Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monuments to Failure

Since I work in the construction industry in Chicago, I've with some interest followed the saga of the Chicago Spire. This magnificent structure will, when completed, stand over two thousand feet tall! Situated right on the lakefront, this building will dwarf the Sears Willis Tower, Trump Tower, Hancock Building, Aon Center, and all the other massive skyscrapers this beautiful city has to offer. It will be the tallest building in the US by far, and may be the tallest in the world.

The excitement over this spectacular project hit a fever pitch in July of 2007, when ground was broken and the massive foundation was being dug. The foundation extends more than eighty feet deep into the ground, the sort of undertaking required to support such an enormous tower. More than two years ago the excavators started removing dirt by the truckload, leaving a spectacularly huge hole in the ground to make way for a ginormous concrete pour.

Today, two and a half years later, there's nothing at the site but a spectacularly huge hole in the ground. Oh, and a small fence to keep people from falling in.

What happened? From the start this project had problems securing funding, and really never should have begun. They never even got to the point of hiring contractors for anything other than the foundation - nobody who could handle something of this scope was willing to commit to such an unfunded and poorly-conceived project. But they pressed ahead and started the foundation work, dug a big hole, poured some concrete, and just figured they'd raise the rest of the money as they went. That didn't work so well, and the site's been dormant since May of 2008. Then that little housing/economic/credit crisis hit, and suddenly lending $2.4 billion to build mega-expensive high rise condos in a city that's already oversaturated with crazy-expensive high rise condos seems like an even worse idea. So the project is now essentially dead, and everyone who's done any work for it is suing to get whatever they can from the funds previously raised.

I worked at several sites nearby, close enough to see the Spire site from higher floors. When riding the lifts up the side of the building, it's fairly common for someone to point out the big hole in the ground with a sarcastic quip about how great and wonderful the Spire is, and how it's blessed everyone who's associated with it. At other sites around the city, it's become a laughingstock, a sort of mutual joke that no matter how bad things are at this site, at least we're not working the Spire. The project was poorly conceived and started without adequate preparations, and now it's become a source of derision and mockery, and a disaster for everyone who bought into it.

I couldn't help but think of the Spire this morning as I read this in Luke 14: For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

The Spire project began foolishly, and the cost so far has been tens of millions of dollars wasted, countless hours of time wasted, and a big, mockable hole in the ground. Those who pressed on with this short-sighted silliness are ridiculed, and rightly so. But the disaster they've left in their wake is infinitesimal compared to the disaster Jesus warns about - people who make a start of following him, then quit.

One of the worst products of the American church has been an easy-believism which fails to take the demands of Jesus in the gospel seriously. Jesus condemns this unserious view of his call to discipleship, and declares those who make a profession of faith but don't follow through to be a disaster worthy of mockery. Yet so much of popular American evangelicalism seems geared towards producing and encouraging such spurious confessions. Our evangelism produces 'decisions' which affect no change in the person; we proudly proclaim that "five hundred people received Christ!" at an event, yet a month later only a handful are anywhere near a gathering of God's people. We speak of people who "are Christians but not living anything like it", and encourage people that their salvation is secure based on what they said at one time in the distant past, even as their years of subsequent living deny Christ with every word and deed. (Obviously I hold to the fully-biblical doctrine of eternal security, but utterly denounce the bastardized version of it which removes from it any notion of sanctification or perseverance.) Those who began without counting the cost and turned back are encouraged as if they are going to heaven rather than called to repentance and real, persevering, disciple-making faith.

I'll close by asking you to compare the message of the easy-believe church with the demands Jesus places on all who would follow him. This is not for a super-special level of disciple beyond the regular believers; this is the bare-level commitment of all who would be saved. Here's what Jesus had to say:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Most Severe Remedy

You can tell a lot about how serious a disease is by the severity of the treatment. You would never consider amputation for a broken wrist, but for a gangrenous arm that threatens your life, it's a distinct possibility. Some chemotherapy drugs are so dangerous that if a few drops are spilled a hazmat unit must clean it up. Yet people willingly have them injected into their veins, because it's the only chance they have to stop the cancer. But if you just have a cold? No thanks, I'll take my chances with the illness. The severity of the remedy you're willing to undergo is proportional to the threat of the disease.

So then, what does it say about us and how sick we are when Jesus tells us that "You must be born again"?

There is no cure for our disease other than complete renewal. Each of us is so completely sinful to the very core of our being, nothing short of total regeneration will save us. No moral program, no good that we can do, no accomplishments or philosophy or religion or intellect or wealth or power, none of it can purify us from our sin and make us righteous before a holy God. We are so desperately sinful, there is nothing - nothing! - we can do to get better. The only remedy is to be born again, completely made new by the grace of God.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Have you been born again to faith in Jesus Christ? There is no question more vital, more urgent than this. The stakes are eternal - on one side is the hope of eternal life, on the other is eternal damnation. There is no other way. Which side are you on?

Are you sure? Tragically, there are many who are under the delusion that they are genuinely born again simply by claiming to be, despite all evidence to the contrary. Few things could be more tragic than having false assurance. So how do you know? What does it actually mean to be born again, and evidence could there be that you are - or aren't? Check out this short but powerful book (available free online) about what it means to be born again. Dig into scripture to see what it says about those who are God's children and those who aren't - 1 John or Ephesians are great places to start. And examine yourself for the signs of the newness of life which regeneration brings. If you truly are born again, boldly proclaim the gospel in word and deed. If not, repent and believe. Nothing you can do could ever be more important than this.