Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Porn Industry: Victimizing and Terrorizing Our Generation

Ten years ago I attended a men's conference in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  One of the speakers, whose name I forget but whose message I never will, got up to talk about his recent addiction to pornography.  He detailed how he slid down the slope from a teen-aged casual interest to middle-aged life-swallowing compulsion, eventually becoming withdrawn, despondent and even suicidal before he finally was rescued by God.  An audience of about 60 men sat transfixed.

What happened next was what I'll never forget.

He placed a chair in the middle of the room and said, "Who is brave enough to sit here and confess your sexual sin?"  One by one the men around the circle shuffled to the chair and poured out their hearts to God.  As they did, both friends and strangers also came, placed their hands on them, and prayed for them as tears streaked down their faces.  Each man's courage inspired the next man.  Their confessions were sobering, even shocking, but there was no judgment in that room--only grace and brotherly compassion.  The compassion of men who know the stain of this sin.  It began with the courage of one man to shine the light in the darkness.

This sin is not going away.  In fact, this year someone is making $100 billion by victimizing 30,000 of us every second and terrorizing its employees.  They will make more next year.  Who's stopping them?  Virtually nobody.  Perhaps a worse question is, who's paying them?  We are.

Consider the impact:
"Multimedia pornography has become the chief means by which the emergent sex industry encourages the solicitations of the senses to overwhelm the moral and aesthetic feelings of fitness on which all civilized actions and an ordered culture depend. Pornography represents the contemporary means of making Caligulas of us all—with all that that implies in terms of violence, misogyny, and interpersonal grief." Paul McHugh, University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine 
What this fancy academic language means is that porn fundamentally alters the way we think--not just about sex, but about ourselves and other human beings.  In other words:
Porn use creates the impression that aberrant sexual practices are more common than they really are, and that promiscuous behavior is normal. For example, in a 2000 meta-analysis of 46 published studies put out by the National Foundation for Family Research and Education at the University of Calgary, regular exposure to pornography increased risk of sexual deviancy (including lower age of first intercourse and excessive masturbation), increased belief in the “rape myth” (that women cause rape and rapists are normal), and was associated with negative attitudes regarding intimate relationships (e.g., rejecting the need for courtship and viewing persons as sexual objects). Indeed, neurological imaging confirms the latter finding. Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University, used MRI scans to analyze the brain activity of men viewing pornography. She found that after viewing porn, men looked at women more as objects than as human beings.
No wonder Jesus was so serious about what we look at: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  Little did His disciples imagine what dangers awaited us 2,000 years in the future!

Because as you probably suspect, the problem in the church reflects the problem in the world.  Brace yourself:
  • A 1996 Promise Keepers survey at one of their stadium events revealed that over 50% of the men in attendance were involved with pornography within one week of attending the event. 
  • 51% of pastors say cyber-porn is a possible temptation. 37% say it is a current struggle (Christianity Today, Leadership Survey, 12/2001). 
  • Over half of evangelical pastors admit viewing pornography last year. 
  • Roger Charman of Focus on the Family's Pastoral Ministries reports that approximately 20 percent of the calls received on their Pastoral Care Line are for help with issues such as pornography and compulsive sexual behavior. 
  • In a 2000 Christianity Today survey, 33% of clergy admitted to having visited a sexually explicit Web site. Of those who had visited a porn site, 53% had visited such sites “a few times” in the past year, and 18% visit sexually explicit sites between a couple of times a month and more than once a week. 
  • 29% of born again adults in the U.S. feel it is morally acceptable to view movies with explicit sexual behavior (The Barna Group). 
  • 57% of pastors say that addiction to pornography is the most sexually damaging issue to their congregation (Christians and Sex Leadership Journal Survey, March 2005).
While many sinful activities and temptations remain relatively constant throughout the centuries, porn only gets worse with time, because getting it gets easier every year.  When I was in elementary school, I remember sneaking a peek inside a Playboy at the grocery store.  When the sharp-eyed clerk caught me, I slunk out the door quickly and resolved never to be seen in that store again. Today, porn is just a click away.  The average child sees his or her first pornographic images by age 11.

So what?  Is it really so bad?  Are you one of the nearly one-third of born-again adults who thinks it's no big deal?  Because porn destroys the lives, marriages and families of those who watch it.  And that's nothing compared to the horrific experiences of the people trapped in the industry (the very people you whose oppression you are supporting every time you watch that video or click that hyperlink).

Listen to one prominent former porn industry star tell the awful truth:

Is there hope?  Yes, there is hope and recovery, but only when there is honesty.  If your church, Bible study, or family isn't talking about porn, you're not dealing with reality.  It's a terribly difficult and embarrassing topic, but sin thrives in dark corners.  Turning the tide starts with shining a light.

It starts with the courage of one person to stand up and tell the truth.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Death of a Local Church

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.  (Revelation 2:4-5)
I recently had the misfortune to watch the final death struggle of a local church with which I was closely acquainted.  I'll call it "First Neighborhood Church" (FNC).  The process was hard to watch, but instructive.  I took several lessons away:

1.  Churches die when their members stop growing in Christ.  Spiritual growth is a lifelong process.  In a healthy church, every member is challenged with regular doses of biblical teaching.  Expository preaching doesn't recycle the same seasonal or self-help themes over and over, and doesn't shy away from difficult topics.  Sunday school and Bible study classes are encouraged for all members, not just the children.  Discipleship isn't just the topic of one sermon or Bible study course, but is an active process that occurs organically and consistently throughout the body.  Members learn and accept that they are accountable to one another and to the church.  In the declining years of FNC most were no longer growing; they were atrophying.  Eventually they just moved on or lost interest.

2.  Churches die when they "fish off the dock" as their primary outreach method.  Over the decades FNC had devolved into the kind of church that hung out its shingle and waited for its neighbors to find it based on its reputation, its big events, or the idea that local people still go to their local church.  This is both unbiblical and ineffective, especially in today's mobile, post-Christian society.  The neighbors aren't coming.  If they do show up, they'll visit a time or two to see what's going on before they move on to the next new thing.  When the church's primary evangelism method is "fishing off the dock", it will catch a few small fish, many of which have been previously caught and released by others.  Don't be surprised when you see several hooks still in the fish's mouth!  There are larger schools of fish out there, but it means your members are getting into their boats and pushing out into deeper water.  It means they'll have to live evangelistic lives, not just attend evangelistic events.  It means they'll have to risk something.  A church whose members stay on the dock is a church that will die.

3.  Churches die when they over-celebrate their heritage.  This point is related to the first.  FNC had a glorious past, which it celebrated incessantly by posting portraits, naming memorials, and carrying on traditions.  Over time, the building began to feel like a mausoleum.  But the children of those celebrated saints grew up and moved away, while all that accumulated heritage became the millstone they relentlessly clung to as they slipped below the surface and sank out of relevance.

4.  Churches die when they are populated by members who don't participate in ministry.  A clear sign of a church in trouble is when a decreasing number of its members participate in ministry activities, or when the "ministry activities" that do attract participation are reduced to a small number of special events the lazy (yes, I said it) members can claim credit for.  Senior members "retire" from ministry rather than "re-mission" to other forms more suited to their station in life.  Younger members float along unchallenged and demand to be served and entertained.  New members are added in the form of anyone who will pray the "sinner's prayer", submit to baptism or sign the card.  Nothing is expected of them and nothing is given, and many leave within weeks of signing up.  The leadership team begins to feel isolated and overburdened, at a loss as to how to feed all these gaping mouths.  In the final stages, a siege mentality sets in and it becomes us versus them ... the overworked, underappreciated and bitter core versus the disillusioned mass of complaining and diminishing malcontents.  It's an ugly scene, and one I've seen played out too many times.

Well, this has been a downer, so I should end with a plug for IX Marks, which devotes itself to building healthy churches on solid, biblical foundations which will endure.  To the credit of those who stayed committed to the end, FNC actually made a final, valiant attempt to remake itself in that model, but it was just too late.  Burdened by a mountain of financial obligations and a shattered reputation left over from the church's long decline, they simply ran out of time.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lin-Sanity: The Faith of the "Taiwanese Tebow"

Jeremy Lin's unexpected explosion onto the professional sports scene, combined with his evangelical faith in Jesus, already has drawn comparisons to a certain Denver Bronco. There's certainly a familiar feel to Lin-sanity. From the near-daily lead stories on ESPN to the "enjoy-it-while-it-lasts" skepticism from many professional pundits, it's hard to escape the weird sense of deja vu.  Oh, and of course there's also the late-game heroics:

But this is a Christian blog, and so let's get into that.  On one hand, he is not shy about declaring unambiguously his allegiance to Jesus Christ, even insisting on at least one occasion that he be given the opportunity to testify to it as a condition of a San Jose Mercury News interview.  In it, he explained how the trials of going undrafted and being cut by two NBA teams taught him to ask some hard questions, like "how can I trust God more? How can I surrender more? How can I bring him more glory?"

He also learned to depend on the promise of Romans 8:28 to deal with his anxiety: And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Many have observed that Lin's witness is slightly less overt than Tebow's, but that's not to say he hides his light under a bowl.  The Tebow hype machine had been building for years at Florida, where he won a Heisman Trophy, two National Championships and earned a controversial first-round NFL selection.  Of course, it be attributable to the absence of eye black in basketball (Tebow's habit of writing Scripture verses on his eye black gained so much attention it inspired its own blog).

For those who wonder, Lin's music tastes include Hillsong and a rapper named LaCrae, whom I know as much about as I do about any rapper, which is to say nothing.  But nor am I 23 years old, so I'll let Jeremy explain:


As for the whole "Taiwanese Tebow" thing--yes, it's goofy, but so far it doesn't seem to bother Lin much.  In fact, he expresses appreciation for the quarterback's example:
I think the things he says in interviews, his approach to the game is just unbelievable and I respect him so much ... I want to be able to do some of the things that he does in terms of the amount of charity work and the nonprofit work, and the way he impacts people off the field. I think that is what is most inspiring to me about him.
So ... learning to be a Bronco fan this year wan't too tough.  But the Knicks?  I never thought I'd see the day I root for a New York team, but this kid's got me hooked.  Holding my nose ...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Soldiers, Evangelists, Crusaders?

Next month the Jailer will begin a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.  This will be my third deployment in eight years, so my family is accustomed to my periodic extended absences, though missing Jailer Jr.'s high school graduation and first trip to college will be disappointing.  More on this later.

Today I think it's appropriate to comment on a kerfuffle that erupted nearly three years ago when a hack posing as a legitimate journalist wormed his way onto Bagram Air Base and put together a video purporting to show military members attempting to violate United States Central Command General Order Number One, in which a variety of forbidden practices are outlined.  These include alcohol, pornography, and “proselytizing of any faith, religion or practice” while in theater.

Any fair evaluation of the video would conclude it is shamefully slanted and dishonest.  In fact, the individuals  portrayed did pretty much everything almost exactly right.  There is prayer for the lost, preaching and teaching to the faithful, and an honest discussion of what to do with a stack of Pasthtu and Dari (the official Afghan languages) which were sent to a member by his church in the US in light of the General Order.  The presence of these Bibles is a problem, except that the soldier who received them in the mail brought them to the chaplains, who use them as an opportunity to discuss the issue.  The preaching is typical of many evangelical worship services, except perhaps the preponderance of military references, which are hardly surprising considering the makeup of the congregation.  He was speaking in terms his flock could relate to.

Still, if you are looking for proof that anything can be made to sound scandalous if you're trying hard enough, and the "journalist" found a willing accomplice in Al-Jazeera, which aired this agitprop in May of 2009:


To its credit, the Defense Department refused to surrender the either truth or the high ground:
The Al Jazeera story showed an evangelical religious service on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and a discussion about distributing Bibles that had been translated into Dari and Pashtu – the two major languages of Afghanistan.

“American servicemembers are allowed to hold religious services,” a Defense Department official speaking on background said. “The clip shows one of those services with an American chaplain leading a religious service for American servicemembers.
In it, he spoke generically about the evangelical faith. That’s all there was to it.”

The chaplain did not urge servicemembers to go among the Afghan people and attempt to gain converts to Christianity, the official said.

In the second instance, a young sergeant received a shipment of Bibles translated into Dari and Pashtu from his church in the United States. The film showed a discussion about the Bibles.

“What it did not show was the chaplain counseling the young sergeant that distributing the Bibles was against U.S. Central Command’s General Order No. 1,” the official said. The chaplain confiscated the Bibles. “As far as we know, none ever got off base.”
The debate over the clear journalistic malpractice is yesterday's news, so I will leave it there. I'd rather turn the discussion to a more delicate problem among Christians--namely whether these servicemembers were unjustly muzzled or should engage in civil disobedience for the sake of the gospel.  Put another way, do we have a duty to preach the gospel in all situations regardless of human law or regulation?  This is an argument for which there is apparent basis, to include the Great Commission itself, as well as Peter and John's brave assertion before the Sanhedrin:
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”   
So there is clearly a command to evangelize which transcends certain lesser human commands to cease.  The question is whether this is universal or circumstantial.  In other words, are there times, places and circumstances in which it is right to obey man and refrain from speaking?

There are indeed.  Let me list a few important facts to keep in mind:
  • In Romans 13:1-7, Paul clearly advocates submission to earthly authorities where appropriate.
  • Jesus Himself recognized there were times to speak and times to remain quiet.  For example, on at least two occasions He commanded witnesses to healings not to speak of it.  He was trying to avoid an onslaught of miracle-seekers who would interfere with His primary mission.  
  • Even in sending out His disciples to preach, He commanded them to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."  There is to be wisdom as well as boldness.
  • Military members take an oath, which includes the promise "to obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice."  General Order Number One qualifies.  If the order were unlawful (such as an order to kill unarmed civilians) then we would have a duty to disobey it.  This one is not unlawful, however, and we are obliged to keep our oaths.  
More broadly, it is key to remember that narratives matter a lot in Afghanistan.  Like most countries in the region, Afghanistan is possessed of a high-context culture, which means that the culture adds a great deal of context to a speaker's words or actions.  To that the extent that the speaker understands this context, he can communicate.  Unfortunately this also means a speaker who is ignorant of the context will find his messages re-translated in mystifying ways.

Moreover, high-context cultures have very long corporate memories, which add a great deal to the context.  History (as they understand it) is extremely important.  In such a culture, the Great Crusades were just yesterday, the British Empire was driven out this morning, and the nation of Israel was planted in the Muslim world five minutes ago in an attempt to shame and ultimately destroy their society.  Into this environment place an ongoing NATO military operation and a determined enemy aggressively hawking this message via a variety of media and methods.

Then drop in a well-intentioned Christian wearing a US Army uniform, M-4 rifle and body armor, giving a "gift" of a Dari-language Bible to a young man in a military hospital.  It doesn't take much imagination to see where this can go.  

What's more, what happens when that young man leaves the hospital and is discovered with the Bible by the local mullah or Taliban commander?  Prison, torture and death are all possible outcomes.  Sure, as Christians we should be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel, but that doesn't give us the right to put those we're seeking to reach in similar peril while we ourselves sleep relatively securely in our barracks and Constitutional protections.  

Which brings us back to the cause of the gospel in that part of the world.  It is my hope and belief that God has a plan to reach the Muslim world with the gospel.  For this He will use some very brave people such as Yousef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor who remains under sentence of death for his faith.  I also hope He will use the mantle of liberty our military efforts result in to create a more open society in which future Pastor Yousefs across the region may freely practice and minister.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?

The small God of our cynicism.
I have been a fan of the 49ers and the Patriots since I was young, having spent several early formative years living in those media markets.  In 2011 2011 I also picked up a passing affinity for the Denver Tebows ... er, Broncos.

Of course, that was the year that the Tim Tebow experiment emphatically stirred up the most predictable debate about faith in sports:  "Does God care who wins a game?"

Such was the popular anxiety over this question that news outlets felt the need to repeatedly poll the nation (which was predictably split on the matter).  But the question is not new.  After all, Roger Staubach first popularized the idea of the "Hail Mary pass" in 1975.  Still, it generally takes an outspoken Christian to set the sporting world's teeth on edge and bring out the vitriol, or at least the ambivalence.  Former NFL great Fran Tarkenton speaks for many:
"As a player, I never understood why God would care who won a game between my team and another.  There were religious guys on both teams. If God gets credit for the win, does he also take blame for defeat?"
Of course, it's easy to point out that Frantic Fran may suffer from the bias on one who lost all three Super Bowls he started in, but the larger point is that his observation seems to carry a ring of truth.  A sporting event is not a binary event where God judges the more righteous team and grants it the victory.  Despite the insinuations, no serious person--Christian or not--would argue such a thing.  Certainly Brother Tebow never has.

The problem with this discussion lies below the surface.  Scrape away the top layer of the common objections to vocal Christian athletes and you will generally find arguments such as this one:
"I think Jesus might have more important issues on his plate: disease, maybe. War. Poverty."
Here at last is the core of the issue.  God can't possibly care about sports because He's busy with really important stuff.  This sounds right on the face of it, until you stop to consider what that says about God.  You see, He can only handle so much.  Do you really expect Him to take time out from disease, war and poverty to flick on a football game?  How ridiculous!

Those who make such arguments are essentially saying that God is too big and important to worry about small and petty issues like football.  The problem is that their argument makes God out to be very small indeed, for it presumes that God is unable to multitask.  It assumes, in short, that God is like me ... finite, time-constrained and overwhelmed by "important issues".  Like a divine circus performer desperate to keep a dozen plates spinning at once.

This is not the God of the Bible.  Our God is the author of history ... every part of it.  Not just the Super Bowl, but the preseason.  Not just my cancer, but my hangnail.  He is the God who watches every sparrow and counts every hair on my head.

The team who wins the Super Bowl will be the one which God purposes to win it.  In so doing, He will give some an opportunity to glorify Him in victory, while other glorify Him in defeat.  Many of His people on both sides of the final score will gain the opportunity to testify to His goodness, both in victory and defeat.  Many will be subjected to trials of faith and emerge stronger, refined and purified.  Through it all, God will be moving events toward His final judgment.

So does God "care" who wins the Super Bowl?  Of course He does.  Just not necessarily for the simple, carnal reasons we assume He might.   Rather, just as "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose", we know that God works out His grand design in sparrows and in football games.  Some small number of His purposes are evident to us immediately, but most are not, in the same way that few of a parent's purposes are evident to a small child.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
  "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?""Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?"
    For from him and through him and for him are all things.To him be the glory forever! Amen.
As for me, I plan to sit down and watch what I hope will be a great championship game.  In other words, I will root my team in blissful ignorance of the eternal ramifications of a victory or defeat.