On Pollution and Grace

There was once a vibrant oasis in the Western United States. Over time, with the introduction of harmful human activity, the oasis became polluted to the point that flora and fauna struggled to survive.

A local group, concerned about the rapid decline of that ecosystem, began to take steps towards repairing the damage that had been done. They removed large amounts of waste from that environment, quarantined a few areas around the lake, and put forth several measures to prevent further accumulation of harmful substances.

Over a short time, the oasis began to recover. Plant life began to recover, the ph balance of the water was improving, and the soil composition was getting back to what it needed to be. The nearby town began introducing new life into the ecosystem; fish and several plants to further improve the quality of the soil and water. However, there were still noticeable issues with the levels of pollution that were found.

Once again, the people involved in monitoring the situation saw improvements. This time, however, the improvements came slowly. They began doing water treatments to further cleanse the lake, and introduced soil treatments to remove even more pollutants that were found in the ground. Improvements still came, but noticeable differences were difficult to observe.

After some time, the people became frustrated with their progress. At several hundred thousand dollars spent, the nearby town was thoroughly invested in removing all pollutants from the oasis. But, the tests still showed the presence of pollution. Even though the current levels of harmful substances were a tiny fraction of what they once were, further measures were enacted to continue the purification process.

Aquifer rehabilitation, plant scrubbing, animal cleaning, numerous amounts of sprays, and chemical spreads were introduced. At this point, the economic cost was well into the millions of dollars and national finances were being used for the rehabilitation project.

As these methods were taking place, the situation – surprisingly – began to get worse. The levels of cleaning chemicals ended up killing most of the fish in the lake, as well as the plant life surrounding it. The town had to declare bankruptcy because of the inordinate level of costs it had undertaken. And, in a brief span of time, the oasis became a desert.

cost-benefit-analysis

I’ve heard this story used as a thought experiment for cost-benefit analysis in economics. I feel it works equally well in a social setting.

There is a nasty habit that has evolved in our midst; the tireless pursuit of perfection. Every possible negative instance is heavily scrutinized and swiftly punished. There can be no imperfection in our society; no room for error. Whenever a comment is made that is racist or sexist (or if it could be taken as such), a cleansing process must take place to eradicate it.

I have been concerned for a while that our culture is committing the same self-destructive process within our own social fabric. With these trends of racial reconciliation, gender equality, mutual tolerance, and open-mindedness becoming increasingly radical, I cannot help but wonder if our Western ideal of perfection is going to kill us.

Now, I am not in favor of racism, sexism, bigotry, or whatever other ideologies exist that elevate one type of person over another. However, I also feel that it is a problem to relentlessly pursue their eradication.

Let’s face the reality: people will be bigoted. Racism, sexism, closed-mindedness, xenophobia, and similar negative traits will exist wherever we go. It is good to recognize these realities and seek reconciliation, but we should also acknowledge that there comes a point where pursuing perfect justice will ultimately lead us to creating an environment in which we, ourselves, cannot even live. We will have cultivated an ecosystem that is so purified that no form of life can survive.

I am still wresting with this line of thinking, and am curious to see where the logical end of it lies. I feel very strongly, though, that instead of asking ourselves, “How can we get rid of these social ills?” we should begin asking, “Can we show grace in the midst of human imperfections?” Following the direction of the general philosophy of our culture, the answer to the latter question is quickly becoming “no.” In such an environment, no one will be able to survive.

Integrating this line of thinking into the Church, we should not be surprised by those who say, “I am not good enough to be a Christian.”  The more we pursue our idea of perfection (whether we are talking about politics, theology, or whatever else), the more it will come at the cost of our own humanity. We won’t be able to live in the world we’ve created. We would do well to walk with humility in these times, especially since we are wading through a growing paradox of increasing legalism and the simultaneous extension of self-sovereignty.

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On Facebook and Obama

About a year ago I was approached by a middle-aged woman after one of my sermons.  A very unexpected conversation took place:

Woman: “So, did I hear you right in your sermon when you said you were gay?”

Me: [confused look on my face] “Uhh.. I don’t believe I said that, ma’am.”

Woman: “You mentioned in your sermon that you live with your boyfriend.”

Me: “Oh!  No, I was referencing a paper one of my students had written.”

Woman: “I see.  Are you married, then?”

Me: “No ma’am, I’m single.”

Woman: “Okay.  I looked over during the service and saw that a nicely-dressed young man was visiting and I thought, ‘well, he’s either married or he’s gay.”

Me: “Well, I can honestly say that I’m not gay even though I’m not married.”

I’ve found a profound truth through my time at Olivet:  problems don’t occur because of what you say; problems occur because of what people hear.  In this instance, even though I was trying to be clear in my message, the woman heard something completely different than what I was saying.

During the last few weeks I’ve begun to pay more attention to what we, as Christians, say, and I’ve noticed that there is often a large gap between what we are saying and what others are actually hearing.  In our attempts to promote Christian ideas, including the Gospel, we inadvertently push people away and draw lines in the sand.  Where social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube could serve as effective vessels to communicate God’s love to others, we have used them as battle trenches from which to launch our missiles toward our opponents – as if doing so will force them to surrender, and walk – defeated and humiliated – to our side.

It should not take long to notice what I am talking about.  Posts about popular topics such as Duck Dynasty, Obama’s policies, same-sex marriage, and gun laws are rarely inviting.  Typically, you can fill in the blanks with such posts:  “____ is/are being fools!  Why are they doing _____?  _____ is going to ruin our country! We need to stop _____ because _____  is going directly against scripture!”  While some of these statements may be true in some cases, I can’t help but think of what people are hearing when they read such posts:  “They think I’m being a fool?  They don’t know why I support ___?  They think I’m going to ruin the country?  They want to stop people like me, and say I am going directly against scripture?”  – We should not be surprised when people stop attending our churches when they hear such messages.

(picture taken from

I understand that the reason we tend to be so strong and direct in our words is because of our passion.  I do get that.  But we gather on Sundays to talk about how much God loves people. and yet we regularly go out of our way to find creative ways of telling people how much we despise them.  We try to beat down others for thinking differently than we do as we drag them kicking and screaming to the altar, hoping to secure yet another prisoner for Christ.  At least, I’m assuming that’s what our purpose is by treating others the way we do; it’s either some perverted form of evangelism or we’re trying to hold people underwater as we drown them in Hell, instead of extending a loving hand.

I am perplexed by all this, to say the least.  Do we really think we have it all together, that we are so pure, that we can claim to have the power to not just judge others, but to abuse them for not being on the same side of some arbitrary man-made line in the sand as we are?  Or maybe we like to stick to our version of the Great Commission: “Go, and make disciples of all nations… bashing their heads in with traditional American values instead of scriptural truths, and show them how wrong they are so that they feel that I don’t like them.  After all, I only died for the good Christian republican/democrat people.  I didn’t die for all humanity.”  –  That’s what Jesus was getting at, right?

Not only am I perplexed, but I am disappointed.  It makes me feel disappointed to see Christians I once looked up to lobbing grenades at ‘those liberals,’ ‘those homosexuals,’ ‘those God-haters,’ ‘those religious fanatics,’ ‘those baby-killers,’ ‘those bigots,’ ‘those sexists.’ Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that we should engage in conversations about current topics.  But, can we not approach such topics with even a little grace?  Does not the world already draw enough lines as it is – why should we be trying to draw even more?  Do we even listen to those who disagree with us, or do we stay barricaded within our trenches looking at the opposition through rifle scopes and satellites?

Sometimes the greatest method of evangelism is offering our ears.  It’s a dangerous thing to get out of the trenches to walk to the other side and get to know ‘those people.’  Once you enter that ‘no man’s land’ you’re likely to get shot by your own side, if not the ‘opposition’.  But how else are we going to know what our listeners hear?

We ought to take seriously the words we say, and the impact they have on others, because what we are trying to say may not be what they are hearing.