Saturday, October 16, 2010

Historical Self-Righteousness

Self-righteousness is the attitude of the man who says, "I thank God that I am not like other men. I do all the right stuff. I don't do the wrong stuff. I stand alone on the moral mountain. I look down, and pity everyone else below, mired as they are in the moral sewer (cf. Lk. 18.9-14)."

Self-righteous people tend to:
1) Judge others for their mistakes, "You should have... How could you... "
2) Complain of how they have been slighted, "Everyone has done me wrong. Poor me."
3) Walk around with a sense of stupefied moral outrage, "I can't believe those people did that. How dare they! How could they?"
4) Assume they are the last righteous person on a sea of moral shipwrecks, "All those Christians are hypocrites."
5) Have a very high view of their own moral abilities, and supreme confidence in their own judgment, "I will never compromise. Even if all others stray, I'll stand strong. They failed, but I would have done better."

Generally, we speak of self-righteous people as they relate to their contemporaries, especially their family, friends, fellow workers, and even Church.

However, I believe self-righteousness can also show itself as we relate to our forefathers. Let's call this historical self-righteousness. This is the attitude of the person who looks back in history, condemns all who went before, and concludes that the present generation is the first (and only) morally clean seed of Adam.

Historical self-righteousness seems to be on the rise. Note, for example, how many scathing biographies have come out in recent years. The targets have included  men like George Washington, George Whitfield, Francis Schaeffer, and C.S. Lewis. The sole purpose of these biographies seems to be tearing down these lofty figures for all their supposed faults. The authors pride themselves on having a superior moral position.

I want to make a few simple points in response to this trend:

First -- I doubt you (Mr. Biographer) or I would have done better under similar circumstances. Remember, when we consider the great men of history, we are considering men that are gifted above most people who ever lived (including YOU and ME). Thus, I doubt we would have done better in their circumstances. I'm sure we would have done worse.

Second -- don't forget that we ourselves have our own generational sins. Our great-great grand children will look back, 100 years from now, and say, "How could those people have been so blind about .... Why didn't they do more to stop it... Did they really believe...?"

Third -- historical self-righteousness is as dangerous as any other self-righteousness. It separates you from past humanity because you are 'so superior.' It shuts your ears to what you might learn from previous generations. It cuts you off from the ability to see your own sins (or those of your own generation). It blinds you to your own need of God's grace.

So, as we look back on our forefathers, let us not have the basic attitude of self-righteousness. Instead, let us pray, "We are not worthy even to look up to heaven. God have mercy on us."

Finally, a word to biographers. Aren't we all biographers? Aren't we all engaged in processing the figures of history?  We 'write' the lives of those who went before us whenever we speak about them. This includes 'writing' about our grandparents and parents. This includes 'writing' about the heroes of history: Socrates, Julius Caeser, George Washington, et. al. This also includes 'writing' about the heroes of the faith: Augustine, Chrysostom, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis, et. al., and all who comprise the cloud of witnesses who went before us. All who, even now, are with Christ in glory.

My final word is a word of warning to all us biographers. This is from Michael Jose's review of A.N. Wilson's bitterly critical and self-righteous biography of C.S. Lewis:

"I am strongly reminded of the position in which John Betjeman's biographer, Bevis Hillier found himself. He tells us that he decided to avoid producing a 'critical biography', which is an illegitimate art-form, as it 'yokes together historical narrative and literary criticism'. This is Wilson's error, and he compounds it with his own repetitious and subjective brand of psychoanalysis. It is as if he cannot restrict himself to any one role, or even a coherent set of roles. He wants to be an honest broker, iconoclast, Devil's Advocate, psychoanalyst, literary critic, and historian by turns. He fails."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bad Dreams and the Good Fight

I sometimes feel like I am waking up from a bad dream. 

The sensation is like this... I see things, shocking things, before my eyes. 

"It can't be this bad," I mumble, in sleepy daze.

I rub my eyes, and listen for a moment. I'm aware that I am half asleep, half awake. As I'm waking, I look at the world around me with puzzlement. I see figures like ghosts. I see the lips of the ghosts moving, and I hear distant voices. They are muttering indistinct words about wealth, happiness, and personal peace. The ghosts are moving quickly, and stumbling recklessly. They are bent on cruelty. The cruelty is outlandish, almost too cruel to be real.

Faced with such cruelty, I comfort myself, "Thankfully, I dreamed this. I must have dreamed this. It can't be this bad."

Then, I realize -- I have been awake the whole time. It was worse than a bad dream. It was a bad reality. I only thought I was dreaming so I might, for a moment, escape from the stern world of reality.

I get this sensation every so often when someone does something truly cruel. I got this sensation almost daily when my mom was in ICU. I could hardly believe the way medical professionals treated my mother. Can people be this uncaring, this careless, this unprofessional? Again and again, I would rub my eyes, and hope it was a bad dream. It wasn't. That uncaring, that careless, that unprofessional? Yes, they can. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said beware of men.

Looking bad, this bad dream sensation is a recurring nightmare. Over the years, fairly frequently, I meet someone, and I walk away thinking, "Really? Could a person have that little love? That little sense of common humanity? Could a person be that blind?"

I rub my eyes, and try to focus. Perhaps my vision is skewed. People aren't capable of that kind of cruelty, really. I must be having a bad dream. Then, upon refocus, I get the picture perfectly clear. I see the facts. It wasn't a dream. It was reality. Yes, people can be that cruel. Paul wasn't kidding when he quoted David, who also wasn't kidding, 

"Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.There is no fear of God before their eyes."

For me, this kind of 'reality' is hard to take in. Maybe that is why I try and refocus. Maybe that is why I hope, for a moment, that it really is just a bad dream. Or perhaps -- I have wondered this of late -- I don't take seriously the doctrine of total depravity. 

You and I can day-dream about all the 'good' people. We can shrink back when the Bible says, "the heart is desperately wicked." But, facts are facts. The fact is, the sons of Adam are capable of astounding cruelty. The fact is, as Charles Spurgeon put it, you can't slander humanity. 

So, the sons of Adam are morally broken, and terribly twisted. This is reality. This is bad news, but news we must honestly face. You may, however, be surprised at what this news does to us. It makes us soldiers.

One consequence of really facing evil is -- one which may not be immediately clear -- is that when we see evil, we become ready to fight it. If we honestly face evil, then we stop making silly excuses like, 'people are really good... they have good motives... they really mean the best.' 

I'm convinced that a basic understanding of total depravity is the foundation for 'fighting the good fight.' Real evil calls us forth to battle. If, however, evil is only a 'bad dream,' we too easily excuse ourselves for going back to sleep.

My favorite example of a man who chose to fight evil is Al Pacino as the mayor in City Hall. I would encourage you to check out the whole speech here, but this is my favorite excerpt.

There was a palace that was a city. It was a palace! It was a palace and it can be a palace again! A palace in which there is no king or queen or dukes or earls or princes, but subjects all -- subjects beholden to each other, to make a better place to live. Is that too much to ask? Are we asking too much for this? Is it beyond our reach?! Because if it is, then we are nothing but sheep being herded to the final slaughterhouse! I will not go down that way! I choose to fight back! I choose to rise, not fall! I choose to live, not die!!

Now, if you know the movie City Hall, then you know that Pacino has to eventually face the corruption in his own heart. I won't ruin the ending for you, but I will say that he -- and the city he served -- would have been better off had he started the fight against evil in his own heart. So, I'm reminded that the fight against evil begins with myself. It begins, not by waging war 'out there,' but by waging 'the war within.'

The battle begins by knowing that we ourselves are capable of astounding cruelty. Facts are facts. There are many things in our hearts that belong on hell's bookshelf. We know this, we face it, and we confess that it is not a bad dream. It's the reality of a bad heart. When we face evil in our hearts with realism, it is at that moment that we are able to call it what it is, and start fighting. We face evil. We rub our eyes. We see it really is that bad. Then, we fight. Before, when we didn't think we were that bad, when we thought we were only dreaming -- we could have been excused for simply going back to sleep. Now, having seen the enemy within to be a real bad bad guy -- now, we fight. 

Men fall asleep easily enough when they don't sense the presence of a real enemy. Men, however, who know for a fact that evil is near -- these men stay awake. They arm themselves, and "watch, and pray." And, when they see the enemy coming, they say,
"I will not go down that way! I choose to fight back!"

Mom Goes To Rehab: A Perfect Day

On Friday, October 8th mom left ICU for a Rehab facility in Springfield, Missouri. This was the first time mom had left the ICU in 50 days. Her going to rehab was a benchmark in what has been a long and trying season. It was a benchmark of success, of mom's perseverance, and God's grace. 

There was a sense of accomplishment for my brother and I the day as we saw mom leaving the hospital. She'd spent 50 days in ICU. On her 5th day, her nurse told me to give up hope, and let mom go. From then until day 50, my brother and I engaged daily in fighting for mom's health, and making sure she had good care. We had to fight for basic things, like a clean and sanitary room. We had to fight for big things, like whether specialists should be brought in. We had to fight for everything in between. I'll write more on this later, but I want to try and communicate how hard this was, and how there was nothing easy about it. The whole time mom was in ICU seems now like a blur of war. We had to fight hard. We had to give everything we had. The Lord strengthened us considerably, and I felt we were fighting 'the battles of the Lord.' When I got tired, my brother stepped in, and when he got tired, I stepped in. Sometimes, we were both so tired, too tired to fight individually. In those times, we stood together, leaned on one another, and fought as one.

The day mom was transferred to rehab Billy and I walked out of the hospital to see her off. As we walked together, I placed my arm on his shoulder, and he lifted his arm around my back. Then, unprompted, and at the same time, we raised our hands. We had the feeling that, no matter what, we had given our all. And it had paid off. The fight had born fruit.

Maybe this is an encouragement for us all to persevere when things seem dark. At least, I hope it is an encouragement for us to fight. Fighting for the truth, for those we love, for what is right -- this is a hard life -- but I am convinced it is the God ordained way.

Here are my two favorite quotes on 'fighting hard' --

"I knew at that moment I'd given everything I had to give, total commitment. Not hold back anything. Like being truly clean and truly free as far as maximum effort. It is an emotional feeling, and emotional high that is basically unparalleled (Don Meredith)."

And this one from the movie Friday Night Lights:

"You all have known me for a while...and for a long time now,
you've been hearing me talk about being perfect. Well, I
want you to understand somethin'. To me, being
not about that scoreboard out there. It's not about winning.
It's about you and your relationship to yourself and your
family and your friends. Being perfect... is about being able
to look your friends in the eye...and know that you didn't
let them down. Because you told 'em the truth. And that truth
is, is that you did everything that you could. There wasn't
one more thing that you could've done. Can you live in that best you can with clear eyes...and love in your heart?
With joy in your heart?"

It was an emotional day, an emotional high, when mom left ICU. It was a respite after a long fight. We fought hard, as hard as we could -- but not us. Not us, but the grace of God within us.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Gnosticism and Sleep

I came across the following in Posterity Letters by Dorie McCullough Lawson:

"Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let you dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind (pg. 268)."

This is from a letter Benjamin and Julia Rush wrote to their son, John. This is such good sense, and such plain and practical advice that it startled me a little. What startled me even more was the realization that I have never preached a sermon with anything like similar advice.

I wonder in my heart of hearts if we are not more influenced by gnosticism than we know. Gnosticism is the heresy that only the spiritual/intellectual matters. The body is like a candy wrapper; it will soon (thankfully) be discarded. If we look at the world like this we will inevitably think it is more spiritual to, for example, stay up late preparing a sermon than to go to bed at a reasonable hour. If we are influenced by gnosticism, we will think it is more spiritual to go to a meeting than to go to the doctor.

Also, consider the pressures of our age, and the constant temptation to be a workaholic. We don't have time to even think about our physical health, much less actually attend to it. Pastors especially are tempted to neglect their physical health. One specific area of neglect is the area of sleep. Why is it we think it is more spiritual to sleep less? It probably has to do with the definition of success that we have inherited from the spirit of the age. Success is measured by hours worked.

My mom said something worthy of repeating to me today (her 33rd day in ICU). She said, "Son, why do you worry so much? If you trust God, you don't have to worry."

I believe this applies, at least to me, in the area of sleep. If I trusted God more, I'd sleep more. I'd know that he is kindly looking out for everything. He is awake when I am asleep. The work will get done, because He is the prime worker and, "He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." Why do we worry so much? Why do we sleep so little? If we trust God, we don't have to worry, and we will be able to sleep.

Monday, September 27, 2010

6th Avenue Hearthache... Heartache

The Wallflowers' classic "6th Avenue Heartache" is reportedly about Jakob Dylan's acquaintance with a homeless man in NY. He would often see the man in a certain spot with all his belongings. One day, suddenly, the man was gone. The song, it seems to me, is about how Dylan found himself connecting with this man.

Sirens ring, the shots ring out
A stranger cries, screams out loud
I had my world strapped against my back
I held my hands, never knew how to act

And the same black line that was drawn on you
Was drawn on me
And now it's drawn me in
6th Avenue heartache

Now, my experiences in the inner city with homeless men have taught me that 'the same black line that was drawn on you, was drawn on me.' I learned that we all have essentially the same struggles, essentially the same sins, and most important -- one, and only one hope. That is, Christ.

It was not hard for me to identify with men in the city who had spent years in prison, or years in gangs, or years in slavery to drugs. It wasn't hard -- even though I grew up in the country in a relatively sheltered environment. One of the greatest gifts God has given me over the years is a sense of need, 'what we need is need.' It was the grace of God that taught me just how much I needed grace. When I was able to see that I was literally in exactly the same position -- a needy, desperate sinner -- as the men I served, I found new avenues of genuine ministry opening up. I found, when I talked about my weaknesses, that they were willing to listen. The fact is, though, I don't have to make up weaknesses for the sake of connecting to people; I don't have to make up struggles with sin. I just had to be honest. I learned this in the inner city: every person we meet is really, really, really like us in at least this, "We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

The other things I learned from ministry to the homeless/ inner city youth.
 1) Blessed are the poor. A lady from a wealthier suburb of St. Louis asked me early on, "Is there any hope for these men?" I think she meant, "Any hope that they might get good jobs, live in nice houses, and achieve middle class status?" The answer to that is, "Being realistic... probably not." The real question, though, and the more important one was, and is, "Is there any hope for any of us to enter the Kingdom of God?" I answered the question I wished she'd asked, "Hope? There is more hope for these men than most of the people you live with and work with every day." I saw daily one recurring theme among the men -- they felt their own need. That is the beginning of hope.
2) It wasn't that bad -- for me. Working in the inner city gave me a new perspective on my life.I thought I had it pretty bad because my parents were divorced in college. Imagine my response when I witnessed young men who had no relationship at all with their fathers, and not much relationship with their mothers. Sure, my parents worked a lot. Sure, they had problems in their marriage. Still, they did stay together until I was in high school, and my dad was a real and enduring presence in my life. I used to think I had a rough childhood; I came to believe, after a year in the inner city, that God had been especially merciful to me in my family life.
3) Preach hard things courageously. The men in the shelter taught me to preach sermons on 'the hard sayings of Jesus.' Something about the desperation of the situation demanded this kind of preaching.
4) No, it's not always 'their fault.' One of the real hindrances to caring for suffering people is the mentality, "It's their fault." I used to think that men in a homeless shelter were invariably there because they drank too much, or didn't want to work hard. I learned that, very often, this kind of judgment was totally wrong. Certainly, there were men who had made terrible choices, and ended up homeless as a result, but this was not always the case. I will say that most men I ministered to explained their being in a homeless shelter as a combination of catastrophes AND bad choices. Some, however, were simply the recipients of a string of catastrophes that would crush anyone. One guy told me how his wife and daughters had been killed in a car accident. This sent him into a spiral that eventually left him homeless. Another man told me of how he had become disabled, lost his house, then both his parents all around the same time. This combination of disasters left him so shaken that he simply gave up. How would most of us fair if faced with similar disasters?

So, what do I take away from this season of ministry? A renewed passion for real life service of -- to borrow a phrase from R.M. McCheyne -- "God's poor."

Now walkin' home on those streets
The river winds move my feet
Subway steam, like silhouettes in dreams
They stood by me, just like moonbeams

And the same black line that was drawn on you
Was drawn on me
And now it's drawn me in
6th Avenue heartache

Sunday, September 26, 2010

St. Louis Photo Journal

My sister Trish -- she made a cake when I left for St. Louis. At the time, we all thought I was going to Afghanistan or Iraq as a Chaplain. Shortly thereafter the controversy arose about prayer in Jesus' name, and military officials began telling me -- in so many words -- that they wanted chaplains to not pray in Jesus name on certain occasions. Shortly thereafter, I said, "I can't work with you gentlemen."

Marty was one of my favorite men to work with at the Mission.
I also spent a lot of my time at the Mission working with teens. Here is our regular crowd. My co-laborer Jason is in the background.
At the teen center with Courtney. I worked with teens in St. Louis for a year and a half.

A snowy day at the Mission. I worked with homeless men, and men dealing with addiction, for a year and a half as well. It was not, as some may think, difficult ministry. The ministry itself was pure joy.

This is the view from the Mission.

Just after Mom arrived in St. Louis -- at the Zoo. A few months after mom moved to St. Louis she was diagnosed with cancer. She has fought a long and difficult battle to the glory of God. Her faith has shown brightly, and many have seen a clear Christian testimony through her trials. She remains sweet and gentle, loving and generous in her afflictions. She recently told me, "My only purpose in life is to honor the Lord."

Courtney -- one of my favorite young men -- the one time I let him win in wrestling. No matter the place or time, Courtney wanted to wrestle. Young men need christian fathers -- if for no other reason -- to wrestle with.
Doing some stunt man shots at Summer Camp. We had 6 young men, and 4 counselors. Our camp lasted 3 days. I was amazed to see what a difference it makes to have some sustained time of discipleship with these young men.
Taking a cookie break at Summer Camp.
Lunch time at Summer Camp.
Celebrating holidays as a family. Included in pic (Me, my bro Billy, Mom, and Step-Dad).This was last Thanksgiving.
Charles, Chris, and Alex at Twin Oaks Presbyterian. Maintenance men! The three of us dutifully cleaned and worked around the Church as a team for 8 months.
Me and Bro Billy at the Hospital. This was 8 days after mom was admitted to the ICU, when things were looking stern. During this time, I walked around the hospital grounds for 45 minutes and pleaded with God to deliver mom. I sent out numerous prayer requests. We had people all over America praying for mom. And, the Lord answered mightily.
A note on Billy. He is a picture of strength. He left everything (work, home) in South Carolina to come and help care for mom. Mom has now been in ICU 31 days, and has made steady improvements every day. But, we have had to fight hard with medical staff on a daily basis to make sure she gets dignifying and professional care. Mom recently asked me why all these afflictions were sent to her -- I responded by saying, "So that you will have a great story to the glory of God. These have come because of the love of God. Have you ever heard of a person who had an easy life, who sat on the couch all day and took it easy -- have you ever heard of such a person in a great story? No. In all the great stories there is hardship and trial, and by the grace of God, the person overcomes those trials. That is what makes a great story." I'm convinced my mom's trials and response will echo to the glory of God down through the generations -- indeed, through eternity.