Thursday, July 28, 2016

‘Virtue’ Squeezed Out By Virtual Reality?

"Fantasyland" is a great place to visit, but it's not
such a great idea to live there full-time.
When was the last time you heard someone speaking about “virtue”? Have you used the term recently yourself? Hardly anyone talks about virtue these days. There just doesn’t seem to be much demand for it.

So what in the world is virtue, anyway, since it’s become so rare in the public consciousness? One dictionary defines it as “conformity to a standard of right or a particular moral excellence.” A speaker I was listening to recently did talk about virtue, and explained it as “courage, moral goodness, consistency in the face of an inconsistent, amoral world.”

With so much disagreement about what’s right and wrong, and the rise of moral ambiguity, it any wonder we don’t hear much about virtue these days?

Part of the problem could be that virtue’s systematically been squeezed out by virtual reality. We have people talking about “my truth” vs. “your truth,” essentially deciding all truth is relative and, in effect, there is no real truth. Their “reality” isn’t the same as ours. Truth has become just whatever you want it to be.

Then we have social media, where we have virtual friends, people we’ve never actually met. Even if we agree with them philosophically or ideologically, if we bumped into them on the street, they’d be complete strangers. Most of us can declare, “I’ve got lots of friends. I just haven’t met them yet.”

Add to this “avatars” – icons or figures that can represent us  in online computer games or Internet forums. Not only do cyberspace friends not really know us on the inside, they also don't know us on the exterior either. If you’re short and plump, your avatar can be tall and slender; 100-pound weaklings can appear as visions of strength.

“Pokemon Go” seems the new rage, taking faux reality into the great outdoors, the highways and byways of our communities. Reason tells us “there are no such things as monsters,” but the Pokemon-Goers are hunting them just the same. They’re real in the world of virtual reality.

Then there are so-called reality shows, in actuality no more real than Sunday’s comics, programs deftly edited and spliced to depict drama and conflict we’d hardly notice during the live filming.

And if we still haven’t had enough fantasy to counter real life, we can try virtual reality glasses to transport us anywhere and in any way we choose. Reality sure ain’t what it used to be.

But what’s this all got to do with virtue? It’s simple – virtue isn’t developed in a vacuum. It’s beneficial only within the context of relationships. Real ones.

We speak of “connectivity” in terms of having instant access to information and people. And yes, it’s nice to communicate with others, whether on social media, text messaging or email, anywhere around the world. But such connectivity doesn’t foster strong, growing relationships. That occurs only when we spend time with one another face to face, side by side.

I think this is why the Bible puts such great emphasis on both virtue and relationships – with God, and with one another. For instance, in Philippians 4:8 we’re admonished, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Hopefully we can all agree this is a list of good things, but they can’t be practiced in a vacuum.

Immediately following, the apostle Paul presents the biblical view of connectivity: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice” (Philippians 4:9). In other words, “If you have seen me practicing these or other virtues, you should do them as well and model them for others."

The Scriptures underscore the importance of keeping grounded, of confronting actual reality – not the virtual variety. It instructs us, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

I especially like that word “encourage,” because in these days of virtual reality and relative truth, it takes great courage to be willing to stand up for absolute truth and values that have transcended the centuries – but are being soundly rejected today.

The Bible also uses many “one another” passages, including admonitions to “bear with one another and forgive one another” (Colossians 3:13), “be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32), “love one another” (John 13:34), “be devoted to one another and honor one another” (Romans 12:10). Again, such virtues can’t be cultivated and manifested in a virtual reality context.

In 1969, Coca-Cola introduced the slogan, “It’s the Real Thing,” which it used for a couple of years. Maybe it’s time to stop encouraging virtual reality mindsets and subscribe to the notion that “Virtue – It’s the Real Thing.”

Monday, July 25, 2016

Facing the Greatest Danger

Can we all agree that we live in troubled, troubling times? I have a friend, typically an optimist, who admits he’s become quite bothered by the turmoil in our nation and around the world. So much so that he now quips, “I’m very optimistic – I’m positive things are going to get worse!”

As a society, we seem more disconnected than ever. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear about a push to rename the United States of America, calling it instead the Untied States of America. The perceived divides include race, economics, gender, basic values, and ideology.

Remember the song, “Come Together,” originally sung by the Beatles and later by Aerosmith and others? There doesn’t appear to be much coming together in our land these days. Add the fears surrounding ever-present threats of terrorism, violence, and a political scene that’s chaotic at best. Even technology, for all of its benefits, has also presented some decided liabilities. Are we really better off? We’ve got lots of questions, but answers seem scarce.

So if someone were to ask you what you considered the greatest danger facing us today, how would you respond? What do you see as the greatest threat to life as we’ve known it?

Recently I heard an interesting observation from someone who passed from the scene long before the 21st century began. You might have heard of William Booth. He was the British preacher who founded the highly regarded Salvation Army, now one of the largest distributors of humanitarian aid in many parts of the world.

Booth died in 1912, but offered a perspective that might lead us to believe he had just returned from a time machine excursion decades into the future.

As the beginning of the 20th century was approaching, Booth was asked to comment on what he believed to be the greatest danger society would be facing as the 1800s drew to a close.

He paused thoughtfully and then responded, “The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”

Even though Booth was gazing toward the 20th century, his insights could apply just as easily to where we are today in the midst of the 21st century’s second decade.

Alistair Begg, a native of Scotland who currently serves as senior pastor of Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, has observed that in the name of tolerance and seeking to attract more worshipers, the gospel message in many churches has been diluted drastically and biblical interpretation softened to make it more accommodating.

The result, however, has been what 2 Timothy 3:5 describes as an institutional church having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

A few lines later, the apostle Paul warns his disciple Timothy, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:5). Another translation states it this way: “wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.”

It’s understandable for people in the secular world to select views that align with their own preferences and prejudices, but the greater problem occurs as evangelical congregations and denominations begin watering down their message in an effort to pack the pews.

Yes, the message of Jesus Christ is offensive to many. But that’s the way it’s always been. As 1 Peter 2:8 declares, “’He is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they do not obey God's word….”

So the issue facing each of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, as we read and study the Scriptures, is to honestly ask ourselves, “What does it say?” and not, “What do I want it to say?” or, “What does society – or government – tell us it should say?”

As Booth sagely pointed out many years before any of us were born, a faith formulated by excluding Christ, His Spirit, repentance, recognition of a need for regeneration, acknowledgement of God’s role in the affairs of mankind, or eternal consequences for our actions, isn’t faith at all. It’s foolishness, an exercise in futility. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Pulling Pesky, Pernicious, Problematic ‘Weeds’

Green thumbs I don’t have. Nor do I claim a love for gardening even in the most generic sense, but I’ve still made some observations to pass along. (You don’t have to be a credentialed airline pilot to observe that jets fly fast and high, do you?)

Some parts of the country have endured severe rains and flooding, but we’ve had little rain in our area. Lawns are brown, parched flowers are panting, and real gardeners labor to keep plants from giving up the ghost. Weeds, on the other hand, have been faring very well.

That’s the crazy thing – you can do everything possible to nurture flowerbeds or cultivate a thick, green lawn, and your efforts might still go for naught. Nothing works. But weeds, those pesky, pernicious, problematic misfits of nature, need no help. They grow regardless of temperature, moisture or other conditions. Killing or even containing them is a full-time job.

The other day hydrangeas in front of our house were wondering, “When is summer over?” and other greenery was clearly in the throes of a hydration crisis. That is, except for the weeds – which I don’t recall planting. They seemed unfazed by the dryness. I yanked up as many as I could spot, but when I looked back, more had already sprung up.

Habits are kind of like that. Good habits – such as working diligently; exhibiting patience; speaking with kindness; being generous; striving to remain healthy both physically and mentally; or being a compassionate, understanding spouse or parent – all take energy and determination. But behavioral “weeds” – bad habits – require no effort to grow.

When was the last time you saw a parent telling a child, “Now, Honey, here is how you become angry and fly off the handle uncontrollably”? Or a wife instructing her husband, “Let me show you how to become insensitive and uncaring toward me”? No one ever said, “I am now going to do everything in my power to become an alcoholic,” or “I think becoming addicted to Internet porn would be a good idea.” The “weeds” of negative, even destructive habits or behaviors appear and take root without any planning on our part.

Why does it seem that when presented with the alternative of good habits or bad, we have a natural bent toward things detrimental for ourselves and others?

The Bible offers some answers, even if we don’t like to hear them. Romans 3:23 tells us, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Confirming that wasn’t some sort of misprint in the original writings, Romans 3:10-12 declares, “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understandings, no one who seeks God. All have turned away…there is no one who does good, not even one.” To state it another way, we all have more than our share of bad habits and unhealthy behavior – and they’re awfully hard to overcome.

So what’s the solution? Do we simply ignore or even deny our failings, what the Scriptures term “sins”? Or should we offer the excuse, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace,” and accept wrong behavior as our everyday default setting?

Not at all. Like weeds, bad habits and unproductive behavior can be overcome, but only with great resolve and perseverance. And just as we can apply weed killer to destroy unwelcome plants, God promises the necessary resources to dispense with spiritual weeds.

Jesus said, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Along the same lines, the apostle Paul pointed out – drawing from personal experience – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). To triumph over our “weeds,” we need Jesus’ power.

This doesn’t mean we sit back passively and wait for God to “clean up our act.” We carry responsibility in the process, too. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices…. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).

The first step toward recovery for an addict of any kind is recognizing there’s a problem. Our first step spiritually must be acknowledging and confessing we have a sin problem. Once we’ve done that, we can prayerfully ask God to empower us to overcome our sins, to extricate the “weeds” infesting our lives. Then we resist temptation, seeking to replace bad habits with good ones.

We can also enlist others to support us in this difficult, even painful process. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Because, as Proverbs 27:17 assures us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man (or woman) sharpens another.” Happy weeding!

Monday, July 18, 2016

‘There Is No President!’

Imagine this scenario, a conversation with one of your friends:

“There is no President,” the friend blurts out.
“What did you say?” you respond.
“I said, there is no President of the United States. He does not exist.”
“Huh? What in the world are you talking about?” you ask, fearing your friend must have just had a close encounter with a coconut, or hammer, or worse.
“I’m saying I don’t believe there is a President.”
“Sorry, bro, but what have you been drinking? Sure there’s a President. We see him on the news just about every night,” you counter,
“Oh, that’s just fantasy. A figment of people’s overactive imagination. You know what they can do with computer graphic imaging these days. If they can use CGI to create dinosaurs, ice queens, talking toys and avatars, they certainly can create a fictitious character and says it’s the President of the United States.”
“Where are you getting this from?” you ask, even more worried about your friend’s state of mind.
“Well, have you ever met the President? Have you ever seen him face to face, or shook his hand?”
“No, but he did come into town a couple years ago.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw the news reports, he was here – he even brought his teleprompters. They showed Air Force One at the airport. And streets along the route he would be traveling were closed. So, I’m sorry, the President definitely exists.”
“Again, where’s your proof? You’ve never seen him in person. All you know is what other people say. I’m sorry you’re so delusional, but there is no President. I don’t believe in him. I’ve never talked to him, and he’s never done anything for me. Besides, if there was a President, he or she definitely wouldn’t act the way people say he does. I don’t believe in the President, or the regulations people say he’s signed into law, and certainly not the executive orders people are supposed to follow. If there was a President, it certainly wouldn’t be the kind of President people always talk about.”

Okay, you’ve probably never had this conversation. Hopefully not. But there are people who insist Elvis never died, some don’t believe men walked on the moon, and I hear there’s a movement of people that deny the Holocaust ever happened. As Elvis might have said, there’s a whole lotta disbelievin' goin' on.

This reminds me of conversations and interactions I’ve had with atheists and agnostics – perhaps you have, too – that are absolutely convinced there is no God and present their reasoning along the same lines. They ridicule such belief as fantasy, fairytales, fictions, fables…notice a pattern here?

“You can’t prove God exists,” they argue. Well, in a physical, material sense, they’re right. God doesn’t fit into a test tube, and you can’t stuff him into a laboratory cage for observation. But at the same time, you can’t prove God doesn’t exist – because by definition, the spiritual realm isn’t governed by physical laws and limits. And the fact that billions around the world believe in God, whether known as Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Allah, Krishna, or one of many other names, has to count for something.

But the fact we can’t empirically prove God’s existence, the way one can prove the temperature of water being heated on a stove or the distance to the moon, has little bearing on the quality of our faith. In fact, the Bible declares such non-material belief is a prerequisite for genuine faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). A different translation states it this way: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The materialist might argue such a statement amounts to nonsense. But in reality, when a child is promised a puppy, the youngster exhibits faith, justifiably hoping and expecting with confidence the promise will be fulfilled. In a courtroom, unseen evidence is of little value, but people get married everyday based on the unseen, unprovable evidence that they are loved by their intended.

For those who follow Jesus Christ, trusting in the unseen can sometimes be challenging. But that’s the kind of faith God desires – and rewards. As Jesus said to Thomas the disciple when He offered tangible proof of His crucifixion and resurrection, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).