"Abort, and try again."

Richard Dawkins inspired, yet again, a firestorm of controversy with his twitter account. Responding to a women asking for ethical guidance after discovering her unborn child has Down Syndrome (DS), Dawkins offered the following advice, “Abort it and try again, it would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Admittedly, while Dawkins' line of reasoning could be shot-thru by my second grade son, here are some reflections worth noting on the low-hanging fruit:

1    1.  Dawkins is a refreshingly honest atheist. In contrast to the number of other atheists I have spent time with who refuse, against all odds, to head down this line of thinking, Dawkins is, to say nothing else, (fairly) consistent in his beliefs. If life has emerged from seeds planted on our planets by aliens (as Dawkins actually explained at the close of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed: skip to the 1:30:45 mark), than why would he, or anyone else, feel the slightest tinge of doubt about taking a life.

2    2. I said “fairly consistent” because his belief system makes it absolutely ludicrous for Dawkins to also suggest something is “immoral.” For Dawkins to use this very term there needs to be a standard by which he measures the action he is evaluating. Keeping the child is “immoral” on what grounds? Morality, by definition, is a code of conduct, a set of expected behaviors, or law(s) that call humanity to certain actions or demand that they refrain from others. Hence, as the argument goes, if there is a law, there needs to be a lawgiver. When Dawkins suggests something is “immoral” it begs the question, whose law would I be breaking? Certainly not any law of nature. If there is no measuring rod, Dawkins cannot suggest that any action (or inaction) is ever immoral. 

3    3. Dawkins responded later in the day to the backlash by suggesting that since abortion is what happens to the “great majority” of DS fetuses, his tweet cannot be construed to be either illogical or heartless. The majority argument is a particularly embarrassing one if you are an atheists and your view of the world is in stark disagreement with over 90% of the rest of us who are religious. Apparently, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the human race throughout history have held to some form of religious belief is not enough evidence for Dawkins to change his worldview. Nor can it let him off the hook for bad behavior.    

4    4. Finally, Dawkins apologized this morning in his personal blog. The act of saying "I am sorry," experiencing remorse, grappling with one’s own conscious, and concern for human relationships opens a Pandora’s box full of questions and comments related to the metaphysical world of the inner life, as well as the exploration of the origins and existence of guilt. Added to this is the above-mentioned analysis of how an atheist might determine what is moral or immoral in the first place, and Dawkins’ simple 140 tweet looks more and more like a window in the morally bankrupt world of atheism.

But far more important than these philosophical arguments is the fact that there are many parents around the world today who are finding out this week that the tiny fetus growing in their womb also has DS. While I think Dawkins would like us all to pretend that we are brains disconnected from hearts, choosing logic over emotion, I prefer to live more holistically. Our emotions are not an aspect of our humanity that simply "gets in the way" of making wise choices, they are always the means. Every decision we make is emotional. In regards to abortion, those effected by our decision are voiceless, we are left to make the decision for them. 

No life is a mistake, every person is unique gift to the world. Dawkins is emphatically wrong to suggest that there is ever an opportunity to simply "try again."No human being is merely replaceable, especially the child you have created. Let them live, let them show you.        

Thank You Sean: A Tribute to Robin Williams

   No movie has touched my life more dramatically than Good Will Hunting. It appeared on the screen in a season of my life in which alcohol and anger were seeping from my own father wounds, and during a time when the direction of my life and the purpose of my story were clouded in self-doubt, insecurity and confusion. Today, I mourn with the rest of the world as we contemplate the legacy of Robin Williams, who despite assuring us all that "It is not your fault," has taken his own life. As is often the case in suicide, the true rationale for such a final, and drastic measure, passes on with the victim. Even when a reason is given, it fails to tell the entire story. In fact, my first months of ministry found me picking up the pieces with a family in the wake of suicide. Their own questions mirrored the same “why?” that seems to just hang in the air like a thick smoke inside my mind to this day.
   Statistically, my work with college students places me in direct contact with a demographic that is more likely to end their lives prematurely than nearly any other. I say “nearly”, because the reality is that suicides that occur among those 18-24 is actually eclipsed by only one other age group, those above 65. Of this shocking trend M. Robert Mullholland, Jr. writes:

“I believe one of the underlying realities behind the epidemic of suicide among adolescents and senior citizens is that we are a culture that values people primarily for what they do.” 

   Teenagers and the retired are most vulnerable to despair and lack of identity in such a culture, he argues. Robin Williams, at age 63, could certainly fit into this demographic. And while this may very well be a legitimate diagnosis of the problem, it is certainly not the only one. My contact with those who have attempted suicide leads me to believe that many considered suicide because, quite frankly, life has become unbearable. I see the connection in the two age groups to be more along the lines of their place in history. Those older than 65 have fought long enough and are ready to move on. The young adults simply look at the potential of another 60+ years of hell in front of them and opt out early. When I look at the world outside my window and the one unfolding on the screen in front of me, I sympathize with their conclusion. This is not cynical, nihilistic surrender, it is empathy instead of judgment, and it is refusing to call it daytime when it is night.

   My personal conviction is that those who are considering suicide do not need sermons (formal or informal) exhorting them to cheer up, look on the bright-side, or reminders that things are not so bad after all, or be told one more time how much they are loved and appreciated…no matter how well intentioned. What I want to suggest instead is that, especially as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to be willing to sit in the darkness with others and refuse to call it anything less. A girl who is rapped by her uncle, a boy who has struggled his whole life with homosexual urges, the child who grows up in the foster care system, the man whose drunk father beat him daily and the women whose parents were killed by a drunk driver. Their pain is real and their tragedy has marked every aspect of their story. 

   What I often fear drives some to take their lives is that the world around them doesn’t want to hear their story. Our culture is unkind to those who are broken messes. Those who feel all alone in their struggle often wake to find one day that the world around them really has moved on without them. Theirs is not a winning story of overcoming and unstoppable victory against all odds. To all of you who are considering suicide today I want to remind you that Jesus came for the sick who know they needed a doctor (Matt. 9:12). He had little patience for those who thought they were already healthy.

   Your stories of pain and abandonment and crushing loss are all living reminders that the world we live in is broken and in need of the rescue that only Jesus can give. And we need you. We need your bravery and your honesty. We need truth tellers who have stared at the darkness of their own lives and are not afraid of the darkness lurking in the stories of everyone they meet. Truly, if this can’t start among those who know they are unconditionally loved, things may be truly worse than any of us imagine. That is why we need you to stay among us. Not because things are not as bad as you think, but because you know how bad they really are. We need people who are not afraid to take off their masks and let the world know, as Frederick Beuchner suggests, that our secrets are what we share most in common. Robin, I wish we all still had time for you to talk to Sean. You will be greatly missed.

Vacant Lots for the Kingdom: $1.00

You can by a vacant lot in South Chicago right now for $1.

With over 5,000 lots in the Englewood district alone, the City of Chicago is buckling under the weight of ongoing upkeep for so many empty and unused spaces around the city. Spaces that emerged after the housing market collapsed and have now become garbage dumps, centers for drug dealing or loitering gang members.

The solution: sell them off for the price of a pack of gum. But before you dash off to Chicago seeking your own piece of the pie, you need to know that there is a catch, you must already own a house on the same block.  

The plan is a rather ingenious one that protects the neighborhood from possible gentrification while simultaneously ensuring that the lots will be well cared for. How? Because the people who care about those spaces the most are the people living next to them. From my front yard here in North Georgia I scarcely, if ever, consider the state of vacant lots in Chicago. Even if I did muster some vague sense of concern, I am doubtful that it would ever transfer into a plan of action. Furthermore, even if I were inspired to act, I am distrustful that my action would be in the best interest of the neighborhood, a neighborhood I don’t live in, full of people I don’t know, in a city that is not my home.  

Conversely, if there was a vacant lot next to my house filled with garbage and drug dealers and gang members, and if my kids were running through it daily, you can imagine I would find myself quite inspired to do something about it.

And yet, many of us find that we are surrounded by vacant lots of various kinds daily that fail to generate any sense of responsibility in us; a responsibility to bring light, or beauty, or joy or dignity to barren spots of land. While we may not live next to a physical patch of abandoned asphalt, every one of us has been called to a place and to a people for which we are responsible. They might be a fellow employee, or someone from your community, your neighborhood, your school, or your street. Jesus calls them your “neighbor” and some of them are desperately in need of attention. Like the cracked hardtop between apartments in South Chicago many of the people we connect with from our sphere of influence have slipped, unnoticed, into disrepair. Weeds have grown up through the ground, chocking out what was once a bed of grass, while broken glass and old tires have slowly replaced gardens and fruit bearing trees. Laughter of innocent children has given way to violence and sounds of gunshot. Have you noticed?

In his book Visions of Vocation, Steve Garber writes,

“Whether our vocations are as butchers, bakers or candlestick makers- or people drawn into worlds of business or law, agriculture or education, architecture or construction, journalism, or international development, health care or the arts – in our own different ways we are responsible, for love’s sake, for the way the world is and ought to be. We are called to be common grace for the common good.” 

Do you share God’s vision, passion and longing for what is possible in the vacant lots surrounding you? After all, if those living closest to them fail to be unmoved by the glaring gap between what they are and what they could become, who will? Is there a lot in particular that you have recognized which needs some attention - some grace, some friendship, some hope, some “common grace” and “common good?” Perhaps  “for love’s sake” you might consider partnering with God as he seeks out the forsaken, the discarded and the forgotten- the vacant and abandoned- joining him in his work of “making all things new.” Let’s seek to ensure that in each of our own neighborhoods there is no need for the city to sell land to anyone with a dollar. We can all agree, they are infinitely more valuable than that.  

Isaac: A Theology of Sacrifice

Abraham was sure he had heard the promise descend out of the sky, straight from God himself. It was the promise of a son. It was the promise that ancient loins would still bring forth life and barren wombs would finally produce lineage. It was the promise of legacy and the possibility of honor among a tribe built on shame for the childless. So when the promise-maker tarried, Abraham laid down with his slave, and tried to force God’s hand.  “Bless me!” his actions cried, “Bless me.”

His grandson Jacob would echo his demands decades later to an angel that wrestled him to the ground in the middle of the desert. Holding tight to the stranger while the sunlight touched the horizon, he demanded also, “Bless me.”

Years after the promise was given, Abraham eventually received a son and as a new day emerged over the cool desert night, Jacob received a new name. For both, there was a cost. In his blessing, Jacob has his hip put out of joint by the angel of the Lord and walks away with a limp as a permanent reminder that no blessing comes without sacrifice. Abraham too, though he receives his blessing, is asked to tie his son to an altar and raise a knife to his chest. A ram is provided as an alternative, but the sacrifice of Abrahams’s heart is already given. The real sacrifice was offered days earlier when, in the shadows of the night, God asks Abraham to return the gift he was given, the gift he had waited years for, the gift he was almost certain would never come. When it finally arrives, God wants it returned to him. 

“Am I enough?” God asks.

In the frailty of our longings we are Abraham and Jacob who so often long for the gift more than the giver. We too cry “bless me” with our eyes closed to the blessing that has already been lavished upon us. We understand God as the Father who made us, redeemed us, and is waiting for us to return home. But we forget he is also the Father who disciplines, tests, shapes and refines. We want children without having to build altars and we want to be given new names without broken hips.  

And so it is, at times, that we all might find ourselves wrestling with strangers in the desert. Tired of waiting, growing weary of living by sightless faith, we take the angel by the hand, or walk our slave to the bedroom, and try to bring about a gift that cannot be taken by force. We rage against God’s apparent slowness and wonder loudly through word and deed if we had ever really heard the promise in the first place. We doubt, we grow angry, impatient, disheartened, and cynical. We stop waiting all together, and slowly begin to forget what it is we were ever really waiting for in the first place.

And this is precisely the mountain that God desires to lead us to. It is the place in which our own Isaac is walking with a pile of wood tied to his back forcing us to look away lest he see our tears. It is the dark night from which angels emerge to pin us to the ground and show us our weakness.

Waiting is the greatest testing ground of our faith. In the delay of receiving and in the absence of resolve we are forced to examine the depths of our hearts like Abraham, to discern whether it was ever enough to simply be his child without the promise of receiving one of our own. Or like Jacob, to comprehend that God himself already knows our name, with or without the blessing of a new one.

No blessing comes without sacrifice, and every sacrifice God demands refines our hearts and returns our gaze to the blessing we already have in the gift of God himself. A gift that we do not have to wait for, fight for, or sacrifice once it arrives. 

 Picture: The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio 

Did Jesus make mistakes?

Did Jesus ever have to say sorry?

The question has been raised recently by Mark Driscoll whose ability to spontaneously insert his foot into his mouth on any given Sunday has become, quite honestly, rather predictable. Several weeks ago Driscoll’s awkward moment in the pulpit was further highlighted by the fact that fellow leaders of Mars Hill actually deleted a six-minute section from his sermon before it was posted online for public consumption. And what was the faux pas? Claiming that while Jesus was indeed sinless, he also, most likely, had “made mistakes.” 

Psychology professor and blogger Warren Throckmorten posted the deleted clips earlier this week on Patheos to prevent theological banter from misconstruing Driscoll’s original words…and banter there has been. Shortly after the censored sermon was broadcast scholars and practitioners alike aired their respective opinions on the issue. Some were disseminated by Christianity Today while others simply took to the Evangelical news outlets of twitter and facebook.

Is the issue important? Certainly….and no, not really. As it typically does on such issues, the question hinges on semantics and the definition of terms. If by “mistakes” Driscoll means to say that as Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52) and “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8) he underwent a fully human experience of trying and failing at non-moral tasks (Driscoll’s illustrations include riding a bike or learning to write letters, or hit a baseball). In this regard one should be able to say that it is reasonable that Jesus made “mistakes.” Certainly, he may have taken a wrong turn, forgot a name, or was late to a meeting and we would consider these trifle instances unintentional errors. Few, if any of us, would have a problem with Jesus making those sort of mistakes.

But what do we make of the use of the word to imply, as it often does, intentional and unwise decisions? We often call it a “mistake” for the woman to have an extra glass of wine before she got in her car to drive home, or for the counselor to become romantically involved with his client. In fact many of us may confess at times that a lapse of judgment on the internet, words spoken in anger and haste, or even dealing inappropriately with the finances of our business, was simply an unfortunate, albeit tragic, “mistake.”

When the word is used in this context, we must unapologetically disagree with Mr. Driscoll about the potential for Jesus to be included in the mix. As one who was unable to do anything but what he glimpsed the father himself doing, Jesus never was sidetracked for a second (John 5:19).

However, perhaps what might cause the most confusion in this debate is not the multi-faceted definition of “mistakes” but the underwhelming use of the word “sin” in our current culture. Maybe all this eyebrow raising has much less to do with our theological integrity then it does our societal confusion about humanity.

Shooters in school hallways, college campuses, and movie theatres have biological and mental disorders. Porn addicts are victims of Internet infused imaginations, and unrealized sexual desires. Addictions to vices are the byproduct of exhausting hours at the office or loneliness. We are violent because of video games. We are abusers because our parents were. We “err because we are human” Alexander Pope taught us, and these errors are to be expected, embraced and explained in ways that increasingly distance us from theological language like…sin.

Charles Spurgeon once said, “When men talk of a little hell it's because they think they have only a little sin and believe in a little Savior.” In a similar way, when we reduce the gravity of sinful humanity to a people who might occasionally make “mistakes,” our lapse in language also prevents us from experiencing the full weight and glory of the gospel. We can grant that Christ may have overcooked a roasted goat on occasion, but we dare not suggest that he ever failed to accomplish all that the Father had asked of him. Indeed, Jesus didn’t come to ensure that we wouldn’t ever spill our milk or trip on a crack in the sidewalk, he came to bring dead people back to life. Dismissing our sin for mistakes sounds an awful lot like the sick declaring themselves healthy enough to never seek out the doctor (Mark 2:17).


Not all Christians are Terrorists

Suppose for a moment that there was an attack on a government building several years ago that killed thousands of people. And suppose that the atrocity was committed by a very small band of cult members who opposed a number of policies instituted by our government, including the right to abortion and same-sex unions; ideology which they deemed to be in direct conflict with the clear teachings of Scripture. Suppose they believed that the attack on the building was akin to Jesus clearing the temple and that their act of loyalty to God would bring them eternal glory in Heaven. 

Now imagine that years later, on the site where the attack occurred, a memorial is erected and a museum is built to “never forget” the great cost of radical ideology. Now imagine that as you enter this museum there is a unique section dedicated to the perpetrators of the brutality. There is a Bible on a table, and there is a video playing on the wall giving a brief synopsis of the history and the basic tenants of the Christian movement. In fact, everywhere you look in the museum there is a nearly constant emphasis on the religious views of these terrorists, and a determined point to highlight the fact that they were driven to murder by their unyielding devotion to the Bible and their loyalty to the Christian faith.

Finally, imagine that you yourself are a Christian, and you yourself lost loved ones in the attack. Standing in the museum, are you allowed to join the community of the grieving? Are you allowed to be a victim, or are you compelled to be a perpetrator?

The new 9/11 museum opened its doors last week in New York City with an equal amount of fanfare and controversy. While the above simulation was hypothetical, it was based on the fact that this was precisely the experience of many Muslims who entered the museum in the middle of May. While museum curators attempted to be historically accurate with the details of the attack, the very use of the word “Islam” was inappropriate to many Muslims who stand as opposed to the radical extremism of al-Qaeda as anyone else who visited the museum that day. Muslims who not only disagree with terrorism, but who came to the museum in order to find healing for their own loss, seeking a community to grieve with. 

Dr. Dee Britton is a professor and writer that has centered her research on what is known as “collective memory.” The basic premise of her work is, especially as it relates to instances of trauma, the way we remember communally plays a significant role in the healing process, not only for families and organizations, but even entire nations. She writes,  

“A social group’s identity is constructed with narratives and traditions that are created to give its members a sense of a community….Regardless of the size and complexity of the social group, the group needs to construct and maintain an identity that unites its members (through) the stories, artifacts, food and drink, symbols, traditions, images, and music that form the ties that bind members together.”

As it relates to the 9/11 museum, my concern is that through the specific “stories, and artifacts” on display, Muslim Americans are not invited fully to the table of healing. Just as many Christians may feel unfairly represented by the opening, fictitious story, and compelled to protest “those people are NOT Christians,” so too are Muslims whose religion looks no more analogous to the faith of hijackers than my own religion mirrors the snake-handlers of Appalachia or the Branch Davidians.  

My prayer is that Christians especially would be on the forefront of a national dialogue that recognizes the common humanity of Muslims while helping to foster, perhaps even leading the way, towards a greater understanding of the theological inaccuracy of calling all Muslims terrorists. Indeed, perhaps more than anyone else, Christians should be sensitive to the way our media is constantly bent on drawing attention to the exception while calling it the rule.

I am keenly aware that there are vast, and incredibly important differences between Muslims and Christians. And yet, I also know that death, suffering, and loss present the very fertile soil in which genuine and potentially life-altering conversations about religion, faith and hope can actually take place. In that regard, I want 9/11 to become a bridge and not a barricade for Kingdom work.

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I am a father and I am a son. I am adopted and rescued...a friend of Jesus. I am Carrie's husband and dad to Luke, Andrew and Zachary. I am the Director of Spiritual Formation at Toccoa Falls College and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). I am a teacher who loves to engage the world with words and I am a Christian who aims to be the Good News in speech in deed. I am an artist attempting to create good art that glorifies the Creator and encourages his creation to seek him.