On Applying Old Symbols (A Parable)

[I thought of this parable as I contemplated the tiny, but apparently sincere, minority of “heritage”-minded people who believe that the Confederate battle flag is not a symbol of racism.

In hermeneutics class there was a saying ‘context is king’. Perhaps it has a wider application. When you cut something out of the past and paste it into the present (a symbol, a procedure, a style, etc.) it may comfortably retain the cherished traditional meaning within your particular sub-culture. However, others outside your tribe will experience/interpret it in the context of their cultural values/ideals/style. The more culturally insulated a person is, the less sensitive he will be to this reality. If we are going to be a fragrant aroma amongst the perishing, we need to take heed.]

Once upon a time there was a small Christian school in Podunk, South Carolina. Actually, it wasn’t really small anymore. It was thriving. When it started 50+ years ago, it was just a handful of kids from the local Baptist church hiding from decaying morality and evolution in the science books. However, in the last 10 years or so, it developed a reputation for educational excellence, and it was pretty cheap, by private school standards. That, combined with the fact that the local county school district was one of the worst in the state, caused enrollment to swell.

To their credit, the 6 old Deacons Emeritus of First Baptist Church, who comprised the school’s governing board, saw this as a wonderful opportunity to minister to the community. They were sincerely committed to communicating, in word and in deed, the beauty of the Gospel to the whole student body and their parents—many of whom did not attend their church (or any other). At the same time, though, they were very concerned that having such a large number of students from outside their church could have an adverse effect on the “holy environment” that was at the core of the school’s very purpose. They resolved to protect their school’s environment from any unnecessary risk.

So, when a large group of parents and students requested that the school have sports teams, it didn’t take the board long to reject the idea. Sports seemed to bring out the worst in people—pride, aggression, outbursts of anger (and that’s just the parents in the stands!). Nope, they weren’t going to risk it. Over the next couple of years they saw many families withdraw from the school over the lack of sports. This didn’t really concern them until they realized that many kids were joining traveling teams that played on Sunday. They started to reconsider.

Nevertheless, they remained convinced that organized sports were a petri dish for all kinds of ungodliness to grow. They gave great thought to ways they could reinforce sport’s noble virtues (humility, hard work and strength) to counter the sports-inflamed passionate sins of pride, aggression and anger. If they were going to have sports, they needed a symbol of virtue to be their mascot. The mascot must embody the virtues they wanted to guard.

Hmmm…. mascots were typically animals. Usually they were carnivores with fangs showing. Lions, tigers and bears communicated an ungodly aggression and top-of-the-food-chain pride. It should probably be a herbivore. However, as they researched, they noted that herbivore mascots seemed to always have horns that figured prominently. Horns were a symbol of power in the Bible and usually associated with evil pride. So, they needed a hornless herbivore that symbolized Biblical virtues.

Eureka! A donkey. It is strong. It is known for hard work. It has a humble reputation. Best of all it is biblical! Abraham used one when he took Isaac to the altar. A donkey is the only animal that God ever used to speak for Him (Numbers 22). Mary rode it into Bethlehem at the beginning, and Jesus rode it into Jerusalem at the end. Perfect! The Board’s vote was unanimous that their mascot would be the—

Oh, did I mention that these people only used the King James Bible?

The Board planned a big event for last week of school in the spring. They would invite the media and local dignitaries to the big assembly where they would announce their new sports program and unveil their new mascot. When the big day came they just didn’t understand the mixed reaction they got when they announced the new school mascot.

First Baptist Christian Asses

Most laughed. Some gasped. A very small percentage of people clapped along with the deacons.

As the stunned parents discussed it that evening, they began to understand how this happened. The board members never watched TV, never watched movies or even listened to “secular devil music”. Their understanding of pop culture wasn’t really even “pop” 60 years ago when they think it was. They grew up in (and remained in) a culture and never looked beyond its borders (except to decry others’ moral and social inferiority and warn of the dire consequences that would necessarily flow from it). In their minds, they were the remains of what was once an almost universally-held social consensus. They hadn’t left the world, the world had left them and they didn’t see the need to understand much about where it went—their concern was to remain where they were. They would be the home that the prodigal world could return to when it came to its senses.

Over the days that followed, concerned parents and teachers tried to explain to the board why it wasn’t good to be referred to as “Asses”. Referring to someone as an “ass” was an insult and expression of contempt. Worse still, “ass” was a slang term for a body part and was often used in a sexually-oriented manner. Plus, it no longer had a biblical connotation (modern translations didn’t use that word). But, these warnings just strengthened the Board in its resolve. “Just because the Devil has co-opted our precious symbols does not mean that we should stop using them! We refer to God as ‘God’ even though idolators refer to their deities as ‘god’. We don’t stop teaching about the Noahic covenant sign just because homosexuals put rainbows on their bumper stickers. Modern Bible translations can float in the cultural winds all they want to, but we will stay true to our tried-and-true traditional words, symbols and message. WE DON’T CHANGE OUR MESSAGE TO COMMUNICATE TO THE WORLD—WE COMMUNICATE OUR MESSAGE TO CHANGE THE WORLD!!!”

The Board did not back down. In fact, they moved forward. They were sick to death of the fact that modern cultural style, driven by ignorant, ungodly people, was turning beauty into ugliness. They would not let this go unchallenged! So they promoted their holy Asses with passion. They instituted the “Ass of the Week” award that was awarded to a student from each grade who had demonstrated hard work and excellence (with humility) the previous week. They had T-shirts printed as a prize and put each student’s picture on a large bulletin board in the foyer under a huge “Asses of the Week” sign.

A picture of that bulletin board went viral.

Regardless of all its positive qualities, the world only knew that school for one thing. They couldn’t see past it. They never would. The Board never understood why. That school died–their symbol killed it.

Two Vases (actually 4)

Once upon a time there were two vases made by Michelangelo. They were gorgeous. They were offered up for auction and the first one brought a world-record price—at least until the second one was sold 15 minutes later. Both brought over $500K more than the auction estimate (and most had thought the auction estimates were too high)

The first one was bought by a mob boss. He gave it to his 80-year-old mother for Christmas.   She put it on the kitchen windowsill in her small cottage in the mountains. She filled it half full of water and put a peony from her garden in it.

The second one was bought by a Japanese investor. He kept it in a safe, inside another safe in a private office that he visits maybe once a year. The last time he went, he didn’t even look at it.

The first vase felt really good about himself. “I can see why they paid millions of dollars for me! Look at how I’m holding this water. No leaks! The flower is held perfectly still and I never sag, bend or tip. This flower never wiggles while I’m on the job. Did I mention that I never leak? Wow, I’m such a wonderful vase! Even at my record price, I was a bargain!”

The second vase, sitting there in the dark, thought, “Well, I’m totally worthless. I never do anything. I just sit here in the dark doing nothing. I haven’t even seen the light of day in 13 months. I may as well be a rock or a piece of dust or a dead roach. Why pay millions for me when I never even do anything! Does anyone even know I’m here? How is this different than a landfill?

One day the first vase got rinsed out, refilled and a new flower! He felt even better about himself as not even new water (maybe 2 ml more!) and a heavier peony was too much for him. “Is there no limit to my awesomeness!” he thought as he looked across the room and watched the old lady rummaging around in the garbage. She pulled out a large old beer bottle (he couldn’t help but notice it had a chip on the lip and a tear in the label). She brought it over to the sink and filled it almost to the top with water and put 2 peonies in it. After 24 hours of watching the bottle, he was seriously considering throwing himself off the shelf. “What good am I? Why would someone pay millions for me when a broken beer bottle out of the trash is doing twice as much as she ever asks me to do?”

Meanwhile back in the safe in the safe, it has been 15 months without fresh air or even a speck of light. “My life has no meaning—I am doing nothing. This man may just as well have burned millions of dollars in the fireplace. There is no difference. I wish I had never been made.”

Oh, by the way, three months ago a third vase by Michelangelo was donated to the Louvre. Thousands of people ooh and ahh at it every day. He thinks he’s worthless too, though, since no one ever paid even a penny for him. “I was just given away for free! Am I so worthless that I couldn’t even fetch $1.50 in a yard sale?” But, the more he thought about it, he realized that he probably was worthless—he’d never worked a day in his life. He’d never held water, or even a flower. He’d never contributed to society by fulfilling his (obvious!) calling of working as a vase.

Meanwhile, a fourth Michelangelo vase was just inherited by a guy named Tony in Paulding, Ohio. He only knew it as an ugly old vase from his great-grandmother’s house. Only he (and his ignorant ancestors) had seen it for the last 400 years, and none of them had the slightest clue what it was and that it was worth a fortune. The more Tony looked at it, though, the more he realized that it really had some potential. He’d been working with pottery for a couple of years now, and he had an eye for this sort of thing. Even though this was made out of some sort of rock he figured it would work about the same. He broke off some of the extremely out-of-date (and really over-the-top) ornamentation and sanded it down beautifully with his high-tech electronic diamond-tipped sanding tool he’d paid several hundred dollars for on the internet. Anyway, he then distressed it with an electric drill (“This will make it look old and valuable!”) and stained it with just 3 colors of chemical. He was really proud of it, and several of his friends really liked it too.  The vase loved all the attention and enjoyed his new look. “Contemporary with an ancient valuable feel!” is how he described his reimagined self.  He had no idea he was now totally worthless and destined, eventually, for the landfill.

 

If Life was a Video Game

Imagine if someone told you that they would give you $20 for every point you could score in a Mario-like video game. But–you could only play it one time. What would you do? Seriously, think about it…what would you do?

If I was just given that offer and asked that question, here’s how I’d answer:

I would talk to people who were experienced in playing the game and ask them questions like, “Are there games similar to it that I could practice on?” “What is important to get on each level?” “What are the dangers?” “Where are the coins and the secret weapons/powers?” I’d try to find out if there was a books about the game written by the manufacturer or people who know the game well. I’d memorize their instructions and look at maps (draw them if necessary). Bottom line—I’d take it very seriously because this will be the only opportunity I will ever have to get $20/point in a video game.

But what if you got the offer after you’d already started playing?

If I was just beginning to play level 4 and was asked by a player near the end of Level 1 for advice, I’d pause my game and tell him this:

1: You can pause the game: Pausing is, arguably, the most important step in getting points. True—there is no virtue in pausing in and of itself—in fact, it is somewhat costly as you aren’t getting points or moving forward while you’re paused. However, if you want maximum points you will need to look at your maps, survey the environment, review the instructions, receive counsel, rest your eyes, eat, sleep, etc. If you try to do those things while you are actively playing, it will be ineffective at best and fatal at worst. Remember the exhortation of Mad-Eye Moody, “Constant vigilance!” The truth is, though, no one can be constantly vigilant. You need rest and refreshment as well as training, re-orientation and reflection.   The lower the level the longer you can pause. BUT BE CAREFUL! Most people pause only to escape the game and fill their mind and time and thoughts with other distractions—they learn nothing, grow nowhere and come back to the game more tired and less focused than when they left it. If you’re only going to pause like that, it is better not to pause at all. You have to decide—do you really want points or not? You really can’t play two games at once (although many try…). (Ex 20:8-10, Matt 6:24)

2: Make the most of Level 1: There are hardly any points in level one, but there are hardly any (active) dangers, either. It is a great place to run around and get real comfortable with the controller. If Level 1 is played well, moving your man in Level 2 feels extremely natural. No one ever accidentally runs off the bridge into the lava on Level 2 who spent a lot of time moving around in Level 1. Sadly, hardly anyone does this since there are very few points to be had on the first level and it is very easy to get to the doorway of Level 2. Most just sit around bored and distracted until the level 2 door opens. It is kind of ironic that the least dangerous level is in some ways the most dangerous—failure to take advantage of its opportunities can seriously handicap you for the rest of the game. (Prov 2:1-12) [which brings me to #3…]

3: Pick up the keys!!!: Statistics show that most people who successfully open the treasure box in Level 3 for the super sword and the door in Level 4 for the power food, open them with keys picked up in Level 1. Nevertheless, most people don’t pick them up in Level 1–even the Level 1 players who have old people standing around them yelling, “Pick up that key! Pick up that key!!!” often refuse to do it. I think this is because players notice right away that carrying keys slows them down and bars them from going to certain places on the screen. This just feels wrong to them. Young players think that maximizing freedom, speed and mobility is the best way to get points; when, in truth, what you need most is power, knowledge and ability. There are many keys on the first two levels, and they are way easier to get there than the ones on level 3 and 4. Trust me–pick up the keys early! Gaining abilities always limits your options and always slows you down, but everything that is valuable is costly (and it costs more and more with each level). In this game, you really do only get what you pay for. Pay wisely. (Ps 119:9-16)

4: You can play with a partner: Starting as early as level 2, you can join forces with another player. This is an incredible opportunity to increase your total points, but only if 4 things are true: 1: You are partnered to a good player; 2: You are a good player; 3: You have both seriously prepared yourselves for partnered play; 4: You are both seriously committed to partnered play. If any of these 4 things is not true, you are much better off playing alone. Of the 4 requirements above, level 2 players often only concern themselves with the first two. In fact, the last two are at least as important. Playing with a partner requires very different skills than playing alone, and these are learned—it does not come naturally. A good solo player that never studied partner play is likely to suck in a partnered game. When partnered, maneuvering is much more difficult and you move way slower, but your power, knowledge and abilities can be greatly enhanced. There is great wisdom in an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (Eccl 4:9-12)

I have been partnered since the beginning of level 3. I’m not sure if I could say if the game is harder with a partner, but it might be in some ways. It is significantly more enjoyable (but occasionally significantly more painful). I can for sure say, though, that I’ve gotten more points. I’m way better as a partnered player (after all, that is how I was designed to play—it is not good for a man to play alone Gen 2). If you want to play with a partner, I cannot overstate the importance of the four things above. You need to know the game well, be comfortable with a controller, and understand the rules and dynamics of partnered playing. How do you do this? Read the guides. Watch (and evaluate) other players. Talk (and listen!) to other partnered players. Then, and only then, should you start evaluating potential partners. If you are a Christian at that point in the game, you’ll understand that the only person you could partner with (while maintaining a clear conscience before God) is one who’s best interest it is to be partnered to you. You must become a great player first or you’ll ruin someone’s game. This is time-consuming, expensive and painful (but way worth it in my experience). BEWARE! This is a big risk. Look around you—there are tons of low-pointed, crippled, and miserable partnered-players out there. Become a great player, learn partner lore, then (and only then) find a great partner. (Prov 18:22).

5: If it wasn’t for God’s grace in my life, I’d tell you to jump on the exploding mushroom: Understand that they don’t call it a “dog-eat-dog world” for nothing. There really are very few people in the world who will ever be truly committed to your best interests. It isn’t so much that they are against you, but that they are for themselves–which prevents them from love (1Jn 4:7-8).

Do you know any good players who are able to teach you? Do you know any bad players that are able to teach you (never underestimate the value of a bad example—sometimes failure teaches the most valuable lessons)? The important things are: 1: are they able to teach you? and 2: Are you willing to learn? One of the great dangers of level 1 is the false sense of ability it can give. It seems so easy and safe that it lulls people into a bored self-confidence. The designer of the game created level 1 so you could learn and grow, but most players just screw around bored while they wait for the door to level 2 to open. This is a huge mistake. If you want points in level 4, play level 1 with the same passion. LEARN from experienced players. If you can’t find a trustworthy mentor, at least pause your game and watch men play—remember you can learn a lot from both success and failure. However, watch and listen with discernment. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean that it’s true, and just because something looks like a success doesn’t mean that it ultimately is. This is a complicated game. That is why instruction from an experienced mentor who loves you is more valuable than what you can glean from your own observations. Unfortunately, love is way more rare than you think. If you have access to an experienced mentor who loves you, make the most of this opportunity! Sadly, it seems to me that most don’t. Listen and watch with strong intention (tempered with careful discernment). Here’s another thought–if the Manufacturer loves you and wants you to win, how stupid would you have to be to not listen to His instructions! (DUH!)

One thing that you will never be short of is people telling you how to play your game. This is one reason why people don’t value a loving experienced mentor—we’re all just sick to death of the seemingly incessant voices telling us how to play. It is just easier to quit listening altogether than to listen with discernment. Don’t do what is easy—this is $20/point! Listen with discernment and value those that love you well. Play well. God help you. God help us all. (Prov 3:5-8)

Protecting your child from the world–a parable

Once upon a time, two new fathers were walking through the park when they saw a burning bush that wasn’t consumed. After they took off their shoes and fell on their faces God said,

“Listen carefully. I’m warning you—if you don’t work really hard to prevent it, your children will drown when they are 19 years old.”

“How should we work hard to prevent this?” they asked.

“I gave you brains—use them! But, hear Me—each WILL drown if you don’t work really hard to prevent it.”

The first man ran to tell his wife.  From that moment on they devoted themselves to convincing their child that getting in the water was bad.  They would bathe him in 3” of water until he was 5 and then make him shower only.  They would never let him go to a pool or go to the lake with his friends.  They’d frequently tell him horror stories of drownings and the horrible dangers of swimming or even wading in water.  When the public school started a swimming team they began to home school.  While they used to vacation at the beach every year before he was born, they’d now only go to the mountains (and of course they destroyed all the old vacation photo albums before he was old enough to look at them).  They wouldn’t even let him watch TV shows if they showed positive images of swimming, boating or even wading.  When their son told them that he wanted to be a marine biologist, they told him that this was a demon-inspired curiosity and they wouldn’t hear of it.  After they sent him away to a college in New Mexico to study accounting, they laid awake every night worrying that he wouldn’t stay away from the water.

The second man also ran to tell his wife, and from that moment on they devoted themselves to knowing how to swim and be comfortable, strong and secure in the water.  Then, at the earliest possible age, they started teaching their child to swim.  As the years went by they taught and modeled water safety, skills and strength.  They were in the water a lot together as a family, and both parents watched closely to discern her strengths and weaknesses.  They worked together to strengthen the weak areas and were careful to warn her of the dangers that corresponded to her strengths.  When she told them that her career dream was to become the captain of a submarine, they embraced it with both hands.  When she left for Annapolis shortly before her 19th birthday, they prayed that God would protect her and strengthen her.  Then they fell asleep without anxiety.

You have a very limited time to train your children.  Never forget that while good judgment, wisdom, prudence and stewardship are virtues, safety  (in and of itself) is not.  What do your kids see as your priority for them?  Neither you nor your children are called to be safe.  You are all called, however, to be strong (like Jesus) in a dangerous world that is trying to conform you to its (fallen) image even as it harbors enemies trying their hardest to kill you.  Are you teaching your children to be prudent, strong, and wise as if their life depended on it?  The (very real!) dangers they face now are like the shallow end of the pool.  Get in there with them and train them to be strong, capable, wise and secure in a hostile environment–don’t drag them out of the pool!  They are going to have to spend a lot of their life in the water.  This is by God’s design.  The water will get deeper.  This is also by God’s design.

Naiveté is not the same as holiness.  Fear is not the same as prudence.  Wisdom teamed with strength is fertile soil for all the virtues.