But please, don’t be surprised.  Don’t take it personally.  You’re sinful as well.  Not in the same ways, hopefully.  But without a doubt in many equally devastating (if more socially acceptable) ways.  Don’t assume somehow that your sin is any more acceptable or less despicable and dangerous –  both to yourself and others.  And give thanks to the God who forgives us our daily trespasses, as we are called to forgive those who trespass against us.



Another Google Response

August 9, 2017

In the continuing saga of Google controversy over gender – or more specifically, over hiring and promotion practices aimed at promoting diversity – here is the latest salvo.

It tugs on the heart strings in all the right ways, but it fundamentally misses the point of the original memo.  The original memo was not questioning whether some women were just as capable as men in terms of performance in technology related fields as well as in ascending into the upper echelons of management.  The memo did indicate that overall, men and women seek out these sorts of jobs at different rates, and therefore that trying to force diversity and equal percentages of each gender might be fundamentally flawed.

While many people seem to read it as an attack on women, I didn’t see or hear that at all.  Nor did lots of other people undoubtedly smarter than I am.  However it was a stinging criticism of implicit bias’ towards certain ideological assumptions  and the corresponding discrimination against differing points of view which results in people being afraid to speak if they don’t hold with the dominant ideology.  It was a request for more study and data, and not simply a treatise about how women should stay home and not become programmers or CEOs.

But that’s how many people – including this woman – seem to have interpreted it.

I’ve known oodles of women who are way smarter than I am in math and science.  But that’s not what the original memo was trying to address, and it was not the question that this woman’s daughter asked her.  I don’t know how old her daughter is, but her question is a complex one that, when she’s old enough to understand the complexity, deserves a complex answer.

There are always prejudices and stereotypes that can be dangerous and damaging.  That doesn’t mean all stereotypes are, nor does it mean that some stereotypes may not have actual data behind them.  And it’s very unfortunate that this woman has had her abilities and commitment questioned simply because she’s a woman.  It’s unfortunate if she’s been excluded from industry events because of her gender (though, at the risk of beating a dead horse, y’all remember it’s now socially acceptable to discriminate against guys, right?).  Given her status, it’s obvious that she surmounted these challenges, or is continuing to surmount them.  That’s fantastic and a wonderful model to her daughter and other young women.  And young men, I hope.

I didn’t hear the original e-mail trying to discourage women from pursuing computer programming or upper management positions in technology companies. What it was doing was questioning attempts to force companies to have an even distribution of genders when there was credible research and evidence to show that such a goal might not actually be reasonable or sustainable.  What is the “negative stereotype” that Susan Wojicicki accuses James Damore of perpetuating, and who wins when both claim to have data and statistics to back up their perspectives?

In this case, Google and those who agree with Ms. Wojicicki win.  Which is the very environment Mr. Damore was attempting to describe.

I have a daughter as well.  My hopes for her are not specific to the tech industry or science.  Or music or art or literature.  I want her to figure out what makes her happy, what she enjoys doing and is good at.  I want her imagination to fire in directions of her own choosing (by and large).  My hopes and aspirations for her are that she will be happy and fulfilled in whatever vocation she chooses to pursue.  That she won’t be held back from a chosen career path because of the sexism of men around her if she chooses to  enter the workplace, and that she won’t be the object of sexist scorn by feminists is she chooses to commit her life to raising a family and running a household.

Perhaps if we focused a lot more on helping our kids figure out what they’d like to do and how to do it, we’d all be happier, instead of trying to use our children to vindicate our own experiences as adults.   This may require specialized programs and training in companies to ensure that people have equal opportunities.  But that’s a far cry from demanding absolute numerical parity between men and women across all levels and positions.  Maybe we need to quit quantifying equality in that way, and spend more time making sure that if a woman (or a man) wants to enter a particular vocation, they have the ability to do so and be successful at it.

How would I answer my daughter if she asked me the question Ms. Wojicicki’s daughter posed her?  I’d begin by asking her why she wanted to know.  Is she afraid?  Is she worried maybe she shouldn’t consider a future in technology because she’s not as good at it as a boy?  I’d encourage her to explore that for herself.  Not to worry about broad brush-stroke studies of men and women, but simply to see what she likes to do and what she’s good at.  If she’s good at and interested in science and technology or management, then I will encourage her to pursue those things, and find ways to put her skills to good work.  I’ll be honest that there may be people who try to stop her for any number of reasons.  Those will be her battles to fight – I can’t fight them for her. But I can prepare her to face them bravely and competently.

What I don’t want to do is tell her to pursue something in order to make a point, or just because Mom or I have done it (or haven’t done it).  And if necessary, I’ll acknowledge honestly that perhaps her question doesn’t have a simple answer and that it’s misleading to pretend that it does.  That we need to talk about a whole lot of things beyond whether she’s good at math or not.  It’s OK for the situation to be complex.  Maybe if we continued to honestly acknowledge this with one another as adults, we’d move further along in figuring out how to make workplaces safer and opportune places for both men and women.

Facts & Feelings

August 8, 2017

On the continuing saga of the fired Google exec who dared challenge prevailing opinions about gender and workplace policy and culture (which I mentioned already here and here), here is input from four apparently well-qualified academics.  Their conclusion is that the author of the memo lined up pretty well with actual research into the differences between men and women.

Unfortunately, that research and his conclusions from it are not very popular these days.

He’s already out of a job, so being right is of questionable consolation in this day and age when truth is determined too often by who screams the loudest and uses the most pejorative language.  His situation perfectly proves the very point he was trying to make.   Google couldn’t have proved and endorsed his critique any better than by firing him.

We struggle as a culture to come up with a framework for male/female interactions (as well as gender, sexuality, etc.).  Whatever is proposed inevitably ends up being offensive to someone and therefore is untenable.  But whether something is offensive or not is separate from whether it is true.  In the drive for equality, feminism and now pop culture at large has settled on the idea that in order to be equal, men and women have to be the same.  Physically, emotionally, intellectually – you name it.  Practically interchangeable.

The only problem with this is that it’s not true.  We know it anecdotally in our relationships, and those informal observations are backed up by an impressive amount of research.  Worse still, it is patently offensive to both men and women to insist that they are virtually identical except for some hormonal and physiological differences – both of which modern medicine and psychiatry are happy to tweak with until you think you’re happy.

I find it interesting that it is common to describe human beings as animals, emphasizing our similarity at a genetic level to the animal kingdom, we are far less interested in seeking comparisons on social issues.  It isn’t helpful to note, for instance, that in many animal species there are very clear roles for each gender, and that those roles differ, but both are important and necessary.  Perhaps such comparisons aren’t often drawn because it is an inconvenient truth, a truth we like to think we have moved beyond.

We are convinced that now that we understand (or think we understand) genetics and DNA and natural selection we have somehow surpassed these things and are in the position of redefining reality and truth to suit our purposes.  We are convinced that our alleged knowledge has made us masters of the things we think we know.  However if DNA and genetics and natural selection are the things we think they are, it seems rather unlikely to me that we have somehow gotten the drop on hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection.  As though we have reached a place where our genes no longer dictate to us, but rather we are free to dictate to our genes through genetic modification.

For now, and for all of time leading up to this moment, men and women have been different, and this has been the source – unfortunately – of inequality.  I have no idea how things will be going forward, now that we are editing and tinkering with DNA and our own genetic code, making changes that can be propagated to future generations.  C.S. Lewis warned about this stage of things in his very prescient book The Abolition of Man.  Unsatisfied with merely being able to rewrite history, we are now permanently rewriting our future as a species.  While some are optimistic about this, I am not.  Our rewriting of history has so often been disastrous that I can’t imagine our success in rewriting the future.

Perhaps it will be a future where the Google engineer is wrong and his detractors are right.  But that’s not the case here and now, and it would seem wise and desirable by all sides to recognize this and take this into account rather than simply pretending it isn’t true.


Too Much, Too Soon

August 2, 2017

First off, this is a tragic situation – every parents’ nightmare.  A middle-school girl committed suicide because of bullying – digital and otherwise – from some kids at her school.  The parents now intend to sue the school district for failing to put a stop to the bullying.  They are also considering suing the parents of the specific bullying students.

I have written in the past about the dangers of providing children with unfettered access to the Internet and social media.  I disagree strongly with parents who circumvent age-restrictions for their kids to access social media platforms.  While details of the particular social media platforms involved in this particular bullying case are not provided, most major social media platforms (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook – even though kids really aren’t using Facebook these days) require users to be at least 13 years old.

Kids are kids, and are always going to be pressured to conform to peer expectations.  Sometimes that pressure is going to be abusive and intense.  Other times it will be subtle and insidious.  Handing a child a smartphone with access to the Internet and social media without providing training, support, monitoring, and limitations is just plain unhealthy.  Yes, your child might be mature enough to handle it.  But I’d argue the vast majority are not.  Believe it or not, your child (or grand-child, or great-grandchild, or niece or nephew or whatever) will survive not having 24/7 access to social media.  If they are laughed at or in disparaged for this by their peers, it’s stronger proof that they shouldn’t have it.

The Internet and social media are addicting.  Adults deal with this already, and children are even more impressionable as they seek to understand and discover who they are.  Our kids – and particularly our daughter – frequently talk about how different her friends become once they have a smart phone of their own.  How they talk more about pop culture, about being pretty, and just about how they are constantly checking their phone for updates and likes and other indicators of popularity.

This pressure was brutal enough in decades past, but today’s technology permits it to occur 24/7.  No break.  No escape.  Kids need their parents to be parents – to set limits, provide guidelines, to dialogue and to model healthy digital habits and behaviors.  There’s a lot at stake.

Three in a Row

May 31, 2017

Scanning the news this morning I came across three interesting articles.

The first is a not-so-veiled criticism of President Trump’s ban on certain electronic devices in airline cabins – meaning passengers have to put these items in their checked luggage instead.  As I reflected on this  article, it strikes me as one of the dumbest articles I’ve recently read.

The article ignores the fact that lithium ion batteries are “inherently volatile” beyond wanting to criticize a policy decision.  If they’re that dangerous, why are they allowed on flights at all?  Why are we using them in electronic devices that we carry with us everywhere if they are essentially the equivalent of little time bombs?  Wouldn’t the article be better aimed at critiquing why such a volatile substance is accepted beyond the parameters of certain airline flights from certain countries?

The second article is a great discussion of what may appear to be  rather arcane Supreme Court ruling that actually has a great deal of actual and potential impact for consumers everywhere.  I’ve long been distrustful of the growing trend of virtualizing ownership.  Seen most clearly in computer operating systems and software, it’s the idea that you don’t really own a product, per se.  Rather, you are paying for the right to access something that still belongs to someone else and who has ultimate say over what you do or don’t do with what you’re accessing.  Physical and intellectual property issues are critical not just for their economic implications but in terms of privacy and consumer rights.  Definitely worth a read through!

The final article describes the renaming of a NASA project to send a probe closer to the sun than ever before.  Instead of calling it the Solar Probe Plus (which is admittedly a lousy name!), it is being renamed the Parker Solar Probe in honor of a scientist.  But the article immediately reminded me of one of my favorite author’s short stories – The Golden Apples of the Sun.  It’s the name of both one of his short stories – about a manned trip to the sun to actually scoop up and bring back to earth some of the sun’s essence – as well as the anthology that includes the story.  Since Bradbury’s story pre-dates Eugene Parker’s solar scientific contributions, I think it’s at least worth considering.  Plus, The Golden Apples of the Sun is a far more beautiful name for a solar probe!

Fear or Life

March 22, 2017

In a few weeks we depart on an epic family vacation that has taken us almost four years to plan and save for.  It is the culmination of persistence and hard work and great blessing as well as a particular approach to education and life.

But in the past few weeks there have been multiple reports of terrorist attacks throughout Europe.  Paris.  Dusseldorf.  London.  Not all places that we plan to visit, but reminders that there are dangers to this type of education for our children and for ourselves.  I don’t believe that the world is a fundamentally more dangerous place today than it has been in times past.  But our ability to know instantaneously what is happening across the globe certainly affects our way of looking at the world and the people in it.

On a regular basis people in town here die on a particular highway just outside of town.  I don’t drive it often but there are times that I do and I think about the fact that it is a notoriously dangerous stretch of road.  Sometimes I opt to take the longer way around, but sometimes I don’t.  Life is full of risks and dangers.  Ones close to home somehow seem less ominous than those far away, where we’ll be guests and visitors rather than locals and residents.

Our children have to learn to balance fear and life.  They have to learn to make the best decisions possible given the available data.  They have to recognize that there are no guarantees of a happily-ever-after.  Every day there are people just like us who become statistics out of no fault of their own.  It is not what I wish for myself or my children or those people, but it is a reality of this broken, sin-infested world.  We have to learn to handle the statistics and the fear they create if we hope to live.

I believe that ultimately, this means that we have to learn to look death in the face and acknowledge it.  We are taught to avoid thinking about death, regularly coddled and swaddled in assurances that if we just do the right things, good things will follow and bad things will stay away.  But this isn’t necessarily true.  Certainly we can and should make good decisions.  But sometimes those decisions don’t protect us from the variable, the random, the unknown, the unpredictable.  And those things can kill.

It’s possible to be run down by a terrorist in a foreign city just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.  I also know people who get hit by distracted drivers right here in town.  These things happen.  I have to acknowledge that this is a possibility and then determine whether or not to get out of bed in the morning, or drive on the freeway, or fly across an ocean, or find my way through lands where I don’t speak the language.  I have to decide whether those things are important enough to my wife and children to expose them as well.  And I have to be able to live with my decision, whether we return from an amazing, life-altering but fundamentally safe trip, or whether some or all of us never return.

I can face death and reality through my faith that death has been defeated by the God who created everything.  I rest that faith on the historically accurate material contained in the Bible.  It tells me some things that are hard to believe.  But it also tells me other things that plenty of people assumed weren’t true or real, only to be proved wrong.  Incredulity is not a reliable means of determining truth.  I trust the accounts of people 2000 years ago who saw a dead man raised to life and then raised to heaven with the promise to return.  I trust that my life and my children are not accidents of chance and time, that we have meaning and purpose beyond mindlessly perpetuating genetic code, and that our lives don’t end in a plane crash or a terrorist’s explosion.  We don’t go out looking for these things.  We try to avoid them.  But we recognize that if they should find us, we are together in the hands of the God who brought us into existence and has promised to sustain us for eternity.

So we’ll keep finalizing plans.  We’ll keep assembling the final elements for our trip.  Shoes and jackets and fleeces all crammed into carry-on luggage to sustain us on an adventure that will require us to face down death.  That is the adventure that every single one of us is on, ultimately.  Not a matter of if but when and how.  I’m ready.  I’ll do my best to make sure my children are ready.  And I’m always prepared and willing to talk to anyone – even you – who want to be ready as well.

Glitter and Ash

March 1, 2017

Of course, it can’t simply be Ash Wednesday.

We wear the ashes to remind ourselves of what we are.  We are dust.  Not glitter.  Dust and ash.  Sin and rebellion and all manner of other mean ugly things that we pretend aren’t there or mitigate by comparing ourselves to worse people.  We embody death.   We wear the ashes to remind ourselves of this.  All of our plans and goals, all of our hopes and dreams about what cars to drive or what school district to live in, what position we aspire to in the company or what we hope our children will choose as their careers – all of these things are dust and ashes.  There is no hope in any of it.  Ashes are bereft of hope.  They are the leftovers, the detritus of everything else.

Stopping by a used bookstore last week while waiting for a meeting to begin, I purchased a big book of newspaper front pages.  My eldest son has an interest in history and current events and I thought he’d get a kick out of looking at the daily news over a span of time.  Browsing through it, I was struck by the importance attributed to events that today are almost meaningless beyond a historical perspective.  All the successes and tragedies are smoothed over by the steady passage of time, day by day, until the divas and demons of the day are forgotten.  None of this matters.

We can stare at that reality only so long before we move one of two directions.  One is the direction of hopelessness and despair, the path of existential crisis that curtails or destroys our ability and desire to function.  I believe that we are dealing with this in our culture today.  The other direction is to find a source of hope, or to cling more tightly to the hope we already have.

That is what the ashes also do.  They remind us of death, but within the context of Christian worship they also remind us of our hope.  Life beyond the ashes.  Through faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God who died and rose from the dead on our behalf, we embody not only death, but new life as well.  Life free from the sin and self-centeredness that defines our sinful reality and all-too-often eclipses the new life within us.  Those in Christ can look into the meaninglessness of all our temporal aspirations because of the hope – grounded in history and geography – that there is something greater waiting beyond as well as within.

There will be no glitter in our ashes this evening.  Just as I wouldn’t mix ashes with whiskey for alcoholics, or cut the ashes with cocaine for drug addicts.  Just as I wouldn’t mix the ashes with chocolate for someone with an eating disorder, or shredded money for someone who is greedy or miserly.  Our cultural attitudes about what constitutes a problem or a condition will fluctuate.  But the Biblical standards regarding sin never will.  They can be ignored or followed, but they aren’t subject to change based on popular opinion or who yells the loudest.  Our sin – whether we approve of it or recognize it – is what brings us to ashes.  And it is only the forgiveness of Jesus Christ who can bring us – recreated and without sin – out of those ashes and into new life.

The ashes remind us that all sin leads us to the grave.  Not simply what we do or don’t do, but what we think or don’t think, what we feel or don’t feel.  Sin is not an action, it is who we are.  Sin-full.  The size of the sin doesn’t matter.  Gossip or genocide.  Murder or shoplifting.  And it doesn’t matter whether we think of our sin as sin, or whether we wish we were free of it or not.  Sin simply is.  I don’t place the ashes on one person’s head to proclaim them a greater sinner than the next person in line.  And the fact that there are glitter in one person’s ashes doesn’t mean they are any less of a sinner or more of a sinner than the next person in line.  The ashes don’t celebrate anything.  They are the solidarity of the dead.

My hope as I place the ashes on the heads of my people tonight and my own head is only and always that all of that sin is forgiven in Christ, and that we one day will be free of all that sin forever, even the things we refuse or are unable to see as sinful today.  I suspect there might be glitter involved at that point, despite the fact I really don’t care for glitter regardless of the reason.  Glitter would be appropriate then, though,  as perhaps it might be appropriate on Easter.  Glitter to celebrate not who we are and what we do, but who God is and what God has done for us in raising Jesus from the dead.  He gives us a reason to hope in the face of the futility of our lives, a hope offered to everyone whether they have glitter in their ashes or no ashes at all.

Postscript:  I nearly deleted this after I posted it.  Perhaps I still should.  I realized how bleak it sounds, and that is hardly in keeping with the Christian faith.

Like many people (I presume) I had anticipations of greatness.  Hopes for the future and Big Achievements and Accomplishments.  I dreamed of being a famous writer.  But then the Internet and self-publishing came along and people don’t read so much anymore and there just isn’t the same appeal as there was when books were a bit harder to come by.  I began teaching with hopes of being a wise and beloved professor, but realized after the fact that teachers come and go, and most administrations don’t appreciate them the way they should when they’re on payroll, let alone after they leave.  And while I hope I had influence on a few students, that’s an elusive and unquantifiable thing.  I came to Seminary with ideas about the Church and the future.  But I learned a lot along the way, which is the whole point I suppose, not just about theology but about myself.  Maybe I’m not the person who inspires and points the way to the future.  Maybe I’m not St. Paul or St. Peter or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas.  

As 50 looms closer and closer I presume I’m dealing with the existential angst of mid-life, recognizing that the odds of being Important and Influential on any sort of grand scale are dwindling literally by the day. That I’m not the extraordinary person I hoped to become when I was younger.  Not on the larger scale, where strangers talk about you and marvel.  This is the reality for 99% of us.  Very few are lauded in history books and monuments, and for those that are, it probably isn’t much the source of pride because they’re dead.  I won’t be heralded through the ages as a great visionary or an erudite apologist.  If I’m lucky, I can speak God’s Word to people in a way that anchors them more firmly to the foundation of Christ.  That’s not exactly lousy in terms of consolation prizes.  Neither is being a spouse, or a parent, or a neighbor, or any of the other things you and I do every day.

What I do matters.  What you do matters.  Maybe not on the national or global scale.  Not in ways we’re going to appreciate and feel good about and enjoy the benefits of here and now.  What we do matters a great deal to the people who know us.  To our families and friends.  It matters that we do a good job at our work because that’s how we love our neighbor.  It matters because those people will go on to shape and impact others and future generations, so that a life spent invested in family and honest work and an admirable if not extraordinary example of dignity and honor and love of God matters a great deal, far more than we can recognize in our own lifetime.  I pray it’s one of those happy surprises of eternity, that we’ll be able to trace out the impacts we had on others.  I pray that the good impacts outweigh the bad.  

Life isn’t without meaning, and I apologize for my midlife grumpy-ness.   



Legalizing Courtesy

February 28, 2017

Wouldn’t it be nice if we as a people could agree tacitly on common courtesy rather than requiring the government to make courtesy a matter of law?

That’s basically what’s at issue regarding the use of cell phones during flights.  If people could simply understand that it’s rude to hold a conversation with someone who isn’t even there, while surrounded by a bunch of other people, things would be so much more, well, courteous.  Is it illegal to use cell phones in movies?  I don’t think so, yet we all recognize that it’s not appropriate (or at least most of us do).  Simple logistics would seem to dictate this.  If I’m trying to hold a conversation with someone on the phone while the person on either side of me is doing the same, it’s going to be hard to hear my own conversation.  I’ll have to raise my voice.  Which of course will cause the people around me to raise theirs.  It won’t be long before everyone is yelling and still can’t hear their conversation.  Shouldn’t that be obvious?

What an opportunity we have on plane flights to actually get to know someone new without any sense of obligation.  To simply strike up a conversation and learn about them and share about yourself and see the world through another pair of eyes for a short period of time.  If it goes well you can always talk with each other on the phone in the future.  If there isn’t much chemistry, well, you never have to talk with them again.

But can we just agree that it’s impolite – and ultimately very difficult – to have hundreds of conversations going on with people who aren’t even physically present, fully ignoring the hundreds of people who are physically present and sitting incredibly close to you?  Do we really need the government to make yet another law ?