Escape from the “Big Me” culture

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently released a new book titled The Road to Character (Random House). In an interview for Christianity Today with Jeff Haanen of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work, Brooks talked about what he describes as today’s “Big Me” culture.

He cites a Gallup survey from 1950, in which high school seniors were asked, “Are you a very important person?” In 1950, 12 percent of those surveyed said yes. Gallup asked the same question of high school seniors a few years ago, and 80 percent of the respondents said yes.

Psychologists sometimes have people fill out a questionnaire known as “The Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” and social scientists use similar instruments to ascertain the rise of narcissism culturally. Brooks points out that the median score on such tests has risen 30 percent in just twenty years.

Along with this rise in narcissism is a concomitant fall in the awareness of personal sin and weakness. As the language of sin has fallen into disuse in educated society, the very concept of sin has fallen out of favor. The combination of narcissism on the one hand and a total lack of the self-awareness of sin on the other, has created a “Big Me” culture in which self-promotion is not just tolerated, but expected – and, in some cases, required for success.

Our church is getting ready to call a pastor for a newly created staff position: The Pastor of Family Ministries. I’m part of a team that is receiving applications and reviewing resumes. We’re looking for candidates who understand and live in the way of Jesus, and have the ability to help parents enter and lead their children in it.

To date we have received about 30 resumes. Many of the applicants are simply looking for a church ministry position and are sending out applications in a shotgun blast pattern, hoping they’ll hit something worthwhile. They seem to think of church ministry as a career to pursue rather than a calling to heed. That is disconcerting enough.

But worse is the appalling self-promotion of many of the resumes. I realize that these people are merely following advice they found online for composing a resume, but it is disheartening to read. We are looking for humility, which is for us the indispensable virtue, but what we get are brag sheets and shameless self-aggrandizement.

There is a reason humility is so important: It opens the door and allows a person to work together with others, including God. Pride closes the door, leaving the person nothing to give beyond his individual abilities and experience. The humble person can actually accomplish more than the proud one because he or she does not work alone.

St. James, in a reference to the Old Testament book of Proverbs, writes: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” How crazy would it be for a church that’s trying to do God’s work to call a person to whom God is opposed?

It is important, however, to understand what humility is and what it is not. Humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem. Humility does not belittle or disparage one’s own gifts, any more than it would someone else’s gifts. It does not draw attention to itself, whether to boast about one’s accomplishments or to despair over one’s sinfulness or incompetence. C. S. Lewis was right: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

The best way to escape the “Big Me” culture that Brooks laments is to become a “Big God” person. Without a big God, a person has no choice but to become (or try to appear) a big person. Without a God who will justify you, you’ll have to justify yourself. It’s the person with a big God who can risk being small. It’s the person who has been captivated by the greatness of God and by the value of his fellows, who is set free to be himself; that is, who can be humble.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, May 16, 2015

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Creation’s biggest risk and its biggest reward

God paints on a big canvas. Traveling across our average-sized galaxy at the speed of light would take approximately 100,000 years. And the universe holds an estimated one hundred billion such galaxies. Some physicists believe that the universe itself is part of a multiverse that might hold billions of universes, and untold trillions of galaxies like our own.

It’s a big canvas. But, according to the Bible, the centerpiece of this act of creative genius is humanity. As far as we know, the stars and nebula and galaxies are backdrop (or maybe playground). The crown of creation is man.

“Man” is a collective noun denoting humans, both male and female. Unlike the other forms into which God joyfully shaped the four forces of nature – whether nebula or ocean, gold or iron, lion or turtle – man is specifically said to be formed in the image of God. Genesis says: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule … over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

In a way that dust and stars and chimps and angels do not, man bears God’s image. In ancient times leaders would place images of themselves throughout their kingdoms (as they do today – one need only think of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean head of state, or Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq.) Such images served to remind their subjects of their ruler.

When God made the earth, he intended to place his image everywhere, a constant reminder that he rules the world. Humans were intended to be the living image of God, ruling creation as his representatives, with his love and wisdom flowing through them to all creation. Everywhere one looked, or so it was intended, one would find the image of the joyful and gracious king, acting with joy and grace toward his creation.

When God created the stars that manufacture nuclear energy on levels that we cannot even imagine, he was running no risk. When he made dinosaurs the size of buildings, they posed no threat. When he sent the earth spinning at nineteen thousand miles per hour, and flicked it with his finger so that it sailed through space at 67,000 miles per hour, it was safer than a Sunday afternoon drive. But when he made man, he created the potential for disaster—and he knew it.

In creation, everything happened just as God said it would. The creation refrain is, “He said . . . and it was so.” When God said, “Let there be light,” it was so. When he said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water,” “it was so.” When he said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear,” “it was so.” But man, made in God’s image, was given a will of his own. When God said to man, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” it was not so.

Man was the X-factor. He was (from our perspective) creation’s biggest risk, and its biggest reward. The potential for humans – whether aged or unborn, free or serving a life sentence in solitary – is inestimable. Every human is priceless: the phone solicitor, the engineer, the restaurant server, the genius and the mentally handicapped, all are infinitely valuable.

According to the biblical story, the Creator’s perfect creation was damaged by human rebellion, and the canvas torn. That is why we have wars and poverty and illness and pollution and bigotry – all the problems with which we are so familiar. But the Creator is in the process of rescuing and restoring his beloved creation. He’s working on a “new creation.”

The first creation culminated in the making of man. The new creation commenced with the making of new men. The old creation took six days. The new creation is ongoing. It may be that those with faith in Jesus Christ are but its first brushstrokes, but the Artist has promised to present his masterpiece. When the finishing touches are complete and all things have been made new, then the long-awaited announcement will ring out: “It is done” (Revelation 21:6).

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/9/2015

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The most daring and imaginative artist ever

Creation is a work of art, and as with any work of art, as we immerse ourselves in it, we learn something about ourselves. But we also learn something about the Artist.
We learn that he is creative. He is, in fact, the Creator. This is a major biblical theme. Over sixty times, God is either said to have created or is referred to as the Creator. He is sculptor, painter and composer, and the universe is his block of marble, his canvass, and his staff paper.

God is the most daring, most imaginative artist ever. He has filled the seas with creatures of every shape and size and brilliant color. He paints his birds and fish and sunsets with hues so vivid and lines so bold that our most avant-garde painters seem tame by comparison.

The first verse of the Bible tells us that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and did so simply by commanding it to be. We see this again and again in the first chapter of Genesis. Like a leitmotif in a symphony, the words “And God said” repeat, with the subsequent refrain, “and it was so.”

Verse three: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Verses six and seven: “And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.’ And it was so.” Verse nine: “And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.’ And it was so.” God did not paint Orion’s fireworks with a brush, but with a word. He creates by speaking.

An artist’s work is a revelation of the artist. Isn’t it possible to infer something of the character of Picasso from his paintings? After viewing “Seated Bather,” would anyone be surprised to learn that Picasso once said, “Every time I change wives, I should bury the last one. That way I’d be rid of them . . .” The artist is found in his work. It reveals him.

But what can be learned about God by looking at his art? Well, it’s obvious that he’s brilliant, and that he has breathtaking ability. Further, his art sparkles with joy. From the attention he shows his work, one can deduce a deep love for all that he has made. And it’s abundantly clear that when this artist creates something, he does it right.

One example covers all these things – that this artist does it right, that he possesses unimaginable ability, that he is really, really smart, and that he cares for his creation. All created matter is composed of four elemental forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force. Those four forces are the material universe, and combine in an endless variety of ways to form everything we see, everything that is.
But the respective strengths of the four forces must be precisely balanced for life to exist. For the purpose of illustration, assign to gravity, the weakest of the forces, a baseline strength of 1. The weak nuclear force comes next. It receives a relative strength of 1,034. Then comes electromagnetism, which is a thousand times stronger than the weak nuclear force. Finally comes the strong nuclear force, which is a hundred times stronger still. Gravity holds the planets in place. The weak nuclear force holds neutrons together. Electromagnetism holds you together. And finally, there is the strong nuclear force, which holds protons together and is a hundred million times stronger than gravity.

The universe depends on this precise balance. If gravity was a tiny fraction stronger or weaker, there would be no stars and planets. If the weak nuclear force was different by the smallest percentage, the universe would be composed entirely of hydrogen. If electromagnetism was either weaker or stronger, chemical bonds could not form. Physicists know of at least 25 other perfect balances in creation that are needed for life as we know it to exist.

Obviously the Artist loves his creation and treats it with great care. That is the good news of the Christian doctrine of Creation. And when his masterpiece was defaced by sin, as the Bible tells us it was, the Artist cared enough to restore it. That’s the good news of redemption.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/2/15

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Don’t carry invasive beliefs into church

There are boot brushes at the trailheads to several of our favorite places to hike, with signs instructing hikers to clean their boots. Most people want to clean their boots after hiking, not before. But these trailheads lead into nature preserves. The people that manage the preserves are hoping to prevent invasive species of weeds from finding their way into the preserve, then spreading and squeezing out the plants that are native to the area.

Maybe churches should have symbolic boot brushes outside their doors, with signs instructing worshipers to examine their beliefs before entering, lest they carry invasive doctrines into the church, where they might spread and squeeze out truths that are native to the faith.

According to a recent article in Christianity Today, invasive beliefs have entered and are continuing to enter the church. In “Which False Teachings Are Evangelical Christians Most Tempted to Believe In?” Cherith Fee Nording finds the ancient heresy Docetism – the belief that Jesus was not really human – still causing trouble in the modern church.

Nording notes that Evangelical Christians have, in response to modern challenges to the deity of Jesus, minimized the humanity of Jesus. She writes, “Too often he is the divine Son who borrowed a human body in order to teach, heal, and perform the miracles that proved his divine authority and his power to save us from sin.”

The early Church labeled this teaching a heresy and condemned it. When we forget that Jesus was and is fully human, we draw the erroneous conclusion that “because he is God, Jesus had power to be sinless and to do cool stuff. We’re not, so we don’t.”

And: “If Jesus isn’t really like us, then we are excused from being like him.” Yet this, the Apostle John writes, is the Christian’s goal and transforming hope: “…we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.”

Another contemporary heresy also has ancient roots, this time in the early second century teacher Marcion. Marcion rejected the authority of the Old Testament, and even went so far as to say the God of the Old Testament was not the God and Father of Jesus Christ. (I once heard a teacher espouse exactly this view to a group of high school students, oblivious to the fact he was spreading heresy.) Marcion’s anti-Old Testament views found a niche among anti-Semites and spread widely among early Gentile churches.

A successor to Marcion’s views is still present today, though less by intention than by attention deficit. In many churches, the story of Jesus has been completely removed from its Old Testament roots. His messiahship has been ignored, and his role has been restricted to that of personal savior, not Israel’s messiah and Lord of all the earth.

This has resulted in a highly individualistic expression of Christianity. It’s all about me –not a big surprise in contemporary western culture – getting into heaven when I die. The gospel becomes a sales pitch to prospective subscribers rather than an announcement of what God has done to redeem his fallen creatures and restore his damaged creation.

Worshipers often carry another invasive belief into the church: the belief that grace is opposed to works. This error probably has its roots in a fifth century controversy over the roles that God and humans play in salvation. When Pelagius, an influential teacher living in Rome, overstated the human role in salvation, Augustine, the famous bishop from North Africa, argued vigorously for the necessity of God’s unmerited and gracious action on human’s behalf.

But people have drawn the wrong conclusion from their debate. They have assumed that grace – God’s action on our behalf – is in conflict with human efforts. But grace is opposed to merit, not effort. Grace is, in fact, the trailhead of a path filled with good works for us to walk.

These doctrinal weeds are hard to eradicate. We should examine our beliefs from time to time, brush them off, and make sure we aren’t carrying any invasive species into the church.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, April 25, 2015

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Tomorrow may be too late

In all the class pictures that my mother kept and stored, from kindergarten on, I can find the same towheaded boy. His name was David. He was my sometimes friend and sometimes adversary. David was in nearly every class I took all the way through high school.

David and I formed a club when we were in grade school. He was the president. I was the vice president. The club dissolved a day after it was founded.

David was good with words. He used them like weapons. He would tease and poke fun until I would throw him to the ground or wrench his arm behind his back. He would say “Uncle” and stop teasing – until the next day, when it started all over again.

His ability with words came in handy. He used it to persuade his classmates to vote him “most likely to succeed.” He went off to college at Ohio State and then to graduate school. The last time I heard anything about David, he owned a chain of businesses in Florida. He succeeded.

Once when we were much younger, David produced what was then called a “nickel bag” of marijuana. That began a conversation that somehow came round to talking about God. David told me then that he intended to “get religion” someday, when he was old, “like seventy.” Until then, he intended to have fun.

I have occasionally thought about David over the years. Did he ever get married? Does he have kids? Does he still run his business operations? But mostly I wonder if he ever “got religion.” He was so sure, when he was a young man, that he would find the door open for him to turn to God when he was older. I wonder.

It’s not that I think he will find the door locked. I’m just not sure that, after all the other doors David has walked through, he will be able to find the door at all. I am even less sure that he will still want to find it.

This is the dilemma for people who put off turning to God. God is ready, eager even, to welcome them back, but the longer they ignore him, the harder it is for them to want to come back. Some, like King Saul in the Bible, find at the end of their life they cannot muster the desire to turn to God. Worse yet, some find they cannot want God to be God.

After spending a lifetime ignoring God and denying his claim on one’s life – or even denying his existence – can a person still turn to God? Without a doubt, a person can still turn to God. Does it happen often? About that, I am doubtful, but it does happen.

Anthony Flew, the Oxford analytical philosopher and son of a Methodist preacher, spent most of his career as an apologist for atheism. Though he attended C. S. Lewis’s Socratic Club at Oxford, he rejected Lewis’s arguments and went on to author books advocating an atheist position. Then at the age of 81, Professor Flew shocked the philosophical world by announcing that he had become convinced of the existence of God.

The Bible has its own story of a late-in-life conversion. One of the men executed alongside Jesus, whom the biblical writers describe as a robber and a criminal, turned to Jesus shortly before his death and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is extraordinary on many levels, not the least being that he was capable of expressing faith in the last minutes of his life. The Bible, it’s been said, provides one story of a death-bed conversion to keep us from despair, and only one story to keep us from presumption.

So is it ever too late to turn to God, to open oneself to spiritual truth, and start a new kind of life? As far as God, “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” is concerned, it’s never too late. There is no objective obstacle that can prevent a person from coming to him, whatever his or her age. But the subjective obstacle of a deep and engrained resistance to God may prove insuperable. It is for this reason that St. Paul urges, “Now is the time … now is the day of salvation.” Tomorrow may just be too late.

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A difficult truth to face

Many years ago, an acquaintance approached me and said, “Hey, I hear you’re having a baby!” And I said something like, “That’s good to know. I hadn’t heard that.” Now having children is really good news. I have three and they have been and remain one of my greatest joys. But on that day I didn’t accept the good news from my acquaintance. I didn’t believe that we were really having baby. I reasoned that my wife would have told me before telling him.

Imagine, though, that I had believed this person because he was my wife’s doctor. I would have said, “We’re going to have another baby?” Then, after they revived me, I would have gone home and kissed my wife and started buying baby furniture and car seats and enrolling for Lamaze classes. We act in accordance with what we believe.

That’s a truth that is difficult for people to face. I recall a presidential candidate from past campaigns. He had a seven-figure income and was constantly spouting platitudes about helping the poor. But when his tax records were made public, it turned out that he had given less to charity than I had. His tax return called his oft-stated convictions into question.

Because we cannot help but act in accordance with our beliefs, every person’s life is a theological statement. Its theology may be confusing and even bizarre, because we are capable of simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, but it will nevertheless be consistent with our beliefs. Whether the beliefs are consistent with reality is another matter altogether.

This principle applies to both personal and public life. Consider, for example, how this principle applies to the public square. From all appearances, the Obama administration has hoped to relegate personal beliefs to private life. It is fine for the family of Hobby Lobby shareholders to have religious beliefs—on Sunday morning. Just don’t let those beliefs dictate operational procedures from Monday to Friday.

Such an approach deeply misunderstands the nature of belief. In fact, it cynically assumes that people don’t really believe what they say they believe. The idea that a people’s deepest beliefs can be banned from the public square contradicts reason and history. It is simply fantasy.

This principle is even more obvious in private life. Take, for example, the man who says, “Going to church is important.” He went to church as a child, sent his own kids when they were children, and can even quote the Bible on the subject: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” But he now rarely goes to church.

What are we to say about such a person? We can say (as might have been said of the candidate whose tax return didn’t match his rhetoric) that he either does not believe what he says he believes or that he holds contradictory beliefs that cancel out his sincere belief.

If the latter of these alternatives – that he holds contradictory beliefs – is true, then he the kind of person St. James had in mind when he wrote, “…he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” Simultaneously held contradictory beliefs will inevitably lead to instability in life and relationships.

The good news is that our belief system is not sealed. It can, and almost certainly will, change. Of course this could also be bad news, if the changes do not bring our beliefs into closer alignment with reality.

Because exposure to new ideas can change our belief system, we ought to be aware of the ideas to which we are being exposed. We must keep in mind that the TV sitcom we’re laughing at expresses a belief system. So does MSNBC and Fox News. And so does the Bible. It is to it that I have turned again and again, not primarily for the comfort it gives but for the reality I find in it – a reality that has stood the test of time and addressed the complexity of life in this world.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/11/2015

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Questions at the heart of the gospel

In the four Gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus, no one ever used the word “resurrection” to describe Jesus’s return from death, neither the ancient writers nor the people whose words and actions they reported. This surprised me when I first realized it, and surprises me still. They talk about how Jesus rose from the dead, but they avoid using the one word you would expect them to use: “

Why not? The answer, I think, comes in two parts, the first of which is very straightforward: The Gospel writers did not use the word “resurrection” because the men and women in the story they were narrating did not use it. The fact that the writers refrained from using a word that was immensely important in the vocabulary of the early church speaks volumes about their intention to faithfully represent what really happened.

Some modern scholars think that everything theological in the Gospels – especially those things that point to the deity of Jesus and his status as the Messiah – were later concocted by the Church and written into the Gospels in an act of historical revisionism. These scholars believe that none of the miracles, including the resurrection, really happened. They think the Church later invented them as a way of elevating Jesus’s status and validating their

But if that’s the case, how is it that none of the Evangelists succumbed to the temptation to describe the climax of the story, the central event of the Christian faith, as “resurrection?” This is an overlooked and remarkably important evidence for biblical

But that brings us to the second part of the question. Why didn’t the people in the story – Peter, John, the apostles, the women disciples – refer to Jesus’s return from the dead as “resurrection?” Resurrection was a core doctrine of most first century Jews, one to which people deeply resonated. So why didn’t the people who first related what happened think to use it? It’s the even surprising that, after the fact, the frightened chief priests, didn’t use the term

The answer is once again straightforward. In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s return from death, the disciples hadn’t yet grasped the enormity of what had happened. The Gospel writers tell us about an empty tomb, but they do not expound a doctrine of the resurrection. Now that doesn’t mean that the first disciples didn’t really believe Jesus had risen. They did. Nor does it mean they thought Jesus had risen as a spiritual force or a powerful memory, as people do when they point to their hearts and say of a dead spouse, “He’s still with me – right here!”

No, the disciples believed that Jesus died. He was stone-cold, dead as a doornail, dead. And they believed that after three days he came back to life. He was alive again – walking-talking-eating-drinking alive. But during those first days, they did not yet realize that this meant Jesus had been resurrected. In their minds, resurrection was an entirely different matter.

So even though Jesus rose from the dead and his friends knew it, they didn’t immediately think of that as resurrection. In their minds, when “the” resurrection happened, everyone who had ever died would be raised from the dead – the righteous to eternal life and the unrighteous to eternal death. For the disciples it took time and instruction (most importantly from Jesus himself) for the enormity of what had happened in that garden tomb to sink in. Jesus had not only come to life again after being dead, as remarkable as that was. Death had been defeated and the resurrection – the coming to life of everyone who had ever died – had already begun.

The resurrection of Jesus does not merely mean that there is life after death. His disciples and most people around the world already believed that (and still do). It meant that God had broken into human affairs, the ancient promises were being fulfilled, and the world was being changed. It meant that God’s long awaited kingdom had arrived and that “Jesus Christ our Lord” had been “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/4/1015 under the title, “Important Evidence for Biblical Authenticity.”

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