Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Need to Matter

From time to time, as I walk across the University of Houston campus, I will witness some "well meaning" evangelist holding a Bible and debating with students in the grassy yard in front of M.D. Anderson library. They often have a sidekick holding a sandwich sign or a big wooden cross as part of their display. Of course they conjure passionate feelings from students that are going to be vocal about their thoughts on some social matter. Typically these "evangelists" show up on campus shortly after some major development in the news regarding faith, tolerance, LGBT rights (i.e. "equal marriage") or religious pluralism in American society.

I put "well meaning" in quotes because I've come to wonder whether they really are "well meaning." It has been generally excepted that the "street preacher" genre is the least effective way to persuade anyone that submission to the Lord Jesus Christ and reception of him as Savior is the solution to their inescapable sin problem for this life and the next. So therefore, it is unlikely that these religious street performers are actually attempting to persuade anyone. If the goal of evangelism is to be persuasive (to the extent that the Holy Spirit involves human activity in wooing people to Christ), what then are these people doing if not evangelism? It must be something else entirely.

Attempts to classify this activity are not simple or easy, and it's made further complicated that the "evangelists" themselves would claim that they ARE doing the work of evangelism. How does one classify an activity when the participants insist that they are doing something it couldn't possibly be? I think the answer is found in the ubiquitous sentiment of meaninglessness pervading much of our leisurely society. In the absence of any real epic struggle, a grasping to matter naturally festers so that some are desperate to convince themselves their existence serves a purpose.

This sentiment crosses many ideological, religious and even political boundaries. Consider the short lived "Occupy Wall Street" crowd, or other rallies where a random sampling of the "protesters" reveals they're not even sure why they're there. There's just a drive to matter...a need to matter. The requirement that one actually accomplishes anything is beside the point. This is excused with the nebulous objective "We're out here raising awareness" (a mantra that has come to represent absolution from actual productive labors). As mock-able as this behavior may be in so-called "liberal" circles, it's come to characterize much of American Evangelical Christianity as well.

Rumblings of boycotts, backlashes and resistance in the "culture war" pervade AEC's fixation on keeping the trappings of Christianity all around them. The annual "war on Christmas" begins whenever the Christmas decorations go up at department stores or malls, and Ms. Mable Busybody discovers fewer references to Baby Jesus in her favorite section of the Hallmark store. Someone at Target wishes her "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and her blue hair turns red with outrage. Surely this "attack" on her beloved holiday cannot stand. Thus the calls begin and the "prayer chain" rallies to find someone tech savvy enough to use social media. "How could this happen in America?" becomes the refrain of those needing validation of their faith from the ambient conditions around them.

This type of AEC outrage is not shared among those that actually spend their time out in the world, making friends with ordinary people, sharing the Gospel (and when necessary using words) and making an actual difference. It's mainly among those that are the spectators in the Missio Dei, demonstrating perfectly what my prof used to say about the Church in America:

"The Church today is not unlike a professional football game. 50,000 fans in the stands, desperately in need of exercise watching 22 players on the field, desperately in need of a break."

Such sentimental aggression from those needing to matter can be viewed in activities ranging from the street preacher to social media buzz about whether Starbucks is sufficiently decorating their coffee cups at Christmas time. It affects nothing, yet somehow becomes important to some. Note how it is not enough for one person to differ in their opinion with a company's marketing decision; they must rally others to enjoy solidarity ("If we stand together..."). This desire to matter, to "have a voice," to "fight the good fight" holds no promise of persuading anyone to consider the claims about Christ and, if possible, own them. Instead they serve only to make the one "outraged" feel like they mattered, and that their irrelevance was somehow interrupted for a few brief moments.

They probably, between their boycotts and sneers at those "sinners" that don't value the religious holiday trappings the way they do, applaud the street preachers that come to my campus now and then to "deliver the Gospel." I, on the other hand, wish they'd just go quietly get their coffee somewhere else, leave their sandwich signs at home, and make friends with a few "sinners" first. It seemed to have worked out okay for Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have persuaded quite a few to his way of thinking with entirely different tactics than those "well meaning" AEC people that, in really, are just trying to fulfill a need to matter. It's not people they care about, but how "Christian" they felt that time "their voice mattered" over issue X. We'd all be served better if they chose to "matter" with something worth while.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Losing More Than You Think

Fools say to themselves, “There is no God.”
They sin and commit evil deeds;
none of them does what is right. (Psalm 14:1)

Today marks a milestone in a long series of milestones that have, as their organizing principle, the invention of a new “God” that supposedly will bless same-sex marriages. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down a ruling that essentially overturns the ability of local states to enact bans on any “marriages” that run afoul of the “tradition definition” in Western society of one man and one woman bound together in legal union. The 5-4 vote from the nine justices usurps any democratic process, and forces states to operate contrary to local election ballot measures and state constitutions. The reactions have been abundant and loud throughout the day both for and against the ruling. Some, seeing “equal marriage” as a fundamental right view this as no less a victory was the abolition of slavery, women suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement. Some against it focus so much on the specificity of homosexuality that their commentary is critiqued as “gay bashing” or “hate speech.”

As a Christian, I am opposed to the SCOTUS ruling, but for different reasons than merely a reaction to homosexuality. After all, if “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” why then would we seemingly pick a “favorite sin” to oppose? Surely there are an abundance of sins to repudiate and encourage our fellow people to pursue virtue over vice. Understandably, those of the LGBTQ community that hear animated voices from religious circles directed at them may feel singled out for particular scorn. Rightly do they point out the hypocrisy of trying to remove a speck from their eye when there is a bean sticking out our own. Those on the “religious right” do us no favors by seeming to focus laser beams of judgement on those whose sins differ from our own, without acknowledging our own so as not to “confuse the issue.”

Often I find that Christians oppose gay marriage, but for lesser reasons that I believe is the most legitimate; that being, the “faith once for all delivered.”

The LGBTQ community rightly often asks, “What threat to your life and religion could my being happy possibly hold?” The correct answer would be: “none.” However, with the societal endorsement of LBGTQ identities that is inherent in a “marriage license” comes the relinquishing of more bedrock beliefs than many (on either side of the debate) may realize. Like pulling on the lower Jenga block, the collapse is unintended, but inevitable nonetheless. Beliefs are not held in isolation, but instead are found in combination with tenants that intertwine and build upon one another. On the one hand, certain faith assertions are correctly seen as ancillary and “adiaphora” (debatable lesser issues) that constitute the variety of the faith spectrum. Some doctrines, on the other hand, are more central than are often acknowledged by those not accustomed to thinking about their faith.

One such doctrine is the notion of “sin.” It is not a pleasant thing, but instead is a frustrating and burdensome reality that is both a self-evident plague in the human condition and the cause for necessitating a Savior. A classic definition of sin is to “miss the mark.” This supposes the existence and authority of an Entity that establishes a “mark” that can be missed. To be Christian, it is not necessary that one point others’ sin. On the contrary, Jesus offers a stern rebuke to those that think to do so. the paragraph of his teaching is frequently quoted regarding this topic, so it should be offered here as well:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
(Matthew 7:1-5)

At issue in gay marriage, however, is not whether speck or beams are lodged in the eye. It instead is about whether we acknowledged the existence of specks and beams AT ALL.

Beyond debate is whether the Scriptures list homosexuality among the various sins that deviate from acceptable behavior. The Bible, as interpreted within the Christian community for two millennia, has defined normative sexuality rather narrowly (between a man and a woman bound together in covenant marriage), and endorsed it with an accompanying definition of normative marriage (between one man and one woman). Exceptions of this were found in Old Testament in circumstances where polygamy was seemingly left un-condemned, but where paradigms of normative marriage were taught, the consistent assumption is that one man is bound to one woman. Religious communities that have held these scared texts as authoritative historically have interpreted them as Divine revelation, indicating standards that cannot be altered by humankind. According to Christian definitions predating the existence of the American experiment, God has set the sexual and matrimonial standards which are no more alterable by man than are other naturally laws such as gravity. Having set where “the mark” is, God has defined the corresponding category of sin where that “mark” is missed.

The very notion of sin assumes the existence of One who has authority to say what is acceptable and what is sin. These assumptions build upon one another. It is because of a Divine “lawgiver” that standards exist at all; standards that, when I break them, make me a “lawbreaker,” a “sinner,” and one who has “missed the mark.” By no means is one “sinless” merely because they are not homosexual. There are a multitude of ways to demonstrate how I am a “sinner,” and I am creatively able to explore many of them. However, vital to redemption is the necessity to acknowledge that I am a sinner and entreat forgiveness and redemption from the One able to offer it (though is not obligated to grant it). The question is not whether I sin; it’s whether I admit it and seek atonement for it from the One whose “mark” I missed. Because of the manner these truths are interwoven, if I should tire of the antiquated notion of sin and fail to admit my status as a sinner, no hope of redemption is possible. Only those that need saving get a Savior.

The dilemma goes deeper though. If the Lawgiver is not merely ignored, but denied by means of rewriting notions of sin to suit my proclivities, then I have reverse-engineered a new “lawgiver,” made in my own image, that draws the “mark” such that I cannot miss it. This “functional atheism” abandons all historic notions of “God” as defined in Jewish, Christian or even Muslim traditions. It’s not that “God has made me this way” so much as it is that “no gods exists that would disapprove of whatever I want to do or be.”

Thus the oxymoron of the “gay Christian” must be universally rebutted. If the doctrine of Sin is abandoned in favor of propensities that either one thinks they were born with or for various reasons elects later on in life, then the Incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ is made irrelevant. Indeed one could be a sinner, with a disposition for homosexual sin, but the seeking of the marital endorsement is to deny that homosexuality is among those sins that demonstrate the need for redemption, along with all other sins of which even “straight” people are guilty as well. It is one thing for a sinner to say they have homosexual temptations and are in need of Divine redemption and enabling from the same to avoid it. It is a completely opposite matter to endorse such sins so that indulging such things (acts, lifestyle, beliefs) is no longer even considered sin, so that redemption from it is no longer even sought.

Along with the abandoning of the notion of sin (lawbreaking) is the relinquishing of the notion of a Lawgiver. The endorsement of a marriage license for such identities is not only a societal confession that “there is no God” (Psalm 14 above), but also constitutes the abandonment of the Christian faith. Though some may not recognize it as such, it is no less than the abandonment of Christian faith by yanking away a load-baring Jenga block. For this reason, lamentation is in order for not only the societal confession, by means of the SCOTUS decision, that “there is no God,” but for all those that erroneously think that such functional atheism is compatible with Christian faith as well.

If there is no sin, there is no Savior. For sinners (myself being chief among them), salvation is made possible because of repentance to Him that has authority to set marks I so often miss. If, however, sin will not be admitted, no salvation is available. Why would it even be needed?

Laments and mourning are in order for the societal, legal endorsement of this folly. Indeed, the same society that has demanded freedom from authoritarian ideas of God has made good on its intent to deny he exists. But mourning is also needed for those that have so misunderstood “love,” misunderstood their faith and misunderstood how faith items interweave, that they blinding celebrate the death of more than they realize. I fear they will understand the disaster they cheered far too late.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Evaluation of Battle Frog Series OCR

     Having now become a family that habitually enjoys Obstacle Course Races (OCRs), we have correspondingly developed the instinct to evaluate them from our experience as both volunteers and racers. We form these opinions throughout the day and then later reflect (or “debrief”) about it on the drive home. During 2014, we participated in OCRs from several different OCR companies, both regional and national - including our beloved Spartan Race. The first OCR of our 2015 race season was Saturday. It was a Battle Frog Series OCR, designed with a Navy SEAL theme. As has been the case for each race we attend, we volunteered in the morning to earn our registration for racing on the course afterward. With major OCR companies like Battle Frog and Spartan Race offering free registration for volunteers, I don’t understand why anyone even has an OCR business model anymore whereby volunteers are offered “discounted registration.” Volunteers race free, or I’m not interested! But I digress.

     Our evaluation score is based upon five categories or experience that we comment on to each other as we work as volunteers, run as racers together, and then later debrief about after the event. These five categories are:

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)?
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)?
  • Festival area - Was the atmosphere electric and exciting? Were examples of obstacles constructed for contests and practice? Were exhibits, vendors, restrooms, showers, start and finish lines laid out in a sensible way? Were start and finish line experiences exciting and satisfying?
     On each of the above categories we offer 0-20 points, resulting in an accumulated score out of 100 points (making a letter grade easy to calculate). For the Battle Frog Series OCR held in Houston on Saturday, March 28th in Houston, we offer the following evaluation.

Staff - Battle Frog is a new, upcoming, exciting, OCR company desiring to capitalize on the market developed by Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and other OCRs that have already paved the trail. The newness of their business generates some excitement all its own. In addition, the popularity they can immediately garner through films like “Act of Valor,” “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” (making the formerly “secret elite” Navy SEALs the new “Public Relations face” for the war effort) elevates their organizers to almost immediate “rockstar” status…and they know it. Our experience as volunteers was that it was our privilege to join them in their enterprise. The familiar experience of being thanked profusely for volunteering our time, supported with gentle supervision, and given clear directions to follow, with every attempt made to keep our party together, was greatly diminished.
       At BF our party was broken up into two groups: of the ten, eight stayed at registration while two (my daughter and I) went to the finish line to hand out medals for race finishers. This was not the greatest tragedy, but then I can only speak for the finish line experience and go on hearsay for the registration experience. In their case, I’m told that staff were friendly, but that they were not fed during their shift. For my part, our experience at the finish line was stressful. We were not fed either (just left to procure the water, bananas and energy bars we were supposed to hand out). Offering sandwiches may seem luxurious, but it’s been our experience in times volunteering elsewhere. In addition, we (myself and other volunteers at the finish line) were scolded regularly for handing out the wrong medal* to finishers (*more about this in “logistics”). The attitude we received from the staff contacts was not one of friendly direction, but instead one of impatient and stern blame for confusion that BF had crafted in their race design. While several staff members were about that seemed dressed as Navy SEALs (I have no idea which one were really such), not many engaged the volunteers and warmly made us feel included. On the “staff” score, we must give BF 14 out of 20 points.

Logistics - The BF organization seems well run on many levels. From quantities of medals and finisher shirts, to volunteer check in, much of the execution seemed to reveal good planning. Due to recent rains, it was necessary to relocate parking away from the venue, and a shuttle bus was used to convey people from parking to registration and back again. Heats started on time and sufficient water, bananas and energy bars were provided at the finish line. There was much to praise along that line.
       However, some significant issues arose that cannot be overlooked. I’m told from the volunteers in our party that at registration, the computers had frequent problems (I did not witness this, but pass along their report). At the finish line, I observed that because BF had chosen to offer two different races, yet have the same finish line for both, two medals were laid out (actually three, but we never encountered the BFX finishers during the morning volunteer shift). The course was laid out as a 8K course, so 15K elite racers simply had to bypass the finish line and complete a second lap. A volunteer was sent out to redirect elite racers away from the finish line to continue around it for their second lap. There were, however, instances when 15K racers mistakenly, due to confusion or exhaustion, came to the finish line and received a 15K medal prematurely, only to be told they had another lap to complete. Following this, the staff contact scolded us for not interviewing the exhausted racer, asking them if they had completed two laps or one. At such a critical juncture, why not place a staff person at that fork to direct racers more clearly? In addition, if 15K racers failed an obstacle and could not complete it, they lost their elite wrist band that placed them in competition. I suppose that’s a good strategy for determining if they finished the elite course of not, but that also makes them indistinguishable from 8K racers when several racers finish in short succession. It was well into the morning when we realized that while those with elite wrist bands definitely received the 15K medal, it was still unclear whether those that had done two laps but lacked the wrist band still got a 15K medal. Ugh! More scolding from the staff person would ensure, without clear direction. BF needed a more clear way to run two courses at once than was constructed. Because of this, for both racers and volunteers alike, we must award a score of 16 out of 20 points.

Obstacles - In nearly every instance, the obstacles were well designed, sturdy, creative and unique. This is, by far, where BF shined the brightest. In terms of ingenuity and difficulty, BF constructed obstacles designed to put the elite racers to the test, but also the open class racers found out that in many instances, ten “eight count body builders” were a welcome rescue from the discouragement of failure also. Frequently the forearms screamed curse words as we hung on for dear life, prayed intently that divine favor would somehow get us up to the last curved wall before the finish line. The final “Normandy” crawl was low and uneven, and a welcome challenge to cap off the course. Also, the placement of obstacles in wooded areas, making them a surprise to encounter on the course, was a nice touch indeed. High climbs over nets or beams were very high, such that those struggling with heights would have found them very spooky. For obstacles, we were all in agreement that BF deserves 20 out of 20 points.

Trail - The mud. The Mud! THE MUD! Battle Frog made very good use of a venue that offered little in terms of topography. The Rio Bravo Motorcross Park had slight hills and creeks and opportunities to ascend and descend for short stretches, but no significant mountains or deep valleys that produced grueling hiking opportunities. Nevertheless, BF constructed trails that challenged the racer as much as the environment could offer. The mud was definitely a major character of the trail. So many different textures of mud, consistencies and viscosities. From runny mud that could cover the body and camouflage Schwarzenegger from the Predator, to sticky clay that threatened to claim many shoes - and perhaps actually did so. Much of this mud certainly inhibited climbing the few significant inclines. My daughter and I laughed until our sides hurt trying to ascend an embankment leading up to a ten foot rope wall.
       BF made use of the motorcross track, naturally, which in some regard was a little less creative, but it worked. Some use was made of the water, but it was very brief. To extend the trail to a 8K distance, a portion was taken out along a canal. For the most part, the trail, though lacking significant rise and descend, was nicely planned out to offer the full variety that the ecology could summon. We believe it deserves 19 out of 20 points.

Festival area - Battle Frog receives high marks in this category also. Not only were the tents, vendors, stage and presentation areas well laid out, they had a full color map prominently displayed to lead racers and spectators alike to where they needed to go. Signs and flags were well marked. Restrooms were nearby, along with eating areas, and memorials for Navy SEALs. At some OCRs it’s not always easy finding a place to sit. Not so at BF, where plenteous picnic benches allowed seating and eating well within view of presentations and racing excitement. While I’ve shared about the finish line experience, the starting line experience far eclipses any negative taken from there. The announcer, “Coachpain Dewayne,” not only delivered a rousing starting preparatory talk, but even customized it for those at the starting line; mentioning my son, Joshua, that will begin his new life in the US Navy this summer. With bright colors, well designed structures, booths, inflatables, sample obstacles and abundant seating, we award BF 20 out of 20 points for festival area. Well done!

     With 89 out of 100 points, we believe this brings Battle Frog Series in Houston to a solid B+ according the letter grading in my educational arena. With different experiences with staff and baring logistical challenges, BF might have scored much higher. As a young company, these are some of the “kinks” that need to be worked out. We were grateful we were able to earn our registration by volunteering, and once on the course had nothing but praise for BF and the trail, the obstacles, the challenge and the fun. This was just our experience. To be fair, others might have had very different encounters. Overall, a good experience that we would sign up for again.