Embarrassed by God

God, knock the teeth out of their mouths;
Lord, tear out the young lions’ fangs.
May they vanish like water that flows by;
may they aim their blunted arrows.
Like a slug that moves along in slime,
like a woman’s miscarried child,
may they not see the sun.–Psalm 58:6-8

A few weeks ago, I commented on the many passages in Psalms that sound like a caller to a talk-radio show spouting off about their opponents. I can’t remember if I cited this passage from Psalm 58, but I know that I had it in mind when I wrote the entry.

I’m reminded of these words as I have recently been reading Francis Chan’s book Erasing Hell. Among the many worthwhile things Chan presents is the notion of being embarrassed by God. He confesses to having a tendency to skip over the uncomfortable spots in scripture or to at least read them really fast in order to get to the “good stuff.”

In the context of Chan’s book, the passages to be minimized are those that speak of judgment and hell, the fate of the goats. We’ll all talk about the sheep and their rewards all day long, but we’d rather that the nasty spots would fade into the background or perhaps be dropped into footnotes by cutting-edge translators.

We don’t get to choose, though. Chan compares being embarrassed by God to the kid who tries to keep his friends away from his alcoholic father. On a good day, that father might be a lot of fun, but on a bad day . . . look out. Is that how we view God?

Modern sensibilities say that all that stuff about judgment and wrath are out of step with proper understanding. “I can’t believe in a God who would . . .” people frequently say. Most evangelicals don’t say that, but we tend to act that way. That kid with the alcoholic father doesn’t have to say, “I hate you when you’re drunk” to hate dad when he’s drunk.

Part of me wants to read David’s words here and dismiss them as words spoken in anger. I want to imagine God–the God who I can believe in–saying, “Okay David. Simmer down now. Remember that we’re all about love. All you need is love.” Yes, my foolish heart believes that God quotes the Beatles now and again.

But if I accept that this Psalm is inspired, then I can’t simply sweep it away as the product of David’s bad day. If I’m going to believe that the “good” Psalms–23, 51, 100–are inspired, then I have to accept that the teeth being knocked out are similarly God-breathed.

If God embarrasses me today as I read Psalm 58, how much more often do I embarrass Him–or maybe the better term is disappoint Him. God is in charge. He created everything and sustains everything. Abandoning that belief, we’re on a glide path into creating our own god who really just reflects our own limited vision and desire. If God embarrasses me, then I suppose I need embarrassing. If his words step on my toes, then I need to move my feet.

Wrong Way but Making Good Time

On a dark night, you find yourself heading west on an empty highway. No other cars impede your pace, while only a few lights, far off from the edge of the road, pierce through the darkness. You’re making good time.

The problem is that you’re going the wrong way. The road is Interstate-80, which stretches from New York City to San Francisco. You’re far from either of those cities, finding yourself in Wyoming moving 80 miles an hour (the Interstate speed limit there). Your destination is Cheyenne.

There’s just one issue. You’re heading west and just passed Laramie. On the off chance that you do not have Wyoming geography firmly implanted in your mind, let me note that Laramie is about 50 miles west of Cheyenne. You’re now making good time in the wrong direction.

There are exits available, small, no-facilities exits that lead to a county road but would allow you to turn around. But you keep going. It’s now less than 50 miles to Elk Mountain, Wyoming. Beautiful Elk Mountain, which boasts little in the way of either mountains or elk, might be a place to turn around. Farther ahead, you’ll find Point of Rocks, Rock Springs, and the marvelously named Little America. You could turn around at any of these places. Sure, it’ll be morning by the time you get there and noon you hit Cheyenne. Yes, you’ll have to cover this same stretch of road again, but you could wait to turn around.

Who would do that on a roadtrip? When you know you’re going the wrong way, you don’t keep going do you? Every mile you drive in the wrong direction will wind up being an extra two miles you have to cover. Anybody with any sense, the moment they know they’ve overshot their destination, will find the first exit and reverse course.

Why is it that when we have the good sense to handle a driving mistake in this manner, we don’t have the sense to correct other errors immediately. Previously I noted that the thing that has been bothering me lately is out-of-control eating. At present, I don’t like where I am, and I’m driving in the wrong direction. So do I immediately find an exit and turn around? No. Instead, I rationalize that Monday will be a good time to make a new start. Or maybe after Easter. Or maybe when the semester is over. That will let me really establish some new habits.

You can plug in your sin–and let’s be clear that gluttony is a sin–and probably convince yourself that you need to repent . . . eventually.

The reality is that delayed repentance is not just inefficient, like driving farther in the wrong direction. It is actually no repentance at all. When Peter and John revealed the gospel to a crowd in Acts 3, they didn’t suggest repentance next week or next year. They directed the people to repent in the present tense, now.

Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Jesus, who has been appointed for you as the Messiah. –Acts 3:19-20

An exit comes into view, an off ramp to the right and an on-ramp to the left. You can’t refill your coffee here, but you can turn around. You tap the brakes and switch on the turn signal.

Having Strong Enemies is a Blessing.

Rapper Nipsey Hussle, born Ermias Davidson Asghedom, was shot to death outside a clothing store that he owned in Los Angeles. As I’m a fifty-something white midwesterner, it’s not all that shocking that I had never heard of this man until his violent death splashed him onto the news. Listening to a bit of his music this morning, I determined that it was, like most hip hop, not really my thing. That’s okay. His fans probably wouldn’t see in Doc Watson what I do. Different strokes and all that.

From all I can gather, this man was beloved within his community and in the wider world. People from the area, included in a CNN report on the crime, spoke of him as more than just a celebrity.

What caught my attention about Nipsey Hussle today was that last tweet that he sent out.

There’s something to be said for that, although I’m not sure what was meant by the statement. It’s kind of a cliché amongst Christians that if Satan isn’t bothering you, then maybe you’re not really bothering him either. Therefore, if he’s a dedicated enemy, then you must be doing something to rile him up. In that case, “Having strong enemies is a blessing.” I’m pretty doubtful that this was what Nipsey Hussle had in mind.

But here’s the reality of the matter. This man, whatever his positive and negative qualities, had a very strong enemy, the enemy that all flesh shares together: death. Ever since Genesis 3, death has been the ultimate enemy, the strongest enemy of all humans. Death is one of the four horsemen. It comes for absolutely every person.

Death comes for some more quickly, more savagely than for others. In Nipsey Hussle’s area, the level of violence is far higher than in the decidedly suburban area where I live. We’d be callous beyond excuse to act like issues such as crime, poverty, racism, and disease don’t treat some people differently than others. But regardless of who you are, death comes for you.

That’s what makes the work, accomplished already but yet to be fully consummated, of Jesus Christ so powerful. Unlike anyone, prophet, priest, or king, rapper, actor, or cop, Jesus has set the wheels in motion that will, eventually, put an end to death. Paul sums it up in a simple but profound claim:

The last enemy to be abolished is death.–1 Corinthians 15:26

In the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, he goes into more detail on the matter.

When this corruptible body is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, death, is your victory?
Where, death, is your sting?–1 Corinthians 15:54-55

To have strong enemies might arguably be a blessing, but it is even more of a blessing when we have a strong Friend who is capable and willing of putting our greatest, our most inescapable enemy to rout.

OMG–They’re Burning the Flag

Why do people get so worked up at the idea of someone burning a U.S. flag? I mean, I think it’s really stupid for those pyros to claim shelter under the Constitution of the nation in order to burn a symbol of that same nation, but nobody ever said people were smart.

We don’t–I hope–have a similar response when somebody abuses one of the symbols of a favorite sports team or university. In a less mature age, I used to refer to a certain college basketball team that has had even more success than my favorite team as the “Puke Spew Devils.” Hey! I said it was a less mature age.

When people heard that, they might have rolled their eyes, but they didn’t threaten to beat me into the pavement. Burn the flag, however, and you might have to deal with some serious pushback. Why?

The reason, I think, is pretty simple. People think that the U.S. flag and “the republic for which it stands” are a pretty important, pretty serious thing. Dragging either the nation or its symbols through the mud or through the fire is more significant than calling a certain Rocky Mountain football team the “Donkeys.”

That’s also why the third of ten commandments tells us to treat the name of God with respect:

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.–Exodus 20:7

What does it mean to misuse God’s name? John Piper has a powerful three-minute ditty on this matter. You listen. I can wait.

God, Christ, the cross, the things he is and the things he did are great, and they’re weighty. And there’s a certain corresponding demeanor of worship that should be there.

That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Getting back to the country for a moment, I’d like to suggest that burning the flag isn’t the only possible misuse of it. Ever drive by one of those car lots that has American flags flying from every vertical post? I’m going to suggest that those displays are often motivated much less by patriotism than by a sense that they can use the flag to drum up customers.

Similarly, we can misuse God’s name, His image, His “brand” in many ways that do not fall under the traditional categories of taking the Lord’s name in vain. We can misuse a flag or God’s name in ways that show hatred for them or simple lack of respect. I’m not sure which one is worse.



Not-So-Family Feud

A certain person in my family listens to Family Feud at ear-rattling volume for about three hours a day. What is it that bothers me the most about this? It could be the sound pressure that would make Metallica jealous, but it’s really the incredibly tacky–and not terribly clever–questions and answers that make up the show. My theory is that for any given category, someone will answer “Your butt!”

Steve Harvey: “Name something you wouldn’t want to leave on an airplane.”
Player: “Your butt!”
Rest of Family: “Good answer! Good answer!”
Audience: Howls of laughter.

If there’s an obvious sexual reference to make, then you make it. The more crude and middle-school-worthy, the better. And I’m not the only one to notice this. It wasn’t that long ago, 1960 to be precise, that Jack Paar got into a huge kettle of hot water over a truly clever bathroom joke that he delivered as host of The Tonight Show. That jokewhich played on a linguistic misunderstanding as to what the “WC” might be, “water closet” (restroom) or “wayside chapel,” wouldn’t even budge the taste meter among today’s comics.

Over the course of sixty years, we’ve gone from finding the W.C. joke to be unacceptably suggestive to seeing the steady diet of crass stuff on Family Feud as perfectly okay–or even desirable. Steve Harvey is apparently pulling in $12 million a year for that gig!

And before you start suggesting that I’m overreacting, let’s remember that Paar’s Tonight Show, like Jimmy Fallon’s, aired well after primetime and when the kids had presumably gone to bed. Family Feud runs in the daytime or for hours during the evening on whatever cable channel that is blasting loud enough for the neighbors to hear from my family member’s house.

We’ve seen a coarsening of taste and standards over those sixty years. Of course, you could point out that Shakespeare had some–or a lot of–suggestive jokes. The Greek dramatist Aristophanes had a whole play based on fairly lurid stuff. So what’s the difference? I’d point to a couple of differences. First, for all their naughty humor, both Shakespeare and Aristophanes mostly supported healthy sexual mores. Second, those writers were actually somewhat funny.

The stuff that masquerades as humor on that game show or coming from any number of mediocre comics is the verbal equivalent of fake vomit. Fake vomit isn’t really funny, but it can be shocking. To continue to draw laughter, it has to grow ever more shocking. And then we get to a place where a steady torrent of crudeness seems normal.

People don’t lose their sense of decency in one step. They don’t slide from Leave it to Beaver to Bob’s Burgers in a single move. Instead, they allow stuff, little by little, to come into their home and seem normal. And pretty soon, they’re wallowing in a cultural cesspool.

Where exactly should we draw the line? Is Leave it to Beaver edgy? I’m not going to try to establish a line, but I do believe that we need to take seriously the stuff we allow past our eyes and ears.

Steve Harvey: Finish this statement: When you’re mentally lazy, you sit on _______.
Player: Your butt.



The October Resolve

As I mentioned my “October Resolve” in the cheesecake entry published Thursday, it occurred to me that I had not explained what I meant by that term. Actually, I invented that term (but not the goals that lay behind it) when I wrote the post.

Recently, I have become irritated by myself and my failures in several areas. A week or so back, I determined that I had to make progress on these three items or I would probably find myself frustrated and defeated going forward. I’ve code-named them G, L, and S, but I can trust you with their actual identities.

G stands for the sin of gluttony. I’ve been up and down with my weight, my healthy eating, and my general level of fitness over the last five years or so. Over the summer, Penny and I both did great. Then I went back to school and wheels came off. Workouts ended and restraint with food went out the window. My G resolve is to eat within control every day through October. I’ll be measuring myself using MyFitnessPal and remembering Proverbs 23:20-21.

L stands for the sin of lust. Let’s be clear–especially if you’re my wife reading this–I’ve not completely gone off the rails. However, I have found my eyes and thoughts going where they should not go.  My L resolve is to keep my eyes on the right things as much as possible and to maintain a pure mind in sexual matters. I seek this beyond October, but I’ll start with these 31 days. To assist, I’m lining up scriptures like 1 Corinthians 6:18-19 to remind me of the importance of mental fidelity.

S stands for the sin of sloth. Although I have plenty of good things that I should be doing with my time, I’ve been a bit of a sluggard recently. With Proverbs 6:10-11 in my mind, I know that I simply have to use my time more productively. Yes, there are lots of good things on Netflix, but I don’t have to watch them all right away. I’ve created a document file that I’ll use to record my actions each day. So far, I’ve felt very good about my use of time, but can I keep it up for a month? We’ll see.

That’s what I’m striving to do this month. There’s no grand conclusion to draw, but I thought I’d share.

You Can’t Exercise Yourself Away from Alzheimer’s

happy old guyThis really stinks.

I like puzzles. I like games. I exercise a good six days a week. And now I find out that all of that stuff has been a total waste. My brain, it seems, is still going to atrophy into a mess of cottage cheese.

According to a recent study, those activities, long suspected to stave off Alzheimer’s, do not seem to have the effects that would indicate progress in that direction.

Physical and mental activity don’t appear to prevent the brain from developing the telltale beta-amyloid deposits that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests.

If you’re confused, think of it like this. High blood pressure doesn’t actually hurt you, but it leads to nasty things like strokes and heart attacks. Since you don’t want to wait around to have a stroke to see if a treatment helps, reduced blood pressure is a good indicator that a treatment is helping.

So if you want to do your sudoku, play Clash of Clans, or pump iron, do it for its own benefits and not to hold Alzheimer’s at bay.

How to Save $457 Million and Your Skin

red-headed-woman-clear-skin-looking-at-arm-mol-melenoma-skin-cancer-handbagSince 1982, rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have more than doubled from 11.2 cases per 100,000 people. That may not seem like a lot unless you happen to be one of the those odds-beating people diagnosed. It is estimated that 73,000 people will be so diagnosed in the United States in 2015 with a projected 113,000 cases in 2030. I’ve seen two of these diagnoses in my own family, so the matter is high in my attention.

Treating melanoma costs something like $457 million in 2011. As health care costs go, that’s not too extreme, weighing in around $6,000 per case. Most cases will involve a chunk of skins being taken out in a relatively simple outpatient surgery. An unlucky 9,000 per year, however, die from this form of cancer.

So how do we save that $457 million? Or at least save ourselves from becoming one of those statistics?  Not only is it reasonably simple to shift the odds in our favor but the remedies have other benefits as well.

  • Wear sunscreen. By wearing sunscreen you’ll not only reduce your risk but you’ll also avoid painful sunburns.
  • Cover up with hats and clothes. You can avoid slathering sunscreen on yourself by wearing long sleeves and brimmed hats.
  • Stay out of the sun. By avoiding the heat of the day, you not only make the most of the shade but give yourself a good excuse not to mow the grass.

That’s it. Melanoma–and other skin cancers–are not mysterious afflictions, like pancreatic cancer, that seem to pop up for no real reason. By far the biggest risk factor is exposure to the sun (or other sources of UV radiation like tanning beds). Avoid the sun and you’ll likely stay out of those statistics.

Even a diagnosis of melanoma shouldn’t rob someone of hope. With Job, that person can claim, “Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26). But better yet, avoid the destruction.


In Search of Goldilocks Exercise

The problem with a lot of academics, including academics in the medical field, is that they have to keep researching and writing and publishing in order to keep their jobs, get promoted, or move on to greener pastures. Because of this need, a lot of people are tempted to offer less-than-stellar work for publication.

In recent years, a cluster of researchers, notably Carl Lavie and James O’Keefe, have led the charge in advocating something called the excessive exercise theory. At the heart of their theory lay the idea that vigorous exercise, for example running more than a couple of times a week, could be harmful to health.

As these things tend to go, the studies that allowed these researchers to sound an alarm over excessive exercise have been undercut by other studies that don’t support the theory, causing the writers to backtrack. Lavie shares his current position:

“As first author, while I believe there are risks associated with very high levels of exercise, I wanted to emphasize several points,” he wrote. “First, low exercise is a much more prevalent problem for our society than is excessive exercise. Second, the maximal health benefits of exercise typically occur at quite low levels. More exercise may burn more calories and improve athletic performance, but probably does not lead to better health outcomes.

I’m imagining Lavie describing a search for a Goldilocks level of exercise: something that’s not “too much” or “too little,” but “just right.”

On the off chance that you won’t study up on all the background information, let’s just summarize by saying that there’s, at best, conflicting information on negative health effects from excessive exercise. Some studies suggest that an enormous amount of exercise has mildly negative effects while others say that it is positive.

In reality, most mortals don’t exercise so much that they’d need to worry about those negatives.

The fault I have with research like Lavie’s is that it tries to boil everything down to a single factor, treating human exercise like an algebraic equation. He admits that a great deal of exercise will burn more calories and increase athletic performance but suggests that these positives will come at a cost in “health outcomes.”

I’m the last one to volunteer to die tomorrow, but since when did “health outcomes,” decreases in morbidity and mortality, become the absolute gold standard in human life. I’d be much more interested in talking about “life outcomes.” Who wants to live a very long, very healthy, but very empty life? Such a life amounts to hoarding years, which is surely as unworthy as hoarding money.

I’m all for Goldilocks and a “just right” life, but I don’t believe the excessive exercise crowd have found the way to measure that.

Sunburn: The Gift that Keeps Giving

hot-sunEcclesiastes tells us that there’s nothing new under the sun. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Douglas Brash of Yale Medical School tells us to wear our sunscreen. What might seem new, however, comes once you have gotten out from under the sun. Brash’s study discovered that the harmful effects of solar radiation keeps on doing their damage for more than three hours after you get back under cover.

What this boils down to is that exposure to the sun doesn’t just keep our skin cooking for three hours after we go inside but also increases the possibilities of us joining the 2 million Americans who are diagnosed with skin cancer annually.

To preserve the skin that God stuffed into at your birth, do the sensible things: wear a hat, put on sunscreen, minimize your exposure to the heat of the day. That’s not news. Like I said, there’s nothing new under the sun.