Collateral Damage

*This is the modified transcript of a message I shared last weekend with the students of Crossroads Church of Walton County during their Disciple Now Weekend. It’s only slightly different from what was actually delivered.

avengers_background_8This message is about defending the gospel – or, to use a more technical term, it’s about apologetics. If you’ve never heard the term apologetics, let me define it for you in a way you can understand: nerd Christianity.

Just kidding.

Apologetics is being able to explain why you believe what you believe, and to answer questions about your beliefs in a way that shows their logical and reasonable nature. The golden verses of apologetics are 1 Peter 3:15-16:

“Honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense (apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear.”

The key words in those two verses are as follows:

Defense – a well-thought out and thorough explanation of your position. This does not mean you have to explain everything beyond doubt, or to the satisfaction of the person asking questions of you. It merely means that you have to make a compelling case that the evidence you have for your position makes sense with reality.

Reason – solid evidence. Evidence does not have to empirical to be valid; in other words, you don’t have to have God walk into the room in order to show that He exists. You can make a compelling case for His existence without Him having to be revealed. People do this all the time in the scientific world; don’t let their burden of proof be less than yours.

Hope – this is an expected outcome, a fulfilled promise with additional works to happen at a later date. Christian hope is not like we currently define hope; it’s not wishful thinking. It is looking forward to the completion of all of God’s promises – a confidence about what is to come.

Gentleness and respect – let me be clear: in the Christian life, how you live and present the Gospel says as much about the Gospel as the words you use. There is a weight given to both your words and your actions, and if you show arrogance, anger, or other contra-Gospel attitudes when you speak of Christ to someone else, you make one of the following two statements: either the Gospel is false, or you are.

And if you want evidence for that statement, I present you the Westboro Baptist Church.

So, now that we’ve set the parameters for what apologetics kind of is, let’s turn in the Scriptures back to Hebrews 11, starting with verse 32 and reading through chapter 12, verse 1:

11:32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets,

33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,

34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength after being weak, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight.

35 Women received their dead–they were raised to life again. Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection,

36 and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment.

37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated.

38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

12:1 Therefore, since we have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us,

2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.

I want to point out a couple of things from this passage, and then show you a video clip that kind of emphasizes those points. First, people of faith have done, are doing, and will do some extraordinary things. Some amazing things. Some awesome things. Such is the nature of living and walking in the Spirit and power of Christ. Second, people of faith have been hated, abused, despised, hurt, mistreated, tortured and killed, all because they refused to give up their faith in God. Jesus told us to expect it, because the world hates what is Godly.

Which brings me to the video clip. If you haven’t seen The Avengers yet…well, shame on you. This clip is from the end of the movie, after – SPOILER ALERT – the Avengers have saved the earth from the massive alien army led by Loki. Pay special attention to the dialogue.

Did you catch what was going on in that clip? The good guys have won. The bad guys have lost. And yet…people are demanding that the good guys turn themselves in. People want them to be held accountable for the damage caused by their conflict with evil. People are calling for them to be hunted down, registered, and forced to live by a different set of rules.

Collateral damage.

It’s the price that must be paid to be a hero. Not everyone is going to find your deeds heroic. We spoke last night about how we, as Christians, have a mandate to be heroes to the world around us through the power of the Spirit of Christ within us. We are called to take a message of salvation to a world under attack; we are called to face off against the enemy of our souls in the Name of our Savior. That means we have to take a stand on things; we have to draw a line in the sand and say, “Here. No further.”

Marriage. Sex. Success. Excess. Money. Love. Charity. Violence. Morality. Truth.

We are called by God to stand for those things even as those things are being challenged, are being changed. It is part of our mandate. And in defending those things, we will become unpopular with some. We will become pariahs to others. There will be people who call for our heads, people who demand that we be held accountable for the chaos caused by evil’s attacks.

And the question you have to ask yourself is: am I willing to pay that price?

I have been an apologist for a long time. Didn’t always know to call myself that, but it’s been my life’s work. Over the past few years, I’ve come realize that taking a stand for what’s right – what’s Gospel – is not popular. And I’m going to tell you an ugly little secret: sometimes, the people it’s most unpopular with are the folks who are supposed to be your friends. Why is that?

Because we have allowed an Americanized version of the Gospel to take over. We’ve allowed the message of Christ to be hijacked by people, both malignant and benign, and used to promote agendas that have nothing to do with His kingdom and everything to do with the kingdom of someone else. There are enemies of the Gospel in- and outside of the church.

So when you stand on the Word of God, when you stand in the Spirit of Christ, be prepared – you will be called to give an defense for what you say. You will be challenged by people to explain what you mean, why you believe it, and why it should matter to them. There will be times when you’re seen as the scapegoat, times when the tables are turned on you and you are made into the villain. So be it. We don’t live for those moments, but by the grace of God, we live through them.

But many more will be the times when you stand on the Word, for the Son, and the life-giving message of the Gospel is received. And to those people, set free by the message of Christ’s life and love and sacrifice and resurrection, you will be a hero. Check that: Jesus will be the hero, and they will see Him and thank Him and praise Him. You’ll be part of that, and rejoice too.

The Lesson of Cain

ImageThis morning, I began a new segment with my Christian Learning Center class. We’re discussing the philosophical foundations and development of Biblical worldview this semester, so that means were looking extensively at how the Bible answers the four fundamental questions of life: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. This morning marked the beginning of our look at morality. So naturally I started in a really strange place: the story of Cain and Abel.

I read the story from Genesis 4 and then asked the students one simple question: Was God fair to Cain?

Immediately they connected my question with the punishment of Cain, and naturally they said that God was not only fair to Cain, but merciful. I kindly replied that Cain’s punishment wasn’t the action I questioned. I wanted to know if God were fair to Cain before that.

They questioned my question, so I asked them to do me a favor (you can do this too, if you want to play along at home and humor an idiot such as myself): I asked them to go back into Genesis 1-3 and find the place where God laid down the laws regarding sacrifice. Any verse would do. Just find the one where God tells Adam and Eve or Cain or Abel what He expected regarding offerings submitted to Him.

They went silent, searching their cellphones and the random hard copies on hand. One minute ticked by, then two; eventually, after five painful minutes, one of the students looked up and said, “This is a trick question. There’s nothing in here about what sacrifices God wanted.”

And I said, “Bingo. When you read the Scripture, it would appear that the gifts from both Cain and Abel are spontaneous gestures. Cain brings part of his stock and trade; Abel brings part of his. God is pleased with Abel’s, not so pleased with Cain’s. There’s no reason given why He felt that way, despite the fact that many Christians have been taught that Abel gave from a pure heart but Cain didn’t. That’s not in the text here**, so let’s put it aside and consider this story as it’s written, and let me ask you again: was God fair to Cain?”

**I’m patently aware that Hebrews 11:4 acknowledges that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s, but the writer of Hebrews still doesn’t tell us why that was so – it merely confirms it was. So I submit to you that the notion that Abel’s heart was more in tune with God is something that we read into the text to help create a context for what happens next. I think this is an instance where well-meaning Christians have invented a false “truth” to help ameliorate discomfort over the seeming arbitrariness of God in the passage.

There was a pause. Finally, one of my students said, “No, I don’t think He was. It’s not fair to not give a guy any standards and then tell him he doesn’t meet those standards.”

Other students agreed.

One did not. She still insisted that God had been plenty fair to Cain, and that Cain was a jerk at heart anyway because he got miffed and killed Abel. And murder confirms jerkiness, so Cain probably brought a jerky sacrifice and God merely pointed that out.

Again, I told asked her to put aside the aftermath of Cain’s sacrifice, and just consider the sacrifice itself. I asked her to set aside everything else she knew about the story and just consider, for a moment, if God were fair to Cain in rejecting his sacrifice.

She looked at me, and said brilliantly, “Yes. Because He’s God, and He determines what’s acceptable or not.”

And I pointed at her and said, “Exactly. This is the beginning point of morality for anyone who would profess to be a Christian: God alone determines what is and isn’t acceptable. What is and isn’t right or wrong.”

I wish I could say that this was a deep and profound thought that I’ve been harboring for a long time. I wish I could say that I stole it from someone like John Piper or Tim Keller or Al Mohler or any other wise and deep theologian. Instead, it was the result of me staying awake most of the night with this story on my mind, convinced that it was the place to begin our exploration on morality without really understanding why, other than the fact that this story has ALWAYS bothered me.

Maybe it’s because I’m an older brother myself, but I never could quite shake the idea that Cain got a raw deal. I’ve grown up being taught that he was a jerk, that he was an evil person at heart (as evidenced by his killing Abel), and it never seemed quite fair to me. In fact, it always struck me as retrofitting. I’m probably the only Cain sympathizer in the known universe, so I’ll accept any questions regarding my orthodoxy with the acknowledgement that I deserve such questions.

But walking through this passage this morning, with God leading me ahead of my students, helping us all to see that He alone is the Sovereign King who decides right and wrong on the basis of His perfect, unchanging nature and character…well, that was the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in a long time. It brought sense to a text I’ve wrestled with for years and it opened up my heart to fear and marvel at God once again.

I don’t think God was capricious in His choosing between Cain and Abel. I don’t doubt that any of the explanations we’ve offered in the millennia since this story was written contain truth about Cain, his heart and what God knew about each. To be perfectly honest, this story makes me think about Romans 9, an incredible passage that makes clear God makes vessels of dishonor to use as He sees fit.

I would daresay Cain was one of those vessels.

The students sat stunned at the idea. I won’t say anyone’s paradigm shifted (after all, it’s hard to shift anything at 7:30 in the morning) but there was certainly a look of comprehension on a great many faces. The story of Cain and Abel wasn’t about their righteousness or unrighteousness – it was about the Sovereign God and His established rule.

I’ll probably be castigated for my take on the passage, and I invite and welcome the discussion in the comments below. But even if my interpretation is unorthodox, I stand by the conclusion: that this story shows us, if nothing else, that the root of Biblical and Christian morality lies not within ourselves, or even our understanding of God’s Law. It is found in the essence of God Himself, in His character and authority and His power.

Can’t get more orthodox than that.

When Hell Is Not Good Enough

This image chapped a few butts last night...and brought out some unbelievable rage.

I have to confess, I didn’t keep up with the Casey Anthony trial at all. Not a bit. I knew it was going on, but the details of the proceedings were lost on me. So when I sat down at my computer last night, it took me a minute to figure out what in the world had happened. My Facebook news feed, normally a nice little collection of inanity, was suddenly a vituperative group teeth gnash. Some of the comments from last night:

“God will judge this evil woman! She may have escaped justice here, but she won’t in the next life!”

“I can’t believe the jury was that stupid! She was clearly guilty. It’s like OJ all over again!”

“Here’s hoping this slut gets the crap beat out of her in jail tonight.”

“Thank God there’s a hell, because that’s where this woman belongs, and even that may not be good enough.”

At first, I thought they were talking about Ann Coulter and her latest comments. Then I realized the verdict had come in, and that a jury of our peers had decided Casey Anthony was only guilty of lying to the police. Granted, that’s four counts of lying to the police and obstructing the investigation, but still – it wasn’t what a lot of folks expected.

And it certainly wasn’t what a lot of folks wanted. If the public had gotten its way, they jury would’ve disemboweled Casey on the courthouse steps with dull safety scissors, lit her body on fire, and danced like pagans around the pyre.

Pesky 4th Amendment.

I was horrified by what happened to Caylee Anthony, and I don’t mean just her murder. I have a five year-old daughter and two year-old son, and if they disappear from my sight for more than thirteen nanoseconds my heart begins to seize. The idea that they could be missing for a month while I was off partying and entering myself into “hot body” contests (none of which I would win) is so ridiculous as to be unimaginable. It’s offensive to me as a parent, a Christian, and a human being.

But just because Casey Anthony might be one of the all-time skeeziest parents and human beings (both of which terms I use loosely) doesn’t mean that she deserves all the rage that’s been lobbed at her. It deserves to be shared with the sleazy defense team, the overconfident prosecutors, the jury, and the national obsession with cases like this that build our collective rage to impossible-to-satisfy heights and inevitably leave us screaming for justice to be done.

Oh – and lastly, the rage should come our way too. We, the viewing public.

I’m not gonna get up on a moral high horse and tell you how awful you are for following the trial and being upset by the verdict, mainly because I found myself raging over OJ sixteen years ago. I understand the rage, and I know that it needs an outlet. But the fact that such rage exists within us as a collective people is profoundly disturbing, and what elevates the issue for me is the number of Christian people who took to the keyboards to vent their displeasure at it all.

I can understand how people who don’t believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God could be PO’d that Casey got away seemingly scot-free. In their world, the only justice is what we as human beings make, and when we miscarry justice, there’s only ourselves to blame. There’s no corrective and that leads to anger, not just at the fact we failed but also at the fact that there’s nothing we can do to make this situation right. It’s a helplessness that raises troubling questions about existence and humanity, which only leads to further anger and rage at the futility of it all.

But as Christians, we shouldn’t be prey to this line of thinking. For us, we believe that there is a God who not only knows all, but sees all, and will one day make things right. We believe that this cosmic address of grievances will include the punishment of those who have done wrong in Hell. So there should be no rage at this verdict, no anger that fallen human beings did what fallen human beings do: make mistakes. We should look at this situation differently than others do, and we should be turning off the rage, or at the very least putting it within its proper context – God will judge.

Now, I can hear some of you already, “Jason, that’s exactly what I put on Facebook last night. God will judge. And this heifer will get what she deserves.”

Yes, but God will judge means that God alone will judge. It will be up to Him to decide on Casey Anthony’s life against His standard. What many of our brothers and sisters were doing last night is deciding on Casey Anthony’s life against their own standard, and that’s not what we’re supposed t0 do. If God is truly great, and truly will judge, then why should we be pushing our judgment onto Him? Shouldn’t we sit back, shake our heads, and say, “Lord, have mercy”?

Instead, many of us want our judgment to be given divine approval – we want the lightning to strike quick and hot and without any hint of mercy, and in so doing we forget the very reason we even have these strange convictions as a Christian: that, once upon a time, this same God we so anxiously want to judge Casey as guilty, judged us as righteous because of the grace of His Son. Because we’ve been pardoned by Christ and made square with God, we now sit back and declare others as unworthy?

I think Jesus had a few words about that. So did the Apostle Paul.

Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be troubled by the verdict. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be disappointed that our justice system seems to fail at all the wrong times. What I am saying is that there seems to be a malicious anger within the American church that overrides the grace of God with the rage of the redeemed. And it’s polluting the message we’re supposed to be sharing. Namely, that we all deserve to be punished for who we are and what we’ve done – you, me, and Casey Anthony alike. But God is forgiving and gracious and kind, and He has made a way for us to be counted as righteous through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Only Son, Jesus Christ.

To spend our time telling the world anything else is something we’ll have to answer for ourselves – when we stand before God to give an account for how we lived beneath His grace.

Because, after all – God will judge everyone. Not just the ones we want Him to.

And Justice For All?

No, I’m not talking about the Metallica album.

Nor the Declaration of Independence.

That's Mayra in the blue. She deserves a response from her fellow citizens.

I’m talking about a little girl in my community named Mayra Ortiz. She’s fourteen years old, the daughter of an American citizen, and she’s in danger of being deported.

How, you ask?

Simple: a combination of bureaucracy, misfortune, and the selfishness of the American people.

I’m not stupid – I realize that immigration has been an issue in this country since 1492, and it’s not one that we’ve always managed well (just Google “Trail of Tears“, “US wartime internment camps“, and “Elian Gonzalez” if you don’t believe me). I know that there are no easy fixes, and that a policy that will not only make fiscal and jurisprudential sense, but common sense, will require a deft mixture of political capital and innovative solutions, both of which seem to be in short supply in our modern governmental climate.

But what grieves me, as a citizen of this country and as a father, is when I read a story like Mayra’s – where a little girl who has done nothing wrong becomes victim to the very system that is supposed to protect her.

Look, we need laws in this country, but we also need them to make sense. Right now, immigration (both nationally and here in Georgia) doesn’t make sense of any kind whatsoever – we spend the majority of our time yelling at one another for being idiots instead of stopping to listen to one another and working on a solution. This group wants to shoot illegals on sight, while this one wants to give them a nice house and free taxpayer money, and that’s not even coming close to the real views that are out there on the extremes.

And in the midst of the cacophony, what’s just and right fails to get done.

I don’t have great solutions to the issue of illegal immigration, in part because it’s such a huge issue with so many different ramifications connected to it. To choose one course is to choose against another, and I know the analysis paralysis that comes with that responsibility. I’m not asking for us to create a law that will please everyone, mainly because I’m old enough to not believe in magical unicorns.

But what I am asking is that when the laws we currently have are creating a miscarriage of justice, we as a people need to stand up and take notice, and not just turn our head or surrender to nasty rhetoric. We need to pay attention to the human lives being affected by our government and let the government know when it’s wrong. We need, for moments such as this, to quit worrying about how the government can serve me and my needs, and consider how it should function: as the protector of our people, not our whims.

Right now, a little girl is being railroaded, and there are plenty of people who are content to let it happen, some because they don’t want to get involved, others because they are blinded by a convenient self-serving rhetoric that serves only their own best interests. As Edmund Burke is credited with a saying, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I would say that sums up my thoughts, but for this one haunting voice that keeps repeating the same refrain; it is the voice of Jesus, asking, “What man is really good? There is none good but God.”

May He have mercy on us.

My Daughter, Morality and Osama Bin Laden

The popular sentiment with most people not named Ella. Courtesy of Pulitzer Prize-winning AJC cartoonist Mike Luckovich.

I’ll admit that last night, amid the breaking news report that Osama Bin Laden was dead, my first reactions weren’t the greatest. They ranged from “Really? Why is this news?” to “Wow. Desperate ploy to manipulate the American people.” In short, I was a selfish brat last night, and myopic to boot. Some gracious people set me straight (both of whom I’ve invited to guest write a post for the blog) and I’ve learned my lesson, which – handily enough – Mark Twain* espoused so succinctly:

“Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

*The quote is attributed to Twain in at least four different versions, and has also been attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Confucius. The overall thought seems to come from Proverbs 17:28.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be offering many further musings on the geopolitical ramifications of the death of Bin Laden (and I’ll follow the lead of the esteemed New York Times and not refer to him as “Mr.” either). Instead, I’ll just leave you with my parenting conundrum from my car ride with Ella this morning.

I was listening to the radio, trying to hear what I could about the overnight developments in the Bin Laden story. I shushed Ella two or three times, and finally she couldn’t take anymore.

“Why do you keep shushing me, daddy?”

“Because, Ella, I’m trying to listen to the news.”


“Because there’s a very important news story happening right now, and I would like to hear the details.”

“What’s the story, daddy?”

Now, if you’ve read this blog long enough, or if you happen to know me in general, you know that I typically don’t duck tough questions from my kid and I normally don’t “kid-friendly”* the answers to tough questions. This morning, I wanted to. But, since I had snapped at her an been a bit of a jerk I decided she deserved an honest (albeit complex) answer to the question.

*By kid-friendly, I mean those people who lie to their kids instead of answering the question honestly. I soften my answers for her age-level, as I believe is appropriate, and try to make sure I thoroughly explain my answer to her satisfaction. And I try to do this with all kids, not just my own, so beware if your kid decides to ask me a question…

“The story is about a man who killed a lot of people. They’re trying to tell us that he’s dead.”

“How did he die?”

“Well, some very special soldiers tracked him down and killed him.”

Probably could’ve used some more time to polish that answer, in retrospect. And I certainly should’ve known that the inevitable “Why?” was coming. But as I mentioned above, I wasn’t exactly on my game with regard to this issue, and Ella caught me flatfooted with her next question:

“Why was it okay to kill him?”

Now, I could’ve taken the easy way out, and to some degree I did. In this instance, “He was a bad man” would be an almost perfect answer to the question. Ella knows that there is good and bad, right and wrong, and that people who do good get rewarded while people who do bad tend to fall off of high places and die murky, unseen deaths (call it the Disney Effect; see Beauty, Sleeping; also White, Snow; and Beast, Beauty and the). All I had to do was lay the trump card down, and the discussion, for the most part would have been over.

But as I said: I wasn’t on my game. Instead, I blurted out, “I don’t know, Ella. I guess because he was a bad man.”

I probably would’ve been okay, if not for the first part: I don’t know. It was an admission of unease, of moral ambiguity, or at the very least a sign of mental distress. My daughter doesn’t like ambiguity (she gets that from her mother) and so she pounced on my unfinished certainty.

“Why don’t you know, daddy? Was it wrong to kill that bad man?”

Seriously – where do you go with a five year-old on this? I’ve had conversations on Facebook this morning with adults who don’t have that question’s answer nailed to the ground with complete certitude. How in the heck do you break down the moral arguments contained within this single, simple statement? Perhaps I’m over-thinking the whole thing, but I don’t want Ella to grow up as someone incapable of parsing the shades of grey, and there’s certainly some to be found in this action.*

*Again, I’m staying away from this as a larger post, mainly because the death of Bin Laden has multiple meanings on many fronts. But in this narrow context of trying to teach a five year-old the way of the world, I wrestle with teaching her to see the world purely in black and white, particularly when there are so many people who can manipulate the facts to their own advantage. I’d rather wrestle with the tough questions now than see her get sucked in by someone’s horrific rhetoric later on because I settled on only teaching her “Us good, them bad” when she was little.

We were running out of time and road for the discussion, so I knew I would have to find some way of wrapping things up that would A, allow me to answer the question and B, allow me to answer it in a way that wouldn’t force the teacher to call me later on and ask why my daughter was talking about the death of a terrorist during “Story Time with Archie the Fluff Bug.” My brain was going ninety to nothing. I was drowning. The utter helplessness was terrifying. Finally I just tossed this out to her:

“Ella, I think killing that man was the right thing for our country, and the men and women who did it were brave and selfless. Sometimes, honey, we have to make hard choices.”

I could see her face in the rearview mirror; she was thinking about those words. And somehow (the grace of God?) she accepted that answer as sufficient. She nodded, fiddled with her shoelaces, and then reminded me that she didn’t want to walk in the back door with me – she wanted to be dropped off in the carpool line “like a princess.” (Continued fallout from the Royal Wedding, I suppose.)

She hopped out of the car with a smile and went inside to school, where I’m hoping she’ll never have a second’s thought on the topic we discussed. But it’s stuck with me, as a father and pastor and American citizen. In the end, I think it was the right thing for our country. It still leaves me with some questions, but I wrestle with questions all the time.