Lessons from an Atheist: The Death of Christopher Hitchens

He is perhaps to most well-known atheist of the past two decades. He became infamous for his attacks on religion and religious figures seeing all religion as dangerous and destructive. It didn’t matter to him if you were an Islamic suicide bomber or Mother Theresa, who he accused of being an ambitious self promoter who was willing to take money from anyone in order to keep the poor even more poor. His books have been huge best sellers if for no other reason than the provocative nature of the titles. Who would not react to a book titled, God is Not Great?

In June of last year Hitchens found out that he had cancer. It eventually took his life this week. Along the way folks prayed for him, including his younger brother Peter who wrote a wonderful book titled Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, that was the antithesis of Christopher’s life. (By the way, I highly recommend that you read Peter’s book no matter what your religious convictions. It is a fascinating study in how two people can take a similar path and yet in the end diverge to vastly different destinies.) In addition to people praying for Christopher there where some whose actions would only seem to confirm his view of religion. It wasn’t unusual to hear or read comments that made it clear that people were convinced Hitchens would get his just punishment in the end. The sad thing was that some of those commentators seemed pleased by that knowledge. Now I have no problem with believing in a doctrine of Hell and that there is a just punishment to come. What I do have a problem with is people who don’t grieve the possibility of someone ending up there. Jesus himself wept over the people of Jerusalem because they did not understand the fate that awaited them in this life or the next. Should His followers respond any differently?

In thinking about the life and death of Christopher Hitchens it occurred to me that there are a few important lessons for Christians in particular and religious people in general.

Lesson Number One: Not All Criticisms of Religion are Groundless.

Hitchens had a point when he spoke of the danger of religion. Lets not be blind to the fact that people have used religion as an excuse for all sorts of heinous crimes. Granted the case can be made that it is people who have distorted the rue message of a faith but such hairsplitting is hardly convincing to a radical atheist and hardly comforting to the person who was tortured or killed in the name of religion. One common response is to list all the good things religion has done, founding hospital, funding orphanages, fighting slavery and so on. Getting into a back and forth listing of virtues and sins hardly changes anyones mind. The Christian response should really be one of honest acknowledgement of the truth and repentance over it. From there it would behoove followers of Christ to do everything they can to live according to the teachings of Jesus and call others to that radical life of self-sacrifice, loving your enemies, and loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it and shape the future.

Lesson Two: Religious People, especially Christian, Need to Sharpen Their Intellectual Game

Far too many people who claim to follow Christ are flat-out lazy when it comes to understanding what they believe and why. There is no place for lazy or sloppy thinking in the Christian world. Paul urges Timothy to be a diligent student of the Bible. Peter urges us to always be prepared with an answer for the reason of our hope. Particularly in the church in the west there is no excuse for a follower of Jesus not being able to explain and defend what they believe. The resources and training available are so abundant as to be almost obscene. Yet in spite of that, the average Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness causes the average evangelical Christian to quake in their theological boots. But if we are to in any way engage people and their ideas and have any impact in directing them to Christ, then we must be better students of the faith and know our Bibles far better than we do currently. I am convinced that much of the anger shown to Hitchens over the years comes from religious people who are insecure in what they believe and threatened by someone who believes differently but is not insecure. Anger is a secondary emotion. There is normally a previous emotion that triggers the anger. In religious debates that primary emotion is usually fear or frustration over not being secure in ones own beliefs.

Lesson Number Three: Love, Not Hate is Still Our Greatest Witness

There appears to be little if anything that people could say to Hitchens to get him to even consider the possibility that God exists. However, the love that people showed in praying for him and that I am sure his brother showed him, seemed to at least soften some of the harshness Hitchens so famously exhibited. Jesus made it clear that people would know that we are His followers by the love we have for one another. He also made it clear that we are to love others. Showing Christ’s love to people has a way of breaking down the intellectual arguments that they construct in order to protect their position. There simply is no intellectual defense against sacrificial love. Of course loving people in a sacrificial way is not easy. It requires work, commitment, endurance, and sacrifice. In that way it is exactly like the cross.

Lesson Number Four: We Are More Alike Than We Are Different.

Christopher Hitchens is not much different from me or you. We all go through life trying to understand the world and our place in it.  We all have questions of an ultimate nature, why am I here, is there a God, what happens when we die, am I loved? We all face loneliness, pain, heartache and loss. We all want love, acceptance, safety, and joy. We all end up facing the reality of our own death. Hitchens answered many of the ultimate questions in ways far different from me. But as a fellow traveler and “seeker” of answers, we share a great deal in common.  You do too. That realization in itself should cause followers of Jesus to have a far more benevolent attitude towards people like Hitchens.

If you want to get a wonderful little update on his life and death this NPR article is a great place to start.

If you want to read a fantastic assessment of modern atheism I recommend Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?  It is written by Alistair McGrath. I had the incredible privilege of taking a summer class at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University a few years ago in which McGrath was a featured professor. He is brilliant thinker and writer who has often engaged well known atheists in debate with a winsome and engaging style.

My Tebow Take

Seems like everyone has a take on Tim Tebow. Both his faith as a follower of Jesus Christ and his unique way of playing and winning football games have made him a double pronged lightening rod for praise and criticism both on how he plays football and how he lives and expresses his faith. I have stayed out of the discussion for the most part but feel like it’s time to weigh in. I have been in fulltime ministry for over 30 years and also have more than 25 years being involved in football both as a player, the member of two high school coaching staffs, one of which won the Pennsylvania state championship in 1990, as well as pastor and friend to several NFL players and coaches. So right or wrong, I think I have a good perspective on the Tebow phenomenon.
First let’s talk about Tebow’s faith. He gets huge amounts of criticism for that faith. It seems to come in two forms. First there is the desire expressed by some that he tone down the verbal expressions of that faith. He opens every post-game interview with thanking his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then his teammates. He then goes on to answer the questions his is given. I have no doubt what so ever that when Tebow gives thanks to Jesus , he means it with all his heart, mind, and soul. But I also understand some people feeling like it has become a religious tradition and and that it is getting old. I also am convinced that for some the issue is that he is thanking Jesus Christ. For some folks that is just way too specific. If all he said was I want to thank “God” then there would be much less reaction. After all, a generic “God” is safe and a culturally accepted cliche’. But Tebow ratchets up the intensity by being specific about Jesus. Secondly, there is a subtle cynicism to the kind of work Tebow does overseas with orphans and other people in need. This criticism is a lot more guarded but still present. Some people seem to think it’s not genuine. Of course most every athlete who serves others gets that critique. Certainly some do it for the photo op. But having watched how Tebow very quietly goes about serving others, I have no doubt it is born out of a sincere desire to make a positive impact on the lives of others.
So do I think Tebow needs to tone down his faith? Not at all. Why? Well I could give you my reason as follower of Christ, but let me give it to you as a football coach. I would not want Tebow to change anything about how he conducts himself and his faith because you cannot separate Tim Tebow the Quarterback from Tim Tebow the Christ Follower. Like it or not, Tebow is in part the football player he is because of the Christ follower he is. His focus, confidence, resiliency, courage, and energy come in part from the relationship of Trust he has in Christ. You cannot compartmentalize a persons life as and act as if one part would be unaffected by the change in another. Tebow would no more be the competitor he is if you bisected him from his faith than Bret Favre would have been if you tried to bisect him from being a Louisiana country boy. All the pieces of who he is, including his faith make him the player he is.
But what about the football part of this. Scores of “experts” are convinced he can’t last, this is a temporary freak show, a lack of skill with catch up to him eventually. Clearly Tebow does not win pretty. He has an ugly throwing motion. His percentage of completions, under 50%, would get most quarterbacks benched. But as Steeler coach Mike Tomlin says, “football isn’t about style points, it’s about wins”. And Tebow is, if nothing else, a winner. Every once in a while players like that come along. They just seem to be able to win. Steeler Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is another great example of that. He never gets ranked with the Peyton Mannings or Tom Bradys of the football world. But he wins. Interestingly, some are starting to compare Tebow to Roethlisberger. In 25 years around football I have seen a number of players, who like Tebow would not get many style points, but they win. Part of how they do it is inspire something in the rest of the team. Their courage, confidence, energy, will, whatever, have a way of inspiring others on the team to raise their game and victories come. There is a huge psychology to team sports. Tebow is a guy you want on your team because of the impact he has on the mindset of the rest of the team. You can tell he has this impact just by the comments of some teammates. Denver has a different attitude since Tebow started taking snaps. They were on the verge of a disastrous season and now lead their division.
Personally I would love to see Tebow and Roethlisberger in the AFC Championship. Forget the pretty boys who score style points. Let me see some big tough quarterbacks who inspire something in others that raises their game and makes it a team win all the way around.

PLAYOFF UPDATE: Well I didn’t get to see Tebow and Big Ben in the AFC Championship. But I did get to see them in the playoffs against one another. Tebow did it again. Broncos win in overtime. Of course I would have preferred that Ben not be playing on one leg but that’s football. Tebow played what was the best game of his NFL career and he deserves all the props for that. With Ben and Troy our of the playoffs I am now officially hoping Tebow wins it all this year, if for no other reason that to make all the “experts” scratch their heads.

Spiritual Lessons from A Bonsai Tree

I recently attended a workshop to learn how to graft new branches onto an existing Bonsai tree. In this case it was to graft branches from a Shimpaku onto a Personi Juniper. In the process I was reminded of Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome when he speaks to the Gentiles as being united to Christ. He told them that they had been “grafted into the nourishing root”, meaning they were now intimately connected to Jesus.
So if in fact we have been grafted into a relationship with Christ, what lessons are there from grafting that caused Paul to use this illustration? The first one came to mind with the first action I had to take toward the plant that would receive the graft. It required taking an extremely sharp straight-razor and cut a deep wound into the tree. I had to cut through the bark and cambium and into the heartwood of the tree. I couldn’t help but think of the wounding that Christ had to go through prior to and on the Cross in order for me to have forgiveness and a new life. When the instructor said you need to cut to the heartwood I could only picture the spear cutting to the heart of Jesus Christ. In order to receive me as one to be connected with Him, Jesus was willing to be deeply wounded beyond what I can comprehend.
The second step dealt with the piece of Shimpaku branch that was to be grafted into the cut on the Personi. I had to select a small branch and cut it from its original tree. If it was going to be a successful grafting it had to be completely removed from were it previously received it’s nourishment and support. You cannot keep a connection between the old plant and the new plant. It just doesn’t work. It is impossible. The piece to be grafted will surely wither and die if it tries to remain connected to both Shimpaku and Personi. When it comes to following Christ, trying to hang on to what we have trusted in for support and nourishment in the past, simply will not work. Jesus put it simply, give up everything and follow Him. When he bid Peter to step out of the boat he was bidding him to give up everything his experience told him to rely on for support and safety and trust only in his connection with Jesus. Peter couldn’t cling to both. He could not hold onto the boat and walk on water with Jesus. James and John could not follow Him and stay on the shore with their nets. Matthew couldn’t be a disciple and stay sitting in his tax collectors booth. And neither can I. Neither can you. Being grafted into a relationship with Jesus Christ means being cut off from all that you would cling to for safety and security and trusting only His word as you follow behind Him on a path that only He can really see.
There was another aspect of the grafting that struck me. In order for the newly grafted branch to take, it needs a clean, solid, tight connection to the life giving nourishment of the receiving plant. The vascular system of the graft can only bond with the vascular system of the receiving plant if it is intimately and tightly connected. Jesus made the point in John 15 that we must abide in Him if we are to have real life. He makes the point that he is the vine and we are the branches and apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from the nourishment of the receiving plant, the graft can do nothing and it will in fact wither and die. If we are going to grow strong in Christ we must absolutely be bonded to Him in such a way that our life’s nourishment, what feeds us and strengthens us, is His life giving Spirit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famously quoted as saying, “When Jesus calls a man to follow Him, He bids him to come and die”. This morning I read that quote in the context in which he wrote it in “Cost of Discipleship”. What Bonhoeffer was pointing to was the cutting off of the branch to be grafted from what had nourished and sustained it before. He is saying that all that you cling to, other than Christ, must be cut off from you. That such a life must be dead, you must die to that life and find your life first, foremost, and only in Christ. Bonhoeffer points out that for some there may await death as a martyr for Christ. For others not. But the dying he speaks of is not the future dying that may mean martyrdom, but the dying to yourself, and to all you cling to instead of Christ. This is a daily dying. It is a moment by moment reminding that only in Christ am I secure, only in Christ can I find safety, only in Christ is there truly life. Everything else is a counterfeit that seeks to interfere with the deep intimate bond that a well grafted branch must have.