Monday, November 25, 2013

The Legend of Tom Turkey

There was this bird.  He was big as birds come, and quite a lot smarter than most would give him credit. He wasn't much to look at, though.  Some might say he was born old--not in the precocious sense or in terms of wisdom, just in the prunish way an old man would appear after living out his eighty years in Death Valley.  The bird's name was Tom.

Tom didn't live alone. Actually, he lived among quite a large flock.  Trouble was, old Tom felt quite alone.  The other birds ignored him; nothing Tom did seemed to alter this sad situation, either.  It got so bad Tom concluded he had an image problem, and he decided to do something about it.

Being the brightest bulb of the bunch, Tom tried to gain notoriety through his strengths.  He set up an old pail he found lying around, stood up on it, cleared his throat, and read his paper on the quantum implications of farm life.  No one listened and no one cared; before long, old Tom was really alone.

Undeterred, Tom tore his tee-shirt, lit up a cigarette butt Farmer Brown had dropped on the ground, and yelled through the wire to the girl on the other side, "STELLA!"  She promptly closed the window.

Next, Tom started listening to Bing Crosby records; and after fashioning a pipe from a corn cob, he began crooning to the chics.  I can't tell you their reaction, because this blog is G-rated.

Then one afternoon Farmer Brown came on the scene carrying an ax.  Tom thought the only way to impress the gang is if he acted tough.  So Tom courageously approached the surprised Farmer Brown and with his best bravado, said, "You talking to me?  I say, are YOU talking to me?"  Tom looked around to see if this would finally cause everyone to notice him; but it didn't.  The onlookers just went on with their fowl business.  Tom didn't have much time to regret this, because Farmer Brown called Tom's bluff.  The next day at about two o'clock--after the football game had ended--the Brown family lined the dinner table and gave Tom the respect he had long sought in life.  Only now, when is was too late to do Tom any good, did those gathered around Tom shout in one accord, "Oh, what a magnificent bird!"

The moral of this tale is it's hard to soar like a turkey in a yard full of chickens.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Out of Creation

This week I experienced a conflation (i.e., fusing--sorry, I need to get out more often) of three media inputs (two books and a movie).  I just finished Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God.  This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to understand the proper relationships between science and the Bible.  Dr. Schroeder does a bang up job of explaining difficult scientific concepts to the uninitiated--a rare talent, indeed.  He goes a long way to show how neither the Bible nor science can prove the existence of God; but shows how the more science learns, the more difficult it becomes for it to deny the existence of God.  Dr. Schroeder does an excellent job of exegesis of the first chapter of Genesis, which alone is worth the price of the book.  And even though I concur with much of Schroeder's theology, I find him stumbling over the stumbling stone of Christ.  It may not be his intention, but after reading his book, I came away with the feeling that if humankind studies the universe long enough, humankind will find the Shalom with God--that is, justice will eventually come with our understanding of creation. Putting it another way, my impression is Dr. Schroeder is suggesting--and I could be misinterpreting him--we can find peace through creation.

I got to thinking about this because of something Dr. Wolterstorff said in his book Journey Toward Justice, which I had finished before reading Dr. Schroeder's book and therefore is the second member of my three media conflation.  As if commenting on what I believe Dr. Schroeder was advocating, here is what Dr. Wolterstorff said,

"Fundamental to modernity is a blending and secularizing of the story lines of Scripture in such a way that there is thought to be good ground within the natural order for expecting that society will someday be liberated from injustice and we will all flourish until we die full of years.  A few scientists have even speculated that a  technology will eventually be discovered that halts aging, thereby eliminating death due to old age.  Those who successfully dodge fatal accidents will retain the vigor, the agility, the curiosity,the libido, of a twenty-five-year-old.

This is optimism grounded in creation, not hope grounded in God." [N. P. Wolterstorff, Journey Toward Justice. Baker Academic (2013), p. 235.]

He is absolutely correct.  It is true we lack knowledge, or more importantly, we lack wisdom needed to bring Shalom.  But we cannot find this wisdom in creation because to believe so assumes the problem is only our ignorance; it's not.  There is something more fundamental blocking Shalom than just our ignorance. Here is where the third source of input to my week came in.

Every so often my wife and I hold a 50's Sci-Fi movie night at our home.  She usually purchases theatre style boxed candies such as Milk Duds, Junior Mints, and the like.  She also pops popping corn and doles it out to the guests in miniature pop corn containers reminiscent of the day.  We always start with a Loonie Toons cartoon, and then watch the main feature. Well, this weekend we had friends over for a double-feature.  We began with Porky Pig and Daffy Duck in The Ducksters and followed up with The Thing and Forbidden Planet.  It was after watching Forbidden Planet this present blog came together--the conflation I have been alluding to.

The story-line of Forbidden Planet is the discovery of a planet once occupied by the Krell.  The Krell had lived millions of years prior to the time of the story and had evolved their society over a couple of million years through technological and scientific advancement into a state of Shalom.  However, when they looked to eliminate all instrumentality from their existence (i.e., operate purely mentally) they rediscovered the truth that despite all their advancement there still remained deep in the core of their psyche, the id.  The id is of course the remnant of animal barbarism left over from their evolution from the primitive--or so says Freud. For this reason the Krell ended up destroying themselves, leaving only a powerful yet powerless technology for posterity.

The story of the Krell steers us to the fundamental barrier I mentioned above.  The barrier is the fact--despite popular belief to the contrary--humankind is not basically good, rather humankind is basically evil.  But this evil did not arise in us because of our primitive roots; even Dr. Schroeder asserts this fact by recognizing that humankind differs from their ancestors by virtue of the fact that God breathed His image into them.  No, humankind became evil because it chose to disengage itself from God who is the only source of goodness because only He is good.  The hubris of Adam and Eve was they could be good--that is, they could muster up the wisdom to keep Shalom--from within themselves--from creation.

Do you hear what I heard from these three seemingly disparate pieces of media?  Evil entered into humankind and therefore into the world because we believed we could find wisdom through creation! The revelation shines a whole new light on what Paul meant in his letter to the Romans:

"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes--His eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made.  So people are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give Him thanks, but became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." [Rom. 1:18-23 (NET)]

And justice continues to elude us because we continue to believe we will find Shalom through creation; it just isn't so, because such wisdom only resides in God.

Our only hope to Shalom we all seek is to reestablish the intimate relationship with God we were created to have and indeed must therefore have to truly live, which is Shalom.  And only God could make this possible for us because our evil blinds us to the truth.  And God has accomplished this through His son Jesus the Christ.  Failure to recognize this final and absolutely necessary piece to the puzzle of restored humankind is the stumbling block I mentioned earlier.

If we want to find the wisdom Dr. Schroeder recognizes we need, we must as Dr. Wolterstorff so beautifully explains move out of creation, because we are inherently evil as the Krell learned too late for their civilization.  To find Shalom we must leap out of creation and into the loving arms of Jesus--into the new creation that is His eternal kingdom.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should We Forgive an Unrepentant Person?

I am finishing up Nicholas P. Wolterstorff's freshly minted book, Journey Toward Justice.  It has been a challenging book for me--particularly in the categories of rights and forgiveness.  For this reason it is a good book, and certainly one I would recommend.

Professor Wolterstorff addresses an issue near and dear to all of us who care anything about relationships, I think; the topic is forgiveness.  I broached this subject in my own book, A Final Word on LOVE, so I was interested in his perspective, especially in light of the broader context of justice.

We all think about forgiveness frequently because life unfortunately is made up of events leading to either our need to forgive someone, or our need to be forgiven.  Some of us will harbor bitterness towards others, and that is that.  What Wolterstorff or I have to say on the matter will likely matter little to those of that persuasion.  But the rest of us see a value to forgiveness--if only a self-interested one--that is, we know bitterness eats the embittered soul alive; and forgiveness is a good vaccine against such cancer.

As a Christian, I know God fully expects me to forgive others.  Indeed, Jesus leaves no room in this:

"For if you forgive people their trespasses, your Father in Heaven will also forgive you.  If you don't forgive people (their trespasses), neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." [Matt. 6:14,15]

The Greek construction here is quite emphatic.  Jesus is saying if the front end statement (protasis) is true (i.e., if you forgive others...) then the end statement (apodosis) will always be the case (God will forgive you).  The corollary is therefore also emphatically meant: If I don't forgive others, then God will not forgive me.

Wolterstorff would stand on this; yet he and many others I know also believe you cannot, nor should not forgive someone who hasn't repented.  He quotes Luke 17:3-4 as showing even Jesus invoking repentance as a necessary condition for our decision to forgive someone.  He argues that even though Jesus clearly teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us and do not repay evil for evil but evil with good, Jesus never teaches us to forgive our enemy. Wolterstorff further argues God doesn't forgive us if we don't repent--that is, the necessary but not sufficient condition of receiving God's forgiveness is our repentance.

In practical terms, Wolterstorff believes if we forgive someone who doesn't repent, we are in effect saying his or her immoral action against us isn't really immoral; in fact, it doesn't matter, at all. Wolterstorff says the following of forgiving Hurbert, who has refused to repent of his deed against him:

"I submit that this is both to demean myself and to insult Hubert by refusing to treat him and what he did with full moral seriousness." [N.P. Wolterstorff Journey Toward Justice. Baker Academic (2013): p. 215]

I must confess, the good Professor almost had me convinced.  But I cannot accept his argument.  I cannot because I do not think any human being can love his enemy without forgiving his enemy.  An enemy is an enemy because they wrong us and continue to do so with no remorse.  How can anyone love such a person without forgiving him, when love requires fundamentally to treat the other person for his good because of his inherent worth (i.e., Wolterstorff's proper definition of human rights)--irrespective of his actions and disposition?  I ask again: How can we repay his evil with good, if we haven't forgiven him?  After all, forgivenness is to let go any obligation the other person might own us. How can we possibility love someone while still holding an account against the person?

I suppose it is theoretically possible for a person to pigeon-hole his complaints against someone, so he or she can treat the person as if those complaints don't really exist, and therefore love the other person without forgiving him.  But such a thing just doesn't jibe with what I know of human nature.  If I don't forgive someone, I will be embittered towards the person.  I may be able to keep my bitterness in check by not beating him up, or slashing his tires, but I will harbor bitterness against him.  The problem is our understanding of the love God calls us to.  Love is not only avoiding hurting the person in some outward sense, but in any sense.  And harboring bitterness--whether acted upon, or not--is hurting the person and therefore not loving the person.  This is what Jesus meant when He equated murder with anger (Matt. 5:21-26).  Certainly it is wrong to murder someone; yet if we harbor unresolved anger (unforgiveness) toward someone we will eventually murder them, either physically, emotionally, or politically; and therefore if we cling to our unforgiveness, we have already murdered our offenders.  Bitterness is an unavoidable consequence of not forgiving someone.  And bitterness is contrary to love.

The present world system sees the only way for people to face their actions is to force them to live the consequences of their actions.  Therefore, if I forgive an unrepentant person--so the argument goes--he or she will not have to live the consequences of his or her actions (i.e., whatever our unforgiveness delivers the offender).  This makes sense to us because we are children of this world system; its logic is hardwired into us.  But God is calling us to His kingdom system.  And even though it may seem counter-intuitive, the only real hope of our offenders coming to face their offenses is if they see true love expressed to them--regardless of their current disposition.  This is how Jesus brought us to see our Sin; Jesus loved us with the supreme act of mercy and forgiveness by dying on the cross--even though He was perfectly innocent.

If I follow the world's method, I submit the offender will rarely if ever come to face his or her own demons because he or she will be too preoccupied with either taking revenge against me for my unforgiveness, or proving why he or she had been justified in wronging me in the first place.  But, if I respond according to the methods of God's kingdom, the offender has a good chance of seeing his or her faults, and--guess what--will likely come to repentance.  Not always, of course.  But I don't love someone only because I expect or demand the right response, rather because I hope for the right response--this is the real beauty and promise of God's kingdom. Besides, I am not responsible with what an unrepentant offender does or does not do with my forgiveness; that is between him or her and God.

Therefore, I must always forgive people, regardless of whether they are repentant or not.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Birdseye View

I love to look at aerial photos of marathons.  You might think I feel this way because I'm inspired by a mass of humanity striving towards a goal.  I suppose I should, but that's not the reason.  Besides, it's a race; so even though they are in mass moving toward a prize, they are competing with each other--not exactly a model of cooperative human achievement.  However, I suppose at any given race there are those whose sole objective is to win at all costs, and those running to prove something to themselves or others who might be watching them, and those who are running simply to give meaning to all the long hours of exercise and training.  For most people involved, the marathon is a social event and therefore a good picture of the human community.  This is good, and I doff my hat to them, but it is not what it is about these birds eye view glimpses of these meets that captures my imagination.

What I think about when looking at these pictures is how each one of those dots of color is a person. And as such, each one comes with his or her own life.  Each one has dreams, ambitions, loves, hates, fears, pasts, secrets, hurts, gifts, joys, and heartaches.  All of them have sandwiched themselves together--perhaps for the first and last time--and then separate according to ability.  At the end of the day, most will have crossed the finished line.  The winner will carry his or her reward home; the rest will mark off the experience with a joy of accomplishment, a bested time, or a charlie horse.  And some had earlier dropped out along the way.  But flying high above them, I don't know them or their outcomes; I only see tiny figurines.  And I marvel how this is only a small sampling of the human race--past, present, and future.  I'm struck by an indescribable sense of wonder.

There is, of course, another perspective of this spectacle.  I'm reminded of the scene in the movie The Third Man, where Harry Lime is talking with his best friend while riding in a gondola on a Ferris wheel. Harry's friend had learned of Lime's nefarious activities of killing little children through a black marketing scam.  Lime justifies himself by asking his friend if he had the chance to make ten or twenty thousand dollars, but it would mean some of those dots moving around below would have to disappear, wouldn't he do it?  Therefore some people looking at the same aerial photo I am don't see persons, they see opportunities to advance themselves.  The grim truth is even if they were to come face to face with some of those dots, they will still see them as objects.  How else can you explain the long history of exploitation, murder, and betrayal?

Fortunately for all of us, God does not see us this way.  The really amazing thing about looking at that aerial picture is it is in one sense exactly how God sees us.  God sees us as a collective--as a community--and smiles broadly because He created us to be a community with Him; this is what is meant by the kingdom of God. It is the wonderful gift of Christ that we can be a community of people who love each other--mutually supporting each other for the benefit of the other so the created purpose of God's kingdom is accomplished.  God wants His kingdom to be unified, and has accomplished this in Christ--such a picture of beauty for us to contemplate.

Yet God is not only interested in the collective; God cherishes each individual as if each one were the only one.  When God looks down and sees the sea of dots, He sees persons.  And not only does He see them as persons, He knows each one of those dots intimately in every way, even much more than the persons know themselves.  And this knowledge is not just analytical on God's part, but the result of a deep abiding investment of love for each person because He has ascribed great worth to each of them. This is perhaps the most beautiful thing of all: "what is man that you are mindful of him..." says the Psalmist.  Do you now begin to understand how much God loves you?

Even though from God's birds eye view you might think you are but a mere speck to Him. Think again; you are a precious child He longs to embrace with love that is life forever.