Happy Thanksgiving with ISIS and Westboro Baptist Church

isis-in-iraq2  The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to destroy everything in its path, particularly the Christians and Yazidis in the region. Non-Muslim or Muslim, the Sunni terrorist group shows no mercy to those who do not agree with its interpretation of the Quran. We are all aware of the videos of ISIS partisans viciously beheading Western journalists and aid workers because of what they were: “Not one of us.”  Their message is, “We know the truth. We are on God’s side and are doing his will. You are infidels and worthy of death. We have the right and the responsibility to destroy you.”

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Back in America, Westboro Baptist Church, near Topeka, Kansas, applauds the beheadings as God’s means of killing American and British citizens for the sins of their nations. If you disagree with WBC, they won’t cut off your head but they do promise that God will (or something like that). They have a sign for you: “GOD HATES YOU.” I just watched it pop up on their website at www.godhatesfags.com. You can keep up with their running tally of how many “soldiers God has killed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” currently 6,838, and each one a cause for rejoicing, they say.

With so much hate and destruction, you’d think that the two organizations would cancel each other out. One celebrity from down under tried to make it happen.

When Australian comedian Adam Hills heard that the Baptist church was going to picket Robin William’s funeral, he’d had enough. He offered to pay for the Westboro protestors (and their signs) to travel first class to Iraq and protest ISIS. Westboro accepted his offer.

Many people sent in money to help get the protestors to Iraq but Hills expected that the Baptist group was only bluffing. He decided to donate the money to the “Remembering Robin” fund at St. Jude’s Hospital, a work that Williams actively supported. Maybe Don King will organize the clash of the century between ISIS and Westboro Baptist.

These existence of these two groups jolts all of us into a realization of how fragile our world is. The combination of falsehood, hate and power has shown itself to be destructive in every case. We are blessed to have the ability to see the dangers but we must be vigilant. Even well-meaning Christians find themselves paralleling the agendas of the Islamists.

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It begins when we ask people, “What are you?” rather than, “Who are you?”  The minute we say that, we start down the same road of ungodly dehumanizing.

Giving Thanks

Whenever we are overwhelmed and uncertain it is time to give thanks. And I am thankful for a number of blessings:

  1. I am thankful that we live in a country where ISIS-like extremists cannot march into our towns and murder those who do not bow to their authority. It is the benefit of a free society.
  2. I am thankful that we live in a country where extremists like Westboro Baptist Church can march into our towns and wave their signs to freely express their hate. It is the price of a free society.
  3. I am thankful that last week many students at Texas A&M University allowed Westboro Baptist to protest the school’s “broken moral compass,” and overwhelmed them with their own signs expressing love, unity and freedom. They wanted to give them the right to express their views but they wanted to express theirs, too.
  4. I am thankful that God doesn’t hate me.
  5. I am thankful that Christ’s message of “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you” trumps the terror of ISIS and the hate-filled aberration of Christianity displayed by WBC.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving.

A Life of Successful Failures

KobeLos Angeles Laker guard Kobe Bryant just achieved what may appear to be a dubious honor: he has missed more shots than any player in the history of the National Basketball Association. Last Tuesday in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Bryant missed his 13,418 shot, surpassing Hall of Famer and Boston Celtic, John Havlicek.

Bryant doesn’t seem too concerned – he is in good company. Besides Havlicek, the players that shot the most bricks include Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michael Jordan.

Planning to Fail?

Not long ago I spoke to a university basketball team before a big game. The first thing I said was to ask each of the starting players how many shots they planned on missing in the game. They each looked at me as if I had insulted them (I had). Everyone one of them said, “None.” All players go into the game with the intention of making every shot. But they don’t. Basketball players who make half their shots are considered great shooters. That’s right. Making 50% is a tough achievement if you are an outside player. Kobe Bryant has not made half of his shots. Neither did Michael Jordan, John Havlicek, or Larry Bird.  But they were (and are) incredible players.

In high school, I remember seeing a sign in my coach’s office that read: “Babe Ruth Struck Out 1,330 Times.”  A reminder that even the greatest legends of a game had many moments of failure.

BabeRuthRuth was fond of saying, “Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back.”  We remember Babe Ruth as the greatest hitter in baseball history: 714 home runs and a .342 batting average. Nobody comes close to his combination of power and skill. We’ll remember Kobe Bryant in a similar way. A clutch player. A leader and a champion. Five times he has led the Lakers to the NBA championship.

Ruth and Bryant stayed at it long enough, swinging away and shooting, to accumulate lots of statistics that don’t tell the full story.  They are in a small class of elite athletes. They knew that success arises out of faithfulness and failure.

Failure is not an option

Why are we so hard on people who make a mistake, stumble, or misspeak? The custom now is to laugh, say, “What a (fill in derisive noun)!” and stamp “FAIL” across their lives. We lob our own bricks at them.

And we wonder why so many young people today struggle with taking any chances. The sickening feeling that comes with being laughed at is more than most adolescents (and teens and adults) can bare – paralyzed into a life that is safe and easy.

Christ loves us not in spite of our failures but because of them. That’s why the sinners, losers and marginalized were attracted to him. That’s why Peter’s continual failures didn’t prevent him from becoming the leader of the early church or giving his life in the service of Christ. There was nothing safe and easy about the way he lived or, for that matter, most of the early church.

Remember that many people at the time considered Christ’s life itself to be a failure – but only for a few days. His death for us and resurrection from the dead puts him in a class of one.

So, next time someone blows it, makes a mistake or even humiliates themselves, step up and build up. That’s how our Lord treats us. You be His heart, hand and voice.

And if it’s you that stumbles, remember the One who is your biggest fan. Like the prodigal son’s father, he wants to celebrate you because you come to him in your hurt and your despair. Failure is not an option. He’s already won.

 

 

“Culturally Relevant” Christians?

Dr. Brown, what do you mean when you say that Christians should be “Culturally Relevant?” 

Well, I don’t know because I’ve never said that.  I am not sure what it means to be “culturally relevant.” I understand the idea of being relevant which means being appropriate, suitable, or fitting. “Culturally” relevant seems to have the idea of being appropriate for a particular culture, which doesn’t sound all that bad.  However, if the accommodation to the culture is done indiscriminately, then we are not being relevant; we are assimilating to the culture – which is never good.

Zombi-ChristianOf course this question is really part of the “Christianity and culture” conflict Christians have confronted for two millennia. There has never been an agreement on what course of action is the most biblical. One approach calls for believers to withdraw from popular culture and refuse to dignify any value in non-biblical and anti-biblical cultural expressions. After all, it is argued, aren’t we called to “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor. 6:37)?

Another approach is the afore-mentioned uncritical assimilation, an approach that is theologically flawed but widely practiced.

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Salt and Light

How far do we take being salt and light in the world in an attempt to “understand the times?” When the Apostle Paul stated that he “became all things to all men so that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:19-22,) he mentioned ways he tried to think like those to whom he was ministering. He wanted to understand the perspective of the unbeliever so that he could build a bridge for them to Jesus Christ.

But the challenge to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) presents us with a great opportunity to influence our culture for Christ. Every movie or song reflects a worldview. They are telling us what to believe and how to live. Most are an expression of meaning and purpose in the world that, rightly or wrongly, is a human endeavor. By understanding these attempts we are looking into the heart of those who are seeking to find significance without Christ. How can we build a bridge for them to Christ? How can we become “all things to all men” without losing our distinctive Christian identity?

We see Paul putting this principle into practice several times. For example, in Acts 13:13ff, he speaks to the Jews about Christ and draws extensively from Old Testament history and teaching as the proof that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Four chapters later in Athens (Acts 17:16ff), he spoke to a non-Jewish audience and accommodated his words to their culture. There he confronted a culture that oozed with pluralism. Athens, the cradle of early democracy, was not only a center for trade but also a marketplace for ideas. Luke describes the city as the place where people met to do “nothing but talk about and listen to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21)—a First Century news talk show.

The commercial center of Athens, the agora, was crowded with temples and monuments to the gods of the Greeks: Kybele, the mother of the gods; Ares, the god of war, Apollos, Athena, and scores more. The Greek portrayal in these places of worship celebrated the vileness of the deities. The gods lied, murdered, pillaged, and raped. Their places of worship depicted their degradation in detail—vile, immoral, and pornographic. The Greek agora was so congested with these monuments that the emperor was forced to finance the building of a new Roman agora to accommodate the growing commercial needs of Athens.

As Paul strolled through the city he did not idly peruse the sights, he “carefully examined” their objects of worship. The immorality and violence of many displays were blatant. But Paul was not shocked or offended; he was provoked (the NIV translates the word “greatly distressed”). His heart was broken, his spirit grieved. The idolatry and immorality of the Athenians so exasperated Paul that he engaged them in discussion in the local synagogue, the marketplace, and finally was invited to the Aeropagus.

When Paul spoke to the cultured Athenians, he did not abuse them for their immorality, rather he commended them for their religiosity (Acts 17:22). He even quoted from pagan poets, the Cretan Epimenides and the Stoic Aratus, in order to prove his points. In a fascinating example of reinterpretation, Paul changed their poetic references about Zeus to apply to God!

Once he drew together their obvious quest for truth, Paul challenged them with the reality of God’s plan and their need to turn to Him. Some were persuaded; some wanted to hear more; some sneered and left.  Sounds like today!

Engaging the Culture

Today in our culture, we confront our own Athenian agora. In popular entertainment culture, for example, we see: the hard nihilism of Kill Bill or John Wick and the soft nihilism of Seinfeld and its children; the cynicism of most adult animated shows, and the hedonism of most of the youth oriented movies and shows. Add to this the influence of music and the potentially mind-numbing experiences of gaming and social media.

These are the parables and poetry of our culture today. Many represent an authentic attempt to explain the world from their perspective. Hidden behind the blatant immorality or subtle spiritualism are strong religious statements. Do we withdraw because our Christian sensibilities are insulted or do we engage because we are grieved and our hearts are broken?

The internet provides many ways to learn and understand all we want about the movies, shows, music, games, and all of the icons of current popular culture. It takes time and effort but we, in the spirit of the Apostle Paul, need to “carefully examine” the rapidly multiplying altars of worship in our society.

How prepared is the average Christian to understand and engage these purveyors of worldview thinking? Not everyone is called to serve Christ in this way; but we need to be praying for those who do.

I, for one, want all the information I can find. Not that I can be entertained but that I can be edified to engage our culture with the mind and heart of Christ.

 

POSTSCRIPT: Popular culture tends to trivialize everything. Even the most important issues of life can be made light of while serious thought settles on trifling topics related to celebrities or self-interest. This makes me think of a statement by Robert Hutchins, famed scholar and chancellor at the University of Chicago:

“It is not so important to be serious as it is to be serious about the important things. The monkey wears an expression of seriousness which would do credit to any college student, but the monkey is serious because he itches.”

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What Eminem can teach us

I was a guest on the national radio program, Dawson McAllister Live, hosted by Dawson McAllister (hence the name of the program). Dawson is an incredible voice of faith for many who need someone to talk to about their struggles. Teenagers and young adults call from all over the country to talk about problems in their lives. The topic turned to the music scene and Sarah, a twelve-year old girl from Nebraska, called in to say that she listens to Eminem’s music every night as she goes to sleep. She wanted to know if it was OK to listen to him.

Then she described her life: her parents separated a year before and neither of them wanted to be responsible for her. They shipped her off to her grandparents in Nebraska who didn’t really want her either. She felt alone at her new school and she tried to get involved with a church youth group but no one seemed interested in making friends with an outsider.

The sense of abandonment, self-hatred, and anger were overwhelming. That’s when she first heard hip-hop star, Eminem, whose aggressive lyrics arise from his own dysfunctional life and relationships. Listening to him “. . . makes me feel like I am not alone,” she said. “He understands what I’m going through and he’s not going to let other people’s hate get him down. He gives me hope.”

Sarah was not the first pre-teenager to tell me this. In trying to encourage her, I started to wonder why a twelve-year-old girl could only find the support she needed from a rap artist named Eminem.

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Eminem?

Eminem is the stage name for Marshall Bruce Mathers III. Raised by his mother in a single-parent home, they were on the move constantly before they finally settled in a largely African- American suburb of Detroit when he was eleven. He grew up a loner and found himself on the receiving end of bullying and beatings. Once, he was beaten so badly at school that he suffered a serious head injury. Prompting his mother to file a lawsuit against the school.

Mathers’ life of alcohol, drugs and violence and then subsequent rise to fame as a performer is a fascinating story, particularly as a white man in a predominantly black industry. He has won 13 Grammys and is near the top of best-selling artists in history having sold over 45 million albums and 30 million digital singles.

Hip Hop Culture

When Mathers started rapping, the Hip Hop culture had already been around for a decade. It was born in the African American and Latin neighborhoods in the South Bronx and quickly spread to urban centers around the US. While rap music is the dominant expression of Hip Hop culture, it is just one of the “four pillars” of Hip Hop. The other three are breakdancing, graffiti art and DJing.

As Hip Hop culture has gone mainstream, it has morphed into a corporate paradise of endorsements and celebrity lifestyles.

The criticisms of Hip Hop culture center on its endorsement of violence, misogyny, drug/alcohol abuse, and criminal activity. “Gangsta Rap” and the “Thug Life” glorified by some performers belittle positive approaches to dealing with personal and social issues.  Entertainer Bill Cosby constantly rails against this element within Hip Hop claiming that it “brings young (black) people down.”

Many within the Hip Hop community complain that too many artists are more concerned with image over substance. Christian Rap artist, Trip Lee, describes the influence that the music had on his life. It wasn’t just the language and sexual imagery that made an impact on him but the underlying views toward life.

imgres  “Yes, I had the clean version, so my ears were shielded from the foul language, but not from all harm. There is no edited version that removes worldviews . . . They were lecturing me about what my aspirations should be and what is most important in the world. . . . I was a star pupil. I ate it up. . . If I wanted the good life, I needed the money, the cars and the girls.”

Filling a Crying Need?

If we can set aside the criticisms of the destructive elements of Hip Hop for a moment, I want to get back to twelve-year-old Sarah for a moment. What she was experiencing was a triple dose of rejection and the insecurity and helplessness that accompanies it. The adolescent years are difficult enough without the added struggles of family dysfunction and social alienation. So how does Hip Hop fit into her life?

One aspect of Hip Hop culture often overlooked is the importance of backstory. Most performers have a life-story that defines their identity and gives them authenticity.

Pop music is the opposite.  Pop musicians look for catchy songs good enough to make people pay to own them. These disembodied tunes and lyrics usually reveal nothing about the lives of the performers.

But initially, Rap music communicated explicitly to the disenfranchised, an underlying theme that still pervades much of the industry. Social credibility (“street cred”) is a crucial element of a performer’s ability to be accepted as one speaking from his heart about overcoming the deprivations of urban, minority life. In other words, the performer is a co-participant in the struggles and openly vents his emotions. Those in the community resonate with the performer who vicariously gives voice to their own frustrations, anger and pain.

Rap music overflows it borders and has massive appeal. Not only does it attract huge corporate dollars but almost 80% of the audience is white. While the majority culture does not understand the context, it experiences the same inner need for individual affirmation and expression. Perceived rejection fires up a survival response to fight back. The urban struggle becomes a metaphor for being lost and powerless in an uncertain world.

Rapper KRS-One responds to this phenomenon:

“Well, rap music, and I will say hip-hop culture in and of itself, but rap music as its calling card, offers to young white males a sense of rebellion, freedom, manhood, courage. That’s what it means when you see a 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg or someone on television just blatantly defying the law and doin’ what they’re doin’.

“No one sees the thug and the criminal. They see courage.”

Jesus Walks . . . 

Jesus embodied rebellion, freedom, manhood, and courage.  The disenfranchised swarmed Jesus. He gave dignity to the individual regardless of social standing, gender, or race.

Unfortunately, much of our Christian culture demands conformity, conformity, conformity, and conformity.

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Often, it is the kind of conformity that is not interested in your struggles, your pain, your doubts or fears; or even your gifts, your strengths, your talents and your interests. It is the type of conformity that rewards you when you stop being yourself and become like everyone else. The same is true for school, work and society in general.

Fortunately, not every school and church is like this. Some take the affirmation of personal connections as seriously as Jesus did. They are placing an emphasis on reaching out with conversations and not merely presentations. As the Apostle Paul says, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a servant to everyone. . . ” (1 Corinthians 9:19).  His desire was to see them come to know the grace of Christ but only after humbly turning his full attention to “everyone” he met to serve them as Christ would.

Christian researcher Ed Stetzer said, “People are not looking for a friendly church. They are looking for a friend.”  They may end up bypassing a church to find a place (or a person) of real connection. They may be someone like Sarah.

Please, God, not Shia Labeouf, too!

Actor Shia LaBeouf is making news again. This time his remark, “I became a Christian man” (his full statement is below) has gone viral – mainly among the Christian news outlets but the mainstream is picking it up as an example of his recurring aberrant behavior.

I frequently mention that I pray daily for certain celebrities to come to Christ. The list is a long one. Sometimes I pray that God will bring a godly Christian into their sphere of influence to winsomely represent Christ to them. Film director and writer David Ayre was the answer for Shia Labeouf. Even fellow actor Brad Pitt played a part.

So when the news about Labeouf’s commitment to Christ came across the news wires, I was inundated with tweets, messages and emails from people who have heard me mention my prayers for him. His public profession of faith is big news. That’s why my first thought was, “Oh, God, please not Shia LaBeouf, too!”

HIS PAST

Actor Shia Labeouf began making news after his Disney years (1996-2006) with the worldwide cinematic explosion of Transformers (2007).  While his acting career has received mostly positive but mixed reviews, his films are huge at the box office. Brad Pitt recently said in an interview that LaBeouf is one of the greatest actors he has ever seen.

LaBeouf is introspective but ironically in a public way. His attempt to “find himself” has taken him through public displays of angst and public drunkenness. Among his most well-known examples of peculiar behavior are wearing a bag on his head bearing the words “I am not famous anymore” at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and his very public meltdown inside and outside a Broadway theater in June.

ShiaLebeoufBag7 He was most transparent in a 2009 interview with Parade magazine: “Sometimes I feel like I’m living a meaningless life and I get frightened . . . I have no idea where this insecurity comes from, but it’s a God-sized hole. If I knew, I’d fill it and I’d be on my way. . . I have no answers to anything. None. Why am I an alcoholic? I haven’t a clue! What is life about? I don’t know. . . . The best I can do is learn from my mistakes and move forward. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

I have enjoyed him as an actor but I have been most impressed with Labeouf’s transparency. His openness and honesty about his insecurities are often gut-wrenching. He protests the superficiality of celebrity culture and how it rots the soul. His search for truth and meaning has been on display and he asks the important questions that every seeker asks privately. In the past, he has considered himself Jewish and later as “confused” by religion.

And now he says he found God.

HIS PRESENT

In a recent conversation with Interview magazine, Shia Labeouf talked about his commitment to Christ during the filming of his recently released film.

brad-pitt-und-shia-labeouf-stehen-stocksteif-nebeneinander  “I found God doing Fury. I became a Christian man, and not in a #*%! way—in a very real way. I could have just said the prayers that were on the page. But it was a real thing that really saved me. And you can’t identify unless you’re really going through it. It’s a full-blown exchange of heart, a surrender of control. And while there’s beauty to that, acting is all about control. So that was a wild thing to navigate. I had good people around me who helped me. Brad [Pitt] was really instrumental in guiding my head through this. Brad comes from a hyper-religious, very deeply Christian, Bible Belt life, and he rejected it and moved toward an unnamed spirituality. He looked at religion like the people’s opium, almost like a Marxist view on religion. Whereas [Fury writer-director] David [Ayers] is a full subscriber to Christianity. But these two diametrically opposed positions both lead to the same spot.”

Is this just another foray into finding himself? I take his statements at face-value. To do any less is to miss the whole point of grace. The Prodigal Son did not have to fill out an application before he fell into his father’s arms.

That being said, we know many people who struggle for years coming to grips with knowing and understanding the ways of God and the journey as His child.  The near future brings important decisions and commitments for Shia Labeouf as a “Christian man,” a follower of Christ.

HIS FUTURE

If his transformation is the real thing, I pray that he will grow in his faith and love for God. Like everyone else, Shia Labeouf will face challenges to his now-public faith. Unlike everyone else, it is possible that he will be coddled, cajoled and even worshipped by the Christian establishment to “share his story.” If this happens, it will be no change for him. The entertainment celebrity world is shallow, empty, and where he was used by others. The Christian celebrity world is shallow, empty and he will be used by others.

The past 60 years of modern Christian culture is littered with celebrity converts who hit the road with a conversion story only to walk away from the faith.

Jesus warned us about this happening. He told a story about seed sown on different types of soil – an allegory representing how the message of Christ is received in different ways (Luke 8:5-15).  Two give a serious caution for Shia Labeouf.

Some of the message (seed) fell on rocky soil. The rocky soil are the ones who “. . . received the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing, they fall away” (8:12).

And some of the message (seed) fell among thorns. The thorns are the ones who hear and receive the message, “. . . but as they go on their way, they are choked by life’s worries, or riches and pleasures, and they do not mature” (8:14).

And so I pray, “God, please not Shia Lebeouf!”

Pray that Shia Lebeouf will get good counsel, great community, and lively, biblical mentoring. It takes time. Even the Apostle Paul was off the public circuit for years after his conversion to Christ.

If I could have a word with Shia Labeouf, I would say:

“The next months are crucial. Keep your eyes on Christ. The Southern Baptists will want you. The televangelists on TBN will want you. Even Robert Schuller, wherever he is, might want you.

But so will David Letterman, Bill Maher, Charlie Rose, and the ladies of The View.

Just say, no. 

Spend time with mature Christians who will love you and help you see that your life is a love story written by the Great Author. Serve others and let Him love through you.   

And keep making movies. Show the world the difference Christ makes in a life well-lived. Don’t preach, pontificate, or take positions. Don’t get defined by your birth but by your life.

And for the sake of all that is holy, don’t be like us. 

Be like Him.”

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Q&A: Why are Protestants so opposed to Crucifixes?

I promised to answer questions and have not been able to follow-up as much as I would like. So, I am taking them one at a time and giving a brief response that I hope will spur on further thinking and researching. 

QUESTION: Dr. Brown, I have seen a lot of my Christian friends wearing crucifixes for jewelry. I thought this was a Catholic thing and none of them are Catholic. But what I really want to understand is why Protestants are so opposed to them.

More younger Christians are wearing crucifixes these days. I think the Catholic/Protestant differences passed them by and they find the symbol of Christ on the cross to be a bold statement of faith. 16_inch_crucifix

The crucifix (literally, “(one) fixed to a cross”) is associated with Catholics but is also prevalent among Orthodox and the more liturgical traditions. Bare crosses are common with all Christians.

Many who wear crosses and crucifixes have no religious intention. The earliest Christians would never have thought it proper to wear a cross. The most obvious symbol at the time for followers of Christ was the fish (ixthys in Greek), the name being a clever acronym for Christ (“Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”) as well as a sign of Christians’ call to be fishers of men.But, today, even the sign of the fish has become a cliché.Christian_fish_symbol

Some Protestants reject the crucifix for two main reasons. They will say . . .

  1. . . The crucifix represents a dead or dying Christ and the Christian’s hope is in the risen Christ. The cross is empty, they proclaim. The obsession with Christ on the cross only communicates part of the Gospel message; and,
  2. . . The Old Testament is clear that there are to be no images as religious objects: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Deuteronomy 5:8). A crucifix is image of the Savior from heaven.

Those who have no problem with crucifixes will answer . . .

  1. . . Indeed, the cross of Christ is empty but so are the crosses of the thieves who were crucified with him. The key is that Christ’s grave is empty. He is risen. The image of Christ on the cross echoes the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2); and,
  2. . . The Old Testament teachings on the making of images focuses on objects for worship. It seems that many who reject crucifixes have no problems with crèches where Christ is portrayed as a baby in a manger. I guess age matters.manger

There is broad history of violent disagreements among the Reformers on this issue. They could not even agree among themselves about whether or not to use crucifixes.

I hope this helps. Blessings!

Ebola and the Christian: A Light on Radical Christianity

“You can download an app here and see how close the Ebola virus is to you.  The creators of the ‘Ebola near me’ app intended it to calm your Ebola fears.”

 The confusing Ebola crisis has shone a light on the reality that many of Africa’s poorest and neediest are receiving medical treatment from (gasp!) missionaries. See, for example, Brian Palmer’s article in Slate, “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?” Not all of those serving the medical needs of Africa are Christian missionaries, but the number who are is impressive. They are everywhere.

Handout photo of Dr. Kent Brantly speaking with colleagues at the case management center on the campus of ELWA Hospital in Monrovia Missionary doctors have been treating Ebola victims in Africa for decades in sub-Sahara Africa. Why? Because they are the primary ones treating the people for every disease. They have always been there. The reason the West is even talking about Ebola is that the virus has the potential to spread quickly and infect people outside of Africa – us.  Otherwise, would we care?

These doctors and nurses in Africa are not just your run of the mill missionaries (if there is such a thing) but well-qualified, highly-trained medical practitioners who leave behind high paying practices to serve long hours in difficult conditions for those who cannot afford to pay them. Most of them are providing the only medical care available for hundreds of miles in any direction.

Sounds crazy.

“Idiotic!” Ann Coulter calls them.

But they are motivated by Christ, who did the same thing. Jesus “healed every disease” (Matthew 9:35). He told us that loving him meant loving those who have needs, even if they are strangers (Luke 10:30-37). The one called “the disciple Jesus loved” wrote, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17).

Jesus said, “Follow me,” and these health professionals really believe he meant it.

For most of their lives, they serve in obscurity. Now, they are on the front lines and the front page.

Christians: Under the Radar

Christians seem to show up sacrificially serving without much PR support.

For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross issued an appeal for 40,000 more volunteers to come to Louisiana and Mississippi to aid those suffering from the devastation. The appeal was ignored . . .  except that thousands of Christian groups were already there or on their way.

katrinaBritish journalist (and atheist), Roy Hattersley surveyed the destruction post-Katrina and was surprised to see so many Christians groups working to help. In his article for The Guardian, he wrote, “Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations – the sort of people who not only scoff at religion’s intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.”

Christians, he acknowledged, “. . . are the most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others.”

But this is nothing new. Followers of Christ aren’t out to win points with the media – or with God.  They just show up when tragedy strikes.

And the most terrorizing tragedies come from pandemics that kill indiscriminately and mercilessly. Albert Camus’ classic novel, The Plague, describes a closed city ravaged by plague and the hopelessness of the people fighting against it. Most see his work as an allegory on the irrationality of life in the face of suffering and certain death. He draws on the long history of humanity’s impotent battle against disease.

Terror goes Viral

“The doctors are quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods.”

This is not current criticism of medical treatment in the Ebola crisis but an observation made by Thucydides in 431 BC. The plague that ravaged Athens at that time was catastrophic. Thucydides writes that those afflicted “. . . died with no one to look after them; indeed there are many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention…. the bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.”

What sounds like an episode of The Living Dead was a reality for the Athenians who saw tens of thousands die, religious faith diminished, and public morality ignored. During the time of the plague, Pericles, the father of modern democracy, died (ca. 429 BC). The war with Sparta was compromised and the Golden Age of Athens faded.

Plagues continued to devastate Europe for centuries and medical practice struggled to even care for those afflicted. Science eventually caught up with the causes but only after millions had died from typhus, smallpox, measles, syphilis, bubonic plague, or a number of infectious diseases.

Health practitioners of the time could offer no solutions to the plagues. The most well-known figures in the history of medicine, Hippocrates (ca. 460-370 BC) and Galen (AD 129-216), gave the same advice when it came to plagues:  “Leave quickly, go far away and come back slowly.”

Dionysius (AD 260) writes that people were so terrified of diseases that they abandoned even their own loved ones:

“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead  . . .”

But in these early centuries after Christ, followers of Christ across the Roman Empire took a different approach. Dionysius goes on to describe how the followers of Christ “behaved in the very opposite way:”

“Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected with the disease . . .”                                                                                               

A century later, the Roman Emperor Julian (AD 362) complained that those Christians (he called them Galileans) were still at it:

“The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Go and Do Likewise

Today, Christians have such little impact on society that journalists are surprised when they find them doing something worthwhile. We have been busy putting “sinners” in their place and arranging the furniture of our lives. All the while thinking we are serving Christ. But political agendas, social outrage and finger-wagging lectures only create a fog that obscures the Gospel.

We have a great legacy from those who heard Jesus say, “Go and do likewise:”

From the Good Samaritan who gave up time and money for one who was helpless and in need to Dr. Kent Brantley who almost gave up his life for the same. And many are asking “What do you believe that makes you live like this?”

And we get to tell them.

A friend was traveling through India with his son and arrived in Calcutta. They started in the city center and began walking through the streets with a local acquaintance. Almost immediately, the human tragedy that is synonymous with Calcutta assaulted their senses. The further they walked the more the squalor and stench pressed upon them. They were overwhelmed.

calcuttaMy friend turned to their companion and said, “This is heartbreaking. Don’t the Hindus take care of these people?”
He replied, “No. The Hindu people consider them unclean. They say they are receiving what they deserve for their past.”

Knowing there was a significant Muslim population in India my friend asked, “How about the Muslims?”

Their companion shook his head. “No. The Muslims also considered them unclean and cursed by Allah.”

Frustrated, my friend said, “Does anybody care for these people.”

The man stopped and looked at him for a moment then said quietly, “The Christians. Only the Christians.”

The NFL and Celebrity Culture: A Losing Battle?

Ray+Rice+New+York+Giants+v+Baltimore+Ravens+5cbrkMDrJOVl   Until recently, the behaviors most punished in professional sports were the use of performance enhancing drugs followed by altering game equipment and gambling. Cheating in the game was held to a higher standard than cheating on your wife and family.

But now, the recent crackdown on bad behavior by professional athletes begins to slowly open the door to the darkness of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other acts of inappropriate aggression. The reasons for these actions go much deeper into their family background, early choices, and the adulation they received as performers. Drawing the line on off the field behavior is a step in the right direction, but sadly what it really shows is how morally inept our culture has become.

“Celebrity:” Public and Private?

“I don’t care what he does in his private life. I just need him to score touchdowns.”

When I heard this I was reminded of how “celebrity” can be the most dehumanizing status in America. Athletes perform on the field or the floor; actors perform on the stage or the screen. As long as they produce, they have value. When they stop producing, they are shunted aside to make way for another.

The celebrity label does have benefits for the ego and the bank account. And it usually provides cover for private moral choices. As long as a celebrity’s personal life is not spotted by socially unacceptable vices, most can live as they want.

Even politicians find themselves with quasi-celebrity status. They are adored or defamed because of their party affiliation and their views on social issues. Their private life? It depends. If he or she is “one of us” they usually get a pass on most moral failures.

Think Bill Clinton. He was vilified by the right for his sexual indiscretions but tolerated by his political friends:

“What he does in his private life is a matter between him and his wife.”
“Everyone lies about sex.”

I flew to South America just as the Monica Lewinsky affair exploded. I thought I was leaving the scandal behind but then I saw a prominent billboard just outside the Bogota airport that pictured President Clinton and five of the woman who claimed they had been targets of his unfettered libido.

I didn’t recognize the Spanish on the sign and asked the cab driver what it said. “It’s an advertisement for a bank,” he said laughing.

I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Later on that same trip, I flew to a speaking engagement in Medellin, the home town of the most notorious cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. One evening, a few friends and I grabbed a taxi and asked the driver to give us a “Pablo Escobar tour” of Medellin. He proudly showed us where Pablo was born, the apartments, schools and hospitals he constructed, the buildings that housed his extensive collection of classic autos, and where he was gunned down (many Colombians still are bitter toward the US for our involvement in his assassination, our driver told us). He is a legend in the city. Escobar did much good with his billions by caring for many of the impoverished in western Colombia, but with money from his international cocaine cartel?

I said to the driver, “I know you admire Pablo Escobar, but he ruined the lives of millions of people around the world with his drug empire.”

He shrugged. “That was his private life. In public he was always good to us.”

The divide between public and private is even true among some Christian celebrities, while not quite at the Pablo Escobar level. I’ve worked with quite a number of well-known speakers and entertainers in the Christian world. Some shine on the stage or behind the pulpit but in their personal life, well . . .

I will leave it at that. God uses them publicly but I think they are priests after the order of Balaam’s donkey.

A Culture of Excellence?

We miss the mark when we allow a culture to exist that rewards public celebrity and excuses lack of character. Punishing bad behavior is a move in the right direction, but it is only a start. The whole person must be addressed in positive ways that equip them with the moral courage and spiritual resources to make good decisions and live well.

The substantive people of old were people noted for their excellence – arête, in Greek. Their excellence manifested itself in battle, in the arena and in everyday life. Arete played a strategic role in the education of youth that included physical, mental, spiritual, and moral training. Such people, then, were not merely following ethical rules of conduct but embodied the classic virtues of courage, temperance, prudence and justice. Christians affirmed these and added three more – faith, hope and love – to comprise the seven cardinal virtues.

In the fifth century BC, the Sophist Prodicus told a story of Arete personified as a maiden. The young hero Heracles encountered her and Kakia (“evil’) at a crossroads. Kakia offered him wealth and pleasure. Arete offered him glory and a life of struggle against evil. Heracles chose the way of Arete.

Maybe we can create a culture of excellence where our young men and women choose the path of glory – God’s glory, in our case – and choose to struggle against evil, not give in to it.

 

russell-wilson-seahawks  Can it be done? Of course, from the inside out. A few days ago, Seattle Seahawk’s quarterback Russell Wilson admitted to being a bully when he was younger. “I used to beat people up,” he wrote for a new website called ThePlayersTribune.com. “I used to beat people up a lot. Many of you readers probably think I have been Mr. Goody Two-Shoes my whole life, but honestly, I was a bully growing up. In elementary and middle school, I threw kids against the wall. I rubbed their heads in the dirt at recess. I bit them. I even knocked teeth out.”

“I had a lot of anger that I didn’t know what to do with,” Wilson wrote. “Thankfully, I was saved by my faith when I was 14 years old and was able to start living for others instead of just myself.”

Paul tells us, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent (arête) or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:9-9).

A life of excellence is a battle; but with the proper preparation, tools and colleagues, it doesn’t have to be a losing one.

Bud Light and the Meaning of Life

If you’ve watched any football games the last few days you’ve seen the new Bud Light ad campaign for this season. The commercials show a town overflowing with celebration: a parade, a concert with Lil Jon and Vanilla Ice, circus animals, dancing, romancing, and lots of Bud Light.

whateverThe town in the commercial is Crested Butte, Colorado, and for half a million dollars from Budweiser it became “Whatever, USA” for a weekend (September 5-7). The advertisers took over the town, painted it blue, brought in the entertainers and circus, and then turned loose over a thousand Bud Light fans flown in especially for the revelry. And if the free flow of beer wasn’t enough, the legal marijuana stores provided the merrymakers another high light to the 50 hour party.

The event furnished Budweiser with advertising content for their “The Perfect Beer for Whatever Happens” campaign; a campaign that over-promises and under-delivers. All of us can imagine a lot of “whatever happens” events where Bud Light would not be the “Perfect Beer.”

Just look at the headlines.

But then the uncertainties of our time may make the ad campaign spot on. Americans sense a fear of the future, frustration with political feebleness, and futility in the current options. The young, who usually ignore national and international problems, are stuck in their own angst. For the first time in decades they see their prospects dimming. Numbed by the reality that working and studying hard no longer guarantee future success, they ask, why bother?

 

Another Generation Lost in Space

In many ways they parallel the “lost generation;” the youth who came of age during the first decades of the twentieth century. A generation that had been overwhelmed by the new technologies of the day and the dominance of scientism, they were staggered by the horrors of the First World War. Disoriented and directionless, they felt the ground beneath give way.

The Roaring Twenties accelerated this unsettledness and Prohibition did nothing to stem the flood of alienated revelry. It actually brought about an increase in alcohol consumption and a celebration of frivolousness. The age ended with explosive crashes; first on Wall Street and then at Pearl Harbor.

The parallels with today’s culture are not seamless but the disaffection is pervasive. We see it among Christian youth who are leaving the church in huge numbers. Some are drifting away, some are running as fast as they can. They have become like sheep without a shepherd; harassed and helpless.

Some have run to other religions and others have sought out any place that may give some hope. The tragedy is that too many just stop caring. They have not turned to atheism but to apatheism – acting with apathy and lack of interest toward anything meaningful about life. The answer to every important question is, Whatever.

 

Intellectual “Whatever”

It is not just beer companies and celebrities that promote the “whatever” mindset. The most recent issue of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine includes an article on the meaning of life titled: “What’s the point? The Big Question.” They asked well-known authors to respond to that question and unsurprisingly their answers fall into the “whatever” category.

IL_Cover_Sept_Oct_14_RGBRichard Dawkins says the cosmos is pointless. Poet John Burnside says simply that the answer to, “What does it all mean?” is “Nothing.” He goes on to explain, “There is no universal formula or divine plan – no ‘all’ – that can make individual lives meaningful.”

For Philip Pullman (author of The Golden Compass, etc.), our purpose is to “leave the universe a little more conscious than when we found it.” I have to sleep on that one.

Philosopher Mary Midgley says our purpose is “the welfare, success and prosperity of whatever cause, or whatever people, we most love, honour and wish to be a part of.” At least she honestly includes the word “whatever” (twice).

Novelist Michael Crichton adds, “The purpose of life is to stay alive. Watch any animal in nature – all it tries to do is stay alive. It doesn’t care about beliefs or philosophy.”

The best they can do at agreeing on an overall purpose for humanity, they tell us, is to quote Charles Darwin: we exist “to pass on our genes.”

 

So What?

Agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell acknowledged, “Unless you assume the existence of God, the question of life’s meaning and purpose is irrelevant.”

He’s right. And assuming either God’s existence or non-existence follows the same path of exercising faith/examining evidence. It is not only believers who choose their faith, atheist and NYU professor Thomas Nagel admitted the personal inclination in his own beliefs about God:  “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God . . . I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

God has given us freedom, but freedom untethered from truth can be destructive. Unbounded freedom for one can be bondage for everyone else.

On the big stage, now dominated by ISIS, Gaza, Ebola, and Ukraine, God’s oversight is questioned. But history and Scripture show us that nations, conflicts and tragedies move in ways that affirm humanity’s sinfulness and the earth’s brokenness. Neither of which are a surprise to God nor an impediment to his plan. There is no panic in heaven.

At the personal level, we too easily blame God into oblivion when our lives go badly.  But we are reminded, “A person’s own folly leads to their ruin, yet their heart rages against the Lord” (Proverbs 19:3).

In a culture sanitized from the awareness of God, it is not surprising that among our youth despair is the dominant mood. Educator Neil Postman noted, “Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention”

But there is reason to hope. Every day, 77,000 people across the world are turning to Christ. Most of them are young. Christ’s good news is being seen for what it is: hope in a world of despair. And slowly young people are beginning to take on the mantle of those who came before.

As in the first centuries when Christians conquered an Empire by their compassionate service and commitment to Christ, there is a tsunami of stories where people are giving, sacrificing and dying in service to Christ and others. They don’t have the full picture, but they know what they are supposed to do. They are serving sacrificially everywhere, even in Iraq and Syria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ukraine and Russia, China and India. They bravely face whatever comes their way.

That’s a “whatever” we can celebrate.

LeSean McCoy and Radical Tipping

So LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles tipped the wait staff 20 cents on a $61.56 tab at PYT because they disrespected him and his guests.  The blowback of this was fast and furious but McCoy was undeterred. He needed to teach them a lesson. The service is bad but the food is good, he said. They need to do better and he is not going to reward what doesn’t deserve it. [just a side thought here: maybe the Eagles should recompense their players by how they perform each game. Think of the money they would save!]

Even if the story of disrespect and bad service is true, the story is a sad commentary on how we treat each other. If McCoy really wanted to teach the wait staff something he could have talked to them like  adults. He has the most influential bully pulpit in the country – a rich, famous celebrity athlete. He can influence people profoundly by his words and admonition.

As for followers of Christ, we should be the biggest tippers of all. We should be known for our generosity and kindness. Why? Because that’s how God treats us.

Someone criticized me once for  saying that and asked me how I tip when I get bad service.

“I give them even more,” I said.

“That’s stupid,” he responded. “The server doesn’t deserve it.”

“It’s grace,” I said. “Neither do we.”