God In The Whirlwind?

ImageI haven’t been keeping up with the devastation in Moore, Oklahoma. From what I’ve read, it’s a sad and horrifying natural disaster, and the response of countless people with donations of time, money and supplies has been heartening. Sometimes, we forget that people are capable of tremendous acts of sacrifice and kindness. It’s a shame that we only remember when something like this happens. In fact, there are a lot of things that we don’t think about until something like this happens. The value of human life, the need for community, the presence – or absence – of God in everyday life.

Depending upon where you fall on the religious spectrum, you might have very strong feelings about that last one. Some people will tell you that the tornado is a message from God, a statement of destruction to wake us up to the various moral failings of our country. Some people will tell you that God wasn’t in the whirlwind at all, that nature just strikes at random and we are all held hostage until Jesus returns and reboots the universe for God. Others take a middle road.

And there are a great many people who will simply say they don’t know.

Why is it that we only look for God in times of tragedy? I’ve heard a lot of preachers expound on the topic, and the consensus seems to be that we’re selfish by nature; that human beings, by default, will seek only those things that satisfy themselves. Therefore in good times, there’s no need to seek God, because the circumstances of our lives dictate Him as unnecessary. Since we have what we need, we obviously don’t need Him. It is only when the universe becomes cruel, when we see rubble piled atop the tiny hand of a child, that we seek out God for accountability. Where were you? How could you let this happen?

The problem, this view suggests, is that we don’t see the world correctly.

I think there’s truth in that idea. But I don’t know that I agree with all of it anymore. I think we are self-seeking creatures, but for some folks that means seeking God in good times as well as bad; I think we do tend to take the good times for granted, but I think we often look harder to see the evil in the world than we should; I think we do turn to God in times of trouble, often in anger or despair, but we do so seeking for some sense of answer, some idea that the things that scare us can also offer us wisdom for healing.

We turn to Him for hope that we might not otherwise see.

Sure some might turn Moore into a referendum on God’s character, but they assume that God is capable of the evil found in the destruction and not the good that comes from the people who respond. They suggest that God is an impersonal force, and thus cannot be present in the humans who are there to help rebuild. They give Him credit only for those things that would discredit Him, as if His only purpose is to be the cosmic bad guy, a reverse deus ex machina that gives us a target for a rage we otherwise wouldn’t know how to express.

It’s funny, but in denying God, they embrace a big part of what makes Him God: His ability to absorb our anger, fear and frustration, yet still love us all the same.

I suppose I should answer a few questions before I close this post out. Do I think God caused the tornado? No, I don’t. Do I think God could have diverted the tornado? It’s possible, sure, but that line of thinking is usually a zero-sum game. Do I think God was present with the victims? Yes. Do I think God is still present in the aftermath, working through the people who will rebuild – both physically and mentally – the town and people of Moore, OK?

Without question.

In the Old Testament, an ancient prophet of Israel went up on a mountain to see God face to face. There was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in it. There was fire from heaven, but God wasn’t there either. There was a great whirlwind, but still the presence of God wasn’t there.

It was only after those events, only after the cataclysmic natural phenomena that left the prophet still searching for the presence of God, that the prophet found Him. The Bible says that God came in a still small voice that the prophet heard. And when he heard it, he knew he was in the very presence of Almighty God.

It is a story well worth considering.

Why We Need Superman

mos_poster2I have a confession: I’ve been a bit ambivalent towards Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel, a reboot of the Superman movie franchise. It’s not because Snyder isn’t a great director (I liked both Watchmen and 300), and it’s not because the cast isn’t amazing (though I didn’t exactly warm to Henry Cavill at first…he’s grown on me). It’s really because I thought Superman, as a character, was done. Played out. Cliche.

Honestly, I felt like he simply wouldn’t resonate with the current culture. Too old. Too moral. Too good. Or, as my friend Tom Towhey put it, “I just cant get excited about a Superman movie. The Boy Scout* is just too invulnerable.”

*Bonus points to Tom for quoting from Frank Miller’s classic graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns.

Even when the trailers started popping up, I wasn’t into it. The visuals looked great and there was a real sense of nostalgia for the character, but there wasn’t much to win me to the story. It seemed as if it might be weighty, but in a bad way. Overly moralistic, or too much navel gazing; I’m all for character development and exposition, but when it comes to Superman, I’d also like to see the dude fly and do the things that amazed me as a kid. I figured those elements would be there, but they seemed de-emphasized. Call it The Nolan Effect.*

*The movie is executive produced by Christopher Nolan, the man who brought you The Dark Knight Trilogy.

So I turned my attention to Iron Man 3, a film that seems like the perfect kick-off to summer: light, funny, with moments of gravity and character development timed just right. Plus, it’s the return to the ridiculously fun Marvel film universe, a place where fun and story find the right balance. In other words, films that capture the spirit of our country in this post-modern, post-Christian, post-nearly-everything age.

I mean, honestly: who better personifies the current culture than Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark?

But then Monday happened. Once again, our country was devastated by acts of terror and we watched the bloody aftermath of a world without safety. Despite the celebratory nature of Patriot’s Day in beautiful Boston, there was nothing fun in those moments. There was no ironic humor. There was simply the cries and moans of people once again made victim to the ultimate truth about our own existence: that we are vulnerable. No matter how much we might think otherwise.

Out of this chaos rose the familiar fear that our world is rapidly falling apart; that we stand at a point in history when the evil men do threatens to finally overwhelm us, finally push us into a permanent state of danger and fear.

And into the aftermath, amid the pundits and postulation, nestled between the cries for help and the cries for blood, this video was released:

Suddenly, I got very excited to see Man of Steel.

Now, it’s not for reasons you might think. Sure, this trailer showed far more action than the previous ones, and the scope of the film went from “movie” to “MOVIE”. But what really struck me was the truth of the character, why he not only exists but sticks around in our collective minds: he reminds us that we need heroes. Not just men and women who can be heroic, but true heroes. People who do what is right because it is right. The trailer gave me faith that the movie was landing at the perfect time in our collective consciousness because we need to be reminded that the darkness that threatens us will not win.

We need Superman because we need hope.

I’m not saying the movie isn’t escapism – it is. But it calls us to a place where our hopes aren’t dashed by the evil that rises. It calls us to a place where notions like honor, virtue, sacrifice, courage, goodness, faith, and other old-fashioned ideals, not only exist, they shine against the blackness that seems to consume our world. A world where we pull for the hero because he is a hero.

Sure, they’re rewriting the myth with this movie. There’s no kryptonite. There’s no Lex Luthor (as far as I know). It’s going to be much more inward-turmoil that drives this Superman; he’ll become who he is because he goes on a great internal quest, forced to embrace his destiny by the violence and evil of another being. In short, we’ll see our national identity crisis played out on the big screen, and we’ll have to ask ourselves: will we become a nation of heroes, or will we fall to the men who wish to bring us down.

I for one will have no problem wanting to slap on a bright red cape and go flying into the face of fear. I felt that pull while watching the trailer; I feel it even more as I continue to read stories about the bombs and plans of the Boston terrorist(s). In a world of madness, we need to be inspired – reminded – that hope lives.

And hope wins.

Call me a nerd. Call this the unrepentant ramblings of a man who spent too much time reading comics as a kid, too much time visiting far-off worlds where lesser imaginations made sure that the good guy always won. Call me naive. Call me whatever.

But don’t miss this: of all our fictional heroes, of all the invented men and women this country has produced to try and sum up our fractured corporate identity, the character of Superman holds the most resonance, the most sentimental value. Now ask yourself, why is that?

It’s because deep down, past the ironic cynicism that has come to color our perceptions, we want to believe  a man can fly. We want to believe in heroes.

Now, perhaps, more than ever.

Fear Is Our Native Tongue

ImageYesterday, someone blew up the finish line of the Boston Marathon. What once was a foreign thought – the idea that anyone would dare attack our country and its citizens – has become commonplace. Once again we turn on the news, or log on to our favorite website, and we see images of horror, bloodshed, chaos and fear. People rush to speculate; people rush to pontificate; people rush to say something about the events of the day because that’s what we’re trained to do. And amid all of this rushing and saying and thinking and debating, one thing becomes as crystal clear:

Fear is our native tongue.

We speak fear fluently. We are well-versed in the hushed tones of terror. We flawlessly recite the levels of warning, the various ethereal connections that may or may not be behind this bombing or that shooting. We can converse the existence and depth of human depravity and violence with the best of them. It is as natural to us now as breathing, and it’s been this way a long time.

Sure, the outpouring of violence over the past two decades seems staggering, but the vocabulary of fear was ingrained long before Oklahoma City, long before Columbine, long before the towers fell. We began speaking fear when someone realized it was a great way to sell products. We began speaking fear when someone realized it was a great way to get someone to walk an aisle. We began speaking fear when we realized that the single greatest weapon in the hands of fallen men is the uncertainty of this life and our place it.

We began speaking fear in Eden. And we’ve not stopped since.

It sounds hyperbolic, doesn’t it? I’m taking things over the top to make a point, aren’t I? No. This is the human experience – we live in fear. Fear that our lives will be too short. Fear that our lives will be too long. Fear that our lives will be meaningless. Fear that our shampoo isn’t doing its job, fear that our car says the wrong thing about us, fear that our jeans make us look fat, fear that our ice cream is made from hormonally charged milk. We worry about everything from our choice in toothpaste to our choice in partners; from where we live to where we vacation; we are afraid, either consciously or subconsciously, for almost every waking moment of our lives.

And when things blow up, when bad things happen, we no longer truly sense that they are aberrations; we no longer believe that the good guys will find the bad guys and the good guys will win; we’ve been conditioned by fear to believe that there’s more to the story, that the rabbit hole runs deeper, that sometimes the bad guys not only win, they win big. We feel that way because that’s what we think of the world. We live in fear, and we follow it blindly.

But what about the people who courageously ran into the face of danger yesterday? What of the brave men and women, both in and out of uniform, who put themselves in harm’s way to bring order into the chaos, to shine the light of hope in the midst of the smoke and rubble? We point to them and say, “They weren’t afraid! They refute your point!”, only they don’t; they actually make us more keenly aware of how steeped we are in fear, because their bravery is seen as exceptional – which means that it’s against the grain. Which means that the grain is to run away in fear, which is exactly what I’m suggesting we’re conditioned to do.

I mean, look at the lives we’ve willingly surrendered to: we have less freedom now than ever before, and we’re okay with it because we’re afraid of the alternative. We’re okay with a government that can tap our phones and search our homes and send unmanned drones over our heads because they protect us. We’re afraid of what’s out there so we’ll take the devil we do know over the devil we don’t, and we’ll hope that things don’t go south. The illusion of protection is now our greatest security, despite the fact that the world keeps rupturing that illusion with evidence that it doesn’t exist.

Fear owns us. Lock, stock, and double-barreled shotgun.

What’s the alternative, you ask? What choice do we have but to live in – embrace – our fears and do what we can to mitigate them?

We choose to be free. We choose to let go of the things of this world, the things that are temporary and always passing away from us, and grab hold of the one thing that is eternal and never changes. We choose Christ and His Kingdom. We choose the infinite, immutable God and we rest in Him. We commit ourselves to His character, His goodness, His love, His mercy, and we drive out the fears that consume us and we learn a new language.

Hope. Not the stuff of dreams, not the wishful musings of an uncertain people, but the confident assurance that what He says is, and always will be.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Because fear has to do with punishment, with punitive measures, with loss. We fear losing the things around us because those things are temporary – our fear is not meant to the posture of our lives, but the signpost that points us to the existence of the Perfect Love that gives us the certainty, the security, we all crave. We are not meant to embrace fear; it is not meant to be native to our souls; it was and is always meant to be foreign to us, a discomfort that we shed when we turn to God and Christ.

So let’s shed it. Let’s lay aside our fears. I’m not suggesting we live as Pollyannas, but we cannot live as cowards. If we wish to conquer evil, then we begin by recognizing it has already been defeated. If we wish to slay fear, then we begin by embracing the One who has already slain it. 

Today, as our nation continues to exhort its citizens to pray for Boston, let us really do so. Only let us stop to consider exactly to whom we’re praying, and let us not stop with mere platitudes for healing and restoration, but instead let us be bold and pray for the final eradication of the fear and evil that surrounds us. Let us pray that His “kingdom come, [His] will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

And let us agree with the Apostle John: “Even so Lord Jesus, come.”


The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

GustaveDore-TreeOfKnowledgeOfGoodAndEvilYeah, yeah, yeah…I know. I’m boring you with all my blogs lately. Too “deep.” Too “thinky.” Too “much hot air, like a leaky balloon.” I get it. But it’s how I’m wired, man. This morning, I can’t stop thinking about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In fact, everything that I’m ready or studying lately seems to be converging on the themes of God’s sovereignty, morality, and the struggle of man with good and evil. It’s so prevalent for me, I couldn’t even enjoy watching The Three Amigos last night without considering the transformation of the Amigos into heroes once they understood the existence of real evil in Santo Poco and their ability – their moral duty – to stand against it.

When you think like that about The Three Amigos, you know you’re in trouble.

I digress.

Back to the tree of knowledge of good and evil: like yesterday’s post, this one is going to be outside of the box, and I’m not sure I can dig all the way down in just a few thousand words (give or take). But it’s just taking up so much space in my brain, I feel like I need to get it out there and let it run around for a bit. If it gets Tasered by people smarter than me, so be it (it might turn out to be fun, like yesterday’s post).

I’ve grown up believing that the tree of knowledge of good and evil imparted moral wisdom to Adam and Eve. That, until they ate of the tree, they didn’t know that such a thing as “good” or “bad” existed. I’ve never questioned it, and have, in fact, preached it as sound on numerous occasions. I don’t dispute that such an interpretation is wrong at all. I’m merely posing something to think about that enhanced my understanding of this doctrine.

The Hebrew words “good” and “evil” used in Genesis 2:9 and 2:17 are the words טוב (towb) and רע (ra`). Here’s where it gets interesting: towb/good is primarily translated as pleasant, agreeable – it’s an adjective. Ra/evil is primarily translated as an adjective too – it means bad, disagreeable, malignant. The two words describe the knowledge gained by eating of the tree – the ability to know that things can either be agreeable/good or disagreeable/bad.

So far, so orthodox. That’s good, right?

But here’s the thing: Adam and Eve both already had moral knowledge before eating of the tree. They didn’t have to eat from the tree in order to learn that some things are bad and some are good; God had already given them that information in Genesis 2:15-17, when He commanded them not to eat of the tree.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

God gave a command and explained the penalty for transgressing that command. He issued a moral standard by which Adam (and Eve) should live. In hearing that command, Adam (and Eve) knew that there was such a thing as right and wrong. Morality was defined for them from the lips of God, and they understood its implications.

So the tree didn’t impart that to them. God did. Morality comes from God.

Then the serpent came along and questioned the paradigm. He suggested that God had kept them from moral knowledge by prohibiting them from eating of the tree. It’s subtle, but it’s significant: the serpent shifted the locus of morality from God to the tree. Instead of trusting God to tell you/show you what’s right and wrong, Eve, you should eat the fruit of the tree and let it open your eyes on those matters. And by eating of the tree, what it possesses becomes yours too.

Boom. In just a few words, the human condition was tainted. Instead of trusting God to reveal His goodness to us, we now opt to define it for ourselves. The problem is that the innate perfection and holiness required to determine good and evil is found only in God; without Him to guide us, we can no more choose right from wrong than a colorblind person can pick out their favorite shades on a color wheel. By seeking to possess something God had already given us in Himself, we destroyed ourselves and that knowledge.

And if you’ll give me a second to chase a really weird rabbit trail: If the tree was the container of moral knowledge, that takes away from God’s character, does it not? God is diminished because the tree and its fruit holds the essence of the moral law. But we reject that idea on it’s face – God Himself is the moral lawgiver, and morality finds its foundation within Him. So why did the tree have to exist at all? What was it’s point?

To bring God glory. To show us that we could never possess the ability to determine morality for ourselves. To teach us that we would ever have to be in relationship with God in order to know what truly is right and wrong, real and illusion, good and evil.

After typing this all out, it seems fairly basic. Obvious, even. And that just means that I’m chasing windmills here, exploring a trail someone else has blazed. But there’s so much about morality and goodness and evil that I’m just beginning to understand, it seemed significant that our knowledge of right and wrong was given to us long before Adam and Eve ate from that tree. It was a gift freely given by God – not a treasure withheld because we couldn’t handle it. That changes things for me in a way that I simply cannot articulate at this time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to spell it out.

So what say you? I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.