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.

Is Faith on the Decline in the U.S.? Yes … and no

Courtesty of Ross Douthat’s column (well worth a read, by the way), I came across this fascinating study. It contends that religious faith is not diminishing in the U.S. — rather, it’s nominal faith that is on the decline. The authors contend that it is those who loosely hold to their beliefs that are increasingly letting go of the traditional ways of expressing their faith.

Their first piece of evidence: a chart that shows that the percentage has remained essentially unchanged of those who have a “strong affiliation” to their faith — it has hovered around 40% for the past 25 years. During that same period of time, those who don’t have a strong affiliation have dropped from the mid-50s to just above 40%. And those who claim no affiliation has doubled in 25 years.

Likewise, church attendance is dropping among those who “attend sometimes.” Those who claim to “never attend” a church service now is a group that includes more than 20% of the population. But those who attend multiple times a week — while it is a small percentage of the population — is a line on the graph as straight as the lives of the people it represents.

And there are many more insights in the article. Take a look for yourself. It’s well worth it — even if only to look at the charts and what they represent.

And what they represent is fascinating. Yes, religious commitment in the U.S. is diminishing. But it is diminishing among those who are loosely affiliated, not among those who have a strong connection to their faith.

What can this teach those of us who would consider ourselves in the “strong commitment” category? For one (as the authors of the study themselves point out): We are increasingly preaching to the choir. We should expect that, as a general rule, fewer and fewer people in our culture who are not connected to church will consider giving church a chance. For most congregations, the “seeker movement” is over. Or probably should be. If you’re trying to keep your church on the cutting edge, you may only be reaching the religiously-interested-but-disconnected hipster; you’re probably not reaching the not-interested-thank-you hipster.

Which means, of course, that we need to increasingly find ways to engage others on their turf. We should not expect the “not-interested” crowd to come to us; we’ve got to go to them. Which, come to think of it, we should have been doing all along.

I was recently at a Bible study where I was told that one of its newest participants was a teacher, and had gotten connected because their church was so faithful to volunteer at her school. Bonnie noticed (not her real name), and the church’s love and concern for her kids reached her, and she began attending church. She then volunteered for the church’s weekend cafe, and had recently began participating in this small group.

Even though for 5 years now Bonnie has been in what this study would call the “strong affiliation” category — she still is figuring this faith-thing out. One of the passages we read that night at the study was from 1 John. Bonnie had prepared that week, and so had read it. Or thought she had; but instead of reading 1 John, she read from the Gospel of John. When she found that out, she said to all of us: You mean there’s more than one John? D–n! Later, the leader had us turn to Romans, and Bonnie asked, slyly but honestly, Is there more than one Romans?

As our society becomes increasingly secularized, those of us who have been around church for a long time need to extend plenty of grace to those who haven’t. Those who do get connected to church are going to come knowing a lot less about Bible and faith and God. Which to me means that if the Church is going to reach folks outside of the strongly committed segment, we are going to have to ramp up our discipleship and teaching ministries. The days of “feel-good” sermons and “fun-and-games” youth ministry are over. The next generation of believers is going to need much more than that.

And one more thought: We in the Church must first be known for what we are for, not for what we are against. If we are going to reach people with the love of Jesus, then we are going to have to lead with the love of Jesus. I mean: isn’t that what Jesus did? I find it immensely fascinating and instructive that the kinds of people Jesus ticked off were the kinds of people we often try to assuage. And the kinds of people Jesus went out of his way to engage, we often try to avoid. (For example, see Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown in Luke 4; or the next chapter in Luke, where Jesus heals a guy who can’t walk and gets into a row with some religious types; or the next chapter, where those same folks protest the timing of Jesus’ healings; or the next chapter where Jesus heals the kid of a hated occupier, and then lauds his faith; or the next chapter, where Jesus heals a demonized Gentile pagan, and then sends him out as one of the first missionaries. And that’s just 5 chapters in just one of the four gospels. If you need more examples of the ways Jesus interacted with the kinds of people we avoid, and avoided the kinds of people we tend to interact with, keep reading. There’s plenty more material.)

None of this is about criticizing the church, or those who work in it. I deeply value those who give themselves fully to lead and love others. It’s hard work. There are no easy answers. I know. I’ve been there, and I have the t-shirt to prove it (a bunch, in fact).

But it’s time for those of us who are strongly connected to church and faith — for those of who are serious about the call of walking in the way of Jesus — to find ways of engaging a culture that increasingly doesn’t care, and doesn’t know why it should. And it probably will be less about what we do on Sunday mornings, and more about what we do the rest of the week.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea…

Recently, I stopped at a convenience store and popped into the bathroom. When I went to wash my hands, it was one of those new-fangled combo deals — where the sink and the hand dryer are all built into the same vanity. And there was only one of them in this particular restroom. So, I waited for the guy in front of me to finish washing his hands, and as he dried his, I got started with the water. I was probably in his personal space, but, really, with only one sink, am I supposed to wait until he finishes the whole process before I get going? Anyway, as I washed, the air from the dryer was like a storm in that little sink — blowing the water places it wasn’t supposed to go.

Now, of course, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it got me to thinking: What else seemed like a good idea when somebody drew it up, but doesn’t work so well in practice?

Well, just in the bathroom, I can think of at least a three more:

  1. Doors that open toward you when you exit. I’ve just washed my hands; why would I want to grab a door handle that’s been handled by hundreds of other people? I mean really, unless space requires it, why would they ever install bathroom doors that you push to enter, and pull to exit?
  2. Shower heads that are too short. This, of course, is a hotel deal. I was never very good in science, but it seems to me to be a basic principle that water always flows downward. So, whether the shower head is mounted four feet up, or eight feet up, it still goes to the same place. Therefore, my vertically-challenged friends can take a shower no matter where the shower head is placed; but we who are north of six feet really appreciate it when the engineers don’t design the water to come out at our navels.
  3. Finally — and this is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to restrooms — automatic anythingWhether it’s automatic toilets that don’t flush, or automatic soap dispensers that don’t dispense, or automatic sinks that don’t produce water, or automatic towel dispensers that don’t give you enough paper (like the one at my son’s work, which one time generously gave me 3/4 inch of paper for each wave of the hand). It used to be that “the wave” was a public sports cheer we all did in sync at the game; now it’s the game we all play at the sink in public restrooms. Is it really too much work for us to flush our own toilets (er, well, bad example, at least in men’s rooms). Is it really too much work to pull out our own paper towels?

And it’s not just restrooms that are full of things that seemed like a good idea. Life has those, too. My life has those, too.

It seemed like a good idea to:

  1. fix the leak myself
  2. eat that extra scoop of ice cream
  3. try to surf off the back of my friend’s boat
  4. watch just one more show on netflix

It also seemed like a good idea to:

  1. skip time in prayer
  2. yell at my kid when I was upset
  3. hold that grudge
  4. scream at that guy on the interstate

In other words, I wish it was just in public restrooms where dumb things happen. Sadly, it’s also in life. In my life.

So, how can I not believe in grace? How can I not cling to it fiercely? For what else makes sense in a world where just about everyday, I can say, But it seemed like a good idea….