Baseball Scandals and Echo Chambers

It’s the biggest shakeup Major League Baseball has faced since the steroid scandal of the 90s. The Astros coming up with an elaborate system to steal opposing teams’ pitching signs got them all the way to the World Series, but it cost them their reputation and has left their franchise in shambles. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s comments strike me as especially insightful as their scheme continues to unravel:

The culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic. At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to…an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.

Mr. Manfred’s point is critical. Not only can people justify their own questionable actions, they can justify each other’s if the payoff feels high enough. This can create an echo chamber where, if one were to look from the outside in at what was happening, the problems would be obvious, but, from the inside, the compromises seem merely logical and at worst paltry. The Astros February 13 press conference, which was long on excuses and finger pointing and short on apologies, demonstrated just how easy it can be to convince ourselves of our own rightness even when everyone around us is shouting, “Wrong!”

The apostle John once wrote: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The plural pronouns here are important. Not only can one person deceive him or her self about his or her personal sin, we can, together, John says, deceive ourselves about our corporate sin. This is why one of the fundamental assertions of Christianity is that we need someone outside of ourselves to tell us the truth about ourselves.

Theologians will speak of how salvation works extra nos – Latin for “outside ourselves.” We do not – indeed, we cannot – save ourselves. Christ must come in from the outside and do the work of salvation for us. The inverse of this is another Latin phrase, this one conceptualized by the church father Augustine: incurvitas in se, which means, “turned in on oneself.” This is the essential nature of sin. Sin draws us further and further into ourselves – our excuses, our half-truths, and our pathetic justifications. Christianity beckons us to turn from ourselves and toward Christ.

The crisis with the Astros Club does not just point to a problem with baseball, but to a larger broken condition in humanity. The question we must ask ourselves is this: where are we tempted to look to ourselves, rather than to Christ, to deal with our sin? When are we tempted to conceal, instead of to confess, where we have done wrong? The more we rely on ourselves to fix ourselves, the more damage we do to ourselves.

So, unlike the Astros, let’s not believe our own press. Instead let us press in to the One who is God’s Son.

February 24, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Less Anger and More Smiles

grayscale-photo-of-laughing-old-man-156731.jpg

According to Guinness World Records, we have a new world’s-oldest-male:

A Japanese man with a sweet tooth who believes in smiles has become the world’s oldest male at 112 years … Chitetsu Watanabe, who was born in Niigata in northern Japan in 1907, received a certificate for his accomplishment on Wednesday at a nursing home in the city. The previous record holder, Masazo Nonaka, another Japanese, died last month. 

As is often the case with aged people, Mr. Watanabe was asked about to what he credits his longevity. He answered, “Don’t get angry and keep smiling.”

In a society that has no shortage of anger, Mr. Watanabe certainly offers some contrarian advice. And yet, medically, Mr. Watanabe just might be right. Study after study has shown that, although anger can be helpful in flashes to solve big problems, sustained anger, if not directly, is at least secondarily damaging to your health. Dr. Michael Kutcher, an interventional cardiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, explains:

It’s kind of an adjunctive risk factor. It’s not of and by itself a cause of coronary artery disease or a cause of heart disease. But if the anger is sustained and the blood pressure is affected and the heart rate is affected, that indirectly can lead to coronary disease or disease of the heart muscle.

John Schinnerer, an anger management coach in Danville, California, links anger to a whole host of health problems:

It’s been linked to obesity, low self-esteem, migraines, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, sexual performance problems, increased heart attack risk, lower-quality relationships, higher probability of abusing others emotionally or physically or both, higher blood pressure, and stroke.

In short, anger is something you don’t want to mess around with.

Perhaps Jesus’ brother James was on to something when he wrote: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20). And perhaps Solomon really was wise when he wrote: “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

Although Christians sometimes talk about a “righteous anger” at the sinfulness and brokenness of this world, we must admit that our appeals to “righteous anger” can be, at times, just thin justifications for anger that is far more sinful than it is saintly. Our anger can be more often self-interested than justice-oriented. I would also point out that, even when the Bible does speak of “righteous anger,” it is immediately followed by a warning: “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). The line between righteous and unrighteous anger, it turns out, is razor thin.

Living life with joy rather than anger seems to be a much safer proposition. The apostle Paul encourages us: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)! Joy is so good, Paul says, it is something we should have “always.” Why? Well, I can’t guarantee that it’ll help you live to 112. But it will be a blessing to those around you. And they’re reason enough to smile.

February 17, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Disagreement and Division

In his book Love Your Enemies, Arthur Brooks argues for the often-overlooked value in disagreement using a template drawn from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

Aristotle wrote that there were three kinds of friendship: The first and lowest form of friendship is based on utility, wherein both people derive some benefit from each other … The next level of friendship for Aristotle is based on pleasure; both people are drawn to each other’s wit, intelligence, talent, good looks, or other attractive qualities … The highest form of friendship – the “perfect friendship” in Aristotle’s telling – is based on willing the good of the other and a shared sense of what is virtuous and true.

In the first two levels of friendship, Brooks explains, we carefully avoid disagreeing, because we don’t want to lose whatever it is we’re gaining from the other person. In the third level of friendship, conversely, we heartily engage in disagreement because we want what’s best for the other person, and, if they are heading down a path that is harmful or unhealthy, we are not afraid to call it out. In other words, disagreement can be helpful because disagreement can be revealing. Disagreement can be refining.

Disagreement can be good. Division, however, is something quite different.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul practically begs his readers not to fall prey to division:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

The Corinthians were divided over a whole host of things, including which spiritual leader they liked the most:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12)

For Paul’s part, he finds the notion of division dangerous, asking, “Is Christ divided” (1 Corinthians 1:13)?

This past week, the deep political divisions that have long plagued our nation reared their heads in obvious and astounding ways. When the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, tore up her copy of the State of the Union address the President had handed her at the beginning of his speech, she – even if inappropriately – perhaps unintentionally acted out physically a deeper relational reality in our nation. There are certain groups of people who cannot stand – and indeed hate – other groups of people. There are parts of us that are torn apart.

I will not pretend that I can even begin to fix the partisan hatred that ails us. But it is worth reminding ourselves that, for those of us who bear Christ’s name, even if we can’t fix our world’s divisions, we can model a holy communion.

A holy communion does not just arise when we all agree with each other. Instead, it is also forged in how we disagree with each other. Do we truly listen to what a person is saying, or do we quickly move to caricature their comments? Do we assume the best in each other rather than the worst? Do we celebrate places of agreement, even as we hash out points of disagreement? And, most importantly, is our love for someone contingent on their agreement with us, or does it flow from the grace that God has first given us? If we disagree without love, we are left only with sore division. If we disagree with love, we can retain devotion to each other even as we dispute with each other. If we disagree with love, we can keep and reach people, even as we question their opinions and positions. And this is not just a way to avoid division. This is the Church’s very mission. May we carry it out faithfully by God’s grace and under His guidance.

February 10, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Coronavirus: Serving Our Sick Neighbors

File:Staff monitoring passengers' body temperature in Wuhan railway station during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.jpg

Credit: Wikipedia

It’s spreading so quickly. What started as a little-known virus, infecting a group of people in Wuhan in eastern China, is now spreading across the world. The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus a global health emergency. The United States has issued a Level 4 travel advisory, its highest alert, against travel to China.

Part of what makes the coronavirus so frightening is the unknowns associated with it. A live map that tracks the virus shows over 17,000 confirmed cases of the virus. Almost over 500 people have recovered from the virus while over 350 have, sadly, died. This leaves over 16,000 people who are still sick and whose fates we are still awaiting. Doctors are also not sure precisely how the virus can spread. Can it spread before symptoms appear? The jury is still out. There are some reports that the virus can enter a body through simply rubbing one’s eyes if a person has picked up a trace of the virus on their hands.

In the midst of much fear, one of the things we can be thankful for are doctors who go into harms’ way to care for patients. This kind of care has not always, historically, been how society has reacted to sicknesses. In his book The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark quotes the Christian bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, who describes how many people reacted when a smallpox epidemic swept through the Roman Empire in the third century:

At the first onset of the disease, people pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.

Dionysius goes on explain that the response of Christians to this epidemic was quite different:

Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. 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 by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.

It is this uniquely Christian spirit and legacy of caring for the sick, instead of leaving them to die, that endures across much of the world even today.

In 1527, the bubonic plague arrived in Wittenberg Germany, where a monk named Martin Luther was teaching. He chose to stay in Wittenberg and provide care for the sick, during which time he wrote a tract: Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. Luther encouraged people not take unnecessary risks during epidemics, writing:

Examples in Holy Scripture abundantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.

And yet, even as Luther encouraged people to take every available precaution to prevent the spread of a disease, he did not encourage them to do so at the expense of those who were suffering, even if helping the suffering endangered their own lives:

It is the devil who…takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles.

Luther goes on to explain why, if we find ourselves in a position to help during a plague, we should defy the fears the devil plants in us:

If Christ shed His blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for His sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with His precepts, His kindness, and all His encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, His servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.

Amen, indeed.

And so today, while nations across the world continue to take precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, I give thanks for the medical professionals who are taking great risks to care for those who are dangerously ill. These professionals are serving their neighbors – both those neighbors who are sick and those neighbors who will not get sick, thanks to their work.

May their love and care do much good for our world.

February 3, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020

When my wife said to me from the other room, “Kobe Bryant is dead?!” I thought at first she had been taken in by another one of those celebrity death hoaxes that sometimes make their rounds on social media. But she hadn’t. The news was true. The loss was real.

As the story of Kobe’s untimely death began to sink in, my first thought was, “He was my age.” He was born a mere two weeks before me. Then when I learned that his daughter was with him on the helicopter flight that crashed and took their lives, this tragedy felt even worse. Kobe leaves behind his wife and three other daughters. I cannot imagine the pain they must be experiencing right now.

As the news played a never-ending loop of Kobe Bryant highlights, reporters interviewed fellow stars who were memorializing him and fans who were crying over him. The death of a household name like Kobe Bryant – especially under the fluke circumstances of a terrible crash – brings into sharp focus something so many of us are generally loathe to consider: the stark and dark reality of death.

As a nation grapples with the loss of one of its biggest stars, there is an ancient perspective on death – the Christian perspective on death – that is worth our reflection, for, I believe, it can be a source of hope. So, here are three Christian claims about death.

Death is unnatural.

Contrary to what Forrest Gump’s momma told him, dying is not just a part of life. There’s a reason that, when someone dies, tears flow, questions of “why” are asked, and anger at a life-gone-too-soon ensues. It’s because we can feel that there is something profoundly unnatural about death.

The Christian faith teaches that this feeling about death is nothing less than a good theology of death. Death is the result of and the punishment for sin. It is not, however, part of God’s creative design. It was introduced only after Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This is why the apostle Paul calls death an “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

So, if you ever find yourself mourning a death, don’t feel as though you must feel that death is natural. It’s not. Your tears can flow, your questions can be asked, and you can shake your fist at what has taken your loved one from you.

Death is inevitable.

Death may not be natural, but it is inevitable. Part of what makes a passing like Kobe Bryant’s so shocking and tragic is because he was a man who seemed invincible. A sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke, eulogized the basketball great this way:

Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash Sunday in Calabasas and how does that happen? Kobe is stronger than any helicopter. He didn’t even need a helicopter. For 20 years he flew into greatness while carrying a breathless city with him.

This can’t be true.

This is the way Kobe seemed – stronger than any helicopter. And yet, life’s fragility – and death’s inevitability – have coldly slapped a culture that treats its sports stars as invincible in its face.

The 17th century English poet John Donne wrote a poem in 1624 about a bout he had with spotted fever. While in the throes of his sickness, Donne heard the bells of a nearby church ringing at a funeral. He opined:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Donne knew that even if he survived this sickness, he would not survive every sickness. One day, the bell would toll for him. Indeed, one day, the bell will toll for us all – no matter how strong, how rich, how famous, how moral, how respected, or how invincible we are.

It is maddening. But it is true. Death is inevitable.

Death is destroyable.

The first claim of Christianity – that death is unnatural – we feel. The second claim of Christianity – that death is inevitable – we can empirically verify, for we all die. This final claim of Christianity – that death is destroyable – is one that calls for faith.

On its face, death does not seem destroyable. It seems only to destroy us. And yet, Christianity claims that there was once a man who was destroyed by death on cross who managed to return the favor to death when He rose again three days later, destroying death. And because He destroyed death for Himself, Christianity claims that He can also destroy death for us. For just as He once emptied His grave, He will one day empty our graves. As the apostle Paul explains:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54)

Death is destroyable, Paul says.

The same poet who once reflected on the inevitability of his own death also wrote a sonnet about his hope for life. John Donne called it “Death Be Not Proud”:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

When death takes a life, John Donne reminds us, it “swell’st thou.” It swells with pride that it has separated another family, brought on more tears, and broken more hearts. But even if death is stronger than us, it is not stronger than the One who once called Himself “the life” (John 14:6). And because of His life, we can have life, too – eternal life.

Kobe Bryant has died. But death should not be proud. Because Kobe’s death is not the last word on his life. For this much I know:

Death, thou shalt die.

May it be so quickly.

January 27, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

What Does God Ask of Us?

In Matthew 21, the religious leaders are becoming increasingly incredulous toward Jesus. He has just ridden into Jerusalem triumphantly, receiving the praise of adoring throngs. He has also wrecked the temple’s shadow economy by driving out those who were buying and selling there. And He has outwitted and outsmarted the religious leaders after they tried to question Jesus’ authority. Now, Jesus moves on to tell these same religious leaders a story:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21:28-31)

Jesus tells a story about a father who has two sons. The first son initially verbally spars with his father, but ultimately does what his father asks. The second son pays lip service to honoring his father, but refuses to do what his father asks.

This story is meant to be about the religious leaders, for, although they pay lip service to God, they do not do what God asks. The question that is still hanging in the air at the end of Jesus’ story, however, is this: what does God ask? Jesus’ answer, as He explains His story to the religious leaders, is fascinating:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matthew 21:31-32)

This, Jesus says, is what God asks: to believe. Jesus puts it this way in John’s Gospel: “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (John 6:29). And yet, this is what the religious leaders refuse to do – to believe in the One God has sent. The religious leaders are so busy following religious rules that their righteous looking actions become the sum total of what they think God wants from them. But God does not need their righteous actions, for He already has all righteousness. So, He simply asks for faith – to stop believing in ourselves and to start believing in His Son. But this is what the religious leaders refuse to give. Faith is the one thing the religious leaders do not do.

The tax collectors and prostitutes to which Jesus refers know they can’t trust themselves, for they have already destroyed themselves. So, instead, they put their faith in One they hope can rescue them from themselves. Thus, they, and not the religious leaders, are the ones who, though they may spar with God, ultimately do what God asks them to do.

Where is your faith? Do you do what God asks of you? It turns out that what God asks you to do is not something you do at all. It’s Someone you trust.

In Christian circles, we will often talk about pointing people like tax collectors and prostitutes – the so-called “broken” and “bad” people of society – to Jesus, because they need Him. This is most certainly true and this is, in fact, something we should do. But let us not forgot that, in Matthew 21, it’s the tax collectors and prostitutes who are pointing religious people like us to Jesus, because, as it turns out, anyone can point someone to Jesus because anyone can have faith in Jesus.

My prayer is that you do.

January 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Thoughts on the Iran Conflict

It’s been a hard week on the world stage. At the beginning of this year, U.S. forces attacked and killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a man who the Pentagon says was “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more” and “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomates and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”  Iran retaliated by launching a barrage of more the 20 missiles at two large military bases in Iraq, which, according to a statement from President Trump, did not, thankfully, kill any U.S. service members.  Sadly, it has now become clear that even though the attacks on the bases did not kill any Americans, a rogue missile, launched during this attack, did accidentally down a Ukranian passenger jet, killing 176 people, many of whom were part of a wedding party from Canada. The picture above of a child’s shoe gives perhaps the most heart wrenching glimpse into the true scope of this tragedy. So-called “collateral damage” from Iran’s attack was not just damage – it was death.

One of the most roundly condemned sins in the Scriptures is the shedding of “innocent blood.” Innocent blood was shed by General Soleimani through his terrorist activities. Innocent blood was shed on this passenger flight, even if inadvertently, by Iranian forces. And now, the hearts of many families who have lost loved ones are breaking. So, at the same time we can give thanks that a full-fledged conflict has not broken out, we should also mourn with the grieving. They are the reasons we should continue to, in the words of the Psalmist, “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). By God’s grace, may we be successful in our search.

January 13, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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