Saturday, March 29, 2014

Believing in God: A Defense of Intellectual Assent that "God's Not Dead"

"Intellectual assent" is getting a bad rap in many of our churches today.

To be clear at the beginning, let me rush to assure my fellow moderates, not to mention my progressive readers, that I do not think that what many call a "saving faith" is achieved with pure head knowledge or a recitation of some sentences. When Jesus tells Nicodemus to "believe in" Him in John 3:16, our interpretation is affected by the English language's lack of a verb form of the word "faith." Jesus is telling Nicodemus that whoever "faiths" Him will have eternal life, and the best our translators do with that is "believe in."

The illustration I most often use (members of any Sunday School class I have taught can skip this paragraph - you have heard it multiple times) involves my grandmother, Mimi, who lived near a naval air station and saw airplanes fly every day for years. She believed that airplanes could fly. She saw them. People flew on airplanes to visit her. She was not stupid. She knew airplanes could fly. She believed that fact absolutely. Yet, Mimi would not fly. She would not set foot on a plane. Irrespective of her intellectual assent - her head knowledge of the facts - Mimi did not believe in airplanes.

Saving faith requires more than head knowledge, more than a creedal statement of "belief." Faith in Christ is a heart event, a soul event, a complete being event. "Believing in Jesus" is not a compilation of good works or a result of any particulat action, but it requires following Jesus. It is more than simple acceptance of the historicity of the cross and the resurrection. It is more than opening a gift. It is a giving of oneself to God through Jesus Christ. Even the thief on the cross did more than say "I agree."

Saving faith changes us, transform us, turns us into disciples. It requires more than intellectual assent to a set of facts.

That said, intellectual assent to the very existence of God is critical. Because we (correctly) denounce mere intellectual assent as sufficient for salvation, we tend to poo-poo the necessity of acceptance of facts altogether. We want to say that there is nothing we can "know" religiously. I have discussed this more specifically here.

The new movie "God's Not Dead" brings a variety of perspetives on the question of intellectual assent. As movies go, this one suffers from what many "faith movies" have in common - uneven acting, hyperbole in characterization, and, perhaps most directly, the problem of dealing with real-life spiritual issues in a two dimensional message delivered by strangers, people with whom we have no personal relationship. Still, the movie avoids a lot of easy answers. It addresses deathbed confessions, the power of prayer, finding God in the little things, and - in its central plot point - the intellectual aspect of Christianity. Can thinking people accept the existence of God?

The movie will raise the hackles of some who will think that it teaches that intellectual assent is sufficient for salvation, especially in a short quote from Franklin Graham that is featured in one character's story and in the denouement of the story of the central villain, a philosophy professor. I don't want to spoil the story for those few of you who might go see the movie, but suffice it to say that attempting to describe anybody's theology based on a ten second sound bite is always dangerous. I do not believe that is the point of the movie.

Defenders of the movie will champion its hero and his debate with his philosophy professor. They will proudly stand with him in proclaiming their "belief in God."

This blog is not a movie review, really. What I want to address instead is whether those of us who people our churches really believe in God. We would largely reject the vicious atheism of the film's philosophy professor, who clearly has a hidden agenda and is so personally involved in the issue that his attack of the lone vocal Christian in his class borders on the maniacal. If honest, however, many Christians in their private moments will admit to being troubled by some of his arguments. If Russell and Hawking and Rand and Dawkins and so many other smart people are atheists, are we ignoring good sense and just believing in magic? Philosophy and science and mathematics search for proveable answers to their hypotheticals and reject the supernatural. Do we?

Even longtime church members get uncomfortably silent when the topic of discussion turns to the mystical, the spiritual. Too many, I fear, jump to participation in programs and espousing philosophies without first deciding for themselves if they really believe the supernatural, the extrascientific, the non-mathematical.

To say that intellectual assent will not save you is a far cry from saying that intellectual assent is unimportant. If we do not start with believing in the fact of God, it is hard to see how much of the rest of what we call Christianity will follow.

I detect that a number of church members and so-called Christians do not in fact belive in God. If they do, that belief has little effect on their lives, missions, priorities, and plans. Here is what I mean:

Belief in God requires intellectual assent as to the existence of a supernatural, more-powerful-than-you, authoritative, personal entity. If you do not believe in the truth of any of those four attributes, you do not believe in God. We can disagree about the nature, form, gender, level of concern, and means of communication of God. But anything less than supernatural is simply created. Anything of equal power is only inspirational. Anything not authoritative is merely to be considered. Anything not personal may be an amorphous supreme being but will not require following - it would simply be a historical artifact to be acknowledged, much like Mimi's airplanes.

If you say you "believe in God" but then reject what God says or demands if it "does not make sense" to you, then what you believe in is a set of religious constructs from which you can pick and choose according to what makes you feel good, or accords with your understanding of the world, or is what you have come up with on your own. Perhaps you choose to "agree with" what other really smart people propose and defend. Whatever ... you have made yourself, your feelings, your intellect, the intellect and persuasiveness of others, and your perception to be gods. You rely on them rather than on outside authority. This is, of course, the essence of what is now called "post-modernism": the idea that there is no truth ; thus we are all in charge of forging our own authority. (Hear me well - I am not for a moment suggesting that belief in God requires you to accept whatever some preacher or teacher or self-proclaimed authority tells you God says. I absolutely defend your right to challenge any other human being who claims to know what God is saying to you.) My point is that to reject what you know God wants solely because it does not make sense to you is a telling indicator of your lack of intellectual assent in the existence of God. You are not really analyzing what you are being told; you are rejecting the authority, and thus the divine existence, of the teller.

If you say you "belive in God" but then reject the hard things you feel called to do because you "cannot do" them, then your belief in God falls somewhere behind your belief in good intentions limited by human failings, age, disease, and inefficiency. I saw a great Facebook exchange last week on this exact point. A friend of mine (who in my estimation shows great insight and belief in God) posted the following in response to the death of Fred Phelps, leader of the despicable actions of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas: "Fred Phelps has died. I hope people picket his funeral with signs that say 'God Loves You.'" In turn, somebody commented: "It is almost more than humanly possible for some to acknowledge and speak this, even by carrying a sign at his funeral." My friend of great insight responded: "I'm glad Christians aren't called to what's humanly possible."

Christians who give lip service to God in a hymn or litany and then spend the rest of their so-called worship service, not to mention the rest of their week, discussing philosophies, internet how-to lists, politics, and social work are not demonstrating a belief in God. Belief in God separates us from the culture. It demands a focus on something higher than even really outstanding intentions of praise and worship, innovations for justice, help for the poor, and defenses of personal dignity. (Those things are not wrong of course, but when they become the purpose rather than the byproduct, they become the thing in which we believe.)

I believe the hesitancy in our current culture to say "Jesus" or "God" except when cursing is, at least in part, due to a weak belief in God. It is easier to discuss things we are sure about, like philanthropy, service, and kindness. We know what those things are and how they will be accepted. Saying "Jesus" out loud makes too many uncomfortable, as though they were talking about believing that the magician really did saw the lovely assistant in half.

The intellectual is, for me, the tipping point of faith. Once I accept the factual existence of God, the rest of faith comes naturally. If there is a God, then I have little choice but to worship and obey that God, for I am quite sure that I am not godlike. I know there are others who can accept the existence of God and still choose not to worship or obey Him, but I do not understand that calculus. The area of doubt for me is always at the point of intelletual acceptance of the existence of God - when I am once again assured of His being, I know how the rest comes together.

I suspect that is true for more of us than admit it. I do not think the existence of storms and earthquakes make people get mad at God and thus decide not to follow; the problem with human suffering is that it makes us doubt that there is a God at all. We then combine the problem of evil and suffering with the intellectual proclamations of the philosophical atheists and scientific humanists of the world, and we can quietly question the existence of God. It becomes much more comfortable to look to the church as a place of comfort, a group of friends to provide us community, and an outlet for our good-hearted impetus to help others rather than as a gathering of those who agree in their belief in the existence of the supernatural.

We say we believe in God. That starts with the facts. it is time that we acknowledge the value of intellectual assent.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why I'm Not Leaving the Church

I saw yet another one today. Another article, or blog, or commentary from a maturing, committed Christian announcing that she is "leaving the church" and promising in the title to explain why. Facebook connects me about once a week to another Generation Xer announcing that she or he is "leaving the church."  Somebody else who has discovered that Jesus is > the church, that what they heard (or think they remember having heard) from the church as a youth was not in fact what they now understand Christianity to be, that (oh, no, you're kidding) the church includes all sorts of people who do not practice what they preach.

The reasons tend to repeat themselves: the writer grew up in the church and did not really understand/ connect with/ grasp the intricacies of the love of Jesus while attending children's Sunday School or singing in youth choir, so the church is obviously not the place to be now that the writer has matured to a point that agape is finally real; or there are way too many hypocrites in the church (and yes, I love the Facebook post going around that says that staying away from church because of the hypocrites is like staying out of the gym because of the fat people); or that the writer feels that the church has failed in so many ways that the writer can no longer be a part.

I am not here to fight with any of those people, but those reasons do not - to me - justify leaving the church.

The fact that we, as youngsters, did not grasp from the church all of the depth of the forgiveness of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of the prophets, or the purity of Christ that demands our constant obedience may have been the fault of our church or our youth group ... but it may not have been. It may have been a result of our own immaturity, our own inability as young Christians to grasp yet how high and how deep is the love of God. I don't think many of us blame our third grade teacher for our failure to grasp calculus at the age of 9. That analogy is not exact, of course, but it bears thinking about. And even if your adult church has not shown you Jesus as you think He deserves to be shown, it strikes me as dangerous to throw out "the church" with the bathwater of particular failings in teaching or worship or evangelism or fellowship.

The fact that you are in church with people whose religion seems false to you, or who do not act like you believe Christians should act, or who have hurt you personally is tragic. I wish every one of our churches was made up of nothing but repentant sinners who were constantly striving to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. My experience of (now over forty) years as a church member teaches me differently. What I have grown to see is that even the best of churches (and I have been a member of some great churches) includes many, maybe mostly, struggling selfish people who often miss the mark and may even go days without thinking much about the mark. And, truth be told, that description applies to me far too often. Do I think people should leave the church because I am such a failure at this thing called a Christian walk and yet I still darken the door?  I hope not.  I hope people don't blame the whole church for my brand of error.  I can't handle that pressure.

I have friends who have not published blogs or articles on the subject but have nonetheless left the church for one of these reasons and/or because they have been personally hurt by the church. These friends include ordained ministers. Their hurt is real, and the perpetrators of the hurt should be ashamed of themselves.

But I am not leaving the church. Here's why.

First, I take seriously the scripture about the church's being the body of Christ. I know that can apply to the church universal, and those who "do church" in their "daily life" and who do not "need a 9:00 service in order to go to church" may be able to function as a part of the body of Christ... but I cannot. I need the formal church. I am woefully poor at being the arms of Christ to hug everyone who needs to be hugged on my own. I am a miserable failure at being the eyes of Christ to see every need that must be met by myself. I stink at being the feet of Christ, going where the gospel needs to be taken, alone. But as a part of my church, I can help the body of Christ accomplish all of those things.

Second, I think the Charles Wesley was onto something when he penned the hymn "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing."  I need to stay in church because corporate worship is critical to my well-being. I think God likes it too, but I need it. I need to find so many others who have experienced the grace of God and desperately seek more of it, and I need to join with them in confession and praise and adoration and song and prayer. I need to see the symbol of baptism again and again. I need to share communion with brothers and sisters, who hand me the bread and the cup and say "This is the body of Christ, the bread of life.  This is the blood of Christ, the cup of grace.  Thanks be to God."

Third, I know - because I am there multiple times a week - that the church is getting a bad rap. Without denying any individual story of hypocrisy or abuse or failure or hurt, I can nonetheless point to example after example after example of good that is done in the world only by the church. Even the worst church I have been in (and I have been a member of some not-so-great churches) has consciously reached out to help its community, to tell about the love of God, to share the gospel. Even churches going through splits (been there) still find a way to look beyond their own problems to seek the face of the Creator. To leave the church would be, for me, to leave the best vehicle I know to affect the world for good.

Fourth, I don't think the church exists to make me happy. (I wrote about this at some length in my book In the Court of the Master, and you can buy a copy to read my views on this in more detail.) I think the church exists to make God happy and to reach the world, and if my church is not tickling my particular fancy right now, then so be it.

Fifth, the best way to fix a broken church is to stay a part of it, to influence it from within as a caring and participating and giving member, not to walk away and announce with superiority that "the church" has it wrong and is no longer worth my time.  Some churches move so far from the gospel, or are led by individuals who have moved so far from their calling, that serious church members may well need to leave those particular churches.  That is a far cry from leaving "the church" period.

I do not for a minute think that any church in particular, or the institutional church as a whole (a) is perfect; (b) has a corner on God; (c) is doing even most things right; or (d) does not repeatedly fail to be what God calls us to be. I do not judge those who do not believe they can continue to be a Christian in the church and thus have left or must leave.

But I cannot leave the church. It is where I met God, and it is where I meet God, and it is where God continues to speak to me.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Today, we lost a saint. Gena's best friend from childhood became one of my dearest friends. I owed Elizabeth a lot - after all, if she had not accepted me, I doubt seriously Gena would have said "yes." If she had not continued to welcome me as a part of her life, well, let's just say I am so glad she did, for my marriage has been happier as a result. If she had not been the person who fought cancer for the last three years with grace, dignity, spirit, and an unflagging faith that ended each email with "trusting Him now more than ever," her struggle would have been much more difficult for Gena and me and everyone else around us.

And now her struggle is over. She has entered that place and time and presence that are promised to all of us who know Christ. She is at peace. And it is time, oh how it is time, for her to be at peace.

Here it is, the day before Christmas Eve, and Elizabeth gets to enjoy a silent, holy night. She gets to sleep, for the first time in months, in heavenly peace.

It reminds me of that carol that so many of us will all sing tomorrow night. For the chance to sleep in heavenly peace is needed by us all.

Oh tiny baby, you who have not been given even a bed on which to lie, sleep in heavenly peace. This one night, after the shepherds have left and before the wise men arrive, sleep peacefully. Tonight, now that the barnyard animals have finally settled down, sleep. For there will not be many peaceful nights for you. Already you know the torment, the turmoil, the torture that lies ahead. You have watched us since creation, so you know that we are building our towers and fighting our wars; you know that we will not let you walk your road very long before somebody gets out the whip and somebody else builds a cross. So tonight, dear child, while you can, sleep in heavenly peace.

Oh quaking shepherds, you who work on the ragged hills and keep watch through the cold nights, sleep in heavenly peace. You have heard what none of us has – the very choir of heaven singing “Alleluia” with harmonies and chords that we cannot even imagine. Tonight, you who have seen glory streaming from the face of a baby can dream about what you have experienced, this gift presented to you. This night, you can sleep in the peace reserved only for those who know they have seen the face of God. That is heavenly peace.

Oh melodious angels, you who sang the anthem you have been preparing since that dark day in Eden, sleep in heavenly peace. We don’t know you well enough to know if you sleep like the rest of us creatures do, but we imagine that this appearance to our human brethren for a concert like none other has left you pleasantly spent. You have done well. Indeed you have inspired us to understand the true greatness of this event. You have earned a rest. Sleep.

Oh sinful world, you who have waited for Messiah and have struggled with your own vices, sleep in heavenly peace. For you who are wearied by temptation and failure, this night of the wondrous star has witnessed new light shed into your darkness, and you can sleep now. Tonight, you no longer have to fear not waking up, for the world has changed. Christ the Savior is born. So tonight, dear children, for the first time, you can sleep in heavenly peace.

And tonight, and every night, Elizabeth knows heavenly peace. Thank God.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Missing the Messiah

"We were sad to miss the Messiah this year."

This line from my pastor's weekly letter to the congregation caught my eye. I know what he meant, of course. Our church annually holds a community service called the "Messiah Sing." Our chancel choir, accompanied by members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, performs Handel's "Messiah" and invites all those in attendance to sing with us on the choruses. It is a popular and expected event, and the sanctuary is routinely filled to overflowing for it. This year, because of an unusual ice storm, the event was canceled. We thus missed "Messiah."

But the pastor's note struck a different chord with me. Too often, Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and we miss the Messiah.

We do not allow ourselves to miss the Christmas experience. We sing the songs, take the school vacations, hang the lights, attend the parties, and give the gifts. We make sure to include "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Elf" and "The Christmas Story" as a part of our December routines. We would not dare fail to put up a tree.

And we dutifully bemoan the "commercialization of Christmas" even as we buy another lighted wreath.

The brilliant insight of Dr. Seuss is that taking all of these trappings away - the Grinch even steals the roast beast - cannot keep Christmas from coming. Would that we all had the understanding of Dr. Seuss.

John the Baptist himself was not sure the Jesus he found was the Jesus he had been expecting. John had preached about a Messiah bearing a winnowing fork. The healing, resurrecting, loving Jesus was not quite the same picture. Of course, more was different than just Jesus, for John the Baptist asked his doubting question - "Are you really the one?" - from a prison cell. Life was not turning out like John had expected, and the world was not what John expected, and Jesus was not what John expected.

The same is true for us. Life is not what we expect. Dangerous ice storms prevent us from taking our routine drives and interrupt our schedules. We do not turn out to be the persons we thought we would be. Somebody steals our roast beast.

And maybe Jesus is not what we expected. We wanted a king to come and conquer everything that was bothering us. We were ready for the ruler, the long-expected deliverer. We were prepared for the one who would smile at us and thank us for our excellent work and take us to our special slice of heaven. Yet life has not turned out that way. Our years of service and good deeds have seemingly gone unnoticed. Jesus has come without doing one thing about our sore backs or our irritating bosses. In fact, Jesus seems to have bypassed us altogether.

If we are not careful, we will be sad to miss the Messiah this year.

Jesus of course does not leave John the Baptist in his doubt. He reminds John of the the great prophecies of Isaiah, of the one who would come bringing sight to the blind and preaching good news to the poor. Jesus will not let us miss Him either if we will simply look. He is the one the angels proclaimed, the one who has come once again to live in the very dirtiest stables of our own lives. He is not deterred by ice storms, or aches and pains, or our own stubborn insistence on making Christmas about lights and movies and chocolate.

Advent is upon us. Christ is coming. Do not miss the Messiah.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Morning Has Broken - A Thought for Thanksgiving

Morning has broken like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!

Sweet the rains new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day.

Morning has broken like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!

How interesting that Eleanor Farjeon's eighty-four year old hymn text has found its way into popular music, recorded famously by Cat Stevens (after he was Steven Demetre Georgiou and before he was Yusuf Islam), Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Aaron Neville, Roger Whitaker, and Pam Tillis among others. These words of gratitude for new beginnings speak to the congregations on Sunday mornings and to the concert goers and those beside their radios. We all, churchgoers or not, find ourselves in shades of night, waiting and longing for the morning. And morning always arrives.

The lessons of life come almost too routinely. Spring always follows winter like resurrection follows burial. The retreat of the caterpillar into a cocoon is merely the preparation for the birth of the beautiful butterfly. Consider the lilies of the field, which neither labor nor spin, yet Solomon in all his splendor was not dressed like one of them. The rain falls and the sun shines and the grass grows.

And morning follows night. Always.

Elie Wiesel’s novel about a man who believes that he lives in a world without God is appropriately entitled Night. Robert Frost, in writing of sadness and loneliness, says that he has been “acquainted with the night.”

Night comes in many, many forms. There is the physical night of disease, torment, and disability. There is the mental and emotional night of dementia, forgetfulness, and confusion. Night can form from regret and disappointment. Worry creates a long night. Fear darkens the world around us. It was the Spanish poet and mystic Saint John of the Cross who first referred to that phase of spiritual loneliness and desolation as the “dark night of the soul”.

But the lessons of life teach us that morning follows night as certainly as spring follows winter. And, in echoing that message, the scriptures teach us that while weeping may last for the night, our joy comes in the morning.

It was God’s first act, after creating the world itself, to dispel darkness. “Let there be light” is a mighty statement of hope and power. The "one light that Eden saw" was the very light of God, as morning broke for the first time over a new earth as yet unstained by sin.

Into your night of sin and lostness, morning has broken. Like on the first morning, God has said “let there be light” and has sent His only begotten Son.

Your night of sickness or disillusionment or betrayal may be at its darkest, but the lessons of life teach us that for those of us who are His, it is but a moment. Our God is the Father of light. Joy comes in the morning.

When you wake up tomorrow and see that, indeed, the darkness has gone and the sun has arisen, rejoice that morning has broken like that first morning. Say to yourself that the morning is yours, and understand that His feet are passing close by.

And He shall be like the light of the morning, when the sun rises, even a morning without clouds. Your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer. You will call for help, and He will say, “Here am I.” Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. Morning has broken like the first morning.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Look Back at My Move Ten Years Later - Be Careful What You Teach Teenagers

One of my favorite chances to speak when I lived in Nashville was the opportunity our church's Youth Minister gave me to write dramatic scripts based on Biblical characters that our youth were studying during youth camp.

In 2000, the character was Abraham, and the drama dealt with God’s telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I wrote the drama with a voice over Abraham and a modern day character, played by me of course, who was dealing with God’s telling him to make a sacrifice.

I had not thought about that script for a couple of years until I found it while unpacking at my new home in Texas. I was hit between the eyes.

You see, the modern day character in my script was asked to sacrifice his job, home, and secure life in order to follow God’s call to another place.  I had some very convincing language in his lines about not understanding what God wanted, but if that was what God called me to do then, like Abraham, I was willing to make the sacrifice.  I would, to quote the script, “quit my job, put the house on the market, and tell my wife it is time to leave.”

It was a pretty good script.  It got the kids’ attention as they studied about following Gods commands, even when they do not understand them, and about being willing to sacrifice. Little did I think that it applied to me.  I had a secure law practice, a good home, and a life of church service that was, I had no doubt, squarely down the middle of God’s plan for my life.

Now hear me well - I think I was right.  Looking back, I believe that I was in fact doing my best to pursue God’s will.  I don’t think that you have to be a wandering prodigal making your way through the wilderness before God calls you somewhere else.  I don’t think the Bible indicates that Abraham was on the wrong road. In fact, I think it was precisely because he had shown such an ability to follow God that he was called to bigger and better things.

But what I tried to teach the kids through that script was that God is interested first and foremost in our listening to Him and our obeying Him. Sometimes, He explains Himself, and often times, He does not. Our understanding is not the point.  Our following is the point.

n   Noah did not understand about rain.
n   Joseph did not understand about dreams.
n   Moses did not understand flaming plants.
n   Caleb did not understand how his group of wanderers could defeat the giants in the land.
n   Balaam did not understand how a donkey could talk.
n   Ruth did not understand why she should go to the wheat fields.
n   Samuel did not understand why he was to anoint the youngest of Jesse’s sons.
n   Nehemiah did not understand why he should leave his cushy job as cupbearer to the king just to go build a wall.
n   Esther had no idea what her cousin meant by his phrase “for such a time as this.”
n   Job did not understand much of anything that was happening to him.
n   Solomon did not understand why all his toiling was a chasing after the wind.
n   Elijah did not understand why he should pour water on the altar.
n   Ezekiel did not understand why the Spirit led him into a desert full of bones.
n   Hosea did not understand why God wanted him to marry a prostitute.
n   Jonah did not understand about the worm and the weed.
n   Habakkuk did not understand why there were no grapes on the vine.
n   Matthew did not understand why he should leave his tax booth.
n   Zaccheus did not understand why he should climb down the tree.
n   Peter did not understand why he could not stay on the mountain.
n   Paul did not understand why he could not see.
n   Ananias did not understand why he had to meet Paul.
n   And, for a moment, Jesus did not understand why a cup was not taken from him.

These heroes have two things in common.  One is that they did not understand.  The other is that they followed anyway.  Some needed a little push - be it a big fish or a big fire or an audible voice - but they followed.

And that is what I taught some teenagers. If Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, then they should be willing to make whatever relatively small sacrifice God asked of them.

Be careful what you teach teenagers.

I have no explanation for why God wanted me to move.  I had lots more to do in Nashville, in my church and in my Sunday School class and in my community. I was positioned to have some serious influence for the cause of Christ in Nashville over the next decades.

Now I am in Keller, Texas.  It makes no sense, but I went, and ten and a half years on the other side, I can see that it was right. I do not know that I can articulate yet why it was right, but God led us here.  He has not yet told us exactly why we had to come down out of our tree, to go to the wheat fields, perhaps to go build a wall or maybe even fight some giants.  He has not told us why we cannot see the whole plan.  We do not know why the call came at such a time as 2003.

Like a car on a Tennessee highway (my Texas friends don’t really understand this example) whose headlights only see to the top of the next hill, we can only see so far ahead on our road.  Of course, when we get to that spot - to the top of that hill - we can see further down the road.  We never actually reach the point where we can see no further.  And I found an old script that reminded me that that is ok.  I found a script by a very wise playwright that taught me that it is not the understanding that is important. It is the following, for we cannot find God unless we follow where He is leading us.

I recently used this story in a devotional with some young professionals, and one friend was surprise that someone like me, a lawyer and a debater devoted to logic, could express so freely that my faith includes significant lack of understanding.  To me, however, it is entirely logical to conclude that there are questions to which I have no answer.  The reason is not that there is no answer - that would not be logical.  The reason is that while I do not have the capacity to find or understand the answer, there is One who does.  It is entirely logical to me that the Creator, the Maker, the Master, the Lord, the One holds keys to locks that I do not yet even comprehend exist.

That, after all, is the message of the story of God's call to Abraham to take Isaac and the knife and the fire and go to a distant mountain. It was the moral of a little skit I wrote thirteen years ago for some bright young minds, never realizing how directly it would apply to me.

Be careful what you teach teenagers.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I'm Shocked! The Media and the Ostrich Syndrome

It is one of the great lines and funny moments of the greatest movie of all time, "Casablanca." Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, needs an excuse to please the Nazis and shut down Rick's Cafe Americain, and he chooses to use illegal gambling - about which he has known and in which he has regularly participated for years.

This week's NFL events surrounding Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin remind me of the Ostrich Syndrome that pervades our media and our society as a whole.  There are so many issues about which we leave our heads well-buried in the sand until something happens that forces a response.  Suddenly, we are shocked... SHOCKED I say... that there is gambling going on this establishment. 

I am as big an ESPN fan as there is on the planet.  Our cable system gets five ESPN channels, and I have five separate ESPN apps on my smartphone.  I don't remember the last day I did not watch at least some SportsCenter.  My gripe here comes from a fan, not a critic.

If the names Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin don't mean anything to you, you can read the long version of the story here.  The short version is that these Miami Dolphins teammates are in the news because Incognito was mean to Martin, "bullying" him with threats and racial slurs and perhaps overtones of more kinds of discrimination.

I certainly do not defend Incognito. What he said and did was wrong.  If the Dolphins choose to discipline him, that is their internal business.

But I am shocked... shocked I say ... at the self-righteous uproar that the media - and particularly ESPN - have brought to this story.  During last night's Monday Night Football broadcast and the immediately following SportsCenter, and then again on this morning's SportsCenter, the on-air talent could not have been more offended at the language used by Incognito.  Scott Van Pelt began to read the expletive-deleted transcript you can find in the story to which I have linked above and quit midsentence, exclaiming that it was so inappropriate he could just not go on.  The story was picked up with equal head shaking and tongue clicking by the Today Show this morning.

Again, I am not defending the language used, and I am fine with its not being repeated on TV.

But for the media to wonder about the use of such language and the choice of some people to adopt such a condescending and, yes, mean attitude towards others is quite astounding.  Have they not watched a movie in the last 25 years?  Do they watch cable television?  And remember, these are so-called sports journalists.  Have they never been in a locker room or on a practice field?

The shock is not that Incognito said what he said.  The surprise is not that people are mean to each other for the fun of it.  The shock and the issue are that we are surprised by it.  These attitudes and this language are commonplace, and the media is no doubt involved.  I am not taking a position here as to whether Hollywood sets our mores or reflects them - I expect it is some combination of the two - but nobody can debate that Hollywood and the media in general have reveled in this type of attitude, language, and relationship.

We live in an increasingly intolerant, mean, uncivilized society - and the way we speak to each other is at the forefront of the problem.  Before we stick our head back into the sand, we need to start addressing the cause of the problem.  That cause is that we don't love each other enough.  That cause is that we speak as though we were in a fight to the death, convinced that our words were our last line of self-defense.

I hope that my ESPN channels start addressing the issue of why the Richie Incognitos of the world behave badly, but I doubt they will.  I expect that they, like Renault, will slyly take their winnings and move on.  I do not expect the Today Show to address it meaningfully either, although they may have a psychologist or two on in the last hour of a slow news day.

The issue is for us, our families, our schools, and our churches.  The issue is how we treat one another.  The issue is as old as Cain and Abel.