Black Friday’s Illusions and the Human Heart

black fridayBlack Friday will be longer than ever this year with many retailers opening on Thanksgiving to draw the crowds. It will probably work. In a survey by the National Retail Federation, 23% of consumers said they planned to shop on Thanksgiving. Nearly 70% of shoppers – an estimated 97 million people – plan to venture into the traditional Black Friday frenzy. They will be lured by increases in both the quantity and quality of deals. According to Savings.com, the number of deals offered by 31 major department store and apparel retailers has increased 63% and the average discount has risen from 25% to 36% just in the last three years.

Yet despite more deals and better deals, the margin between what retailers paid for goods and the price they sold them for has remained about the same at 27.9% according to FactSet. What does that mean? It means that despite discounting more items and discounting them by larger amounts, stores are making the same level of profits on those same items. How could this be? Let Suzanne Kapner of the Wall Street Journal describe it for you:

Here’s how it works, according to one industry consultant describing an actual sweater sold at a major retailer. A supplier sells the sweater to a retailer for roughly $14.50. The suggested retail price is $50, which gives the retailer a roughly 70% markup. A few sweaters sell at that price, but more sell at the first markdown of $44.99, and the bulk sell at the final discount price of $21.99. That produces an average unit retail price of $28 and gives the store about a 45% gross margin on the product.

That incredible deal may not be so incredible after all. In fact, the shopper may just be paying what the item is actually worth, plus or minus a few dollars. So why not do away with all of the discounts and deals and just sell things cheaper? That’s exactly what former J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson tried until the disastrous results got him fired. Then the company returned to the discounts and deals by giving consumers an average of 60% in savings per item. Yet the average price paid by shoppers stayed the same despite the new discounts! What changed was the initial price of the item which rose by 33%.

There is something about human nature that cannot resist a deal, cannot ignore the prospect of getting more for less. It is so powerful that it has created a new holiday – Black Friday – that is slowly eating away at a traditional holiday – Thanksgiving. It is so powerful it drives shoppers to stores in immeasurable numbers and causes them to wait in lines they would flee from at any other time of the year. It is so powerful that retailers craft their pricing models to create the illusion of savings; to price items at what they’re actually worth would be a disaster.

Most of us can identify. We’ve walked into a store intending to buy nothing but walked out with an item on a sale we couldn’t pass up. We’ve spent more than we meant to because the deals were too good. We’ve bought things we didn’t need and even things we didn’t know we wanted on a discount-driven whim. Jesus understood this aspect of our nature. This is probably why he says in Luke 12:15, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Even though Jesus says life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, we think that to some degree it does. Thus, we are never satisfied with what we have and always want more. This is why the bargains, discounts, and deals draw us like a moth to the flame. They promise us that – no matter our economic means – we can have more. If we take advantage of these deals we can have more possessions, more money, more happiness than we would if we passed them by. When we see the normal, inflated price and compare it to the flashy discount price the item becomes almost irresistible; if I buy this now, I can have more than I otherwise would.

This is not a complaint against holiday consumerism; nor is it a plea to stay home on Black Friday.  It is an exhortation to all of us to examine what is going on in our hearts as we shop. To do as Jesus says and be on guard against all covetousness that may spring to life with every passing sale. To remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11-13:

…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

As we venture into the holiday shopping season, let us go content with what we already have before the first penny is spent. Let us see through the illusions of the retailers enticing us to buy what we don’t need and want what we don’t have. Let us beware of subtly believing that life consists in having more.

If we stand guard over our hearts, our shopping bags may be a little less full, but they’ll contain better things and most importantly, so will our hearts.

-Brian

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Digital Obesity: A Crisis for Our Children

children mediaA Fargo, North Dakota woman made headlines this past Halloween for announcing she would give letters rather than candy to children she deemed to be “moderately obese.”  In the letter, she states:

“Your child is, in my opinion, moderately obese and should not be consuming sugar and treats to the extent of some children this Halloween season. My hope is that you will step up as a parent and ration candy this Halloween and not allow your child to continue these unhealthy eating habits.”

Childhood obesity has become a national problem. Parents are increasingly seen as irresponsible and derelict for allowing their children to over-consume sweet and fatty foods. Yet there is another form of over-consumption going on among children that won’t earn them a letter instead of a Snickers – the over-consumption of media. It is not as easy to spot, but it may be causing far more harm than trans-fats.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement last month asking parents to change their child’s media habits out of concern for their well-being. According to the recommendations, parents should make a media use plan for their family, keep screen time to less than 2 hours a day, and keep screens out of children’s bedrooms.

Why the concern? A new survey from Common Sense Media shows that 72% of kids age 8 and younger have used a mobile device for some type of media activity – nearly double the 38% who had done so just two years ago. 17% use a device daily. The average 8 to 10 year old spends nearly 8 hours a day with a variety of media; older children spend more than 11 hours a day. 84% of children are online, 75% of 12 to 17 year olds have a cell phone, and 71% have a television in their bedroom.

We may be blind to any concern because of the rapid increase of media use in our own lives. The average American consumes 63 gigabytes of media a day; double what we consumed in 2008. This translates to about 15.5 hours of media consumption per day, per American – with our ability to multitask (consume multiple media sources at one time) factored in. Like a parent who loves fatty foods, our love for media may cause us to overlook the negative consequences for our children. A Northwestern University study from earlier this year found only 30% of parents are concerned about their child’s media use and a 55% majority are not concerned at all.

Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and co-author of the AAP report says children are, “spending more time with media than they are in school. They are spending more time with media than in any activity other than sleeping. You could make the argument that media have taken over the primary role of teaching kids from schools and parents in many cases.”

This statement should shock us out of our indifferent slumber. This is more significant than the problem that prompted the Fargo woman to hand out obesity letters. Media has taken over as the primary teacher of our children! The beliefs, values, habits, desires, dreams, and knowledge of our children is being shaped by the screen. Looking at the sheer number – and ever increasing – hours invested in media, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Turn on the television, browse through the internet; is this what you want to be the main influence in the life of your children? The AAP statement also noted that, “Excessive media use has been associated with obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression and other behavior issues.”

To Christians, this should be of even greater concern. Deuteronomy 6:7 instructs parents to teach the obedience of God to their children in all of life, “You shall teach [God’s commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Ephesians 6:4 instructs us to, “bring [children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This simply cannot happen if the media habits of our children conform to the averages. It is the smartphone that will be with them when they sit in the house, walk by the way, lie down and rise; not the Lord.

Make a media a media use plan for your family. Limit the time they spend with phones, tablets, computers, and television. Monitor what they do with special software and keep media consumption out in the open. Increase the power of other influences by spending meaningful time together as a family, investing more time in the church, and focusing more on academic, artistic, or athletic activities. Bring discipline to your own media habits to set a positive example in the home.

It is time for parents, especially Christians, to take action. If a doctor sits us down and informs us our child’s obesity will cause serious health problems if we do not act, we would be irresponsible and derelict not to change. Thus, we our irresponsible and derelict if we continue to put no limits on our children’s media consumption and allow that media to be the primary influence in our home. God has called us to so much more.

-Brian

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Is Disney World Heaven?

Castle4This question spurs a brief and comical battle in my heart. If you’ve never been, it might seem ignorant and senseless to ask. As a lover of Jesus, student of the Bible and one who has cashed in her hopes for eternity, I say, no, Disney World is not heaven. But. That’s where I honeymooned. That’s where we vacation. That’s where I ran my first half marathon. That’s where my dreams come true. Let me assure you, in an age where pleasure is paramount and pain is abundant, the question is appropriate.

Walt Disney World is pure, concentrated magic. Peerless ambience, entertainment and customer service consecrate this 25,000 acre paradise as the third most visited tourist attraction in the world. Guests can choose from 20 resort properties, ranging from economy to luxury, each boasting exceptional thematic detail. Manicured lawns, artisan menus, ornate pools, regal architecture and costumed employees work in tandem to transport you to the time, place and activity of each resort’s theme.

The four theme parks are more impressive still. Each is a contained world of impossible glory: fountains dance to music, characters confined to a page or screen are walking and waving, castles shadow your steps and every attraction is whimsical yet sophisticated and more incredible than the last. There are plant sculptures, streams of parades, exotic animals, brilliant sounds, countless shows, vibrant colors and a polished staff of thousands ready to perfect your day. Every girl a princess, every boy a pirate and every parent amazed.

Days are governed by play. Smiles are effortless. Your room becomes home. As you pack your mouse ears to leave, a sobering cloud settles over your soul: Disney World is not home. Bills, homework, repairs, conflicts, deadlines and the mundane grind of daily life await you.

To sidestep this Disney depression, some have abandoned their careers and cities to relocate their families to Orlando for immediate, unfettered access to the most magical place on earth. Herb Leibacher, founder and chief executive of World of Walt (an independent Walt Disney World information website) recently called for such testimonies; they came in droves.

“Many of the people in the story talked about the ‘Disney bubble,’ which is a term that talks about how things are magically perfect while on Disney property. That contrasts with the real world, where things are dirty, disorganized, messy, and sometimes dangerous.

“In a sense, some people long so much for the ‘Disney bubble’ experience that they want to have it all the time.”

One woman viewed her husband’s job loss as the perfect opportunity to move:

“The kids fell in love with Disney (what kid doesn’t!) and Ron saw how happy people seemed to be who worked there. When we got home to GA, I began talking to him in earnest about making the move, and finally he agreed. I have wanted to work at Disney since I first saw Walt Disney World in February of 1972. Ron began working at Dixie Landings as a third shift custodian in 1996. I began my career in Adventureland Merchandise…”

Leibacher revealed how some manage permanent residence on Disney’s property:

These folks stay at the [Disney] campgrounds for months at a time. Some stay all year long. In effect, they become permanent residents of the campgrounds by renting a parking spot day after day. They are often known as the folks who create extravagant Christmas and Halloween displays around their RVs.”

Moving isn’t odd. People relocate to new cities and states for different reasons every day; employment, education, family and cost of living are popular ones. There is a different dynamic at work in the flight to Orlando (50,000 people per year). Time in the Disney bubble reminds people real life is not as it should be. To Leibacher’s description of the real world, I would add disappointing, wearisome and downright sad. Many believe Tinker Bell’s wand contains sufficient pixie dust to wave away every ache. They are wrong.

Planet Earth provides no air tight escape from sin and its effects. There is no debate: Disney delivers an unparalleled vacation from life’s mediocrity. However, we must never convince ourselves that running to Walt’s arms is the permanent fix for a broken existence. Our fix is found only in Jesus, who has made a way for all to live with Him in the real heaven.

These three things distinguish Disney from heaven. First, heaven is a real place; Jesus called it paradise (Luke 23:43)! Disney is real insomuch as it exists, but visitors are called “Guests,” because there are no true citizens; the employees are called “Cast Members,” because it’s all a show. They turn out the lights and go home to the same challenging realities we do.

Second, heaven is eternal. Paul wrote in second Corinthians 5:1 “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Like the Summer Bay Resort, nine miles west of Disney World, swallowed by a sinkhole two weeks ago (a day before Leibacher published his article), every magnificent Disney structure will be swallowed, if not by a sinkhole, by time.

Lastly, heaven has Jesus. Mickey is great, but he can’t save. Walt had a genius for making magic, but he is dead. Our Savior lives and only by Him and with Him can we receive salvation and paradise.

Leibacher’s article reveals humanity is hungry for heaven. Christians have the privilege and responsibility to reveal with our words and lives the existence of the true heaven. I am guilty of Disney infatuation; my earnest prayer is that my song for Immanuel dwarfs my song for Epcot. Nevertheless, I am forever assured of the truth in these lyrics– “On Christ the solid rock I stand/all other ground is sinking sand.”

-Emily

The Pursuit of Happiness May Not Be Going Well

unhappyAmerica has become a test case for the unbridled pursuit of happiness. Our culture places the individual – with his or her dreams, desires, wants, and needs – at the center where other cultures and times have placed family, religion, or community. But in our place and at our time it is the individual and his or her happiness which is supreme.

Selfishness and self-indulgence used to be vices; self-denial and sacrifice were virtues. Today it has been reversed. The greatest sin is to deny oneself; to not embrace what may potentially bring happiness and self-fulfillment. The good, moral person is the self-seeker who refuses to be held back or burdened in the pursuit of their desires. The new saints have climbed to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and donned the crown of self-actualization.

Thus, everything has become a means to the end of personal happiness and fulfillment. If children make you happy, have some; if they get in the way of your dreams then terminate the pregnancy. If a career makes you happy, chase it; if it gets in the way of your desires then go back to school. If marriage makes you happy, commit to it; if it gets in the way of your plans then divorce your spouse. If church makes you happy, attend it; if it interferes with your lifestyle then switch congregations. If a consumer product makes you happy, buy it; if something better comes along trash it.

The individual and their happiness is the center of American culture. In theory, this should produce a flourishing society full of happy people. But there may be problems with our happiness project. Our society is increasingly tasked with helping people cope with their “happy” lives. Ronald Dworkin points out in a 2010 Policy Review essay that the United States has seen a hundredfold increase in the number of professional caregivers since 1950. We have 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, 30,000 life coaches, and hundreds of thousands of nonclinical social workers and substance abuse counselors as well. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, anti-depressant use among Americans increased 400% between 1994 and 2005.

The latest piece of news is also troubling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and reported by CNN, for the first time in history more people died in 2010 from suicide than from car accidents. There were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides. The suicide rate rose 30% from 1999 to 2010 for Americans ages 35-64 with the rate rising nearly 50% for men in their 50’s. According to Julie Philips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on rising suicide rates, the current numbers are, if anything, too low. She says suicide is “vastly underreported…we know we’re not counting all suicides.”

The causes of suicide are complex and my purpose is not to attribute it to any particular factor or give it any singular explanation. However, increasing suicide rates and demands for caregivers and psychotropic drugs do give hints that there is trouble.

Something is broken in the American pursuit of happiness. Something all the technology making life easy and all the entertainment streaming at us cannot seem to fix.

Yet in the Christian worldview, happiness and fulfillment are not goals we aim for but effects found while aiming after greater goals. Those goals include love for God and love for others (Matt.22:37-39). Chasing these goals demands self-denial, sacrifice, and letting go of our individual desires for something greater. Blaise Pascal said it well:

“There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”

This is not a trite “get God and be happy” answer. Many have “gotten” God only to turn Him into yet another means for their selfish pursuit of happiness. It is the difficult truth that only in surrendering our lives to something other than individual fulfillment will we ever find happiness.

There are signs that something is broken in the American pursuit of happiness. There are hints that its culture idolizing the individual and his or her fulfillment may be poisonous. The road looks promising, but its end is only destruction.

-Brian

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Does USA’s “Characters Unite” Really Divide?

charactersunite01aCharacters Unite is the USA Network’s

“award-winning public service program, [and] was created to address the social injustices and cultural divides still prevalent in our society. Inspired by USA Network’s iconic “Characters Welcome” brand and with the support of leading national nonprofit organizations, the ongoing campaign is dedicated to supporting activities and messaging that combat prejudice and intolerance while promoting understanding and acceptance…”

This annual campaign features actors, athletes, and activists pleading passionately to viewers to stand up against bullying, racism, homophobia, ableism (discrimination against the disabled), violence, workplace discrimination, religious intolerance, sexism, hate, and bigotry. The campaign is driven by the Characters Unite Awards show, the storytelling tour, and a steady flow of public service announcements. Its partners include the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Anti-Defamation League, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, La Raza, the National Education Association, the General Board of the United Methodist Church, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and more.

While watching the documentaries and impassioned speeches, it is almost impossible not to be swept up into the promise. Just imagine – a world where everyone accepts everyone. No one is mistreated. No one is discriminated against. No one lives in fear or shame. We are all free to pursue our dreams to the fullest. It is a compelling picture.

Characters Unite accomplishes some good ends. Any child helped through bullying, any minority spared the sting of racism, and any homosexual delivered from abuse is good. Yet when the PSAs come to an end, the awards have been handed out, and the tour packs up and heads home, will there be any lasting change? Call me cynical, a pessimist, or a hater, but I’m not so sure. Let me point out some potential problems.

First, this sort of initiative is just the kind of thing our culture loves – lofty goals with little commitment. We love texting donations into celebrity telethons from our armchair and hauling off clothes we never wear to thrift stores. In Characters Unite, almost nothing is asked of the viewer aside from looking down on those who fit into the undefined categories of intolerant, bigot, sexist, bully, etc. We don’t have to change anything about our lives or ourselves, we simply have to demand others change. Because I don’t have to reckon with my own apathy, sins and character, any change will be superficial.

Second, Characters Unite has no foundational truth. How do you determine if someone is being sexist, homophobic, bigoted, or discriminatory? Because these concepts are not defined the viewer is free to label as he or she pleases. Discrimination occurs when elementary schools refuse to hire sex offenders; should we stand against that? If I take a stand against homophobia does that mean I become intolerant of religions that support traditional marriage? Is a 16 year old girl prejudiced if using the bathroom with a transgendered boy makes her uncomfortable? If –as one PSA declares – we should all be free to love whoever we want, does that include a 40 year old man and a 14 year old boy? Or if – as another PSA declares – everyone should be free to believe what they want, does that include sacrificing one’s child to the gods? Because Characters Unite lacks any transcendent truth, it cannot define its own terms or judge conflicting claims.

standupThird, Characters Unite promotes self-righteousness. Each PSA makes it clear that everyone on the screen and watching the screen are righteous – tolerant, fair, loving, accepting, and peaceful. Attractive young people complain about the hate and bigotry of others declaring, “How do people hate so much they can hurt someone, or insult someone’s beliefs, or tell someone what they can do, or who they should love?” The problem is out there, with other people, not with us. The world is divided into the moral – the tolerant, non-judgmental, and accepting – and the immoral – the intolerant, judgmental, and discriminating. Thus, the “righteous” are free to stand against, look down on, dislike, hate, and discriminate against the “unrighteous.” All a good Pharisee needs now is a stone to throw at those who violate society’s new morals.

Could there be a less divisive way to unite us and deal with the hurt and suffering we cause? It begins not with indignation on our couches but a willingness to get off the couch and love other people. Jesus said in Matthew 22:39, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That means paying the bills of the disabled, mentoring the victim of a bully, or extending friendship to the hated. But Jesus also said in Matthew 5:44, “… I say to you, love your enemies…”  That means befriending the intolerant, serving the bigot, and understanding the potentially painful past that created a bully.

It begins not with everyone deciding for themselves what is tolerant and intolerant, accepting and judgmental, right and wrong, but with transcendent truth. Isaiah 59:14 says, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares.” With no fixed source of truth we cannot agree on what is good or bad. So we seek justice based on our own fickle feelings and changing culture. One group grabs justice for itself at the expense of another.  We need truth greater than feelings to give us direction and justice.

It begins not by putting ourselves on a moral pedestal and demanding everyone else shape up, but by realizing the depths of our own sin. Jesus said in Matthew 7:5, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Only when we confront our own hatred, prejudice, pride, envy, jealousy, intolerance, and bigotry will there be change. We will be able to extend mercy and grace to others instead of extending our own accusatory judgments.

I hope Characters Unite makes a positive difference in our increasingly divided and hostile world. But true change will only come when we work to love both the offended and the offender, are guided by truth, and confront the sin in our own hearts. Only then will we be able to join hands and create a better world.

-Brian

Disclaimer: My favorite part of Characters Unite is the push for adoption and foster child care. This does demand more of the viewer and is a very important, but unfortunately, somewhat small part of Characters Unite. Also, this article is based on the Public Service Announcements on the USA Network and the corresponding website, not on the awards show or storytelling tour – in other words, based on the part that will effect the most people.

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Raise Your White Facebook Flag

facebooklike1Facebook makes the world go round. We can reconnect with old buddies, advertise our businesses, declare our love and dialogue about (mostly) important issues. Years ago, the initial concern for this new and non-private world of constant connection was exposure to and sharing of the indecent; it was enough for parents to forbid children from opening user accounts. Surprisingly, Facebook remains committed to monitoring traffic, removing any illicit content and deleting false profiles. Users can report anything they deem inappropriate or untrue and Facebook will remove the user entirely if needed. It seems a safe and fun place to browse.

Slowly and quietly, Facebook has proven dangerous territory for the heart. In the wake of the Facebook sensation, a few unforeseen effects have cropped up: envy, jealousy and resentment. Fox News reported on a recent study that confirms the most avid Facebook users are among the loneliest and unhappiest individuals.  Their article states, “In a world already flooded with social pressures where teenagers and young adults are attempting to find their true identity and not be judged, Facebook has created a new standard of social acceptance.”

Research uncovered envy and resentment peaked among users while looking at vacation photos or posts related to family happiness. For women in their 30’s and 40’s, jealousy was experienced most commonly when viewing photos of other women who were more attractive and had more “likes” and comments on their photos. On a user’s birthday, those with high numbers of wishes and comments had a healthier state of mind than those with low numbers. A German study published in December 2012 found the more time college students spent on Facebook, the worse they felt about their own lives. Even my local news channel reported last week on the “Facebook Fatigue” felt worldwide.

Facebook has shifted from a place to connect with people to the socially acceptable, seemingly less pretentious way of saying to the world, “Look at me!” It’s a hub to flaunt wealth, prosperity, success, and status and it is slowly eating away at the hearts and minds of our “friends.” As Christians and Facebook users, we must wrestle with this question: What are our motives for both viewing and posting content on Facebook?

Consider Jesus’ interaction with Peter.  After His resurrection, Jesus conversed with Peter and revealed how his death would one day glorify God. Immediately after, Peter saw another disciple, John, and asked Jesus, “What about this man?” as if to say, “What about his death? How do your plans for him compare to mine?” Jesus replied, “If it is my will he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”(John 21:20-22) Peter was caught in the snare of compare and Jesus rebuked him. It was none of Peter’s business what God had in store for John. The information could have distracted Peter, made him jealous or caused him to doubt God’s goodness. Little good is accomplished when we dwell on the details of someone else’s life.

If that’s true, are we bringing good to our friends and neighbors in belaboring for them every detail of what we’re doing, day in day out? Not only has Facebook become a showcase for the world to gaze upon our awesomeness, but also a chance to join us in our suffering as we declare our hardships, trials and misfortunes. In both cases, it’s attention we want.

Paul exhorted Timothy to pray that Christians would lead peaceful, quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:2), as to not draw attention to themselves. The prophet Jeremiah spoke these words:

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me…’” – Jeremiah 9:23-24

Basically, if you have brains, power, success, money and blessing, don’t brag about it (talk about it, post about it, Instagram it). We are called to brag on the One who gave us those things.

We might be tempted to say, “I’m not responsible for how someone responds to what I post. That’s their issue.” Not entirely. In everything we do, we are to look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). Paul taught that while we have freedom in Christ, we are to “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother (Romans 14:13).”  Broadcasting our lives can be a stumbling block to others, stirring bitterness, envy, resentment, jealousy, sadness or strife. Some still say, “But people want to see these pictures and know these things.” Is it possible we want people to want to see and know these things?

Maybe you’re oblivious to this Facebook debacle and have zero underlying motives. What then? Wisdom. In knowing we are called to glorify God and not ourselves, are our posts and pictures wise, necessary, helpful and a true blessing to those viewing them?

When you log on, what are you seeking to do? Daydream about another life? Keep up on all the drama? Trying to catch someone not including you? Lamenting over vacations you aren’t going on or things you don’t own?

When you post, what are your true motives? Are you hoping for lots of “likes” and comments? Are you trying to one-up somebody? Do you want everyone to know you’re with these people and they aren’t? Looking for attendees to your pity party? Reminding everyone how cute and talented and smart your kids are? Wanting widespread sympathy? Making sure old classmates see you aren’t battling the bulge?

Only our Creator Judge knows the roots and motivations of our Facebook activity. Don’t be afraid to search them out and amend your habits if necessary. The rest of Jeremiah 9:24 says this:

 “…but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

God has called us to make people glad in Him, not intimidated by us, focused on us or disappointed in themselves. Let us raise our white flags and surrender the mighty Facebook battle for attention and instead seek to love each other well by exercising wisdom we post. Consider reclaiming some of what Facebook has taken: the sweet intimacy of sharing your great victories and difficult struggles with your closest friends (offline) and looking to Christ for all acceptance and comfort.

Does this mean we should only post Bible verses and Piper quotes? No. Does it mean we never post personal things? Not at all. Does it mean we have to “like” or repost the I Love Jesus and I Don’t Care Who Knows It picture? Of course not. It simply means we become thoughtful and intentional with every post and picture, knowing we represent the God of the universe who seeks to draw all to Himself. Hopefully, it will start with me.

-Emily

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The Undeniable Ugliness of Human Nature

In Joseph Conrad’s classic novel The Heart of Darkness, Marlow, a steamship captain, journeys up the Congo River at the end of the 19th century to bring home the sick and dying Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is a station chief renowned for his command of language, his intelligence, and his ability to generate large quantities of ivory. Yet when Marlow pulls his boat up to Kurtz’ residence, he is shocked to find the yard decorated with severed human heads on poles. Marlow observes:

…there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say.

The lawless jungle had taken a civilized man and turned him into a brutal savage. Conrad sharpens the picture when Marlow goes to visit Kurtz’ fiancé after he dies. In the midst of her grief, she says, “…of all his promise and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains – nothing but a memory.” And again she says, “Men looked up to him – his goodness shone in every act.”

Classic literature digs deep into human nature including its often brutal ugliness – something lacking in many present-day novels. Whether it’s Melville’s Moby Dick, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, many of those who wrote in the past were well acquainted with the ugliness of human nature when the restraints of law and society were removed.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a small piece of a much larger tragedy. When the Congo was taken by King Leopold II of Belgium as a colony in 1885 he grabbed as much profit as he could in the form of ivory and rubber. The Europeans who went there found no restraint – governmental, social, or religious – to their behavior in gathering ever greater profits. Murder, starvation, disease, and a plummeting birth rate combined to cut the native population of the Congo in half in just 23 years. The good, noble, civilized men – like Kurtz – were responsible for the deaths of over 10 million.

The story of Ilanga – one woman who experienced the brutality personally – will illustrate its ugliness. Her village was busy with crops when soldiers came and pulled them from their fields and homes. She reports:

When we were all collected the soldiers brought baskets of food for us to carry, in some of which was smoked human flesh… We then set off marching very quickly. My sister Katinga had her baby in her arms and was not compelled to carry a basket; but my husband Oleka was made to carry a goat. We marched… each day until the fifth day when the soldiers took my sister’s baby and threw it in the grass, leaving it to die, and made her carry some cooking pots. On the sixth day we became very weak from lack of food… and my husband, who marched behind us with the goat, could not stand up longer, and so he sat down beside the path and refused to walk more. The soldiers beat him… Then one of them struck him on the head with the end of his gun, and he fell upon the ground. One of the soldiers caught the goat while two or three others stuck the long knives they put on the end of their guns into my husband. I saw the blood spurt out, and then saw him no more… Many of the young men were killed the same way, and many babies thrown into the grass to die.

These events in the Congo vividly display the depravity of human nature. Yet though they are not even a hundred years old they are nearly forgotten. We have moved on to the depravity of the latest pop star and convinced ourselves we aren’t so bad.  Yet 10 million killed in the Congo, eight-hundred thousand dead in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Holocaust under Nazi Germany, present day killings in the Sudan and Syria, and the empty eyes of millions of children sold into sexual slavery remind us there is something ugly in human nature. Laws restrain it, society pressures it, religion commands it, yet it remains.

We may protest, “Not me! I wouldn’t do those things!” Can we be so sure? It’s easy to believe in our goodness from the comfort of a suburban American living room. But what if we experienced real horrors in our life? What if the restraints on our various lusts and desires were suddenly removed?

Wrestling with his wicked deeds as he floated down the Congo River, Mr. Kurtz offered a final assessment with his dying words – “The horror, the horror!” If we were to be confronted with the sum total of all of our sin and its horrifying consequences our assessment may not be much different. All of us have inherited a corrupted and sinful human nature. Wayne Grudem writes:

This inherited tendency to sin does not mean that human beings are all as bad as they could be. The constraints of civil law, the expectations of family and society, and the conviction of human conscience all provide restraining influences on the sinful tendencies in our hearts. Therefore, by God’s common grace, people have been able to do much good… But in spite of the ability to do good in many senses of that word, our inherited corruption… which we inherited from Adam means, that as far as God is concerned we are not able to do anything that pleases him… every part of our being is affected by sin – our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts, our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies.

When surveying the havoc wrought by his own sin, the Apostle Paul exclaimed in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He looked into his own heart and was left with despair. Yet he goes on to write: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus Christ was the one who could deliver him from the ugliness of human nature he saw within himself. Only Jesus can repair the corruption of the human heart.

Our hope isn’t found in a 6 step plan to be better people. It isn’t found in small lifestyle changes. It isn’t found in learning from the consequences of our actions. It isn’t found in progressively better laws with a big enough police force to enforce them. It isn’t found in foolishly patting ourselves on the back for being better than Hitler, the guy on the sex offender registry, or that crazy uncle on his fourth marriage.

The only hope for the ugliness of human nature is a Savior.

-Brian

Information on the events in the Congo including Ilanga’s story comes from: Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

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We Aren’t Good People

Are people good or bad?

Or to put the question another way, are people basically good and righteous or basically sinful and morally corrupt?

I used to walk around the neighborhoods surrounding my church in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina and ask that question. The homes were filled with an intriguing mix of atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Catholics, young and old, conservative and liberal. It didn’t matter. Everyone from the Presbyterian woman who claimed to believe in both predestination and reincarnation to the agnostic mother watching her child play on the porch agreed we are basically good. Except for Hitler. And maybe terrorists.

We tend to believe everyone is basically good because then our shortcomings aren’t so bad. There is a world of difference between a good person who occasionally does bad things and a bad person who occasionally does good things. One just needs some tweaking – perhaps a little more instruction, self-esteem, and a healthy environment. The other needs a radical change at the core of their being. It’s easier to modify one’s behavior than to change the nature of one’s being.

We tend to underestimate the number of bad people in the world. The fewer bad people reduces the chance we might be one of those bad people. If the world is more evenly divided between good and bad we might end up on the wrong side of the divide. Better that we’re all basically good except a few obvious examples like mass murderers, child molesters, and politicians who cheat on their spouses.

We minimize our moral failures and exalt our moral victories. I may have cheated on my taxes but I gave thirty dollars to Relay for Life. I may be harsh with my children but I drive a planet-saving Toyota Prius. We constantly compare our “goodness” to others in such a way that we come out on top: I may have cheated on my spouse but at least I’m not on drugs. I may be on drugs but at least I haven’t killed anyone. I may have killed someone but at least I’m not a genocidal maniac. I may be a genocidal maniac but at least I’ve been faithful to my spouse.

What would happen if we removed all the restraints on our bad behavior? What if I wouldn’t go to jail for killing my enemy? What if there were no social or relational consequences to cheating on my spouse? What if my lies would never be uncovered? Would we spare the person who wronged us, stay faithful to our spouse, and tell the truth?

What if our goodness is only selfishness? As much as I want to kill someone, I love myself too much to bear the condemnation of society and friends. As much as I want sex with someone who is not my spouse, I love myself too much to endure a bitter divorce and custody battle.

This is what Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 5:21-22:

You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘Do not murder,’ and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.

And again in Matthew 5:27-28:

You have heard that is was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

This is profound. If our hate could have its way we would be murderers. If our lust could have its way we would be adulterers. If our pride could have its way we would be oppressors. If our greed could have its way we would be enslavers. If our envy could have its way we would be thieves.

And why can’t these things have their way? The laws of our land prohibit them. Social pressure keeps them at bay. We don’t want to lose our freedom in jail. We don’t want to be a social outcast and end up on the sex offender registry. We don’t want to lose our jobs. We don’t want to disappoint our family and friends. So we shelve our hate, lust, pride, greed, and envy and pat ourselves on the back for being good people for purely selfish reasons. Jesus refuses to give us any moral points for our wicked hearts being restrained by circumstances.

The Apostle Paul makes this point in Romans 3:10-12:

There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.

Stunning isn’t it? No one does good. No one seeks God. We are not good people who occasionally mess up, we are bad people in need of a radical change. This is the foundation of the gospel. If we are good people, we only need the latest twelve step plan to fix our lives. If we are bad people, we need a Savior.

Does this mean we would all be Hitler if given the same background and opportunities as he had? Not necessarily. But it does mean we might not be Mother Teresa either. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of your own goodness. Our sinfulness is far deeper than our circumstances reveal and our need for a Savior is far greater than we imagine.

Brian

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Cheating on the Rise: Why We Cheat and Who’s to Blame

ImageAt Stuyvesant High School – New York City’s most elite – an astounding 71 students will have to retake their Regents exam after cheating. The scandal centered on 16-year-old Nayeem Ahsan who used a cell phone to send out photos of the exam. Ahsan, along with five other students, has been suspended.

This follows on the heels of other prominent cheating scandals. Twenty students were caught in a cheating scandal at Great Neck North High School in late 2011 when they attempted to pay others to take the SAT for them. Several arrests were made in the scandal since test-takers received between $500 and $3600 to fraudulently bubble in the answers.

The stats on cheating can be discouraging. The Benenson Strategy Group surveyed 7th-12th graders in 2009 and found that 35% admitted to cheating by cell phone during a test and 52% admitted to some form of cheating using the internet. Out of 12,000 high schoolers surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a whopping 74% admitted to cheating on an exam at some point in the past year to get ahead. According to National Public Radio, two-thirds of parents believe cheating is no big deal and that all students do it at some point.

Even educators are joining in. In Atlanta, a state investigation discovered 178 teachers and principals had tampered with tests over the past decade to improve their school’s performance.

New Yorkers were quick to weigh in on the cheating at Stuyvesant. Some argued it was a result of the pressure students feel because of testing. Others blamed an uneven application of a cell phone ban. Many attempted to exonerate the students by comparing their behavior to that found on Wall Street. Still, others felt it was an indictment of the education system which has failed to properly teach the students.

Last year the New York Times printed a discussion on the causes of cheating. Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, argued cheating “is a survival skill” for students in a high-pressure environment. Andrew Daines, a graduate of Cornell, argued students need ethics classes to provide a “philosophical grounding for goodness, honesty, and integrity.” While author Alfie Kohn claimed the problem is with classroom methods and the definition of cheating, saying, “By definition, cheating is a violation of the rules. Are those rules reasonable? Who devised them and who benefits from them?”

Ironically, no one is blaming the students or teachers who actually cheated.

When it comes to our sins we’re sure someone is ultimately to blame and we’re also pretty sure it isn’t us. The Bible acknowledges that our sins, such as cheating, can result from the actions of others. Jesus says in Mark 9:42, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Others may be partly to blame for the sins we commit.

Yet, the Bible never absolves the sinner simply because others may be involved. James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Yes, the pressure of succeeding makes cheating more appealing. Yes, new technologies make cheating easier. Yes, the failure of others to maintain high standards makes it easier to lower one’s own. Yes, the education system may not be meeting students’ needs. But it all comes down to the moment when a student decides to obtain and use illicit information to violate their integrity, beat the test, and receive ill-gotten rewards. They make the decision. They are ultimately to blame.

Why do it? Because they believe it doesn’t matter. Culture has taught them right and wrong are simply constructed by societies and individuals to suit their own ends. They don’t flow from the character of God. Thus, as long as they believe they’re not hurting anyone, there is nothing to lose. No one is keeping score and the ends justify the means. If they’re planning to be a doctor what will it matter if they cheated on a freshmen English course or a high school Spanish exam? If there is no God to give life a unifying meaning and purpose, they’re free to construct their own meaning and purpose in which right and wrong serve their own selfish desires.

A better question might be: why shouldn’t they cheat? If we are only animated pieces of meat, biological machines programmed by genetics and determined by our environment, spinning on an insignificant rock around a fiery star that will one day explode and wipe our pitiful race from the memory of the universe, there is no good reason not to cheat on a test so we can at least afford a bigger TV to watch sports on.

Students know how not to cheat. Some may unintentionally plagiarize, but no one accidentally downloads a copy of the test on their phone beforehand. They just aren’t sure why they shouldn’t.

If right and wrong are relative concepts, why bother with someone else’s definition of cheating when I’m not hurting anyone?

If I have no greater meaning in my life than what I make of it, why not employ cheating as a means to my personal goals?

Besides, I’m not to blame for my cheating. My brain chemistry made me do it. Or my stressful, high pressure environment full of bad role models.

The students are the ones who decide to cheat and are ultimately to blame for the scandals. Yet the world the culture has constructed for them gives them few reasons not to. As long as there is no God – or at least not one that is any more than a consumer product for our happiness – there is no unifying meaning and purpose to existence. As long as humans are merely products of their chemistry and environment, how can they be expected to behave any differently?  If there is no God to give an account to and no soul of which to give account, he or she who has the most toys in the end truly wins even if they were earned by cheating.

-Brian

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Don’t Hate On the Tiger Mom

Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and mother of two, published her controversial and highly criticized memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011. It chronicles her journey of parenting daughters the Chinese way on American soil. Rather than allowing children to become self-indulgent, underachieving drains on society (her perception of Western children), Chinese parenting aims for the child’s highest success in every endeavor at all costs for the glory of the family.  Chapter one opens with bullet points of things Chinese children are never allowed to do, including: attend sleepovers, watch TV, choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A.

Since their toddler days, daughters Sophia and Lulu followed rigorous routines to pave their way to elite futures, academically and musically. Instruments dominated non-school, non-homework hours. Chua cashed in some of her pension funds to buy Lulu one of the finest violins in the world. On every vacation, the first order of business was securing the hotel lounge piano for practice. These practices were frequently punctuated with harsh remarks from Chua such as: “If you don’t get this perfect, I am going to burn your stuffed animals!” and “Oh my god, you are just getting worse and worse.” This intensity drove both daughters and Chua to shouting matches, public embarrassment and icy distance. Chua admits that being hated is part of being a Chinese parent but is ultimately worth it.

Did her method succeed? Both daughters are music prodigies, straight-A students and fluent in Mandarin. Such accomplishments might convince any parent of this strategy. One might expect her book to end victoriously with a ten step plan to copy her success. Instead, these five lonely sentences end her story:

“Given that life is so short and so fragile, surely each of us should be trying to get the most out of every breath, every fleeting moment. But what does it mean to live life to its fullest? We all have to die, but which way does that cut? In any case, I’ve just told [my husband] that I want to get another dog.”1

After accomplishing world-class results parenting her daughters, Chua is left pondering what it means to fully live in light of life’s certain end. Sure, her daughters have every success any parent could hope for, but in the quiet corners of her mind she is left wanting.

It’s easy to criticize her. We American Christian parents would never demand so much from our kids in such demeaning ways. We also want the best for our children but express it differently. Rather than berate them, we praise them endlessly. Instead of hyper-scheduling their days and months, we let them decide what they want to do and divide up taxiing duties with neighborhood moms. When it’s time to prepare for tests, think about college, compete or behave, we make deals and offer incentives (video games or cars), hoping for the best outcome. Children might forgo family dinners, church activities and even homework along the way; as long as they are well-behaved, moderately successful, attend church on occasion and are above all happy, we’ve done a good job – right? If so, why does parenting leave many Christians asking the same questions as Chua?

Both parenting strategies are problematic and lacking. One idolizes the family’s success; the other idolizes the child’s individual success. Neither strategy employs life-giving methods for God-glorifying ends. Neither strategy points parent nor child to Christ.

Because purpose and identity are found in Jesus, Christians do not have to subscribe to the world’s parenting methods. Tedd Tripp observes:

“You want your child to live for the glory of God. You want your child to realize that life worth living is life lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Your methods must show submission to the same Lord.”2 (emphasis mine)

It should not surprise us that “good church kids” grow up with similar habits, goals, worldviews and issues as non-church goers. God is often an add-on in Christian households rather than the focal point. While most Christian parents would affirm the quote above, their practices oppose it. Jaws drop at Amy Chua’s behavior, but are children served any better when they are affirmed as privileged, moral centers of their own universe?

Scripture consistently teaches that only God can quench the thirst of every soul, parents and children included. The Psalmist declares, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore (16:11).” In John 10:10 Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” All satisfaction, joy and purpose are found in Him, not in raising phenomenal kids or being phenomenal kids. As parents, we are responsible for organizing the lives of our children to reflect the gospel as the center of life. To do anything else teaches them the world’s offerings are better than our Savior.

Academic prestige and financial success are deceitful dreams to pass on, as are high self-esteem and extracurricular happiness. When Jesus is the goal of parenting, we are free not to demand our children bring home good grades; we are free to say no when they covet the newest, most expensive clothes. If children misbehave in public or lose another competition, we are not devastated. When they come home crying because they’ve been bullied, there is no retaliation or pumping them up about how great they are.  When a friend’s child is smarter, more popular and better looking, we thank God for the eternal, not temporal, work He is accomplishing in our children for the kingdom. God’s word is robust enough for the task and more satisfying than the world’s answer to child-rearing.

Short cuts don’t exist in raising children who worship Jesus with the whole of their being. This counter-cultural approach to parenting will cost enormous amounts of time, peer approval, affection from your children and many tears. The pay-off is a home structured around the worship of an eternal King, turning out generations who live for Him and not worldly success.

The violin and good grades will get a child far, but will they satisfy? Birthday parties and good manners are fine things, but can they sustain faith in Christ?  As Chua observes, we all die…will getting another dog fill the void until that day and in the days that follow?

-Emily

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  1. Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, pg. 229.
  2. Tripp, Tedd. Shepherding a Child’s Heart, pg. 71.