THE GOSPEL and Vulnerability

blog - Target

Reports this week are indicating that the mastermind who snagged the digits off of about 100 million credit cards from Target at the end of December turned out to be a 17-year-old kid from Russia. That’s right…..17-YEARS-OLD!!! I was running VHS’s at Family Video when I was seventeen. He’s taking down global retail juggernauts like Target and Neiman Marcus.

Does that bother you? Your financial security is that fragile – any kid with a Wi-Fi connection on the other side of the planet could potentially wipe you out.

If this all really bothers us, it was hard to tell when I was shopping at Target before Christmas. Several days after the news came out, it didn’t seem to be affecting their business too adversely, either because people seemingly didn’t think it was that serious OR people literally hate the crowded Wal-Mart parking lots THAT much. But I think it’s the former. I think we middle-class Americans just have a bulletproof sense about us – that we really don’t think anything too bad is coming our way. And when it inevitably does, we’ve got no idea what to do with it.

I remember reading an article once from a  psychologist who was making the case that Americans process grief less successfully than most others around the world. He suggested that we simply don’t think we deserve grief. Furthermore, we believe that if pain and suffering comes, we believe we just need to tweak a couple of things – go on the right diet, read the right book, take the right pill, talk to the right expert – and it will all go away. In other words, Americans tend to think that vulnerability is purely optional.

With the 17-year-old cybercriminal, people are clamoring about why the right security system was not in place. Perhaps there should’ve been a better system. But there’s a flaw in that way of thinking. Any system that is designed can be compromised. In other words, with digital security, it’s simply a matter of coding. And if a human developed the code, there is absolutely nothing stopping another person from cracking that code. Your security is dependent on the ethics of another. This really is no different from several generations ago, when the security of your wealth was dependent on the ethics and skill of the one storing it in a locked room. You’re vulnerable. You’ve always been vulnerable. You’ll always be vulnerable.

And we’re not just talking about financial fragility here either. All you need is one microscopic germ to attack a cell on your body for you to get sick. If just one single cell in your body divides and starts growing uncontrollably, you can die of cancer. If just one person in their car is preoccupied with their cell phone, changing the radio station, hits a patch of ice, is daydreaming, falls asleep, has had too much to drink, or simply isn’t a great driver, you can die on your drive home from work. And if just one 17-year-old Russian kid knows something about malware coding, your life savings can be gone in an instant.  And you can say, “Well I have insurance for that sort of thing.” Great. Do you honestly think that, if 100 million people had all of their money stolen, the insurance companies could cover it? No more than Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac could absorb 3 million home foreclosures. There’s nothing impossible about it.

Health, wealth, beauty, and all created things, life itself, can go at any moment. Anyone in touch with reality should possess a sense of vulnerability.

Playwright Tennessee Williams once famously stated,

“I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.”

They’re strong precisely because they’re in touch with reality.

So there’s two extremes and one healthy way to deal with human vulnerability.

One option is paranoia. You can distrust everyone and everything to the degree that you become holed-up in your home  and end up on some TLC reality show called “Extreme __________.” You’ll arguably be safer, but you’ll be miserable.

Another option is to thumb your nose at the dangers of the world. This is the carefree, “No, I don’t need a helmet” approach to life. It’s probably more fun, but inevitably leads to more traumatic head-cracking.

The gospel’s approach to human vulnerability, however, is much healthier. The gospel says that we are all flawed, broken sinners who are saved only by the grace of God through Jesus. Those who believe the gospel have no problem acknowledging that we could go at any minute, be victimized at any minute, and that every moment of our lives we’re simply dangling here by grace. So, we’re inherently fragile. Yet, the gospel also says that we have a providential, divine Being who governs all things for our good (Rom. 8:28; Gen. 50:20).  He loves us enough that he’s willing to die for us, so what lengths wouldn’t he go to for us?! He’s powerful enough to rise from the grave, so what wouldn’t he be able to do for us?! So, if you believe the gospel, you know that we can humbly move forward, but with confidence, simultaneously holding together both the truths of our vulnerability and God’s invincibility

The secret, of course, lies in Jesus. Imagine how the one through whom all things were created (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2) made himself vulnerable for us. And not just a little vulnerable – he entered the world as a poor, feeble baby. He worked as a fairly uneducated carpenter, before he gathered around him a fairly uneducated, motley crew of nobodies with zero social influence. He was mocked, betrayed, beaten, flogged, stripped naked, and crucified before his own mother. But worst of all was that his own Father had to turn his back on Jesus in order to pick us up as children (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). This is what you and I needed to be saved. You see? Jesus, the eternal God, experienced the ultimate vulnerability so that we, who are by nature vulnerable, might become invincible.

Furthermore, this becomes even more beautiful in the believer’s life as he/she recognizes they don’t have to fear their own vulnerability. Someone who is not afraid to die will live without fear. Someone who is not afraid of losing wealth will live with generosity. Someone who is not afraid of social criticism will show extra kindness towards the socially outcast. Someone who really recognizes that Jesus put all his energy into their salvation will move their life into a pattern of living to save others.

It only stands to reason that if one single 17-year-old can negatively impact 100 million people, then can’t a 17-year-old positively impact just as many? Can’t we all have a positive impact beyond our wildest dreams? If we focus more on our Jesus-gifted invincibility, less on our natural vulnerability, won’t that lead us to take chances that can actually change people’s lives for the better?

You’re going to die. You’re fragile. You’re vulnerable. Get comfortable with that based on where you know you’re going. And then you’ll be free to start living.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt. 16:25) 

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THE GOSPEL and Acting Like a Fool

Pastor Tim Christensen’s video hit every major news outlet by Sunday evening. Pastor of Gold Hill Lutheran Church in Butte, Mont., but lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan, Christensen made a prank video Sunday morning with his congregation. The joke was that he was abbreviating the Sunday worship service to under a minute in order to catch the 49ers/Panthers playoff game. By Sunday evening most major news outlets had picked up on the video. Some people thought it was kind of funny. Others thought it was one of the most irreverent things they’d ever seen.

There’s a reason that I sometimes wait a week or so to post on “newsworthy” items like this. I’m often less interested in the event than I am the reaction to the event, by Christians and non-Christians alike. In an instant gratification, social media world, there’s an added caution for Christians to be accurate and gracious in their responses, not just first. Our first responses are generally visceral. This is problematic in that the natural disposition of our hearts is an inclination toward evil (Gen. 8:21). Consequently, Christians always need to pump the brakes on the first thought, feeling, and impulse that they experience.

So, how do we react to Pastor Christensen?

And, as I’ve mentioned before, if Timothy Keller has taught me anything, it’s that there are three basic spiritual responses to everything:

  1. Irreligion (which often falls in line with liberal-minded self-indulgence, or “younger brother” behavior, cf. Luke 15:12), or…
  2. Religion (which often falls in line with conservative-minded self-righteousness, or “elder brother” behavior, cf. Luke 15:28-30), or…
  3. The Gospel (the response of someone who is clearly recognizing that they are a sinner saved by the grace of God)

So, Tim Christensen’s joke has been met with varied responses.

Most in the predominantly secular media have seemed to see Christensen’s behavior as merely a cute display of fandom. Understandably, many Christians are bothered by that. Religion, almost by definition, is the thing which people hold as the central truth of their heart, the meaning of their existence. So it’s almost awkwardly insensitive to make light of such things, something professional comedians have known & debated for years.

In an interview with YAHOO! NEWS, Christensen, who, after the joke, did actually conduct a full worship service Sunday morning, said, “I preached the good news…I was talking about Jesus changing the water in to wine; the ordinary into the extraordinary. I really have a deep respect for my work. I just also have a sense of humor.” 

I’m guessing we could debate the quality and refinement of Pastor Christensen’s “sense of humor.” Maybe his sense of humor works in Butte, MT. Let’s at least acknowledge that humor can be fairly subjective at times. That said, I think there’s probably an objective reason that Christensen doesn’t have his own late night talk show. Anyone who thinks what they’re doing is hilarious to the degree that it needs to be filmed and broadcast, all while they’re mocking what many hold sacred, and it’s ultimately “not really that funny” – this is someone who is perhaps a little out-of-touch with humor and social appropriateness. Consequently, I’m less offended by Christensen than I am embarrassed for him.

Jerry Seinfeld once remarked in a Seinfeld episode that he was offended that his dentist, Tim Whatley, had converted to Judaism just to tell bad Jewish jokes. And someone asserted to Seinfeld, “Oh, so you’re offended as a Jew?” And he replied, “No, I’m offended as a comedian.”

What I’m suggesting is that Pastor Christensen’s “joke” was in poor taste, but I’m not sure it was simply because of bad theology. I think it was, at least in part, because of his unique, niche (I’m being kind here) brand of humor. I know the theology of his church body and I don’t agree with it, but I’m guessing this is more the product of him being just kind of a weird dude.

Honestly, I feel for him. I’ve personally said SOOOOO many stupid things throughout my life. I’ve done SOOOOO many stupid things throughout my life. If anyone knew the idiot I’m capable of being to the degree that I know it…..ugh, I shudder to think. I’m so thankful that people haven’t been holding a camera during some of my lowest, most disrespectful, most irreverent moments.

But there is precedence for all this, you know, i.e. supposed spiritual leaders acting like fools. Wasn’t it David who, when subtly confronted with his own sin, foolishly said, “As surely as the Lord lives,the man who did this must die!” (2 Sam. 12:5)? Wasn’t it Jonah, who in considering the very mercy of God that rescued him, was disgusted by that same mercy being extended to Ninevites, and therefore said, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God…Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jon. 4:2-3) And what about the great St. Peter?!?! Wasn’t it Peter who, moments before his betrayal of Jesus, almost comically proclaimed , “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matt.)? I WISH foolish moments like these were jokes. Rather, they’re just painful evidences that Christians, even clergy, often do and say very stupid things.

While many of the irreligious are dismissive of Christensen’s antics, many of the religious have been quick to grab the biggest stones they can find to hurl, perhaps quick to point out that THAT Lutheranism isn’t MY Lutheranism and is discrediting the good name of Lutheranism. Herein lies the great and painful irony of denominational elitism though. If you arrogantly bash a pastor of another denomination, you’re either at that moment counterproductively 1) driving away people from your own church, or 2) habituating people in your church to believe that their rightness with God is based on doctrinal accuracy rather than grace. Even if you discount the moral ramifications of slander, it’s an unwise practice to point out the unChristlikeness of another in an unChristlike manner yourself. It’s maddening. It’s delusional. But that’s what pride does – it blinds us.

I’m not defending Tim Christensen’s lapse in judgment. I’m not anywhere near okay with his theology. I’m simply acknowledging that my judgment is inherently no better. And if you have the attitude that yours is, you’re inevitably bringing as much or more damage to your own denominational name (even more, to the name of Christ).

The quote I always roll out in these situations is from English writer and Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, who famously wrote in to his London paper, “Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton.”

Irreligion leads you to be dismissive of Christensen’s irreverence. Religion leads you to suggest Pastor Christensen (or his church body) are what are destroying Christianity (or the good name of Lutheranism). But the gospel leads you to say, “Yep, I’m a sinner just like Pastor Christensen. But by God’s grace extended through Jesus, my Savior, I’m forgiven.” 

So, be gracious, as God has been gracious to you. Grace really is the hallmark of distinctly gospel-driven Christianity. Morality is great, but if Christianity is defined by morality, your Mormon neighbor might be a better Christian than you. Doctrinal accuracy and Systematic Theology are great, but if doctrinal aptitude is what defines a true believer, Jesus never would have told the chief priests that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering heaven before them (Matt. 21:31). No, Christianity is defined by sinners saved by grace alone. Believing this, we then act like it, which means that the hallmark of people who really believe and understand the gospel of Jesus Christ is this: they will show grace to others, because they themselves have been saved by grace.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

“Nothing New Under the Sun” – The Gathering (@ Marquette Univ.)

As we start the New Year, I wanted to share with you my presentation “Nothing New Under the Sun,” which I gave this past Fall at Marquette University. The presentation was for The Gathering, which is a WELS Campus Ministry event sponsored by The Point of Grace.

I’d like to give a special thanks to recording artist Mike Westendorf for not only inviting me to come and present but also for making the video available online, and finally for all of the AWESOME work he and his crew does with ministering to the Milwaukee-area WELS college students.