Monday, November 07, 2016

What Would Jesus Share?

One of my professors from seminary, Sam Wells, compares living faithfully to doing improv. That's because, he says, "we face new circumstances in each generation that the Bible doesn't give us a script for." There's no eleventh commandment about how to vote, online pornography, carbon footprints, or even gambling. The direct commands in scripture just don't always speak directly to our day-to-day struggles following Jesus in the 21st century. So we have to take what we do know, take how our faith has shaped us, and then improvise when the world presents us with new challenges.

Well, I believe one of those new challenges for Christians in America has become painfully clear over the course of this election season.
Brian Stelter wrote a short piece for CNNMoney last week that everyone should read, called "The plague of fake news is getting worse -- here's how to protect yourself."

Fake news?

Stelter explains:
The rise of social media has had many upsides, but one downside has been the spread of misinformation. Fake news has become a plague on the Web, especially on social networks like Facebook.
Have you ever seen someone share a link with a title like "Trump's Worst Nightmare Just Came True..." or "Hillary's Campaign Will Be Over When This Video Goes VIRAL"? That kind of stuff is circulated on social media constantly (it's on my Facebook news feed, and I doubt I'm special). It's called "clickbait." These are sensational headlines designed to draw in web traffic to increase a site's advertising revenue.
But often these articles go beyond outrageous, exaggerated titles. Have you seen the article about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for President? Or how about the one about Pope Francis endorsing Hillary Clinton for President? I've seen both. Both of them are totally falsethe pope doesn't endorse political candidatesbut both of them were nevertheless shared widely on social media as if they were true.

Fake news.

And that wasn't a fluke. Just last week Sean Hannity, who works for an actual news station, had to apologize after he read a fake news article on his live radio show (I understand he got it off of Twitter). That's how wide-spread this problem is.

Stelter again:
But the B.S. stories hurt the people who read and share them over and over again. Many of these fakes reinforce the views of conservative or liberal voters and insulate them from the truth. The stories prey on people who want to believe the worst about the opposition. [emphasis added]
Sure, lying is bad, but this is the heart of the problem: these fake stories only tell us what our "itching ears" want to hear, not the truth. As social media users imbibe more and more of this as if it were true, it reinforces their prejudices and shapes their opinions and even their worldview, and it can then have real-world ramifications that materially affect other people: friends have an argument; someone buys another gun; a business is boycotted; a vote is cast. All influenced by lies.

The solution is pretty simple: verify that a story is true before you pass it along. Stelter's advice is to "triple check before you share." All it takes is a quick Google search to substantiate a story (or not). If you can find it being reported by a legitimate news outlet (NBC, FOX, CNN, The New York Times, etc.), then it's safe to share.
Yet, we don't do that, either because we aren't aware of the lies, or we're too lazyor we just don't care.

But Christians have to care.

Because we're commanded not to bear false witness (Ex 20:16).

Because we're called to put away falsehood and speak the truth to our neighbors (Eph 4:25).

Because we worship a man who said, "I am the truth" (John 14:6).

And because the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). When Christians participate in all of this, when we don't take thirty seconds to check a source or verify a quotation, we're doing the devil's work for him. We not only deceive people, but, as Stelter pointed out, we appeal to a person's urge to believe the worst about others, to denigrate and vilify and pour scorn on her opponents. The devil's been called "the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev 12:9), and, with job title like that, mass communication and social media must come in pretty handy. Also, it probably helps when God's people volunteer to spread falsehoods for you, which is what happens every time we share a fake news article, post a meme with a fabricated quotation, or retweet made-up statistics.

I've seen pastors perpetuate political lies on Facebook and leave them up even after they're proven false. There's no way around it: that's a snare of the devil. And, again, these lies can have real effects on real people in the real world.

I can't speak to the situations in other nations, but for Christians in America the internet is the new frontier of discipleship. We have to learn how to follow Jesus onlinein the obvious ways, like staying away from pornography, and in the less obvious ways, like fighting the temptations to troll, to shoot off emails in the heat of the moment, to indulge in impulsive spending, or to thoughtlessly spread lies in news's clothing.
This is when believers need to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16), because these traps are as abundant as they are novel. Thankfully, the example of Jesus and the teachings of scripture are more than rich enough to equip us to face these new challenges. If we recognize the dangers and seek wisdom from above, looking to Jesus and letting scripture correct and train our speech and conduct, the Spirit can guide us through the ethical minefield.

But right now, we've got work to do. Because, from what I'm seeing, wise and innocent we are not.

If you want to learn more about the epidemic of false and misleading "news" on social media, you can read this article from BuzzFeed.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

GM2016: Saved from sin

George MacDonald
As many of you know, I've been working through a daily devotional this year called Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love, with readings taken from the sermons of a Scottish preacher and author named George MacDonald (1824-1905). My Dad, who is a life-long MacDonald reader, gave me the book last Christmas, and he recently admitted that the main reason he got this for my brother and me was the section we're in now, taken from a classic sermon called "Justice." I'm sure Dad will be thrilled to know I've been really enjoying these readings.

I wanted to share one section that particularly reverberated with me:
The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins is a false, mean, low notion. The salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God's ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure. To such a heart, sin is disgusting. It sees a thing as it isthat is, as God sees it, for God sees everything as it is... Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins. (October 23rd)
In other words: Jesus didn't come to save us from Hell. He came to save us from sin.

That last line, about why he was called "Jesus," is a reference to Matthew 1, when an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary "will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (1:21). As you may know, Hebrew names in scripture often have a special meaning, and the Hebrew form of Jesus means 'the Lord saves'. Saves what? Well, "he will save his people from their sins."

Yet, in George MacDonald's day and still today, Christians often miss this point. We're taught about a salvation that's all about the future, about what happens after death, instead of a salvation that we can experience here and now.We're told that Jesus has saved us from eternal torment, and now we need to go be good Christians, when really the good news is that Jesus has set us free, saved us from sin, so that now we can live new lives in him, lives that lead to eternal life. Because of Jesus, we can live the lives that God made us for and be who God created us to be, free from sin's sway. When MacDonald hears people preaching a message of salvation from Hell, salvation from punishment, he points to that angel of the Lord: No, no, no! Remember - Jesus came to save us from sin itself!

Think about Matthew 7, when Jesus says: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (7:13-14). He's warning us about the wide, easy road, because it leads to destruction, and he's offering us a different path. The threat of destruction is there and it's real, and Jesus' challenge to us is to get on the right path. "Enter through this gate!" he says. He's trying to save us from that sinful road we would happily walk all the way to an unhappy fate. Salvation isn't just about arriving at the right destination. It's about walking the right path.

Or consider Zacchaeus. He was rich (Luke 19:2), which, Jesus had just said, makes it difficult for someone to enter God's kingdom (18:24-26). After all, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (12:34). Yet Zacchaeus is inspired to let go of his wealth in the name of generosity and justice. And what is Jesus' response? "Today salvation has come to this house" (19:9). Zacchaeus decided to leave behind the wide, easy road and head through the narrow gate, and right then and there salvation came. He was set free from that tendency to sin and delivered into the pure air of God's ways of thinking and feeling. He learned to see wealth the way God saw it. Salvation had come.

All of this makes me think of that great line from Romans chapter 6: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (6:23). Surely this means that Jesus came to save us from eternal death by offering us eternal life instead! That's sure what it sounds like.

But if you read the entire chapter, you might notice a refrain: "set free from sin" (6:7), "set free from sin" (6:18), "set free from sin" (6:22). We were all slaves of sin, but Jesus died so that those who are in Christ might no longer be enslaved (6:6). So when we get to verse 23, the point is clear: Sin was working us like a slave-driver, and all we would get in return for our sweat and toil was death; but now we've changed masters, and God offers us the free gift of life. Jesus saved us from sin that leads to death so that we can be "slaves" of God, who gives life.

Folks, if Jesus has saved you, that means now. That means today. Jesus has made it possible for us to overcome the "smallest leaning or tendency to sin," if we embrace the salvation and the new life he offers. Jesus saves us from our "old self," so that we can put on "the new self," created according to God's image: righteous, just, and holy (Eph 4:22-24). The gospel of Jesus Christ isn't just about where you'll spend eternity. It's about who you can be now, in this life, in Christ. Because he has saved you from sin. He has made you new (2 Cor 5:17).

What could we accomplish for God's Kingdom today if we lived like people set free from sin? If the temptation to sin repelled us, and we saw thingssaw our neighbors, saw this worldas God sees them? What kind of light could we shine in the world if we, like Zacchaeus, let go of our money (or whatever it is) and took hold of Jesus instead?

"The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness." (Romans 6:10-13)