Monday, April 30, 2012

An Enemy Worth Hating

Here is the fact: We don't quite know what to do about death.
A couple of weeks ago a horrific tragedy occurred in the lives of some people I know up in Oregon. They lost their 18-month old daughter in a tractor accident. While I did not know the family well, the accident hit me really hard. It also brought out to me the reality that we as human beings waver between two extremes when it comes to dealing with death.
The first extreme is to avoid death. If I am honest, I practiced this in some ways. When I got the news (via facebook) I prayed for the family, but I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone. My wife and I didn't talk about it until a couple days later when she got the news. It was as if talking about it would make it more real. Talking about it brought the tragic nature of the event home in a way that made me really uncomfortable.
Many of us are similarly uncomfortable with death. We're afraid of it. We want to keep it as far away from us as possible. We avoid funerals. We respond with jokes when serious subjects come up. We do all that we can to disguise the signs of aging. Our fear drives us to denial and renders us incapable of dealing with the reality of death.
The second extreme is to sanitize death. We do all that we can to lessen the horror of death. We say things like, "She's still with us in spirit," and "Death is just a passage to the next life." We say that there is no reason to mourn at funerals; just celebrate the person who has moved on.
Neither of these extremes reflect the Christian perspective. Death should be neither avoided nor sanitized. It shouldn't be sanitized because it is a real enemy. It shouldn't be avoided because it is a defeated enemy.
In 1 Thessalonians 4 the Apostle Paul says that believers should not grieve as those who have no hope. He doesn't say that we shouldn't grieve. We should. Death is terrible. It separates us from love ones. And enough of the silliness of saying that they are still with us. They aren't. Death is horrible and grief is appropriate. Jesus certainly thought so; he wept and groaned with grief at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11). When we stand over the casket of a child (or the casket of anyone), we should hate death. We should sense the horror of it and be repulsed and grieved. But the grief is not that of an irretrievable loss. It is not a grief without consolation.
And, for the record, the hope is better than we give it credit for. In that passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul doesn't say that we can grieve hopefully because our loved ones are in a better place. He says that we can grieve hopefully because they will be raised. There will be a reunion. Life will win out over death for those who have embraced Jesus and his gift of life.
Death is a defeated enemy because of the resurrection of Jesus. But it still remains an enemy. Its sting in removed because it does not have the final word. But its presence still brings bitter grief as we experience separation from people we love. 
Death is an enemy worth hating. When we grieve we appropriately demonstrate this. But we must never forget that death is a defeated enemy. When we have hope for resurrection and reunion, we appropriately demonstrate this.

Monday, April 23, 2012

When Mormons and Christians Unite

Is it appropriate for Christians to unite with non-Christians? The answer is Yes. In some situations. And the answer is No in other situations.
So, which is the appropriate answer in the situation of Liberty University inviting Mitt Romney to be their commencement speaker this year. Is the graduation ceremony at an evangelical University the right time to partner with a Mormon presidential candidate?
The answer is No.
Mormonism is not Christianity. It is not a denomination within Christianity. It is a cult. This is not one man's opinion; it is a fact. Mormon's reject the divinity of Jesus, they reject the doctrine of the Trinity, and they believe that people are saved through good works. These are not disagreements over minor issues. These are irreconcilable differences.
Does this exclude Christians from ever partnering with Mormons on any issue? No. If a partnership between Mormons and Christians could lead to less abortions, to justice for the poor, and for relief for the oppressed, then partnering is a good idea.
Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with Christians voting for Romney (or any other Mormon) for president.
But the actions by Liberty University are something different. They promote an unhealthy partnership. It sends a message that has confused people about the true nature of Christianity.
Here is the message: Christianity is a moral code.
The morality of Mormonism is similar to the morality of Christianity. If morality is at the center of Christianity, then there is no real discernible difference the two. This is the message of this partnership.
But this is a harmful and confusing message because Christianity is not a moral code. The Bible is not given to us in order to improve our morality. Morality on its own has limited value. It may help our lives make a bit more sense and bring some relief to other people, but it does not fix the fundamental problem in our lives. Sometimes our morality can mask our true problem. Sometimes our morality can even become an idol or a point of status.
Jesus didn't come to make us moral people. He didn't leave us with a code of ethics and instruct us on how to live up to it. He came to save us. He came to rescue lost and broken people and restore them into the freedom and satisfaction that go along with a relationship with God. This certainly has moral implications, but  morality is not at the center of the message. The similarities between Mormonism and the gospel of Jesus are all on the surface. The differences are at the core.
A school's commencement address is meant to reflect the core values of the school. So, here is my question: If the gospel of Jesus is at the center of the message that Liberty University has proclaimed to their students, if the gospel of Jesus is what the school hopes to be at the center of the graduating students' lives, why would they bring in a speaker who does not embrace the gospel of Jesus? John Piper put it well in a not-so-subtle tweet: "If a baptist pastor or a candidate for president should preach to you a different gospel, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8)"
Mitt Romney is not the enemy. Nor are Mormons. Nor are any non-Christians, whether religious or not. Nor are Christians in any way superior to anyone else, religious or not. But it is not helpful to confuse the message of Jesus with a code of morality.
Ironically, Mitt Romney has been the one taking the brunt of criticism in this partnership. News outlets have raked him over the coals for aligning himself with an "intolerant" evangelical institution. Among Christians, Liberty University should be taking the brunt of criticism. Not for the sake of throwing stones, but for the sake of protecting the pure gospel of Jesus from becoming a message of mere moral improvement.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Harry Potter: The Difference Between a Good and Great Story

Just Wait Till the Craze Dies Down. . .
At the prodding of my friend, Phil Shahbaz, I recently read through the seven Harry Potter books. I know that I was ridiculously far behind the trend, but I didn't have a great deal of interest in them when the craze was at its height. Phil told me that he thought the books were a wealth of illustrations for the gospel, so I thought it would be worth reading through them.
Overall, I thought that the books were very well done. I know that there are some questions about whether or not the books serve as a door into the occult and I think there is validity to parental awareness of this. At the same time, the core story is not about the occult. The core story is an epic tale about Good vs. Evil. It is certainly not a Christian allegory in the sense of The Chronicles of Narnia, but there are still powerful images in the books that serve as conversation-starters about several subjects, including the heart of redemption.

Heroism through Sacrifice
Many stories, whether intentional or not, reflect the sacrifice of Jesus. Most great epics depict a heroic character sacrificing his life so that his people can be free. It appeared to me that this was the direction of the Harry Potter sage. As I drew closer and closer to the conclusion it seemed certain that Harry would save his friends, and the whole world, from the evil Voldemort (that's right, I used his real name!), but that he would lose his life in the process. In fact, I was certain that I had heard somewhere that this was the conclusion of the story.
I know it is hard to believe that anyone would not know how the story ended considering the insane craze about the books and movies. But I truly didn't know how it was going to end. But I could swear that I overheard that he died in the end. Moving through the final book, I prepared myself for this fact.
I prepared myself for it, but I didn't like it.
I remember thinking, "I guess it will make for a good ending. At the same time, I want to see what his life and his relationships would be like if he was to live. I just think it would make for a better story." But I kept telling myself that a hero giving his life for the freedom of his people is still an awfully good story.

The Surprise
Spoiler warning (not that anyone other than me would need a spoiler warning at this point).
Harry did die. Kind of. He died, and then he came back. And when he came back, he defeated Voldemort, freed his people, and went on to live the full life that his mother had died to give him.
This ended up bring a wonderful surprise for me. I was so certain that he would die that I was delighted when he ended up living. He not only experienced a resurrection of sorts in the story, I experienced his resurrection in my heart because I had been so certain of his impending death. My heart was filled with joy as I read the happy conclusion, not just for Harry's friends, but for Harry himself.
(By the way, when Harry dies, and before he comes back, he is in a train station at King's Cross; that is a not-so-subtle gospel reference by Rowling.)

Resurrection is Better than Sacrifice
It is a good story when someone gives his life in order to set his people free. A good story, not a great story.  The reason this is not a great story is because death still wins a half-victory. While death is defeated and held off from the people, it still claims the life of the hero. Sacrifice is a good story, but not a great one.
Resurrection? Now, that is a great story. It is great because the people are free from death, and the hero is also free from death. Death is utterly defeated. It claims nobody!
Throughout the Harry Potter saga, death did claim several beloved characters: Harry's parents, Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black (a moment of silence, please, for my favorite supporting character), Albus Dumbledore, Mad Eye Moody, Fred Weasley, Lupin and Tonks, and Severus Snape (my other favorite). But the ending was delightful because the heroic Harry won a double victory. His friends all lived and he lived on with them.

The resurrection is a wonderful surprise because it seems too good to be true. Jesus not only gives his life for the freedom of his people, but he himself lives on with them. A truly happy ending snatches new life from the grip of death. Any story that reflects the delight of this surprise is a good story.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Michael Cooper Award

So, I will get back to theological and gospel-related topics soon, but I thought this would be fun.

I know that we already have too many awards in sports (and too many awards in life in general). Despite this, I want to start a new NBA Award (and this could probably be transferable to other team sports):
The Michael Cooper Award.
During his tenure with the Lakers in the 1980s, Michael Cooper was a vital part of 5 championship teams. He was never an All-Star. He certainly didn't make the Hall of Fame. He was the ideal role player. While he never averaged more than 11.9 points per game, he is celebrated by Lakers fans for being a defensive stopping (Larry Bird said that he was the best defender he ever faced), a player who could knock down a clutch shot, and the team player who would do whatever it took to help his team win.
The Michael Cooper Award goes to players who have never been, and will never be, All-Stars. Still, they do all the small things to help their teams be successful.
Note: I admit that there are other historical players who exhibited these characteristics just as much as Michael Cooper, but it is my award and I get to choose whose name is bears. I also considered Robert Horry, Rick Fox, and Derek Fisher. Again you may say, "Those are all former Lakers." Once again, my award.

For the 2012 NBA Season, here are the six players who earn a Michael Cooper Award:
Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks. This was the easiest choice. He doesn't care if he scores, but he can clean up inside. He plays defense, rebounds, blocks shots, and is an underrated facilitator on offense. Last year in the playoffs he really proved his worth by being an indispensable part of the Mavs' championship run. This year on the Knicks he has been a steadying influence and has stifled Dwight Howard each time they have faced the Magic. The Knicks will probably squeak into the playoffs and lose in the first round, but I would still take Chandler on my team any day of the week.

2. Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies. I can finally appreciate Allen, now that he is no longer a Celtic. In those Boston-L.A. battles he gave Kobe Bryant fits. Now he is a vital part of a Memphis team that no one wants to play in the first round. He is a great perimeter defender and an unselfish offensive player. He can't really knock down shots, but he can slash to the hoop and use his athleticism. He regularly causes turnovers for the opposition and gets Memphis going on their lethal fast-break.

3. Nicolas Batum, Portland Trailblazers. It is not impossible that Nic will one day make an All-Star team, but it is unlikely. At the same time, he can play defense against almost anyone with his athleticism and his long arms. Also, he can get hot from the 3-point line and he runs the floor well on the fast-break. This is not just an olive branch to my Blazer fan friends. Batum is a solid player.

4. J.J. Redick, Orlando Magic. I have been so impressed with how humble and patient Redick has been as a pro. He starred in all of college basketball when he played for Duke. He has had to take a reduced role in the NBA and he has improved each year. He is not a stellar defensive player because he lacks the athleticism to do so, but this has never stopped him from competing with all he has. He is an excellent 3-point shooter and an underrated facilitator. And it is good to see an unselfish player in Orlando.

5. Aaron Afflalo, Denver Nuggets. I may be biased because he went to UCLA, but I absolutely love what he brings to the Nuggets. Like Tony Allen, he plays great perimeter defense. Unlike Tony Allen, he can also hit the open 3 and his overall offensive game is improving. He's not a primary option at the shooting guard, but he is a solid role player. Unfortunately he is under the radar because Denver has been crippled by injuries this season and they will probably miss the playoffs.

Sixth Man
6. C.J. Watson, Chicago Bulls. Watson is the best back-up point guard in the game. This season he has had to pick up a lot of slack while D-Rose has recovered from his injuries. Even when Rose has been healthy, Thibodeau has often has Watson next to him in the backcourt as they close out games. And without Rose, Watson had led the Bulls to victories over the Heat and the Celtics (just to name a couple). The Bulls have thrived under him as a floor general and he has knocked down some big shots. He has shown great poise by stepping up in clutch situations and coming through. He will be a key part of the Bulls' attempt to get past the Heat in the postseason.

 Quick side-note: I think a reverse to this award could also be given. It could be called the Steve Francis Award or the Stephan Marbury Award (amazingly, these two were actually both on the Knicks for a spell; thank you, Isaiah Thomas). It would be reserved for players who do make All-Star teams but end up hurting their teams with too much shooting and defensive ineptitude. If you have suggestions, send them in.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Are Christians Automatically Arrogant?

            It’s a simple formula:
  • Step 1: It is arrogant to think that you are right and everyone else is wrong. 
  • Step 2: Christians think that they are right and everyone else is wrong. 
  • Step 3: Therefore Christians are arrogant.

            What more is there to say?
            In our culture it is okay to be a Christian, but it is not okay to be a dogmatic Christian. You can embrace Jesus as long as you don’t hold too closely to his exclusive claims. Unfortunately, this is not possible. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. He claimed to be the way to God. He claimed to be the light of the world. It is not possible to embrace Jesus without embracing his exclusivity. You can’t be a Christian without being a dogmatic Christian.
            So then, is it just a conceded point that the arrogance shoe fits? Do we simply say, “It may be arrogant, but it’s still right”? Do we say, “It’s not arrogant because it is right”? Do we say nothing?
            I think that there are a few proper responses to this whole idea that certainty and dogmatism automatically equals arrogance, but I would like to focus on one:

        It is not arrogant to think that someone else is right.

            Imagine that seven groups of car experts set out on the mission to create the perfect car. For a full decade each group works tirelessly on this project. At the end of the decade, the seven groups present their “perfect” cars to two normal men who are not car experts. Both men closely examine the cars, ask questions from the experts, and take test drives. Finally, they present their judgments.
            The first man chooses car number 4. He says that this car truly is the perfect car because of its combination of safety, appearance, comfort, and MPG.
            The second man chooses none of the cars. He says, “None of these cars are perfect. None of these experts have it right. Instead of choosing one of these cars, I would be better served to take what I see here and make my own perfect car. It would turn out better than any of these.”
            In this scenario, which of the two men might be accused of being arrogant? Would it be the one who said to one of the seven groups, “I am convinced that you’re right”? Or would it be the one who says to all of the seven groups, “None of you is right”? Surely it would be the second man who would be more likely to be viewed as arrogant.
            A dogmatic person is someone who looks at the worldviews out there, the explanations for the world and mankind and God, and says, “I think this one is right.”
            A non-dogmatic person is someone who looks at the worldviews out there and says, “None of these are right. I can come up with a better one.”
            If we are honest then we will see that anti-dogmatism has an arrogance that is far beyond any that can be attributed to those who simply think that someone else is right.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Are the Terms Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Helpful?

            Recently I had the honor of being a guest blogger for Randy Alcorn (my illustrious father-in-law). My post was called, “The Growing Consistency of the Pro-Choice Position.” One reader made a comment that stood out to me. Here is it in its entirety:
“Pro life” people need to do a better job of having a more consistent ethic of being pro life. There are some that do, but the vast majority don’t. The critique that states “pro life people believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth” has some validity. Far too many people that identify with the pro life movement are very outspoken on abortion, but strangely silent on the death penalty, needless wars, the AIDS epidemic, global warming and its effects on natural life, the prison industrial complex, child labor in the third world, and the list goes on. Stop talking about pro choice people being inconsistent and hypocritical and look at yourself.
            At first I felt defensive when I read it, and somewhat justifiably. In my opinion the reader wildly exaggerates the lack of care for people in crisis. And his comments also reveal that he may have only read the title of the post, and not the post itself. Still, lurking behind this, there is a valid point. But I don’t believe that valid point is the one he intends to make.
            I think it is valid that he wants consistency from the pro-life position. If I call myself pro-life, that grid should carry over in all cases. I should be against the death penalty and all war (not just needless ones), as well as anything that could possibly cause death. I should be against killing in self-defense because it takes a life just as much as murder takes a life. I should also be against eating meat and hunting because it ends the lives of animals. If I am pro-life, I should be pro-life the whole way.
            While all of that might sound silly, it simply reflects the fact that pro-life is not a very helpful label. It needs specification in order to be a meaningful label.
            For that matter, pro-choice is also not a helpful label. No one is consistently pro-choice. We don’t believe people should have the protected right to steal, rape, and murder others. This position also needs specification if it is going to be meaningful.
            So, if these terms are not meaningful, how did they come about? Here is an overly simplistic explanation. A person in favor of legalized abortion (person #1) is speaking with a person against legalized abortion (person #2):
            1: You’re anti-abortion.
2: I don’t like that label. It is not so much that I am against something as that I am in favor of something.
1: What is it that you are in favor of?
2: Life. I am pro-life. You on the other hand are pro-abortion, which is basically the same as being pro-death.
1: I’m not pro-death. I’m not even pro-abortion. I just think everything should have the choice to have an abortion. I am pro-choice.
It’s not hard to see how it happened. But it has left us with unhelpful labels.
            The reader may be right that it is not consistently pro-life to be against abortion, but in favor of the death penalty. However, apart from the pro-life label, there is nothing inconsistent about that position. It is not inconsistent to believe that unborn babies should not be killed and at the same time believe that the state should have the power to put murderers to death. It is not inconsistent to believe that unborn babies should not be killed and at the same time believe that war is sometimes justified. And it is not inconsistent to believe that killing someone in self-defense is justifiable.
            Here is the point: the term “pro-life” should not serve as a prison to people who are against abortion. The consistency should manifest itself in consistent concern for those who are being wronged and are unable to protect themselves.
            While I personally would redefine the terms involved in the abortion debate, I think this is unlikely to happen. I accept the terms because I feel that this is necessary in order to have a discussion that is helpful. At the same time, I would have no problem if someone called me “anti-abortion.” That is an accurate label. I am also anti-murder, anti-corruption, anti-domestic-abuse, and anti-genocide. There are certain things that we should be against.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Finding Yourself in Easter

The Easter story is simple. This is part of what makes it so profound.
            Jesus came and gathered followers. Then he was arrested and executed. Then, three days later, he rose from the dead.
            Simple because the events are straightforward.
            Profound because he find ourselves in these same events.

ACT 1: Hope
            The final week of Jesus’ life begins with wide-eyed excitement and anticipation. The disciples have really bought into Jesus and the possibilities seem limitless. Who knows what their lives might be like, but why stop dreaming?
            This excitement parallels how many of us feel at the beginning of our lives.  We enter into the world and we get excited about the possibilities. We look forward to exploring the beauty of the planet, having adventures, going pro in sports, finding love, and being successful in our work. We imagine that we could be all-stars, authors, and astronauts. There seems like no reason to dream small.

ACT 2: Disillusionment
            Then we are hit with reality. Whether we achieve our dreams or not, we end up disappointed. Some of us come nowhere near our dreams. We can’t be professional athletes because we lack the physical gifts. We can’t be astronauts because of health limitations. We don’t find love because it just doesn’t happen. Through no fault of our own, we fall short of the imagined glory we once had.
            On the other hand, some of us seem to achieve our dreams. We attain the family and the professional life that we always thought was possible. But then we find that we are still empty and discontent. Our spouses let us down. Our jobs bore us. And beyond all of this, we find ourselves failing personally and professionally. We struggle to stay faithful to our spouses, to live up to expectations in friendships, and to stay disciplined with our health. We find that the reality of our lives fall short of our hopes.
            Our disappointment is paralleled by that of the disciples. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus hears this disappointment from the lips of two of his disciples who are grieving his death. “We thought he would redeem Israel,” they say. You can imagine the disillusionment. “We really got our hopes up. We thought he would fix things and usher in a golden age. It seemed like things could only get better. Then reality set in. What a letdown.” Now Jesus’ disciples have nothing left to do except lick their wounds and readjust their expectations. At this moment they are probably vowing never to get their hopes up again.
            Sadly, many of us never emerge for the disillusionment that sets in when reality crushed our dreams. We live half-hearted lives and stay only half-awake for them. We occasionally enjoy the simple pleasures of life, but this only serves to temper the deep disappointment that we feel at our core. There is no discernible solution.
            Where do we find hope in the midst of our disillusionment? There can be no easy solution. It doesn’t work to replace our dreams with new ones. It doesn’t work to try harder to make our dreams come to pass. The only hope is for something dramatic to change.

ACT 3: New Hope
            Along comes the resurrection.
            Jesus’ disciples are overwhelmed. The dreams they were certain were lost are suddenly back and better than ever! This isn’t simply the return of hope. This is a new hope. The disciples are moved from despair to vitality. Now, once again, all their wildest dreams are possible. New life, new connection with God, new hope beyond the grave. What an amazing twist!
            Have we found this same hope? We face the same disillusionment that hit the disciples on Friday night. We live in the long Saturday where dreams come to die. Do we have any hope that Sunday is coming?

            The resurrection not only signifies a new hope for the disciples, but for us also. While God never promises to fulfill our dreams of becoming famous and successful superstars, his promises are bigger and deeper than our greatest wishes. The resurrection of Jesus does not simply bring back our old lost hopes. It brings hope of something much bigger and better than we had ever dared to dream before.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jesus at the Center

As Easter approaches, I have been reflecting on one of my favorite post-resurrection stories: The Road to Emmaus.
The basic story is that Jesus meets his two of his disciples incognito. They are traveling on a road and he walks with them, asking them questions about this Jesus character they are grieving. After they muddle out some confused thoughts about Jesus' suffering and about some possible post-death sightings of him, Jesus takes the reins.
"How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
Jesus did not come along as a major player in God's story. Jesus owns the stage as the star of the show, beginning to end. Jesus demonstrates this by explaining to the disciples what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. He does this not simply by quoting a couple of overt passages in Isaiah, but by walking through Moses (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets.
Later on, when Jesus appears to all of his disciples, he says, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (Luke 24:44)
The whole Bible is about Jesus. All of it. Genesis to Revelation. Colossians and Hebrews both picture the Old Testament as the shadow that Jesus cast before his dramatic appearance. Now he has come and taken center stage in a new way.
This Easter, we have the opportunity to celebrate the one who was so deeply anticipated. As we anticipate his return, we invite him to take center stage in our stories.
It seems only appropriate to do this. After all, he already owns center stage in God's story.