THE GOSPEL and Hope

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Simon Critchley wrote an interesting (and clearly antagonistic) opinion piece in the New York Times on Saturday (the Saturday before Easter). Author and professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, Critchley claims:

“With Easter upon us, powerful narratives of rebirth and resurrection are in the air and on the breeze….Is hope always such a wonderful thing? Is it not rather a form of moral cowardice that allows us to escape from reality and prolong human suffering?”

In other words, Critchley is suggesting that the biggest obstacle to humanity addressing (even eliminating) our problems is that we refuse to approach them in a realistic fashion, but instead, approach them with cockeyed optimism. To support his point, Critchley uses an obscure story about Prometheus the Titan. Prometheus was punished by the Olympian Zeus for giving the gift of fire to humans. In Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” the chained Titan is asked what other gifts he’d given to humans. He confesses, “I stopped mortals from foreseeing doom….I sowed in them blind hopes.” The intended point is that if we humans were less baselessly hopeful people, we would progress. Hope, Critchley suggests, leads us to pave self-inflicted roads to destruction.

There might be something to that. After all, hope that is grounded in nothing is, at best, a guess, at worst, a lie. Consider how many times in your life someone has suggested to you “It’s going to be okay. It’ll all work out, I’m sure.” In that moment, the individual is speaking less out of their ability to predict the future and more out of wanting to avoid the awkwardness that accompanies the suggestion, “Yeah, it certainly sounds like you’re going to fail/die/experience some great discomfort.” The prognosticator is filling you with unsubstantiated hope.

At all costs, something about us WANTS to hope. Hope is a necessary survival instinct. There is no way to get through life without suffering. But there is no way to get through suffering without hope.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. He recorded his experience in Man’s Search for Meaning. Recognizing his position in the outside world, many fellow concentration camp prisoners consulted Frankl for support in their suffering. Fascinatingly, but not surprisingly, Frankl comments on how many prisoners lost all hope, and the subsequent effects of this collapse into despair. He says that in one extreme example, a prisoner had a dream that World War II was going to end on March 30th. The man was convinced that this was a revelation from God. As the day neared, however, reports made it clear that the war would not end on that day. The loss of hope directly impacted the man’s physical well-being, lowering his resistance to the diseases in the camp. On the 29th the man was stricken with a high fever. On the 30th he fell incapacitated. And on the 31st he was dead.

So on the one hand, baseless hope is not only foolish and dangerous but it potentially stifles mankind, thwarting the progress that might come by addressing reality head on. On the other hand, forfeiting hope, as Critchley, echoing Nietzsche, encourages, might very well land us in such despair that we die early, miserable, decrepit, and insane. By the way, that’s exactly how Nietzsche died.

Furthermore, it is highly logical that a sense of hope creates a great resource for dealing with the present circumstances. For instance, the most helpful illustration for me looks like this: Guy A and Guy B both work in a widget factory. Ten hours a day, six days a week, they perform the exact same job – putting a nut on a bolt. However, they have signed very different contracts. Guy A has signed a 1-year contract that will pay him $20,000. Guy B has signed a 1-year contract that will pay him $20,000,000. After two weeks, Guy A and Guy B meet one another for the first time in the break room. They’re completely unaware of how much the other is getting paid. Guy A says, “Man, I don’t think I can stand this anymore. All day long, screwing a nut on a bolt over and over. It’s terrible! I’m going crazy!” And Guy B replies, “Hmm. I don’t think it’s that bad.” What’s the difference? Anticipation of future blessing affects our ability to process the present circumstances.

So where does this leave us? Here – Have hope, but have a logical reason for your hope. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15)

So what is the Christian’s hope? How is it different from the average person? Does it have legitimate basis?

For the average person, joy is based on circumstances – health, wealth, relationships, career, romance, etc. But if you make something finite like this your ultimate hope, you will inevitably lose your hope. It’s FINITE! Suffering occurs when the happiness which is linked to our ultimate hope gets stripped away. So if the circumstance that brings you joy changes, and it will, your joy will be gone.

But what if we had an infinite hope, an undying hope, a living hope? Ahhhh. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a LIVING HOPE through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” (1 Pet. 1:3-4)

The evidence that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the grave goes beyond the scope of this post. I’ve written about it many times. Regularly I get people who tell me that the burden of proof is on me to demonstrate that Jesus rose from the dead. Invariably I turn that back around and say, “I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate how Christianity got off the ground to the extent it has if Jesus DIDN’T rise from the grave.” And we go on this way. Suffice it to say, if Jesus rose from the grave, that really changes things, doesn’t it?

Most Christians know that Jesus’ resurrection on Easter should make them happy. Most Christians know how Jesus’ resurrection benefits them eternally. So far as I can tell, however, many Christians don’t know why Jesus’ resurrection benefits us right now – living hope: the ability to process the suffering that comes in a sinful world. The promises of a man who can bring himself back to life carry infinite weight. So when he tells us that he will protect us, provide for us, strengthen us, be with us, and that he went through all of what he went through specifically because he loved us that much, all pointing to a time when the suffering ends, that tends to galvanize your hope. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:1-2) We were the joy set before him. Jesus dealt with his suffering, with the troubling circumstances of life, with crucifixion, by recognizing that through it all, he’d come closer to us. We can do the same with him. 

The foundation of your character is your ultimate hope. And when you have a hope that cannot die, the circumstances of life may change, but your joy will not. Wouldn’t you like to have an anchor like that in your life, one that laughs at the surrounding storms? It only comes from knowing your Risen Savior.

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THE GOSPEL, The Ultimate Death, and Hero Worship

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Several different people have told me that one of the strangest things they know about me is how I used to be a huge professional wrestling fan. It’s not the first piece of information that I tend to volunteer about myself, understanding that there’s much about sports entertainment that is undesirable (even a bit offensive) to many. Nonetheless, it’s an important part of my early years (mid 80s to early 90s). In fact, the enjoyment I get from public speaking, as much as anything, comes from my affinity for professional wrestling promos. To me, professional wrestling is a bit to modern middle class westerners like Shakespearean theatre has been to higher society for the past 400 years – scripted, live action, participatory drama.  It’s live storytelling designed to help viewers escape from the realties of their own life drama.

In my youth, there was one main character – Hulk Hogan. Hogan was this larger-than-life, charismatic individual that had his own cartoon, vitamins, action figures, video games, and a host of other merchandise. “The Immortal” Hulk Hogan, as announcers often referred to him, was a purebred good guy. He encouraged children to “train, say their prayers, and eat their vitamins” (the last of which, as mentioned, he conveniently peddled. I didn’t understand the marketing strategy at the time, but I was certainly buying the dogma that he was selling.)

blog - ultimate warrior 2The only competitor that ever really rivaled Hogan’s popularity was a bizarre character billed from “Parts Unknown” named The Ultimate Warrior. Nobody had ever seen anything like him before. He was a chiseled, 275-pound man who sprinted to the ring in fluorescent wrestling gear and face paint and shook the ropes like a madman. It was all set to this intense, pounding entrance music. The crowd would totally erupt. In fact, The Ultimate Warrior became so insanely popular, that the WWE (WWF at the time), in something of a “passing the torch” moment, actually had The Warrior defeat Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI, their major annual event (think “Super Bowl of wrestling”). Hogan losing at Wrestlemania was absolutely unthinkable at the time. But The Ultimate Warrior did it. That’s how big he had become. People had latched onto his energy, his intensity, and his omnivorous appetite for life.

And now he’s dead.

Tuesday evening, the man born James Brian Hellwig, who portrayed The Ultimate Warrior character, passed away at the age of 54. Hellwig had so bought into the ideals and values of the character he’d portrayed that he legally changed his name to Warrior. And this past weekend, at Wrestlemania XXX, he was the headliner inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. In his 50+ minute speech, Warrior addressed the criticisms that he’s received throughout his career – that behind the scenes he was something of a self-interested, egocentric loner. He mentioned how much those comments hurt and argued, “I was a good guy. I am a good guy.” People politely applauded. But the reality is that a great deal of the criticisms about the Warrior being concerned solely about himself in the business, according to those who worked most closely with him, were true. It even came out in Warrior’s infamous promos before his matches – he would talk about self-fulfilled prophecies and becoming what you want to be through determination and tapping into the warrior inside you, etc. He literally did this even through his last promo on Monday night.

But now The Ultimate Warrior, or at least the man who played that character, is dead.

I’m no longer seven years old, watching wrestling on Saturday mornings. But it’s still weird and a bit disconcerting to watch a “hero” die. It’s almost as if we believe that heroes should last forever. Hmmm. Where does that notion, which seems to exist in our collective societal unconscious, come from? Perhaps because there is a hero who IS immortal. Perhaps because there is a warrior whose victory IS ultimate. You see, life is full of appetizers that point us to a main course. But we can’t forget that they’re merely appetizers.

In our lives, we won’t stop worshipping heroes, because we were wired to do exactly that. We won’t stop studying the doctrines of such heroes, because we were wired to do that too. However, we can pick our heroes. And, as N.T. Wright once said,

“You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense”)

If that’s true, then we’ll want to be very careful that we choose wisely WHO (or WHAT) it is in life that we truly worship. In the end, this decision will determine what we become in life…and after death.

Great wrestling characters always had a way of touching a perceived social truism and embodying it. The doctrine of Hulk Hogan was that if you try hard, acknowledge God, and do “the right thing,” you will succeed in life. The Ultimate Warrior’s doctrine was that if you tap into the potential that exists inside you, ignoring the dissenting voice of the forces that surround you, you will become the warrior you were destined to be. Years later, the next major wrestling character was named Stone Cold Steve Austin. He LITERALLY trademarked the phrase “Austin 3:16” to indicate his doctrine. Sacrilegious? Yes, of course. At least he was honest that he was peddling a false doctrine though. Steve Austin embodied the spirit of disgruntled, blue-collar workers who felt oppressed, held back by “the man.” Austin’s doctrine was that you deserve better than the guff you take from your controlling, condescending authority figures. The next major star after Austin was a guy called The Rock – yes, that’s the same muscled dude who stars in all those empty plot children’s movies. The Rock’s doctrine was that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; you are destined for luxury, prosperity, and greatness if you concentrate on yourself above all else.

Are you beginning to see why I’ve always found professional wrestling fascinating? These characters personify false doctrines, humanistic ideals, and hollow philosophies…the very ones that Americans tend to swallow whole.

The truth is that everyone around you is proclaiming a doctrine in life. These doctrines, to varying degrees, are merely false gospels. One of my favorite quotes from Christian author Paul David Tripp is this:

 “Corporate worship is designed to counteract the false gospels you hear every day with the true gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

In other words, you’re constantly being indoctrinated by the world. You have to consciously choose whether or not you’re going to believe the things others confidently proclaim to you. You have to carefully think through the implications of the such doctrines. You have to decide which heroes are really worth worshipping.

blog - ultimate warrior 3False doctrine and false heroes are often appealing, in part, because there’s typically some amount of truth in what they’re saying. For instance, Warrior’s idea that there are evil forces that surround you working against you, according to the Bible, is absolutely TRUE. “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8) However, his belief that you can overcome such evil by tapping into the innate good power inside of you, at least according to the Bible, is decidedly FALSE. “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen. 6:5; 8:21) Therefore,you have to choose what from his doctrine you’re going to believe. I know LOTS of people, Christians included, who (often unwittingly) believe and practice the false gospels of experts, heroes, and family members whom they admire. You MUST think through the ramifications of those doctrines though. And when you do so, I’m convinced that ONLY the gospel of Jesus Christ will come out shining.

Here’s why: every other gospel leads to death. Without wanting to be callous here, as much as I enjoyed The Ultimate Warrior character as a child……he’s not coming back. Conversely, on the third day, Jesus rose from the grave. HE is full of truth. Similarly, everything he says must then be full of truth, even life-giving. Those concepts – truth and life – are fascinatingly connected. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Wouldn’t it simply make sense that someone who can actually come back to life would know more about life than you or me or any other heroes or experts out there. All Christian doctrine really hinges on the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:14). And if you’re still in doubt about his resurrection, I’d encourage you to attend worship on Easter Sunday. I’m fairly certain, wherever you are, you’ll get to hear more about it.

But I’ll leave you with the final public words of a now dead man. Choose. What from it will you believe? And keep using that a filter for whatever it is that you choose to believe. Is this person going to die? Maybe they’re flawed. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Then I’d better listen to what he’s saying.

“Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life what makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized…..I am The Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans and the spirit of Ultimate Warrior will run forever.”

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THE GOSPEL and Processing The Epic Fail

blog - failureWARNING: I’m writing this mostly for myself. But I hope those who have been here will know I’m not trying to whine, just longing out loud for the life we were meant for.

Truth be told, I’m going through something of an early, existential, midlife crisis at the moment. It’s awful. And at its core, I think, is this realization I’ve come to – that I JUST CAN’T WIN.

Now, I’ve always intellectually recognized, at least to some extent, that Christianity wasn’t going to overcome this world by winning a popularity contest. But I think I’ve finally come to know that experientially.

My feelings right now are telling me this: I’m getting a little tired of living in a world where, when Christians act together in united beliefs, it’s dehumanized as “The Evangelical Machine”, but when the LGBT moves to make a change, it’s more sympathetic “advocates” or “activists” or “a community” being true to themselves. I’m getting tired of a world that finds a groundswell of support for hopping on moral high horses while simultaneously denying any basis for universal morality, i.e. God. I’m getting tired of a world where the only conceivable way for a biblically-based movie to get a positive consensus review is if the director distorts the actual biblical account into a dysmorphic monstrosity of itself. I’m getting tired of living in a world that is okay with inconsistently preaching to us that our biological arising was accidental and meaningless but that our main psychological problem is that we lack self-esteem.

Yes, I find all that exhausting. Nonetheless, any pastor will tell you that opposition from outside the church is infinitely less frustrating than opposition from within the church. After all, Jesus did warn his disciples, “You will be hated by everyone because of me,but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 10:22) 

Consequently, I find even more maddening the idea of Christian leaders who refuse to acknowledge biblical Creationism and are too near-sighted to see the longterm difficulties such incongruity causes the church. I’m also getting tired of the hypocritical self-righteousness of so many that label themselves Christians, the single thing that seems to annoy non-believers the most. I’m also getting a little impatient with reading countless books on ministry methodology that, while well-intentioned, and often helpful, seem to lack a tone that suggests “We’re at war!”, failing to acknowledge that our goal, our bottom line in this world, is less to triumph and more to merely stay standing (Eph. 6:10-13). And having recently dealt (albeit indirectly) with some of the scandal that sometimes devours churches, I’m also getting somewhat disheartened with continually addressing the biblically naive question, “How does something like this (i.e. something sinful) happen in the church?” I remember a seminary professor, who had once served as Dean of Students at one of our parochial schools, saying that he routinely had to answer this question from parents and appalled onlookers when some student was caught in sin. It’s a failure to recognize the nature of the ugly beast called “sin” which leeches on inside every living human being. This also makes me think of a passage from the memoirs of Frances Perkins, the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Working under Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Perkins records F.D.R as saying,

“Frances, have you ever read Kierkegaard?….you ought to read him,…It will teach you about the Nazis….Kierkegaard explains the Nazis to me as nothing else ever has. I have never been able to make out why people who were obviously human beings [obviously educated, obviously refined] could behave like that. They are human, but they behave like demons. Kierkegaard gives you an understanding of what it is in man that makes it possible for these Germans to be so evil.” (Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew)

We now know that F.D.R. and other Americans in charge were being told for years by Jewish leaders what the Nazi Germans were doing. But F.D.R. refused to come to grips with the full brokenness of humanity – to fully believe it – until he read Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who, writing on the nature of mankind’s sinfulness, explained to him how The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Rom. 8:7) Christians that are most in tune with their Bibles are always less surprised by sin than those who are not. They recognize that the Bible contains one good man and a thousand case studies of those who are not, by nature, good. 

And lest anyone get the impression that I’m suggesting there’s something wrong with everyone else in the world except me, make no mistake, I frustrate myself more than anyone else frustrates me. I’ve known for a long time that I’m my own worst enemy. The Apostle Paul’s words so clearly resonate with me: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me….waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Rom. 7:21-23) I certainly don’t measure up to God’s perfect standard (Matt. 5:48; Lev. 19:2). For that matter, I don’t even measure up to the standard by which I’m inclined to judge others.

My point in all this is that both those outside the church AND those inside the church seem to be strangely united in one basic and important way – they’re disappointed in the church, disappointed in humanity, and even frustrated with God.

I get angry too. One of the Bible stories that has been something of a theme for me the past several months is the account of Elijah after the Mount Carmel victory. We’re told in 1 Kings 19 that shortly after he emphatically, courageously defeated all the false prophets of Baal commissioned by the wicked king and queen of Israel at the time, Elijah went into the wilderness around Beersheba, laid down under a bush, and prayed to God that he would die: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. (1 Kings 19:4) I’m no Elijah, but I think I know exactly what he’s feeling. I think every Christian does at some point. Even after victory, sometimes more so after victory, we crumble at the prospect of still having to fight, and the truth that we’re simply not going to win this one (i.e. this life).

That’s okay. That probably deserves some mourning. Still, knowing the future can/should be a major source of relief for Christians.  I often tell people that you can face anything in this life with confidence if you know how the last chapter of your story ends – the splendor of meeting Jesus face-to-face for all eternity (Rev. 22:1-5). This is the very truth from which comes the notion of “happily ever after.”

However, if we’re to accept what the Bible says about our fairy tale ending, then we must also accept its teaching on the climax of the narrative’s conflict. The life of the Church on earth, to some extent, will pattern the life of Christ. That is, the culmination of Jesus’ life on earth was crucifixion, occasioned by opposition from within and without. Similarly, Jesus tells us, in detail, that we, as the Church, can expect something similar in the Last Days (Matt. 24-25). It’s not pretty.

Nonetheless, what Christians have to keep in mind is that while Christ’s death on the cross seemed like defeat, it was an unequivocal victory that needed to come in the manner it did. In the same way, we, the Church, need to be humbled before we become exalted. We need to die before we can rise. We need to fall defeated in death before we can lay claim to Jesus’ victory.

Does this mean that, in some respects, we Christians must necessarily serve as punching bags for the rest of humanity? How much would it scare you if I said, “Yes, maybe.”? But am I really saying anything different from what Paul himself said? “This (humbly, but confidently absorbing opposition in this world) is a sign…that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Phil. 1:28-29)

It’s troubling. But you’ll be okay. Believing the gospel makes you tough. And you can only show how tough you are by what you’re able to take. True Christianity is sort of like those flashlights that are powered by how much you shake them. Christian light in a dark world shines that much brighter the more you try to rattle it.

Take heart. You’re not going to win this world – interpret that however you’d like. I’m not suggesting there won’t be periods of happiness that somewhat balance times of sadness. Nor am I compromising the truth that as God’s redeemed child, you have his holy, sovereign, omnipotent hand blessing you. The Bible speaks of various seasons of life which bring corresponding levels of satisfaction. But if the prince of this world is Satan himself (John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11), how far up in the hierarchy here would you really like to climb anyways?

Victory is coming. But not in this world, at least not in the way you’re probably hoping. Jesus’ promise means that the coming victory (and its accompanying peace) is actually much better than whatever you or I have dreamed up for ourselves: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

“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.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)