Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Real Enemy...

"Katniss, when you're in the arena...remember who your real enemy is."

The real enemy? When you're in an arena full of people trying to kill you, who isn't a real enemy? Katniss was on the way to her second appearance in the Hunger Games, where she was sure to be the prime target of the other former victors, and her mentor, Haymitch, was talking about "real enemies." 

If I'm Katniss Everdeen, I'm coming out swinging. I'm shooting my arrows first, asking questions later. I've seen too much carnage. The Hunger Games only have one survivor.

But Haymitch was right, wasn't he? At the end of the day, the other competitors were not Katniss's real enemy. Sure, some of them were trying to kill her (certainly a qualification for "enemy" in my opinion). However, even the "career" tributes from District 2 were not her real enemy...and she wasn't theirs either. The real enemy was the Capitol--the oppressive government that created the Hunger Games in the first place. It was the sadistic system that annually required all 12 districts of Panem to send two teenage tributes to fight each other to the death.

Katniss's real enemies were not the other tributes...not even the ones who were trying to kill her. No. Katniss's real enemy was the Capitol, the power that played them all against each other. While all the tributes fought and killed one another in the Arena, year after year, the Capitol was the real enemy of all of them.

This picture stuck with me from Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy--this picture of men and women fighting each other in a bloodbath, fighting for their very lives, forgetting that they all share a common enemy. This picture stuck with me because I think it's pretty similar to where we are right now in the Culture Wars. 

Make no mistake: despite some seemingly holy intentions, the Culture War is no holy war.

At the end of the day, even if a winner does emerge from the battle, like the Hunger Games, the carnage left behind is irreparable...and there will just be another fight the following year. More fear. More blood. More victims. The victor survives, but no one really one, that is, except the real enemy behind it all.

Enter "God is Not Dead," the movie...stage right.
This movie, now in theaters, appears to be one more shot fired in the Culture Wars, and a particularly vindictive one at that.

Christian college student Josh Wheaton goes off to college and is told by the atheist Professor Radisson on the first day of philosophy class that he must sign a paper saying "God is Dead" or receive an F. He refuses, which according to the movie's website, provokes an "irate reaction from his smug professor." The professor challenges Josh to a head-to-head debate where he must present "well-researched, intellectual arguments and evidence" for the existence of God...or, again, fail. And we can probably figure out what happens from there.

Okay, to be fair, I haven't seen this movie. I've only seen the trailer. So I stand ready to be corrected if my take here is wrong. However, let's remember that the trailer is produced by the same people who produced the movie. They select the clips and the quotes to include. One would imagine they'd put their best foot forward in the trailer. Well...see for yourself:

This is war. It's on. The faithful vs. the unfaithful. The believers vs. the unbelievers. The Christian faith is under attack, we must fight back. “This is something God wants me to do," an exasperated Josh explains to his girlfriend, "I can’t just turn away from it.” This is a war that God has commissioned. 

But did He? 

We often hear the verse quoted from 1 Peter, "always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you." Yes, we should be prepared to make a defense...but neither should we forget the rest of the verse! "Yet do it with gentleness and respect." It appears from the trailer that Josh was prepared to defend his faith, but gentleness and respect? In the last scene of the trailer, we see Josh up in his professor's face, yelling, demanding, "WHY DO YOU HATE GOD?"

Put yourselves in the shoes of someone who does not believe in God. You've just watched this trailer for "God is Not Dead." What question are you asking yourself? Perhaps you're asking, "Why do Christians hate me?

"But there really are professors like that!" some will say. "There really are antagonistic atheists, especially on college campuses!" Yes, indeed there are. (Although I highly doubt that requiring freshmen to recant their faith in order to pass a class would fly in any serious institution today.) But yes, there are antagonistic atheists, and there are professors who try to convince their students that God is dead. There are also Christians who belittle and demonize atheists. There are Christians who make movies that misrepresent them. There are Christians who yell, "WHY DO YOU HATE GOD?" 

Atheists are not our real enemy...neither are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or other Christians we happen to disagree with.

"Okay, but they're fighting us!" They might be. Some certainly are! Many, I would argue, are largely indifferent toward us...when we're not yelling at them, that is. But what of the ones who are fighting us? What about those antagonistic college professors? What about the activists who want to label Christian doctrine as hate speech? What about the other tributes in the Arena--the ones trying to kill Katniss?

We must remember who the real enemy is.

Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that we are not fighting against flesh and blood, but rather, against "the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic power over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (6:12) And what of our "enemies" here on earth? Those who hate us, who demean and belittle us, those who would even seek to do us harm? Jesus is clear: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." (Luke 6:27-28)

We are not trying to defeat people. We're not fighting against people, even if they are fighting against us. We are called to love, and there is no greater love, Christ tells us, than someone laying down his life for his friends. Christ laid down his life for us when were his enemies. Are we not called to follow his pattern of self-sacrifice? I love this line from a hymn and its description of the Church's mission: "Our call to war: to love the captive soul, but to rage against the captor; And with the sword that makes the wounded whole, we will fight with faith and valor." Amen.

When will we see the college professor not simply as the "antagonistic atheist," but as the man, created in God's image, who loves the pursuit of knowledge and truth, who has been gifted with great intelligence, who loves and takes care of his family...and who needs Jesus? When will we see our neighbor not as the "weird new-age lady," but as the woman, created in God's image, who loves our planet and our fellow creatures, who has been gifted with great creativity and passion, who works hard for the peace of her community...and who also needs Jesus?

Enter "Noah"...stage left.
I've seen a number of Christians decrying the "Noah" movie that's also out in theaters right now. They list many things wrong with it, but one argument I keep seeing goes something like this: "the movie is made by a self-avowed atheist! How could an atheist make a good movie about the Bible? It's seeking to undermine Christian teaching, and thus, we should fight against it." Yes, it's true. Darren Aronofsky doesn't believe in the God of the Bible. Yes, his screenplay departs from the biblical narrative in a number of very significant ways. However, I think he made a powerful movie. There were some large theological holes, sure. (The rock people were more-than-a-little hokey.) But ultimately, in Aronofsky's "Noah," we see the depths of human sin, we see God's divine judgment of that sin, and we see God's mercy to those who really don't deserve it. We see Noah wrestling between the concepts of justice and mercy. Is that not the gospel? Certainly not the complete gospel, but at least a glimpse of it? Instead of decrying the fact that an unbeliever made a movie that departed from the biblical account, can we not rejoice that an unbeliever made a movie that demonstrates some of the most basic themes of the good news to mainstream audiences? Can we admit that someone who doesn't believe in God can still make a movie that we can learn from?

Because of its artistry and its themes of justice and mercy, I won't be surprised if "Noah," a movie by an unbeliever, starts far more gospel conversations than "God is Not Dead," a movie made by Christians...a movie that can't seem to decide if it's an evangelistic device or self-congratulatory diatribe. 

Friends, Professor Radisson is not the enemy. Darren Aronofsky is certainly not the enemy. Our real enemy is the Devil, who would much rather us focus our firepower toward our fellow humans. He is the one we fight.

However, unlike Katniss, we fight with the knowledge that the real enemy has already been defeated. We fight with the full assurance of the outcome. We take courage, and through love and self-sacrifice, we fight to show our "enemies" here on earth that our real enemy is the father of lies, and Christ offers freedom.

The words are Haymitch's to Katniss, but they could very well be Paul's words to the Ephesian church and to us...

"Katniss [Christians], when you're in the arena [the world]...remember who the real enemy is."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lord, Have Mercy...

"If only God would take away this same-sex attraction, I'd be a pretty good guy. Still sinful, mind you! Depraved since birth! But really--overall--pretty darn good. (See? "darn." I don't even cuss!)"

I wish I could attribute this quote to someone else...I really do...but I can't. I've never said this statement out loud. I've never even thought it--not consciously, at least--but this sentiment ran very deep in my psyche for years. There was even a point where I decided God had given me this burden to keep me humble, because otherwise, I wouldn't have a whole lot to confess.

What a bunch of shit. ( I do cuss).

My same-sex attraction was always my "go-to" during silent confession time in church. I knew I only had about 30 seconds of silence before the assurance of pardon, so I'd slip it in real quick. "God, I confess my attraction to other guys. I'm screwed up. This is not your will for me. Please forgive me. Amen." Or something  like that. Sometimes I'd be a little more eloquent, and sometimes I'd also confess more specifics, but in general, my personal confessions of sin usually revolved around my sexual orientation.

It was a lot easier that way. It's my obvious "thorn in the flesh," right? In many ways, it was like I'd just made peace with the eccentric uncle who lives upstairs that you just have to put up with because he's always been there and he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

I have been taught and always believed the doctrine of total depravity. I believe that we are born in sin, unable to choose Christ on our own. But how convenient...I always had such a nice, clean-cut way to view my depravity: I was the guy who liked other guys. That's messed up, right? So messed up. Wow. Glad I understand my sinful nature! When's lunch?

Last February, I sat in my little church with the green carpet waiting for the Ash Wednesday service to begin. Now, I'll be honest, I had grown a lot over the past couple years in understanding my same-sex attraction. I'd begun to understand that while my orientation is a tragic result of the Fall, my attractions themselves are not the sinful part. The sin is my lust, just like it is for everyone. I'd also begun to see how lust was just the tip of the iceberg--that my idolatry was stretched far wider and rooted far deeper than just my sexual attractions.

But as I headed to church that chilly Knoxville evening, I was looking forward to my first Ash Wednesday since admitting to myself that my sexuality didn't work the way it was designed to. After finally being honest with myself about the extent of my same-sex attractions for the first time, wouldn't I be that much more in touch with my brokenness when I took the ashes? It would be so powerful.

So there I sat, the piano playing softly in the background, waiting for the service to begin. I remember the atmosphere in the sanctuary was somber...but hopeful. I silently looked over the order of worship, reading and internalizing the words of the hymns.

I felt at peace.

Then he walked in. The guy that everybody knows...the one who never seems conscious of where he is or how loud he's speaking...the one who can take even the most solemn of occasions and turn it into a joke. He saw me, smiled, and started heading my direction.

I no longer felt at peace.

He plopped down next to me and immediately started asking questions...loudly. He started telling me about his, so loudly. He seemed almost giddy about being there. Did he even know what this service was about? I smiled--it might have even been a  warm smile--as I quietly wished he wasn't there, that he had just stayed home.

The service began, and he quieted down. But then, as we were reciting the corporate confession, a baby starting wailing, shrieking. The piercing cry sent a shiver down my spine. There I was--having a moment--and this parents thought this child needed to be there wailing in the sanctuary with us instead of the nursery. They probably thought it was cute. I tried to focus on the confession while I quietly wished the baby wasn't there, that he was back in the nursery where he belonged.

As the pastor started the sermon, the parents finally took the baby to the nursery. Peace. I listened to the message about our sin, our brokenness, and the hope that is found in the Cross. Then I realized that my friend wasn't there. Why wasn't he there? What, did he have something better to do? Something more important? I knew he wasn't working. Did he think he didn't need to hear about his sin, his brokenness, our hope found in Jesus? Was he too good for an Ash Wednesday service? Too proud? Too Protestant? Really, it was pretty typical of his whole attitude lately. Oh wait...there he was. He must have slipped in late. Oops. I smiled, smugly. I was glad he was there, but I was more glad I was there first.

Now you're probably waiting for the part where I had some epiphany, where the ashes were placed on my forehead and, all of a sudden, I realized the anger that was in my heart. There was no such moment. To be honest, I was perfectly aware of my hypocrisy...right there in the midst of it...the whole time. As I was wishing that guy wasn't there, as I decided that my life in that moment would be better without him...I was hating him. By Jesus' standards in the Sermon on the Mount, I murdered him. I knew exactly what I was doing. I tried not to. I tried to love him. I managed to pretend love on the outside, but inside...I just couldn't.

My heart sank.

It was the same with the baby. Ironic how I'm all in favor of babies when they're in the womb, but when they're crying in church and disturbing my "moment," I wish they weren't there. I hate them, and thus, I murder them.

I judged my friend when I thought he had skipped out on the service. I made up reasons why he probably wasn't there. Never mind the fact that he actually was there, and never mind the fact that I had been late to church dozens and dozens of times--usually because of a long line at Starbucks. This time though, I judged him, and I felt prouder of myself for obviously caring more about my brokenness than he did.

Once again I realized, as I sat there in a sanctuary full of God's people, full of people marked by the sign of the Cross, men and women, old and young, rich and poor, all admitting their brokenness and placing their hope in I sat there in the midst of that beautiful picture and couldn't shut off my heart's faucet of hate, I realized my sexual orientation was the least of my worries.

The root of my sin isn't finding the wrong sex beautiful. It's that I don't find Christ beautiful. My problem isn't "loving" the wrong people. It's that I don't really love anyone at all. 

So no...there was no great epiphany moment. No clouds opening or angels singing. That night was nothing new. I had been there before, and I have been there many times since. I was simply reminded once again just how deep my brokenness runs, that my sexual brokenness is just the icing on the cake. I'm not just the guy-who's-attracted-to-other-guys.

I'm the guy-who's-attracted-to-other-guys who also lacks patience...and hates babies...and judges his friends...and stretches the truth just a little bit in some details to make his stories more dramatic. [artistic license, right?]

I remember driving home after the service and sitting on my couch upstairs, the ashes still on my forehead. I looked in the mirror and saw the faded remnants of a smudged cross.

That ashen cross, that mark of hope in the midst of depravity, of beauty in the midst of brokenness...that mark reminded me that I'm the guy-who's-attracted-to-other-guys, who lacks patience, hates babies, judges his friends, stretches the truth, and so on and so on and so on...but most importantly, that ashen cross also reminded me that I am the guy who is loved by Jesus more than he'll ever be able to fully imagine or understand. I'm the guy who by the grace of God has a story with way more beautiful things to talk about than just his brokenness. 

Life is easier when we can put our sin in a box, label it with a marker, and stick it up in the attic. But our sin and brokenness won't all fit in boxes. It won't even all fit in the attic. It's not that simple and clear-cut. It's just a mess...a mess we can't even fully comprehend. Pack one box away in the attic, and inevitably, you come back downstairs to find a whole lot more.

On Ash Wednesday, the ashes remind us that we are broken. The cross reminds us that we are helpless on our own. Our mess is too big for us even to fathom, let alone deal with. We need a Savior who is far bigger than our mess to come take care of it. We don't just need a renovation...we need to be made new. 

Friends, whether or not you attend an Ash Wednesday service this year, I encourage you to imagine the cross, smudged in ash on your own forehead, marking you out as a child of the King. Marked in your brokenness.

From dust we came, and to dust we will return, but one day, our broken bodies will be raised up with Christ. We will be made right.

Yes, my sexuality will be redeemed, but far more importantly, I will finally know Love...and know Him deeply. 

Kyrie, Eleison...Lord, Have Mercy
Christe, Eleison...Christ, Have Mercy.