The Panic of the Faithful

You know what will really convince the world that Jesus is the good and loving Lord of all creation? It would be if all of his children absolutely go insane whenever there is a public crisis and then lead the way in running, hiding, blaming others, and over-reacting.

About Coronavirus

Here are three things Christians ought to be thinking about as the world reacts to aspreading sickness.

1. Don’t go crazy.

Every year in the US alone, the flu kills on average 30,000 people. In the 2018-19

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flu season, it killed 61,000. The coronavirus has killed 3,000 in the world, out of 7.7 billion. It is admittedly stronger than the flu, but it is not the medical version of a nuclear bomb. The stock market is spiraling, organizations are cancelling conferences and gatherings, and Japan and Italy have temporarily closed their schools. Whereas the mass of humanity is led by animal instincts, Christians are bearers of the Spirit of God and ought to swim against the current, not get swept up in it. We have not been given a Spirit of timidity, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. The Christian response is not, “Where can I hide?”, it’s “God is bigger than this.”

2. Ask the right questions.

The first questions I hear as a pastor is whether or not churches are safe places to gather and whether we should all stay home. At least we should receive the eucharist through a doubly-secured air-lock, and the Pastor can stand behind that thick plexiglass like the bank teller. The first question that the Spirit would have Christians ask would be, “If it gets bad, how will we help?” Danger is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate faith, not fear. Crisis is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate compassion, not cowardice. First questions first – no matter what the state of the world, followers of Jesus don’t run and hide.

3. Be wise.

Coronavirus-response is not going to be the modern, bio-chemical equivalent of snake-handling. Everyone should practice good hygiene – wash your hands, sneeze on your elbow, and don’t go to school if you’re sick, even if there’s a math test. These rules should apply during the ordinary flu season, and not just because it kills 30,000 Americans a year, but because it’s gross when you sneeze on your hand and then hold it out saying, “Nice sermon today, Pastor.” Thank you for that.

Life of the Mind 2: 4 Solutions

In a previous post, I described how education and study can actually be a form of worship, a pursuit of God through the admiration of his work. The modern American Church, however, has let the mental life fall by the wayside in exchange for out-of-context Bible quoting, political ranting, and Instagram platitudes. I suggested four things will change this embarrassing situation.

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First, Christians on the whole need to repudiate the religiously-driven conflict between academic work and faith, between Athens and Jerusalem, especially when it comes to the sciences. With humility and common sense, everyone ought to acknowledge that reading the Bible does not qualify one to comment on the finer points of microbiology. One isn’t, by virtue of being an expert in the holy texts, an expert in everything else to boot. Scientific discoveries of all stripes ought to make Christians ask, “Have we perhaps read the biblical texts wrongly?” rather than moving to close the lens on Galileo’s telescope.

Second, the individual Christian is responsible for cultivating her own mental life. For all of the hours lost in this generation to pot, porn, and video games, we owe the Maker of Life repentance. Teen-agers didn’t invent the vices they consume; we’ve handed those down to them. We live in the information age, and all one need do is pick a topic of interest or a person worth emulating and pursue it with curiosity. If books aren’t your favored vehicle for learning, listen to podcasts, watch debates, or work through online classes, all for free.

Third, let kids ask questions. I had horrible religious influences in my childhood who told me, wrongly, “Sometimes you need to stop doubting and just believe.” Ceasing questions to believe doesn’t lead you to Jesus. Ceasing the pursuit of truth doesn’t lead you to the one who said, “I am the truth.” And churches need to be places that are known for encouraging the intellectual curiosity of children.

Fourth, keep the Sabbath. The loss of this discipline has wrought destruction in Western civilization that is devastating while it is undocumented. A day of peace and reflection was not too much for the creator of the universe, I’m not sure how it’s too much for us. Keeping the Sabbath is the way to acknowledge that God can do more in six days than we can do in seven. So take a day to be at peace, reflect, think, and pray. Whatever the link between neurons and the soul, both of them are nourished by the Sabbath.

“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else.” – GK Chesterton

A Mess of Metaphors

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First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.

 

The Honduran Exodus

honduras-flag.gifThere is a migrant train of over 7000 people walking north towards the southern border of the US right now, Honduran refugees fleeing a context of poverty and violence.  It’s an exodus.

What’s walking towards America is more than that.  An awakening and an ethical decision is approaching. 

Americans have long thought of ourselves as the world’s good guys, using force to back up democracy and justice.  We are the ones who landed on the beach at Normandy.  Our first President couldn’t lie about chopping down a cherry tree.  We stand for Jesus and family.  Now that we’re the richest country in the world, it’s assumed that God has materially rewarded our spiritual and moral goodness like a parent reinforcing a well-behaved child with treats.

A 2007 report showed Honduras to be over 80% Christian.  They’re praying as they come.

American Christians have for a long time voted for candidates who claimed to be Christian, or, at least, promised to support Christian values.  Voters have rarely paused to consider the fact that that set of values has never been defined for them.  “Christian values,” in public discourse, seems to include freedom of religion (especially its expression in schools), a general opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay marriage.  They may include some nebulous affirmations like “Love thy neighbor,” but there is a sizable omission when it comes to Jesus’ very clear teachings about money and the poor.  In the American suburbs, these are generally add-ons for the specially motivated.

“Christian values” in America don’t especially exclude values which seem to be at odds with the teachings of Jesus and the early church, like xenophobia and nationalism.  Someone who is in an adulterous relationship would generally be seen as out of keeping in American churches, but someone who spends their money frivolously, doesn’t donate to charity, and doesn’t care what happens to the poor in other nations does not stand out.

What’s walking towards American Christians is a reality check.  Jesus isn’t as obsessed with sex as we are; he is far more obsessed with the poor and the outcast.  The package of values American Christians have accepted needs to be unpacked, separated, cleaned up and lightened up.  Some of it needs to be thrown away.  Self-identified evangelicals are overdue to face their baptized love of money and apathy for the oppressed. 

What’s going to be ironic about the American Christian response to the Honduran exodus is that we have an Exodus in our own Scripture, and consequently in the DNA of our faith.  God was on the side of the wanderers fleeing oppression for the sake of a land of freedom in that Exodus.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). What do you think Honduran Christians hear when they read that?  Probably the same thing the first European immigrants to the US were hearing when they read the same scriptures – that is, the ancestors of a lot of Americans.

So, before the story takes over the headlines and the blogosphere, a word to Christian America: remember Jericho.

Morality for Atheists

There is a longstanding debate about how atheists are moral.  It shouldn’t be an argument about whether or not atheists are moral, because of course, many atheists follow moral principles to which they are committed.  But there is a standing debate as to why.  As an atheist, you weren’t created for a purpose and you won’t be evaluated in the end.

12657829_963585900401513_4734572524383960592_oThis week, it was revealed that “celebrity atheist” Lawrence Krauss has been accused of sexual misconduct by students.  Krauss was a physics professor who has just resigned.  Of course we can point to any number of clergy and Christian leaders who have done the same if not that which is more shocking.

The issue though is not a matter of whether or not anyone can offend.  The question is whether or not anyone can offend consistently with their own worldview.  A Christian, by definition, is bound to the teachings of Christ, who condemns the exploitation of the vulnerable.  An atheist, conversely, commits herself to a worldview and ethic by choice rather than necessity.  The values to which she commits herself are self-selected and do not answer to an ultimate purpose or judgement.  So an atheist can consistently say that life has no value, whereas a Christian cannot.  An atheist can consistently say that one can establish relations of power with one’s peers in such a way that one’s peers are marginalized, whereas a Christian cannot.

Christians who violate the moral norms of Jesus’ teachings are failures.  The question is whether or not atheists who violate mainstream moral norms are actually failing at anything at all.

Religion is stupid and evil

BillMaher_directI don’t know if you heard Jimmy Kimmel’s interview of Bill Maher the other day (I didn’t), but Bill was apparently sweating out the threat that Islamic jihadists now pose to people who mock them (aka Bill Maher).  And he said, “There are no great religions.  They’re all stupid and evil.”

I don’t normally take offense at comedians who are paid to offend.  You know what you’re getting into when you listen to them.  And I generally don’t listen to Maher, because I generally don’t find him funny.  But that comment stuck with me, because he’s actually rallying the hordes against the innocent.

I went to church the other night.  There were 200 homeless people sleeping at my church.  We fix them three meals a day, run a clothing boutique, offer free showers and haircuts.  They’re here for three weeks in January when it’s coldest outside, and then on to another church, such that they can be under a roof from December through March.  We’re not short on volunteers, so I usually just sit and talk with people who are having dinner.  One woman needed help finding a Narcotics Anonymous program, which we host at our church, so I helped her find it.  One woman was looking for a Bible, so I pulled one out of our pews for her.  Generally I just listen to their stories.  And as the 200 or so shuffled off to bed, I heard someone saying to me, of me, “You’re stupid and evil.”

I went to a congregational meeting on Sunday.  We just approved a new budget.  This year we raised our giving overseas by $30,000.  There’s a program in India that uses English literacy training to give people marketable job skills.  They’re helping people climb out of poverty by starting with reading.  And in the midst of that, they introduce whoever will listen to the guy who taught us to love people on the other side of the ocean.  Religious people in America usually give more to charity than their non-religious peers; we again have raised our giving.  And as we pour tens of thousand dollars of our charity into people we’ll never meet, someone tells me that I’m stupid and evil.

Last year we made a donation of about the same amount to an orphanage in Haiti that had lost a building to the earthquake.  We paid for the whole thing.  And the guy living in Haiti at the orphanage leading the build – he’s one of our church members who has moved there to live among and help the poor.  I gather that he’s stupid and evil as well.

But I can read the history of Christianity and so-called Christians as well as everyone else, and I see in my predecessors what is functionally just the same behaviors you see outside the church. And part of me has to agree – yes, religion, and religious people, are stupid and evil.  We always have been.  Just like everyone else.  Atheistic regimes killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century.  Religious people haven’t done any better with power, just not worse.

But here’s the deal – Jesus wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t evil.  If I have to come to grips with my own stupidity and the darkness within my own heart, I start groping around for someone to bail me out.  The only person I have ever known who without question has earned the right is Jesus.  He isn’t stupid or evil, and only blind stupidity or fiery hatred would make anyone say otherwise.  I’ll admit it – I’m stupid and evil.  I need a savior.  But he’s actually worthy of the title.

So the bottom line is that the common thread between stupid and evil religious people and stupid and evil secular people is not religion, it’s humanity.  And rather than casting stones at we who have called out to a savior for help, in a century where persecution of Christians is at a historical high, you might just as well have the humility to admit that you need a savior too.

The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Christians, Ebola, and the Beginnings of Revival

koreanchurchRegarding the origins of the Great Revival in Korea at the turn of the 20th century, during a massive outbreak of cholera, a historian writes:

“At the same time an epidemic of cholera in Seoul brought reports of the indefatigable toil of the Christian missionaries for the sick and dying there, how they performed duties from which the bravest Koreans often shrank, exposing themselves without stint, and saving hundreds of lives.  ‘All these recoveries made no little stir in the city.  Proclamations were posted on the walls telling the people there was no need for them to die when they might go to the Christian hospitals and live.  People who watched the missionaries working over the sick night after night reportedly said to each other, “How these foreigners love us!  Would we do as much for one of our own kin as they do for strangers?”

When Horace Underwood was seen hurrying along the road in the twilight, some of the Koreans remarked, “There goes the Jesus man: he works all day and all night with the sick without resting.”

“Why does he do it?” said another.

“Because he loves us,” was the reply.'”

-Palmer, Korea and Christianity, 1967, citing Moffett, The Christians of Korea, 1962.