Friday, December 28, 2007

My Final question of the Year

To close out the year, I want to restate a post from a few months back (Does Religion Make People Better or Worse?). This question fuels the reactor that drives my brain and my behavior. It's very simple - ask yourself, "Does this belief make me less rationale and less kind, or more rational and more kind?"

Last year Islamists kidnapped a young lady who was a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. Remember? For weeks her family did not know what happened to her. Kidnapping is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable because kidnappers treat their victims as less than human. And yet, before taking her picture, these men covered her head and her hands so that no female skin would be exposed. In the perverse thinking of these men, God is more concerned with men being titillated by female skin than He is with kidnapping (not to mention beheadings and bombings).

This is why fundamentalism is twisted. It doesn't matter what kind of fundamentalism - religious, social, political - it's all twisted. This is why Jesus clashed with the Pharisees. They deified insignificant details. It's why I clash with modern Pharisees. The legalism that fundamentalism produces is, in my opinion, the worst sin - it causes people to act unkind and even commit evil in the name of God. When you think about it, Islamo-facism and the most conservative elements within Christianity are ideological twins. It is tyranny over the mind, and sometimes actual tyranny over people.

So, if a belief causes you to be less rational and less kind, please change that belief.

Monday, December 24, 2007


In 1980 Ruel Lemmons wrote the following article in the Firm Foundation. It is one of the best articles on the meaning of Christmas I have ever read. Enjoy:

"We are again at that time on the calendar when the western world pauses to acknowledge that Jesus Christ was born in the world. The date makes little difference. We heartily agree that some other time of year suits the occasion best, but that makes little actual difference. We also agree that the celebration of a special religious holiday has no foundation in scripture, and that it had its sources in pagan rites and apostate festivals.

Personally, I am glad that the world, bent on carnage and drunk on hedonism takes time out to acknowledge that God sent His Son in to the world. Even atheists, like the stones on the ground, cry out. We deplore the fact that men make merchandise of the occasion – as the moneychangers took advantage of the opportunity in the temple – but even they help the world to stop and take note of God’s gift to man. In a world of war they talk about peace; in a world of hate they talk about love; in a world of sorrow they talk about joy. All the advertising, all the decorations, all the plans for family gatherings call attention to the fact that there is something better in the world than the rat race.

A lot of attention is given in the Bible to the birth of Jesus. The gospels abound in details. The numbering, the birth, the stable, the flight into Egypt – there was a lot of excitement in both heaven and earth when God sent His Son into the world. Without controversy the greatest event in all human history was heralded by the star that shone over Bethlehem. One might argue the merits of the cross as the greatest, but had there been no manger there would have been no cross. With the coming of the Son of God in human flesh a love was born that the world had never before known. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” With all we think we know about love, we can grasp but a very small concept of that love. No wonder the angels sang!

The eloquence of tongue and pen have been exhausted in paying homage to the babe of Bethlehem, the man of Galilee, and the lamb on the cross. Limited as we are in our humanism it is impossible for us to grasp the full significance of what God did in Christ at that time. About the best we can do is acknowledge that if he had not come into the world we would die without hope of heaven. He was the light shining in the dark place. “They that sat in darkness saw a great light.” We can understand the love of a mother for her child. We can even understand the love of a man who might give his life for his country. But it is beyond us to understand the love of a God who would rob heaven to bless earth; empty glory to fill us with glory. It was no natural affection that made God send Jesus into the world. What He did at Bethlehem matured until it became what He did at the cross. It is fitting that we should pause and take note that we didn’t earn it; it was an act of grace.

History is sometimes turned around by the smallest of events, and destiny is balanced on the point of a pin. The almost totally un-noticed event of Bethlehem has affected the world more than all the battles that were ever fought or all the governments that have ever convened. For four thousand years sin-cursed man had hoped for the seed of woman that would bruise the serpent’s head, and the two thousand years the Jews had looked for a Messiah. But when he came they didn’t recognize him. He came in the seclusion of a stable, in the darkness of night, and in the guise of a man. The greatest forces of all time do not come with powerful explosions or the noise of racing chariots; they come on silent wings. The power of love is such a force. And grace and goodness make little racket.

In a night without light, came the Light. In a world without hope, hope was born. In the midst of despair, there was the singing of angels. They had but a star, but we have the Light of life. The hopes and fears of all the years were pinned, whether the shepherds realized it or not, upon a little baby in a young mother’s arms. That is where hope still lies. Wise men brought him gifts. But their gold, frankincense, and myrrh have long since turned to dust. It was the best they had, and they set precedent for our giving gifts, but they gave only gifts that perish. We have an opportunity to give a living sacrifice. If giving is the test of loving, then let us give the consecration of our lives. He himself has said, “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man would lay down his life for his friends.” After all, it isn’t the gaudy tinsel in which the gift is wrapped, nor is it the extravagant price paid for it, it is the heart that is given with the gift that really makes the gift worth receiving."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Human Sacrifice and the Atonement

My brain works in strange ways, making odd connections at random moments. A few weeks ago I watched Mel Gibson's movie Apocalypto (I should have been in bed, but couldn't sleep). The thesis of the movie is a quote from the very beginning: "A civilization cannot be conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." The obvious sickness of the Mayan civilization was their total disregard for the value of human life. The scenes of sacrifice are some of the most bloody I've seen on film. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the communion table talk was a typical retelling of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. I don't know why, but I bristled at the story. And finally, as we were driving home last night I saw a church on LBJ freeway brightly decorated with Christmas lights, but they also had a cross brightly lit up. That really didn't seem right to me! You just don't display crosses at Christmas time - there has to be etiquette about that - surely! So here's what I've been thinking, and I want to pose it as a question (and please, THINK about it! Don't yell "heretic" right away):

God detests human sacrifice. Deuteronomy 12:31 says, "You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods." The practice of human sacrifice is one of the reasons God commands Israel to wipe out much of Canaanite civilization. Is this ironic? Maybe. It's really clear that God does not approve of human sacrifice. It's also clear that human sacrifice, as it evolved in primitive societies, reflects a morally degenerate understanding of an angry god who needs appeasement with blood. This is a naturalistic rather than a supernatural way of understanding the divine.

Okay, here's the question: If God detests human sacrifice, why is the central pillar of Christian theology a human sacrifice? What is articulated in Colossians 1:20 "peace through his blood shed on the cross" is the primary thesis of Christianity - that humans sinned, God was angry, and Jesus' death on the cross (a violent, painful, bloody death) appeased that anger by meeting the requirements of justice, and so we are no longer guilty. We call this "atonement." This is why Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" was as bloody as possible. It represented a particular Catholic view of Jesus' death. This is why I'll never understand why so many evangelical Christians took this movie as an opportunity to evangelize. This cannot be how we reach the lost? Does anyone else see a problem with this? What is the answer? I think I have it, but you go first.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

EVIL (Part 2)

In my post (and sermon) on evil, I said that evil is shallow. It’s banal. It is the failure to see the interconnectedness of all humanity. A lot of my reading material comes from Richard Beck’s "Experimental Theology” blog. He did a series called “Everyday Evil,” where he argues that all of us are capable of evil. Like with the Eichmann example, most of the evil in the world has been and still is committed by people just like us. Evil isn't a malevolent force with horns and a pitchfork, that randomly attacks people.

Excuse the psychobabble, but he talks about “fundamental attribution error” (FAE). This means that we tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, social pressures). We downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions (their “true self”). So we classify people in terms of “kinds” of people - good people, bad people, strong people, weak people. But all these labels are examples of this error. There aren't different “kinds” of people. There are simply people in different situations. Configure the situation a certain way and we can make some people look weak and others strong. This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior. But we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of context and situation. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never do that.” This is precisely what sets us up for evil. We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. We see ourselves as a “kind” of person – a good father, a good husband. To see ourselves in this way is a mistake – a potentially costly one. We can mismanage situations.

This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, spending, violence, time management and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter. Treat your virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. Lots of “good” people who love their spouses have cheated on them. The history of evil is full of the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know why or how I could have done . . . (fill in the blank). I’m not like that!”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Anonymous Comments and Pornography: Equally Destructive?

Whenever people point out negative aspects of the Internet, they are most likely to talk about the availability of pornography. How many kids, searching for some government information, typed in “” only to be greeted by pictures of naked women! (Don’t go there – the web site has changed hands.) But there is something as destructive that permeates the Internet - the lies, vitriol, and ad hominem attacks made by anonymous individuals on almost every website and blogsite that deals with public or religious issues. Sexual images are not new, but the ability of anyone in society to debase public discourse is new. Until the Internet came along, the public's only real venue for expression was the “letters to the editor” section published in newspapers and magazines. People either expressed themselves in a civilized manner or they were not published. Even those letters that were not published were written in a respectful way because the letter-writers had to reveal their real names and their addresses. Being identifiable breeds responsibility; anonymity breeds irresponsibility.

This is why people - even decent people - tend to act much less morally when in a crowd (the crowd renders them anonymous). This is why people tend to act more decently when they walk around with their names printed on a nametag. This is why people act more rudely when in their cars - they cannot be identified as they could outside of their car. There is no question that most people would write very different entries on blogsites if their names were printed alongside their comments. E-mail provides another example. It is very rare that a person sends a hate-filled, obscenity-laced e-mail that includes their name. It’s the same with regular mail. As a preacher, some of the most asinine things have been said to me in anonymous letters – which I throw in the trash immediately! The practice of giving everyone the ability to express themselves anonymously for millions to read has debased public discourse. Ad hominem attacks and the absence of logic characterize a large percentage of many websites' “comments” sections.

Some might argue that anonymity enables people to more freely express their thoughts. This is not true. Anonymity only enables people to more freely express their feelings. Anonymity values feelings over thought. Moronic comments chase away intelligent ones. The irresponsible, the angry, the obscene and the dumb have virtually taken over many Internet dialogues. This is why, as of today, anonymous posts will be banned from this blog. Some of the dumbest, most asinine things have been said on this blog by cowards. From now on you will have to register and identify yourself, otherwise just lurk in the shadows.

Friday, December 07, 2007


In the last thread of comments, Mark mapped out my sermon for this Sunday (12/9). Here's part of the sermon: (To my Kaufman readers - there's more, so don't skip Sunday!)

The trial of the century happened in the late 60’s – and it started with a daring kidnapping – Israeli agents went to South America and caught the most notorious Nazi not yet convicted of war crimes – Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was the architect of the Holocaust – he came up with the idea of gassing Jews because even if one bullet could kill three people, that was still too expensive! Nice guy!!! They took him to Jerusalem to try him and hang him. David Ben-Gurion wanted this to be a show trial – to put all the horrors of Nazism on display for all the world to see. Watching that trial was an Israeli journalist – Hannah Arendt – who then wrote a book called: Eichmann in Jerusalem. But the subtitle of the book is what caught everyone’s attention: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt says that the trial would have been easy had Eichmann been a monster. We want him to be a monster. We need him to be a monster – but he’s not. He’s just a petty beauracrat! He’s not very smart. He’s ambitious in the way small men are. He doesn’t have much of a philosophy of life. He’s only anti-Semitic out of convenience. He’s petty. But that’s more troubling – that small, petty, insignificant, ordinary people can do such atrocious evil! But that’s Eichmann. That’s not us. We would never do that. We know better.

Back in the 60’s, psychologist, Stanley Milgram, came up with a fascinating psychological experiment. Milgram told his subjects that he was studying the effects of negative reinforcement on learning – does punishment make us learn better? So he had two people – a teacher and a learner – and the teacher sat at a control panel where a button produced electric shocks. The learner was sitting behind a glass partition, and every time they got an answer wrong, the teacher had to press the button, and give them a shock – and with every subsequent shock, the voltage was increased. But here’s what you need to know – the real test subject was the teacher – the learner only acted like he was being shocked. There was no connection. No voltage. Milgram was wondering if the teacher would keep giving the learner electric shocks just because someone in a lab coat told them to! Finally, the learner started yelling in pain. They would say, “Stop. I have heart trouble.” Finally the learner would quit making sounds altogether – which meant they were passed out or dead! How far would ordinary people go? 60% of people never stopped hitting that button! They did outrageous, immoral, murderous things because someone with authority in a lab coat told them to! Milgram labeled his results the “Nazi guard syndrome.” But we’re not like Eichmann, are we? We wouldn’t do that. We’re Americans! We’re Christians!

Here’s the point of the lesson: Evil is not deep. It’s shallow. It’s superficial. Evil is the failure to see clearly. The shallowness of evil is the inability to see below the skin. It is superficial. It is to see the world in terms of “us vs. them.” How is it that Eichmann, who had Jewish friends, could be the architect of the Holocaust, and ship off millions of Jews to be killed? Because they didn’t have a name! They were a problem to be solved! If we can boil life down to “us vs. them” we can demonize anybody. It’s easy to hate people if all they are is “The Russians” or The Chinese” or The French” or “Terrorists” or “Catholics” or “Baptists” or “New Yorkers” or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” You can hate anybody who has no face and no name. Evil is the failure to see that all people were created in the Image of God, and that God created them all for Himself, and He will not be satisfied until all people and all things are redeemed for Him! Evil does not recognize human connectedness. Evil is shallow.

I try to be optimistic and positive, but evil is winning. We have allowed ourselves to be broken up a thousand different ways into a thousand different groups – and Christians are not helping – because we are real good at seeing the world as “us vs. them.” God’s desire is that walls get torn down, and in a world of shallow tribalism, that is a powerful message – but our churches look too much like the world – petty and selfish and fragmented!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Face of Evil

Okay, this is not exactly more positive! But, this person features in my sermon this Sunday titled "EVIL." (next Sun the sermon is titled "GOOD" - so we do end the series well!) So, here's my question - Who is this person?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Airing of Grievances

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent - just four weeks till Christmas! So now let's turn our attention to Festivus. This holiday was born on an episode of Seinfeld (funniest show ever) called "The Strike." Kramer and Frank Costanza are talking, and the following conversation takes place:

Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.
Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!

The celebration of Festivus begins with the Airing of Grievances. It consists of lashing out at others about the many ways they have disappointed you over the past year. So, in honor of Festivus, let's gather around the aluminum pole, and air our grievances. Let it all out! I want to know what bugs you!

I'll go first. I spend a lot of time on the highways of Dallas. WHAT'S UP WITH PEOPLE WHO DRIVE SLOW IN THE LEFT LANE? When I come up behind someone driving 60 mph in the left lane on LBJ freeway, my blood pressure reaches stroke levels! It doesn't matter what the speed limit is - there is always someone driving faster than you. It's not your job to slow them down. You are required, by state law, to get out of the way! There are signs everywhere that say, "LEFT LANE FOR PASSING ONLY." Left lane blockers with their smarmy, selfish, inconsiderate, I can do what I want attitude force people to pass on the right. This is dangerous and gets people killed. MOVE OVER!

Okay, who's next?