Posted by: 15shekels | December 12, 2010

Eve’s Dangerous Legacy

Merryweather: Sweet princess…from this slumber you shall wake, when true love’s kiss, the spell shall break.
Chorus: [singing] For true love conquers all!
-Sleeping Beauty, Disney version

“You can have my soul. I don’t want it without you – it’s yours already!”
-Bella, Twilight New Moon

“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)
-The Bible

The words of the curse echo from the garden of Eden through history. It makes great movies, but shatters lives—the idol of romance.

When Eve rebelled against God in the garden, this was part of her punishment. It is a complex prescription, foretelling ugly power struggles as well as outsized desire. For these purposes I want to discuss that outsized desire (I suppose I’m not ready to give up my power struggles). It is a desire that whispers impossible promises in the hearts of women. If you find the right boyfriend/husband, you will be happy. If you find him, you will be beautiful, worthy, secure.

We usually deny it, in this age of independence, career women, and casual sex. We insist that we have evolved past Eve and her chains. But Hollywood sees through our charade. Billions of dollars don’t lie—from the fairy tales we glue ourselves to as children, to teen dramas like Twilight, to romantic epics like Titanic—those tickets don’t buy themselves. In the secret places in our hearts, we love to watch movies in which romance is of life and death importance, the only thing worth pursuing. These movies end with the couple overcoming a conflict to “end up together,” the credits rolling before their life together really begins (if it’s a comedy) or with a tragic but bittersweet death that parts the lovers, but with the hint of immortal significance (if it’s a drama).

What’s the danger in indulging our inner romantics? Can I really be calling fairy tales dangerous?

Romantic movies, while they can fan the flame of our idolatry, are merely symptoms of this deeply rooted problem. They are not the problem (and I will continue to watch them until proven otherwise). However, we do need to take the idol itself seriously. Whatever form it takes, when we worship romance, it takes a heavy toll on our relationships and on our hearts.

First, when we believe that a romantic relationship should be the source of meaning and fulfillment in our lives, we set a trap for our significant others. No man can live up to the prince we have created in our minds. He isn’t supposed to. When we treat boyfriends or husbands like gods, then every mistake they make, every careless statement, tears our self-images and world-views to shreds. We either start our search afresh, insisting that “I thought he was the one, but he wasn’t” or we suffer unnecessary and constant disappointment.

(I should clarify that men can idolize love, or often sex, as foolishly as women. But because I think this idol, thanks to Eve, is particularly tempting to women, I focus on our perspective for now).

Many marriages end these days because the couple claims that they have “fallen out of love.” With the purely feelings-based definition of love that Hollywood and our lying hearts have endorsed, I find it amazing that any marriage stays together.

Equally tragic is the toll of this idol on women who do not find a romantic partner, or find him later than they would have hoped. Life is not worth living without love, we hear and believe. Single women are pathetic, we hear and believe. Bridget Jones is funny, but only because laughing at our fear makes us feel stronger.

In a way, modernist feminism is on the right track, insisting that women don’t need men to be happy. But its fatal mistake is trying to replace the romance idol with other flimsy idols like career, sex or power. These can’t carry our hearts any better than romance can.

There is only one thing that can shatter this idol, and it happens to be a romance far more epic and beautiful than any between a man and a woman:

“‘Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.’
‘In that day,’ declares the Lord,
‘you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.'” -Hosea 3:14-16

We were not created to worship romance; we were created to worship God. An all-perfect, all-powerful, fiercely protective, endlessly loving God who adores each of us so much that he left heaven to enter our broken world and be tortured and murdered, so that each of us could be with Him forever. Is that not the most romantic story that has ever been told? It is only when we let the truth of this story sink deep into our hearts that we will feel worthy, beautiful and fulfilled.

It is only then that we realize we do not need earthly romance to be happy. If we don’t find it, we already have overflowing love. And if we do find it, we can love each other in a healthy way, because we stand side by side worshiping God, rather than gazing into each other’s eyes and worshiping each other. When we understand that we are all sinners who deserve death, forgiven by God’s grace, we are able to love each other as broken sinners, and extend grace to each other. When we understand that we have already been rescued, we can stop demanding that we rescue each other.

Oh, and if a fairy-tale ending is what you want, here’s a real one:

“No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” -Revelation 22:3-5

Posted by: 15shekels | November 2, 2010

What’s in a Name?

“Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” -Logan Pearsall Smith

“Bob Marley isn’t my name. I don’t even know my name yet.” -Bob Marley

In modern America, names are not considered a big deal. Some names were changed by authorities at Ellis Island, some names are changed to be more memorable when their owners seek fame. I will always remember the girl in my elementary school classes who would calmly tell teachers, “Your sheet says Mallory, but call me Galeena.” It wasn’t her middle name. It was a name she had made up that she preferred. It seems that easy—if you don’t like your name, you can choose a new one.

In the Bible, however, names do matter. They matter so much that God often changes someone’s name when He calls them into His service:

-After Jacob wrestles with God, God gives him a name which means “he strives with God”—”Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Genesis 32:28)

-When Simon the fisherman confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus gives him a name meaning “rock”: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 16:17-19)

There are many other important name changes in the Bible, most occurring at important transitions: Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Saul becomes Paul. If names were just superficial labels, they would not need to be changed. But in Biblical history, names are closely tied with identity. When God renames somebody, He is making them a new creation, a new person.

Courtesy of Epic Bloom

I was thinking about this concept a week ago, when I was in Phnom Penh meeting with girls who had been rescued from sexual slavery. The women who run one of the aftercare and training centers for former victims told me that they often sing the song, “I Will Change Your Name” with the girls at the center. Most of these girls have grown up hearing only derogatory names: perhaps Worthless and Burden by their families; Dog and Whore by their captors and pimps. They have been told they are nothing, and most of them, somewhere along the line, start to believe it. One can imagine how powerful these lyrics might be to them:

I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, outcast
Lonely or afraid

I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness
Overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face.
-D.J. Butler

The girls can rename themselves, and many of them do, choosing a new name to signify their fresh starts. When they are brought into a loving environment, they are addressed with care and tenderness, and this can be incredibly healing. But in truth, only God can change a name in a way that is identity-shifting, heart-restoring. He has the power to wash us clean, to make us new:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17

When someone accepts this invitation to be “in Christ,” their identity is transformed in a millisecond: From sinner to saved; from “object of wrath” to “seated with him in the heavenly realms;” (Ephesians 2) from prostitute to bride. In Cambodian culture, there is a saying that “men are like gold, women are like white cloth,” meaning that women, once impure or soiled, lose their value, while men can always retain their shine and worth. The truth is, as sinners who fall short of the glory of God, we are all soiled cloth. But God, in his rich mercy through Jesus, has ordained a trade: Jesus’s eternally white cloth for our soiled ones. The “bottled essence of our past behavior” is swapped for Jesus’s “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). Whatever awful things we have done, or whatever has been unjustly done to us—these things no longer define us. The King places crowns on our heads, as we have become His sons and daughters. And those are shining gold crowns that cannot be soiled.

This is not a message only for trafficking victims. We sing “I Will Change Your Name” with teenagers during the summer, and tears flow freely. Mine have been among them. We all seek our identity and worth from things other than God, and these things let us down. If I define myself by what my friends think of me, then when rejected I am Outcast or Unlikable. If I define myself by my success, then when I fail I am Inadequate or Worthless. In my heart I have called myself all of these names, and many others: Unlovable, Ugly, Uninteresting, the list is long. It is only when we seek our identity in Christ that we realize that the names given to us by the king are the only ones that matter:

“Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness
Overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face.”

Posted by: 15shekels | September 16, 2010

Who really wants his heart broken? Part II

Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” -1 John 5:14-15

Almost one full year ago, I posted my prayer for a broken heart, echoing the prayer of Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision—

“Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.”

In the post, I expressed frustration. It seemed like no matter how much I learned about suffering and injustice, I had an infuriating habit of switching within minutes from deep compassion for those affected to the superficial details of my day-to-day life. How could I go running, or do laundry, or watch a comedy, unaffected and undisturbed, when people were being murdered and raped? I was disgusted with myself.

A year later, I had almost forgotten about my prayer when I was asked to speak to a group about my upcoming trip to Cambodia to do anti-trafficking prevention and aftercare work. The group to whom I was speaking had recently read “The Hole in our Gospel,” and the leader asked me share any ways in which the book had inspired me on my current path.

That’s when it struck me like a lightning bolt—my heart has been broken. God has laid heavily upon my heart the issue of human trafficking and exploitation, the 27 million people who are enslaved around the world. I have spent the last year reading everything I could on the subject, horrified but unable to turn away. I have read first-hand accounts of girls as young as three, four, five, being held by force in sexual slavery and raped several times a day. I have read about 12-year-old runaways in New York City who have been manipulated by pimps into believing that they are only lovable if they sell their bodies. I have read about child laborers and child soldiers, and my heart has cracked open in shock and horror. But God hasn’t just laid this issue upon my heart to crush me beneath it. He has also called me to action.

I am going to Cambodia next month to work with trafficking prevention campaigns, anti-trafficking non-profits, and aftercare centers. I will be doing craft projects with girls who only days before were working in brothels. The trip practically dropped into my lap, as I received an email about it two hours after praying for an opportunity to serve. As I started fundraising, financial support and prayers flooded in on me lavishly. God is providing.

In addition, I am currently applying to law schools (hence the months of silence on this blog) in order to better understand the laws against trafficking and the barriers that prevent these laws from effectively protecting victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. God has laid this issue so heavily on my heart that it has profoundly shaped the direction of my life and goals. My heart has also softened for those who, in stark contrast to trafficking victims, have every imaginable material comfort, but are hurting deeply emotionally or spiritually. God’s heart does not break only for the poor, and He has opened my eyes to pain in a variety of places.

And yet I had completely forgotten to say thank you. I hadn’t even noticed that the events of the past year are all a powerful answer to a heartfelt prayer. The truth is, God didn’t answer my prayer in the way I expected. I don’t walk around all day so burdened by the pain of the world that I can’t find joy in life. And I’ve learned that not only would such pain make me ineffective in responding to it, but that God, in breaking our hearts for injustice, doesn’t want to strip our lives of joy. To the contrary, He wants to bring us into the joy and excitement of advancing His kingdom on earth, of carrying His light into darkness and watching Him set the captives free through our obedience to Him. I know that the work I am pursuing will be frustrating, often fruitless, greatly disillusioning. But I take comfort in the fact that we follow a Lord who brought the salvation of the world out of a bloody death on a cross. It is not up to me to analyze His effectiveness. I just pray for the courage to show up and serve:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” -Joshua 1:9

Posted by: 15shekels | July 10, 2010

It’s (Not) About You.

“I think of life itself now as a wonderful play that I’ve written for myself, and so my purpose is to have the utmost fun playing my part.”  ~Shirley MacLaine

“You are the center of your universe, and you can make anything happen.” -Ashley Smith

It is common for science teachers to laugh affectionately at their ancestors when they inform their classes that for centuries, mankind believed that the sun and stars revolved around the earth. How silly—they imply—that they could have thought we were the center of the universe.

They usually miss the irony that each one of them, and each one of us, still lives as if we are the center of the universe. Of course, we know now that the earth is one tiny planet in one of many solar systems, in one of many galaxies, and that we are one tiny ant crawling on that one tiny planet. And yet each one of us lives as if not only our planet, but our individual life, is at the center of it all.

It’s one of the most absurd symptoms of our sinfulness. We know how tiny and insignificant we are in the scheme of everything, and yet we believe with our whole hearts that it’s all about us.

In his book, Crazy Love, Francis Chan describes the phenomenon of our silly self-centeredness:

“Suppose you are an extra in an upcoming movie. You will probably scrutinize that one scene where hundreds of people are milling around, just waiting for that two-fifths of a second when you can see the back of your head…What if you rent out the theater on opening night and invite all your friends and family to come see the new movie about you? People will say, ‘You’re an idiot! How could you think this movie is about you?‘” (Chan, Crazy Love, page 42)

From the moment we come out of the womb crying, we are little bundles of selfishness. Feed me, give me toys, stay up all night taking care of me. It could be argued that a baby doesn’t know any better, but it continues into adulthood, doesn’t it? Our parents might tell us along the way that “it’s not about you” or to “serve others” but they also tell us to “chase your dreams”, “follow your heart” and “do what makes you happy.” Our individualistic American dream has fed the fire in each of us, and we honestly believe that life is about achieving, climbing and winning—by our own power, and for our own glory.

Self-help aisles in bookstores testify to our belief that the ultimate goals in life are to be happy and successful. Self-help authors gamble on the probability that their customers will never finish their 20-step programs to happiness. Because if they do, the profitable illusion will be shattered, and they will learn that striving for one’s own happiness and fulfillment is a Catch-22. As I learned on my honeymoon, the problem with getting everything you want is the realization that none of the things that promise personal happiness are sufficient to fulfill us.

The good news, counterintuitively, is that it’s not about us at all. Chan’s movie analogy, quoted above, continues:

“Now consider the movie of life…God created the world. (Were you alive then? Was God talking to you when He proclaimed ‘It is good’ about all He had just made?) Then people rebel against God (who, if you haven’t realized it yet, is the main character in this movie)…[Chan goes on to describe God’s interactions with Abraham, Joseph and the patriarchs]…And then, the climax: The Son of God is born among the people whom God still somehow loves. While in this world, the Son teaches His followers what true love looks like. Then the Son of God dies and is resurrected and goes back up to be with God. And even though the movie isn’t quite finished yet, we know what the last scene holds…the throne room of God. Here every being worships God who sits on the throne, for He alone is worthy to be praised…From start to finish, this movie is obviously about God. He is the main character…We have only our two-fifths-of-a-second-long scene to live. I don’t know about you, but I want my two-fifths of a second to be about my making much of God.” (pages 43-44)

Accepting that it’s not about us may seem disappointing and joy-killing. But in truth, don’t we all want to live for something bigger than ourselves? We’ve all tasted the joy of getting swept up in collective worship—whether it’s at a great concert, or a rally for a cause, or a memorial for a beloved friend. Self-consciousness slips away in the delight of something bigger and more beautiful. It’s because our hearts weren’t designed to seek self-fulfillment. They were designed to worship and serve the biggest and most beautiful thing of all—God. And I can say with complete certainty that my life has been more fulfilling, joyful and exciting since I realized it’s not about me at all.

Christianity presents a radically different message from that of our culture. The call is to set aside my needs and my desires to serve the King of Glory:

“Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.'” -Mark 8:34-35

Jesus calls us to serve Him, instead of ourselves. For serving Him is the only path to life. The astonishing side-note is that the main character of this movie not only knows each of the extras, but loves them individually and intimately, like a son or daughter. The God whom all of life is actually about knows how many hairs are on your head (Matthew 10:30). The main character sent his beloved Son to die so that you could be with Him in paradise forever. He loves us so much that even when we continue to live as if it’s all about us—and we do, even as Christians, every day—He takes us back. Dare to consider that the perfect, beautiful, everlasting main character of this story loves you more than you can fathom. It’s truly absurd. Consider that, and it will change your life. But hopefully, that will no longer be the point.

Posted by: 15shekels | May 30, 2010

Inefficient Travelers

“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” -Come, Thou Fount

“These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan…(It takes eleven days to go from Horeb [Mt. Sinai] to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.) In the fortieth year…east of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound on this law…” -Deuteronomy 1:2-3, 5

It was recently pointed out to me that the above passage from Deuteronomy contains one of the best parenthetical statements in the Bible. It’s easy to miss, and yet it concisely captures one of the overarching themes of human history.

Despite God’s past acts of love and faithfulness, and His promises to care for us, we drag our feet in following Him.

Deuteronomy 1:2 tells us that it should have taken the Israelites 11 days to travel from Mt. Sinai (where Moses receives the law) to the edge of Canaan, the promised land. And they made it to Canaan’s border relatively quickly. Somehow, though, it took them 40 years to enter the promised land. The book of Deuteronomy begins 40 years after they set out, with Moses speaking to the Israelites “east of the Jordan”—meaning they had still not crossed into Canaan. 40 years later, and they had not entered the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 14:8) that God had promised to them and led them right up to. 40 years to make a trip of 11 days. Why? Because then, as now, despite God’s faithfulness in our lives, we never seem to trust Him to lead us. We are such inefficient travelers.

When I experience this in my own life—a reluctance to obey God because I think I know better—I often think that I just need proof that He delivers on His promises, that He has my best interest at heart. Lord, just show me that you’ll come through for me, and I’ll gladly obey. And yet the story of the Israelites in the desert reminds me that God needing to “prove Himself” is rarely the actual problem.

When the Israelites set out from Mt. Sinai for Canaan, they had just experienced dramatic evidence that God fulfills His promises and protects His people. He had just delivered them out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12), led them through the Red Sea on dry ground (Exodus 14), rained bread and quail from heaven to feed them (Exodus 16), and sent water flowing out of a rock (Exodus 17). God, who doesn’t need to prove Himself to anyone, had demonstrated to the Israelites over and over that He would take care of them.

But instead of trusting Him, the people doubted, questioned and grumbled, refusing to enter the land because they were afraid of the people living there:

“That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword?…We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.'” (Numbers 14:1-4)

My eyes widen when I read of the Israelites’ hardheartedness and inability to trust God. Then I realize how often I say the same thing to Him. I reflect on the past three years, and see the overwhelming evidence of God’s hand in my life. I remind myself that He has welcomed me into a relationship with Him at infinitely great cost to Himself—at the cost of His beloved son. And I see that over and over, He has cared for me and rescued me from harm, not just with the promise of heaven, but in concrete ways in this life. But somehow, I forget these truths a thousand times a day, and my stubborn feet turn back toward Egypt, to the things I trusted and relied upon before I knew God.

The happy ending of the Israelites’ story is that they did enter Canaan. Despite their many rebellions, God never gave up on them, and they eventually entered the land. He also kept another, more important promise to them—a promise to redeem the world through one of their descendants. So the story ends well. But there is a cost to their lack of trust. While the Israelites as a whole did survive, the majority of the original members of the group perished in the desert, with only two of them entering Canaan with the next generation. Because of their own stubbornness, most of the desert wanderers missed out on a lifetime of milk and honey.

For us, the good news is that because God kept His promise and redeemed the world through Jesus, those who accept Him will enter the ultimate promised land of heaven, of eternal life with God. Just like the Israelites “made it,” we, too, will “make it” to our destination. But how often do we miss out on the “milk and honey” God has for us in this world because we grumble, doubt, and continually go running back to Egypt and the chains of slavery? Sure, following Him can be dangerous, and may lead to suffering and pain. But He has said it is always worth it. How differently would we live if we genuinely believed the following words of Moses?:

“Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” -Deut. 1:30-31

The truth is, in this world we will always be inefficient travelers, slow to trust our loving Father, running in circles around His gifts. But luckily for us, He is unbelievably patient with His children. And I believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, our stubborn feet can slowly be trained to turn from Egypt toward Canaan—it is a constant process, as they are always shuffling west—toward milk, honey, and an adventure far greater than a lifetime of slavery or desert wandering.

Posted by: 15shekels | May 16, 2010

Shiny Lies

We have a habit of trying to stretch thin, shiny lies over the world to make it appear tamer, to make it appear safe. We paint these lies onto the scenery with inspirational speeches, words of sympathy, sadly, sometimes even sermons. We mean well with our sentimental, shiny lies—proclamations that people are basically good, that the world is beautiful and magical, that things always work out for the best. And often, we apply them so artfully that we fool ourselves, and we can saunter through life with no idea that our worldview has a layer of fake wrapping paper over it.

It is a dangerous game, however. For when tragedy hits, it gashes holes in our protective lies, and we are shocked to see the brutally broken world, starkly exposed. If we have made the further mistake of calling these shiny lies religion, we are left even colder. Tragedy will rip a prosperity gospel to shreds in a millisecond.

I recently heard this brutal shock described poignantly from an unexpected source. I was watching One Tree Hill, every teenager’s favorite television show, that I somehow never outgrew. One of the characters, Haley, is beautiful and happily married. She has a son, a successful music career and wonderful friends. But when Haley’s mom dies suddenly of cancer, her shiny worldview is ripped apart, and Haley slips rapidly into depression. She describes, without apology, her sense of hopelessness:

“It all just seems so fake. This idea that good things happen to good people and there’s magic in the world and the meek and righteous will inherit it. There’s too many good people who suffer for something like that to be true. There’s too many prayers that go unanswered. Every day we ignore how completely broken this world is and we tell ourselves it’s all going to be ok. ‘You’re going to be ok!’ But it’s not ok. And once you know that, there’s no going back. There’s no magic in the world. At least not today there isn’t.”

I wanted to cheer for this fictional character because she was on to something—something real and true. Things don’t always work out for the best. The world is broken, and ugly and fallen. There’s more to the story, though, because our fallen world didn’t fall spontaneously. It was ripped apart a very long time ago.

In the beginning, God created paradise and lovingly placed man at the center of it (Genesis 2). But we had barely set foot in it before we rebelled against God and used our free will to desecrate his gift to us. The damage from that first rebellion has echoed through history—Christians call it sin—and it has eaten away at the beauty and safety of the world like a disease. Sin, which originates in our hearts (Mark 7:20-23) is the driving force behind murders, rapes and genocides. It is also the force behind the quieter evils like betrayal, greed and selfishness. And at the center of these evils is sin’s biggest victory—the source of Haley’s pain—death.

When we try to paint over or ignore these dark elements of the world, we set ourselves on a path to shock and disillusionment. Even if we manage to avoid watching the news, coming into contact with the poor and sick, and loving people who can hurt us, we can’t hide from the ugliness within ourselves.

Acknowledging the brokenness is a crucial first step. But what to say to someone in Haley’s position? I could write about the hope of heaven that we have through Christ’s death and resurrection. I could write about God’s promise to one day come in judgment and glory and restore the earth to the paradise it once was. But perhaps the most comforting response is simpler.

Sometimes in the midst of pain, the only comfort is the knowledge of how God responded to the mess that we made of his gift. Yes, He was angry. But He didn’t sit on a cloud in heaven, shake his head in disappointment and leave us to face the consequences, as we deserved. Instead, He entered into the brokenness and pain, and took the suffering and sins of the world onto Himself. As John R.W. Stott describes so poignantly, sometimes our only comfort is the sight of a broken man on a cross:

“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.” -John R. W. Stott, “The Cross of Christ,” pages 335-336. Quoted in Gary Haugen, “Good News About Injustice,” pages 114-115.

There’s nothing shiny about the cross, and it certainly isn’t wrapped in pretty paper. But beneath the blood and the gore, we just might find the greatest gift mankind has ever received.

Posted by: 15shekels | May 8, 2010

…conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities…

Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara, Raskolnikov, Yossarian, Dorian Gray, Billy Pilgrim, Jay Gatsby, Leopold Bloom: these are the selfish, cowardly, sometimes murderous anti-heroes of modern literature. Defined by Webster’s as “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities,” we love anti-heroes because, when we’re honest, they remind us of ourselves.

Tragic and irredeemable, antiheroes are rarely depicted as having religious faith of any kind. And the truth is, when we encounter the cowards, the murderers, the failures of real life, we usually assume they are not deeply religious or in regular conversation with God. How quickly we forget that the “heroes” of the Bible act far more often like the anti-heroes of cynical post-modernism than the dashing leads in fairy tales:

-Abraham doubted God’s promises to give him an heir, so he slept with his wife’s maidservant (Genesis 16).

-When God called him, Moses refused several times, begging him to send someone else (Exodus 4).

-King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed so that he could marry her (2 Samuel 11).

-Peter doubted Jesus in his mission (Mark 8:32), denied Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-72) after Jesus was arrested, and was nowhere to be found during the crucifixion.

We often talk about the dramatic conversion of Saul (who became St. Paul) as an example of God’s mercy toward sinners—Saul was persecuting the young church, arresting and approving the killing of Christians (Acts 8:3), when Jesus spoke to him from heaven and turned him into a leader of the church (Acts 9). We point to Paul with pride to show that nobody is ever “too far gone” for God to rescue and redeem.

Paul shaped up after his conversion. We are less likely, however, to remember that many of the Bible’s antiheroes have encountered God, experienced miracles, and are actively doing God’s work in the world, yet are still miserably antiheroic in their behavior.

Why doesn’t God give up on these men of such weak character? Why doesn’t he fill the Bible with tales of heroic godly men, men with deep integrity?

Perhaps God chose these obvious anti-heroes so that nobody would forget that there is only one hero in the 66 books of the Bible.

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

The truth is, we bring nothing to God except our sin. We deserve none of the applause or credit. It is God who gives us the desire for Him, God who reveals Himself to us, God who rescues and redeems and works in us through the Holy Spirit to gradually make us more like Him. In every one of the stories of the Bible, God is the hero. In fact, in the story of mankind, that began with the first humans and continues today, the overarching adventure narrative is one of our failure and our sin, and God’s rescue. We are the anti-hero. We are always the anti-hero. But there is also a hero—the God who came to earth to die for us and bring us back into relationship with Him.

If, in my worldview, I imagine myself as the main character, it is difficult to admit my flaws, because I will try to be a hero. If, however, I can admit that I am merely an extra in this ancient narrative, a victim who needs rescuing—an antihero, even—I can rejoice not in my own power, but in the victories of the great hero.

“I hear the Savior say,
‘Thy strength indeed is small;
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.'”

-“Jesus Paid It All”

Posted by: 15shekels | April 18, 2010

Back up the sunbeam

“In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world produce greater power and scope for our abilities and a deeper joy and fulfillment.” -Tim Keller, The Reason for God, page 46.

“I said [to the Christian man with whom I was speaking], ‘I don’t know about all of this. I want to be free to get drunk and party and live the way I want.’ He just smiled and said, ‘But are you free not to do those things?'” -S., recalling a conversation from high school.

When I was in college, I thought Christians were boring. I should be more specific—I thought that Christians who let their faith affect their lifestyles were boring. I heard that they were “waiting for marriage.” I heard that they not only went to church, but also met during the week to pray and read the Bible. I even heard that some of them didn’t drink until they turned 21. I didn’t understand them, I felt judged by them, and I generally chose to steer a wide radius around them. Who lives like that in college?

By the end of my sophomore year, I was spiritually curious, but I filtered through potential faith options in a 100% utilitarian fashion. The Catholicism I remembered from my childhood was boring, so that was out. The strain of conservative Protestantism paraded around by the above-mentioned goody-goodys was obviously out. I took classes on Eastern religions, but I was unsatisfied by philosophies that strove to achieve nothingness, or claimed that every single piece of the world, including mass atrocities, was part of God.

And so I improvised. I made my  religion a la carte binder, and I tried to custom-design a belief-system that contained the most comfortable, unthreatening, and inspiring elements of each religion. Anything that contained restrictions on my freedom was clearly not to be included.

I loved that binder—until I started to notice the many, many contradictions within it. At that point, I was becoming a philosophy major, and the cognitive dissonance of believing something that was logically incoherent became too much for me. I decided that my search was earnestly naive, and that I should probably just join most of my peers in their agnostic intellectualist hedonism. It was a philosophy in which words like truth and transcendence were thrown around to make people sound smart, but social freedom was never, ever encroached upon. Rules were heresy.

Thankfully, God is more stubborn than I am. And thankfully He chose to lead me to (or knock me over the head with) a few realizations:

  1. In the off-chance that any religion was true, perhaps I needed to explore all of the information. Ignoring the uncomfortable parts of belief-systems not only narrowed my pool of evidence, but it also led me to omit the most compelling pieces. It’s easy to be deceived into believing that the secret to life is seeking pleasure. But why would anyone let himself be deceived into believing in a God who calls for sacrifices?
  2. The story of Christianity, also known as the gospel, made more logical sense than anything else I learned in college.
  3. The freedoms and pleasures I had defended so fiercely were disappointing me. As I chased after the god of Fun, I found that he was always running away or hiding from me. When I cornered him every once in a while, I was always underwhelmed: Fun was kind of short, ugly and mean.

Pure hedonism is tragic, because it latches onto the gifts of the creator and worships them, rather than worshiping the source from which all good things flow. There is a reason we enjoy alcohol and parties and sex. Believe it or not, God created these things as gifts for us to enjoy. But as Tim Keller explains above, they are given to us with “liberating restrictions.” Too much alcohol makes us do things we regret, and leaves us feeling terrible the next day. Sex with many different people leaves us feeling cheapened and used, and diminishes the thrill as it becomes routine. We aren’t cheating God when we take his gifts and worship them or gorge on them. We are cheating ourselves. Chasing pleasure is the surest way to kill it.

We can, however, follow the pleasure rainbow to the pot of gold:

“Pleasures are shafts of glory as it strikes our sensibility…But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them ‘bad pleasures’ I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean ‘pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.’ It is the stealing of the apples that is bad, not the sweetness…I have tried since…to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration…Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” -C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, pages 89-90. Quoted in John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God. Page 18.

As we approach the source, pleasure is increased, not decreased. Of course, before signing onto any faith, a person must explore for herself whether the religion is logical and supported by evidence. Whether or not Christianity is true is a different conversation entirely. But don’t avoid asking those questions because you are too busy chasing that ugly munchkin.

One last caveat: The Christian life leads to the source of joy, but that doesn’t mean it is an easy path. Following Christ involves great sacrifices, and real suffering. Furthermore, even when we know that God is the source of all goodness, we will at times veer off the path to run after Fun, or after his equally underwhelming friends Excitement, Achievement, Wealth and Passion. But on the path we have a leader, the Son who has both cut the path through the wilderness, and promised to lead us home. He gently calls us into direct sunlight, no matter how many times we try to run backwards along those sunbeams into the darkness.

Posted by: 15shekels | March 30, 2010

An unusual birthday party

This past Sunday at church, our pastor shared the following story about sociologist and preacher Tony Campolo:

A few years ago, jet lag and hunger led Campolo to a Honolulu diner at 3 a.m. The group of prostitutes who came into the same diner every night at 3:30 a.m. weren’t used to having company, and when they arrived, they sat on either side of Tony and ignored him. So of course he overheard when one of the girls said to her friend that the next day was her 39th birthday. Her friend bit back sarcastically, “What do you want me to do? Sing happy birthday? Do you want a cake? Do you want a party?” The first girl responded, “Look, I don’t want anything. I’m just telling you it’s my birthday…I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I don’t expect to have one now.” As soon as the girls left, Campolo, moved, suggested to Harry the diner owner that they plan a birthday party for Agnes. Campolo showed up the next morning at 2:30 to decorate, Harry made a cake, and by 3:15 a.m. “every single prostitute in Honolulu was squeezed into this diner.” When Agnes and her friends walked in, everyone shouted, “Happy birthday Agnes!” and began to sing as Agnes sank down on a stool and started to cry. Later, during an awkward silence, Campolo suggested that they pray:

“I prayed that God would make her new, because we’re here to declare the good news. And no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, Jesus can make you new. When I finished the prayer, Harry leaned across the counter and said, ‘Hey Campolo. You told us you were a sociologist. You’re a preacher! What kind of church you preaching?’ And in one of those moments when you come up with just the right words, I said, ‘I preach in a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.’ I’ll never forget his response. Never. He said, ‘No you don’t…I would join a church like that.'”

Of course Harry didn’t believe him. But as Campolo said in response, “That is the kind of church Jesus came to create.” And Jesus did create that kind of church, literally and figuratively, even though we, in our snobbery, have done our best to steer the church in other directions.

First, literally, Jesus came to bring hope and joy to sinners, and he lived this out. While Jesus walked on earth he spent most of his time with the most obvious sinners he could find. While feasting with “tax collectors and sinners,” he told the furious Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) In one of his most famous parables, Jesus tells of a younger son who squanders his inheritance in wild living and returns home sheepish. His father, who represents God, runs out to meet him, throws his arms around him and throws him a great feast. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:24) Jesus is in the business of throwing parties for sinners. His offer of forgiveness and new life is available to every single person on the planet, and as it turns out, it’s often the biggest screw ups who accept first. Many of us forget this, and instead stand outside the feast grumbling at the riff-raff being let in.

But this leads me to my second point—that figuratively, Jesus is leading a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes. First, I must point out an uncomfortable truth:

We are all prostitutes.

God created each of us for spiritual monogamy, to love and worship Him alone. But every single one of us has turned away and lusted after other things—money, career, power, beauty, loved ones, service, even ministry. None of these things are intrinsically bad, and many are blessings in our lives, but when we turn to them for fulfillment and identity, we are worshipping idols and cheating on God. In the book of Hosea, God speaks of his people, Israel, as an unfaithful wife, and as a prostitute: “Let her remove the adulterous look from her face, and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts…You have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing-floor.” (Hosea 2:2; 9:1). In an extended metaphor in Ezekiel, God again compares his people to a prostitute: “How weak-willed you are, declares the Sovereign Lord, when you do all these things, acting like a brazen prostitute!” (Ezekiel 16:30)

Spiritual prostitution is much worse than literal prostitution, and the consequences of our idolatry are that we deserve death, and eternal separation from God.

But Jesus is in the business of throwing birthday parties for whores.

When Jesus died on the cross, nearby the giant curtain of the temple that separated the Most Holy Place from the people ripped from top to bottom. When Jesus atoned for the sins of the world, sinners were granted access to God. And as the curtain ripped, the doors of the party were thrown open. Invitations went out to everyone who has ever lived or will ever live. Invitations to a birthday party—our own: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).

But there’s more. Not only does the mighty king of the universe throw birthday parties for prostitutes, he goes a step further. He is planning a wedding for a prostitute—and it’s His own wedding. Sure, it was nice of Tony Campolo to buy Agnes a cake. But can you imagine if he had proposed?

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Husbands are called to model themselves after the ultimate bridegroom—Jesus himself. Jesus didn’t just die so that his friends could go to heaven. He died so that his bride could come to her own wedding:

“‘For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.'” (Revelation 19:7-8)

So what kind of church am I preaching? What is Christianity really about?

It’s the story of a God who followed a prostitute he loved very much into a dirty diner to bring her a white wedding dress, and an invitation to a wedding feast.

Posted by: 15shekels | March 13, 2010

A Lesson in Arguing

From majoring in philosophy, studying for the LSATs, and arguing my way through life (first with my parents, now with my husband), I have learned an important fact about arguments. Before making or challenging one, it is crucial to find any hidden premises, sometimes called assumptions or inferences.

First, a brief LSAT tutorial (stick with me, scientists and economists; I swear I have a point): An argument is comprised of premises, and a conclusion that follows from the premises. Here is an example of an argument:

1. I always eat ice cream on Wednesdays (premise)
2. Yesterday was a Wednesday (premise)
Therefore: 3. I ate ice cream yesterday (conclusion)

When attacking an argument, one may argue that a premise is false (You don’t always eat ice cream on Wednesdays). This is to call the argument unsound. The other option is to argue that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. This is to call the argument invalid. An invalid argument would be: 1. I always eat ice cream on Wednesdays. 2. Yesterday was Friday. 3. I ate ice cream yesterday. Even if the premises are both true, the conclusion doesn’t follow.

Sometimes an argument will contain a hidden premise: a premise that isn’t stated, but is necessary to lead to the conclusion. Here is a classic example of an argument with a hidden premise:

1. All men are mortal.
Therefore: 2. Socrates is mortal.

The hidden premise, in this case, would be that: 1b. Socrates is a man.

In a more practical case, suppose Bill says to his wife, Mary:

You didn’t take the garbage out, so you are a bad wife.

The hidden premise would be: Only bad wives don’t take the garbage out.

In order to defend herself, Mary could either deny the first premise (which is risky, as it would probably be a flat-out lie), or she could identify and argue against the hidden premise, by saying: It is not true that failing to take out the garbage makes me a bad wife. I think taking out the garbage is a husband’s job. You should have done it.

Failing to recognize a hidden premise in one’s own reasoning can be a quick way to lose an argument. In others cases, it can have much graver consequences. In a famous story from Jesus’ early ministry, Jesus healed a man who was completely paralyzed. First, however, he told the man that his sins were forgiven. His actions enraged the Pharisees:

“Some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” -Mark 2:6-7

The Pharisees were making the following argument:

1. Only God can forgive sins.
2. Jesus has claimed to have the authority to forgive sins.
Therefore: 3. Jesus is claiming to be God.
Therefore: 4. Jesus is blaspheming.

The Pharisees did not put into words their crucially important assumption:

3b. Jesus is not God.

Nobody present would have argued with premises 1 or 2. So perhaps it appeared that the Pharisees had an airtight argument. Tragically, though, it was the premise the Pharisees thought too obvious to mention that contained their error. Because they assumed that Jesus could not be God, no amount of evidence would convince them otherwise. Even when he performed miraculous healings in front of them; even when he raised people from the dead, they grasped for any alternative explanation.

People today continue to make the mistake of ignoring important hidden premises when they argue against Christianity. A classic example is the argument that Christianity cannot be true, because it claims that miracles exist. They argue that:

1. Miracles do not exist.
2. Christianity claims that miracles do exist.
Therefore: 3. Christianity is false.

Here is another LSAT definition:

Circular argument: An argument that assumes what it is trying to prove, thus committing a logical fallacy.

The above argument is circular, for the following reason: A miracle is defined as an event for which there is no natural explanation. To say that miracles do not exist is to say that nothing exists apart from the natural world. But Christianity states that there is a supernatural God who intervenes in His natural creation. The hidden premise in the above argument, then, is that 1a. Christianity and the God of Christianity are false. But this is exactly what the argument is trying to prove.

In other words, to say that miracles do not exist is really to say that there isn’t a God who performs miracles. Because if God created the natural order, is it that difficult to believe that he might occasionally intervene or suspend it? If God himself decided to come to earth and suffer death for the sake of His children, isn’t it at least possible that He wouldn’t have stayed dead?

Some people assume that because much about the world is explainable in scientific and natural terms, that there cannot be supernatural reasons for anything, and that there cannot be a supernatural force who created the natural order. These are dangerous assumptions.

As Tim Keller argues in “The Reason for God,” skeptics must “doubt their doubts” as robustly as they doubt others’ beliefs. He goes further to say that even those who call themselves indifferent must check the assumptions underneath their indifference:

“All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B…Some will respond to all this, ‘My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about God one way or another. I simply feel no need for God and I am not interested in thinking about it.’ But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of God is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn’t feel the need for him.” -Keller, Reason for God, pages xvii-xviii.

When we approach the question of God, surely the responsible approach is to search our hearts for hidden assumptions and premises. If we suspend the assumptions we cannot prove to consider the possibility that God exists, then we are at least free to consider the evidence for Him—evidence we might find shockingly compelling.

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