Monday, March 16, 2015

Stealthily Lethal

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.

Melanoma, better known as “skin cancer,” is a very deadly disease. Since we have lived down here in the Keys, my wife and I have known at least a half-dozen people who have died of it. And what makes it so lethal is that it tends to metastasize to the brain. So if you notice a spot that changes color, that gets larger, that has irregular borders, have it checked out by a dermatologist ASAP.

A friend who favored sleeveless dresses had a 2 inch black melanoma on her shoulder. I and another coworker kept quizzing her about it and she swore she was seeing a doctor. But she was afraid of doctors and was lying to us. One day she had the equivalent of a stroke, was taken to Baptist Hospital in Miami and diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She came home and was put on hospice. A month later, she died.

We humans are really bad at judging threats that are slow-moving and non-obvious, like skin cancer and climate change. If it doesn't come roaring at us, if it doesn't cause deep and immediate pain, if it just creeps up on us slowly, we tend to ignore it or discount its seriousness. Which is why we tend to take action only after a crisis. Israel hadn't had a plane hijacked in decades and people in the know said we should copy their airline security. We didn't do so until after 9/11. My father-in-law became a big believer in exercise and eating right—after he had a massive heart attack and quintuple bypass surgery. As a nurse I've seen it again and again: people only make major changes when it becomes too painful not to. And, sadly, by then it is often too late for some.

I myself am not immune to this. I was in fairly good shape when I was working 3 12-hour nursing shifts a week 5 years ago, though working overnight was wrecking my ability to sleep. Since I now spend a considerable amount of time sitting in front of screens I have gained a lot of weight. I know all the serious and life-threatening things that being overweight leads to. But it's really hard to persuade myself to get up and exercise regularly. The immediate effect is hard breathing and pain and fatigue and sweating. The long-term benefits are both distant and hard to appreciate. They are not so much gains as a lessening of the risks of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, etc. Like most people I am tempted to take the path of least resistance, comfort and short-term pleasure over the straight and narrow way of hard work, discomfort and delayed gratification.

Sometimes what motivates us to change is seeing a friend or family member fall afoul of some danger. This can even benefit others. For every healthy celebrity who works tirelessly to eradicate a disease, I assure you there is someone close to them who suffers from it.

There is another way to respond to a threat and we have seen it just this last week in the news. China banned a documentary on its notorious air pollution and India banned a BBC documentary on its culture's horrendous problems dealing with rape. Neither action will solve the problem, nor will they fool anyone in their respective countries about these problems. It is akin to solving your burglary problems by getting rid of that noisy watchdog. It won't save your belongings but you will be able to sleep longer. It will, however, make your eventual awakening much more traumatic.

We unthinkingly praise light and fear darkness. And yet the light can expose some discomfiting truths and so, as Jesus points out in today's gospel, some people do grow to love the darkness. It hides the inconvenient truth from others and even from ourselves. When General Patton liberated Nazi concentration camps, he was so horrified by what he saw that he rounded up local officials and townspeople and made them come and get a good hard look at the calculated cruelty and government-sanctioned carnage that was taking place in their midst. They could no longer deny the monstrous events that surely would have leaked from such places with which they did business and to whose staff they must have catered and entertained on days off.

The unpalatable truths we wish to hide are usually those things which are wrong with us, the things we do or have done. But they can also be the problems on which we do not want to work, even if we did not directly contribute to them. In the third of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, Life, the Universe and Everything, author Douglas Adams came up with a clever cloaking devise for a spaceship. It was called the SEP: Someone Else's Problem. The ship appears to be something no one wants to deal with and so is ignored. This is very astute satirical conceit by Adams, because we do indeed avoid engaging with certain things because we deem them Someone Else's Problem. Unfortunately, because of the interconnectedness of all things, almost every problem is ultimately ours. Some scientists think pollution from China may very well be what's been causing our recent severe winters. One third of the homeless population, or 250,000, are mentally ill. And yet 33 cities have made it illegal to feed the homeless in hopes of getting them to simply go somewhere else. Or they incarcerate them, tripling the percentage of mentally ill in jails and prisons. Which means we are paying to lock up rather than treat sick people.

We can even deceive ourselves into thinking our problems are actually someone else's. The BBC documentary about rape in India was banned in part because it includes an interview with one of the men imprisoned for the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year old woman on a private bus. Far from being repentant, the rapist accused his victim of being the reason for the crime. She shouldn't have been out that late; she shouldn't have gone to a nightclub; she shouldn't have resisted, he says. Somehow the rape and murder committed by him and 4 other men is the fault of the person they raped and murdered. I hear similar things all the time from men incarcerated for domestic violence. It was the woman's fault. She was drunk or high; she attacked him. Apparently, the only victim is the guy!

In summary, we humans are terrible at assessing what is bad for us. We ignore problems if they are slow moving and non-obvious; we ignore them if fixing them is painful or inconvenient; we ignore them if they reveal uncomfortable facts about ourselves; and if we can, by any stretch of the imagination, we try to blame others. We prefer to remain in the dark about our problems.

The weird thing is that the solution is not nearly as bad as we think it is. My friend was afraid of doctors but if she had gone to one when the spot on her shoulder first started to change, the doctor could have removed it, and the risk of her early death, with very little pain. And the solution to our moral deficit is definitely preferable to letting it get the better of us. Both our reading from Ephesians and our reading from John testify to that.

Our gospel includes the best known verse of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” There is a lot of good news packed into that one sentence. It tells us that God's attitude towards this screwed-up world is one of love. It tells us that his love is so great that he sent his unique Son to rescue us. And how does he do this? Through a rigorous program of daunting tasks and sacrifices on our part? No, through our trusting in him. That's what believing in Jesus means in this context: trusting him the same way you trust a doctor to diagnose and remove a potentially fatal lesion.

My friend didn't go to a doctor but we believed that she was doing so because the big black spot would sometimes look a bit smaller. That was because my friend was trying to remove bits of it herself. But her makeshift efforts did not ultimately get to the root of the problem. She should have trusted a doctor. It would have meant less painful and futile work on her part. In the same way, Paul reminds us that saving us from the spiritual death resulting from our sins is accomplished by God's grace, not by anything we could do. All we can do is trust him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And since there is nothing we can do to deserve such treatment, we just have to accept it as a gift.

And that is perhaps another reason why we would rather remain in the dark about these things. It is bad enough to have to acknowledge that our problems are both dire and our own fault; it is really hard to admit that we are powerless to do anything about it. We want to believe we could fix it if we really tried. To face the fact that we can't is to realize that we have no bargaining chips when it comes to our fate; we are like beggars, entirely dependent on God's good favor. It is a humbling realization.

For many it is merely humiliating. They would rather die than admit they need God to save them from problems of their own making. I think a lot of the vehemence of certain anti-theists is due to their rejection of the idea that they need rescuing by God. They put their trust in themselves or in the ingenuity of other human beings or in an abstraction they call Science. But science is not a monolithic thing, nor is it all necessarily good. 

What we really have are sciences, many disciplines, being used by many people who work for various industries and governments and universities and for the money that science can generate. We have moral and immoral scientists. We have scientists working to save lives and scientists working to come up with new ways of killing people and scientists so focused on some other goal that they are paying scant attention to whether their efforts will make life worse for some people. We have people using science to attack problems and people using science to create problems and scientists trying to fix problems caused by the use of science, which were often a side effect of trying to fix some other problem. If we destroy our world or ourselves as a species, we will not do so without contributions from science. Sticks and stones may break my bones but to do serious damage to large numbers of people requires research and solid engineering.

Science, like any other field of endeavor, is only a good thing in the hands of good people. In the hands of the arrogant, the greedy, the lazy, the belligerent, or the deceitful, science, like law, education, the media, politics, religion, or any other human activity, becomes just another source of problems. The root problem is people. If we could fix them, everything would be better.

The only thing that can fix us, deep down, is God. And the only way God will fix us is if we let him. It's like the vaccine problem: the solution is there but it won't work if people won't get the vaccinations. And believing that something other than getting vaccinated will do the trick just makes the problem worse.

Why doesn't God just forcibly fix everyone for their own good? Because, as it says in John 3:16, God loves us. If you love someone you don't force yourself on them. There is a brilliant article on the Internet in which a woman discusses the problem of consensual sex. The woman says it's like offering someone tea. If they say “Yes,” you give them tea. If they say “No” or change their mind or pass out, you don't try to pour the tea down their throat. God does not force himself on us. If we say “No” he will take us at our word. If we change our mind, he will be there for us. Because that's how love works.

God loves us and wants us to love him back. But it's only genuine love if it comes out of one's free will. So God gives us the choice of whether we come to him or not. And then if we do, he gives us his grace to become the people he created us to be. Because that is another aspect of love. You want what is best for those you love. If your child is selfish, you help him become a more open and generous person. If your child is violent, you help him learn to control himself and achieve things through other means. Anne Lamott says that God loves us just as we are and he loves us too much to leave us that way. But you can only come to that conclusion if you acknowledge that you are the source of your problems and need God's mercy, forgiveness and grace. The self-satisfied never feel the need for a big change nor do they feel they need God's help.

And this is why I often find a receptive audience at the jail. I meet inmates who have stopped fooling themselves, who have hit bottom and realize they must change or die or else go on in that living death Paul writes about. They don't blink at talk of hell because they've seen it and perhaps have even lived it. They understand how giving up the things that cause you to sin can feel like cutting off a hand. They are not bored listening to talk about God's grace, his undeserved kindness towards us.

If you ask me, part of the reason that 7.5 million Americans have walked away from religion since 2012 is that they don't see the need. Their lives are fine. They've got a place to stay, a job, food to eat, entertainment at their fingertips. Even those who are not considered rich by our standards are rich compared to people all over the globe who live on less than $2 a day. They have freedom that many don't enjoy. Their life is fairly comfortable and so who needs God? It's hard to believe that things are dire for you when your physical needs are all taken care of and you are not in much distress. It is in the affluent West that Christianity is declining. It is where life is hard and uncertain that Christianity is growing and thriving. Is it because religion is a comforting illusion when your life is crap, as some think, or is it that people don't turn to God when their lives are comfortable the same way folks don't go to the doctor when they aren't in pain? But sometimes it's not wise to wait for excruciating pain to get help. I'm sure my friend would have gone to the doctor, physician-phobia and all, had that black spot burned like a son of a gun. And you just have to listen to the news to know that we are in trouble even if we are not yet feeling unbearable pain.

The reason the gospel, literally the good news, spread so well in Jesus' day was that everybody already believed the bad news. They knew everything was out of whack and they knew that each of them was part of the problem. When John scolded them for their selfishness and greed and hypocrisy and inaction, they fessed up and got baptized as if they were Gentile converts who needed to start their relationship with God from scratch. Today we have the same problems but we think that if there is a God he already forgives us and he loves us too much to let anything seriously bad happen to us. The good news is old news to us and being old it can't be that relevant to us today.

Part of the reason that some otherwise educated people aren't getting their kids vaccinated is that they don't remember a time before the vaccines. They don't remember when these childhood diseases would kill and cripple children. They think the world has outgrown measles and whooping cough and polio. They think those things are no longer worth worrying about. I think a lot of folks today believe the same thing about Christianity. They think the world has outgrown sin and the need for Christ's atonement and for God's grace. Any black marks on their souls they can take care of themselves. And I'm afraid that, like my friend, they may not realize their mistake until it is too late.

In her last month, my friend did consent to record a public service announcement for the radio station we both worked for. She bravely told her story and then told people the signs of melanoma and that they should go to the doctor and get these things checked out. This was well over 10 years ago but ever so often I hear the PSA play on the radio. And so she is still spreading the word, still saving lives.

Are you? Are you telling people the good news about forgiveness and healing and a new life in Jesus? Don't get lulled by how easy life is. Not every problem announces itself in a loud voice or big block letters. Don't worry about how gauche you're afraid you'll sound. Remember you are just passing along helpful information. If some people don't respond, then they are no worse off than they were but you may have planted a seed, nevertheless. If they listen and act on it, they will be more than better off. They will be citizens of God's kingdom, members of the body of Christ, beloved children of God, Jesus' brothers and sisters. And unlike cancer, with spiritual maladies it's never too late in this world to get help and get healed. This life has an expiration date. God's life doesn't. And that's what he's giving. That's what he's always given: his life for ours. And all we have to do is ask and trust.

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