Grey Area Heroes

Summer is the prime time for blockbuster movies.  And for the past 10-15 years, it seems as though the blockbusters have been dominated by superheroes – Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-men, the Avengers, and a host of others (even Abraham Lincoln now slays vampires).  Without a doubt, humans have a fascination with superheroes, which has been increasingly obvious in the 100 million dollar-plus opening weekends these films are doing.

What’s been additionally interesting in our current environment of postmodern narrative is the use of the flawed protagonist.  In other words, good guys aren’t really just good guys anymore, they’re flawed guys who are simply trying to use their unique talents for good.  I would argue that this awakened perception – that every human, even “super” ones, is drastically flawed – has affected the way superheroes are now portrayed.  It seems that every single one of them has received a considerably darker and edgier persona than the days when their first comic was released.  For now, the days of good guy vs. bad guy, hero vs. villain, may be gone.  In a world that denies absolute truth, you cannot say what is “right” or “wrong”, which makes it much more difficult to label people as good guys and bad guys.  So, what we’re left with is characters that are progressing more deeply into shades of grey.

These grey area heroes are perhaps even more clearly seen on TV.  Self-made man and all-around good guy Heathcliff Huxtable from the Cosby Show can no longer be found in any show.  He’s been replaced by happy-go-lucky but also lazy, fat, perv Peter Griffin from Family Guy.  The most successful shows on television portray deeply broken protagonists like Don Draper – a playboy Madison Avenue advertising exec who shows how the 1960s were a launching pad into modern (im)morality, Jackson Teller – an outlaw biker gang drug runner whose highest loyalty is to his gang vows, and Walter White – a cancer surviving high school teacher turned meth cook who is constantly fleeing the law while trying to earn money for his family.  These characters aren’t just imperfect, they’re cracked seemingly beyond repair.  And yet they’re picking up Academy Awards and additional seasons, which means something about them is resonating with our culture.

Cliché as it may sound in 2012, I do believe social media has played an enormous role in the perception of heroes.  Think about how common the average celebrity mug shot now is.  Think about how many young Hollywood starlets have been exposed in sex tapes.  Think about how many famous people have retracted drunken tirade tweets on Twitter.  The 2012 reality is that every supposed hero (or at least the individuals who portray them) now has an immediate mouth piece to the world and every 12-year-old with a cell phone is now a filmmaker waiting to capture them when they fall.  In other words, it’s harder to hide your scars in an HD world.  There’s no mystique anymore.  Everyone is being exposed for what they are – fallen sinners.  And it seems that the best we could ever hope for now as a society is someone who at least “tries hard”.

But let’s back up one little step.  Why do we have to have heroes in the first place?  Doesn’t it seem odd that such selfish people are so quick to roll out the red carpet for a celebrity or get an autograph from a professional athlete or pay big bucks to see a never-ending stream of superhero movies?  What makes us long for heroes so badly?

Let me suggest this – your heart was built for them.

Paul says to the Ephesians, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10)  According to the Bible, and contrary to the cultural lie, you did not create who you are today.  You were built by God, to exist in and for Christ Jesus, to glorify God by living in line with his will.  Some people recognize this.  Others don’t.  But all experience it.  Every single person on this planet therefore has a heart that’s built for someone who is bigger and better than they are – a “hero” you might say.

If you look closely, we as a culture are starting to recognize (and become a little disenchanted with) the idea that there is no true hero on this planet who could possibly meet up to our standards.  So we’ve redefined what it means to be a  hero.  By the way, don’t think for a second that this concept that a truly good hero could not possibly come from this planet is lost on comic book kings Marvel and DC.   After all, Superman isn’t from around here.  No, if a really, truly good hero were to walk amongst us, he’d have to come from a different place.

Now think about this.  Speaking about HIMSELF, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” (John 6:32)  Jesus is telling us that he came from a far away place, journeyed to earth on a great rescue mission to give us life.  He came to give up his life to save us from our sins and from ourselves.  He looked normal most of the time, but occasionally he demonstrated powers to heal, walk on water, feed masses, drive out evil, disappear, walk through walls, know thoughts, and even come back to life and bring others back to life as well.  And though the Jewish leaders, Roman politicians, Muslims, many modern scientists, many modern historians, and most philosophers have desperately searched, no kryptonite has been found.

Allow your heart to see the truth – that Jesus is the Ultimate Hero you’ve been looking for.  You were built for him.  Everyone was built for him.  Imagine the peace and purpose your life would know if you always remembered that.  Imagine what this world might look like if we all really believed that.

An Identity Liberated by the Gospel

Like most human beings, I’ve spent a decent chunk of my life trying to figure out how I could be SOMEBODY.  We sometimes tend to categorize teens as trying to “find themselves.”  But let’s be honest, the mother who first encounters the empty nest and the businessman who realizes he’s not going to rise beyond mid-level management, and everyone else in between, also have the struggle.  We’re constantly trying to prove our worth.  19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggested that our sick and fallen hearts are constantly trying to build our identity upon something other than God, trying to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).  It’s an all-consuming, self-absorbed, misery-inducing approach to life.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Not for the Christian.  Here’s why….

A while back I read a brilliant little book by Dr. Tim Keller called The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.  I’m going to try to summarize his thoughts here in about 1000 words or so.  If you get the point, you will recognize a newfound freedom that this world, and your sinful heart, have previously been stealing from you.

In 1 Corinthians 3-4, the Apostle Paul is speaking to a group of boastful people.  Specifically, the Christians in the Corinthian church had been boasting about which Christian leader they were baptized by, instructed by, mentored by, etc.  This was leading to divisions in the church as you might imagine.  Anytime someone claims, or even insinuates, that they’re better than someone else, it generally leads to hard feelings.  That’s probably even more so the case in issues of religion, spirituality, or morality.

The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, though, to stay away from the destructive “better than you” game.  Rather, they should humble themselves (1 Cor. 4:6).

True pride is not merely feeling good in your accomplishments, but feeling better than others in your accomplishments.  This is why if you have some great performance, but someone else comes along with a better performance, all your pride disappears.  You weren’t finding joy in how well you’d done.  You were finding joy in how much better you had done, by comparison, to everyone else.  Finding joy by comparison will always lead to feelings of superiority or inferiority, neither of which are gospel-compatible, since the gospel says that we are all equally sinners saved only by God’s grace.

While the Bible discourages pride, our culture does not.  Our specific culture in America has a pretty unique way of looking at esteem issues.  Most modern psychologists will tell you that bad behavior or “acting out” is generally a result of low self-esteem.  So the reason that one child picks on another or the reason a husband mistreats his wife or the reason teens rebel under authority and so on are the result of low self-esteem.  Our public education system, our correctional facilities, our legislation, and our psychology largely reflects this accepted societal belief.  What’s unique about this though is that most traditional cultures throughout history have not cited low self-esteem as the cause of bad behavior, but rather, overly high self-esteem, often termed “hubris”.  Similarly, most modern research seems to support the idea that those with a very high opinion of themselves are actually a greater threat to those around them than those with a low opinion of themselves. (see “The Trouble With Self-Esteem”)

The Bible teaches us something different from both the traditional conservative OR modern western approaches to esteem though.

In 1 Cor. 3-4, Paul teaches an approach to esteem that is off the map of most common thought.  Paul has an unprecedented, non-circumstantial peace, contentment, and joy in his life?  How did he get that way?  Look at what he says: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.  My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor. 4:3-4)  The secret to Paul’s happiness lies in whose judgment he cares about the most.

Notice that in modern culture, if someone is struggling with low self-esteem, how is it often treated?  ANSWER: with high self-esteem.  We tell people to look at all their talents and to look at what a good person they are.  We tell people that it doesn’t matter what others think of you, all that matters is what YOU think of you.  But you see the problem with that, right?  Who of us ever lives up to even our own standards?  YES, we might feel terrible if we don’t live up to our parents’ standards.  YES, we might feel terrible if we don’t live up to society’s standards.  BUT, we’ll also feel terrible if we don’t live up to our own standards!  That won’t work either.  So, is the solution to just lower our standards?  Not at all!  The problem is not the standards; the problem is that the verdict is still coming from the wrong place.

Think about what Paul is suggesting here.  He says that he has a very low opinion of other people’s opinions of him.  However, he says that he ALSO has a very low opinion of his own opinion of himself!  He understands that self-perception, even if it’s good, is often deceptive.  He says, My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.” He’s well aware of the danger of relative perception, coming from the outside or the inside.

No. No.  Paul’s approach is “Who cares what other people think of me?” AND “Who cares what I think of me?”  The determining factor between me and eternal salvation or damnation is not what anyone on this planet thinks of me.  All that matters in the end is what God thinks of me.  And according to the gospel, I’m judged to be eternally righteous by God through the payment of Jesus.

Do you see what this does for you?  It allows you to step out of the courtroom of life, constantly building a defense for yourself (either to yourself or to others).  You can now love people and serve people just for the beauty of it, not to pad your résumé of righteousness and personal value.  God’s gavel came down on Jesus in the form of a cross and now his declaration of you as “not guilty” of sin gives you freedom from ever fearing judgment, because the only opinion that really matters is the one that values you more than all the wealth of the world (Rom. 8:1).  You don’t have to prove yourself in any way to anyone.

Doesn’t that sound nice?  If you believe the gospel, this is available to you.

ObamaCare and How Much I Should Care

This will serve as a follow-up to what I’d posted several weeks ago regarding same-sex marriage.

When it comes to ObamaCare, to say “I don’t care” would be way too strong, probably insensitive, and is not accurate.  However, to say I get the impression that I personally feel like I care less than the average U.S. citizen probably is fair.  Understand now, that I’m saying “I’m not as bothered” in the same way that Jesus said that everyone who came to him had to hate their families (14:26).  It’s hyperbole.  It’s not that Jesus really wanted people to hate their family members.  It was that the love that they had for their family was supposed to look like hatred when compared to the love they had for Jesus.

Similarly, I’m not suggesting that healthcare reform or government mandated and regulated healthcare isn’t a big deal for our country.  It is.  I’m simply suggesting that in the grand scheme of things, I don’t believe it’s the “end of the world” deal that some are making it out to be.  And it seems a little inconsistent to me that so many conservative Christians should be so impassioned about it right now and so comparatively unconcerned about moral evils and social injustices pre-ObamaCare.  But now, when it might hit our wallets directly, immorality and injustice in what’s perceived by many as an “unconstitutional law” is intolerable.

Now, I realize it probably sounds a bit insensitive for a relatively young man in relatively decent health to seemingly trivialize the healthcare issue.  I don’t have a child with a rare medical condition nor am I elderly.  The opinions of those individuals probably should count more on the issue since the healthcare changes would likely affect them more in the immediate future.  Nonetheless, to say I don’t have a right to comment on it is a little like saying that the Apostle Paul can’t comment on marriage or children since he was single.  He clearly still felt it was his place as a Christian minister, applying divine truth to earthly life.

So……I’ll comment.

Truth is, I hate the healthcare bill just like many other Americans.  Yes, I believe that healthcare needed some radical reform, but when has the government taking something over ever helped it run more efficiently?  Yes, I do think the “tax” does come across as fairly unconstitutional, which makes me uncomfortable in wondering which “guaranteed” constitutional rights might be taken away next (ahem…First Amendment Freedom of Religion!).  And that leads me to the biggest issue for me, as for many Christians – the idea that tax dollars would be used to fund abortions despite Pres. Obama’s past claims that the bill would do no such thing is nothing short of tragic.  And finally, how much can I trust a federally appointed ethics council (i.e. “death panel”), which clearly values life so little that abortion is being federally funded, to make important decisions regarding life issues?

The hypothetical scenarios here are obvious.  Say, for instance, that a child in the womb is known to have Down Syndrome.  When the federal budget gets tight, understanding the eventual medical costs that someone with such a condition would incur, what chance do you think there would be for such a child’s life NOT to be taken prematurely?  Sensitivity and compassion tend to go away quickly when dollars and cents are on the line.

Unfortunately, I think that we, as a country, made this bed.  You’ve probably already heard the “90% of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis have chosen to have an abortion” statistic.  There’s some debate on those numbers, but whatever the exact number is, it’s very, very high.  In other words, the government will probably encourage and carry out what we, as a country, were sadly already doing.  And, after all, that’s consistent, because we, as a country, were the ones who elected them into office.

This gets to the heart of what I’m saying here.  You don’t have to like the specific form of government, the policies of government, or the leaders in government, but understand, they are simply “representative” of the nation.  This IS where our country is at right now.  And while it’s probably not fair to point the finger in one direction, I do believe that the Christian church at large has some blame in all of this, falling away from the inspired biblical standards and not following through on biblical discipline.

So….again, I don’t like the healthcare bill.  Nonetheless, I do think it’s an accurate representation of where our country is currently at spiritually.  I do think the Christian church in America deserves some of the blame for that.  And finally, I don’t think that disapproval over current government actions should be an excuse for Christians to slip into something that Jesus, Peter, and the Apostle Paul themselves refused to slip into – verbal attack or physical rebellion against God’s institution of government, something we don’t have a right to unless we are specifically being forced to sin (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Acts 5:29).

To more eloquently sum up my feelings, I’d like to echo the reaction of minister John Piper to Pres. Obama on abortion:

“The only newly originating life in the universe that lasts forever is man.  This is an awesome thing. And as everyone knows, that reverence is not shared by our new president…..He is trapped and blind in a culture of deceit.  And on the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade last Thursday he released this statement: ‘We are reminded that this decision not only protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, but stands for a broader principle: that government should not intrude on our most private family matters’…..No, Mr. President, you are authorizing the destruction of freedom for 1 million little human beings every year…..We pledge that we will pray for you.” (Excerpt from the message The Baby In My Womb Leaped for Joy by John Piper, January 25, 2009)

So, instead of complaining about what we don’t like, how is ObamaCare an opportunity for Christians to let their light shine?

1) Put Our Money Where Our Mouths Are

The new ObamaCare mandate will force Christian institutions like schools, hospitals and charities to subsidize the insurance costs of employees that purchase birth control pills, sterilization coverage and abortion-inducing drugs. If Christian groups fail to provide their employees these kinds of coverages, they will be severely fined.  The current number appears to be around $2000 per employee.

Nobody likes to pay for things unnecessarily.  However, generally people don’t mind paying for things that they value highly.  How much do you value your Christian faith?  How much do churchgoers value the ones who teach them the truths of the gospel?  In recent history, it’s been pretty inexpensive to be a Christian in America and I don’t know that that has done anything for spiritual vitality.  We tend to appreciate things more when they cost us something.  What kind of testimony might it give to the world if Christian institutions would willingly pay $2000 per employee for the sake of their biblical belief of the integrity of human life.

Did you know that post-delivery murder of babies (we’ll call it “abortion”) was very common in the Roman Empire too?  The Christians didn’t participate though.  In fact, they would welcome other babies into their community at the expense of the community.  In other words, they paid dollars out of their own pockets to spare human lives.  Not surprisingly, this presented a more beautiful reality to their society that led others to investigate the Christian faith.  Don’t you think that might have the same effect today?

2) Demonstrate No Fear in Death

Do you realize how the truth of the Resurrection alters your perspective on this life?  Yes, you intellectually know about the Resurrection facts.  But to what degree do you believe them and implement them in your approach to life?

In Keith Getty’s famous modern hymn In Christ Alone, the final verse starts out with the line “No guilt in life, no fear in death, This is the pow’r of Christ in me.”  Furthermore, the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 1:22-23, “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”  The anticipation that Christians will have towards their own death may very well come off to the rest of the world as a bit morbid.  At the very least, it’ll make people curious.

Christians have joy in the proposition because they recognize that in death, they finally get to go home.  Two of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes read, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  and “Read history and you find that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next.”

If, under the ObamaCare system, I knew I was dying, needed a transplant, and that it came down to either me or someone else, I honestly don’t know how I wouldn’t defer to the other person.  I’m not trying to be a hero.  It’s simply what my faith would lead me to as a logical conclusion.  On the basis of Jesus’ grace and merit – his righteousness and gifted forgiveness – I know where my future lies and it’s going to be BETTER than here!  Why would I have such reluctance in leaving this fallen world?!

The cynic might argue, “Well, don’t you care about your family and all whom you’d leave behind?!”  ANSWER: The gospel says that I have a God who loves my family even more than I do and, as God, knows better than even me how to take care of them and has unlimited resource to do so.  Furthermore, he’s given me a church that would never let them be without clothes or food or shelter.  So, no, I logically have nothing to fear and God has commanded me not to.

Conclusion

These are only a couple of ways in which I could imagine Christians taking an unfortunate ObamaCare situation and turning it into a way to glorify the name of Jesus.  There are others.

The energy and wind spent lambasting national leaders is better spent humbly serving others and spreading the message of a gracious Savior who died to save others and encourages us, when necessary, to do the same (John 15:13; 1 John 3:16).  For now, we still remain in a nation that allows us to freely gather as Christians to worship our Savior.  Remember how historically and culturally unique that is – still something to be tremendously grateful for.

Romans 13:1-7 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Augsburg Confession (Civil Government – Article XVI): “For the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart (Romans 10:10).  At the same time, it does not require the destruction of the civil state or the family.  The Gospel very much requires that they be preserved as God’s ordinances.  Therefore, it is necessary for Christians to be obedient to their rulers and laws.  The only exception is when they are commanded to sin.  Then they ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).”

WELS, This We Believe, VIII, 6, 7, 9 We reject any attempt by the state to restrict the free exercise of religion.  We reject any views that look to the church to guide and influence the state directly in the conduct of its affairs….We reject any views that hold that citizens are free to disobey such laws of the state with which they disagree on the basis of personal judgment.

My Interview on the Jesse Lee Peterson Show

I’ve been plugging away at this blog thing now for about 3 years.  It’s been a nice creative outlet, a professional outlet, and in general, a unique opportunity to reach people with the gospel that I otherwise may not have.

Monday morning was a landmark of sorts for this blog.  Last week I was contacted by the producer of The Jesse Lee Peterson Show, a syndicated national radio talk show.  The show’s producer came across my blog online and wanted to have me on the program.  Jesse Lee Peterson is a regular contributor to Fox News, the president of BOND Action, Inc, has hosted his own cable TV program, and, obviously also hosts his own radio talk show.  So, Monday morning, I was invited to be the guest for his Monday hour slot called “Preachers in the Pulpit”.  In this segment, Peterson is looking to get a feel for what’s going on in churches around the country and get ministers’ thoughts on American spirituality.

It dawned on me on Monday how strange a road this has been for me.  I still remember being 16-years-old and looking my academic adviser from my Christian high school in the eye and firmly saying, “No.  I will not be a pastor.”  And then there was a long, humbling process, which I thank God for.  By the way, there’s nothing wrong with a young Christian man not wanting to be a pastor.  It’s certainly not for everyone.  However, there is something wrong with a Christian young man not wanting to be a pastor specifically because Jesus is not the top priority in his heart.  So, more than anything professionally, it’s the spiritual growth along the way that I’m grateful for.  Fast forward to today and I’m on a “conservative” national talk radio show defending my faith for an hour on a segment called “Preachers in the Pulpit” and loving it.  I guess this is my way of saying that God’s intentions for our lives are often different and always better than our intentions for our lives.  It’s a lesson that’s both sobering and fulfilling.

My segment was between Dr. Noliwe Rooks, a professor at Princeton and accomplished author, and Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a world-renowned psychologist from Stanford.  One thing I’ll say for Peterson is that he is a controversial, equal opportunity offender, who pulls no punches with anyone.  He was just as tough on me as he is with all of his guests, which was great.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Also, let me make it clear that by agreeing to be on the show, I’m not at all suggesting that I agree with everything Peterson teaches.  I absolutely DO NOT and that’s apparent in the interview.  For starters, the man believes that he no longer sins, a position that historically is generally only associated with sociopaths and cult leaders, i.e. not actual Christian ministers.  This was something I naturally questioned him on in the interview.

I did debate doing the interview at first.  Eventually, though, the bottom line for me was that this was the largest platform I’ve had, to date, to talk about Jesus as my Savior, and I pray I’d never pass those opportunities up.  Secondly, I think there’s some merit in a congregation getting to see their pastor get hammered regarding his beliefs, but do his best in defending those beliefs based on Scripture.  It didn’t go perfectly.  But I’d like to think I took it like a Christian man.

If you’re interested in listening, the show is available as a free download in iTunes at http://bit.ly/M4EaDQ.  Just click on the July 2, 2012 show and my portion begins at about the 47 minute mark. You do have to have an iTunes account, but that’s also free.

Since I now know you’re reading, I’d like to thank Kelly Stewart, the producer of the show, and Jesse Lee Peterson himself. If anyone else out there has a microphone and wants to let me talk about the one who gave me life and makes my life worth living, you know where to find me.

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)