Archive for December, 2014

2015: It’s Going To Be A Great Year

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA As we begin a new year, it is useful to take a moment to reflect on our lives – where we are, where we have been, and where we are going.  Reflecting is important not only for the realms of finances, family, or fitness, but also for the realm of faith.  For above all, we must realize and recognize who we are in relationship to our Creator.  The British theologian N.T. Wright has written a set of five questions every Christian must answer – or, perhaps more accurately, simply remember the answer already given – in order to appropriately and insightfully take stock of his or her life.  I relay these questions – and their answers – so that you may remember who you are in God’s sight.[1]

Who are we?

We must never forget that, as the apostle Paul writes, we are “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22).  This means our identity and purpose must always and only be founded and grounded not in the things, titles, or accolades of this world, but in the cross of our crucified Savior. This is certainly where the apostle’s identity is found: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).   If we find our identities in anyone or anything else other than Christ and His cross, we are called to repent and turn back to Him.

Where are we?

N.T. Wright reminds us that we are “in the good creation of the good God.”  Sometimes we can forget, especially when life becomes dark and difficult, that when God created the world, He created it “good” (Genesis 1:25).  Yes, not all is right with creation.  Yes, there is pain, suffering, and tragedy – none of which were part of God’s dream and design.  But try as it might, evil cannot utterly destroy the goodness of God’s creation.   Indeed, God promises to restore the complete goodness of His creation on the Last Day: “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).  For all of its brokenness, we are still in a good place.  Thus, we ought to celebrate and appreciate the home in which God has given us in His creation.

What’s wrong?

In a word, sin is what’s wrong.  Indeed, this is why God’s good world appears so marred and messed up.  Each of us is born into sin generally.  Because of Adam and Eve, the effects of sin plague us all.  This is called “original sin.”  But each of us also commits sins individually and personally.  We transgress God’s laws and do not do what we are commanded to do.  This is called “actual sin.”  Another answer to the question of what is wrong, then, is that we are what’s wrong.  We are the ones who make God’s good world a mess through our injustice and iniquity.

What’s the solution?

In a word, Jesus is the solution.  Jesus is God’s remedy to sin and redemption from sin.  The apostle Peter writes, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).  It is important to note that not only is Jesus God’s solution to sin, Jesus is God’s only solution to sin: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  This means that all other attempts to deal with sin – be they moralistic or legalistic or liberalistic or relativistic – will ultimately fail.  If Christ is not your Forgiver and Redeemer, your sin has not been solved.  Period.

What time is it?

In the Scriptural view, time is not marked by the days on a calendar, but by the acts of our God.  In other words, what matters about the new year is not that we have transitioned from 2014 to 2015, but what God has done for us in the past and will continue to do for us into the future.  N.T. Wright explains cogently the time in which we live:  “We live between resurrection and resurrection, that of Jesus and that of ourselves; between the victory over death at Easter and the final victory when Jesus ‘appears’ again.”  What ultimately makes 2015 so special, then, is that we are another year closer to the coming of Christ and the salvation of our souls.  And that sure and certain hope makes this year a year worth celebrating!

_______________________

[1] The questions and quotes in this blog can be found in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 275.

December 29, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Tackling Terrorism

Credit:  Christian Science Monitor

Credit: Christian Science Monitor

First it was a chocolatier in Australia. Then it was a school in Pakistan. Terrorist attacks have been headline news this past week.

When an Iranian refugee turned self-styled Muslim cleric named Man Haron Monis barricaded his way inside a Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney, it took a police raid 16 hours after the siege began to free the hostages trapped inside. Three people, including Monis, died.

When Taliban fighters stormed a crowded school in Peshawar, they managed to kill 145 people over eight hours, 132 of them schoolchildren. Stories are emerging of kids being lined up and shot, or shot as they cowered under their desks. NBC News reports that one teacher was doused with gasoline and burned alive while students were forced to watch.

Once again, we are left grappling with grieving families and terrorized communities. And even though, in both of these instances, the attacks happened across time zones, countries, oceans, and continents, at least a little of the fear there nevertheless comes home to roost here.

This, of course, is exactly what these terrorist organizations want. CNN reports that ISIS is calling on their allies and sympathizers to carry out so called “lone-wolf” attacks in their homelands. They attacks do not have to be big, expensive, and well organized – as were the attacks of 9/11 – they simply have to be frightening. Fear, these criminals know, is a powerful thing.

Certainly, national governments need to put into place policies to try to prevent these attacks. Certainly, law enforcement officials need to have plans in place to deal swiftly and forcefully with any terrorist attack. And certainly, surveillance of and intelligence from terrorist groups and lone wolf sympathizers is needed so governments can know and foil terrorist plots them before they have a chance to carry them out.

But what about us? What about people who are normal, everyday citizens like us who are increasingly frightened that we could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be mown down by a terrorist attack?

The fact of the matter is this: we cannot control what will happen to us in the future. We do not know whether or not we will fall victim to a terrorist attack. But we can confront and control the fear we feel right now.

The apostle John gives us a simple strategy for dealing with fear: “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). When a mad man or a despicable organization terrifies people with a dastardly deed, what is the best way for the rest of us to respond? By loving those people.   Spontaneous tributes to the fallen that have arisen in the wake of these attacks indicate that, already, these communities are banding together to love each other through fear.

As of now, I have not seen any relief efforts that we in the states can participate in to express our love and support to the families of these victims in Australia and Pakistan. But with Christmas fast approaching, my guess is, you know at least one person who, though they may not be terrorized, is fearful in some way. Perhaps you know someone who has lost their spouse this year and is worried about how they will deal with their first Christmas apart from their loved one. Perhaps you know someone who is terminally ill and is facing the very real and understandable fears that come with knowingly being at the end of life. John’s words ring just as true in these cases as they do in cases of terror: “Perfect love drives out fear.”

So love who you can love. For in doing so, you bring peace where there is fear. And in a season when we remember some angels who announced “peace on earth to men” (Luke 2:14) thanks to a “God [who] so loved the world [that] He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16) so we could “not be afraid” (John 14:27), this is most definitely an appropriate mission.

December 22, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sorting Through The Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report

Credit: Huffington Post

Credit: Huffington Post

The allegations are shocking, but the committee is suspect. Last Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released portions of a report on the C.I.A.’s secret prison program and their use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Almost immediately, many panned it as a partisan hit on the C.I.A. Even former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey found the report disconcerting, writing, “I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it. The Republicans checked out early when they determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the C.I.A. was guilty and then worked to prove it.”[1] Still, the report has raised grave concern over what exactly happened at those secret prisons and whether or not it amounted to torture.  Republican Senator John McCain was deeply disturbed by the report, saying, “[The C.I.A.’s policies] stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good … This question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be … Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”[2]

Certainly, there is still much from this report to sort out. Questions need to be asked like, “Why didn’t the Committee interview anyone involved with these prisons and instead rely solely on documents it received from the C.I.A.?” Or, “How is it that we are unable to conduct a bipartisan, even-handed investigation into anything – even into something as nationally critical and morally weighty as our use of enhanced interrogation techniques with enemy combatants?”

It is far beyond the pale of a post such as this one to answer any and every question that could be raised about this report and the contents therein. But a line from Senator Kerrey’s opinion piece, I believe, is worth our special consideration: “[The report] contains no recommendations. This is perhaps the most significant missed opportunity, because no one would claim the program was perfect or without its problems.” I could not agree more. To make the claims that this Committee’s report makes and then to offer no recommendations going forward is not only unhelpful; it is outright irresponsible. There is a very good chance that, once again, this country will be struck by a terror attack. If we fail to learn from what happened in our intelligence gathering efforts this time, we will not be able to improve on them for next time. We need to get our act together – both for our national security and for our ethical integrity. It is with this pressing need in mind that I offer three lessons I think we can learn from the Committee’s report.

Lesson 1: Count the cost.

There is much that can be disputed in the Intelligence Committee’s report. Some basic facts, however, do emerge. Prisoners were subjected to rectal feeding and rehydration as a way to try to obtain information.[3] Some 26 detainees in these prisons did not meet the government’s standards for detention.[4] One intellectually challenged person was held solely to get information out of one of his family members.[5] During a waterboarding session, a detainee became, according to the report, “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”[6] Another detainee who was doused with water and left partially unclothed died of hypothermia.[7]

Jesus, when speaking of what it takes to follow Him, uses an analogy that can be helpful in analyzing what happened during these interrogations:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. (Luke 14:28-32)

When undertaking a building project or going to war, contractors and generals ask, “Will the money spent or the lives lost produce the outcome we need?” If not, we don’t do it.

Similarly, no matter how hard these questions may be, we must ask of our interrogation techniques: What did we gain and what did we lose? What intelligence did the interrogations gain for us? What ethics did they compromise in us? There are times when a good end might justify some rough, though never unjust, means. One needs to look no farther than the cross. In the divine economy, God determined the end goal of our salvation was well worth means of the sacrifice of His one and only Son. Yet, this cost was unique because, in this case, not only did the end justify the means, but the means, in a much more profound way, justified the end! This is why Paul can write, “We have now been justified by [Christ’s] blood” (Romans 5:1).

We need to interrogate these interrogations. If we don’t count the cost from this time, we will repeat this time’s errors next time.

Lesson 2: Accountability is key.

One of the most startling aspects of the Intelligence Committee’s report was the lack of oversight and accountability in these secret prisons. For example, the C.I.A. contracted with two psychologists to evaluate whether or not detainees could continue to endure the strain of enhanced interrogations. Shockingly, the only accountability for these psychologists was evaluations the psychologists conducted on themselves! Unsurprisingly, they gave themselves high marks for their work.[8] Similarly, The New York Times reports that President Bush was, for four years, kept in the dark on the kinds of tactics that were being used on detainees. Finally, in 2006, when President Bush was “told about one detainee being chained to the ceiling of his cell, clothed in a diaper and forced to urinate and defecate on himself, even a president known for his dead-or-alive swagger ‘expressed discomfort.’”[9]

When checks and balances are removed from any system, the system becomes ripe for foolish decisions at best and outright corruption at worst. The old saying, “Two heads are better than one” really is true. If there is no one to point out a blind spot or offer an alternative perspective, disaster is not far behind.

Lesson 3: Don’t make the exception the rule.

Senator McCain, while coming out against the interrogation techniques used in the C.I.A.’s secret prisons, also admitted:

I know in war good people can feel obliged for good reasons to do things they would normally object to and recoil from.

I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was onerous.

I respect their dedication and appreciate their dilemma.[10]

Senator McCain is right. The C.I.A. specifically and our government generally was faced with some excruciatingly difficult decisions and dilemmas after the September 11 attacks.

Yet, it amazes me how often we use the extraordinary circumstances of big headlines to excuse our behavior in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life. I do not know how many times I have taught on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39), only to be asked, “But what if someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night and threatens to kill you and your family? Should you just turn the other cheek and let them do it?” Whenever I receive this question, I want to ask, “When was the last time this happened to you? Is this a weekly occurrence that you need a standard strategy for dealing with break ins and death threats?” The apostle Paul notes there are exceptional circumstances when we may not be able to turn the other cheek (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:19-21). But let’s not make the exception the rule. The fact of the matter is this: 99 times out of 100, we can turn the other cheek. What we do with our enemies every day is just as important as a debate over what the C.I.A. does with enemy combatants during extraordinary days. Let’s not lose our perspective.

Perhaps the analysis that has most gripped me during this debate is one by Jim Manzi for National Review Online. In 2009, long before the release of the Intelligence Committee’s report, Manzi wrote on the ethical dilemma of waterboarding:

I think that any thoughtful person who aggressively advocates for one position or the other surely asks himself in quiet moments: “Am I certain I’m right?” The waterboarding critic asks himself “Am I being naive?”; the waterboarding defender, “Am I losing my soul?”.[11]

I’ll be honest: it’s Manzi’s last question that haunts me most. After all, it’s the question Jesus asks.

___________________________

[1] Bob Kerrey, “Sen. Bob Kerrey: Partisan torture report fails America,” USA Today (12.10.2014).

[2] The Editorial Board, “C.I.A. torture stains American ideals: Our view,” USA Today (12.9.2014).

[3] Mark Mazzetti, “Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations,” The New York Times (12.9.2014).

[4] Jeremy Ashkenas, et al., “7 Key Points From the C.I.A. Torture Report,” The New York Times (12.10.2014).

[5] Mark Mazzetti, “Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations,” The New York Times (12.9.2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Julie Tate, “The C.I.A.’s use of harsh interrogation,” The Washington Post (12.9.2014).

[8] Matt Spetalnick, “Report slams psychologists who devised Bush-era interrogation,” Reuters (12.9.2014).

[9] Peter Baker, “Bush Team Approved C.I.A. Tactics, but Was Kept in Dark on Details, Report Says,” The New York Times (12.9.2014).

[10] John McCain, “Floor Statement By Senator John McCain On Senate Intelligence Committee Report On C.I.A. Interrogation Methods,” mccain.senate.gov, (12.9.2014)

[11] Jim Manzi, “Against Waterboarding,” National Review Online (8.29.2009).

December 15, 2014 at 5:00 am 1 comment

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall…

Treadmill 1A couple of weeks ago in Adult Bible Class, I talked about our society’s obsession with physical beauty. Though such obsession is often stereotyped as a female concern, males are increasingly sharing in our culture’s fixation on the physical. Take, for instance, this alarming report by Jeff Beckham for WIRED Magazine:

In a recent survey of 3,705 kids, 11 percent of teens in grades 9 through 12 reported having used synthetic human growth hormone without a prescription. That means that at any high school football game, it’s likely that at least two players on the field will have tried human growth hormone.[1]

In a world where playing well in high school football can mean “a financial scholarship to go to college … the pressures that are put on them to win by any means necessary” are enormous, says Travis Tygart, the CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency, whom Beckham cites in his article.

But it’s not just success in sports that drives young men to use HGH. Beckham continues:

[A] survey, carried out by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and funded by a grant from the MetLife Foundation, found no statistically significant difference in the athletic involvement between synthetic HGH users and non-users …

Even for non-athletes, the spike in the reported use of HGH can be tied to societal pressure. A study in the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics found that nearly 18 percent of adolescent boys were highly concerned about their weight and physique. And boys were as likely to feel pressure to gain weight and muscle as to lose weight.

In other words, high school guys, just like their female counterparts, are becoming increasingly obsessed with their physical beauty. The study Beckham cites in JAMA Pediatrics also notes that at least 7.6% of young men are willing to engage in unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to attain what they perceive to be an ideal physique.[2] There is not much, it seems, that is too risky for young men when it comes to their attempts to look good.

Of course, something has to change. Our incessant obsession with how we look is not only an affront to the biblical and scientific reality that “beauty is fleeting,” (Proverbs 31:30), it also takes things that, at their best, can contribute to the health of our bodies – e.g., eating carefully and exercising – and twists them toward sadly unhealthy ends.

Who do you hold up as a standard of beauty for yourself? Who does your spouse hold up as his or her standard? How about your kids? If your standard is someone on the cover of a magazine or someone who takes the field for the NFL on a Sunday afternoon, it’s time to switch your standard. Your standard should be Scripture, which says, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment … Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4). Beauty involves much more than how you look. It goes all the way down to who you are. So don’t just look good, be good. After all, being good will bless a lot more lives than just looking good. And, as a bonus, you’ll even be able to eat a cookie every once in a while without worrying about the calories. That sounds like a win-win to me.

___________________

[1] Jeff Beckham, “Growth Hormone Usage Rises Among Teens,” WIRED (12.4.2014).

[2] Alexis Conason, “Eating Disorders in Boys and Young Men,” Psychology Today (12.4.2014).

December 8, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Scoring Points With Ferguson

Credit:  The New York Times

Credit: The New York Times

One week. That’s how long it’s been since a grand jury did not find enough probable cause to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Following the grand jury’s decision, demonstrations were staged nationwide to protest the decision. Some were peaceful. Some were not. Some demonstrations were little more than thinly veiled excuses for looting rampages.

As I have been following this story over these past few months, I have been grieved by how the debate over Ferguson has unfolded. Everyone, it seems, has a particular point to make. Some are concerned for Officer Wilson. Why do so many refuse to believe a grand jury’s findings in spite of some pretty clear facts? Others are concerned with larger issues of racism. What has happened with Michael Brown, many say, is emblematic of the mistrust that the African-American community has with law enforcement, many times with good reason. Still others are concerned with widespread crime and violence within the African-American community. Generations of young black men have destroyed themselves through bad choices.

Here’s what bothers me about all of these points. They’re all, in some sense, legitimate. If Officer Wilson was only doing his best in a really bad situation, he should not be offered to protestors as a sacrificial lamb. The injustice of racism is not going to be solved or salved by more injustice against an officer. At the same time, we do have a problem with racism in this country. And we need to admit that. Indeed, it has choked me up to read personal stories of young black men describing what they have had to endure growing up. Take, for instance, this story. And this story isn’t from some bygone early 60’s era. Derek Minor was born in 1984. At the same time, widespread crime and violence within the African-American community – and in any community, for that matter – also needs to be addressed. Such sin is not always somebody else’s fault.  Sometimes, the blame rests at our feet.

All of these points are, in some sense, legitimate. But all of them also have the potential, in some sense, to render themselves illegitimate. Here’s why. Far too often, when we try to make one of these particular points, we refuse to acknowledge that another person trying to make another one of these points actually has a point. Those who are trying to defend Officer Wilson can sometimes refuse to acknowledge larger issues of racism. Those who are concerned with the larger issue of racism can sometimes refuse to admit that Officer Wilson may have just been doing his job. Those who are concerned with problems within the black community can sometimes refuse to acknowledge that there may be things outside the black community that need to change as well. But when we become so obsessed with making our point that we fail to acknowledge someone else’s point, we damage the very point we’re trying to make.

So allow me to add my point to these many other points: We need to stop trying only to make our point and start listening to the points of others and acknowledge that others may, in fact, have a point. In other words, we need to start having constructive dialogue and stop trying to merely win a debate.

I’m wondering when and if and when we will ever be able to admit that situations such as these are much more nuanced and complex than a single point can ever make them. And I’m wondering if and when we will ever be able to stop making points and start having generative conversations. Because if we’re only interested in winning a point, we may just lose the truth.

Just look at Ferguson.

December 1, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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