It’s NOT just a heart issue: On school shootings and false choices

It’s NOT just a heart issue: On school shootings and false choices

Imagine a particular township in which literally hundreds of people were dying every year from heart attacks.

Sadly, in this one municipality (unlike the others that surrounded it), the cardiac fatalities had become so common that they now went largely unnoticed, except for the extreme exceptions—or when the paramedics came to your front door.

In response, some citizens from a variety of backgrounds, began to study the situation and to form possible solutions that would involve a variety of factors: diet, exercise, smoking, family history, and better medical testing.

This wouldn’t end all heart attacks, of course, but it might stop some.

“Finally… one citizen began to think. Perhaps we could do something to reduce this blight that strikes only here with this kind of stupid frequency.”

But then imagine if a well-meaning Christian offered this:

“Stop bringing up all this stuff about diet, exercise, and smoking! Clogged arteries are a heart issueand only Jesus can heal hearts.”

How would we respond to such a person?

THE TROUBLE WITH FALSE CHOICES

While I can think of several less charitable phrases, let’s pretend that we are in a mood to be compassionate (since I wrote about that recently).

After all, the well-meaning Christian is not entirely wrong.

We might point out that “Yes, heart attacks are ‘a heart issue’—but they are not just that.” And because they are not just that, it would be foolish to go about preventing them with only prayer and preaching.

The reason, however, has nothing to do with prayer and preaching being weak.

Even “heart issues” require a variety of responses.

They have many causes and, thus, are not reducible to bumper-stickers. They require nuanced, both/and thinking, and they are not solved by false dichotomies: trans fats vs. lack of exercise; family history vs. sugary sodas; stress vs. smoking.

It’s not either/or—it’s both/and.  And yes, it is also “a heart issue.”

Unfortunately, in our current climate, such both/and thinking seems almost anathema, and especially in the land of social media–where nuance goes to die.

It is either “a heart issue” or “a gun issue.”

It is either “a failure of parenting” or “a failure of the mental health system.”

It is either “what happens when we turn away from God,” or “what happens when even self-advertising psychopaths can easily access their own private arsenal.”

Never in my life have I seen so many false choices.

In response, one is tempted to scream: “IT’S ‘ALL OF THE ABOVE’!!! And we won’t begin to fix it till we recognize that!”

Behold the challenge of discussing mass shootings in America.

JESUS AND FALSE CHOICES

Which brings me to Jesus.

One day after the horrific massacre in Florida, a student in my Bible class asked this:

“In the Gospels, why does Jesus almost never give people a straight answer to their questions?”

It’s a great question, and I was just about to answer it. Then I remembered Jesus. So I proceeded to ask questions and tell stories.

“Do you remember what was written on the whiteboard today when you came in?”

Some nodded.

Upon entering the room, I had noticed that another professor had apparently given his or her students a choice of essays. The topic was school shootings. OPTION ONE was to craft an essay entitled “Take away all guns,” while OPTION TWO was to “Give them to the good guys.”

(It’s possible, of course, that this way of framing the debate was designed to illustrate the silliness of such extreme dichotomies. And if so, kudos to whomever wrote it…)

Still, I asked this: “Is it possible that those might NOT be the only two solutions?”

What if framing the debate in such simplistic and false-dichotomizing terms actually prevents someone from answering the question intelligently?

What if that’s why Jesus rarely accepted the premises of his partisan questioners?

“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (Jn. 9.2)

“Whose wife will she be in the Age to Come?” (Mt. 22.28)

As someone mentioned recently, it’s as if the binary codes that run our social media (all ones and zeros) have infected us. We have been conformed to their electronic image. And now we too must be all “ones” or “zeros” on every complex issue.

Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

ASH WEDNESDAY

It was a cruel twist that the latest in a long line of school massacres took place on Ash Wednesday—a fact painfully pressed home by the gray cross smudged across the forehead of a grieving mother.

Parkland Mother
Joel Auerbach, AP

In such moments, “Eloi, Eloi” comes to mind.

And as with Jesus’ cry upon the cross, the question hangs unanswered.

In the end, I don’t know how to solve all school shootings. They have many causes, and I suspect they will require many nuanced solutions—all of which will cost us something.

But I do know this: We’ll continue getting nowhere so long as we fall into our partisan talking-points of “gun issue” vs. “sin issue.”

It’s time to stop being “ones” and “zeros” and start being people.

A tribute to the life Micah Flick: On the nature of “excruciating” sacrifice

A tribute to the life Micah Flick: On the nature of “excruciating” sacrifice

One never expects to see a picture announcing the death of a long-time family friend while casually perusing the national headlines.

Still, that’s what happened last week as I nonchalantly “clicked” on a world-wide news source only to see a picture of Deputy Micah Flick, killed in the line of duty while trying to protect and serve the citizens of Colorado Springs.

MIcah

I hadn’t seen Micah since we were kids.

His parents and mine were dear friends. We were nearly the same age. And if memory serves, not one but two of my sisters lived with the Flicks for a season there in Colorado.

In such ways, his family has been an immense blessing to my own.

Sadly, I never knew Micah as a man. I never met his wife Rachael. And my kids never played with the 7-year-old twins he left behind. Hence, I have no claim to the kind of grief borne by those who really knew him.

Still, as I watched the live-stream of his funeral Saturday, I couldn’t help but find the scene both hopeful and “excruciating.”

His wife talked of his faith and fatherhood. A fellow officer told how Micah sacrificed his life for others. He was serious about the things that mattered, and a self-professed “goofball” about the other stuff.

Excruciating.

EX CRUCIS

It was only later that I realized that this is precisely the right word.

For a story to be “excruciating” is literally for it to be “of” or “like” the Cross (or crucis)—the form of execution Christ experienced.

This was a form of torture.

And that’s how we usually mean the term.

The “excruciating” describes agony and sadness. It describes gut-wrenching grief and unimaginable travail.

A DEEPER MEANING 

Yet it struck me after watching Micah’s funeral that we also need a second—deeper—definition.

            Excruciating (adjective)

  1. Intensely painful, agonizing

  2. More truly “of the cross”– to give one’s life for others.

Because while all tragic deaths are “excruciating” in the first sense, almost none are like the second.

Micah’s was.

In saying that, Micah would be the first to note that his own sacrifice could not hold a candle to the work of Jesus. His death was not salvific in that sense.

Still, the two “excruciating” stories do have this in common: a willingness to lay down everything for others.

And as Christ said: “Greater love hath no man than this.”

That kind of work deserves respect from people like myself.

So while I am not one who automatically sides with the police in every single use of force (I’ve even written on that topic elsewhere), I do have an abiding gratitude for the impossible and important job they do on a daily basis.

A job, it should be said, done on behalf of people like me, who often live in blissful ignorance of the worries and the risks that accompany both they and their loved ones.

To Micah’s friends and family, I am so sorry for your loss.

And I join with you in the hope that he will be like Christ not merely in his death, but in his resurrection.

 


For any interested in donating to Micah’s widow and children, see here for a fund established by the El Paso Co. Sheriff’s Office.

What Seven Thunders Spoke: Why some revelations ought to go unpublished

What Seven Thunders Spoke: Why some revelations ought to go unpublished

The most anxious moment for a blogger is the second just before one hits the button labeled “Publish.”

It is a point of no return.

And it can raise nervous questions:

Will someone try to get me fired for saying this?

Will it be misunderstood?

Could I have phrased this better?

Come to think of it: Is the very exercise of “blogging” only slightly less narcissistic than a suggestive teenage selfie, emblazoned with an out-of-context Bible verse?

(Shut up inner voice! I rebuke you in the name of #Jeremiah_29.11!)

ON PRIVACY SETTINGS

Of course, such questions are not entirely unique to bloggers.

We all wrestle with our “privacy settings.”

And we all hit “Publish” in one way or another.

Hast thou a mouth that thou canst speak?

Hast thou a camera on thy smartphone?

Despite the mild anxiety, the wrestling match can be helpful. Because strange as it may sound in our age of TMI, some “revelations” ought to go unpublished.

Here’s what I mean:

THE SEVEN THUNDERS

In the trippy tell-all book of Revelation, John of Patmos says this about the so-called Seven Thunders:

And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (Revelation 10.4).

The command seems somewhat odd, since John is elsewhere ordered to “Write” what he has seen, regardless of its strange or controversial content. Yet in this one instance, just as he is about to click the button labeled “Publish,” the voice of God chimes in–“Don’t do it!!!”

“Do not write this thing that is simultaneously TRUE and NOT FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION.”

Did John bristle at the prohibition?

After all, he is not even told the reason for the divine censorship.  He simply gets a very pressing prompt: “Do not write it down.”

Whatever could this have to do with us?

WHY THUNDERS SPEAK TODAY

As most people acknowledge, we badly need a better ethic when it comes to use of social media these days—whether in The White House or the hands of certain mal-adjusted Junior-Highers (*tries hard to ignore the irony in that sentence).

None of us do this perfectly, including me.

Yet as I’ve thought about the button labeled “Publish” in my own life, there are some obvious reasons why certain “Thunders” might deserve to go unpublished.

Here are just a few:

  1. When the point is expressed in a way that is un-necessarily hurtful or sensational. 

In Romans 14, Paul delivers an interesting command with regard to a first-century squabble over food and drink. While agreeing with those (“the strong”) who saw nothing wrong with eating meat and drinking wine in moderation, he also gave this warning to those who were theologically correct:

20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but … 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

In essence, it’s possible to be “Right” in your view, and yet “Wrong” as you press them to the point of harm.

And while this is not a blanket condemnation of all sharp rhetoric (see Jesus, Paul, and pretty much any other biblical prophet), it is a caution against words that are intended merely to get a rise out of others.

  1. When the motive for the telling has been twisted.

Another danger of the Internet is our ability to track how much attention we receive for any given action.

It is the pathology of analytics, and it breeds “tricks for clicks.”

There is thus a constant pressure to say things that will maximize “exposure.” And in some cases, exposure is precisely the right word: as in a cause of death for mountain climbers, and a misdemeanor involving the “indecent.”

In truth, our motives are almost always mixed.

And our aims are often hidden from us.

Is there not a certain irony in this very blog post!? (Inner voice, I warned you!)

As a one of my old professors used to say: “We are a bundle of contradictions”—wanting simultaneously to be seen and to stay hidden. Thus we lock ourselves in the Panopticons of Instagram and Facebook, while grasping feverishly for fig leaves.

Come to think of it: How do I turn off notifications for the Seven Thunders…?

  1. When the “Publishing” may do more harm than good.

I joked in a prior post that the Hebrew word blogger translates roughly to “Not helping.”

And like all humor, it’s only funny if there is truth to it.

On that point, I often wonder if some Christian attempts (including my own…) to “speak prophetically” do not actually make the situation worse (See here for more along those lines).

In such moments, we end up as the theological equivalent of those trying to ban books. The result is always a bestseller, even when the book is lame.

On the other hand, this so-called “Hippocratic worry” can lead to dangers of its own. It may mean cowardly silence in the face of injustice or a dangerous equation of positions that are actually quite different (See here on how this happened with white pastors in the Civil Rights era).

The fear of offending may also lead to a weak-kneed, boring style of writing that lacks punch, humor, and engagement with issues that actually matter.

“I never discuss anything but politics and religion,” remarked Chesterton, “There is nothing else to discuss.”

While that’s not quite true, it is certainly true enough to discourage the politico-religious equivalent of spaying or neutering our public discourse.

Sometimes we should speak up (as the saying goes) even if our voice shakes.

CONCLUSION

Despite such qualifiers, the reminder of Revelation 10 is both simple and profound: Some points are not (yet) meant for public consumption, despite their honesty or truth-value.

And so we end as we began: in that moment just before the “Publish.”

Listening for revelation, and for the quiet voice that might say “Do not write it.”

Still learning how to say “Perhaps”

Still learning how to say “Perhaps”

Over the past few months, I’ve been working up a book proposal based on a blog post from 2016:

Christian, learn to say ‘Perhaps'”

It’s about reclaiming what I call the sacred middle ground between “Doubt” (pervasive skepticism) and “Dogmatism” (abrasive certainty).

The alternative is something that I’ve dubbed “Faith seeking imagination” (fides quaerens imaginationem).

I’m excited about the project, and I hope to hear back from a publisher this month.

In the meantime, I had the chance to preach on the topic last Sunday–using the story of Gen. 22 (Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac) as a guide.

My big idea was fairly simple: Sometimes, believing in God’s supernatural providence means learning how to say “Perhaps.”