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.

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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 Fools and Disciples

About 8 years ago I was attending a church in another state for about 4 months. During that time, the pastor of the church was caught in a scandal and subsequently left town. I remember having conversations with different people about the details behind the incident, and I as not too surprised by the events that transpired, but I remember saying, “His sermons leading up to this big mess were really good!” After I said that, someone else spoke up and said, “It’s interesting that the sermons get better the closer they hit home for the pastor.”

It’s true, you know. As a preacher, I often find that when I preach on things I am going through (while not abusing the pulpit by using it as a place of personal confession, and not revealing personal information) my sermons seem to have more of an impact.

[Disclaimer: I am fully aware that I am just a tool God uses to communicate His truth, so I am not trying to take credit for anything good that comes from what I preach.]

Recently, I have been obsessed with the Gospel of Mark. In particular, I am most interested in how Mark portrays the disciples. In Mark chapter 4, Jesus seems to set up a distinction between people who are “on the inside,” to which the secrets of the Kingdom of God are given, and those who are “outside,” who do not understand God’s Kingdom nor Jesus’ parables. However, in at least 20 instances throughout Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are the only ones who either a) don’t understand something Jesus says, b) appear clueless as to who Jesus is, c) don’t believe Jesus can do what he says he can do, or d) outright deny things that Jesus says will happen.

Only once does a disciple say something right: Peter’s confession of the Christ. But immediately after that, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” because Peter refused to accept that Jesus was going to suffer.

In contrast, everyone else Jesus encounters throughout Mark’s Gospel either a) have faith that he can heal/forgive, b) believe he is the Son of God, or c) react completely opposite to how the disciples react to Jesus’ teachings. Characters such as the Samaritan woman, Blind Bartimaeus, and even the centurion at the foot of the cross exhibit more faith and understanding than the 12 disciples who spent every day with Jesus over the course of 3 years!

I still have a hard time wrapping my head around this, because it doesn’t make any sense at all! How is it that people who barely know Jesus exhibit more understanding than someone who has daily conversations with the man, listens to his sermons, and watches him perform miracles? And how is it that those ‘on the outside’ seem to know more about God and His Son than those who are ‘on the inside’?

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In truth, I have often found myself in the shoes of the disciples. I have been a Christian ever since I can remember, and there was never a time when I did not know who Jesus was. Yet, I frequently wonder who in the world this man is. I am confronted with the question: ‘Who is the Christ?’ more often than I care to admit, because the more I reflect on it the more I notice how little I know of Jesus. I read the Bible, and the more I do so the more contradicted I feel because how God acts and speaks simply does not make sense to me.

Maybe it seems strange that a pastor would admit that, for him, having faith is difficult. Sometimes I struggle to know what God’s plan is for my life (or even if he has a plan for me life. Maybe He just wants me to pursue whatever is in front of me…), or whether or not He is who the Bible makes Him out to be. And much like the father in Mark 9, I find myself repeating this prayer in my head: “I do believe, but help my unbelief!” Referring back to what I said earlier, it seems that the power of the content of my preaching has changed a bit since I began writing sermons on this very topic.

During my second year of my undergraduate studies, when I was confronting many challenging questions about my beliefs, I was having a conversation with my mom where I admitted that there are many questions I am hesitant to ask because I have no idea how to answer them. It was then that I began feeling like the blind man whom Jesus healed in John 9 who said, “[Who he is] I do not know. One thing I do know. I as blind, but not I see!” Sometimes that is the only thing I can confidently affirm.

Surely God exists and has been active in my life, because I have seen evidence of that fact. Surely His Son lived, died, rose again, and His spirit dwells inside of me because I have felt the power of that truth. Beyond that, I have many questions and even some doubts. But, I think that is okay. If Jesus’ disciples had such a hard time figuring out who Jesus was when they literally walked with him every day, then certainly Jesus can use me even if I haven’t a clue what is going on.

I am sure many of us have found ourselves in similar situations, or perhaps we are currently in that place of doubt. While it is easy to doubt, perhaps our seasons of doubt help to strengthen our Faith in the end.