Free to wire-walk, but for what?

wallendaI thought I was the only one who felt this way. Rex Huppke wrote an editorial in the Chicago Tribune yesterday about his thoughts on Nik Wallenda’s attempt to walk a tightrope stretched between two Chicago high-rises this Sunday evening. His article was titled, Wire Walk Dumb, not Heroic. “Let’s be clear, I hope nothing bad happens, and I wish Wallenda nothing but good fortune. But if walking a tightrope some 600 feet in the air above the Chicago River is heroic, then so is sticking your face in a fan…We have a tendency to conflate actual acts of heroism, like soldiers parachuting into a war zone or firefighters running into a burning building, with things that are bold but in the end purposeless.”

That is it; what is the purpose and value in such death-defying acts? We live in a free society where we can do what we want, but that is a problem. Os Guinness in his book A Free People’s Suicide says that the only way freedom is sustainable is if it leads a people to act in a way that has value greater than just for oneself. In other words, freedom is not merely the warrant to do whatever I want, but the ability to do what I ought. The goal of the American Revolution was not just independence from Britain; it was a freedom to build the American Republic.

Guinness writes, “People confuse freedom with choice, as they are dazzled daily by an ever-expanding array of external choices in consumer goods and lifestyle options. But the pursuit of choices has led to a surfeit (surplus) of choices and a scarcity of meaning and value—a point at which choice itself, rather than the content of any choice, has become the heart of freedom. The result is that modern people value choice rather than good choice.” The story is told of Socrates walking through the market place of Athens, a version of our mall, and saying in the face of all the options, “Who would have thought there were so many things that I could do without.”

Using Huppke’s analogy: If I exercised my freedom by announcing a trip to Hawaii to break the world’s record for distance-walking on the hardened crust of a lava flow, and I ended up a half-torso and a head. What would be the tragedy? Would you mourn my death or how senseless it was? Would you call me a hero or would you say, “That half a torso guy was a nincompoop?”

Paul says to the Galatians concerning their use of spiritual freedom in Christ, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Peter says a similar thing, “Live as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as bondservants of God (1 Peter 2:16).

Thus my freedom is not absolute, to do whatever I please, but it is a directed freedom; to choose to act in such a way that has meaning and purpose beyond me. Perhaps Wallenda’s free act could be justified as entertainment; perhaps his act could be used it to raise money for Chicago’s homeless; or maybe, if he was a Christian, he could invite people afterwards to an evangelistic crusade. One or more of these might make his act more purposeful, but I would still have this nagging suspicion that maybe his choice was not the best one; that maybe this act was still more about him than his cause.

I saw his great-grandfather Karl (age 73, the Great Wallenda) fall to his death in 1978 doing a similar thing in Puerto Rico. It was not heroic. I read somewhere that Karl told his wife that he always felt like a dead man when he was on the ground and that life was being on the wire. Hmmm…

Just a Thought on Ferguson, Missouri

More than two months have passed since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri—setting off confrontations between (mostly African-American) residents and (mostly white) police, and sparking a national conversation about race. But the precise circumstances of what happened on that August afternoon remain murky. The key issue is whether Wilson fired in self-defense, as he told investigators, or whether he fired without sufficient provocation. There are witnesses on both sides. On Wednesday, new evidence emerged, according to a Washington Post investigation and an autopsy report from the county medical examiner. The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it lends more credence to Wilson’s version of events.

The cry for justice in Ferguson will not ultimately be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Pre-judgement on both sides of the aisle will prevent true justice from taking place. The grand jury is expected to reach a conclusion on whether to indict Officer Wilson next month. But the decision may not settle the question of what actually happened. Quite possibly nothing ever will. Yet, whether we talk about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo or Rodney King, I realize that for me—a white, middle-class, old guy, race is merely a conversation. If I were black, it would take on a whole new meaning for me and my children and grandchildren.

There will be changes in the way the police do business in Ferguson, just as there were changes in Los Angeles after the King riots and changes in New York City after Amadou Diallo. However, we will never get it right. America will never get past the issue of race. It has been a part of the fabric of our nation since the Founding Fathers. As Alfred Doblin mused, “Maybe we are a nation with too much historical baggage and too many carpetbaggers to get to a place where the influx of black families doesn’t signal an exodus of white ones, or where an angry black man looks identical to an angry white man.”

In no way am I suggesting that we should not work for justice—heaven forbid; our world would totally implode. Working for justice is part of the very fabric of our Christian faith. Certainly we have made strides; we have an African-American president. But we should not be naive enough to think there is a magic bullet in our democratic system of government that will eradicate racism; after all it took five years into Obama’s presidency just to stop asking for his US birth certificate. We can make racism illegal, but we cannot legislate against the racist thoughts and intents of a sinful heart.

When Los Angeles burned in 1992 after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, the mobs chanted “No justice, no peace.” In Ephesians 2:14, Paul said “For he himself (Christ Jesus) is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing walls of hostility–that he might create one new man in place of two, so making peace.” Jesus Christ has broken down the separation between hopeless humanity and its Creator God through the cross. He has also broken down the walls of hostility between people groups. On paper, the Church should be the one place in which Jew and Gentile, black and white should live in reconciliation and peace. Sadly, this is not usually the case. The Bible has been used to kick the Baptists out of Massachusetts, burn some “witches” at the stake, justify slavery, and defend the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the south.

However, I have more hope that the Church will be transformed than I do that my country will change. I see places where the gospel is reaching across the barriers of race and culture to produce this new humanity of which Paul spoke. For me, it begins by extending the grace of God to others on the basis of our common inclusion into the family of God. It also motivates me to move toward people who are different than I am—not only in race and culture, but also towards the marginalized, giving a voice to those who have none. The same way God moved toward me and my Gentile race while we afar off, still in our sins, to bring us near, even into his very own family in Christ. (Eph. 2:19)

I dream of the day when the Church can say to a place like Ferguson, “look at the gospel; look at what it has done for us.” It is happening in heaven right now and so I will continue to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Disappointment with God…

imagesThen Moses turned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he (Pharaoh) has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Ex. 5:22, 23).

Can’t you feel Moses’ disappointment and frustration? Do you remember a time when you felt like this—maybe even now? Perhaps it was a situation about which you earnestly prayed and things got worse and not better. I think that Christian leaders often fall prey to this disappointment when all our best-intentioned efforts and ministry to our people end up being misunderstood and creating more problems than they solve. We make the mistake, like Moses, of judging God at the beginning of the process and not by the big-picture vision of what he ultimately wants to accomplish in our people. We have so little information as to ways of an eternal, omniscient God. Perhaps that is why Moses later prayed “show me now your ways.” (Ex. 33:13)

Another principle that we need to learn is that the way to liberation is often through deeper bondage. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? However, how many times have we heard (or experienced) that a person needs to hit bottom before they start looking for help? Israel had not yet hit rock-bottom in their slavery. They thought they had options and had to learn to entrust themselves completely to the covenant-keeping God that Moses represented. Moses also needed to learn to trust in the Lord with all his heart if he was going to lead Israel out of oppression. “God is to be trusted when his providences seem to run contrary to his promises.” (Thomas Watson)

We cannot manage God; we must learn to trust him. He is our Father, who loves us and yet is also the sovereign God of the universe who is working out his redemptive process for us and the world. It is only by faith born of experience that we will learn to glory in the process and not judge God by a certain circumstance.

You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain:
God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.
(William Cowper, 1774)

“Why I Hope to Die at 75”

old-woman-1435250Ezekiel “Zeke” Emanuel recently wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic headlined, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” It is worth the read especially if you are approaching 75 or have parents or grandparents that age. Emanuel is a doctor, bioethicist, and older brother of the mayor of Chicago.

His basic premise is that by 75 “creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us” we no longer leave behind a legacy of vibrancy and engagement, but of feebleness and frailty. Not only do we heap upon our children additional emotional and financial burdens, but we leave them and our grandkids with “memories framed not by our vivacity, but by our frailty.” He calls that “the ultimate tragedy.” Therefore, he does not wish to live beyond 75.

He does not advocate for euthanasia, but it is his plan (he is now 57) that if he lives to 75 he will not prolong his life. “At 75 and beyond, I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless. And that good reason is not ‘It will prolong your life.’ I will stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. I will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if I am suffering pain or other disability… This means colonoscopies and other cancer-screening tests are out—and before 75. If I were diagnosed with cancer now, at 57, I would probably be treated, unless the prognosis was very poor. But 65 will be my last colonoscopy. No screening for prostate cancer at any age… After 75, if I develop cancer, I will refuse treatment. Similarly, no cardiac stress test. No pacemaker and certainly no implantable defibrillator. No heart-valve replacement or bypass surgery. If I develop emphysema or some similar disease that involves frequent exacerbations that would, normally, land me in the hospital, I will accept treatment to ameliorate the discomfort caused by the feeling of suffocation, but will refuse to be hauled off… Flu shots are out… no to antibiotics… Obviously, a do-not-resuscitate order and a complete advance directive indicating no ventilators, dialysis, surgery, antibiotics, or any other medication—nothing except palliative care even if I am conscious but not mentally competent—have been written and recorded. In short, no life-sustaining interventions. I will die when whatever comes first takes me.”

While I agree with him about the American obsession with living forever, he falls off the other side of the saddle with his American obsession with control. He sees the 18 years that he has left (as if he is in charge) as a self-imposed deadline so that he can get done the important things in life before he begins his inevitable decline. He is also dismissive of any faith perspective that would be used to rebut his view. “I also think my view conjures up spiritual and existential reasons for people to scorn and reject it. Many of us have suppressed, actively or passively, thinking about God, heaven and hell, and whether we return to the worms. We are agnostics or atheists, or just don’t think about whether there is a God and why she should care at all about mere mortals.” He seems to make a life of faith seem more like a knee-jerk reaction to our mortality rather than well-intentioned choice in view of our creatureliness and frailty. He also completely overlooks the positive impact that our suffering can have in the development of our children and grandkids.

There is an arrogance embedded in this article which belies the name of the author; Ezekiel (means his strength is in God). The prophet was keenly aware of God’s presence and power in human affairs. He suffered captivity and the very death of his own wife, but prophesied a message of hope and reassurance for the people of Judah. There was one thing that the biblical Ezekiel knew for sure: God is in control and we must humble ourselves before him. And in this relationship of submission, humility, and trust regardless of life’s circumstances, we find our greatest usefulness.

“Lord, teach me to number my days that I might apply my heart to wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

Poor Talk (Part 2)…

poorOK- so what is wrong with poor talk and why do I believe that it qualifies as a sin of the tongue? (Read last week’s blog to get caught up.)

First, grousing about how others are prospering while we feel we are not doing as well, keeps us from remembering the blessings of God for what we do have and being thankful (1 Thess. 5:18). We can draw some consolation from the fact that the adaptation-level principle works in both directions: if personal or societal economic pressures force us to adopt a simpler life style, we will eventually adapt and recover life’s balance of happiness and satisfaction. Perhaps that is why many people claim to be so much happier when they simplify their lives.

Poor talk also keeps us from being content with what we do have, therefore, showing a distrust in God’s provision. “We can exercise choice in the selection of our comparison groups. We can resist the tendency to measure ourselves against those higher on the ladder of success, and instead choose to compare ourselves with those less fortunate. Earlier generations were taught to perform such comparisons by way of ‘counting one’s blessings.’ Today we can gain the same benefit by means of selective exposure to comparison groups. Discovering how relatively small our problems are can make us more sensitive to real poverty. It can give us an appreciation of the extent to which some people’s unmet needs — clean water, adequate nutrition, medical care — are things we take for granted. Realizing this will not only sensitize us to the suffering of the truly impoverished; it will also help us develop an attitude of gratitude for what we have.” (“Poor Talk,” Thomas Ludwig and David Myers, Saturday Review)

Finally, poor talk blinds us to the needs of the actual poor because our attention is fixed upon ourselves and our relationship to others who are doing better than we are. “We [need to] make a conscious effort to reduce poor talk… Over and over people complain that they are underpaid, defeated by inflation and taxes, and no longer capable of affording their family’s needs. Some think that such mutual commiseration is harmless, but research has indicated that what people say influences how they think and feel. The very act of complaining about unwelcome economic changes may therefore increase our discontent. Poor talk also focuses our attention on ourselves in a way that blinds us to the needs of others.”

At the end of his Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis depicts heaven as the ultimate liberation from the relativity of experience. Here creatures cannot feel deprived, depressed or anxious. There is no adaptation-level trauma, for happiness is continually expanding. Here is “the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” This resurrection hope does not eliminate the ups and downs of day-to-day life, but it does offer a liberating cosmic perspective from which to view them.

Here on earth we will never completely escape the “I need more treadmill.” But by becoming aware of the relativity of our appetites, by reducing our poor talk, by consciously selecting our comparison groups, and by viewing life from the perspective of resurrection faith, we can share the humble and grateful response of the Psalmist: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.”

We thank Thee, then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food;
No gifts have we to offer,
For all Thy love imparts,
But that which Thou desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.
(Matthias Claudius, 1784)

Question: When is a poor talker no longer a poor talker? When he stops poor talking?
Answer: No; when he is grateful and content with what he has and generous towards others.