Thursday, June 30, 2011

lady gaga is right…sort of

The latest DNA research development is fascinating. As exploration inside “Darwin’s Black Box” carries on, scientists are discovering more and more predispositions to behaviors and abilities, both good and bad. Last month it was reported that a regulating gene for obesity and diabetes was discovered at King’s College in London. Apparently, we inherit the gene from both mom and dad. The cell from our mom regulates our metabolism, while the one from dad is switched off in us at birth. The discovery could be a breakthrough in curing Type 2 diabetes. Amazing.

The so-called “fat gene” has been fodder for late-night comedians for some time. But it now seems that certain people may have a propensity for obesity based on genetics. For those of us tipping the scales on the hefty side, this brought a sort of perverse relief. It at least weighed in, no pun intended, on the nature-versus-nurture debate.

Er, sort of.

It turns out that there may be a delicate interdependent dance between environment, behavior and genes.

Last year, Time magazine did a cover story on the burgeoning field of epigenetics. In the 80’s, a Swedish scientist began studying the long-term effects that earlier famine or feast years had on succeeding generations. The article states the question that prestigious preventive-health specialist Dr. Lars Olov Bygren began asking:

“Could parents' experiences early in their lives somehow change the traits they passed to their offspring? To put it simply, the data suggested that a single winter of overeating as a youngster could initiate a biological chain of events that would lead one's grandchildren to die decades earlier than their peers did. How could this be possible?”

That study and others led to the discovery of epigenes. As the article reports,
“…Epigentics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material—the epigenome—that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic "marks" that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.”

Fascinating. Science seems to be saying that nature and nurture are physiologically entwined. Bad behaviors in parents prior to their children’s conception can predispose future kids to certain diseases and even early deaths. It strikes me as more than interesting that the Bible says God visits
“the sins of the fathers on the children on the third and the fourth generations…” (Exodus 20:5)

I have little doubt that future genetic—and epigenetic—studies will only reveal more and more our propensity toward certain behaviors. Who knows if kleptomania, overeating, sexual orientation, MPD and more will be uncovered in the intense research of those microscopic three-billion base pairs? So as Lady Gaga sings in her gazillion-seller hyper-catchy pop tome,
Born This Way,

“It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M,
Just put your paws up ‘cause you were born this way, baby…
…I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause god makes no mistakes,
I’m on the right track baby: I was born this way”

Sounds like you’re destined before you’re even conceived…and to some degree, even by the mere behaviors of your back-to-the-future parents. Is Lady Gaga right?—is it true God makes no mistakes? But what if He wasn’t in the “making” in the most operational sense? Are we to blame God for our cellular predisposition, good or bad? The fact that Gaga’s vocal cords are shaped and stretched a certain way for those powerhouse ultrasonic notes, was that God? Is her self-proclaimed bisexuality from God?

Here’s the big question at the core of Christianity: What if we’re all really,
really flawed?

And flawed all the way down to our DNA? Is that a game-changer in any way? My genetics are broken and I have to wear contact lenses: should I blame that on God? But here’s an even deeper question: If
behaviors—or to some degree even motivations—are triggered by a predisposed gene and we are born that way, does that make them amoral? Because someone “can’t help it”, does that remove any sense of morality connected with the behavior? And does that mean that we’re not responsible?

I think our brokenness—all the way down to our DNA—is part of what Paul is describing as the
flesh. Think about it. Christianity claims that the Spirit of God is in conflict with our natural (genetically predisposed) nature…not because God made us that way, but because we are terrifically broken, all the way down to our genes. The Bible gives us a powerful narrative as to why we’re flawed: a desire—even in a perfect state—to be god rather than be with God. Knowing that we are deeply broken is critical to understanding Christianity; admitting we are deeply broken is the first step to experiencing Christianity.

Call it depravity, call it brokenness, call it sin, but whatever you call it, it separates us from intimately knowing God, apparently because He is perfectly
unbroken. You can’t mix oil and water. Or we’re as different as chalk and cheese, as my U.K. friends say.

Just by replacing the words “sinful nature” (or “flesh” in the King James) with “flawed genetics” gives a fresh view to the conflict that Paul expresses in this passage:

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Romans 7:18–20 (NIV)

It may be that our “war against the flesh” is exactly that: a conflict with what may seem natural to us. But what may seem natural to us might simply be a blindness to how broken we are. All the way down to our genes. And that may mean the only way to know whether any behavior falls in the “healthy” or “unhealthy” category—sin or not sin—is not whether it simply hurts a fellow human being, but whether it hurts the heart of God and His originally perfect design.

Now that is a game-changer. And modern science may be aiding us more that we realize.

When you follow the (natural) desires of your (broken DNA), your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19–21 (New Living Translation…with Workman-phrases in parentheses…)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

sos and the next big thing...

When I wrote this I was sitting in our darkened auditorium watching a thousand middle and high school students worshipping their hearts out with Matt McCoy and a phenomenal band of young musicians…hands raised, bouncing at times, singing at the top of their ├╝ber-stretched vocal cords. Made me want to cry. A manly cry, of course.

“In my life…be lifted high. In my world…be lifted high. In our love…be lifted high…”

It’s hard to believe, but we’re hosting our 20th Summer Of Service—SOS—this year. It all began with an idea Steve Sjogren had in 1992: thirteen mostly out-of-town students spent a couple of months doing simple outreaches. We housed them in some rental apartments the whole time. We were, of course, in over our heads. Even then.

Now it’s only five days. But five days on steroids. Today I was washing cars for free with an amazing group of young people from Traverse City, Michigan. The very last car was driven by a 20-something woman with a five-year-old boy in tow. She was genuinely stunned by the free wash. As we finished, I asked her if there was anything she would like prayer for. She was suddenly even more surprised. She told us she had some big “life decisions” to make and told us her story. Turns out she was from Poland and soon to return since her au pair gig was finished. The five-year-old was in her charge. She really didn’t want to go back and was not sure what she would do when she did. We prayed. Her eyes filled up. We believed God heard us. And she thanked us again and drove off.

Once more, the wall between the Church and those outside came crashing down for a moment. The Kingdom of God slipped through a thin place and caught us all by surprise. And in a moment of servitude.

Last Saturday I spent three hours doing an outward-focused church leadership training workshop at Tryed Stone-New Beginning Church for my friend Jerry Culbreth. I’m always interested to see how outward-focused principles apply to different church cultures, this one being primarily an African-American congregation. During a Q&A time, someone asked, “Do you think that developing a servant-oriented culture with an emphasis on outreach will be the next wave in the local church?” My response was simple: if it’s not seen as a church-growth mechanism, yes. But I’m always suspicious of the silver bullet theory. We have to think more holistically.

Nevertheless, several years ago in the Outward Focused Life book, I posed a simple question in the introduction:

“There’s something new sneaking into the church, and in a few decades, it will be pervasive. Here’s my Next Big Thing prediction: That churches in America will become less known for their styles, for their tribes, for their proselytizing methods, for their politics, for their clamoring over Christian “rights”, for the things they’re against…and more known for the way they serve. Servanthood will be the defining characteristic of people who are followers of Jesus. The question I regularly ask myself as a pastor in Cincinnati is this: what if the Church (the “Big ‘C’ Church”) in our city was known more for serving than by any other thing?”

I’m more convinced than ever it’s the right question, particularly in the hyper-politicized, shrill-voiced polarized culture we live in now. The believers I spoke to recently at a couple of New Wine Leadership Conferences in the U.K. were more than ready for a servanthood fix (New Wine is a network of churches that are mostly Anglican). It’s not that they were unfamiliar with the idea; it’s that the leaders want to hear reinforcement of what I believe they inherently know. As with most conferences, it’s not so much that you’re bringing completely new information, but rather, a voice of affirmation.

Tomorrow morning at SOS I will again watch a couple dozen chartered school buses pull up to the Vineyard to take a thousand students around the city to practice the art of serving. Maybe this generation will do a better job that we have at presenting the Body of Christ to a lonely and lost world. And tomorrow night we’ll gather and worship Jesus simply, beautifully and with a thoroughly-filled servant-heart…thanking Him for the opportunity to make His name famous through acts of love. I think that’s pretty wise.

The fruit of a righteous person is a tree of life, and a winner of souls is wise. (Proverbs 11:30 God’s Word Translation)

Taken poorly with a droid. I know, I know...

Monday, June 13, 2011

the politics of power

Although politicians seem to be having a difficult time determining how to pull the U.S. out of its economic malaise, they’re having no problem creating a stimulus for comedy writers. Case in point: Take Congressman Andrew Weiner.


Apparently 51% of his own constituents think he should stay in office according to one poll. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but I can’t imagine why any voter would put their trust in someone carving out time to take pictures of their package in the House gym. Take morality out of the question: do you want someone that stupid in his or her judgment to represent your concerns? To quote Seth: Really?

This isn’t a left versus right issue. Apparently, lack of judgment plays well on both sides of the aisle. Do I really need to make a list? And this isn’t even a slam on politicians; in the halcyon days of Enron, executives threw outlandish Bacchanalian parties that rivaled the Romans, or least Hefner’s dynasty. Not to mention their execs flashing Enron-logo credit cards in Houston strip clubs, buying $500+ bottles of Cristal and traipsing off to the VIP rooms with strippers in tow. Too bad for shareholders and employees that lost all of their retirement savings in the freefall of Enron. The beat goes on: Rajaratnam, Madoff, Boesky, Milken, and on an on.

Sometimes the smartest guys in the room aren’t the smartest guys in the room.

Last month, Time magazine’s editor-at-large Nancy Gibbs nailed the cover story with her article, Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs. The International Monetary Fund president Dominique Strauss-Kahn—and potential next president of France—was arrested after allegedly sexually assaulting a hotel maid in Manhattan. Apparently, there were past “indiscretions” that emerged as well. Gibbs writes:

“A study set to be published in Psychological Science found that the higher men—or women—rose in a business hierarchy, the more likely they were to consider committing adultery. With power comes both the opportunity and confidence . . . and with confidence comes a sense of sexual entitlement.”

I’ve already blogged about the dangers of entitlement in general, but let me touch on power. And it’s not just a problem for politicians, executives and celebrities—they’re simply in the crosshairs of the paparazzi.

People can abuse power in a non-profit organization or on a church board, around a dinner table or in a street gang. Or in a marriage. Face it: power is that mouth-watering addiction to being in charge. Power is abused when it slips into control. The greatest picture we have of power used correctly is God Himself: He created beings with free will who could choose to love and obey Him or not. Try to imagine the Chief of New York’s Finest standing by, with all his available firepower, while his son is nailed to a telephone pole in the Bronx by a petty street gang of thugs.

In Feinberg and Tarrant’s book Why Smart People do Dumb Things, they recount the story of Stew Leonard. Leonard was a smart entrepreneur in Connecticut who turned a family dairy business into a shopping theme park with a petting zoo and singing animatronic animals. Back in the day, Tom Peters, the author of the mega-seller In Search of Excellence, praised Stew for his business acumen and ethics, a model for excellence. Leonard had pictures of himself with movie stars and ex-presidents. Someone got suspicious when Leonard turned up at an airport with a suspicious amount of pocket cash—$75,000. The feds ended up raiding him and discovered a computer program in a hollowed out book that Stew had used to cheat the government out of hundreds of thousand of dollars. Arrogance—a spawn of power—answers to no one.

In the Old Testament, David understood the vanity of power. He had seen a bigger-than-life, impressive king—a head taller than his brothers—become arrogant and unresponsive to God. Saul was replaced by a shepherd boy with a slingshot. Later, David wrote in Psalm 20: Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

Problem is: none of us is bulletproof.

Decades later, in the time of year “when kings go off to war”, David, the powerful king of Israel, didn’t. Instead he found himself voyeuristically watching a woman bathe. In an astonishing abuse of power, he had her brought to him and slept with her. He knew her husband Uriah was off fighting the King’s war. There was never any evidence Bathsheba wanted or enjoyed this. After all, how does one refuse a celebrated and powerful king, anointed by God? As a matter of fact, months later she sends a terse message to King David: I’m pregnant.

Eventually David has Uriah surreptitiously killed in battle…and Bathsheba mourns for her loss. David makes her his wife and all doesn’t end happily.

It was an abuse of power. And a generational mess.

Bathsheba was the wife who later gave birth to Solomon who would lead Israel into her glory days, but with a price. Though he humbly asks God for one thing—wisdom (and receives it supernaturally in spades)—he eventually gave in to the entitlement that power temptingly bequeaths, ends up chasing the gods of his many wives and not finishing well.

It’s taken right from the TMZ files of today.

So what’s to be learned for us commoners? Don’t kid yourself: you’re richer and more powerful than you think. You’re more-than-likely reading this on your own computer. And if you own a home and a car and get a cost-of-living increase each year, you’re among the wealthiest 15% in the entire world. If it’s two salaries and two cars, you’re in the top 5% on the blue planet.

You’re not bulletproof. Nor am I. There’s only one way into the Kingdom’s narrow door: humbly, bent over and admitting who you are to the One whom you aren’t: God. And consider the practice regularly; I’ve watched powerful preachers and people-of-God fall like lightning. They stumbled into the lie that they could handle power better than anyone else…and simply by that assessment abused it.

“To whom much is given (perhaps that’s all-inclusive to those of us who have receive His mercy), much is required.”

And get over yourself.