Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reflections on the Connecticut School Shooting

This past week our nation was shocked by the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  As pictures of the victims and stories of the shooting make their way through the news cycle, I'm hit again and again by waves of shock and grief and outrage and sadness.  It's almost too much to take in.  In particular, this shooting is outrageous because the majority of the victims were 6-7 year-old's.  I've been thinking about this shooting a lot, partly because it's difficult not to, and partly because I taught at church this past Sunday and felt compelled to address the shooting.  Below are some of my reflections as I've thought, prayed, and grieved over this tragedy.

  • This tragedy makes me want to lock my kids up, home school them through college, and completely shield them from the ugliness of this dark world.  But the miracle of Christmas is that God didn't do that to His Son.  God sent His Son to be born in this dark and desperate world, knowing all the while that a horrific death awaited Him--all because He loved us!  "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).
  • God designed us to be shocked, disgusted, and horrorstruck at the idea of harm coming to innocent children for a reason.  The reason is so that we could understand a bit of the depth of sacrifice and love that God demonstrated when He sent His one and only innocent Son into this world to die for our sins.  "This is how God showed his love among us:  He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love:  not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-10).  That disgust and horror you feel towards evil being done to innocent children is a glimpse of the horror and disgust that the Father endured as His own innocent Son was brutally tortured and killed because of my sins. 
  • There's a lot of blame being passed around.  From mental health to gun control to kicking God out of public schools, this shooting is being politicized from all sides.  People are looking for an issue to get behind so that they can prevent further instances of this kind of evil.  But this overlooks the biblical notion that we live in fallen, depraved, and wicked world.  Sin is real, and it will make it's presence known.  Not long after Jesus' birth, a wicked man named Herod had all the male babies in the vicinity of Bethlehem, 2-years-old and under, murdered in an attempt to kill Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18).  Evil is not new.  But sin is inconvenient to blame, because there's only one answer to evil.
  • The answer to evil lies in the gospel.  Only as people come to know the grace, truth, and love of Jesus Christ, and are transformed by it, will our nation become better.  I think of the famous quote by Alexis de Tocqueville (author of Democracy in America):  "I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there.  I sought in the fertile fields and boundless forest—in her rich mines and vast world commerce—and it was not there.  I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—it was not there.  Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.  America is great because America is good—and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."
  • A lot of people will ask why God let this happen.  That is a question we will probably never have the answer to this side of eternity.  We can give reasons why God allows evil in general: sometimes because it allows for greater goods like the spread of the knowledge of Himself, the salvation of lost people, or the existence of human freedom.  But although we can give these possible reasons why God allows evil in general, God does not tell us why he allows specific instances of evil to occur.  Instead, He asks us to trust that He knows best.  We do know that God's purposes are not restricted to this life, but spill over beyond the grave into eternal life.  God's knowledge is immeasurably better than our small and limited outlook.  We also know that the Bible seems to indicate that when a child dies before they have the capacity to knowingly reject Christ, God in His mercy saves them and they enter God's Presence immediately upon the death of their physical bodies.  And this is a far better situation than they were in before (see 2 Samuel 12:21-23; Matthew 19:14; Philippians 1:23).
  • One day, Jesus will return and make all the wrongs right.  He'll completely and permanently eradicate sin and create perfect peace forever.  "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).  Events like this stir us to long for that day like we ought to.  Come Lord Jesus, come!

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Spiritual, But Not Religious"

In his recent book, Bad Religion:  How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of America's political, economic, and moral decline.  He argues that the problem is not too much religion (as the atheists would argue), nor is it intolerant secularism (as many Christians believe).  Instead, the problem is bad religion:  the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.

The problem lies in the fashionably "spiritual, but not religious" sentiment espoused by many teachers including Deepak Chopra, James Redfield, Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho, Neale Donald Walsch, Oprah Winfrey, and Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), and (I might add) Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi).  Douthat examines the roots of this view and finds that their "creed" shares the following four beliefs:
  1. All organized religions offer only partial glimpses of God (or Light or Being).  Thus, we must seek to experience God through feeling rather than reason, experience rather than dogma, a direct encounter rather than a hand-me-down revelation.  As Neil Donald Walsch writes in his book, Conversations with God, "Listen to your feelings.  Listen to your Highest Thought .... Whenever any of these differ from what you've been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words."
  2. God is everywhere and within everything--especially within you.  You can encounter God by getting in touch with the divinity that resides inside your very self and soul.  At the climax of his book The Alchemist, Paul Coelho writes:  "The boy reached through the Soul of the World, and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God.  And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul."
  3. Sin and evil are largely illusions that will ultimately be reconciled rather than defeated.  There is no hell save the one we make for ourselves on Earth, no final separation from the Being that all our beings rest within.  Elizabeth Gilbert assures her readers, "There is no such thing in this universe as hell, except maybe in our own terrified minds."
  4. Perfect happiness is available right now.  Heaven is on earth.  Eternity can be entered at any moment, by any person who understands how to let go, let God, and let themselves be washed away in love.  James Redfield writes, "At some point everyone will vibrate highly enough so that we can walk into heaven, in our same form."
These four beliefs compose the core of the bad religion that has been so fashionable as of late and, according to Douthat, is the core of America's spiritual woes.  I suspect that many well-meaning Christians might even be tempted to believe various forms of these beliefs.  I think of the popular Christian authors Rob Bell, Brian McLaren,William P. Young (author of The Shack), and Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz:  Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality), each of which espouse one or more of these beliefs in a Christianized form.

My church has been teaching through the book of Colossians, and I've been impressed by the similarity of the cultural pressure faced by the church at Colossae and the American church.  For both the Colossian church and the American church, the problem was not an outright denial of religion, but a new form of religion that seemed spiritual and tolerant.  The problem was and is syncretism:  the blending of religious ideas and the denial of claims to exclusive truth.   The problem was and is an over-individualization of spirituality detached from the organizational church and orthodoxy.  In response to this, Paul encouraged the Colossian believers to be faithful, knowing that Christ is supreme.  He forcefully announces the supremacy of Christ stating,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  (Colossians 1:15-20)
He warns the Colossian believers to not be taken "...captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).  And he reminds them to hold fast to Christ, not self-made religion (Colossians 2:19, 23).  And he reminds them to hold fast to Christ in connection with Christ's body--the local church (Colossians 2:19).  We desperately need this reminder of Christ's supremacy and need to resolve to be faithful to Him no matter the cultural pressure.  "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).