Monday, February 12, 2018

Light in the Darkness

The scriptures referred to are 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

There are gradations of blindness. People who are functionally blind can see but not well enough to get around without a lot of help. They may even need Braille to read. Some people are legally blind which means they are so near-sighted that they can't drive or do other activities that require distance vision. To people with cataracts things look fuzzy. A person with macular degeneration loses vision in the center of their visual field but retains peripheral vision. People with glaucoma can develop hazy sight and tunnel vision.

What's odd is that people who are totally blind, who can't visually perceive light at all, can still sense light nonvisually. It turns out we have other cells in our eyes besides the rods and cones that transmit visual information to the brain. These cells, called ipRGCs, allow the blind person to maintain his or her circadian rhythms, maintaining a fairly normal routine of sleeping and eating at the same time most other people do.

God is often associated with light. In Genesis 1 it is the first thing created. In the last chapter of Revelation God eliminates all darkness: “And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light...” (Revelation 22:5) The Bible mentions light more than 200 times.

As a symbol light is associated with goodness and life, probably because the cover of darkness allows predators, both animal and human, to strike. You are also less likely to trip or fall or get lost when you have light. And now we know that sunlight is both good for your mood and your health, stimulating the production of vitamin D. On the other hand, darkness is associated with evil and death. The penultimate plague striking Egypt in Exodus is darkness. When Jesus is crucified, darkness comes over the land for 3 hours. In Job death is depicted as “the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness.” (Job 10:22) In contrast, Jesus demonstrates his triumph over death by rising as the sun rises at dawn.

So what is Paul talking about then he says “our gospel is veiled?” Again I wish the people who selected our lectionary reading had included a bit more for context. In the verse before our passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul is talking about his ministry's transparency: “...we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2) Still some people don't seem to get it. That's why Paul speaks of the gospel being veiled. And it is only veiled to those who are perishing.

The Greek word translated “perishing” could be rendered “are being destroyed” or “are dying.” Why are they dying? Because they do not know the truth. As a nurse I can tell you that what you don't know can hurt you. For a while a popular slur for a British person was a “limey.” That's because 200 years ago sailors spending months at sea would often get scurvy. The British noted that if their sailors ate citrus they were much less likely to get that disease. So in the 1850s the Royal Navy would put lemon juice in their grog, later switching to lime juice, because they could more easily get limes from their colonies. So Americans sneeringly called them lime-juicers, later shortened to limeys. Sadly, limes have less vitamin C, but they didn't know that.

Similarly ignorance of the link between smoking and various lung diseases killed a lot of people in the first 2/3s of the 20th century. Ignorance about what caused HIV killed a lot of people in the 1980s. Ignorance about how vaccines are made and work are killing people today. What you don't know can do worse than hurt you; it can kill you.

And in many of those cases someone was keeping the knowledge from the general public. The connection between smoking and lung cancer was discovered by the Germans in the 1920s and again by the British in the 1950s. And though American tobacco companies knew, they launched a disinformation campaign to discredit the science. With vaccines, one British doctor faked a study linking autism to vaccines and today certain parents resist the truth that vaccines save innumerable lives. For that matter, as shown in Larry Kramer's autobiographical play The Normal Heart, there were those in the gay community who pushed back against the idea that AIDS was transmitted by unprotected sex. Sometimes ignorance is willful.

Paul, of course, knew none of these examples from what was to him the future but he lived in a society where many were poor, millions were enslaved, women were not valued as much as men, and those who were at the top pursued personal pleasure that was often destructive to themselves and those around them. He saw a society that could use the good news of the forgiveness and love to be found in Jesus.

And Paul was interested in the those social problems. In his letters he mentions his collection for the poor in Jerusalem. (Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10) But he was seen as even more radical. He was accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6) For instance, while he didn't call for a slave revolt, he did encourage slaves to gain their freedom (1 Corinthians 7:21) and at least one slave owner to free his slave (Philemon). He said all people, including women and slaves, were of equal worth in Christ. (Galatians 3:28) And he, like Jesus, saw that the danger to the rich was all the temptations available to them and commanded them to be humble and generous. (1 Timothy 6:9-10, 17-18) He knew that the love of God which is given to us by the Spirit (Romans 5:5) is necessary for a good and just society (Romans 13:9-10).

But he also knew that people cannot change unless they come to put their trust in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) People change for 2 main reasons: out of pain and out of love. The second is infinitely preferable.

But just as knowledge of good nutrition is important to people's physical health, so too is knowledge of the gospel for those whose spirits are starving for real sustenance. And just as people are kept in the dark by those with power, like the tobacco and sugar industries, Paul says the people of this world are blinded by the god of this age. He is no doubt referring to Satan. However, Paul also said of those who were enemies of the cross of Christ that their god is their belly. (Philippians 3:19; Romans 16:18) So he was not above using the word “god” metaphorically.

A god is anything in which you find ultimate value and to which you are supremely loyal. So, for instance, Jesus famously said you cannot serve both God and Mammon, a personification of wealth as a deity. (Matthew 6:24) And indeed there are people who let money rule their lives. They don't even have to be rich; they can just be obsessed with its pursuit. Such a person is blind to the true wealth of the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:16)

Some people make a god out of popularity. Everything they do—how they dress, what they buy, what music they listen to—are driven by the desire to become and stay popular. People will even alter their faces and bodies to fit the popular image of beauty. Some of our movie stars no longer look as they did because of plastic surgery. Now if you were disfigured by an accident, disease or by, say, a mastectomy for breast cancer, cosmetic surgery is understandable. But there is actually a woman who has had countless surgeries so that she can have the face and unrealistic figure of a Barbie doll. Google her and shudder.

From time immemorial people have been indulging in, let's face it, stupid activities because they were popular. I remember Beatlemania. The Beatles were a great band but that doesn't make it any more sensible for hundreds of fans to shriek so loudly during their concerts that you couldn't hear the musicians play. There are countless videos of people hurting themselves doing dangerous stunts and numerous videos of people trying to eat huge amounts of cinnamon and getting sick. I am assuming they have been joined by videos of young people eating detergent pods. Popularity is not the same as the wisdom of crowds.

People have made a god (or goddess) out of sexual pleasure. And we are reaping the results in terms of disease, broken families, unwanted children and sex trafficking. If you want to read something sad, read interviews with Hugh Hefner's last few girlfriends. They tell a tale of a dirty and dilapidated mansion, inhabited by virtual sex slaves, presided over by a man who needed a great deal of help to actually do what he thought was life's chief pleasure and purpose. As C.S. Lewis said, all get what they want; they do not always like it.

Some make certain men their gods—literally. Lemming-like, they have followed people like Jim Jones and David Koresh into mass-suicide. And oddly enough, the popular notion that lemmings run off cliffs to kill themselves is false. The guys who made that documentary couldn't get these rodents to fling themselves into the sea and had to throw the critters in with their own hands to get the footage. Turns out lemmings have a strong sense of self-preservation. Wish I could say the same for human beings.

Others merely blindly follow powerful men and celebrities and treat them like gods. Elvis might be alive today had the people around him not acquiesced to his appetite for drugs. The same goes for John Belushi, Michael Jackson and Prince. In other cases indulging the whims of men with the godlike power to kill careers has led to assistants procuring women to be sexually assaulted and boards paying for their silence.

Some have made politics their god and sacrificed everything—their values, their integrity, even the good of their country—for their party and ideology.

And because these gods do not want rivals, they blind their followers to the better way and loving God that is revealed in the good news of Jesus. Jesus is the image of God, Paul says. And the contrast between him and the gods of this age could not be greater. Jesus did not have worldly wealth. (Matthew 8:20) He lost his popularity by proclaiming uncomfortable truths. (John 6:60, 66) He didn't use his power to indulge himself. (Matthew 4:1-4) He came not to be served but to serve. (Mark 10:45)  He deflected attempts to get him to take a stand of the hot button issues of the day by redirecting our focus onto deeper and more lasting considerations. (Mark 12:13-17)

As C.S. Lewis wrote in his pointed satire The Screwtape Letters, the last thing the devil wants us to do is think clearly about issues. Muddled thinking keeps people blind to reality. It's not just about about putting ideas into our minds but also keeping certain ideas or insights out. In the 1950s scientists noticed a marked rise in heart disease. A researcher named John Yudkin suggested it was concomitant with our increased consumption of sugar. But the industry-funded Sugar Research Foundation tried to block that idea and substituted the admittedly easier-to-understand idea that fat consumption makes you fat. And most researchers followed that path for the last 50 years. But Yudkin's research has now been scientifically validated. When you consume more sugar than your liver can process, it's stored as fat. Not that the sugar industry is conceding that. In fact, the Sugar Association has called the Heart Association's recommendation that children should not eat more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day “baffling.” Which reminds me of the W.C. Fields quote: “If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with [B.S.]”

Evil tries to gaslight you, to make you doubt what you can clearly see or the results of objective observation by experts. Again as C. S. Lewis points out, we too often use jargon and pejoratives to characterize things as either “elite” or “ordinary,” “patriotic” or “unpatriotic,” “natural” or “unnatural,” “normal” or “abnormal,” “liberal” or “conservative” rather than ask the questions “Is this true or false? Is this right or wrong?” Just as the sugar industry has come up with 60 euphemisms to disguise added sugar, we have invented a bunch of synonyms and antonyms for “we like this.” What we don't like is total objectivity because it tells us stuff we don't want to accept as true.

And one way we decide if we accept something is true or not is whether we like the people espousing it. And sadly, certain Christians have been playing right into this. There are people who say they speak for Jesus who seem to have forgotten his commandments to love everyone, including one's enemies. Instead of displaying the way that Jesus and his gospel are different from other ideologies, they get just as partisan, just as hateful, just as dishonest as the people and movements which they criticize. They have turned a lot of people off to Christianity.

As Paul says, we should not be proclaiming ourselves or our opinions but Jesus Christ as Lord. And we should not do so out of pride in ourselves or in our cleverness or in our being right. As Paul says in the next chapter, “For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) Our love should compel us to disclose to others the truth we have found in Jesus. And it should compel us to live not for ourselves but for Jesus who died for all. The way of Jesus is the way of radical altruism.

As Diana Ross sang, what the world needs now is love. But how do we reveal the God of love to a world blinded by the powers that presently rule it? How do we show them Jesus as he really is? Though we may see them as spiritually blind, Jesus healed the blind, even those born blind. And like the visually blind, the spiritually blind can still sense the light of Christ. After all, high profile atheists, like Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Lee Strobel and C.S. Lewis, have come to Christ. Unlike Paul, the other apostles and many of the early Christians they didn't have the advantage of having seen Jesus in the flesh. They never saw his face. They saw something in Christians they met. Like it or not, we are the face of Jesus to the world. We are his body on earth. And if we rely on the Holy Spirit, the light God has shown in our hearts, and if we let our lives reflect that light in all that we think, say and do, people will receive the knowledge of the glory of God and meet him who made all, and died for all, and who rose again to raise us to new life in the God who is love.

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