Thursday, June 24, 2010

Countering the 'jerks among us'

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I almost got flattened by crazy drivers the other day — not once but twice.

The first near-miss occurred in the parking lot of a burger joint, where I dodged an SUV barreling toward the exit. Less than an hour later, at a gas station, I was walking toward my car when a pickup truck speeding through the station missed me by about a foot. Before I could recover from the shock of the moment and think about reacting, the pickup was gone.

You have your own nightmare stories about bad drivers, I’m sure. My larger point is this: Many folks no longer seem to care enough about others to observe the basic rules and courtesies that separate civil society from anarchy. From highways to law and order, from politics to media slugfests, from online flamers to breaking in line at the supermarket, examples are endless. And they range from the mundane to the deadly.

In Chicago, 54 people were shot — count ’em, 54 — over a single weekend in June. Ten of the victims died. Some of the shootings were gang-related, but others reportedly were caused by minor arguments or somebody “disrespecting” somebody.

Perhaps the saddest manifestation of the antisocial disease that now permeates our culture is not rudeness or violence, but the indifference that leads so many neighbors to ignore each other’s existence. Is this the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote about our God-given rights in the Declaration of Independence? I don’t think so.

It isn’t just a matter of the cultural coarseness and “incivility” many have decried. The center cannot hold in a society where people don’t even pretend to care about each other. Sooner or later, things fall apart.

Heading into what promises to be another summer of discontent and division, 72 percent of Americans “think that poor behavior has gotten worse in recent years,” according to a national poll conducted in April. Solid majorities of the adults responding to the poll were turned off by what they see and hear in public, in government and politics, on the roads, in schools, in Hollywood, on television, in sports, on the Web.

“We, as a people, pay a price for the jerks among us,” writes Roger Simon of Politico, a multimedia news outlet. “Nearly half of all Americans say they are ‘tuning out’ of government and politics, 46 percent are tuning out of opinion pieces and editorials in the media and 38 percent are tuning out of news coverage and reporting.”

But let’s be honest. Too often, the “jerks among us” … are us. I’m preaching to myself, but you are welcome to join me at the altar of confession if you feel so inclined.

If Christians succumb to the culture, if we hurl (or murmur) insults and disdain rather than loving the unlovable and practicing kindness to strangers, what distinguishes us from anyone else? We have become useless for God’s work, even destructive to it. Scripture calls us not to be conformed to the world but transformed by God’s Spirit.

“It is clear that America needs a spiritual awakening. Our country is awash in all kinds of lostness, including mean-spiritedness in conduct and speech,” wrote former Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt last year. “The fruit of the Spirit works in the life of the believer to create, among other things, long-suffering, gentleness and self-control. The word long-suffering is more than mere patience; it is a long-fused patience with people. The Apostle Paul urged us, as believers in Jesus Christ, to let our speech ‘always be with grace, seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4:6). …

“[N]ever underestimate the power and influence of one voice. When we exercise civility in our public and private rhetoric, we bring glory to our Lord, enhance our credibility as men and women whose lives have been transformed by God's grace and create opportunities to share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ with our lost and dying world.”

An effective missionary deeply studies the culture he wants to reach and searches for ways to communicate Christ within it. Eventually, however, he challenges that culture to transform itself through the power of the Gospel.

In our culture, one of the most countercultural things you can do is to yield the right of way, whether on the roads or in relationships. A soft answer to wrath is downright subversive. Turning the other cheek? It’s as revolutionary as it was in Jesus’ day — and just as powerful to change minds and hearts.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Father's Day blues

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Hey dads, another Father’s Day is coming up.

We can hardly wait, right?

If the kids remember Father’s Day at all, they’ll probably give us cards humorously noting our physical and mental decline. Maybe they’ll take us to lunch when we’d just as soon hit the couch for a nap (due to the aforementioned physical decline) or watch a ballgame on TV. But we’ll go along with a smile, pretending we feel special while the kids pretend they’re making us feel special.

“That's why Dad always responded so positively back when you used to givehim — and I hope you no longer do this, although I understand it still happens, even in 21st century America — a tie,” observed writer Dave Barry a few years ago. “In my entire life, I have met two men who were genuinely interested in ties.Both of these men were in the tie industry.

“Dads are so good at feigning appreciation that they even were able, years ago, to pretend they were happy to receive cologne. This was back in the dark days of cologne-giving, which mercifully came to an end after the horrible 1986 tragedy in Cincinnati wherein a 72-year-old man's house collapsed under the weight of the estimated 2,000 unopened bottles of Old Spice that he had stored in his attic.”

Let’s face it, guys. Father’s Day is the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays, the get-no-respect little brother of Mother’s Day. Interestingly, the American version of Father’s Day was first proposed in 1909 by a grateful daughter, Sonora Smart Dodd. Her father, a Civil War veteran, singlehandedly raised six children after his wife died in childbirth. But the observance was mocked for years and written off as a promotional gimmick cooked up by the greeting card and men’s clothing businesses. It wasn’t formalized until 1966, when Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the third Sunday of June as Father’s Day. Richard Nixon signed the law six years later making it an official holiday.

Dads, our special day probably won’t ever achieve the popularity or social significance of Mother’s Day (cue violins). But that’s OK. We’re not sensitive Moms; we’re macho Dads. We don’t need a lot of recognition. That’s our story, at least, and we’re sticking to it.

Still, Father’s Day is a great opportunity to remember, before we fall asleep on the couch, what being a good father is about.

“A good father is one of the most unsung, unpraised, unnoticed, and yet one of the most valuable assets in our society,” Billy Graham once said.

A good father takes care of business. He provides food, shelter and physical and emotional security for his family. But that’s just the beginning. Within the context of marriage, he loves his wife and the mother of his children — and he makes sure that he regularly expresses that love in front of the children.

A good father loves his children unconditionally. If he’s at home, he hugs them — every day. He says the words “I love you” — every day, several times if possible. That’s not touchy-feely; it’s what your children need, even when they become obnoxious teens and pretend they don’t. Read 1 Corinthians 13 to see what God’s love looks like in action.

A good father teaches his children right from wrong. He disciplines them firmly but not abusively. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” the Apostle Paul counsels in Ephesians 6:4 (NASB). Your temporary, God-given authority over your children doesn’t give you the right to dominate or manipulate them.

A good father leads and encourages his children. He is available 24/7, regardless of the hour or circumstance, regardless of how far his “child” has advanced into adulthood. He spends time. He pays attention. He listens to his children, and he expects his children to listen to him. He offers constructive criticism, sometimes strongly worded, but never in the form of condemnation. He issues orders, but is open to appeal.

Most of all, a good father models what it is to be a man, a husband, a father and a child of God. “My father didn’t tell me how to live,” recalled one thankful son. “He lived — and let me watch him do it.”

After messing up, my Dad used to say, half-seriously, “Don’t do as I do; do as I say.” Sorry, but that won’t work. If you claim to follow Christ, follow Him. Worship Him. Serve Him. Serve His church. Do the things He said to do in this life in plain sight of your children — not for show but because you mean it.

Do your kids see you loving your neighbor? Do they see you making friends with hurting sinners and loving them into the kingdom of God? Do they see you praying for the nations and taking action to get the Gospel to the lost of the world? Do they see you shedding a tear for the things that break the heart of God? If you don’t, odds are they won’t.

A good father frequently fails to live up to these standards. But he doesn’t give up. He asks for forgiveness from God and his family and presses ahead with the help of the Holy Spirit.

That’s my meditation for Father’s Day. Now I’m going to take a nap before the big game.