Rio 2016 and ‘the Gigantic Figure of One Person’

Rio 2016 and ‘the Gigantic Figure of One Person’

I love watching the summer Olympics. The winter Olympics are fun to watch too but I much prefer the summer games over the winter games (perhaps a bit ironic since I live in Minnesota). I get caught up in the wonderful drama that plays out in this competitive theater. The fight and the determination of the athletes is inspiring to watch. Some magical moments are immortalized, like this one and this one. 10,500 athletes from 206 countries will participate in the Games of the XXXI Olympiad at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August.

I came across a quote from Ravi Zacharias in my recent studies,

Behind the debris of these self-styled, sullen supermen and imperial diplomatists, there stands the gigantic figure of one person, because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom alone mankind might still have hope. The person of Jesus Christ (HT: Justin Taylor).

Zacharias’ insight follows a quote from Malcom Muggeridge who observed that nations and rulers are fleeting, and with them any promises of hope they offered. You may wonder what the connection is between Rio 2016 and this citation. Rio de Janeiro is the location of Christ the Redeemer statue. It was completed in 1931. It is an immense statue: 98 feet tall and the arms span 92 feet. It overlooks the city of Rio from a height of 2,300 feet. Its magnitude has led to its inclusion as one of the new seven wonders of the world. It is an imposing image when seen from below. It depicts Christ with open arms who is at one and the same time both sovereign Lord and inviting Savior. It is a reminder of what Zacharias observed. The world will see during the Rio 2016 Olympic games that indeed, “there stands the gigantic figure of one person in whom alone mankind might still have hope.”

Christ_on_Corcovado_mountain(Image source)

 

Is So-Called Gender Reassignment Really a Matter of Rearranging Organs?

gender_identity1Transgenderism is next on the cultural agenda according to Time magazine. The Daily Beast ran a story yesterday reporting that Obamacare will pay for gender reassignment procedures.  What we cannot miss in all of this is that worldview very much influences the whole transgender debate. So much for the worn out phrase liberals like to throw around, “you cannot legislate morality.”  What they really mean by this is “you can’t legislate your morality but we will legislate ours.”

In today’s edition of The Briefing, Al Mohler discussed an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution.”  The author is Paul McHugh, former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center. He made a very important contribution to the transgender discussion. His expertise and experience makes his perspective on this complex issue worth listening to.

“Sex change” is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women. Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.

It is worth reading McHugh’s article in its entirety, which you should do to interact honestly and fairly with it.  But what he says makes us realize that this issue is far more complex than simply rearranging organs.  The so-called gender reassignment process may make things worse before it makes them better.

The Virginia Tech Massacre – Some Afterthoughts

The deadliest mass shooting in US history occurred Monday morning, April 18th.  The total deaths as of this post are 33.  The killer is a young man who was deeply troubled, to say the least.  This entire event is beyond perplexing and vexing.  It is perplexing because of the ever-present problem of evil in our world and the existence of a God who is sovereign and good.  It is vexing because one wonders why Cho Seung-Hui felt it necessary to take the lives of so many.

To begin with let me say that pastors do not have a corner on the mind of God.  We ought not pretend to have an answer to the indefatigable, unavoidable, and understandable “why?” question in times like this.  Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us that God’s thoughts are infinitely beyond ours: 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. [9] For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Moreover, the “why?” question is not always for us to know and therefore we are wise to restrain curiosity or it will eat us alive from the inside out.  Deuteronomy 29:29 says:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God.

Therefore, we are wise to have humility be the light that guides our intellect and exercise discernment as a rudder that directs our response to this horrendous incident.  It is all to easy to be visceral at times like this; I am certainly no exception.

There are four problems that I’d like to consider on the surface in the aftermath of this profound tragedy.  Perhaps these may lead to more significant discussions.  It is my desire that this becomes a discussion rather than perceived as a lecture.  I invite the reader to engage me as I attempt to work through these profound problems.

First, The Problem of Evil: Evil is ubiquitous.  What transpired on Monday was nothing short of evil.  It is a grim reminder that evil is around us – this is what ubiquitous means, all-around, ever-present.  I suggest that we consider two perspectives in light of this event: A) the evil carried out by this young man in not new.  What happened was shocking, horrific, appalling, catastrophic, etc. but as we look back in history, even recent history, this is not the first of its kind nor will it be the last.  This is in no way intended to minimize these killings; it is instead an observation that cannot be overlooked.  My point is simply that evil is a reality in our world and this is one heinous manifestation of it.  B) Events like this give shape to our worldview.  The word “evil” is defined by this massacre.  The lines of “good” and “evil” are less fuzzy than we might think.  This event challenges us to consider that perhaps there is, after all, less gray area in defining “good” and “evil.”  Let me also say that this is a bleak reminder that evil is not only around us but also in us.  Jeremiah 17:9 teaches us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  Beyond a doubt, Seung-Hui had a sick heart, but the Bible tells us that we all do.  This truth is called the “depravity of man.”  This means that every single person (without exception) are affected by sin (cf. Genesis 3:1-7) in all facets of his being: intellect, emotions, and will.  While I make a theological assertion, the anecdotal evidence certainly supports, rather than refutes, my statement.  Indeed, today a man took the life of a hostage and his own at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.  Also consider this incredible account:

“Holocaust survivor Yehiel Dinur was a witness during the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi ‘final solution’ during World War II. Eichmann presided over the slaughter of millions. ‘The court was hushed as a victim confronted a butcher.’ Suddenly Dinur broke into uncontrollable sobs, and collapsed to the floor. When asked later to explain his actions, he said, ‘I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am capable to do this…Exactly like he.’ The reporter who interviewed Dinur concluded that the most chilling fact about Adolph Eichmann was that he was normal. ‘Eichmann is in all of us’” (read the artcile here)

It is shocking for you to hear that there is a Cho Seung-Hui in all of us?  We are all depraved, some manifest it to a greater degree than others, but depraved nevertheless.  Having said this, evil in the world is a reality that will remain with us until the Lord rules and reigns in righteousness.  Evil exists, but not forever.  The question is, what has a good and sovereign God done about this matter of evil now? 

Second, the problem of justice: blood shed in vain?  When these incredible tragedies occur, the last life often taken is the killer’s own.  This has been true in several high-profile murders, including the Columbine shootings. This phenomenon raises the question if these killers do this in a cognitive state of sanity rather than insanity – which would undoubtedly be used to defend Seung-Hui.  This final murder (by taking their own life) suggests that they are well aware the consequences that will follow and are too cowardly to face them.  So when or how will Seung-Hui “face the music?”  Did he go out on his own terms or is there an account yet to come? 

Justice is contingent on the existence of a judge.  But what judge can exercise jurisprudence beyond the grave?  What is more, it is presupposed that this judge has observed the externals actions and even knows internal motivation for such an act.  The existence of a holy, righteous God is vital to answering this question.  If one is an atheist, there will be no justice ever brought upon Seung-Hui.  He has spilled the blood of other humans and perhaps ceased to exist.  If one is an agnostic, at best, one can only hope that something or someone exists out there who will make Seung-Hui give an account for his actions.  The Christian however understands that our thoughts, words, and deeds are always beheld by at least an audience of One—the Judge of the earth.  He observes all things” Proverbs 15:3 “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”  Genesis 18:25 says “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  Who is being referred to here?  It is Jehovah, or the LORD.  Not only is He a judge, God is a righteous, just Judge that does not look upon evil lightly.  Psalm 7:11 states: “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.”  Moreover, Psalm 50:6 “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge!”  His holiness allows Him to exercise judgment without partiality.  Psalm 67:4 declares “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity.”  In other words, from a Christian perspective, Seung-Hui did not go out on his own terms and without having justice carried out.  In the second following his death, Seung-Hui stood before this righteous God with blood on his hands, as it were.  He has received the just reward for his heinous actions. 

Consider for a moment now that because God the Judge of the Universe is holy, He must judge all wrong.  This means that He sees your actions: “the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3); your thoughts:  “the Lord—knows the thoughts of man” (Psalm 94:11); and your motives: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind” (Jeremiah 17:1).  All moral infractions: lying, cheating, stealing, fornication, adultery, drunkenness, etc. require a penalty.  The penalty for sin is separation from a holy God in a place called hell.  We are told in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”  Let me put this as plainly as I can put this: sin—all sin—requires a penalty because God’s righteous law has been broken.  How can we stand right before God?  We cannot stand righteous by earning righteous or “making up” for the sins we have committed.  He can a sinful person attain to the standard of a holy God?  It can’t happen.  We require a righteousness which is alien to us.  We can stand righteous, or not guilty, before God only by having the righteousness of God in Christ credited to our account.  How is this credited to our account?  Simply by believing the gospel—nothing more, nothing less (cf. Romans 1:16; 2 Corinthians 5:21). 

So, rest assured, Seung-Hui has given an account for his actions.  The problem of justice is that we too must all give an account to this holy, righteous Judge.

Third, The Problem of God: A Jack-in-the-Box God.  Not too long ago, a now infamous Minnesota Governor stated “religion is the opium of the people” citing Karl Marx.  Taken at face-value there is truth in this statement.  Notice that the statement mentions religion not Christianity.  Perhaps orthodox Christianity is what was partially in view but it was likely more inclusive.  Nevertheless, I would agree that religion is an opiate of the masses.  This is all too evident during events like this.

Think of the recent history of our country: prayer was banned in schools; the Ten Commandments essentially forbidden in governmental centers; students must refrain from mentioning God or Christ in their speeches; and Creation and “intelligent design” are anathema in schools.  All this points to the expulsion of God from the public square.  God is not welcome in our daily lives.  However, when disaster strikes we invoke Him and His comfort and His blessing and the security of knowing that our loved ones are “in a better place.”  Psalm 23 is read aloud; “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” becomes our anthem; and the bagpipes are heard playing “Amazing Grace.”  God has become nothing more than a divine shoulder-to-cry on who we expect to pop-up like a jack-in-the-box when we wind it up.  This is tragic, but certainly a sign of the times.   

Perhaps some of you wonder if God exists (and I whole-heartedly believe He does), why would He allow such tradgedies to occur.  There are two instances where God ordained moral evil for the purposes of His greater good.  You may remember the account of Joseph.  His brothers were jealous of him.  So much so that they threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.  He was taken off into Egypt.  In time, he found favor with Pharaoh and become a very high-ranking official in Pharaoh’s government.  Joseph eventually meets his brothers again when they are in need of food during a famine.  Joseph says to them: Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers when they fear his vengeance, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”   Furthermore, we have the quintessential example of moral evil when Jesus was subjected to the cruel death of Roman crucifixion.  Acts 4:27-28, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”   These two passages clearly show that God is sovereign over all events in the world.  IN other words God is sovereign.  This quote serves my purposes quite well and indeed, states it far better than I could:

So the answer to the question in the title of this message, “Is God less glorious because he ordained that evil be?” is no, just the opposite. God is more glorious for having conceived and created and governed a world like this with all its evil. The effort to absolve him by denying his foreknowledge of sin (as we saw this afternoon) or by denying his control of sin (which we have seen this evening) is fatal, and a great dishonor to his word and his wisdom. Evangelicals, who are seeking the glory of God, look well to the teaching of your churches and your schools. But most of all look well to your souls.

If you would see God’s glory and savor his glory and magnify his glory in this world, do not remain wavering before the sovereignty of God in the face of great evil. Take his book in your hand, plead for his Spirit of illumination and humility and trust, and settle this matter, that you might be unshakable in the day of your own calamity. My prayer is that what I have said will sharpen and deepen your God-entranced world view, and that in the day of your loss you will be like Job who, when he lost all his children, fell down and worshipped, and said, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD”  (I would commend the reading of this entire sermon). 

In short, we must remember that 1) this event did not catch God by surprise for He does not slumber nor sleep; indeed, He ordains all that transpires in the world.  2)  God is most glorified when we realize His full and free sovereignty over the affairs of our lives.  The problem of God is always set before us in a way that cannot be overlooked.  When tragedies like these occur, they point us to a greater reality than our leisure, fishing, hunting, a weekend at the cabin, summer vacations, and fulfilling the American dream.  The point us to a transcendent Reality; a God who ordains everything in this world and one who loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, that whoever believes in Him, should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).  It is likely that in a short time, if not already, we have already pushed Him back down and closed the lid waiting to crank the handle when the next tragedy occurs.      

Fourth, The Problem of Reality: Now what?  The final problem is what do we do in light of such tragic events?  We can quickly set it behind us and move on slightly more fearful of our future.  We might also press on with a greater resolve to not allow such acts keep us from living in a constant state of fear.  Or perhaps it might lead us to ponder a greater reality; one that transcends this life.  I hope the latter option is the path you choose.  If it is, please read this. 

American Idolatry

The show American Idol has reached a fevered pitch.  It’s following is phenomenal.  It is riding a wave of massive popularity in American popular culture.  Indeed, it has international influence.   This year’s season premiere had 82 million viewers! 

America is feeding a voracious appetite for such a TV show in American culture.   What entertains a culture is often an indicator of the moral condition of its people.  For instance, think back to ancient Rome.  Leisure and entertainment played a significant role in its culture.  Among its entertainment were theater, the arts, and the killing of Christians.  Tacitus, a non-Christian Roman historian recounts the status of Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign.  In particular, he documents how Christians were used as scapegoats for the great fire in Rome in 64 AD:

Yet no human effort, no princely largess nor offerings to the gods could make that infamous rumor disappear that Nero had somehow ordered the fire. Therefore, in order to abolish that rumor, Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians, who were infamous for their abominations. The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius; and though repressed, this destructive superstition erupted again, not only through Judea, which was the origin of this evil, but also through the city of Rome, to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated. Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race. And perishing they were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle and performed a Circus game, in the habit of a charioteer mixing with the plebs or driving about the race-course. Even though they were clearly guilty and merited being made the most recent example of the consequences of crime, people began to pity these sufferers, because they were consumed not for the public good but on account of the fierceness of one man.

Now, let me clearly say that I’m not likening America to Rome nor am I asserting that watching American Idol as the moral equivalent of killing Christians.  However, what I am saying is that just as powerful and mighty as the Roman Empire was, it was also mighty in its depravity and its entertainment was indicative of this.  So what does our entertainment say about 21st century America?   I think our entertainment provides at least three insights into the status of American morality. 

First, we are infatuated with death.  If you think I’m off base with this observation, just walk into your local Best Buy and see what the hottest selling video games are.  

Second, those who are held up highest often are the basest among us.  One’s response to this one may be that this is a “holier-than-thou” statement.  In one sense, I certainly hope this is true.   Think of the recent death of Anna Nicole Smith.  Her death was the cover story last Friday after her sudden death.  The facts about her life is that she began as an exotic dancer in her early 20’s, she married a man 63 years her elder, gained prominence as a playmate, and finally died at age 39.  Even posthumously, a paternity battle continues with three men in the mix.  Virtue is not an adjective that can be used of Anna Nicole and yet her death made news in American culture.  This should alarm us.  These people are worshipped.  This is popularity in American culture, it is idolatry in Christianity. 

Third, the values that are set forth in the movies and TV shows we watch and therefore that are inculcated into the up and coming generation lead to a dismal view of the future of American morality.  Adultery, deceit, fowl language. murder, rape, homosexuality, and many other vices that cannot be named are regularly present in our entertainment.  Certainly we are discerning enough to discern between reality and a movie, aren’t we?  One wonders why these vices become increasingly more prominent in society if this is indeed the case. 

 To many, these thoughts are simply the rantings of a Puritanical pastor.  I should note that there are many who have over the last few decades observed the rapid decay of morality in American Culture who are not Pastors.  From Robert Bork (Slouching Towards Gomorrah) to Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) to Michael Medved (Hollywood Vs. America), these and others have expressed a similar concern over the last couple of decades.  C.S. Lewis succinctly summarized the American appetite for entertainment: “Our passions are not too strong, they are too weak.  We are far too easily pleased.”  America has allowed itself to become morally desensitized skillfully by Hollywood, like a frog in a kettle.  How easily pleased we truly have become. 

The Wrong Name

 
The recent hanging of Saddam Hussein as a news story has seen its zenith come and go. As predicted there has been outrage and eulogizing from Saddam loyalists to smiles and elation from those who despised and experienced the brutality which characterized his dictatorship. One sentiment that is scarcely seen is sadness. You just don’t find many pictures of bitter weeping and mourning his death, though there are a few. To put it bluntly, many people hated him. There is one account throughout the whole event that caught my interest. It has been reported that just before the floor dropped out of the gallows he was reciting the “‘Shahada,’ a Muslim prayer that says there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger, according to an unabridged copy of the same tape, apparently shot with a camera phone and posted on a Web site. Saddam made it to midway through his second recitation of the verse. His last word was Muhammad” (“Saddam Hussein’s Brutal Reign Ends in the Gallows“).  He died with the wrong name on his lips as he entered eternity. He now knows salvation is not in Allah and Muhammad but in the true and only God, Yahweh, and His Son Jesus Christ.I felt in my heart an odd sort of compassion for the former dictator of Iraq. A compassion that he did not know the One before whom he would stand in judgment in a few breaths. This was a very pointed reminder that anyone who dies without Christ will spend an eternity in hell, whether they were a vile dictator or a morally upright person. Though many people hated him, God loved him enough to send His Son to die for his sins – and yours, and mine (John 3:16). It was a grim yet necessary reminder that we need to view our neighbors, our friends, perhaps our family, the cashier in the grocery store, the waitress at a restaurant, the co-worker who sits next to us, the vendors with whom we do business as sinners who are perishing unless they appropriate the person and work of Christ by faith for their sins. This is the good news of the gospel. Those who do not hear or receive it will also die with the wrong name on their lips.

We take heart in the gospel for it remains “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). However, how does the gospel go forth? God has chosen us to be His mouthpiece (Romans 10:14). The word of God will go forth and accomplish its purpose in each heart as God chooses. Augustine said “The locked up heart cannot keep you out. No matter how hard and stiff a man’s heart may be, it cannot resist the touch of your hand. You unlock it whenever you wish, whether for mercy or for justice” (Augustine, Confessions, 5:1). What greater confidence can we have in the gospel than the fact that God goes before it? Duty is ours to share the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:20), conversion belongs to God by justifying the sinner (Romans 3:26).

Why then has the evangelical church become so determined to add garnish to the gospel (as if it needs it)? How about living a life that becomes the gospel (Philippians 1:27) so that the power of the gospel is evident in our lives. The witness of a life truly changed by the gospel is far more powerful than a power team who throws, lifts, jerks, and squats thousands of pounds to “wow” people into listening to the gospel. The Thessalonians admonish us that the responsibility to spread the gospel rests upon all Christians not just the “professionals” (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8). Let us be reminded the simplicity of the gospel trumps Madison Avenue-the pure, simple, beautiful, powerful gospel can change lives in the 21st century just as it did in the 1st century. Acts 4:12 “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The Emerging Church

As I merge onto the information super-highway, my inaugural post will deal with something that has captured my attention since I first became aware of it: the emerging (or emergent) church. This is fairly recent movement that lays claim to reforming the church. Some of its adherents prefer to call it a “conversation.” It is going strong in the UK, Australia, and the US in addition to some growth in Brazil and Canada. Even a mind as keen and insightful as D.A. Carson observes it is a movement devoid of any real moorings or direction. He says: “I should stress that not only is the movement amorphorous; but its boundaries are ill-defined” (D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, 12). Perhaps this is intentional.

Brian McLaren, one of the fathers of this young movement, wrote a book entitled A Generous Orthodoxy. The subtitle: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN. What? Albert Mohler has provided an excellent analysis of the contents of the book (http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2005-02-16). The title of the book is undoubtedly intentionally evocative. It is also characteristic of the movement McLaren has nurtured. This movement is in part comprised of people who have been disenfranchised by conservative evangelical and sometimes fundamental churches. Don’t get me wrong, some of their criticisms should be given thoughtful consideration. Some conservative churches, including Baptist churches, have too often majored on the minors. I have spent some time in these kind of churches. I know from whence they come. However, does this require throwing out orthodoxy because of poor praxis?

Their “conversations” often take place in “cohorts” or the communal gatherings where a free exchange of ideas occurs. In these settings, authenticity trumps absolutes – as if one had to be pitted against the other (cf. Mike Yaconelli, ed., Stories of Emergence: Moving from Absolute to Authentic). As a GenX pastor, I am not afraid to rethink ministry methods. However, the faith that has been once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) is not up for discussion. It is what it is. We recently had a visitor pass through our young church plant. We ended up asking him to leave and never come back because of his desire to teach a false gospel. Not very “conversant” was it? I admit, it was a bit on the seeker insensitive side but then again, so was the Apostle Paul when it came to the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). We find ourselves in pretty good company.
As young a pastor who unapologetically adheres to the articles of faith that have defined the church for centuries, I grieve over my fellow GenX brothers. They have allowed themselves to be swept up by post-modernism and carried off into the abyss of a conversation that has a plethora of meanings and therefore no meaning at all. My fear is that God and the gospel has been lost and will never again be found in the emerging church movement. They are reforming the church into doctrinal oblivion. David Wells rightly observes that the reality of God “rests uneasily in the modern evangelical psyche” (Wells, No Place for Truth, 296). So it does in the emergent church.