Archive for October, 2015

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution

Jean Duplessis-Bertaux | Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”[1]

So begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Though the story is set during the French Revolution, its opening line strikes a universal tone. Life comes mixed with good and bad, wisdom and foolishness, faith and doubt, light and darkness, hope and despair. This is true even of Jesus’ life. For example, in Mark 7, Jesus heals a blind man:

Some people brought to [Jesus] a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Him to place His hand on the man. After He took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears. Then He spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. (Mark 7:32-35)

On its surface, this story looks like one that should be marked only by joy. After all, a blind and mute man gets healed! But right before Jesus heals this man, He looks up to heaven and lets out “a deep sigh” (Mark 7:34). The Greek word for this sigh is stenazo, which denotes a groan of sorrow (e.g., Romans 8:23).  Why would Jesus groan in sorrow right as He is getting ready to do something as joyful as a healing?

Like Charles Dickens, Jesus knows that even when it’s the best of times, it’s also the worst of times. He knows that even as He is getting ready to do something great, evil is not far off. Indeed, Jesus knows that He will soon face the horror of the cross. And so He lets out a groan.

The Old Testament prophets spoke of a Messiah who would come and do many miraculous things, including that of making the deaf hear and the mute speak:

Your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution He will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. (Isaiah 35:4-6)

Notice even in this prophecy that the best of times and worst of times are comingled. On the one hand, the Messiah will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. This is good. On the other hand, the Messiah will come with “vengeance” and “divine retribution.” This sounds bad. But it also seems strange. Isaiah says, “With divine retribution [God] will come to save you.”  Just how does God intend to use His retribution for our salvation?  Isn’t His retribution supposed to lead to condemnation?

Timothy Keller notes that, when Jesus came, retribution and salvation were not so much in tension with each other as they were complimentary to each other, for Jesus “didn’t come to bring divine retribution; He came to bear it.”[2] On the cross, Jesus took the retribution our sins deserve so we could receive the salvation we could never earn. This is how divine retribution can lead to our salvation.

In A Tale of Two Cities, a kind of dualism runs through its opening salvo. There is good and bad, hopefulness and despair, and the reader does not know which one will ultimately prevail – or if either will prevail. In the case of Christ, though good and bad, hopefulness and despair are real and are in tension with each other, there is no doubt which will finally carry the day. Jesus may have groaned. But He still healed. And Jesus may bear divine retribution on a bloodied cross, but He still brings salvation out of an empty tomb. In Christ, the tension of Dickens is resolved. And that’s why we can have hope.

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[1] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999), 1.

[2] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross (New York: Dutton, 2011), 94

October 26, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

What If Planned Parenthood Is Sincere?

Credit: AFP Photo/Mandel NGAN

Credit: AFP Photo/Mandel NGAN

Last week, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, announced in a letter to the National Institutes of Health that the organization she heads will no longer be accepting reimbursements of any kind for its disbursements of fetal tissue:

Our Federation has decided, going forward, that any Planned Parenthood health center that is involved in donating tissue after an abortion for medical research will follow the model already in place at one of our two affiliates currently facilitating donations for fetal tissue research. That affiliate accepts no reimbursement for its reasonable expenses – even though reimbursement is fully permitted … Going forward, all of our health centers will follow the same policy, even if it means they will not recover reimbursements permitted.[1]

This new policy comes on the heels of a firestorm over whether or not Planned Parenthood has been illegally selling aborted baby parts for profit. A series of undercover videos published by the Center for Medical Progress appears to show Planned Parenthood officials admitting that they do, in fact, make money off the sale of fetal tissue, even if such profit is minimal. Profit from the sale of fetal tissue is a federal offense.

Upon the release of this new policy, abortion opponents were quick to react with cynicism, asking why, if Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong as it has been claiming throughout this controversy, the organization would need to change their current policy at all. Bre Payton, writing for The Federalist, opines, “Despite its previous claims of innocence, Planned Parenthood’s announcement today suggests that the organization knew its activities were almost certainly illegal.”[2]

Ms. Payton may be right. It may be that Planned Parenthood knew that what it was doing was illegal and was simply gaming the system. But I’m not so sure. Planned Parenthood’s statement may actually be sincere.

If I was to be accused of some wrongdoing – let’s say, financial mismanagement – not only would I adamantly maintain my innocence if I believed I had done nothing wrong, I would take extra precautionary measures to guard against further accusations. So, using the example I cited above, I may institute an annual independent audit of my income and expenses and share the results with key people in my life to make sure I am held financially accountable. But this would not be an admission I had done something wrong. Rather, it would be an attempt to be above reproach in my finances so that all could see I was committed to doing right.

I have to at least entertain the possibility that Planned Parenthood is acting in this same way by refusing to take any sort of reimbursement for their disbursement of fetal tissue. They may simply be trying to be above approach in how they handle their fetal tissue.  If this is the case, however, it terrifies me. Here’s why.

If Planned Parenthood really is simply trying to be above reproach in their fetal tissue disbursements, this means that they truly believe that what they have done is not illegal and, even more disturbingly, not immoral. In other words, it could be that some – indeed, even many – at Planned Parenthood believe that what they are doing by offering abortions and dispersing baby parts is good, needed, and right. What is happening is not flowing out of sinister conniving, but out of genuine conviction.

I used to think people knew somewhere deep-down that abortion was a moral blight on our modern culture. As I have written before, if abortion isn’t self-evidentially morally repulsive, then nothing is. I still believe that most people do know this somewhere within the deep recesses of their souls. But after watching #ShoutYourAbortion trend on Twitter, I have come to recognize that some people do not. Consider these tweets:

I’ve never wanted to have children, so I had an abortion. I’m thriving, without guilt, without shame, without apologies. #ShoutYourAbortion (@favianna, 9.21.2015)

I had an abortion in 2008, and it was the easiest decision I ever made. Long before I got pregnant I had decided that… (Birdy Eugenie-Clark, 9.21.2015)

These women could be lying about their experiences with abortion. But, then again, they could be telling the truth.  They really could be okay with and even happy about their abortions.

Columnist Dennis Prager distinguishes between that which “feels good” and that which “does good.” These two things, he notes, are not always the same. Take, for instance, in the realm of parenting:

It feels good to give one’s children what they want, but it rarely does good. It feels good to build children’s self-esteem – giving them trophies for no achievement, for example – but when the self-esteem is unearned, it doesn’t do good. It feels good to provide one’s adult children with money and other material benefits when they should be providing for themselves, but it doesn’t do good. And it feels good to coddle children rather than discipline them. But, same deal: It’s not good for them.[3]

What is true in parenting is true also of abortion. For some people – at least as far as they will publicly admit – abortion may feel good. It may feel good because it relieves a person of the burden of having to raise an unwanted child. It may feel good because it allows a person to have sex without having to worry about its divinely designed procreative telos. It may feel good because it feels empowering. It is the ultimate way to declare, “No one will tell me what to do with my body! Not even nature and nature’s God!” The problem is that many people have made what feels good equivalent to what is good. This is why I am willing to entertain the sincerity of Planned Parenthood’s statement about the trafficking of fetal tissue even if I am not willing to entertain its objective morality. We may have genuinely come to a point in our society where people have bought into a modified version of the old adage my mother once warned me against: “If it feels good, do it!” We now say, “If it feels good, it is good!”

As Christians, we need to continually remember and proclaim that what is good objectively cannot be determined only by what feels good internally. Good needs an external regulator. Christians believe this external regulator is Scripture and, in a secondary way, God’s ordering of creation. Even if our culture flatly rejects the first regulator, they’re still left to grapple with the second. Every pregnancy, even if it ends in abortion, is proof of that.

I hope we’re there to help people grapple with what true good looks like – and to lead them to surrender. Otherwise, this letter from Planned Parenthood will only be the first in a series of sad, but sincere, attempts to be above reproach while engaging in what is morally repulsive. And that would be heartbreaking.

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[1] Cecile Richards, “Planned Parenthood Opt-Out,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America (10.13.2015).

[2] Bre Payton, “Planned Parenthood: We’re Going To Stop Doing That Thing We Said Was Totally Legal,” The Federalist (10.13.2015).

[3] Dennis Prager, “Feeling Good vs. Doing Good,” National Review (10.22.2015).

October 19, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments

A Little Lesson In Leadership: “Working In” Versus “Working On”

write-593333_1280It’s easy to get trapped in the trenches. This is certainly true for me. With a myriad of emails to answer and phone calls to make and projects to complete, I find that if I’m not behind on at least a few things, then something is wrong! Perhaps you feel the same way.

Having too much to do and not enough time to do is nothing new. Back in 1967, Peter Drucker reminded us that people in positions of leadership always have more to do than time will allow. An effective executive, then, to borrow the title of his famous 1967 book, doesn’t just focus on getting everything done, but on “getting the right things done.”[1] He or she asks “What needs to be done?” rather than “What do I want to do?” Again, to borrow an illustration from Drucker, when Harry Truman came to the presidency, he was convinced that:

The country could and should focus again on domestic problems. He was passionately committed to reviving the New Deal. What made him an effective president was his accepting within a few weeks that international affairs, especially the containment of Stalin’s world-wide aggression, had to be given priority whether he liked it or not (and he didn’t). [2]

“What do I need to do?” is a question I am always asking myself.

I have found that what I need to do can be broadly divided into two categories. The first is what I need to “work in.” And there are many areas I “work in.” I work in the area of adult education at my church. I work in the area of pastoral care and counseling. I work in the area of blogging weekly! And make no mistake about it: I love what I work in! I love sharing God’s Word with God’s people. I love caring for people and am honored that people let me into their lives. I love blogging. I love the areas I work in.

But there is more to my job than just what I “work in.” There is also what I need to “work on.” At my congregation, we are currently working on teaching people how to have what we call “spiritual conversations” so they can share their faith with unbelievers and grow in their faith with believers. Personally, I am working on how I schedule my days so I can be more efficient in what I do.

“Working in” is necessary to get things done. “Working on,” however, is necessary so you can get things done well and, over time and with reflection, get things done better.

As a leader, what are you working in? What are you working on? Though these questions are not particularly theological in nature, they are important to ask. Sometimes, the things you need to work in become so overwhelming that you forget about what you need to work on. The problem is, the areas you need to work in will continue to pile up and you will be unable to manage everything – at least with any semblance of sanity – if you do not take the time to work on the systems and strategies that can help you get things done. So strike a balance. Don’t just work in, work on. Don’t just get things done. Figure out how to get things done well and empower others to get things done as well. Your calendar, your to-do list, and, most importantly, your weary heart will thank you.

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[1] Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (New York: Harper Collins, 2002).

[2] Peter Drucker, “Drucker on Management: Six Rules for Presidents,” The Wall Street Journal (11.18.2009).

October 12, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Honor, Dignity, Victimization, and Power

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

It doesn’t take much to offend people these days. Sometimes, it doesn’t take anything at all. This is what Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue in their paper, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.”

Campbell and Manning cull their definition of what constitutes a microaggression from Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. Microaggressions are:

The brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.[1]

Two things are especially notable in Wing Sue’s definition. First, microaggressions can be either “intentional or unintentional.” What counts is not what a sender intends, but what a receiver perceives.  Second, words like “indignities,” “hostile,” and “derogatory” in Wing Sue’s definition cast microaggressions in a vocabulary of victimization.  Microaggressions, no matter how pint-sized they may seem, are really part of a broader caste system that relentlessly oppresses certain groups of people.  The cry of those who perceive themselves as having been microaggressed, then, is really the cry of those who have been systemically victimized by this system and its cultural and socioeconomic assumptions.

Interestingly, Campbell and Manning argue that, for all the complaining that the microaggressed may do about being victimized, our newfound concern with microaggressions actually encourages a culture of victimization rather than discouraging it:

Victimization [is] a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization … We might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim … has risen to new heights.

In an article for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf cites one example of a blossoming culture of victimization in an exchange between two students at Oberlin College. In the exchange, a white student invites a Hispanic student to a game of fútbol who takes offense at the invitation, writing on an Oberlin blog devoted to calling out microaggressions:

Who said it was ok for you to say futbol? … White students appropriating the Spanish language, dropping it in when convenient, never ok. Keep my heritage language out your mouth![2]

A big blow up and a public shaming over a single word. Welcome to the world of microaggressions.

Of course, things were not always this way. Before there was a culture of victimization, Campbell and Manning point out that there was a culture or honor.  In this culture:

One must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing … Because insulting others helps establish one’s reputation for bravery, honorable people are verbally aggressive and quick to insult others.

After a culture of honor came a culture of dignity, where:

People are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others … Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is commendable to have a “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults.

Though vestiges of these cultures of honor and dignity remain (compare Campbell and Manning’s definition of a culture of honor with some of the things Donald Trump has said in his presidential campaign and you’ll quickly realize that even though honor culture is on the decline, it is certainly not dead), they are quickly losing ground to a culture of victimization.

But why?

The answer seems to be “power.” Victimization, in our culture, can often be the fastest track to status and power, just as, in previous ages, honor and dignity were inroads to influence. For instance, in recent clashes over same-sex marriage, many in favor of the institution claim discrimination and victimization while many against same-sex marriage claim discrimination and victimization as well. Both groups hope that, by portraying themselves as aggrieved, oppressed, and victimized, they can engender sympathy and, ultimately, the upper hand in this debate. In other words, both sides are hoping to gain cultural capital, or power, by means of their own victimization.

Certainly, not all instances – indeed, not even most instances – of victimization represent grabs for power.  One thinks of those who are sexually assaulted or emotionally abused.  Such tragic examples of victimization have nothing to do with power.  Rather, they represent grave injustices and deserve our prayers, our sympathy, and our action.  But in cases of microaggressions and similar self-declared cries of victimization, for all their claims of powerlessness, they often turn out to be nothing more than cynical means of leveraging power.

It is here that we find that, for all of their differences, the cultural systems of honor, dignity, and victimization hold something in common: they are all means to an end of power. And this is where all of these systems run into trouble.

In His ministry, Jesus sometimes fought for honor, sometimes upheld human dignity, and sometimes embraced victimization. But His goal was not that of gaining power. When Jesus fought for honor, it was the honor of God Himself for which Jesus fought, refusing to allow the religious elites of His day to honor God with their lips while blaspheming Him in their hearts (cf. Matthew 15:8). When Jesus upheld dignity, it was the dignity of the ridiculed and marginalized He championed, like the time He rescued a woman caught in adultery from being stoned (cf. John 8:2-11). And when Jesus allowed Himself to be victimized on a cross, He did so not as a backdoor to power, but in order to ransom us from our sin (cf. Mark 10:45). Jesus, it turns out, picked up on elements from each of these cultures without endorsing the shared goal of all of these cultures. He used honor, dignity, and victimization as ways to love people rather than dominate them.

Like Jesus, His followers should feel free to fight for honor, uphold human dignity, and even see themselves, in some instances, as victimized. But none of these cultural constructs, in the economy of Christ, should be methodically used as mere means to power. Rather, they are to be used to love others.

So for whose honor will you fight? And whose dignity will you champion? And how can your victimization lead to someone else’s restoration? Rather than eschewing these cultural constructs altogether, let’s use them differently. Let’s use them for love.  For when we use these things for love, even if we do not gain power culturally, we exercise power spiritually.  And that’s a better kind of power anyway.

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[1] Bradley Campbell & Jason Manning, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” Comparative Psychology 13 (2014): 692-726.

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” The Atlantic (9.11.2015).

October 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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