Monday, July 18, 2016

Change Your Assumptions

 In a very real way, our society today has a truth problem.  I’ve said that before in a sermon or two, but it isn’t because people don’t believe that truth exists.  There are very, very few people who actually believe that what is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me.  If people actually believed that, no one would ever get upset about anything–and I mean anything.

 For instance, a person who saw a child being abused could not call such a thing wrong.  By the logic of their own reasoning, they would have to admit, “If someone abuses a child, then that person believes it is okay to do that.  That’s what they believe.  It’s not true for me, but it’s true for them.  There’s nothing I should do about it.”  Perhaps such a person exists in the world today, but I haven’t met them.

 No, this is not the truth problem we have today.  We have another type of truth problem–a problem of proclaiming truth before all the evidence is in.  Let me state that again: we have a problem of proclaiming the truth before all the evidence is in.  Why do I say this? 

 I don’t think you can't argue that the news media has been flush with stories of the deterioration of race relations in our nation.  Because of the police shootings of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling and then the subsequent retaliation killings of five officers in Dallas, the cries of “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” have gotten stronger and stronger.  The rhetoric has ratcheted up and emotions have gotten higher and higher–despite the fact that the evidence is not all in.

 Some might say at this point, “What do you mean the evidence is not all in.  We have seen the videos.”

 Yes.  The videos.  What do you see in the videos?

 I’ll tell you what you see in the videos, and I’m not trying to do this in any sort of know-it-all pompous way.  I’ll tell you what you see in the videos given your assumptions about the way things are going in this country right now.

 If you assume that African Americans are disproportionally targeted by police and are victims of police abuse, then you see police brutality and murder.

 If you assume that the majority of police officers are good people who are doing a tough job, you will see people failing to obey police orders, resisting arrest, and tragically getting shot.

 You are both looking at the same video, and you are both coming to different conclusions even before all the facts are known about those situations.  Your governing assumptions are leading you to a conclusion without all the evidence.  And if you become absolutely certain in your conclusion, you will take action and argue either for “Black Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.”  At the worst, you will begin caricaturing the other side and calling them ignorant, stupid, and the like.  And when all the evidence indeed comes in, no matter where that evidence leads, you will not believe it unless it confirms your already pre-conceived notions.

 Our assumptions; our pre-conceived notions are extremely powerful.  They are very, very hard to overcome.  They color the way we look at the world; they color the way we view evidence; they color the way we hear other people.  These assumptions are often so powerful that we will dismiss someone’s testimony without giving them a proper hearing.  Think about that for just a moment as I turn the tables a bit.  How does it feel to know that someone will dismiss your point of view simply because your perspective clashes with their assumptions?  How does it feel to know someone will simply not believe you because of their pre-conceived notions of reality?  How does it feel to be dismissed out of hand and have your experience dismissed no matter what kind of evidence you produce?

 I think most of us would be outraged with this.  Most of us would be extremely upset because we want our perspective to be granted a proper hearing.  We want our evidence to be heard.  We want to be valued and honored and heard.  And yet, oftentimes we do not afford this basic consideration to others.  Oftentimes our minds are made up because of the deep power of our basic assumptions.  There is a word for this: hypocrisy.

 I don’t know about you, but I do not like being confronted with my hypocrisy.  I don’t like being shown that I say one thing but do quite the opposite.  I like to think of myself as consistent, so is there a way that my deepest assumptions can allow for me to refrain from jumping to conclusions?  Is there a set of assumptions that I can have that will permit me to listen to both sides of a given argument; affirm the feelings and emotions of each side; and yet wait until the evidence is in and even change my mind?

 The Christian worldview, at its heart says that every person is a sinner–deeply flawed, broken and self-interested and yet because of Christ’s action on the cross, that person is also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  As Martin Luther wrote, we are both completely sinner and saint.  This means you and I are flawed, broken, and self-interested people, but we are also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  That also means that the people we disagree with are flawed, broken, and self-interested and also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  What does this mean as we seek to practically apply it?

 First off, I think it means we can and should be skeptical of what we are told.  Does that mean I am telling you to be skeptical of what I am saying right now?  Yes.  I am.  Why?  Why should you be skeptical of me preaching what I am preaching to you right now?  Because I am sinful.  I am not up here with pure motivations.  If I were up here with completely pure motivations, there would be no desire in my heart for you to believe what I am saying.  There would be no desire in my heart for you to arrive at the same conclusions that I have.  There would be no thought about whether or not my job might be in jeopardy or whether I have worded things just carefully enough for me to have an out.  I would have no agenda or thought for my self preservation.  But, alas, that is not so.  I want you to like me.  I want you to respect me. I want to present a sermon which is equally appealing to those on the left and right.  I want to keep my job.  These things affect what I say and how I say them.  Sinfulness does that–to EVERYONE!!  Healthy skepticism is important.

 But so is compassion.  This is the second thing that I think being both sinner and saint means leads us to.   We can be skeptical of claims and know that sin informs other people–like it informs us, but we can also hear the concerns, cries, and testimony of others with an open mind.  Other people have points of view.  They have evidence in their own right.  They have felt things and seen things that we have not.  They are children of God, and God has extended the same compassion and forgiveness to them that He has extended to me.  I simply cannot dismiss their points of view out of hand.  Compassion demands I give a proper hearing without having my mind closed.

 So, how do I render a proper judgement?  How do I come to any sort of conclusion given that people have sinful motivations and deserve compassion and an open ear?

 Let me now turn to our biblical text from the book of Mark. We wrap up chapter 15 today with Jesus’ burial.  This is a straight forward story about what happens after Jesus dies on the cross.  There is no heavy theology.  There are no miracles or God sightings.  There is simply an account of Joseph of Arimethia of procuring Jesus’ body; burying it; and then two women seeing where the body is laid.

 Most of us accept the validity of this story almost without question, but let me ask you this question: how would you explain to a skeptic why you believe this story to be true?  How would you defend this story to someone who might say that Mark made this up?  Hang in there, this is pertinent to the original question.

 First off, we need to ask how Mark knew about these events.  How did this story of Joseph of Arimethia find its way into the Bible?  The simplest explanation is that Joseph himself told this story to the early disciples and that it was passed to Mark.  And why should we believe Joseph’s rendition? 

 Scholar N.T. Wright helps us here:

 It was a moment of great potential risk.  To show any sympathy with someone who had just been crucified on a charge of sedition was bound to raise suspicions.  Peter had been scared out of his wits by the mere suggestion that he was associated with Jesus.  Joseph, Mark explains, had been eagerly longing for the kingdom; we must assume that this means he had been a keen, though secret, supporter of Jesus.  He must have decided that if Jesus had died he had nothing more to lose by doing what he knew to be right. It also meant, of course, that he would make himself ritually unclean, and unable to engage in some of the normal Sabbath practices that evening and the next day.  Joseph was treating Jesus as if he was a close member of the family, for whom it was his duty to see to burial before nightfall–as well as to fulfil the old biblical law not to let hanged corpses remain in place overnight.  For this he was prepared to face uncleanliness, suspicion, and possible charges as an associate of Jesus.

 You see, Joseph had everything to lose and nothing to gain.  The act of going to Pilate, procuring the body, and burying it could cost him all kinds of status within the community and could end up costing him his life if he is seen as seditious.  Most folks will not risk as much as Joseph did; therefore, it is highly probable that this story is true.

 The second thing that points to the truth of this story of Jesus’ burial is the witness of the women.  As I said in my sermon last week, in Jewish culture, women were not afforded the right to be witnesses in a trial.  They were seen as too emotional; too unobjective.  If Mark were to make up a story about Jesus’ burial, he would not have chosen women to be the witnesses.  He would have chosen men. Because this would actually damage Christianity rather than help its cause, it is highly probable this actually happened.

 In both of these cases, the cost of the actions and the reports are actually higher than the benefit.  Usually, we do not do things that do not offer us some sort of reward and satisfaction.  Usually, we do not do things that do not offer us some sort of benefit.  Usually, we do not do things that have a very high cost with little or no benefit to ourselves. 

 And this brings us to the central belief of Christianity that Jesus became the God incarnate who took on flesh and lived among us to live the life we should live and die the death we deserved.  He became sin who knew no sin and faced the fires of hell on our behalf so that we may experience the joys of heaven.  The forgiveness of our sins; eternal life; and reconciliation with God cost us nothing, and it cost Jesus everything.  Jesus paid the price and received nothing in return.  His motives were pure.  He had no self-interest.  He only had love.

 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. 

 As you look at what is going on in our society today; as you contemplate the media reporting of Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, it would be helpful to keep the Christian worldview at the front.  Be skeptical–wait for all the evidence.  Be compassionate–listen and engage others without being completely dismissive.  Look for motivations of love and self-giving without thought of reward or benefit.  Seek to offer love and self-giving without benefit.  For this is what Jesus did as He gave Himself to you, to me, and to the world.  And He promised us this, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.  You will know the truth.  And the truth will make you free.”  Hang onto Jesus.  Know the Gospel, and you will indeed come to know the truth.  Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A God Sighting

 After four days at Walt Disney World, my family and I were quite exhausted.  We left Animal Kingdom early in the afternoon and drove back to our condo.  Tired of park food, we decided to head to a nearby restaurant for a more well rounded meal.  The local Friday’s wasn’t too terribly packed, so we parked and were seated.  What happened next was quite interesting.

 Our waiter was a black homosexual.  He welcomed us cheerfully and dully noted that we were not from the area.  His observational skills were exceptional.  What I found quite interesting was how his demeanor changed when we said that we were from Texas.  He tried to hide it, but his acting skills were not on a par with his observational skills.  Perhaps he believed the stereotypes of Texans being arrogant, intolerant Republicans who are backwards in thought and hateful to anyone who is outside the norm–who are racist, misogynist, and homophobic.  Don’t you love being caricatured?  I don’t, and it was a bit concerning to see how this young man reacted to the statement of our state’s name, but he had a job to do regardless of who he was serving.

 The man took our drink and appetizer order and headed off to procure our refreshments, and here is where things took another interesting turn.  An arm appeared suddenly over my shoulder and deposited a piece of paper in front of me.  On that piece of paper were three coupons marked by bar codes: two 20% off your entire purchase codes and a one free entre code.  We were struck by this act of kindness–completely random; totally unexpected.  We thanked our benefactors profusely.

 When our food came, our oldest, Kiera, made mention of the coupon and the kindness of the total strangers sitting next to us.  She remarked, “Dad, that’s a God sighting.”

 I answered, “Yes, dear.  You are right.  That is indeed a God sighting.”

 I’m going to break from the story just a moment to say that I have since found out that Kiera learned that phrase from this year’s vacation Bible school.  Dawna and I haven’t used that phrase in our home in teaching our kids about God, so I knew it had to come from somewhere.  Kudos to our VBS teachers and leaders.  Someone learned something this year!!!

 But, let’s return now to the rest of the story.  My kids have become very concerned when we eat at restaurants these days.  They particularly have a soft spot for our waiters and waitresses–particularly those waiters and waitresses who show them some kindness during our meals.  It was not surprising when they asked us as we were paying, “Are you going to tip him?”–meaning our waiter.  Of course, I was going to tip him.  He did a very good job that evening, and I wanted to send him a message both thanking him for his work and to show that we Texans ABSOLUTELY DO NOT fit the caricature.  I asked our waiter, “How many tables have you waited tonight?”  His response was, “Only two.”  I gave him a $30 tip that he did not see until after we left.  The kids asked me how much I gave him.  I told them, and they were quite stunned.

 As we stood to leave, I looked at the coupon in my hand which still had two more discounts.  Seeing another family in the restaurant with young, energetic children, I made a snap decision.  I walked past my family and up to their table.  Depositing the coupon in front of the father, I said, “Someone showed us a great kindness tonight by giving us this coupon.  There are still two more discounts on this, and we would like to pass on the favor.”  I was thanked warmly as I left.

 Kiera then looked at me and said, “Dad, you were a God sighting.” 

 I responded, “Yes. I was.  Someone was kind to us and was a God sighting to us, and now we can be God sightings to others.”

 God sightings are those things which inspire us to be different.  They touch us deep within our hearts and souls.  They are things which inspire us to do good; to be good; to go out of our way to show kindness and compassion; to break stereotypes and do things that we would not ordinarily do; to think outside of ourselves–to lose ourselves and love lavishly.

 Today, we have before us in our Gospel text the Ultimate God Sighting.  We have before us the death of God.  That may sound a bit strange, but let’s walk through the text and see just what is happening when Jesus dies on the cross.

 Jesus has faced the ultimate rejection by humanity.  One of His disciples has betrayed Him.  The leader of His disciples has denied Him not once but three times.  All of the rest of His disciples have abandoned Him.  He has been unjustly tried by the Jewish court system where nearly all of the rules of Jewish jurisprudence have been broken.  He has faced the injustice of the Roman court system as Pontius Pilate has chosen job security and advancement over justice.  The crowds which were once supportive have turned against Jesus thinking that He is a false Messiah worthy of death.  He has been scourged and beaten within an inch of His life.  He has been mocked and spit on.  He has been hung on a cross which is symbolic of both cosmic and worldly scorn.  He has been derided by bystanders and by those crucified with Him.  There is not much more psychological, human distress that He could undergo.

 But all of that is nothing compared to what begins to happen next.  A darkness falls over the land.  Scholars are in a bit of disagreement as to what this darkness symbolizes.  Some have suggested it is a veil hiding God the Father’s face from this debacle.  Some have argued it is a cosmic event showing that something very important is happening.  Still others have said that this is the wrath of God descending upon Jesus at this very instant.  All of these suggestions have merit.  I will leave it up to you to decide.

 It is three hours into this darkness that Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This statement is troubling for some.  Ironic for others.  For we profess as Christians that Jesus is God.  How can God forsake God?  Is it even possible?  Can we even begin to make sense of this statement? 

 I think we can as we remember that Jesus was God immanent; God incarnate; the second person of the Trinity who dwells with us.  From eternity, the God incarnate has been in a relationship with His Father that has sustained Him; given Him every bit of affirmation, love, strength, and compassion that He has needed.  There has never been a moment when Jesus has felt alone or afraid or abandoned.  Until now.  At this point, Jesus has become the sin bearer for all the world.  At this moment Jesus has taken upon Himself all of the hatred that we bear toward on another.  He has taken upon Himself all the injustice we perpetrate toward each other.  Not only from the past but for the entire future.  All of humanity’s ills are piled upon Him, and He is paying the price for all of that.  He is suffering for all of that.  He is not only facing the physical pain of the cross, He is facing the spiritual pain of hell.  He is facing the wrath of God; abandonment by God; the one thing He has never had to worry about in an eternity of existence.  It is so painful; so excruciating that He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He undeservingly becomes forsaken because we deserve to be.

 There are bystanders by the cross who hear Jesus’ cry, and they use it as one more opportunity to mock Him.  Not comprehending His words, they believe that Jesus is calling for Elijah to come and rescue Him from the cross.  The Aramaic words for God and Elijah are actually pretty close, so this isn’t farfetched.  It was also common practice that people would appeal to Elijah if they believed they were suffering unjustly.  A man puts a mixture of vinegar and water on a sponge and offers it to Jesus.  This might seem like a compassionate gesture, but rest assured it is not.  A better translation of the words this man speaks are, “Permit me.  Let us see if Elijah is coming to save him.”  Essentially, this man is saying, “Let me give him something to drink.  That will prolong his life a little more.  Let’s just see if Elijah will come down and save him.”  One more opportunity to mock the man hanging on the cross.  But it is not the last word.

 Jesus cries out with a loud voice as He dies and at the exact same moment the Temple curtain is torn in two.  There is much debate regarding this tearing of the curtain.  For there were two main curtains in the temple.  I personally didn’t realize this until I was studying for my sermon this week.  There was an inner curtain dividing the most sacred part of the temple from everyone in the world–including the priests.  Behind that curtain it was believed that God dwelled.  There was also a second curtain dividing the courtyard of women from the courtyard of men.  This curtain prevented Gentiles and women from coming closest to God.  Which curtain was torn?  Speculation continues, but I appreciate what Mark Edwards says in this extended quote:

 The outer curtain (the only one described by Josephus) was the only curtain visible to all people.  It appears that schizein “to tear” at v. 38 is intended to refer to this curtain.  In Mark’s only other use of this word at the baptism, the tearing of heaven revealed Jesus to be the Son of God.  Likewise, the tearing of the curtain of the temple enables the centurion to confess Jesus as the Son of God.  Both confessions depend on the tearing in two of a veil so that something may be witnessed. The only curtain visible to a Gentile centurion was the outer curtain, not the curtain before the Holy of Holies.  Moreover, Josephus describes the outer curtain as a tapestry portraying “a panorama of the heavens”.  That is a striking parallel to the tearing of heaven in 1:10.  Thus at both uses of schizein Mark signifies the rending of the skies–to open heaven to humanity in the baptism of Jesus and to open the temple as the locus Dei to humanity at the death of Jesus.  At the baptism and death of Jesus the heavenly and earthly dwellings of God are open to humanity.

 Edwards makes me consider this veil very thoroughly as it seems to grasp the reality of Jesus’ death.  For as Jesus dies on our behalf, he opens up both heaven and earth to all who trust in Him.

 Beholding how Jesus died, a Roman centurion is moved to speak.  With what we know about crucifixion, we can be relatively sure that this centurion watched Jesus’ being beaten and mocked.  We can be relatively sure that he was in the procession as Jesus marched to Calvary.  We can be relatively sure he has watched the entire, gruesome spectacle.  We can be relatively sure he has seen many crucifixions.  And we know that in nearly every one of those instances, people died from suffocation. They ended their lives with no breath; no strength.  But here was something different.  Here was something strange.  Here a man died with a shout of power–a shout that tore a heavy curtain from top to bottom rending the heavens.

 “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”  It was a God sighting.  This centurion had come to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. 

 Mark then includes a list of eyewitnesses who passed this story onto him: several important women who were also followers of Jesus.  “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” In a culture that generally demeaned women and would not trust their testimony, it is quite heartening to see how from the earliest, Christianity trusted women’s witness with some of the most important occurrences in our history.  They too had a God sighting.

 What makes this God sighting different from those other little God sightings that we have in our daily lives?  What makes Jesus’ death on the cross markedly different from any sort of other kindness we witness in our day to day activity? 

 In my case, an act of kindness performed for my family and I by a complete stranger was enough to cause two other acts of kindness, but it was not life transforming.  It did not cause me to think about it at all hours of the day.  It did not cause me to write any hymns of thanksgiving or praise.  It did not affect my daily routine or thought process in the least.  It was a small act of kindness.

 Jesus’ death on the cross is a God sighting of cosmic proportions.  Jesus death on the cross is an act of tremendous love.  As I said earlier, on the cross He bore the weight of the world’s sin.  He bore the weight of my sin.  He bore the weight of your sin.  Now, if you do not understand your sinfulness, the cross isn’t a big deal for you.  You are probably happier with Easter than you are with Good Friday.  The cross is just a stepping stone you need to celebrate the resurrection.  The resurrection gives you hope and joy and laughter, but it is not necessarily life transforming.  There are plenty of people who focus on the resurrection who believe that this is what Christianity is about: that God bestows upon us glory and honor and joy and peace without trial and tribulation and hardship.  We can simply believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead without any transformation in our lives.  We have received the cheat death coupon, and we don’t have to worry about anything at all.  We might be thankful from time to time, maybe attend worship at Christmas and Easter, but there is relatively little that passes for anything different in our lives.  Such is what happens if I do not know the depths of my sin.

 But if I understand the depths of my sin.  If I understand that I am a failure–that I hold others to a standard that I do not even live up to; that I am selfish in many of my actions–even when I don’t think I am; that I fail to show the basic levels of kindness to those around me; that I fail to look at others in a compassionate light; that I am always ready to see the worst in people’s motivations; that I am always ready to caricature those whom I disagree with; that I am striving for people’s attention and praise; that I am more concerned with dollars and possessions than I am with loving my neighbor. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  I am sinful.  You are sinful, and Jesus hung on that cross because of our sinfulness.  He died that we might live.  He poured out undeserved love as He faced forsakenness from the Father so that we would not have to.  This is the extent of God’s love–God is willing to sacrifice Himself for us.

 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

 If you understand your sin and you understand what is happening on that cross, then you understand why this is the most tremendous God sighting you can ever see.  You understand why your heart beats in a different rhythm.  You understand why deep down you are brought to your proverbial knees.  You find yourself very much like that centurion who in awe says, “Truly, this man is God’s Son.”  May those words ever be on our lips.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Is Christianity Prejudiced?

Being a part of a mostly liberal denomination--The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I get exposed to quite a few interesting thoughts and ideas.

Recently, I was asked to edit a comment I made on Facebook because it came across as "mansplaining."  My first thought was, "What the hell is that?"  Turns out, it is a made up word by those who are combating the "patriarchy" who see certain comments as patronizing--especially if they are coming from a male.  Behind such wordplay is the assumption that we indeed live in a patriarchy where men dominate women; men are the oppressors of women; and where men have engineered a system to keep women oppressed even in their use of language. 

Such thinking is not unique to the third-wave feminist movement.  There are also such undertones in the sphere of race and identity in our culture.  The term "white-privilege" is bantered about quite a bit these days assuming that society is geared to privilege people with less melanin in their skin.  The very fabric of our society: how it is constructed; how it functions; its very foundational thoughts--are imbued to favor whites.  Therefore, as some have concluded, all white people are racist.

I firmly believe that if you think that all people of a certain gender, skin color, or sexuality are racist, sexist or what have you, then you are actually guilty of major prejudice.  Not bothering to get to know people on an individual basis, you have categorically made a "preconceived judgement or opinion."  You have not judged a person by the content of his or her character; rather, you have made your claim based upon that person's gender or skin color.  Such behavior is misguided at the least.  Evil at its worst. 

Such thoughts got me to thinking about the assumptions that govern Christianity.  Does Christianity make prejudicial statements about people?  Does Christianity assume things about others before getting to know those others?

Without a doubt.

Christianity claims "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."  All are infected with the disease of original sin.  (Original sin being an inherent selfishness and desire to be our own god of the universe into which all are born; all struggle with; and all have difficulty overcoming.) 

If I adhere to the historical understanding of the Christian faith, then I definitely pre-judge people in this manner.  Am I misguided at the least?  Evil at worst?

I might be, if I looked at the world through the lens of dichotomy: us/them; oppressor/oppressed; right/wrong.  For if I am a follower of Jesus who is "washed in the blood of the Lamb" and you are not, then I am better off than you are.  I know that I am saved.  I know that I am righteous unlike those who are still wallowing in their sins and condemned to everlasting punishment.

But historical Christianity does not allow me to look at the world this way.  Historical Christianity does not allow me to think of myself as better off than anyone.  For I too am guilty of original sin.  I too am guilty of an inherent selfishness.  I too am guilty of wishing to be god of my own universe.  I cannot set myself against anyone because I am just like the other.

Much of the rhetoric in liberal churches who buy into the oppressor/oppressed lens--translated into male/female; white/black; white/brown; white/insert whatever color you choose; straight/GLBTQ; ad infinatum--draw sharp distinctions between genders, races, and those with differing sexual orientation.  There is a definite dividing line for those who look at the world in this fashion.  One could literally accuse these folks of black/white thinking and be absolutely correct--even though most on this side of the fence claim to see the world in shades of gray.  Actually, they only see shades of gray when it is to their benefit--as do most people, including myself.

Historical Christianity has removed the dividing line.  All have sinned.  All are saved only and solely by grace.  That's the other part generally missing from the rhetoric these days.

Left up to human devices, there is never a leveling of the playing field.  There can only be societal upheaval which seeks to deconstruct systems and institutions and reconstruct them in a more equitable fashion.  Historically speaking, this is never going to happen.  Every single governmental and institutional structure has been shown to be wanting.  Every single governmental and institutional structure has shown to have major flaws.  None have been up to the task of creating a world of equality and egalitarianism.  None.  This is simply a historical fact whether you like it or not.  And all the legal wrangling we try will never get us there.  You cannot legislate a perfect society.  Even God tried that--at least if you take Scripture seriously.  It didn't work because we humans always find the loop holes.  We humans always interpret the law to our advantage.  What is needed is not more law, but complete changes of heart.

That is not accomplished by ourselves--or else we could claim to have an advantage over others.  "I changed myself.  You can too.  You must too.  You'd better too."  Historical Christianity claims that such change comes from God and His action through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Trusting that Jesus saved me means that I cannot claim any sort of superiority.  Trusting that Jesus saved me means that I cannot claim to have an advantage over anyone else.  Trusting that Jesus saved me means that I am incapable of demonizing another; seeing the other as less than human; or condemning the other based upon their actions or physical traits.  Jesus died for the other and saved the other just as He died for and saved me.

In much of liberal Christian thought "salvation" comes by recognizing my privilege and seeking to be in solidarity with those who are oppressed by such privilege.  "Salvation" comes by seeking to become like the other or in solidarity with the other.  In historical Christian thought, salvation comes through Jesus and then seeking to be like Him--dying to myself, my wants, and  my desires and living to the glory of God.  This means loving others including those who treat me wrongly.

Hence, I become prejudiced.  I see people as sinners.  I see them in need of the love of God through Jesus Christ.  But I do not condemn them or hate them because I am also prejudiced in seeing them as children of God and beloved by God. 

This is the prejudice of Christianity, and perhaps it is the prejudice we need more than ever in our society.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Honest Statistics About "Patriarchy"

Women make up only 4% of Fortune 500 CEO's

Women make up only 17% of Directors on Fortune 500 boards

Women make up only 18% of the House of Representatives

Women make up only 20% of the Senate

These statistics are often used to promote the idea of a male dominated society--the patriarchy.

Here are a few more:

Women make up 60+% of those now attending college.

Women make higher grades in college.

Women are twice as likely to be hired as a male when applying for a job in science or mathematics.

Women are likely to earn more than male counterparts in these same jobs.

Someone might like to point out that women make 78 cents for every dollar that men make.  However, this is not a good measure of the "pay gap" between men and women because it does not compare apples to apples.  It compares all jobs across all ages.  A better representation would be to take similar jobs with similarly qualified candidates and compare how each is paid.  When this is done, the "pay gap" shrinks to a minimum.

Here are a few more startling statistics:

Men make up 92% of all work related deaths.

Men make up 95% of the prison population.

Men make up 75% of those who attempt to commit suicide.

Men make up 60-70% of the homeless population.

If these numbers represented women, we would be outraged and be calling for societal change.  We would be declaring that society had declared a war upon women.  There is no societal war on women.  There is no societal war on men. 

There is definitely brokenness and need to dig deep to understand why.  But shrill cries and overlooking broad statistics in society does no one any good.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Cause of Mass Murder: A Heart Condition

 Many of you are probably sick and tired of hearing about the shooting in Orlando, Florida.  You’ve heard all the arguments about Islamic terrorism; the acceptance of gays and lesbians, and the calls for gun control.  You’ve heard the same pundits say the same things that they said after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.  You’ve probably heard several religious leaders rush in to speak and offer their thoughts, prayers, and assertions of what we should do.  You’ve heard crickets from me.  I’ve been silent, and you may wonder why.

 I have become more and more convinced that we do ourselves a deep disservice by failing to take the time to reflect and think about things that happen and what we say in response to those things.  I have become more and more convinced that the 24 hour news cycle and the need to control the narrative have actually done more harm than good.  Instead of allowing fear, anger and grief to subside and clear thought to occur, our comments are instead governed by fear, anger, and grief.  You might ask, “What’s so bad about that?”  I respond, “How many times have you done something in anger that you later regretted?”  Odds are, the answer is not a pretty one.

 And so, I hope that this morning, I will not be speaking in anger, or grief, or fear.  I hope I am speaking with love, compassion, and hope.  I hope that I am speaking the truth in love and am neither a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.  I hope that I can speak at a level much deeper than guns or sexuality or religion.  I hope that I can dig down and address the level of the human heart–the level where hatred arises and where massacres get their grounding.

 For it is my sincere belief that if you have trouble understanding why someone had enough hatred to kill 50 people and wound 50 others, then I would submit that you neither understand human history; human nature; or what lies in the deep recesses of your own heart.  For the human story is full of violence, hatred, and murder–even and especially toward the innocent.

 The Christian narrative is not shy about confronting this reality.  In fact, addressing violence and hatred are woven into the fabric of Jesus’ story–particularly His death.  For Jesus was a victim of such hatred and such violence.

 We pick up this morning in Mark chapter 15 right after Pontius Pilate has had Jesus flogged and handed over to be crucified.  We must take just a moment to understand now what is happening to Jesus.  We know He is innocent.  We know Pilate has condemned Jesus to save his job.  We know the crowd is blood-thirsty because they feel like Jesus has betrayed them and given them false hope.  Pilate begins the blood letting through flogging.

 Roman flogging was violent and nasty.  If you have seen Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”, you have gotten a visual image of what such flogging was like.  The Romans would take a whip composed of several leather straps.  Embedded in these straps were pieces of bone or metal, and then this was used to whip a prisoner all over his or her body.  Pieces of flesh would be ripped from the person.  Oftentimes bone was exposed.  The front and back of the body were flogged sometimes resulting in a person’s guts becoming exposed.  I would apologize for the visual images, but I want you to see and know the extent of the cruelty that Jesus faced.  I want you to know the pain that he endured at the hands of fellow humans.  He was bound.  He was naked.  He was helpless.  He had committed no crime, and yet, he was brutally beaten and had his flesh ripped open by this flogging.  And this was just the beginning of His humiliation.

 After the flogging, Pilate handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers, and they all took turns mocking Him.  They placed a purple robe over him.  They placed a crown of thorns upon his head.  They mocked Him and struck Him.  They made fun of the claim that he was King of the Jews.  He looked like no king.  He acted like no king.  He was no king to them.  They took a reed and hit him up beside the head with it, driving the thorns deeper into his skull.  Blood ran freely down Jesus’ face.  Then, they spit upon Him.  They knelt before Him and said, “Hail, king of the Jews!”  Of course both of these actions were mockery.  The spitting was an imitation of the kisses they would give the emperor.   Their statement “Hail, king of the Jews!” was an imitation of the “Hail Caesar!” they would proclaim to their real king.  They had no respect; no compassion; only hatred and animosity toward Jesus.  After they had had their fun, they took off the purple robe.  Understand that the blood from the flogging would have coagulated on this robe, so when they ripped it off, it would have caused severe pain and the blood to begin flowing once again.  This is humanity at its worse.

 Then, they put the cross-bar on Jesus’ back and made him carry it toward Golgatha.  Understand this: Jesus has had no sleep.  He has been flogged and has lost copious amounts of blood.  He hasn’t eaten.  He is tired, wounded beyond belief, and weak.  He is now expected to carry a 30 or 40 pound piece of wood on his bloody, beaten back raked by bone, metal, and leather.  This is complete and utter cruelty.

 He heads to Calvary.  He isn’t going to make it.  He is too tired.  Too weary.  Too weak.  The walk carrying the cross-bar will kill him, but that would deprive everyone of seeing Jesus die humiliated.  The Roman escort calls upon a bystander–Simon of Cyrene father of Rufus and Alexander to carry the cross for Jesus.  Mark probably includes these names because these folks were well known in the early church and were witnesses to these things.  Mark is saying, “If you want to know whether or not this is true, ask them.”  Simon carries Jesus’ cross for Him, and they arrive at Calvary where one more indignation will be heaped upon Jesus.

 N.T. Wright, biblical scholar says this:

 The cross was a political symbol long before it became a religious symbol.  Pilate knew the crowds knew, the chief priests knew, and Jesus knew, what it meant.  It was the ultimate symbol of Roman power.  It said, “We are in charge here, and this is what happens when people get in our way.”  They had crucified thousands of rebel Jews when Jesus was a boy in Galilee.  They would crucify thousands more when they took Jerusalem in AD70–so many they got bored, and experimented with hanging people up in different positions and attitudes until they ran out of wood.  And in between those two devastating repressions of revolts they crucified lots of people for a variety of reasons, often on small pretexts.  Polite Romans didn’t even mention the word “crucifixion” or “cross”. The reality was so brutal, ugly and repellant.

 This is what Jesus is nailed to.  It carried an even worse meaning for the Jews.  William Lane writes in his commentary:

 The public exposure of an executed person branded him as one cursed by God, in accordance with the provision of Deuteronomy 21:23: “for he is accursed of God who hangs on a tree.”  These words were applied equally to one who was crucified.  When the chief priests and the crowd demanded death by crucifixion for Jesus they expressed the conviction that he must take his last breath on the cross as one “accursed by God.”

 And those standing watching the proceedings treated Jesus as if He were accursed by God.  They mocked Him.  They used the sayings of the false witnesses against Him.  They dressed their words in piety, “If he comes down from the cross, then we will believe in him.”  And then the piece de resistance, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself.”  And there is a bitter truth in that statement–a bitter truth indeed.

 Walter Liefield says this about that statement, “Their statement ‘he can’t save himself’ is both false and true.  In the sense they meant it–he does not have the power–it is false.  But in a profound sense, if Jesus was to fulfill his messianic mission, he could not save himself.  His death was necessary for man’s redemption.”

 For it is on the cross that the God immanent is redeeming the world.  It is on the cross that the God immanent is working to change the hearts of men so that they turn from violence and hatred.  It is on the cross that the God immanent is showing a love beyond measure–a love which is intended to melt even the hardest heart.  It is on the cross that the God immanent confronts violence and hatred and dehumanization and responds with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

 The question becomes how does this happen?  How does Jesus’ actions on the cross lead us to have changed hearts?

 Let’s consider the issue of hate crimes and the cruelty of mass murder.  What causes such things?  Is it religious ideology and firmly held convictions?  No.  The Amish are some of the strictest religious adherents in the world, and they don’t kill anyone.  Just having firm convictions will not lead you to kill someone.  Is it access to weapons?  Again, no.  Some of the areas with the highest concentrations of weapons have the lowest instances of murder and crime.  Is it viewing another’s actions as wrong that causes mass murder?  Again, no.  We categorically call other people’s actions as wrong all the time, but we do not generally go around killing another person because we disagree with them.  None of these things grasp the reality.  The reality is what Timothy Keller calls the slippery slope of the heart.

 For you see, in the slippery slope of the heart what happens is that I look at another person and see what they are doing.  I judge them as wrong, AND I feel morally or ethically superior to the other.  I feel like I am a better person; a stronger intellectual; in a higher plane of spiritual or moral thought.  As I look at the other person with this air of superiority, I begin to caricature the other people.  I only emphasize their flaws.  I make blanket statements that do not encapsulate the entirety of the person.  Once I begin this caricature process, the other person or group becomes less than human.  They become less than me.  They deserve punishment or to be silenced or even to be killed.  What leads people to murder people in mass is a heart condition where someone feels morally superior to another.

 The Orlando shooter felt morally superior to the folks he killed.  The Sanhedrin felt morally superior to Jesus.  The Romans felt morally superior to Jesus and to the thousands of other Jews that they crucified.  Once they felt this, it was not long before each of these was able to dehumanize and then treat the other as less than human committing atrocity after atrocity after atrocity. 

 And each of us believes at some level we are morally superior than others.  Each of us at some level believes our particular position on given issues are right.  Each of us believes that if everyone just believed as we believed and did what we did then the world would turn out okay.  Each of us is apt to point the finger at others as the ones who need to change and conform because, by God, we are the ones who have it right.  And the answer is not to throw right and wrong out the window.  The answer is not to throw truth claims out the window.  For heaven’s sake.  If we did that, then we would never be able to judge mass murder as wrong!!  Think about that!!!

 The answer lies at the heart of the Gospel.  The answer lies at the heart of why Jesus could not save Himself.  The answer is that we are all moral failures.  The answer is that we are all morally inferior.  As St. Paul put it, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And we cannot save ourselves.  If we could save ourselves, then we would have a reason to boast.  We would have a reason to feel morally superior.  But we are saved only and solely by God’s grace.  We are saved only and solely by God’s love poured out by Jesus on the cross for sinners.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

 If we are all morally inferior, and if we are all saved by sheer grace and by no actions of our own, then we absolutely cannot caricature another person.  We absolutely cannot dehumanize another person.  We share intimately with others the same condition.  We share intimately with others the same salvation.  We are all sinners.  We are all saints.  The dividing line is that there are those who have not come to the realization of the Gospel.  There are those who do not know their brokenness and so they feel morally superior.  There are those who do not know they are loved and so all they feel is self-loathing.  It is our job as those who have met our dying Savior hanging on that cross to lead others to Him.  It is our job to lead others to the God incarnate who will humble them and reveal to them their sin and then who will embrace them with nail scarred hands.  And when this occurs, their hearts, hopefully like ours, will be transformed.  Their self-righteousness will leave.  Their views of others will change, and hatred will cease.  Simply telling another person to stop hating will not change anything.  Getting others to Jesus will.  Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Do You Want Justice?

 Perhaps you have heard the name Brock Turner.  If you haven’t let me fill you in on this boy.  Turner was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at Stanford University in California.  The details are grim, but those of you with daughters, I want you to consider what you would do to a person you saw raping your daughter when she was passed out from drinking too much.  As a dad, the idea of a rusty knife, nail, old wooden barn, and lighter fluid come to mind.  I would want complete and total justice.  However, in the case of Brock Turner, he received a sentence of six months in the county jail with the high probability he will only serve three months.  He could have been sentenced to up to 14 years in prison, so he gets off very, very light.  Too light in my estimation and in the estimation of many, many people.  Those of us who believe this sentence was wrongheaded are asking, “Where is justice?”

 The cry for justice is a loud and strong one throughout the centuries.  If you read through the Old Testament, you will see over and over again the cries of God’s people for justice.  You will hear the cries of the prophets for justice.  You will see how God demands justice.  It is not without reason that God Himself declares, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  (Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21) Deuteronomy 19:21 even goes so far as to say, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”  Show no pity.

 True justice demands no pity.  True justice means that those who are guilty pay a price equal to what they have done.  True justice means that no matter if you are a lowly peasant or a high king, the law applies equally to both, and there is no give or take.  But justice also means that the innocent are left alone.  The innocent are protected.  Justice also means that the victims are compensated and cared for.  The Old Testament had quite a bit to say on this as well.  Care for the widow and the orphan are repeated over and over and over.  Concern for the well being of the poor and disenfranchised are highlighted by the prophets at every turn. 

 And justice isn’t just demanded in the holy Scriptures.  There is something deep within the fabric of nature that calls for justice.  There is something deep within the fabric of our beings that clamors for just behavior.  I showed a youtube video at the last senior service about what happens when two monkeys are paid unequally for performing the same activity.  One monkey is given a cucumber for handing a researcher a rock.  The second monkey is given a grape.  Guess what happens?  Here’s a hint, if you have children, give one child an apple and give the other an ice cream cone.  See what happens next.

 We long for justice.  Plain and simple.  And so, when we hear stories like Brock Turner, we recoil.  Justice isn’t being served.  Not in the least.  And when we look at Jesus’ trial, I think we should recoil as well–for justice is being mocked once again. 

 We know that the Sanhedrin, or Jewish leaders have broken nearly every rule in the book governing the trial of a criminal as they brought a sentence of death upon Jesus, but they did not have the power to put Jesus to death.  Only the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate could do that.  As the Roman empire expanded, one of the ways it kept power and control was by holding the power of the death penalty.  Local courts could try individuals, but to put them to death was reserved for the Roman governors.  Judea was no exception, so the Sanhedrin had to bring Jesus to Pilate.

 Pilate is an interesting character as far as we know.  Paul Maier wrote a very intriguing historical fiction regarding this man, and it is very eye opening.  Pilate was a social climber.  He wanted to do a good job and work his way up in the Roman empire, and this meant handling some jobs that weren’t exactly fun.  Being procurator of Judea was one of those jobs.  The Jews were traditionally stiff necked and difficult.  They had a history of rebelling.  Pilate knew these things, and he also believed he could handle them.  He encountered no small amount of difficulty, and it is safe to say that he was not on the friendliest of terms with his subjects.  Interestingly enough, he served as procurator of Judea for eleven years which is quite a long amount of time considering the difficulties he had.

 Pilate was charged with keeping the peace.  The Jews, particularly at Passover made this job very, very difficult.  As the Jews remembered how their God delivered them from the hands of oppression, they were apt to look for any reason to throw off their current oppressors: the Romans.  Pilate worked hard to keep the peace which is why he was in Jerusalem.  He normally resided on the coast, but during this time when the population of Jerusalem exploded with pilgrims, his presence was necessary. 

 This is why the Jewish leaders were easily able to bring Jesus to him for trial.  And you will note the charges the brought before Pilate.  Jesus is not being accused of blasphemy.  Jesus is being accused of calling himself the King of the Jews.  Pilate’s question in Greek can be expressed as follows, “You are the king of the Jews?”  It could be read contemptuously.  It could be read accusingly.  We don’t know for sure.  What we do know is that Pilate is not swayed by the Jewish leaders’ accusation.  Pilate knows these leaders do not respect him and would just as soon have him gone.  He can also perceive that Jesus is no king, and he really is no threat to the peace.  As N.T. Wright says, “he didn’t bother to round up any of his followers.”

 Jesus responds, “You say so.”  Mark Edwards says this about Jesus’ response, “In reply to Pilate’s question, Jesus responds, “You say so,” with emphasis on You.  It is not a direct affirmation, or else Pilate would have immediate grounds for execution.  But neither is it a denial.  The reply is suggestive, as if to say, “You would do well to consider the question!”

 And Pilate does.  He has to.  He is having to navigate a very sticky situation with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish pilgrims who are there for Passover, and a crowd that is growing as they watch the proceedings.  The Sanhedrin begins making all of their accusations. Jesus remains silent.  Pilate is amazed.  Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges being brought against him–after all, Jesus hasn’t been stirring up a rebellion.  Jesus hasn’t been putting together an army.  Roman spies would have known this, particularly since Jesus had been in public day after day after day.  Pilate knows that the Sanhedrin has it out for Jesus.  So, Pilate decides to stick it to the Sanhedrin by offering to set Jesus free as part of the Passover custom of releasing a prisoner.

 There are no other records of this Passover custom outside of the biblical accounts; although there are some accounts of similar things happening in other countries around the Roman empire at the time.  Mark tells us; however that members of the Sanhedrin work the crowd.  They begin inciting the crowd to ask for Barabbas.  Here is an interesting twist to the story.  After all, the crowd used to be highly supportive of Jesus.  The crowd used to hang on his every word.  What has changed?  How are they so susceptible to the Sanhedrin at this point?  Remember, the Jews did not believe that the Messiah would ever be arrested or tried.  They believed that the Messiah would conquer Israel’s enemies with God’s power and might.  Jesus wasn’t doing a very good job of that.  Jesus wasn’t calling down God’s power now.  It is my surmise that the chief priests were working the crowd with these facts.  The chief priests were calling Jesus a fraud.  He obviously was no messiah.  Therefore, Pilate should release Barabbas.  At least Barabbas had fought against the Romans.  At least Barabbas was trying to overthrow Israel’s enemies.  Jesus wasn’t doing anything.

 The crowd demanded Barabbas. 

 Pilate was incredulous.  “Then what should I do with Jesus, the ‘king of the Jews?”

 “Crucify him!”

 Why such hatred?  Perhaps even the Jews had their limit.  After so many false messiahs, after so much disappointment, all of their frustration and anger was poured out toward Jesus.  This fraud; this charlatan must be put to death.  It is only right.  Their disappointment can only be appeased with blood.

 “Why?” Pilate asks.  “What evil has he done?”

 There is no reasoning at this point.  The crowd is beyond reason.  They shout all the more, “Crucify him.”

 Pilate, knowing that he must choose between justice and his job keeps the peace and orders Jesus crucified.  It is a great injustice.  The innocent is sentenced to death, and the guilty goes free. 

 Now, let me read to you N.T. Wright once more at this point.  It is a long quote, but worth pondering.

 And therefore, within Mark’s story, we find also the deeply personal meaning.  The story of Barabbas invites us to see Jesus’ crucifixion in terms of a stark personal exchange.  Barabbas deserves to die; Jesus dies instead, and he goes free.  Barabbas was the archetypal Jewish rebel: quite probably what we today would call a fanatical right-wing zealot, determined to stop at nothing to bring in a version of God’s kingdom which consisted of defeating Roman power by Roman means–in other words, repaying pagan violence with holy violence.  No doubt many Christians in Mark’s community, and others who would read his book, had at one stage at least flirted with such revolutionary movements.  Reading the story of a guilty man freed and the innocent man crucified, it would not be hard for them to identify with Barabbas, and to view the rest of the story with the awestruck gaze of people who think, “There but for God’s grace go I.”

Just so, Mark is saying, God’s grace, God’s sovereign and saving presence, is exactly what we are witnessing in this story.  When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, the sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.

 The guilty go free.

 The innocent gets condemned.

 The innocent dies in place of the one who should be condemned.

 This is a microcosm of the Gospel–the knowledge that Jesus takes our place as condemned sinners which allows us to go free.

 You might object to this right here.  You might object and say, “This is a travesty of justice!”  And you would be right–particularly if you neither understand your own sinfulness or the love and justice of God.

 First, our sinfulness.   You will notice that I shifted from your to our.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And this sinfulness goes much deeper than simply the things that we do.  Everyone does bad things.  Everyone makes mistakes on a regular basis.  This is hardly worthy of condemnation.  None of us here this morning have committed murder, so why do we stand condemned before God?

 Deep down in the very recesses of our hearts is a driving force that we are all born with.  Deep down in the very core of our being is a driving force that leads us to live for ourselves–to see ourselves as ultimately important; to portray ourselves as better than most; to put on facades of perfection, beauty, wealth, and independence so that we look like we have it all together; to strive for our own safety and security first and foremost and then to look at the world around us and perhaps, perhaps offer a token or two of charity toward another–but only if they meet our criteria.  Deep down, we are inherently selfish and self-serving only engaging in activities if we get some benefit or some sense of self-worth.  There is a reason biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book entitled The Selfish Gene!  There is a reason John Stossel once did a documentary piece titled, “Greed is Good”!  This is who we are deep down, and you can deny it if you choose, but spend enough time in reflection and examination of your own motives, you will see that this is simply a fact. 

 And if you act for yourself all the time; if your ultimate motivation is your own safety and security; if your motives are “what can I get out of this”; then who in your universe is god?  The answer is: yourself.  Do you want to know why there is so much turmoil in the world?  Do you want to know why there is warfare?  Do you want to know why there is hunger and thirst and poverty?  Go no further than our inherent, selfish nature.  We are all part of this problem.  How much so?  This week I heard an interesting quote about extinction.  For it is a reality that as humanity has flourished, many species have become extinct, but if humanity were to become extinct, it would be many other species that would flourish.  Think on that for a few minutes as you consider the impact we have had on this natural world.   And what would be the just punishment for our species for all the damage we have done?

 And if God is a just God, what should He do?  If God is a God of justice, shouldn’t payment be made for this destruction?  Shouldn’t death be visited upon us for the tremendous amount of death and suffering we have caused?  If you believe in justice, true justice, you know the answer is in the affirmative.

 And death is served.  Death is visited, but not upon us, but upon the God who entered into the world.  For this is where God’s love enters into the picture.  This is where God’s love makes itself known in an amazing way.  For though we deserve death, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

 Jesus took our death upon Himself to satisfy the demands of Justice, and He pardoned us and allowed us to go free because of his love for us.  Justice and mercy have met singularly in the Christ event.  What transpired at Jesus trail when Barabbas was released is a foretaste of what we will experience next week as we travel to the foot of the cross–the place where God poured out His love for you and for me.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Fostering Creativity for the Future

I am offering up quite a different post than usual today.  This post is about education and the current state of education in the state of Texas.  I invite you to not only read this, but share it with your local news papers.  I have already submitted it to many of my local papers.  I am disgusted by the current system of education, and I know--I absolutely know--that many within that system are sick of it too.  There might be change on the horizon, but we must continue pushing.

By: Kevin Haug

 Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said as he spoke about science, “And the fun of it is, all these things which you see, that you notice in the world...and all these things you can understand, from these simple pictures.  And that’s kind of a lot of fun to think about.  I don’t want to take this stuff seriously. I think we should just have fun imagining it and not worry about–there’s no teacher going to ask you questions at the end.  Otherwise, it’s a horrible subject.”1

 Feynman spoke these words in a documentary video titled “Fun to Imagine.”  As one watches this video, one is struck by how Feynman offers a radically different view of the world as he speaks of atoms and subatomic forces.  It is safe to say that this man could see the world in a way that most of us cannot.  And it was his ability to imagine the world in such a fashion that enabled him to win the Nobel Prize for physics. 

 It could be argued that the world progresses scientifically, technologically, and socially because of the use of the imagination.  People dared to think differently; be creative; envision a way of doing things that had not previously been done before.  Many were met with resistence.  Imagination almost always is.

 Take for instance our children.  Children oftentimes think very differently.  In his talk before the RSA, Sir Ken Robinson quoted a study done on the divergent thinking of children found in the book Breakpoint and Beyond. Divergent thinking is not defined as creativity, but it is an essential capacity for creativity.  It is, according to Robinson, “...the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question; lots of possible ways of interpreting the question; to think...laterally; to think not just in convergent or linear ways; to see multiple answers not just one.” 2

 The study asked 1500 kindergarten children how many uses they could come up with for a paperclip.  According to their own standards of what would make a divergent thinking genius, 98% of the students achieved that level.  The same students were tested five years later.  Only 32% achieved the genius level.  Five years later, the number dropped to only 10%.  The study then asked 200,000 adults over the age of 25 the same question.  Two percent managed to score at the genius level.  What happened.  According to Robinson, “They were educated.”3

 Now, Robinson does not believe education is the only factor at play here.  There are definitely other factors, but why might education be a very important one?

 According to Robinson, “We are now running educational systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make, and the result is: we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”4

 It doesn’t take a person too long to figure out that Robinson is correct.  For not only are we “educating people out of their creative capacities”, we are doing so in an alarming fashion.  Consider the following problem that was given to my fourth grader:

 The number 15,_56 rounded to the nearest thousand is 15,000. Which numbers could be the missing digit?

 A. 1,2,3,4,5
 B. 1,2,3,4
 C. 0,1,2,3,4,5
 D. 0,1,2,3,4

 There are two correct answers to this problem.  Both B and D are correct, however if your student chooses B, he or she will be marked incorrect because the “best” answer is D.  Imagine being right yet being counted wrong.  And this sort of reasoning is being used as a measure of our schools, our teachers, and our students in the form of the STAAR assessment.

 Most–no, correct that–every teacher that I have visited about this is incensed at what they are being forced to teach their students.  Every teacher who I have conferred with despises counting something wrong that is actually right because the “right” answer is the “better” answer.  Every teacher I visit with absolutely detests the state mandated Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills which are required strictly to pass the STAAR.  To a teacher, I hear, “These students are not cognitively ready for these kinds of questions.”

 Not only are they not cognitively ready, to prepare students for these sorts of questions, their creativity is squashed, and their confidence gets shattered.  They are not taught that multiple answers are right.  They are not taught to expand their sight.  They are taught to narrowly limit their vision to fit the standardized version imposed by the Texas State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency.

 Fortunately, these boards have done some extensive work in the past year to evaluate the current process of educating our students.  There is also a ground swell of rebellion against what the state is doing to our children.  The question is whether parents or the testing business will win out.  Unfortunately, money is often more persuasive than the reality of life.

 And what is that reality?

 An extended quote from Robinson:

We know three things about intelligence.  One, it’s diverse.  We think about the world in all the ways we experience it.  We think visually.  We think in sound.  We think kinesthetically.  We think in abstract terms.  We think in movement.  Secondly, intelligence is dynamic.  If you look at the interactions of the human brain...intelligence is wonderfully interactive.  The brain isn’t divided into compartments.  In fact, creativity, which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value, more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things...And the third thing about intelligence is that it is distinct.5

   When Robinson talks about intelligence being distinct, he means that each kid has a certain type of intelligence that needs to be unleashed instead of packed away.  He uses the example of Jillian Lynne who was not doing well in school; whose teachers thought she had a learning disability; who was taken to a doctor because she couldn’t sit still in class.  The doctor upon examination and consultation with Jillian’s mom said, “Mrs. Lynne, your daughter isn’t sick, she’s a dancer.”  Jillian’s parents put her into a school of dance, and she went on to choreograph Broadway hits like “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”6

 Today, Jillian would likely be put on Ritalin and suffer through school as a C student.  There is probably no way she would pass the STAAR.

 And she shouldn’t have to. 

 Education is much more than a test.  It is much more than trying to make everyone into mathematicians and scientists.  It is much more than trying to make sure that everyone gets the same right answer or best right answer.  We do not need a bunch of cookie cutter citizens.  We need creative minds who can envision a better future.  We need divergent thinking and the courage to imagine the possibilities.  We need the bravery to try and fail and to try and fail again.  We need schools to unlock this potential in our children.  We need our schools to help our kids imagine.  This fact was not lost on Richard Feynman, and it shouldn’t be lost on us as well.

1. Feynman, Richard. “Fun to Imagine”

2. Robinson, Ken. Sir Ken Robinson, “Changing Paradigms”

3. Ibid.

4. Robinson, Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”; Ken Robinson; TED Talks.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.