Defend & Devour

One of the skunks I mentioned in my last post is gone. I saw it the other day when I was out for a walk. At the end of my street, as you turn the corner, someone had apparently hit it with their car. And — skunks being skunks — I smelled it before I saw it.

As you read this, I’m guessing not many of you are sad. The demise of skunks is not usually cause for grief. If, on the other hand, I had hit the fawn that ran in front of my car the other night, I’m sure more of us would have felt a tinge of regret (including my not-easily-impressed-with-wildlife wife, who let out an “aww” as the little deer stumbled across the road in front of us). Or, let’s take it one step further: if it had been my neighbor’s big, white fluffy dog, there would have been genuine compassion for his pet.

Why the difference? Well, between the skunk and the deer, it’s what we might call the “cuteness factor.” Deer, especially when it reminds us of Bambi, evoke more of a sense of attraction than a skunk who may look like a Disney character, but certainly doesn’t smell like a Disney character.

To most of us, a skunk has no natural attractive qualities — especially with the sense that attraction moves you closer to something; in that sense, no, I am definitely not attracted to skunks. Even so, when a skunk lets off stink, a skunk is simply doing what skunks do. And they do that for a reason. Sensing danger, they pull out their strongest response: Stink the enemy away.

I mean: how can you blame a skunk for doing what it has to do to defend itself? Isn’t that what the animal kingdom is about? It’s why dogs bark; it’s why cats scratch. It’s why bees sting and mice bite. They are doing what comes naturally, especially when threatened: they are defending themselves.

But animals have another instinct: to devour. Less about protection, this is about consumption — for every animal has to eat.

Both of these are the animal condition: defend and devour. It is the way of survival. To me, this is best pictured in the snake, who is pretty good at both: defending and devouring. A snake will bite you if threatened; and will swallow you if hungry. I didn’t go looking for examples of this, for I really have no desire to see a snake do either, but video of snakes defending and devouring are, no doubt, just a click away.

So what? Why blog about animals? Well, for one, it’s everywhere we look. On the one hand, it’s the animal condition — one that should not surprise us. Animals will instinctively, without malice, do what comes naturally to them. You stick your hand in a snake hole, you will get bit. Whether you do it intentionally or by accident doesn’t matter; a snake’s gonna do what a snake’s gonna do.

Same with mosquitoes. And gorillas. Even viruses. We fight against the flu and ebola, as we should, but they bear us no malice. They are simply doing what viruses — what all living creatures do — defend and devour. In fact, I think we could extend the description even further, to phenomena of nature. Hurricanes can be devastating and deadly. And I wish no one to get caught in their wake. But hurricanes are simply what happens when the right conditions of temperature, moisture, wind, and atmosphere combine in a powerful way. They don’t intend us harm; harm is simply what results when they simply do what hurricanes do.

For such is life on this fragile planet we call earth. Creatures and creations of all kinds that exist to defend and devour.

Of course, these instincts are not contained to snakes and skunks. They are also true of humans, too. Most of what we do, instinctively, at least, is to devour or defend. We work so we can have money so we can eat. Devour. We struggle, especially in America, with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, in part because of what we eat. Devour.

On the flip side, we go to the doctor to deal with our heart disease and diabetes. Defend. As a country, we raise up an army. As individuals, we lock our doors. We take vaccines. We stay away from wandering skunks and questionable holes in the ground.

But this principle of defending and devouring goes further. The guy at work takes credit for your work. Your neighbor loses her cool when your dog poops in her yard. The lady in the Lexus takes your parking spot at the mall. Your facebook “friend” goes on a rant that gets personal and political at the same time.

What’s going on here? Well, it’s the animal inclination to defend and devour. And what’s our normal response? To defend and devour right back.

And like our animal friends, it’s only natural; it’s what we instinctively do. Often, without much thought or consideration, people hungry for more (power, position, comfort, support, money, acceptance) will devour. And people who are afraid, or hurting, or uncertain, or doubting, or discouraged, or wounded, will defend. And often, in both cases, it’s not pretty.

Which tells me that there is only one way to stop this cycle. Unhealthy devouring and defending continues until someone doesn’t return kind-for-kind. Instinctive acts continue until someone recognizes that “hurting people hurt people,” and adding hurt to hurt doesn’t heal the hurt. But turning the cheek might.

Maybe that’s why Jesus told us this in Matthew 5.39. The only way to live in the world, but not be of the world, is not to live as the world. The only way to be a part of the animal kingdom while not living as animals, is to rise about the “defend and devour” instinct.

In other words: follow the lead of Jesus — who came not to be served, but to serve. Who came not to devour, but give his life as a ransom. Who, when he most needed to defend himself — and could have — didn’t simply turn the other cheek, but turned his whole life over to the Power & Principalities that devoured him.

But in the giving, in the dying, in what was certain defeat, came victory. And — shockingly — the thing we have no defense against (Sin & Evil) was defeated. And the One Thing that is certain to devour all of us (Death) is — amazingly — turned on itself, and new life arises.

So, in a world of defending and devouring, I want to remember two things:

  • There are a LOT of hurting people who are acting on instinct. In a million different ways, we need to turn the other cheek, to show them and the world a way not animal, but human — truly human, as modeled by the One who is truly and completely human.
  • And with that complete human, Jesus, overcoming death, nothing in this life ultimately has the power to devour us. With sin and evil defeated, I don’t have to defend myself. Jesus has already done that. I simply need to put down my weapons, and allow grace and love to win the day: in my life, in our churches, and in our world.

Another unemployment lesson

In my last post, I shared some lessons that I learned through 7 months of uncertain unemployment. Of course, the truth is: I’m still learning. And the lessons continue. Here’s one more that I don’t want to slip through the cracks, unnoticed.

And this lesson starts with this simple idea: Be careful of pious phrases. We church people are really good at church lingo and spiritual slogans. Sometimes these phrases are true, and deeply so. But sometimes we speak words we want to be true, we hope are true, but they’re not — at least not in the way that we think.

So, sometimes we say things like: Don’t worry. Just trust God. Pray harder.

Are these words true? Of course. Nobody wants to worry. We all need to trust God more. And who among us thinks our prayer life is ever good enough?

Speaking phrases like this, while true, are usually not helpful. They can often have the opposite effect of what’s intended — instead of helping people connect more with God, they may in fact make them feel as if they are the reason for their struggles. If only I had more faith, or prayed more diligently, I wouldn’t be in this situation.

No. No. No. That’s not how life works. We don’t pray ourselves out of bad stuff, and into good stuff. Instead, we learn to trust God IN the difficult circumstances; oftentimes it’s the hard stretches of life that stretch us beyond pious platitudes, into surrender. A surrender that recognizes that, more than quick fixes and simplistic answers, we need to simply hold onto God right where are. And sometimes it’s a steel cable that seems to bind us to God; and other times, it feels like a thread.

In fact, maybe what God wants most for us during times of duress isn’t clear; maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that He wants us to cling to Him, to trust Him in the darkness, and just take the next step.

Which leads to a couple of other phrases I find of questionable help: God’s got a plan. It will all work out in the end.

Just the other day, I heard about a person in prison for his faith in a country known for its opposition to Christianity. Separated from his family, he has faced 361 days a year in solitary confinement. Now, imagine that on one of the 4 days a year he is given an opportunity to talk with people, you are one of the ones who gets to visit with him. What are you going to say? God’s got a plan? It will all work out in the end?

What if he never gets released from prison; never gets to see his family again? Is that God’s plan? Is that how it all works out in the end?

Now, on the one hand, we have faith that God is working through even the worst of circumstances. And we know that things will work out in the end — even if the end is the End of All Things. But lots of bad stuff happens in this life, and some of it doesn’t get fixed in this life. God will work out all things in the end; we have this promise. But it might be that, in this life, His plan is not to open all the doors we want opened; to make smooth all our paths; to make clear every step we take. In fact, as I heard John Ortberg say recently: sometimes God’s plan is that we use the freedom he has given us to make a choice. It might not be the best choice; it may not take us down the path we hoped it would. But, as Ortberg points out, God is more concerned with our character than our circumstances. And His plan might be less about walking through the “right door,” than it is about the kind of person we are becoming as we make the choices that take us through the doors we decide to walk through.

But overall, my concern isn’t so much with what well-meaning people say; it’s why. And often, I think we toss around pious phrases to people because we don’t know what else to say. In fact, I think that oftentimes we speak a spiritual cliche — like, at a funeral home: She’s in a better place — because we are trying to remind ourselves that this is true. Standing next to the casket with a mom who has to bury her child, we don’t know what to say because there is no way to explain this.

So I wonder if what we are doing when we offer a religious cliche is, in fact, speaking to ourselves. Running into a friend whose husband just walked out, we have no answers. So we give voice to what WE need to hear. It’ll be okay. God’s in control. All things work for good, after all. Speaking these words to our friend, we are in fact also seeking to console ourselves; to make sense of the senseless. To try to hold onto truth when the world is falling apart.

But when we stop trying to speak to ourselves, or come up with the perfect words to speak to our friend in need, we might find this deeper truth: what people need in times of need are not words, but someone to walk with them. Not pious phrases, but presence. Because, it’s easier to drop by and say something spiritual than it is to come alongside and do something practical. It’s easier to speak a cliche than it is to walk with them through the uncertainty.

As I think about the season of life I just went through, the people who were the most helpful were the ones who didn’t have all the answers — but were there for me, anyway. There were times they didn’t know what to say — but they stayed there for me, anyway. The reminded me of biblical truth, by words, yes; but even more by what they did. They showed me God is faithful by their faithfulness.

There was an episode of “CSI: New York” about 10 years ago where one of the detectives, Mac Taylor, befriends a neighborhood kid. The two are walking home from a community event when Mac notices a thief escaping the scene of a crime. He tells Ruben, the 10-year-old boy, to go straight home. The detective begins to chase the criminal, but doesn’t catch him.

Later, Mac is at the crime lab, and he sees Ruben’s dead body; he had been killed by the escaping thief. As he walks away, one of the female cops come up to Mac, looking for advice. What do I say?, she asks. I’m not good at this kind of thing. To which Mac Taylor responds, Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing.

Here’s the truth: None of us is good at that kind of thing. But not having the right words to say is, I believe, one of the first steps in acknowledging that words don’t change the reality that life can sometimes be downright crappy. Recognizing that doesn’t mean that our faith is weak or shallow; it doesn’t mean that God isn’t real and present. It simply grabs hold of the fact that maybe, when we stop talking, we give ourselves, and those walking through the Valley, an opportunity beyond hearing truth — to experiencing it.

For when we were in our deepest valley, when we as creation were in our greatest need, God Himself moved beyond words, to presence. God moved beyond giving Law, to showing Love. For when we had no answer, God answered most clearly, showed Himself most powerfully, by walking with us, becoming one of us — for the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.

Yes, Jon, We’re All Terminal

I was listening this morning to a speaker, Abby, where she described a recent conversation with her 92-year-old grandmother. Her grandma told her: I’ve been diagnosed with a slow-developing form of leukemia. The doctors have given me 2-10 years to live.

To which, Abby replied: Grandma, I could have told you that.

Yes, the truth is: a 92-year-old has 2-10 years; or less. But the truth is also: you and I may have 2-10 years; or more; or, maybe less.

I remember sitting in a ministry class one time, and one of the students got to talking about a chaplain at the hospital where she worked. His approach was to pray for miracles for the people there. One day, when he was doing it, the patient said, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but shouldn’t you be preparing me to die?

I am haunted and captivated by that question. In some sense, isn’t that the responsibility of a pastor? At a deep level, shouldn’t Death be an element of every life-changing message given by every preacher and teacher?

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean by this what some often  mean. I don’t mean that we dangle people over the abyss of death to spark fear or worry, or to literally scare “the hell out of them.” We don’t point to Death so as to get them simply to make a “decision.” Instead, an honest look at Death calls us to face clearly, as one of my friends puts it, “the reality of my mortality.” And when I do that – when I am honest that Death will eventually come calling – then I can learn how to live.

I love the song “Terminal” by Jon Foreman. In it, he reminds us all that we are, in fact, terminal. He sings:

The doctor says I’m dying
I die a little every day
He’s got no prescription
That could take my death away
The doctor says, It don’t look so good
It’s terminal

The truth is: We are all facing a death sentence. Sound morbid? Not the pick-me-up you were looking for? Maybe that’s true. But isn’t the best way to learn how to live is by remembering that we are going to die? Don’t we get the most intentional about life when we realize we can take nothing for granted?

In fact, what do people usually do when they find out they only have so long to live? They fight. They grab onto life. They love better, live more fully, appreciate each moment. They have that hard conversation. They forgive. Petty things fall to the wayside. And they look beyond themselves – to God, to others, to what really matters.

So, as a minister, if I can get people to face the reality of their death, I think I’ll have done a big part of my job. Because, maybe then, they’ll really learn how to live.