Thursday, April 27, 2006

Couldn't Script It Any Better

And now, the recent history of Evangelical Film.

A few years back, The Fellowship of the Ring made it to the big screen. Christians saw this as a great opportunity to witness. As for me, I witnessed a lot of horrific violence and didn’t feel particularly drawn to Christ through it (except perhaps through the fear of a merciless death at the hands of a crazed orc). But that was apparently just me – all my friends loved it.

Last year, ticket sales for The Passion of the Christ were fueled by grassroots religious folks. I preferred this movie, given that the violence was historically driven and reminded us that the center of our faith is the cross. Protestants didn’t seem to mind the film’s Roman Catholic flare (we’re not uptight these days) but would have enjoyed a bit more Resurrection.

Then, The Chronicles of Narnia came out last Christmas – a great story, pretty well done, and certainly a Christian message.

So a couple things have become evident to even the most casual observer:

1. Christians like movies, too.
2. Christians can help make movies big, big bucks.

Now along comes the next Christian film, United 93, concerning the doomed but heroic passengers on 9/11. As this article explains, this film is being promoted heavily among churches. After all, evangelicals are patriotic, will identify with Todd Beamer, and basically back Bush. (For the record, I was interested in seeing this movie before finding out that it was going to be heavily marketed to churches – but then again, I probably saw the commercial on Fox News.)

I guess it’s a good thing that Christians are targeted for movies about heroism. But isn’t it a bit worrisome that Christians are becoming such a predictable marketing segment – and perhaps not much more than this? Does anyone else feel a bit used?

Many Christians I know are frustrated by the way "separation of church and state" is viewed in mainstream America these days. It seems church is being squeezed out of the public square altogether. But apparently not in the movies. How exciting it is to see Christians finally get a word in edgewise!

But must our words be so . . . scripted?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I Will, I Will

Say therefore to the people of Israel, 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'" Exodus 6:6-8

How would you describe a healthy relationship? In the above passage, God is speaking to Moses and explaining his relationship to his people, Israel. What do we learn about this relationship?

Look at the passage again. Notice that God’s declaration of his name is stated and the beginning and end, and in between are seven promises:

'I am the LORD,
and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians,
and I will deliver you from slavery to them,
and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.
I will take you to be my people,
and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
I will give it to you for a possession.
I am the LORD.'"

Seven times God says "I will." It’s pretty clear who wears the pants in this relationship. Or, to state it in friendlier terms, it’s clear who picks up the tab.

Yet instead of hearing God say to us, “I will,” we are often saying it to him! We do this when we make promises to him, usually promises to do better “next time.” We hope that if we are well meaning enough we will obtain his blessings.

How do you approach God each day? As one who has experienced the “I wills” of God, or as one who thinks he or she can obtain God’s blessing by promising, yet again, “I will”?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Promises, Promises

The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”

This is one of my favorite passages in Genesis. Two reasons:

First, I use it as a reminder that God’s priority for me as a husband and someday father is to teach my family righteousness and justice. This is similar to Ephesians 5 which exhorts husbands, “Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, that she might be holy…”

Second, this passage contains an important, and perhaps overlooked, truth concerning God’s promises. If you parse this passage carefully, you’ll notice that God plans to bring his promises to pass as a result of Abraham’s actions: “I have chosen him, that he may command his children…so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”

While not all God’s promises result from our actions, some do. God not only works outside us to bring his promises to pass, he works inside us. Those whom he chooses, he changes. And he changes us in order that we might not only inherit his blessings, but enjoy them.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Take Me To Your Leader(s)

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

There's something about these verses that should catch us Americans off guard. Instead of speaking of a Christian leader, singular, they speak about Christian leaders, plural.

Churches, whether massive or tiny, are often driven by a singular charismatic personality. Yet the New Testament envisions a Christian community that also has a leadership community. The disciples traveled two by two; Paul journeyed with companions; and Timothy was urged to apoint elders. Jesus seemed to think, and I observe, that the witness of multiple leaders is much stronger and safer than the lone pastor.

You would think that those who live in a representative democracy, with its multiple leaders providing checks and balances, would have an appreciation for a church structure with multiple leaders. Yet in America, as everywhere, the human heart tends to desire one strong leader - whether named king, president, or pastor. It's ultimately the desire for a Savior.

Yet in the church, may we always recognize Jesus as the only Savior - and the leaders, plural, as his representatives.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Yes, God Has Better Things To Do

Doesn’t God have better things to do than answer my petty requests?

Yes, as a matter of fact. For example, he is holding together the universe by his sustaining power. He oversees the affairs of nations, bringing blessing or judgment according to his providence. He is hearing the cries of more worthy folks, and also those who are in far greater distress than we are. Not to mention that he is preparing an eternal abode for his people.

It is unworthy of God to believe he has nothing better to do than answer your prayers, which are often based on discontent and are rarely accompanied by the gratitude God deserves.

On the other hand, it is also unworthy of God to fail to ask him for your needs. If we belong to Christ, we are considered adopted sons and daughters. As such, he invites us to approach him as a heavenly Father – in fact, he commands us to do so. There are even some places in the Bible where it seems God wants us to approach him shamelessly, irreverently, and constantly!

We do not honor God’s greatness if we are not mindful of his majesty and transcendence. Yet we fail to honor his grace if we do not understand his love and mercy. What are we to make of this?

We must live within a glorious tension, described in Isaiah this way:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
"I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

God dwells “in the high and holy place,” yet does so “with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” This tension creates misunderstandings. For example, God so graciously answers our prayers that we think we’re the only one on his mind.

Glorious tension, glorious misunderstanding!

Monday, April 17, 2006

Church Membership: Just Another Hoop?

Most local gyms require “membership,” defined by a contract and a membership fee. I wish that I could just pay a small fee whenever I utilize the gym, instead of signing my life (or at least my year) away. Instead, a costlier commitment is demanded – and this is called membership. Obviously this is in the best interests of their business and bottom line. Yet for me, it seems like just a hoop to jump through to get to the weight room.

It’s no wonder that so many people cringe at the idea of church membership. They hear the word “membership” and think of an unnecessary loophole. Why “join” a church when one can simply “attend”? Why sign a contract, so to speak, that will limit one’s freedom – after all, you may or may not still want to attend this church next year … or even next month.

To appreciate church membership, one has to realize the nature of the church. It is not merely a commodity to be consumed, but a community. And it is only through a commitment to this community that verses like this one can be put into practice:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Hebrews 13:17

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25

How can these passages be obeyed without a commitment to a local congregation? A clear commitment to a specific church and its leaders is necessary. And the way that commitment is clarified is called church membership.

In short, church membership is not about us. It’s about clarifying our commitment to others in the congregation and to church leaders, for mutual encouragement and accountability.

Much like membership at a gym, church membership keeps us accountable to our goals – in this case, our spiritual goals. If so many can make a commitment to a local gym, in order to care for their own body, can’t we make a commitment to a local church? Though in this case, we are not the sole (or “soul”) recipient – because it’s not just about us.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

I Am The Resurrection and the Life

Martha, one of Jesus' personal friends and followers, was disappointed. Her brother Lazarus had been terminally ill for days without receiving a visit from Jesus. By the time Jesus showed up, Lazarus was dead.

Jesus told his disciples that his delay was purposeful. Somehow, through all this, the glory of God would be revealed. Sure enough, it was, when Jesus commanded Lazarus to awake from death and come forth from the tomb. To the amazement of all, the one who was dead - lived!

Prior to this display of divine authority, Jesus had this exchange with Martha (see John 11):

"Your brother will rise again," Jesus said.

"I know he will rise again," Martha affirmed. "In the resurrection on the last day."

"I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus told her.

* * *

As we celebrate Easter, most who read this post probably believe - like Martha - in the resurrection. It is one of many theological components that comes with the biblical "package" of truth.

But think about Martha. She believed in the resurrection, yet was still disappointed in Jesus. Things didn't work out as she had hoped; her brother had died. The resurrection was very far off - and she wanted help now.

Jesus reminded her that the resurrection is not an impersonal doctrine that matters little today. Instead, the resurrection is actually quite personal - it's reality is found in Jesus himself. "I am the resurrection and the life," he said.

This means many things for us. Let me point out just two:

First, it means that if Jesus is living within us we already possess eternal life. We should have a sense of it already, like the way we can smell the rain in the air.

Second, it means that if Jesus is living within us we should already see the power of the resurrection at work. With full access to the Lord Jesus Christ, Martha saw her brother called out of the tomb. We too should experience something of Jesus' power, even though its fullness will not be seen or felt until that final day of resurrection. Perhaps we experience Jesus' power through triumph over sin, through joy in the midst of trial, or even through deliverance from disease.

The "resurrection" may seem far away, but Jesus is not. Do you know him as the resurrection and the life?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The First Cut is the Deepest

Sheryl Crow has a song called “The First Cut is the Deepest.” In this song she sings:

I would’ve given you all of my heart
But there’s someone who’s torn it apart.
And he’s taken just all that I had.
But if you want to try to love again,
Baby, I’ll try to love again,
But I know –

The first cut is the deepest.

Aside from having a catchy melody, this song accurately describes our human condition. When we’ve been hurt by someone, we have difficulty loving again. And not only do we struggle to love the one who disappointed or wounded us, we have trouble loving anyone! Though we sing so many songs about endless love, it’s actually pretty fragile virtue.

This is what makes Jesus so unique.

The Thursday before Easter, known as “Maundy Thursday,” Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples prior to the cross. Meanwhile, one of these disciples – whom he also called “friends” – had plotted his demise. Christians recognize that on this night the Lord’s Supper was instituted; in about 55 AD the Apostle Paul described it this way:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)

Notice the phrase on the night he was betrayed. At the very time Jesus was experiencing the pain and injustice of betrayal, he was offering his life for his followers. And let’s not think that Jesus didn’t experience real heartache over that betrayal.

Yet Jesus is not called the Savior for no reason. Who else could face the pain of betrayal, and yet still reach his hand out to the lost? Who else could, in fact, turn the results of that betrayal (a brutal and agonizing death) into the source of redemption for so many?

I sorrow for those who see Jesus as a tragic figure – a “great teacher” who was wrongly put to death, died childless, and whose body rotted while his followers wove legends about him. He is so much more than they know. And this unbelief leaves our deep cuts unhealed.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Ultimate Regime Change

Jesus Christ our Lord “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead…” (Romans 1:4)

Jesus is Lord. But did you know that his reign began at the resurrection? Handel’s Messiah got it right, placing “The Hallelujah Chorus” in the section concerning Jesus’ resurrection.

Yes, Jesus always reigned in one sense. But the story of redemption climaxes with the resurrection and ascension because this is when Jesus takes the helm: from this point, the church is built as the Holy Spirit is poured out like never before.

You might say: I see a lot of unbelief and horror in the world – how can Jesus be ruling? The answer is that, through the gospel, Jesus advances his kingdom slowly but surely. And look how far it’s already come! It’s easy for us who live on this side of the resurrection to forget that there was a time when the God of Israel was not worshiped in Europe, Africa, Asia, or the Americas!

This is what was prophesied by the prophet Daniel:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14

The resurrection was the ultimate regime change.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Finding God on the Mississippi

Many of life’s pursuits begin as labors of love, and end as mere labors.

Young Mark Twain loved working on the steamboats back in the mid-1800’s. As these industrial marvels moved down the Mississippi, Mark Twain spoke of the rapturous beauty he experienced: “The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.”

But as his knowledge grew, his enjoyment diminished:

“A day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: The sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that…”

He concludes:

“No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”

This is most deadly, it seems to me, in Christian service. As a pastor, nearly everything I enjoy about the Christian faith can be utilized in some form of “ministry.” This is true for all believers to some degree. Therefore, I was grateful for an exhortation I received from a fellow pastor yesterday. He urged me to always remember what Jesus said to the disciples when they rejoiced in their success:

“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)

No matter how useful the river becomes, may we always strive to appreciate its beauty.

* * *

Quotations are from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Gospel of Judas

Has a text been unearthed that proves that Judas got a raw deal in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Does “The Gospel of Judas” tell the true story – or at least an alternate story?

Listening to folks talk about this “recent” discovery on television would make you think so. As The Da Vinci Code movie nears its grand opening, people are reading and thinking about “lost gospels” and alternate “Christianities” that may have been squashed by an intolerant Church.

Therefore, it’s important to clarify a few key things.

First, “The Gospel of Judas” is dated to the second century – not the first century, where virtually all researchers now date Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (with John nearer to the end of the century). Therefore, the biblical gospels were written while eyewitnesses were still alive, and “Judas” was not. There are similar texts, such as the “Gospel of Thomas” or the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” which were also later writings that use Christian characters and ideas to promote what is generally called “Gnosticism” – a religion quite different from the (earlier) New Testament documents.

Second, Christians from the beginning recognized that there were other (false) views of the gospel in the early centuries. The various New Testament texts (the “books” of the NT) speak abundantly about “false gospels” and “false Christs.” One of the very earliest writings, the book of Galatians (written about 20 years after Jesus), says in its opening statement: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7).

Third and finally, Christianity and Gnosticism were competing religions. Yes, the Gnostics clearly enjoyed using biblical themes and characters in their writings. But so do Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. It is an oversimplification (and in my view, a falsification) for TV experts to speak of early Christians and 2nd century Gnostics as part of the same community.

In brief, the “Judas” text will shed light on opponents of Christianity in the second century – not on the real Judas or, for that matter, the real Jesus. Here is a quote from James M. Robinson, emeritus professor at Claremont Graduate University (who has studied many such writings): "There are a lot of second-, third- and fourth-century gospels attributed to various apostles," Robinson said. "We don't really assume they give us any first century information."

This morning I read over the “Judas” text – at least a version I found on the net. This afternoon I plan to look over the “gospels” of Thomas and Mary. So I am not saying that we shouldn’t read them. In fact, reading them just may strengthen our confidence in the biblical accounts – when we see how much they differ in historical detail, theology, and spiritual power. But let’s place them in their proper historical context.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Love Who?

"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." - Jesus

Jesus' demands on his disciples were radical. We have enough trouble loving our brothers, our neighbors, our spouses, our parents...but toss enemies into the mix and it calls for special grace.

One of my favorite Old Testament moments is when Daniel, a Jewish exile in Babylon, receives from God the key to unlock King Nebuchadnezzar's troubling dream. Nebuchadnezzar had been so troubled by a dream that he ordered all the wise men of the realm to be executed if they failed to both tell him the dream and interpret the dream. He was temperamental that way.

Now, keep in mind that the "wise men" were defined in Babylon as "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans" (Daniel 2:2). These were not natural friends of Daniel, who worshiped of the one true God of Israel. Yet when Daniel alone receives the ability to tell the king the dream and its interpretation, the first thing he does is this:

"Therefore Daniel went in to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon. He went and said thus to him, 'Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will show the king the interpretation.'" (Daniel 2:24)

Daniel halted the execution of magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans! He could have easily gloated that he had the "right" religion and watched as all these religious left-wingers were executed. He perhaps had it in his power to politically exalt his God, the true God, above all the others in the realm. But he didn't.

Perhaps that's where loving our enemies can begin... with not wishing them dead!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

When "Science vs. Faith" is an Easy Choice

Yesterday's New York Times ran a story in its science section entitled: "A Cold, Hard Explanation for a Biblical Feat." The, umm, report ran under the heading "FINDINGS" -- apparently to assure that the reader understands this is not mere conjecture.

The story describes a recent article in the Journal of Paleolimnology by Dr. Doron Nof. He "conducted an inquiry" into the story of Jesus walking on water and "found what might be a natural explanation: ice." Noting that 1,500 to 2,000 years ago there were colder stretches in the area of Galilee, the "surface ice could have formed thick enough to support human weight and inspire the biblical story." Then: "From a distance, the scientists suggested, a person on the ice might appear to be walking on water, particularly if it had just rained and left a smoothed-out watery coating on the ice."

Notice the serious consideration that is given to the findings of these scientists (and how carefully chosen are the words findings and scientists). But then think again. Is it really plausible to assume that Jesus walked on ice thick enough to hold him up while the disciples nearby rowed their boat along in water deep enough to hold them up? And were these professional fishermen truly so ignorant of their own Sea that it took "observers" from 2000 years hence to point out their ignorance? Furthermore, in this scenario, what led Jesus to take his own life in his hands by strolling out on uncertain footing - which apparently grew ever so feeble the nearer he came to the boat?

The most serious questions, however, involve whether this explanation best fits the picture of Jesus we have from antiquity. Was he a trickster, a mere ice walker, or the Son of God?

Well, this is the kind of thing that will likely appear in biblical commentaries for years to come. Even if ruled out of court, generations of students will have to interact with the "ice man theory." And, I believe, this is the true goal of the article, which concludes with these words: "In a bow to biblical literalists and other skeptics, Dr. Nof's group concluded, 'Whether this happened or not is an issue for religion scholars, archaeologists, anthropologists and believers to decide on." The goal isn't to promote research, but to promote doubt. Or, we could say, to promote science as the only true faith.

Well, let's make sure that we find out what happened after the story of Jesus walking on water... from Mark 6:

"Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. ... And wherever he went - into villages, towns or countryside - they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed."

Jesus can heal all ailments - including hardness of heart!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Jeff Tell: Bad Opinions and Flying Buttresses

Today, please welcome guest blogger Jeff Tell. Jeff appears courtesy of Pilgrim at Ashley Avenue, and wrote the following piece that I believe you will find thought provoking.

The Flying Buttress of Omniscience

I used to have lots of bad opinions. I'm not completely cured of the malady, but I'm getting there. One of the bad opinions that I used to hold was to think that the heart of true Christianity was in knowing good theology. Sure, I would have granted that you could be a Christian without knowing much theology, but not for long. If you were a faithful Christian, a committed Christian, then you would know theology. Articulating and defending the 5 points of Calvinism was a minimum. After that, you learned to dismantle a position on free-will. And if you were really serious about Christianity, you started reading Christian literature from the 16th and 17th centuries. This was true, deep Christianity.

I don't think this anymore. Partly, because I realized that the Bible didn't agree with me. The Bible says, over and over, that what God wants us to do is to love him, to show mercy, and to pursue justice. James says that true religion is to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. I think the Bible says that the heart of true religion is, well, in the heart. It consists in caring for people, loving them, helping them, giving yourself to them. Treating people with dignity, because that's the way God made them. In other words, Christianity has something to do with being like Jesus.

Theological erudition is not a bad thing. But I have assigned it a new place in my scheme of what it means to be a Christian. It used to be the Cathedral, the main thing, the looker. Now it is the flying buttresses.

You see, medieval cathedrals used to be short, stocky affairs, being limited by their architecture and building supplies. Till someone came up with the Flying Buttress. The buttresses were external supports that allowed the cathedrals to have tall, thin walls, that rose higher than they ever could on their own. Theology is like these buttresses. Love, mercy and justice are the cathedral of Christianity, they are what it means to be in love with God. And each bit of theology you learn is a flying buttress to support your faith. The doctrince of Omniscience is a buttress to give us a settled peace. The knowledge of God's providence is a buttress that supports our hope. The knowledge of the 5 points of Calvinism is a buttress that gives us confidence in the power of God to save sinners. The peace, hope, and trust are what we need, the flying buttresses of theology are what help us build these virtues tall.

Sometimes I desire to have tall strong buttresses more than I desire to have a cathedral. Like I said, I'm still dealing with some bad opinions.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Final Stretch

"If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."
- Jesus

"The thing about going the extra mile is that there is so little traffic."
- Jim Larranaga, George Mason head coach

Jesus made the extra mile cool. Yet it is still infrequently travelled. It is more frequently talked about, a scenic road found in religious travel brochures. Perhaps this is because Jesus also said that the road is narrow - and that sounds a little scary.

Tonight George Mason University has their chance to get more mileage out of their men's basketball team. If they can go yet another mile, they proceed to the championship. If not, they take the next exit ramp and head home.

Meanwhile many Christians, puzzling over Jesus' famous but strong words, are still learning to play the game. Just what does it mean to go the extra mile? Lord, you travelled the extra mile for us. Please enable us who trail behind to understand, and to follow.