Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 Movies of the Decade

When I came out here to interview for my job, I met with the the-campus/singles minister. He asked if I liked movies, since that's about all there is to do out here. I love movies, and I can't count the number of movies I've seen in that time. My wife and I have practically worn out a DVD player, and I'm sure Netflix hates us for taking such advantage of unlimited movies.

Inspired by this compilation at Slate (with some help from these lists from Entertainment Weekly) here's my stab at the top 10 movies of the decade:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Seldom have I finished a movie feeling so satisfied, like I just finished a good meal.

2. Moulin Rouge! (2001). An odd choice, but I loved this movie so much when I saw it in the theater. It was so original, so layered in its storytelling. And it doesn't hurt that it was my future wife's favorite movie. Yes, Come What May was sung at our wedding, what's it to you?

3. Casino Royale/Star Trek (2006/2009). Two reboots of legacy franchises with high expectations. Both exceeded expectations and surprised die-hards by taking new directions with established characters. Absolutely loved both movies.

4. The Blair Witch Project (1999). Ok, this is a cheat, but October '99 is close enough to 2000 to count. Plus it has to be noted how important this movie was for not only how it was made, but how it was hyped. It was the first "viral" marketing campaign. Lost wouldn't be the same without it. So/so movie, but played to great effect.

5. American Beauty (1999). My second cheat but also included because of the trend it started: the hyper-realistic story telling without any true protagonists. 'Reality TV' without the c-list celebrities. This is what you'd see if you put a camera on an average American family in suburbia, and it's not pretty. I've never spent so much time in the parking lot afterwards taking about the movie I just saw as I did with this one.

6. The Passion of the Christ (2004). Demonstrated that christians (intentional little c) are a viable niche market. Good or bad thing?

7. Gangs of New York (2002). A movie that completely overwhelms you. Between the stellar acting, the portrayal of the grittiness of the time period, and the brutal violence of it all, this movie makes me very grateful I didn't live then. It also ushered in the trend of the 'histo-drama', released during the Oscar push that includes movies like There Will Be Blood, which top many lists, but wouldn't even have been made if not for GoNY.

8. 25th Hour (2002). New York post 9/11 plus Spike Lee. Add a little Ed Norton and you get one of my favorite movies.

9. Gladiator (2000). Never has a movie inspired so many sermons. But revolutionary in it's combination of the special effects of a summer popcorn flick and the depth of a period drama. Yeah, it's still just a popcorn flick. But a darn good one.

10. Amelie (2001). Cute. Quirky. Foreign. A movie I loved even though it doesn't fit in any of my usual favorite molds.

Honorable mentions (maybe not top 10 worthy, but worth a watch if you haven't seen them):

-Requiem for a Dream (2000). I had a tough time leaving this off. Soderbergh-ish cut-editing. Realistic portrayal of addiction. Don't watch on a date (ahem, Jim).

-Once/Bella (2007/2006). Little indies that could. Great feel-good movies.

-Friday Night Lights (2004). I needed to include a sports movie. Not sure if this was the best of the decade, but it's close. Also the first that came to mind.

-Narc (2002). In my opinion better than Mystic River, The Departed, We Own the Night and every other police drama that came out in the last decade.

-WALL-E (2008). This needs to be in the list above, but there's no room. Hardly any dialogue, but incredibly deep satire for an animated kids' movie.

-The Prestige/The Illusionist (2006/2006). In the tradition of Armageddon/Deep Impact and other duo/copy-cats, come these two period pieces about magicians couldn't be more different. And unlike Armageddon/Deep Impact, both were good. Very good.

I'm sure there are others. So help me out what makes your top 10?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

12 Days

You may think Christmas is behind us, but we're now in the traditional 12 Days of Christmas, marking the time between Christ's birth and the theophany, when Jesus was later baptized. Advent, leading up to Christmas, is a tradition to prepare believers for the second-coming of Jesus. The Nativity is obviously the celebration of Jesus' birth, the long-awaited Messiah. And the Theophany is when God audibly confirmed Jesus as his son.

One of the most profound tenants of Christianity is Jesus' part in the Trinity. Not as the Son of God, but as the Word of God. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1, 14)

So it is appropriate to celebrate these 12 days by reflecting on Jesus as the Word by studying in depth David's celebration of God's Word in Psalm 119. Anne Lang Bundy has been blogging on the 12 different Hebrew words translated as 'word' in Psalm 119. Start here on Day One and catch up here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Christmas Means to Me

Candles burnin' low,
Lot's of mistle toe.
Lot'sof snow and ice,
Eveywhere we go.
Choirs singin' carols,
Right outside my door.

All these things and more
That's what Christmas means to me my love

-Stevie Wonder, What Christmas Means to Me

One of the motivations for the "keeping Christ in Christmas" campaign is the increased secularization of this holiday. And that's my common defense against the secular backlash against it. Most Christmas carols are about snowfall, reindeer, Santa, presents or family. A few classic carols are actually about the baby Jesus. If I were to walk up to you in the middle of summer and I mention Christmas, what would be the first thing to pop in your mind? For me it would likely be vacation, family, shopping, what I want, etc. I'm not sure if the birth of Jesus would come as quickly.

And I don't think I'm alone. But the statistics prove otherwise. In a Rasmussen poll released a week ago, 66% of Americans claim to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The cynic in me thinks this means that most of those feel that way because it's one of the two times a year they actually attend church. But the numbers suggest there's more to it. 81% believe Jesus is the Son of God and died for our sins and 82% believe that Jesus Christ is an actual historic figure. These are interesting numbers and consistent with the roughly 80% of Americans who claim to be Christians. The flipside of these numbers show that 20% of Americans celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday (meaning 14% don't celebrate it at all), and only 3% don't believe that Jesus Christ is an historical figure.

So don't be afraid to wish someone a Merry Christmas! The odds are good you're not going to offend anyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Power of a Word

You might think all the hullabaloo about the 'War on Christmas' is limited to the United States but you'd be wrong. It's been reported that a principal in Australia was forced to apologize to atheist parents of a child for saying "Christmas" too many times in a school newsletter. Disclaimer: I heard this on the radio but have not seen any credible source online, even while googling the parties involved directly. While this is being widely reported across the blogosphere, the best news link I could find was from 2005. So I have a hunch this is a spam email going around. Even if this is four-year-old news, it still illustrates how sensitive we can be to a single word. The so-called War on Christmas isn't about singing carols, putting up lights, or buying presents for your children. It is about the word Christmas implying the birth of Christ and therefore endorsing or even proselytizing the Christian faith.

Let's pretend that the secularists have their way and the word Christmas is abolished because of its religious roots. What other offensive words should we eliminate from our vernacular?

Don't use 'Hail Mary' when describing the last play of a football game. (Luke 1:28)

Don't use 'prayer' when describing a last minute or clutch shot in any sport.

Speaking of sports, I noticed there's no real "David versus Goliath" match up in any of the BCS bowls this year. (1 Samuel 17)

Don't use 'the writing on the wall' to describe something ominous. (Daniel 5) Or "signs of the times" either. (Luke 12:56)

Don't use the word excruciating to describe pain. That word was invented to describe the unique pain suffered from crucifixion and if a secularized/commercialized word like Christmas instantly implies Jesus, then any reference to crucifixion should as well.

Don't say "inspired" or "enthused" which mean spirit-filled and god-filled respectively.

Don't say 'baptism by fire' to describe going through trials. (Matthew 3:11) Actually, better not say 'baptism' at all since it's a specific religious term that's not derived from any translation (transliteration).

Don't say 'holy ---' as a cuss word or otherwise.

Don't say 'damn' as a curse or otherwise.

And you better not say "Jesus Christ" even if you're using his name in vain.

I'm sure there are others you could think of, but you get the point. Most of these examples are common phrases used independent from religion but that doesn't change their meaning or implication. Just like Christmas has become far removed from religion, that does not change its obviously offensive meaning.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What was Old is New Again

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

We're at the heart of the Christmas season, which means we're in the thick of the "War on Christmas" and are inundated by the overreaction to this "war". For some reason we think our circumstances are unique. We look around and think our culture's morals are worse than they have ever been. And we are hyper-sensitive to criticism or even just contrary opinions. And for some reason, the image we often portray is that of the 1950's white picket fence America where 'Christians were Christians, and non-Christians were too." But not long after this utopia was the upheaval of the 1960's. Darn hippies.

Tuesday night ABC aired A Charlie Brown Christmas, the second-longest running Christmas special on Network Television (beat out by only a year by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer) which first aired in 1965. I'm not ashamed to admit we bought the box set of Charlie Brown holiday specials a year ago and we've already practically worn them out. My children are quick to run up and press play after any movie finishes, but sometime the menu screen isn't the 'top menu' but is the menu for Special Features. These Charlie Brown DVDs are an example of this. So they come running in wanting me to fix it, because what 4 and 2 year old wants to watch a "making of..."?

The first time this happened I was surprised as they were talking about the negative backlash they received for having the nerve to quote scripture (Linus' famous reading of Luke 2). Producer/director/and snoopy actor Bill Melendez tried to talk Peanuts creator Charles Schulz out of including the scripture. CBS executives were hesitant to air it. And the public response was as expected.

This was in 1965. It could be argued we have much greater freedom today when we televangelists can be found on multiple channels, political pundits on both sides of the aisle who aren't afraid to reference their religion, and movies such as The Passion of the Christ being commercial successes. Yet we still feel this insecurity whenever anyone has a different opinion than what we consider "mainstream Christianity" which some of us believe should dominate our culture and every facet of society.

For those of you fighting in the latest go-around of the War on Christmas, hearken back to 1965 (or 1968) and remember than "nothing is new under the sun."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tool Shed

It is that time of year to dust off your Sunday best, wake up a little earlier, and go to church for maybe the second time of the year (the first being Easter). You go to hear Christmas carols, watch a performance, or to satisfy your parents that you're home visiting. You wish people Marry Christmas and probably have your house decorated with a tree up. You may even be done shopping using the guise of Santa. Why do you go? What do you hope to get from it?

That may sound cynical, but in a country where roughly 80% of Americans call themselves Christians "only 3 out of 10 twentysomethings (31%) attend church in a typical week, compared to 4 out of 10 of those in their 30s (42%) and nearly half of all adults age 40 and older (49%)." (from a 2003 Barna survey) A more frightening way of looking at it is that Barna considers those who only attend church at "Christmas or Easter, or for special events such as a wedding or a funeral" unchurched. This number of adults is a striking 34%. (from a 2004 survey)

So I don't buy the label "Christian". Which makes it hard to define "church" in a traditional way. We often define our religion based on how we were raised, and not necessarily our personal doctrine. In fact, doctrine is often secondary as we become a culture where "church shopping" is becoming more and more prevalent. So what is your church and why there? Is it the people you meet (look at how homogeneous your congregation likely is- income level, race, age)? Is it the worship (how relevant are you)? Is it the dynamic preaching (aren't Jesus' words the "same yesterday and today and tomorrow")? Is it the parachurch ministries/activities (are you salt and light)?

But it is usually one of the above that motivates us to attend the church that we do. It should be all the above. But we need to check our expectations at the door. Perhaps you've heard the cliche "church isn't about what you get out of it but what you give to it." Instead of doctrine, theology, or polity; worship, relevance, or relatability; church is not what it looks like or what it does, but what we do as Christians in its name. For me, church is not a place of worship, it is a tool shed. Full of different tools to suit our different talents for us to use to the glory of God.

It's too easy to rely on church leaders and think only of what we get out of church. But the Bible does not call us to just show up every weekend (or when it's convenient). Instead we are called to use the talents we've been given to grow Christ's Church. "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his[b]faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully." (Romans 12:4-8) and "It was [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Note the ends and the means. God gives us talents and Christ appoints us to roles so that the Church may be united and mature. The goal is not church attendance, spirit-filled worship, or dynamic leadership. It is attaining the fullness of Christ.

You can read a diversity of definitions of church through this week's blog carnival. To each who post, they are using the tools they get through their church to use the internet to bring unity to the Church. Let this motivate you to rummage through the shed and find the tool that fits you.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

War on Christmas

With two weeks to go before Christmas, the infamous 'War on Christmas' is heating up. This probably won't be my only post on the subject, though I find following this subject in the media tiresome. I even tried to tackle this last year, but got derailed by Newsweek taking advantage of the holiday season to pontificate about gay-marriage. You can check those posts out here if you so desire.

I read this article the other day and I agree with most of it. It's hard to argue about "keeping Christ in Christmas" when our biggest concern is having the best decorations on the block or making sure our kids have the latest-greatest toys (or is it we who want the latest-greatest gadget?). At the same time our culture does us no favors and the politics that have worked their way into this debate are frustrating.

So if you really want to keep Christ in Christmas, wear a t-shirt. That's all it takes!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does it Matter Where our Taxes Go?

The big political debate yesterday was over restricting federal funds for abortions in the latest iteration of the Health Care overhaul. Never mind that there is already a statute that prohibits federal funds from paying for abortions, though I agree with the argument that it's only a shell game of moving lines on a ledger.

This morning coincidentally, I read Matthew 22:15-22 where the Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus by asking him about taxes. The question seemed to be a slam dunk for the Pharisees since any good Jew would agree that the Romans were oppressors and that these taxes went to a government that supported infanticide, homosexuality, and pagan worship. Jesus replied channeling Lee Corso, "not so fast, my friends! Who does this coin belong to? Then that's who has a say of where it goes." In other words, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Mt 22:21)

We let ourselves get into such a fuss over what our government does with our money, but we'll gladly accept grants for our abstinence-only education program. Relating the two, the onus to reduce the number of abortions is not on the federal government, but on the individuals who choose to be irresponsible sexually. In our hyper-sexualized culture, we need to fight this front of the culture war not through politics, but by our own example of purity. The coin bore the image of Caesar, so it was his. We bear the image of God Almighty, and we are his.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Not The Smallest Letter

The title is taken from Matthew 5:18 which reads, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (The smallest letter is a translation of "not one iota", which is a figure in Hebrew that looks like an accent or apostrophe.) A lot of people point to wars, famine, natural disasters, and our increasing wickedness to claim that we are in the "end times". I'm not one of those, but you could add all the hand-wringing over Bible translations to push personal agendas. I read about this before, but showing up in the headlines yesterday motivated me to write about it today: there is an effort to re-translate the Bible to remove "liberal bias". As if the Main Stream Media wasn't enough of a strawman enemy of the Right, you can now add "professors [who] are the most liberal group of people in the world, and... who are doing the popular modern translations of the Bible." Riiight.

They want to remove, or at least re-translate such controversial passages as "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" from Luke 23:34 even though my Bible contains the footnote that "some early manuscripts do not have this sentence." There's no mention if they also want to take out the last several versus of Mark or the story of the woman caught in adultery which are also not found in the earliest manuscripts. If we're not smart enough to make note of these footnotes, then maybe they should call this translation "The Bible for Dummies." Oh wait, nevermind, that's already taken.

There's more to this though than trying to reflect the original intent of the Biblical authors. There is an admitted political agenda."The phrase 'theological conservative' does not mean that someone is politically conservative," says Andy Schlafy, the person behind this. I hate to break it to Andy, but Christian does not mean Republican either.

This is nothing new. There was a big fuss a while back over translations trying to make references to God more gender neutral. The Jesus Seminar color-codes quotes of Jesus by how likely they think it was he actually said it. Thomas Jefferson re-wrote his own version of the Gospels taking out anything "supernatural" like all of his miracles and the resurrection. And Martin Luther wanted to remove the entire book of James because it didn't agree with his theology.

So I don't take offense to this, but I would advise Mr. Schlafy and everyone else contributing to this (they're editing it like a wiki) to consider the following passages (pick your favorite translation if you must, these are all NIV):

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." (Revelation 22:18-19) While this specifically applies to John's personal vision recorded in Revelation, it shows how serious God takes his Word.

"This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true." (John 21:24) A "testimony" is more than just writing a biography and is even more than being a witness in a legal case. The author, in this case John, was admitting here that if anything he wrote wasn't true he should be put to death by being stoned. I wonder if Mr. Schlafy would take a similar stand for his truth?

"As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."
(Isaiah 55:10-11)

God's Word has a purpose and I've already demonstrated how seriously he takes it. I would not want to be one who stands in the way of God's Word not accomplishing what he desires.

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17) The Bible is used for "teaching" making translators therefore "teachers." And there's specific warning against aspiring to teach: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." Ironically, taken from the book of James.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Grief... and Hope

I’ve written before regarding the tragic loss of Steven Curtis Chapman’s daughter. Here’s a recent article on how he’s been doing since, and on his most recent album.

This is an area where I cannot relate. I lost my dad before my 21st birthday and have lost grandparents, aunts and uncles, but never anyone so “premature” as a sibling or a child. Yet I am still moved to tears when I read or hear about parents having to bury one of their own children.

Recently a brother was out visiting our church. He used to live here, but moved away before I moved in. But he kept in regular contact with the congregation, so we were all up to speed on the goings on of his life. Specifically, he shared about the health of his daughter. Regrettably, I don’t remember all the specifics, but she was diagnosed with a rare condition that gave her an expected life span of less than five years. I’ve lived here for nine years, so she made it to at least 8. He shared with us about his daughter’s joy despite her affliction, about the times they treasured together as a family not knowing if it would be their last. And as he fought back tears, he shared how he held her as she took her last breath earlier this year.

I cannot imagine. Tears well up watching Finding Nemo when I think about losing my son and not knowing where he is or how he is doing. The fear of not knowing is what breaks my heart most. But this brother shared that he found encouragement in knowing where his daughter was and how she was doing. It feels like a cliché, “they’re with Jesus in heaven,” and it almost sounds too good to be true. But we have reason for such faith:


But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
If the empty tomb is a lie, a cliché, too good to be true, then we should be pitied above anyone. Our faith is useless and our lives meaningless. So the resurrection of Christ is what we need to turn to in time of grief.

Oh, the name of this brother’s daughter, chosen before she was even born?
Hope.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

x's and o's

I'm a sports nut. My fandom unfortunately is not matched by my skill. When I played sports in high school, I may not have been able to hit the open three, but I could dissect the defense like no other. When playing in the secondary in football, I could read the quarterback's eyes, the way the line was formed, and the direction the backs were leaning and I could tell you exactly what play was coming. But if the play was a hand off to a big bruising fullback, I'd be lucky to get him down if he made it that far.


This problem also stretches to other areas of my life: my mind races faster than any of my natural abilities. When it comes to ministry, I'm always thinking of the whats and hows and seldom am able to put everything on my mind into practice. Part of it is a desire to have the perfect plan, the perfect results and a paralyzing insecurity that keeps me from acting out of fear of being imperfect.


One of the ways I try to overcome this is by digging deeply into things and learning as much as I can. I figure if I have enough tools in my toolbox, I can fix anything. The latest such obsession is in small groups. I've gone through a couple of iterations this year, have had schedules and focus changed, had people come and go, and am facing the new year hoping to chart out a course for my own spiritual growth and the growth of those in my group.


I've used study series from Living on the Edge, study notes from the Serendipity Bible, and my own Bible knowledge to come up with lessons. I just finished Sticky Church by Larry Osborne and my Evangelist gave me a copy of Purpose Driven Church by you-know-who as a follow-up. An elder in Atlanta is looking into doing lessons online, while Living on the Edge offers their R12 curriculum online as well. Now I just found this book from a post on Michael Hyatt's blog. All that, and I'm still open to suggestions.

Is there a perfect model for small groups and discipleship? As long as we're still imperfect people, the answer is no. I like the illustration my Evangelist recently gave during a lesson. "[with respect to church functions/activities] following the direction of the Holy Spirit is like surfing. You go out on the water and wait and wait for the perfect wave. You can't get up too soon and you can't wait too long or you won't be able to ride it. You can't ride just any wave either. So sometimes you wait for what seems like forever while other times it seems you don't have to wait at all. And when you finally do get on that perfect wave, you can only ride it so long before you reach shore and then you have to go back out and wait some more." I'm waiting for my perfect wave, so to speak, but I need the wisdom to not ride it too long.

"Many are the plans in a man's heart,
but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails." (Proverbs 19:21)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Attitude of Gratitude

Inspired by the most recent Coffee Break from Living on the Edge that referenced Psalm 103 and a desire to get at least one post up while on vacation. I'll focus on this part: "Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits." (Ps 103:2, emphasis added) I want to take this time and remember his benefits over the last year.

Work related: I'm grateful for the job that I've been praying to get for the last few years. I'm grateful for the recognition I've received from my peers for the work I've done. I'm grateful to be able to pursue some of the things I have a passion for- even though that hos so far been fruitless. And I'm grateful that have the opportunity, and the trust from my boss, to pursue them.

Family related: I'm grateful for my son's improvement in every possible area- his discipline, his speech, his writing. I'm grateful for his interest in God and Jesus. I'm grateful for his health after his struggles breathing and sleeping. I'm grateful for my daughter growing up too fast and being too smart. I'm grateful for the relationship she has with her brother. I'm grateful for the joy she shows me ever day when I come home from work. I'm grateful for my wife finishing her teaching credential and having new opportunities at work. I'm grateful for her active attitude to always be out running and the friends she's made (or friends she's grown deeper with) doing so. I'm grateful for our relationship and that despite a 4 and a 2 year old, we still are able to have quality time. I'm grateful for my mom's move and the extra chances I've had to visit her because of it. I'm grateful for my sister and her encouragement and support.

Ministry related: I'm grateful God still considers me worth of leading others to deeper relationships with Christ- after two small groups dissolved, somehow I'm still at it. I'm grateful for my recovery ministry keeping me grounded and my continued sobriety. I'm grateful for the families we've grown closer to through our small groups and the battles we've fought together. I'm grateful for the continued inspiration through God's word to instruct and encourage. I'm grateful for the writer's conference I went to where I met Peter and the encouragement to pursue writing. I'm grateful for others that I've met blogging and the fresh insight they all provide. I'm grateful for the teen I mentor- his patience with me and his open heart for God. And I'm grateful for the leadership of my church, the relationship I have with our Evangelist, and the men in my life that call me higher.

None of these things would be possible without God. Without him, I wouldn't have the character to have these blessings in my job. Without him, I wouldn't have the good relationship with my children or my wife. And without him, I would have no purpose with an eternal significance.

I am often asked why I have the faith I do. These are just some of the reasons. There are more, but those will have to wait until after I finish the turkey leftovers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Such as These

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:14)

"I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

I've heard many interpretations of these passages on what qualities in children we should imitate: children are innocent in their hearts, children are mold-able, children need their father, and so on. I've always leaned most towards the need of a child for his or her father.

My son and I battle every night at bedtime. As I walk away he tells me that he's scared. When I try and reassure him that his mom and I are right there on the other side of the wall he tells me, "but I can't see you!" I started to relate that to our faith in God. We believe in him and trust in him even though we can't see him. But that hasn't worked.

So a couple of nights ago, we're going through the usual routine and ensuing battle. Exasperated, I walk away as he cries about being afraid. Then he says something profound, "come hold my hand and pray." I couldn't resist.

My dad passed away 13 years ago. My son tells me I need to get a new one. I tell him that I have a perfect Father in heaven. I try and explain that God is like a Father to us. In fact, he's the best Father there ever was.

He doesn't yet buy it. And he is still scared when I turn away. He needs the comfort of knowing I am there. Like God, we can't see him but there is comfort he is there. Yet he will hear us when we cry out to him.

Clouds will rage
And storms will race in
But you will be safe in my arms
-Plumb, In My Arms

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Community

No such luck getting a blog together for this week's blog carnival. But head over to Bridget Chumbley's blog to read others' thoughts on 'community'. And if that's not your cup of tea, watch the show on NBC, it's hilarious.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sins of Our Fathers

"Yet you ask, 'Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?' Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him." (Ezekiel 18:19-20)

This scripture refutes the commonly held theology of 'Original Sin'. But that does not absolve the son from suffering the consequences of his father's sin. I've pointed out before that often single and teenage parenthood are cycles that repeat themselves in the children of these families.

My Evangelist described it to his teenage daughter this way, "When I made the decision to follow Christ, I broke a long cycle of insanity in my family." The insanity he's referring to is a history of physical abuse and drug/alcohol addiction. He continues, "by choosing to follow Jesus, I don't have to subject my children to the same insanity. I can now live by a higher standard. I am no longer defined by my history, but by my relationship with Christ."

When children are raised in a home without active addiction present (the keyword: active) then they are less likely to either take up the same addiction or be driven to co-dependency. But that requires not only thorough repentance and a commitment to the higher standard of Christ. Without that, the cycle continues more subtly. The addiction may not be 'active' but the character remains.

I have to be conscious of this in my own life and my relationship with my children. At only 4 and 2, my children have already learned that my emotional reaction to their behavior is unpredictable. Will I respond with a fatherly sternness, appropriate and proportional? Or will I fly off the handle and let my emotions determine my response? Sadly, it depends.

At the same time, even though there is no 'active' usage in my home, I worry about the decisions my children will ultimately make as they grow older. I know they will let me down with their decisions. That doesn't mean they'll automatically be addicts, but it also doesn't guarantee they'll remain abstinent until marriage. How will I respond to that? Bottom line, I need to trust God over my own parenting.

Serving in an addiction ministry helps keep this in perspective. I was very moved a couple of years ago when a friend shared about the regret he had in putting his kids through literal hell because of his alcoholism. Last night I heard the other perspective, from a son expressing the regret in putting his father through the same hell. My experience as a son falls somewhere in between each of these accounts, but the book hasn't been written of the legacy I will leave as a father.

Praise God we have a Father in Heaven that can be the example to which I strive.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice

Today is Veterans' Day, where we honor and remember those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces. My wife asked why this holiday falls on November 11? At 11:00 on November 11, 1918, (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) armistice (or truce) was signed between the Western Allies and Germany ending hostilities on the Western Front of World War I. World War I was called "The War to End All Wars". We know how that turned out. But the holiday remained and is still celebrated throughout Europe as well as here in the United States.

Pause and think of that for a moment- The War to End All Wars. How we wish that were true. So we honor those who serve in battles across the globe while we enjoy the comfort of our home, hoping that the next battle will be the last.

Now think about Jesus. His sacrifice was The Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices so to speak (ref: Hebrews 10). He fought our sins for us so that we wouldn't have to fight on our own, and ultimately someday to never have to fight again. But like The War to End All Wars, it was not the end and battles continue. So we honor Christ, who fought and still fights for us, while we enjoy the comfort of our own lives.

While we remember the physical conflicts our Armed Forces are engaged in worldwide, let us not forget the spiritual conflicts that continue in our own lives and the soldier, Christ, who fights alongside us.

"For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Covenant

I mentioned yesterday that I sat in on a class on Abraham's Covenant with God. Actually it was a video, and I encourage you to watch the whole thing (40 minutes-ish with really poor audio to start, but gets better a couple minutes in). A disclaimer up front: I'm a naturally heady guy. I'm left-brained and I have to challenge myself during my Bible study that it is about becoming more Christ-like and building a deeper relationship with God than it is about finding something new. But when I learn something new, my wheels won't stop turning. So this post may not be your cup of tea, but bear with me. I'll try not to go a whole 40 minutes!

What was first pointed out was how this covenant, found in Genesis 15, followed the same format of common covenant/treaties at the time: the suzerain (sovereign)/vassal (servant) covenant. First, the sovereign is introduced (v 1, 7), then the servant (this actually is skipped and I'll explain why in a second), then the conditions of the covenant (v 5) with blessings and curses (v 13-16), then an animal is sacrificed and split in two (v 9-10). Next, the sovereign and servant pass between the animal carcases to seal the covenant with an oath by saying something along the lines of, "if I do not uphold this covenant, may what happened to this animal happen to me." Of course this happens in front of witnesses. But here's where Abraham's story diverges. Abraham falls into a deep sleep (v 12) and it is God himself who passes between the sacrificed animals (v 17) and Abraham was the witness. In other words, it is God's responsibility to uphold his covenant with Abraham, not Abraham's. Also, these treaties were recorded and referenced every year or so to remind everyone of their duties. Here, the recording and reminder shows up in Genesis 17 in circumcision. Instead of being written down and read as a reminder, this covenant left a physical mark so that the reminder was constant. I speculate the reason for circumcision is that the covenant is specifically related to Abraham's seed and therefore for all future generations.

Ok, so that's nice. But what does this have to do with the theme of this blog carnival? Well, we see the same structure in the New Covenant with Jesus. Jesus made this covenant with his disciples at the Last Supper. There wasn't a need for introductions and the disciples themselves were the witnesses. Blood was spilled (Luke 22:20) as Jesus himself was the sacrifice. But where is the circumcision? In Colossians 2, Paul writes, "In [Christ] you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." (v 11-12) And like with Abraham, this New Covenant is for "you and your children and for all who are far off- for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:39). As for the reminder, we go back to the Lord's Supper: "do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19)

Like I said, stuff like this gets my wheels turning. In this case, I'm in awe of how complete and consistent God's word is. I'm also challenged by the common Christian practice of downplaying either the Lord's Supper or baptism, when both are necessary parts of our New Covenant with Jesus. Hope you learned something, I sure did (and watch the video and you'll learn even more!).

Monday, November 02, 2009

Rabbi, who sinned...

...this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (John 9:1-2)

I grew up with this personal theology. If I tripped and fell in the playground, it must've been because of the white lie I told my parents to get out of cleaning my room. If my knee was skinned really bad, then it must have been a sin much worse. This theology led to a religious paranoia and paints God as the cosmic puppet-master instead of the loving Father that he is.

But this theology is also applied to prop up one's personal politics and biases. I sat in on a class on Abraham's Covenant with God yesterday and I was reminded that there is no covenant between God and my country. Despite what some may preach, the United States is owed no special favor by God. Likewise, God owes us no special punishment for violating the terms of his covenant. Tell that to the talking heads after Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. Some were quick to assign motive to these tragedies while justifying their personal theology.

It's a shame these recognized representatives of American christianity (TM) are not Ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor 5:20, Eph 6:20) instead because Jesus addressed this very issue in Luke, chapter 13: "Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them- do you think they were more guilty than all the to others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.'" (Luke 13:1-5)

These two tragedies, the Galileans whom Pilate killed and those who died in Siloam could be justified by the religious at the time because of their political ties. The Galileans were likely leading in a revolt against Roman authorities while the tower in Siloam was part of the aqueduct Pilate was constructing so those who died were in the employ of these same authorities. Jesus' reply was much like the traps the Pharisees and teachers of the law would try and catch Jesus in by trying to force him to take a side. But much like his replies to these traps, his reply here emphasised that which side doesn't matter. We should be concerned about our the condition of our own souls.

That's not to say we shouldn't preach against sin (despite the common strawman: judge not, lest ye be judged). But we should be preaching the Gospel of salvation, not the religion of condemnation. And we should never assign motive to what God chooses to do or not to do. I could close by saying something about why we shouldn't assume. But you know how the rest of that goes.

(more on Abraham's Covenant in tomorrow's blog carnival)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

K.I.S.S.

Keep It Simple, Stupid. It's a sound principle in management, but it's also worth applying to our own Christianity (though maybe leave the 'stupid' part out).

I've had a serious bout of writer's block over the last week, so I'll leave it to others to make my point for me. The bottom line is that we don't need gimmicks or flash to live out our faith and spread the Gospel.

What we don't need: christian products that rip off popular culture or a hip approach to Christianity.

What we do need: humble ministry.

What we really need: The Gospel of Jesus, period.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hand Up or Handout?

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27

I recently brought up my involvement in an addiction recovery ministry. I thank all of you for your encouraging comments. Truth is, I wouldn't be involved in that ministry if I didn't need it myself. Besides my character, I have learned much about the human condition and those things that drive us to our drugs of choice. I've also learned that in order to overcome our addictions and surrender our will to God, we need to "hit bottom". This means we've reached our lowest point and that realization motivates us to change. Recovery "raises" that bottom, so our motivation for sobriety moves from being afraid of the worst that could happen to desiring the best that God has in store for us. The temptation for many is to prevent a loved one from reaching their bottom. We don't want to see them suffer. We want to save them. But suffering is exactly what they need to find the desire for recovery.

This creates a paradox to the Christian. There is no sin so horrible that God can't forgive. "Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear" (Isaiah 59:1) And we are commanded to "forgive as the Lord forgave you." (Colossians 3:13b) Likewise we are commanded to "carry each other's burdens" because "in this way you will fulfill the Law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2)

It's easy to forgive an addict without enabling him. But where do you draw the line when carrying his burdens? On one hand, he needs to suffer the consequences of his decisions. But that does not mean we cannot help. Picking him up from the bar at 2:00 AM because he can't drive home is not carrying his burdens. But "sponsoring" him at a meeting is.

With addiction, that line is more clear than when dealing with other sins. What about a single teenage mother? Is offering to babysit while she searches for a job enabling, or sharing her burden? This is something my wife and I are currently battling. There are a couple of single moms that we've been reaching out to and opening our home to. When we bring them to church, the stares we get say, "why would you help her? It's her fault she's in the situation she's in." Are we preventing them from hitting their bottom? I'd like to think instead we're offering a safe environment in which they can work out their issues. Much like a recovery meeting.

Sadly, this perspective doesn't seem to be shared. To some, we are offering a handout instead of a hand up. I am moved to pray the lyrics to Brandon Heath's song, Give Me Your Eyes,

"All those people going somewhere,
Why have I never cared?

Give me your eyes for just one second
Give me your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity
Give me your arms for the broken hearted
Ones that are far beyond my reach.
Give me your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me your eyes so I can see"

I can then follow up with Leeland and Brandon Heath's Follow You,

"Faith without works is dead
On the cross your blood was shed
So how could we not give it away so freely?"

I only pray others may see the world in the same way.




Thursday, October 22, 2009

Won't Somebody Think of the Children, Again!

I've been down this road before regarding 'Octomom' and touched on it with the Gosselins, but there is a steep price to pay by our children in the pursuit of our own celebrity. This scripture bears repeating:
It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. -Luke 17:2

In the past week you were probably glued to your TV when you heard about "balloon boy". As a parent, my heart ached thinking of a 6 year-old 7000 feet in the air, all alone. In case you've been living under a rock, it turns out the whole thing was a hoax. Sadly, the 6 year-old is caught in the middle of it all, spilling the beans (literally and figuratively) on the whole thing on national TV. You know you're putting your kid under too much pressure when he throws up on camera. Sadly, kids are put through the ringer all the time for the sake of 'reality TV'. Jon and Kate, I'm looking at you.

But that's not the only forum where children are the victims of their parent's pride and selfishness. Unfaithfulness not only tears marriages apart, but tears the children apart also. This is no more evident than the recent case of ESPN's Steve Phillips. His affair with an "assistant" led her to confront his wife and his son via Facebook in what the media is comparing to "Fatal Attraction". In Phillips' statement to the police he said, "I have extreme concerns about the health and safety of my kids and myself." If he cared so much for his kids, he should've kept it in his pants. Sorry to be so blunt, but this is his second known affair. The first cost him his job as GM of the Mets. This one is going to cost him his wife. I don't know what will happen with his kids after the divorce, but one thing to be sure of, there will be cameras rolling when that decision is made.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Leap of Faith

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. -Hebrews 11:1

I know the theme of this blog carnival is 'trust', but I can't think of trust without thinking about faith. Faith is more than just believing 'in', it also includes believing 'on' (or unto, for you King James fans). The former is intellectual, the second results in action. It's like believing in Santa Claus- you may believe he lives at the North Pole and keeps a list (and is checking it twice!), but you trust that if you're good he'll bring you lots of presents.

Unfortunately, for many our faith in God is like our children's faith in Santa Claus. We behave a certain way 'trusting' that we'll get something good in return. Even though "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28), what is 'good' for God isn't necessarily good for us. After all, Jesus still suffered and died, but we insist that was good.

So we have to trust when whatever we're going through, God is in control. Easier said than done.

"As they were walking along the road, a man said to [Jesus], 'I will follow you wherever you go.'

Jesus replied, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'

He said to another man, 'Follow me.'

But the man replied, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.'

Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.'

Still another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.'

Jesus replied, 'No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.'" (Luke 9:57-62)

Interestingly, right after this passage in Matthew 8, we are told the story of Jesus' disciples being afraid while caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. What was Jesus doing at the time? Sleeping. After they woke him up, his response was simple, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" (Matthew 8:26)

Nowhere is trust and faith more evident than in the addiction ministry in which I serve. The biggest challenge for any addict is to resign control and trust in God. (In AA, the first 3 steps are based on this truth.) Recently we told one young man that he needed to make a very specific, and challenging, lifestyle change. He balked at the suggestion. Instead of beating him over his head with 'why', we simply encouraged him to go home and pray about it. Reminding him that God knows what he needs better than he does or we do.

The brother who leads that ministry likes to use his own personal example. Before he became a disciple of Jesus and committed to carrying his cross daily, he was afraid of the implications of such trust. (In fact, this was when he was struggling with the third step in AA.) He thought, "If I commit to God, he'll send me someplace like China and I don't want to go to China." A few years later, he was in China to adopt his daughter. He says, "not only did I want to go, I was praying to get there sooner!"

Who knows where our next step will take us? Who knows what God has in store? But that's trust. Stepping out on trust requires a leap of faith.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Harassed and Helpless

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)

Harassed and helpless is how the Gospel of Matthew describes the crowds, and thus describes us the same. You could replace that with going to 'Hell in a hand basket' for another alliteration that describes us pretty well. No doubt the news is depressing. Maybe it's becoming more so, or the instant access to information that the Internet and 24-hour news brings more of the worst to light. But as has been true for two thousand years, our world acts as sheep without a shepherd.

There's been a string of tragedies that show just how helpless we are without Jesus. You've no doubt heard about the student at Yale who was killed by a 'control freak', or the honor student in Chicago that was killed for only being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But those headlines were followed by a case at UCLA similar to that at Yale, and a group lighting a teen on fire because he stopped some other kids from stealing his dad's bike. Fortunately in the last two cases, the victim survived.

I wrote before about 'hate crimes' and how really any crime can be a hate crime, regardless of race or sexual orientation. In context of Jesus' teachings, hate and anger equate to murder, even if that act isn't carried out. It's easy to look at the above crimes as hate-filled, but that won't qualify them as 'hate crimes'.

Maybe we're wrong to focus on hate. I've heard this before, but Chrystie's post in response to Peter's blog carnival reminded me that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The way I remember hearing it before is that the opposite of love is apathy. Maybe there should be 'apathy crimes' legislation?

I say this because most crimes like those above are completely indifferent to the victim. The motive of the accused range from emotional impulse to territorialism/tribalism. At either extreme is a disregard for the sanctity of human life. Pope John Paul II often preached on overcoming the "Culture of death" with a "Culture of Life". Often that message was narrowed down to abortion and euthanasia. But it extends further to crimes against our fellow man and acts such as abortion and euthanasia are only symptoms of the culture. Why would we bring a child into this world if we can't afford him or if she would be an inconvenience? Obviously that shows a lack of value of life. Why shouldn't I kill this woman because she turned me down or why shouldn't I light this kid on fire because he kept me from taking what I want? Again, the same attitude in the heart.

So what do we do? We need to view the world through Jesus' eyes and see all life as being sacred. No possession, emotion, or political issue is worth another's life. All of us are just sheep. Let's keep from slaughtering each other.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Where's the Line?

So if our obedience to God isn't about what we do, but why, does that mean I don't have to do anything as long as I have a good heart? That's the same attitude as not having conviction about our sin because Christ's grace covers us. "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Romans 6:1-2)

But it's those temptations that lead us to "planting a hedge" around our obedience to God. If you're not familiar with that term (hedging bets, hedge funds, etc) it comes from the practice of the Pharisees in Jesus' time who believed, for illustration, if the Law said they can't walk a mile they would have a religious rule that you couldn't walk a half-mile in order to make sure you were never close enough to be tempted to go the full mile. That's the "hedge". In context of today, we may have a conviction that pornography is wrong, but R-rated movies with explicit sex scenes are ok. Or if you're single, you may have a conviction about premarital sex but that won't stop you from making out. So we come up with hedges in our own little corners of religion to prevent that: no R-movies of any kind, no kissing while dating, no dancing, no gambling, etc.

Likewise, often our exhortations to do good are based on Godly principles and maybe even Biblical commands, but we take them either too far or in a direction that was never intended.

So what should be our standard then? It's not the church, I'll tell you that right now. It should be clear that it's Jesus. "If you love me, you will obey what I commanded." (John 14:15) Sounds simple, right? Chrystie at Path From the Head to the Heart, posted just about what I planned this follow-up post to be. But to dig deeper into Godly, Spiritual, Biblical and most of all, personal obedience I encourage you to check out all the posts from Pastor Peter's "blog carnival" on the word obedience. Some very, very powerful words. What's beautiful in these posts, is that we all have different denominational and doctrinal backgrounds, yet you can see the Holy Spirit moving powerfully and consistently in each of the posts. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Measuring Obedience

You know the routine: a new year begins and there's a big hoorah about your church's plans for the year. You hear moving testimony, an inspiring lesson, likely about Peter walking on water, and a time for confession and personal revival. On that last point, you might even take a "survey" to "take your spiritual temperature". Rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10, how did you do last year in: evangelism, giving, serving, prayer, Bible study? And how would you rate your personal battle against sin: anger, language, lust, pride, selfishness?

But we can't quantify such things. Of sin, we know that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The illustration goes that if you try and jump the Grand Canyon, even if you fall short by only a foot, you meet the same fate as one who only jumped a foot. But on the spiritual disciplines, we also know that we cannot meet all of the Law. That's why we needed a perfect sacrifice to make up for our own imperfections. "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit." (Romans 8:3-4)

So it's not a matter of some scale, some metric, some quantification of holiness. But that doesn't stop us from trying: how long was your quiet time, how much do you give weekly, how many visitors have you had out to church, how many different ways are you involved? We might even have some checklist to mark off the things we do that we believe we should. But because holiness cannot be quantified, we cannot rely on some to-do list. Our motives need to be from the heart.

We need to remind ourselves of the anointing of David: "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7b) Consider the example of the early church in Acts 2 and compare with your own checklist.

I read my Bible every day

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching..." (v 42)

I go to church every Sunday

"...to the fellowship" (v 42)

I pray every day

"...and to prayer" (v 42)

I spend time with other believers... sometimes

"All the believers were together..." (v 44)

I tithe

"...and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." (v 44-45)

Did I mention I go to church every Sunday. Sometimes even Wednesdays!

"Every day they continued to meet together" (v 46)

I door knock at least one Saturday a month

"And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

It all starts with that one word at the beginning- being "devoted". That's from the heart. So obedience isn't about what or how much we do as much as how and why we do it.

"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved... For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:4-5,10)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Good Samaritan

"Good Samaritan" has worked its way so deeply into our vernacular that we say it often without giving a second thought of what that really means. Ask your average Christian and they'll likely reply, "it's a parable from Jesus about loving your neighbor." But is it? Yes, that was what Jesus instructed before the parable, but the story was in response to the question, "who is my neighbor?" We pick up the answer in Luke 10:30:

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:30-37)

What's important was that the "neighbor" wasn't the religious or the priestly. Rather, it was a member of a different race, from a different country, reviled by the Jews- a Samaritan. "Good Samaritan" has become synonymous with a "Good Neighbor" (Like a Good Samaritan, State Farm is There). But we forget that the one who showed love did so despite cultural, racial, and religious differences.

How many of those in need that we see do we shrug off because of race or looks? Even when sharing our faith it is tempting to only share with those who are just like us. But the parable isn't about helping out someone in need, it's about overcoming our own bias and bigotry to love everyone regardless.

So with that in mind, I lift up Billy Cretan who is enjoying a bit of celebrity for being exactly what a Good Samaritan is by saving the life of a boy trapped in a fire. If you just read the article, there's no indication of race or culture of Cretan, but you can immediately guess that the boy saved, Christopher Ramcharran, was from a different background. Now the article has been updated to note that Billy proposed to his girlfriend Desiree Guzman giving further evidence of Cretan's race. Watching the video shows explicitly the differences in culture and race.

But that didn't stop him from helping. If you've seen Crash or Falling Down, you might think such an act is impossible. In an urban melting pot, minority groups are often portrayed as minding their own business, keeping to their own. But here was a man who overcame any cultural boundaries because a boy's life was more important than his race or religion. Good Samaritan indeed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Emo-ification of Christian Music

I just wrote about Air1's pledge drive and how I consider their music to personally minister to me. I've also written in the past about how I view myself as a Christian consumer. I mention this to say that I'm coming around. I'm much more open to Christian music than I used to be and find myself listening to Air1 almost exclusively over the local rock or Top 40 stations. I credit this to the quality of music being put out. I admit, I've never been a fan of the Christian music sub-genre of 'Praise Music' and am more a 'Positive Alternative' fan. Besides the musical style, I'm struck by the honesty and vulnerability found in many popular Christian songs. I call this the emo-ification of Christian music. Emo, being short for emotional, was coined to describe alternative rock that was more emotional than the usual guy-falls-for-a-girl or rebel-without-a-cause lyrics. However, these lyrics and the requisite fashion are depressing and self-loathing. To the contrary, Christian alternative music is emotionally honest about personal struggles in faith, desire to impact the world around them, and passion to be close to God. Just some examples pulled from listening to the radio today:

I was too scared to start,
now I'm too scared to let go
-Take Me As I Am, FM Static

I'm falling apart, I'm barely breathing
With a broken heart that's still beating
In the pain is there is healing
In your name I find meaning
-Broken, Lifehouse

This might hurt
It’s not safe
But I know that I’ve gotta make a change

I don’t care
If I break
At least I’ll be feeling something

‘Cause just ok
Is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of life

I don’t wanna go through the motions
I don’t wanna go one more day
Without Your all consuming passion inside of me
I don’t wanna spend my whole life asking
What if I had given everything?
Instead of going through the motions

-Motions, Matthew West

A thousand times I've failed
Still your mercy remains
Should I stumble again
Still I'm caught in your grace
-From the Inside Out, Seventh Day Slumber

So expect to see more posts like this in the future as I find music and lyrics that minister to me personally and I pray would encourage you as well.

Support Your Local Gunfighter

Right now is the Fall version of Air1's drive to cover their operating costs. Air1 is listener supported radio, so it runs ad-free. I've written before about how expensive it is to operate Christian Radio and strongly encouraged supporting stations and programs that minister to you.

But there's another side that in my cynicism I often neglect. These stations may encourage and minister to you, but it's just as likely they're encouraging and ministering to someone else. If you listen to Air1 you've heard the testimonies: people overcoming struggles in their marriage, people coming to Christ, et cetera. I'm admittedly cynical against someone listening to a song by Matt Kearney and suddenly accepting Jesus as their savior. But it cannot be denied that this music encourages those who listen to it.

My wife and I have our own testimony- listening to Christian music has re-sensitized us to worldly music. I'm a big fan of classic, hard, and alternative rock. Most of what I enjoy listening to is mildly encouraging (i.e. not down, depressing, nihilistic) but still worldly on the subjects of life, love, and sex. It's hard for us to listen to mainstream radio now because the worldliness is made more clear.

I also have another standard when pledging my support. Besides ministering to me, I strongly encourage support when a ministry is calling Christians to a higher standard. This relates to my cynicism against the evangelistic value of Christian Radio but also consistent with the theme of this blog. That's why I support Living On The Edge even though I don't necessarily agree with all their doctrine. Air1 not only calls us higher through the lyrics of specific songs but also through ministries that "advertise" between sets. Groundwire, Walk The Way, and Teen Challenge are all examples of this.

Moral of the story, if you're a fan of this station, give. Support their supporting ministries. Pray for those who are listening. Allow the Holy Spirit at work through this style and genre of music to work in you as its worked in many others.

"Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 5:19-20)

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Forgiveness and Football

I've written briefly about Michael Vick and our willingness to forgive. I just read this post by Jon Acuff applying the same spirit to Kanye West after the MTV VMAs. But I'm posting to link to this great article (though sadly just skimming the surface of a much deeper topic) at Fox Sports about Tony Dungy and his role in Vick's reinstatement.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Making Jesus Popular

That was on a sign at a construction site for a new megachurch being built. Really. But popularity was never Jesus' goal on earth. Just a sample (I love Biblegateway!):

All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. -Matthew 10:22

Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. -Luke 6:22

The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil. -John 7:7

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: 'They hated me without reason.' -John 15:18-25

Yet we try so hard to be "seeker sensitive" or to be "relatable" or "relevant" instead of being radical. We dress a certain way, we incorporate multimedia into sermons, we have bands playing contemporary worship music (or cheesy pop music) instead of letting the Gospel of Jesus stand on its own.

Many flock to Saddleback Church because of Rick Warren. Thousands fill the old Alamo Dome to hear Joel Osteen. Celebrity also draws people. The fastest growing church in America is that of American Idol winner Kris Allen. Coincidence?

Once upon a time in my church, growth was used as a "sign" of God's blessing and that if the church wasn't growing at an incredible pace then there was something wrong. Spirituality soon began to be measured with numbers. If you weren't constantly bringing visitors, you were chastised. So begins the pressure to be popular.

But it is not supposed to be this way. Not to say a church that's growing old and withering on the vine is ok, but we need to check our motivations and ask if we're compromising the message of Jesus for the sake of attendance. We need to remind ourselves of what was prophesied about Jesus:

"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not." (Isaiah 53:2b-3)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Perspective

Another business trip and another chance to get caught up on posts. In the meantime though, flying I was reminded of how what seems to look big in our eyes is small in God's. Looking at the world from the window of an airplane puts this into perspective. At night, the Port of LA looked like the game Battleship. Taking off from LAX requires you to fly over the ocean for a bit before turning around on a heading to your destination. During the day you can see the waves cresting at Dockweiler beach as you climb from the runway. But the higher you get, the harder it becomes to see the whitecaps. Eventually, you can't even see waves, only a smooth, glassy ocean.

Likewise, I've flown over some of the big fires we've had lately and noticed that the further away you are from the fire, the more the violently rising smoke looks like a still cloud that reaches to the ground. Fire too, looks still from a distance.

No matter how big our problems appear to us, like waves crashing over us, they are small in God's eyes. No matter how hectic our lives feel, we may as well be standing still in God's eyes. And with that perspective, we can take comfort that God is looking out for us. We need not worry or stress. But "be still and know that [he] is God." (Psalm 46:10a)

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?...

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust...

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?

He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in...

Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing...

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
(Isaiah 40:12, 15, 21-22, 26, 28-31)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Love Your Enemies

I was going to post about this when I first read about it, but listening on Air1 this morning reminded me of the pastor in Arizona who is praying for President Obama to get cancer and die like the late Senator Ted Kennedy. I don't know where to start other than grieve that many who call themselves Christians agree with him. One, in fact, brought a gun to one of the President's town-halls on health care. A caller to Air1 said he didn't "necessarily agree" with the pastor, but "sees nothing wrong with praying that God will remove evil from high places."

So here we see the problem with mixing religion and politics- the label of opposing political beliefs as 'evil'. However, the Bible tells us this is not the case. Paul, writing to the church in Rome wrote, "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." (Rom 13:1) Keep in mind, Paul is writing to the same church that within a generation would be dipped in tar and burned alive to provide lighting in the Colosseum while their brothers and sisters in Christ were fed to lions. This church existed under a government that practiced infanticide and did not value what we'd call traditional marriage. Yet Paul says even this government is established by God.

Well just because we 'submit' to those authorities doesn't mean we have to agree with them. Of course that's true. But disagreeing is a far cry from wishing death or even calling someone evil. Even if our president (or anyone else for that matter) was truly evil in his entire being (can anyone really believe that?), how should we treat that person? Again, Paul gives the answer to a Roman church who justly feared for their very lives.

"Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary:
'If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.'
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom 12:19-21)
And earlier, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil." (Rom 12:17a)

The caller this morning said he wasn't afraid of being called crazy for standing up against evil and even went so far as to suggest those who don't are 'watered down' Christians. Well there are a lot of instructions in the Bible on how to deal with evil that we can turn to. I personally like this one from Jesus and I'd recommend Pastor Anderson reads it: "But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:39) Though I admit that's a bit of a cliche. But interestingly most of the time when Jesus is talking about evil, he's talking about our very own hearts. In other words, we need to check ourselves.

But there's more. Again Paul writing in Romans after describing "all kinds of evil" in Chapter 1 begins the second chapter by writing, "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things." (Rom 2:1)

If you want to be militant, you could look at the "armor of God" in Ephesians 6 where we read, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Eph 6:12) But even here, the struggle "is not against flesh and blood" and the evil forces are spiritual, not physical. So we use weapons "not... of the world" (2 Corinthians 10:4ff).

But again, this battle is personal. We do not fight on others' behalf. "Our struggle..." When it comes to facing evil personally, we are instructed to "flee the evil desires of youth..." (2 Timothy 2:22) to "get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent..." (James 1:21) "do not conform to the evil desires you had..." (1 Peter 1:14) to "turn from evil and do good..." (1 Peter 3:11) to "not imitate what is evil..." (3 John 1:11) and to "resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7) for "the Lord will rescue [you] from every evil attack." (2 Timothy 4:18)

I see nothing in here that advocates fighting evil in others or wishing harm on anyone. It's a shame that a pastor (the word means shepherd) is spreading such false doctrine. But we shouldn't be surprised. "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." (Matthew 7:15)