Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fooling Ourselves

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).

I’m weighing in late on the whole Katrina mess. Plenty has been said and written in an effort to capture the enormity of the loss and the depth of the pain visited upon the gulf region and New Orleans in particular. The words are sometimes helpful, but not always. Sometimes too many words have a way of diminishing that of which they speak. When Job suffered the loss of his children and property and health he had three friends who came to be with him and comfort him. At first they did quite well. They wept with Job. They sat with him in silence, no one saying a word, for seven days and seven nights. And then . . . they started talking. Things went south from there.

Ignoring the negative example of Job’s friends, I’m throwing my own words into the mix. But the words that come to me now aren’t really about pain and loss. I don’t have much to say about who should have done what and when they should have done it. What I find worthy of discussion, weeks after the storm, is simply us. People. People everywhere, not just along the gulf or in New Orleans.

Katrina raises significant questions for people of faith, especially those of us who treasure ideas like the sovereignty and providence of God. What did God have to do with this? Does God get directly and actively involved in nature? If not, what kinds of things does God actually do? If yes, why would God allow this kind of devastation? These aren’t new questions. I was asking them back in December when the Tsunami struck Southeast Asia. I didn’t arrive at a good answer then. I don’t have good answers now.

But here’s something of which I am absolutely certain. The Bible is right about us. It describes our condition perfectly. It does so with stories. It does so with logical argumentation. Over and over in scripture our condition is named. We are sinners. There’s something fundamentally wrong within us.

That’s what Katrina has shown me. There’s the obvious evidence that came out of the flooded and incapacitated city of New Orleans. It’s as if something wicked was unleashed in the city, something different than what was already there. But theft and rape and lawlessness don’t get to the depth of what sin is. Katrina has forced us to look at the social and racial issues surrounding poverty. Attitudes have been revealed; attitudes of indifference, attitudes of blame, as well as attitudes of entitlement. They are born from a common source – the bent condition of the human soul. We are sinners.

I want to be quick to add that much that is good and noble has been called forth by the tragedy of Katrina. A spirit of benevolence, a willingness to sacrifice, courage and strength and love – these have been present in good supply from all over the nation. But to say we’re sinners doesn’t mean we’re totally void of anything good and worthy. It simply means that what is good and worthy is damaged.

Eugene Peterson, in his recently released Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, makes reference to a 1910 book by G.K. Chesterton title What’s Wrong with the World? Peterson says that our standard answers to that question have to do with knowledge, power and money.[1]

If the world’s real problem is ignorance, then the answer is more and better education. If the world’s real problem is weakness, then the answer is political reform that gives power to the marginal and neglected. If the world’s real problem is poverty, then the answer is providing resources and putting more of the world’s people to work so they can sustain meaningful life.

But none of these get to our real problem. As good and important as education, government and business is to our well being, “at the core of who we are there is something wrong.”[2] Our scriptures name the real problem: sin.

It’s gotten rather hard to say that these days. Not many are buying it – and that includes the many who occupy church pews every week. There are plenty of decent well behaved people who understand sin solely in terms of immoral and criminal activity. But sin, biblically understood, isn’t an act as much as it is a condition. “It is a diagnosis.”[3]

That’s why John says so bluntly, “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves.” To think that we’ll be made right by education, government or commerce is wishful thinking. If we think that way we’re simply fooling ourselves. The only real answer to what ails us is forgiveness. When we tell the truth about ourselves and own what’s truly gone wrong, God is faithful and will do the work of making things right.

In the aftermath of Katrina we’ve been made aware of great need. There is need for shelter, clothes, jobs, medical care. And among all of this there is a need for good news. This kind of good news will not likely be announced by the President, but is weekly announced by God’s people, the church. What is wrong can be made right. As John reminded his people, “the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.” This is the gospel, and if we think the world will be changed for the better without it, we are truly fooling ourselves.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 317-19.
[2] Ibid., 319.
[3] Ibid.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Prayer After Sitting in the Car Pool Line

A week ago my children went back to school. There’s much lamentation these days about the way schools seem to be starting earlier and earlier. In the minds of most students, August is barely a part of what they regard as “summer.”

Well, this summer the Crumplers got a taste of the way it used to be. (I hear it used to be this way – I really don’t know). We didn’t start school until the day after Labor Day. My kids have been back at it now for a full week. This means that we had the entire months of June, July, and August for summer break. It was a great summer, and while it does seem that most schools systems are robbing their students and families of perfectly decent, hot summer days, I have a confession to make. We were ready for the day after Labor Day. I mean . . . really ready. Ready for some routine. All this talk about requiring schools to begin the school year after Labor Day sounds great until it gets to be August 15th or 20th and your children are still roughly a decade away from driving a car.

But we made it. And now we’re a week into the school year and starting to feel the weekly rhythms.

Since my kids are at a new school this year, Marnie and I have had plenty to be prayerful about. We’ve prayed for a smooth transition, for new friends, for teachers who will connect well with them and thus teach them well, for their sense of competence in the work required of them. But sitting here on a Tuesday morning, having just dropped them off at car pool about an hour ago, I’m thinking about wisdom. For me, and perhaps for most parents, this is the prayer above all prayers. I want my kids to gain wisdom. In his introduction to the book of Proverbs in The Message, Eugene Peterson offers this definition of wisdom:

Wisdom has to do with becoming skillful in honoring our parents and raising our children, handling our money and conducting our sexual lives, going to work and exercising leadership, using words well and treating friends kindly, eating and drinking healthily, cultivating emotions within ourselves and attitudes toward others that make for peace. Threaded through all these items is the insistence that the way we think of and respond to God is the most practical thing we do.

Accordingly, Peterson renders Proverbs 1:7 as follows:

Start with God – the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning.

I want my children to make good grades, but more than that I want them to make good decisions. That may not seem like such an urgent matter when you’re talking about a first grader and a second grader. The weight of decision making sits light upon them these days. But their capacity to bear the weight later, when the stakes are higher, is being formed right now.

And here’s what’s truly unsettling about all of this. There’s nothing in the book of Proverbs (as far as I can tell) to suggest that wisdom will come from some kind of educational institution. Schools have role in cultivating and teaching wisdom, but they can’t be looked to as the source of wisdom. Scripture seems to assume that wisdom is gained and passed on in the context of relationship. Wisdom’s natural habitat is personal, not institutional. Throughout Proverbs there is the sound of teaching that takes place from parent to child, one on one. Wisdom isn’t gained by reading as often as it is by conversation. “Pay close attention friend to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned on your mother’s knee” (Prov. 1:8, The Message). If my kids are to gain wisdom, it’s up to Marnie and me.

That’s an amazing thing to ponder. As I do, it becomes clear to me that as this school year begins I need to do more than pray for my children. I need to pray for myself. I need to pray for something to pass on to them. I need to pray for wisdom.

If any of you lacks wisdom he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him (James 1:5 NIV).

I’m counting on that.