“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God [my emphasis]” (2 Timothy 3.1-4 ESV).
This passage was all I could think of as the Michael Jackson funeral saga unfolded on this day, July 8th, 2009. I thought that we, as a nation and even as a civilization (because news about the entertainer’s death is arguably as “popular” in the UK and Eastern Europe as it is here), have so loved “pleasure,” or to use another word, “entertainment,” that we forgot that four Americans lost their lives defending our nation in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan yesterday as well as two brave British soldiers who were killed the day before. And while their families have given the ultimate sacrifice and must mourn their incalculable loss in the background of the strains of the “king of pop” and the ubiquitous talking-head pundits on all of the radio and television networks opining about Michael Jackson’s influence on “the world,’ we as a people pretty much ignored them. We were transfixed, not by news of brave military men, mostly boys, really, cut down in their youth on the field of righteous battle, but by the pop culture stars assembling at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the funeral of an eccentric and pathetic dancer and singer. I do not mean to disparage Mr. Jackson at all, or to diminish his talent, or to speak ill of anyone else, for that matter, in the entertainment business, but is there not a distressingly rude and horribly self-destructive mix-up in all of this? It is as if the flag-draped bodies of the soldiers were driven right past us, and we kept right on racing our engines down the road of life to the beat of the music that is enchanting us. “Disrespectful” is the word that comes to mind. In fact, let us be clear about the enemy among us, called “lovers of pleasure:” Michael Jackson’s tragic, if not criminal, death itself seems to be linked, in a dark, sad irony, to the very cult of entertainment that created his image and his wealth, and then tormented him as if to seek repayment for the success it bestowed. If only we could see this enemy in our midst and name it for what it is. But that would require confession. And repentance.
It is not as though when Paul wrote to Timothy that he was necessarily thinking prophetically, that is predicting, our own time, for the Greco-Roman world of his own time, those “last days” that had ensued since the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, were filled with garish examples of an entertainment cult not that dissimilar to our own. But Paul says that such times create “difficulty” (verse one) for Christians, and, specifically, for pastors. Paul was, we must remember, writing to a pastor, Timothy, who was serving the congregation at Ephesus. Being a pastor and a seminary president and professor to future pastors, I thought about how a sensate culture that produces people described as “lovers of…pleasure” can create “times of difficulty” for ministers. I thought about the difficulty as I listened to and later saw film of the “funeral.” While I thank God that a pastor was called upon to pray, and that in fact he closed with words about “the king of pop having to kneel before the King of Kings” and he prayed in Jesus’ name (and may the Lord bring about good through this act which was seen around the world), I cringed at thinking that some in the Church, infected by the love of pleasure and entertainment, would want to somehow imitate the production they saw, for their own loved ones. I have been around long enough to know that what the world does today, some in the Church try to do tomorrow (and by that time the world has already moved on to something else and leaves churches trying to imitate the world being anachronistic if not downright silly, but that is another essay). But, even if there were no religious values at stake (and there are), there is the matter that while Los Angeles music and concert producers can pull off entertainment-based “services,” a small town pastor and a volunteer choir with a pull down screen and a computer (even if it is a Mac) cannot. Moreover, are we to believe that Scripture-saturated, Christ-centered, services of witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ are somehow inferior to the music-centered, image-focused, eulogy-loaded services that the cult of entertainment offers? I don’t believe so. But this is a time of trouble for the pastor that such lovers of entertainment bring on. And a culture that loves entertainment more than God and the things of God (including the sacred honor of her defenders) is a culture that cannot find healing when there is heartbreak. The sacred words of the Bible, or of the traditional services based upon that Bible, such as the Book of Common Prayer, possess the Holy Spirit-breathed “Word from another world” that can bring healing and meaning and hope to those standing before coffins, whether they are coffins of soldiers or dancers.
I thank the Lord that though they were not seen except by God and the families that gathered with them, Army chaplains and civilian ministers spoke effective words of transcendent peace and soul-healing to those military families who lost their loved ones to enemies who seek to destroy our people. And I mourn today with those families. And yes I mourn for our country that is straining for a good seat at the tube to watch the service of a man who died of an apparent drug-involved reaction to a toxic culture tearing at his “tortured” soul like a Pit Bull that has turned on its owner. Yet there is a link between the deaths of Michael Jackson and the soldiers of the past few day, and it is this: The soldiers were true heroes who laid down their lives fighting enemies of the freedoms, and yes the pleasures, which we can enjoy or misuse. Michael Jackson’s death is an example of that misuse.
May God save us from such confusion, from such misuse, and such consequential sorrow. May God send revival, a great movement of His own hand, and heal our land, and heal our souls, delivering us from a love of self-pleasure that is killing ourselves and those we crown kings of our entertainment lust.