Awareness, Fear and [Over] Reaction

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I believe awareness is often good.  If a person is about to be hit by a bus on their current trajectory, then it is generally good for them to know this and adjust themselves accordingly.

On September 11, 2001, as hijacked commercial airliners heavy with fuel became missiles, the American public became acutely aware of a threat and looked for a solution to the exposed vulnerability. 

The threat had existed prior to our awareness, but now became real with images of burning buildings and stories of thousands of lives snuffed out.  The attack worked as intended, it hit Americans squarely in their emotional centers and produced fear.  People wanted a strong response and got it. 

It was used as justification to expand government power, as excuse to settle unfinished business and as reason to move earth and heaven to get those responsible.  The cost of trillion(s) of dollars and many thousands of lives, in retrospect, seems unjustifiable.

“You are going to die…”

How we react to that statement in the quotes above probably depends on who is saying it.  I believe our reaction to that would be quite a bit different depending on the circumstances.  If it was said with a gun in your face it would likely be interpreted differently than if it was said by a friend and finished with “someday.”

Awareness of a problem, when we have the luxury of time, needs to come with appropriate deliberation and proper restraint of fear.  Overreaction and panic can create bigger problems than the circumstances that triggered them in the first place.

Awareness of an issue, if not contextualized or if over-applied, can build stereotypes, feed prejudices and skew us away from better judgment.  Jumping to avoid a bus and directly into the path of a freight train is unwise and especially if the bus is still a mile away.  Awareness of a problem is not a solution.

My social media news feeds are too often jam packed with messages from well-intended friends.  I am warned of ‘knock out game’ violence, told of police brutality, Ebola coverup, conspiracy, wars on women, gun rights being stolen, Sharia law, beheadings, and a myriad of other fearful things that apparently should be demanding my immediate paranoid attention.

In many cases those with the bullhorn in hand don’t know the whole story, hyperbolize what is actually known and assume what isn’t known.  The dramatic headlines, the terrible anecdotes, wild speculation and strong rhetoric too often blow things out of proportion and eventually many simply tune out.

So, regarding threats real or perceived, how can we be aware without being paranoid, being reactionary and disproportional in response?

Height Privilege is Overrated

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There’s no denying the advantages of being tall. 

Tall people are able to reach higher to get something off the top shelf and can see over a crowd.  It is a competitive advantage in many sports where factors like wing span or vertical leap can potentially earn millions and worldwide popularity.

It is a distinct social advantage to be tall.  Height seems to increase a candidates chances for winning elections, statistics show that taller men fare better in wage earning and in attracting female attention.  It is historical too, tall men seem to have been admired since at least the time of king Saul:

“Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2)

Height is a factor in how people judge qualifications and character.  Short men who gain power are besmirched with the ‘Napoleon complex’ label to describe them.  I can’t imagine a tall man being called a weasel or rodent.  Furthermore, why is person lacking character called a “low life” or an insult to “belittle” a person?

This is obviously systemic discrimination and an insidious prejudice that seeps into the very way we construct language, right?

According to a Slate article, “Short Changed,” the proof is in the numbers:

“Economists have known for a long time that it pays to be tall. Multiple studies have found that an extra inch of height can be worth an extra $1,000 a year or so in wages, after controlling for education and experience. If you’re 6 feet tall, you probably earn about $6,000 more than the equally qualified 5-foot-6-inch shrimp down the hall.”

Armed with this knowledge, one could peg many things lacking in their life to their not being tall, they could claim their leadership skills have been overlooked because they were shorter than another candidate or claim their ambitions would be cast in a more favorable light if they had been accompanied by a 6′-2″ commanding presence.  A single guy of shorter stature could accuse women of being superficial and small-minded for rejecting him and could possibly be right.

But this also gives a lame excuse for lack of effort and honesty…

Maybe a guy is short and a jerk?

Or he’s not actually qualified despite his oversized ego?

Statistics tell us a story and they probably do indication some slight injustice towards short men.  But some damage could be self-inflicted as well.  When a person assumes they are handicapped or victims of discrimination they can react in a way that damages their own reputation and the conditions they create for themselves cause their own disadvantage.  If taller men have a psychological edge, then shorter men may be more prone to inferiority complex and a lack of confidence that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Life isn’t fair and there is no simple solutions to correcting these types of subtle injustices.  Measures taken to fix privileges of height based in overall statistics would likely create only another level of injustice if other disadvantages were not also considered.  How can we decide the benefits of beauty so that ugly people are properly compensated or determine what was a product of simple lack of trying?  Should we punish those naturally confident to make life fairer for those of timid disposition?  It is impossible to right every wrong.  It is hard to find who owes who when all things are taken into account.

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Nick Vujicic and Kanae Miyahara

My advise is to use disadvantages (real or perceived) as motivation rather than as an excuse to fail.  Nick Vujicic, pictured above with his wife, was not only born short, but he also has no legs and arms, but that didn’t doom him to a life of despair. 

Some of us have likely been discriminated against more than others on the basis of our height, age, gender, weight, ethnicity, race or beauty, but it should never be our excuse to hide behind.  We all have unique challenges, but these challenges we face can prove our strength of character and overcoming these giants will be to our credit.

It is interesting that the man who was picked to lead after king Saul (who had turned out to be an irresponsible and jealous man) was not picked for his unusual height or beauty:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)

David, the king who followed Saul’s reign, despite flaws, had courage and made no excuses.  David’s claim to fame was slaying the giant Goliath who had taunted Saul and his army to a contest that nobody including the tall king was willing to take on.  What David lacked compared to Saul in stature or notable appearance he made up for with faith and a good heart.

Short or tall it is better to be a David (or married to one) than a Saul.  Heart trumps height even if nobody but God notices.  So make no excuses and take on the challenges before you without fear or doubt.

Why we give on Christmas

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In America it is easy to take our advantages for granted.  We have worked hard, we have invested our abilities and taken advantage of the opportunity to build our dreams.  Therefore, it may seem, the fruits of our labor are an entitlement and not a gift, right?

Well, yes and no…

If we had stayed in bed all day waiting for prosperity to happen we would likely be impoverished and therefore our will to get out of bed is a big part of our success.  However, was it by your own will that you were born with two good legs and are even able to contemplate getting out of bed?

If we are entitled to what we produce by will, but did not produce our legs by will, then who or what do we credit for what our legs helped us produce?  I suppose we could start by thanking our parents, we could be grateful to them for the transmittal of the genetic material that produced our legs and giving them credit for our success.

Then the fact you are able to read this, we can thank are parents and teachers who taught us language.  But, even if they seem older than the hills, they didn’t invent language and nor did the generation before them.  So can we take credit for the ideas we gained through written or spoken language?

Our lives are inexorably intertwined and interconnected like the very internet on which you read this.  The inventors mostly unknown, the contributions of many virtually forgotten and the whole maintained by a nameless mass of humanity, yet we do benefit or we would not use it.

So who or what deserves credit for our success?

We prosper to the extent that we do by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and our own efforts amplified by these gifts providence has bestowed upon us.  We cannot take for granted the privilege of a stable economic system and opportunities that even a grade school education provided for us.

If you travel to Haiti the contrast is clear.  In a place where government is especially corrupt and available resources few, even the most industrious person will have a difficult time getting ahead.  Oftentimes their best chance is by escaping to a better environment, yet that is not an option for all and some are stuck doing what they can to earn a meager wage.

Our success is a result of both collective and individual efforts.  Therefore, we all together (personally and all contributors to our lives big or small) deserve all, partial and no credit.  As a web of intersecting circular chains of causality of shared responsibility, deciding who actually deserves credit is actually a true paradox.  This paradox of our own will within determinism is something I chalk up to Providence.

We are created by the dust of stars…

In nature brutal violence and exploitation is normal.  A gazelle in Africa does not consider the rights of the living plants it consumes to be sacred nor does a lion that takes down a gazelle for its’ meat seem to agonize about the decision.  I doubt many would consider incarceration of a lions that killed a gazelle a moral necessity.

The recorded history of thousands of years of human history show a similar disregard for the life of those in the tribe across the river.  The idea of conquest or taking what you could in raids (that including enslaving members of the other tribe to labor or be concubines) was very common behavior and only very recently has become widely regarded as a morally repugnant thing.  It was kill or be killed.

From a logical, reasonable and collectively minded standpoint survival of the fittest is an obvious choice.  With the advent of modern science the idea that imbecile parents produce imbecile children, concerns about overpopulation and idea of gene selection became a basis for eugenics.  So from whence doth this ethic of protecting the weak or nonproductive person come from?

I think it is empathy.  The idea, contained in the proverb “there but for the grace of God go I” and a thought that we are fortunate for what we have been given, is that we should give to those with less because we would want to be helped.  It may be against nature and impractical thinking, but it is evidence that we can think beyond a materialistic perspective.  We see each other as spiritual beings with value just for our own existing.

I believe it is spiritual progress, awakening to more full awareness and transcending nature itself that drives our generosity.  We recognize our own success is not a simple matter of our own individual responsibility, choice and effort.  We realize we are not a product of any one person, institution or entity in this universe.  We are created from star dust, we suddenly have become awake to a reality that we somehow know is unfair and unbroken.

So where does this leave us and where do we go from there?

I turn to God.  I believe to acknowledge God is to humbly admit we cannot take credit for creating ourselves, that we cannot find answers for our existing in ourselves alone and we want to live out an ideal beyond ourselves.

Jesus prayed: “Thy kingdom co me on earth as it is in heaven,” which is literally asking for heaven on earth, and ultimately what faith is supposed to be about.  With this my prayer, I cannot be content to hoard what gifts I have been given for myself only, my family only or my own people only.  If I pray for heaven, I must be willing to create heaven and by that I must be willing to sacrifice myself to see this reality in my own life.

Love for God in the Christian Bible is always defined as giving of our abundance to those in need and commitment to self-sacrificial living.  It is a message to each of us personally to do our part in bringing the ‘good news’ to the world of God’s love for humanity.  It can be misconstrued as religion, as a guilt trip, as a means to judge others, and a tool of oppression, but the true calling of Jesus is for us to give what we have to give.  Rich or poor, male or female, American or other, we all have something to give other and, in our giving to each other, giving to God.

God has given us the ability to create a better world and many squander the opportunity by their immorality, their selfishness, greed, envy, etc.  But faith is acting despite what others do, faith is the only way we will fearlessly lead in bringing heaven to earth and faith is what is required of us.  It is our job, as people of faith, to be the healing hands, the feet ready to carry a load for those struggling and the loving voice.  With faith we can be the hands, feet and voice of God.

I am not talking about strictly charity either.  In fact, I think most of our giving is by our careers, our talents and time.  And, I will go further to say that there is nothing bad about profiting from your efforts, receiving without guilt and enjoying life.  However, I would caution against an entitled attitude that fails to recognize all you have been given that amplifies your own willing effort.  The investments of the blood, sweat and tears of many is what has made the American lifestyle possible.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)

Those who think their security, prosperity and confidence is something they earned—rather than a gift from God—have no need to help those who are without and assume those without have done something to deserve being without.  However, those who know their affirmation and acceptance is only by the grace of God, who understand the very opportunities they have were by divine providence, they will give to those in need with a humble heart.  An ungiving person is an ungrateful person.

So, why do we give gifts on Christmas?

We give because, the Christ child, Jesus was given as a gift by God and we are grateful.  To those of Christian faith, Jesus is the living symbol of God’s ideal, his life the ultimate example and his laying down of his own life so we could know how to live the ultimate hope of humanity.  Our giving on the holiday is symbolic of the gift of the grace of God.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (John 15:13)

To give as much as we have been given is our expression of fullness of gratitude and that is our reasonable service to God.  If everyone had will to give their all then nobody would be without and in need.  Be a friend to all people of all nations, give your all and bring heaven to earth for someone this holiday besides you or your own kin.

Merry Christmas and God bless!

The problem of knowing…

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Knowledge is power or that is what I am told.  But how does our knowing make us more capable and is that capability to know always from our own betterment?

The answer is, no, not always, and our knowledge could very well be less for our own betterment than we know.  The same knowledge of the human body used by a doctor to save life can also by others to take it.  Knowledge of how to start a fire gives one the ability to cook and create glass or steel, and yet it is also a tool of an arsonist.  If knowledge is power it can be a destructive power.  Knowledge can be power to do evil.

Increased knowledge does not equate to moral progress…

“Of all the problems which will have to be faced in the future, in my opinion, the most difficult will be those concerning the treatment of inferior races of mankind” (Leonard Darwin)

Knowledge can also be deceiving and dangerous when it is incomplete, over-interpreted or not properly contextualized.  Eugenicists, like Darwin in the quote above, claimed confidently that their knowledge of science gave them the ability to decide what races of men and women should be allowed to reproduce.  People too easily use knowledge that validates their own presuppositions to overreach and sometimes with deadly consequences.

The confident and exuberant knowledge based claims of one generation become the warnings to the next.  Things argued as logical, reasonable, fact based and morally responsible by one generation will sometimes be regarded as the atrocities of the next.  Eugenics in America has become a prime example.  Very intelligent and knowledgeable men (like Nikola Tesla) argued for sterilization of races they deemed inferior.  But, the results of these brilliant forward thinking men of yesteryear, we now as a society pay a price for today.

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”  (Proverbs 16:18)

One would think our knowledge of historical blunders would act to restrain our enthusiasm for allowing our knowledge today to delude us.  But increased knowledge does not equate to increased wisdom or humility.  Knowledge we possess can be a source of dangerous pride.  Pride that can blind us to the limits of our own knowledge and ability to reason correctly from the knowledge we possess.  Knowing what we do not know, being humble with what we think we know and listening to those who know differently from us can save us from our limited knowledge being our own destruction.

Known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns…

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” (Donald Rumsfeld)

Every fool in history was a likely victim of their own knowledge.  History is replete with examples of well-intended and intelligent men who misjudged on the basis of the knowledge they had.  I do not take Neville Chamberlain for an idiot because of his infamous “peace for our time” utterance after his meeting with Hitler gave hope of avoiding war.  In retrospect, with the knowledge available even then, one could have concluded very differently than Chamberlain and Hitler’s rise may have been thwarted saving countless lives.

Many terrible mistakes might have been avoided if people would have arrived at different conclusions using the greater available evidence or even the same knowledge they had making a bad judgment. Confidence in our ability to discern from our knowledge is good.  However, if our confidence is an insulation to keep us from hearing contrary opinions, if it is used to demean those who disagree and their perspectives, we are on a very dangerous road.  It is with more knowledge we can realize the conclusions we reached based in prior knowledge were overconfident, arrogant and wrong.

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”  (Proverbs 15:22)

More knowledge is not a savior of humanity.  Educated and knowledgeable people are some of the most dangerous people if they are unrestrained by moral conscience or humility.  There is a story of a new king (1 Kings 12) who decided to disregard the council of older advisors, choose to follow the advice of more agreeable peers and sowed the seeds of his own destruction.  We too risk the same when we seek the council of those who confirm our own biases and disregard the perspectives of those outside our own peer group or culture.

“…knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-2)

Based in their knowledge people too often pick advisors who are no different from them.  It is a form of self-love.  From young people who turn to age-group peers, to fundamentalists (religious, scientific or otherwise) who vehemently defend their own various established dogmas and quickly dismiss any interpretation counter to their own, we need to be wary of our own potential knowledgeable ignorance.  Having an abundance of fact, logic and reason does not equate to having good discernment.  Knowing you could be wrong and not know what you believe you know could save you (or those you influence) plenty of sorrow and regret.

The advantage of not knowing and loving freely…

I believe we are often geared too much towards our own knowledge and not enough towards love and humility.  If we were more mindful of the limits to our own knowledge or more aware of the lessons of history (and able to apply them to ourselves) we would probably not be as quick to trust our own discernment.  Knowledge can lead to arrogance, but the right kind of knowledge can lead to our being humbled and able to submit to the way of love that defies common understanding.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Unpackaged: Knowing only Jesus Christ is to know only the Spirit of God and power of love, and to know only that could do more good for the world than a supercomputer of facts.  Love has more power than the combined intelligence of those who unlocked the secrets of the atom and the awe-ful results of their knowledge.

The world would be better with more who had the faith (and courage) of a young woman, Maryann Kauffman, who lost her husband to a senseless act of violence and choose knowing only Jesus or forgiveness rather than bitterness.  I can know without knowing that her pain is as real as anyone else’s, but evidently her love is bigger.

May we resolve to know goodness more completely and I know we will be better for it. There is no loss in willing self-sacrificial love…

Well, predictably it has happened, two Brooklyn police officers are dead…

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What happened today in Brooklyn, with two NYPD officers gunned down simply for their existing, is a predictable result. It is the very thing I was trying to prevent from happening by challenging simplistic and presumptive narratives.

In the wake of tragedies in Ferguson and later in Staten Island, events widely (and quite recklessly) framed in terms of race, I have tried to make the point (in multiple blog posts) that all forms of prejudice can have tragic consequences.  I wrote to urge people not to judge by mere appearances (blue, black or white) and to consider each individual case separately.

Unfortunately that effort to add perspective to a complex issue did not stop today’s events.  Calling for reason seems to make little progress against the reactionaries with rationales that eventually turn whole categories of people into privileged objects of contempt to be removed.

It seems everybody already knows that it is the other guy’s tribe that is at fault. They know that their own tribe always plays the part of the innocent victim and thus always has no responsibility for their own part.  It is this kind of mentality that justifies gunning down random people from the ‘other side’ in retaliation.  A continuing cycle of increasingly senseless violence is the predictable result.

This sadly could be easily solvable if we would change the vengeful tribe versus tribe thinking that presumes guilt, innocence or privilege on the basis of skin color and only remembers the sins of others:

“The victims of a conflict are assiduous historians and cultivators of memory. The perpetrators are pragmatists, firmly planted in the present. Ordinarily we tend to think of historical memory as a good thing, but when the events being remembered are lingering wounds that call for redress, it can be a call to violence.” (Steven Pinker, “Better Angels of Our Nature,” page 493)

Holding onto the past, making assumptions based in historical grievances, and treating individuals as a part of a group to be judged wholesale is the actual problem. 

Prejudice is the problem and we are all responsible in part.  Recognizing the folly of judging individuals based on the uniform they wear or the color of their skin, taking each case on the individual merits, that is a start to healing old divides.

But, who’s listening anymore, we all know everything we need to know about the ‘other’ side, right?

Will anyone see past their own prejudices and demands for blood from the ‘other’ side long enough to see a better way?

Jesus gave the better way…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)

Hopefully those employed by the NYPD officers are quicker at forgetting their own presumptions based in appearances. Hopefully they transcend the man who shot two of their colleagues in cold blood and who apparently could only see in terms of tribe and history.  There is hope when we stop seeing people in terms of color groups and see each as an individual worthy of being judged by their own behavior and not as categories based in appearance or profession.

We need to listen to Jesus and end the cycle of violence in our own response to events like this and others.  We need to be better at empathizing across tribal lines and less mindful of the perceived injustices against our own.  We need to become a people more concerned with higher ideals and less with our own superficial features.  Start now, start in yourself in your own heart first and the world can change.

I read it on the internet, so it must be true…

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There was a story circulating a few years ago claiming that a mountain lion was hit by a truck in Pennsylvania and urging people to spread the news.  The claim was accompanied by a picture of a man with a big dead cat and also included mention of Game Commission denial.

This story was red meat for those of my friends who were already suspicious of the state officials (who maintained there was lack of credible evidence that mountain lions roamed the state forests) and was confirming proof to them.  The story included a photographic evidence, did it not?  How could it not be credible and proof of a cover-up, right?

As it turns out the same photo has been used in many stories to make different claims.  It is a real photo.  However, according to more credible sources, the photo was taken in Arizona and not in Pennsylvania or the many other places where internet stories claimed the animal was hit.  The story that the mountain lion was hit in Pennsylvania is apparently a lie.

So, why would a person be so suspicious and skeptical of one source (like the PA Game Commission) and yet be so gullible as to fall for an internet hoax from a random source?  Why trust a complete stranger who we have no way of knowing if the information they give is trustworthy or true while disbelieving sources that are at least somewhat accountable and knowable?

It comes back to confirmation bias or the idea that people will be more accepting of evidence that confirms their existing beliefs or biases.  Those who accepted the story as true already believed the truth was being hidden by the government and thus didn’t feel need to check the credibility of the claim.  They pick up and run with whatever tickled their existing partisan fancy.

I understand confirmation bias.  But it is difficult for me to understand why people are so easily duped by internet hoaxes and conspiracy theories from spurious sources.  It is especially difficult for me to understand how people can be so cynical of mainstream sources and then simultaneously accepting of a story posted by some random person on the internet.  It should be opposite, we should be more skeptical of a little known source and less mistrusting of those more known.

Time and time again I see stories posted by friends on social media, I do my due diligence to research the claim and oftentimes find it is a myth or hoax.  In an age of Photoshop pictures can be easily doctored.  Credentials can be fabricated to make an appeal to authority and I am instantly skeptical when someone uses that type of appeal rather than concrete evidence and sound logic.

Good cases aren’t bolstered by bad arguments.  True stories do not need fake photos or deceptive use of facts.  By using (or linking) unreliable information as proof of an idea a person is actually hurting their chances of convincing intelligent people who disagree and are potentially making a mockery of themselves.

Lies and fraudulent claims used to promote a moral argument are especially inexcusable.  I can understand why corrupt politicians and calculated propagandists distort evidence trying to gain power from the ignorance of their constituency.  I can also understand why immoral people fabricate stories and try to deceive for entertainment or whatever reason.  But what I cannot accept is false information used by those who are claiming the moral high ground.  It is hypothetical at worse and dangerous ignorance as best.

“These are the things you are to teach and insist on. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”  (1 Timothy 6:2b-5)

A moral person should take responsibility for the stories they spread.  An untrue claim can do real harm.  Gossip, slander and evil surmises may help line the pockets of those trying to exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain.  But these things do do not help the cause of truth.  As people of faith and love we have no excuse to be casual with our sources.  Agreement in principle is not a reason to trust a source or be negligent of due diligence.

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”  (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

Contrary to what some may think, being a person of faith does not automatically lead to better discernment.  We must actual train ourselves to be godly and discerning.  What this means practically is not just accepting internet stories as fact even if we like what they are saying.  We have a moral responsibility to be critical thinkers who can see past our own potential prejudices, misconceptions or biases.  It requires first being humble enough to admit what we want to think is true isn’t always true.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)

If you do not know if a story is true or not, rather than risk promulgation of half-truth or lies, do not share it.  There is plenty that is good or honorable that we can share without risking the credibility of ourselves or hurting that which we claim to love in the process.

Disunity and the Solution: You

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A friend recently ask me why Christianity is so divided and that is an excellent question.  It is something I have pondered as I look at the broad range of practices, and different views of theology, and disputes over who is the actual authority over the ‘body of believers’ that we call church.  I believe the answer to the question is both very complex and simultaneously simple.

First of all, I presume that the reason we ask ‘why’ is because we can think to ask such a question.  We can ask because we have independence of thought that allows us to ponder different or better alternatives to the current reality.  We ask because division bothers us and unity would seem to be the better ideal and we are probably right.

To answer the ‘why’ we should look at the ‘what’ that divides the church.  The short answer to what causes division is sin.  Sin is falling short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and a sinful heart is the root cause of division between people, and is ultimately what separates us from perfection.  The church is divided because most Christians (who are independently minded like you) are not fully submitted to the will of God and not fully committed to obedience or love.

It is an idea that seems quite common (both among believers and unbelievers alike) that faith means immediate perfection.  That is a misconception.  Christian faith is not a matter of being perfect.  Christianity is actually understanding we are not perfect and that we need a savior to cover for our past or present sin:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10)

Now, as I blogged yesterday, this reality of our past or present, sin is not an excuse to continue on in sin and imperfection.  No, to continue to do evil when we know what is good is to be willfully disobedient and not understand what grace really is.  Grace is not a license to continue in sin. No, grace is a reason to rejoice in having a clean slate and then “go and sin no more” (John 8:11) as Jesus told the woman who was accused of sin.

What divides the church is sinful pride and/or confused priorities.  Christians divide over theological minutia and, in so doing, are disobedient to what should be their highest priority as people of faith—which is love.  Love, in the Christian sense, is self-sacrifice and submission to each other. It is serving rather than always demanding our own way. 

Unfortunately, as has been the case going back to the early church, in our imperfection, we get it backwards and want others to serve us. There are many appeals for unity in our serving each other as leaders and in our following the way of love:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.  In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”  (1 Peter 5:1-7)

The phrase ‘too many chiefs and not enough indians’ applies to this topic.  Christian leadership is not supposed to be about ordering other people around and having our own way.  To lead as Christ is about serving others self-sacrificially and to lead by following the example of the one who gave all.  Sadly, many seem to want the benefits of Christianity and without contributing their all.  Too many in the church are busy building their own independent vision to truly serve with an open heart as they should.

This is not a surprise.  It is a part of our lingering unregenerate human condition that we often prioritize ourselves and our own preferences over the greater good.  When favorite personalities, human institutions, pet doctrines, or our own personal opinions and interpretations replace of the love of the Spirit, the result is always division.  The problem of division is actually a problem of idolatry of various forms.  Idolatry among those proclaiming Christianity faith is nothing new.

1) Idolatry of self-worship as found in the example of Diotrephes:

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.”  (3 John 1:9-10)

2) The idolatry of putting human leaders before unity in the Spirit of God:

“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?   What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.”  (1 Corinthians 3:1-5)

3) The idolatry of putting (even Biblically based) tradition ahead of Christian love for each other:

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.  When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?  “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”  (Galatians 2:11-16)

If you look at various divisions within Christian fellowship you will likely find elements of forms of spiritual idolatry similar to those in the list and passages above.  When we worship our personal interpretation, over showing deference to others in love, we have made ourselves and our own judgment an idol.  When we worship leader or denomination over unity we are negligent of our primary allegiance which is the living God.  When we worship tradition or institution we keep Jesus in the grave and have replaced him with a religion.

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The answer to sin, idolatry and division is always repentance.  Repentance is to identify ourselves as being among the sinners and as being in as much need of grace as the next guy.  The idea one is instantly perfected upon conversion to Christianity is a misconception.  Our accepting of grace is not an arrival at perfection, but it is a starting point of a life long process of perfecting and as a result the church is still full of human error because none of us have arrived.  Fortunately there is a path towards unity and I will share a few passages of scripture that show it.

1) Make an effort to be perfectly united in mind and thought:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”  (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Like Smokey the bear says with a pointed finger, “only you can prevent forest fires.”  The point is that we need to take personal responsibility for our own contribution to the problem rather than assume the issue is external to us.  There are many ways we contribute to disunity (one is to not show up at all) and the Gospel starts with our personally obeying the call God has given us.

2) Be truly humble, recognize you are just a part of a bigger whole and must pursue unity in Spirit:

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  (Ephesians 4:2-6)

People do not seek peace because they would rather be right (assuming themselves to be perfect and righteous) than serve in humility.  Many quarrels would be solved easily if one side or the other were able to show love through self-sacrifice.  Unlike Cain, who killed his brother, and sneeringly answered “am I my brother’s keeper” when asked about the murder, we are responsible to each other.  We honor God in our submission in love.  I am not saying to be weak or a doormat either. I am saying to lead by example and do what we would want others to do for us.

3) We need to love unconditionally as a witness of the love of God and so the world can know:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

The answer to the question of church division starts with you.  We must all repent of our own contribution. We must lead the way for others by example and in the Spirit of love.

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Ultimately the church is not a building we go to, it is not a religious institution or rich tradition we inherited from our forebears nor a group of just those who conform to our own expectations and no others.  The church is simply a ragtag collection of those who believe in Jesus, those being filled with the Spirit and seeking to do the perfect will of God.

Like the pictures of buildings poking through the fog scattered throughout this post, the visible part of the church that we see on the surface is only a part and not a complete picture of reality.  We are simultaneously separate with our own will and yet must be grounded together in the Spirit of God in order to standout above the fog of confusion.

I leave you with the encouragement (and warning) of Paul to consider and a prayer:

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”  (Galatians 5:13-15)

May God open our eyes to see what the fog of sin has concealed from our view.  May we not be consumed by our envy, lust, greed, fear or hate and instead be filled to overflowing with a love that defies understanding.  May the enemy of unity both within and without us be restrained so we can grow quickly towards perfection.  May we show each other the grace that was shown us through Jesus the savior of our soul and Lord of those who love God.

Amen.