Friday, December 23, 2016

how to keep Christ in your Christmas

Lately I've noticed a lot of folks at church are wearing little silicone wristbands that say "Keep Christ in Christmas." Tis the season, I guess. And of course I agree (I'm a preacher, after all): Jesus needs to be the heartbeat of the holiday.

But a lot of times I disagree with people about what that should look like.

It seems like, most of the time, when Christians talk about people 'taking Christ out of Christmas', they're talking about other people. Schools, stores, government offices. They're trying to remove the reason for the season, leaving us with a happy holiday that's just a shell of the Christmas God wants from us.

But me, I don't think it's Walmart's job or City Hall's job or even the schools' job to celebrate the birth of our Lord.

That's my job.

If you're a Christian, it's your job.

It all starts with us. If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, we need to take Jesus' advise and quit poking around for splinters in our neighbors' eyes while we've got a log jammed in our own (Matt 7:3-5). Christians need to quit focusing on how others are doing Christmas wrong and start focusing on how we can do Christmas right. We need the humility and the courage to ask: what can I do differently, to really make this season about Jesus?

Because there are going to be things all of us can do differently.

Maybe, instead of watching A Christmas Story for the third time in two days, we could pick up the phone and call that brother, that sister, that cousin we haven't spoken to in years, because we've been holding on to a grudge or refusing to admit we were wrong.

Maybe, instead of buying our kid or our spouse another gift and teaching them that this holiday is all about stuff, we could give that money to the battered women's shelter, Habitat for Humanity, or ZOE, to bless people in ways that will last longer than a new toy or shoes.

Or maybe, rather than take that vacation to the Bahamas you could give that waitress who's eight months pregnant a $900 tip, to help her get through the months ahead, when she's out of work, and to show her what the extravagant, sacrificial love of God looks like.

Because—let's be honest—most of us treat Christmas like it's our birthday. How might we celebrate the holiday if we treated it like Jesus' birthday instead?

If the world saw Christians celebrating Christmas like that, in ways that glorified God and made Jesus smile, maybe the Holy Spirit would have room to work in people's hearts, and—who knows?—next year they may be wishing everyone a merry Christmas too.

And this year we all have a special opportunity to focus on Jesus, because this year Christmas falls on a Sunday. Which means we can go to church.

On Christmas.

I know that will sound like a bizarre thing to do on Christmas morning to a lot of people, a lot of Christians even, but if we won't let worshipping Jesus "interrupt" the gifts and food and family, then we're the ones taking Christ out of Christmas. I think the Babylon Bee (a Christian satire news website) captured it pretty well when they entitled one article, "Church Honors Birth Of Jesus By Canceling Worship Service." This is your chance to show the world what this holiday is really all about. This is your chance to show your kids and your family that Christmas is about Jesus.

Or, we could blow off worship this Sunday and focus instead on... well, whatever it is that really matters the most to us at Christmas.

I'm not trying to guilt-trip anyone here, but I also don't care to mince words. I don't begrudge people whose Christmas celebrations aren't really about Jesus, but I do expect Christians to put their money where their mouth is. (I'm a preacher, after all.) And so I hope believers will take stock this Christmas. I hope we'll take a good, long look in the mirror and see what our holidays practices say about the reason for the season.
So if you're going to be on the road, watch for a church to stop at on the drive. If you're at some resort, cooped up, away from civilization, find an old Bible and read Luke 2 with your family, pray for those who need good news of great joy today. If  you're at home, catch a service. Wherever you are, find a way to worship this Sunday.

Find a way to keep Christ in your Christmas.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

for your consideration: ZOE

As the weather gets cold around the holidays, people's hearts seem to get warmer, and a lot of folks are looking for ways to reach out and bless someone in need this time of year - giving to the Salvation Army outside the grocery store, providing gifts for kids through Angel Trees or Toys for Tots, checking out a Heifer International catalog for a way to touch lives around the globe. I love that Christmas still has the power to inspire us like that.

Well, while people are thinking about helping those less fortunate than themselves this year, I wanted to draw your attention to a ministry that does just that, and does it more effectively and powerfully than any other group like it that I know of. Allow me to introduce you to ZOE.

ZOE began as a mission of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. I first heard about their work when I took at class at Duke with Dr. Laceye Warner, whose husband, Gaston, is the CEO of ZOE. He gave a lecture on international relief work, and it was obvious then that what they were doing was something special.

They describe their task as "helping children help themselves," and their strategy for helping is communal, long-term, and self-sustaining.
ZOE's model for ministry developed after a Rwandan woman named Epiphanie Mujawimana told them about the effects of other well-meaning ministries and aid organizations: "my people became so good at receiving that they forgot how to do anything. When a grant was completed, or focus shifted to a new area, my people were left worse off than before because they had learned to be dependent." She inspired ZOE to pursue a new goal: relief work where people learned to be independent.

What developed was a three-year empowerment plan that take children from poverty to self-sufficiency. ZOE's website explains:
The program brought orphans and vulnerable children together in mutually supportive working groups. Social workers worked with these children, teaching them skills and providing them with the resources they needed to begin to care for themselves... for real change to occur, all of the challenges holding these children in poverty must be addressed simultaneously: food security, disease prevention, housing, income generation, vocational training, child rights, community reintegration, connection to God, and education. When these were all addressed at the same time, the results were both quick and life-changing.
Unlike some other programs, where you support a child regularly (say, monthly) until they age out, this program spends three years getting the kids started, teaching and equipping them to support themselves and each other, so that when the three years are up, they will never need charity again. Today, over 33,000 children around the world are beginning new lives with ZOE's help.

See the results for yourself! Below you can watch the story of a girl named Cecelia who received vocational training and start-up supplies through ZOE. I hope that her story, and the story of the little boy born in poverty in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago who would save the world, will inspire you to support this worthy ministry.

To find out more or give online, visit You can also give online through United Methodist Global Ministries.

Monday, November 07, 2016

What Would Jesus Share?

One of my professors from seminary, Sam Wells, compares living faithfully to doing improv. That's because, he says, "we face new circumstances in each generation that the Bible doesn't give us a script for." There's no eleventh commandment about how to vote, online pornography, carbon footprints, or even gambling. The direct commands in scripture just don't always speak directly to our day-to-day struggles following Jesus in the 21st century. So we have to take what we do know, take how our faith has shaped us, and then improvise when the world presents us with new challenges.

Well, I believe one of those new challenges for Christians in America has become painfully clear over the course of this election season.
Brian Stelter wrote a short piece for CNNMoney last week that everyone should read, called "The plague of fake news is getting worse -- here's how to protect yourself."

Fake news?

Stelter explains:
The rise of social media has had many upsides, but one downside has been the spread of misinformation. Fake news has become a plague on the Web, especially on social networks like Facebook.
Have you ever seen someone share a link with a title like "Trump's Worst Nightmare Just Came True..." or "Hillary's Campaign Will Be Over When This Video Goes VIRAL"? That kind of stuff is circulated on social media constantly (it's on my Facebook news feed, and I doubt I'm special). It's called "clickbait." These are sensational headlines designed to draw in web traffic to increase a site's advertising revenue.
But often these articles go beyond outrageous, exaggerated titles. Have you seen the article about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for President? Or how about the one about Pope Francis endorsing Hillary Clinton for President? I've seen both. Both of them are totally falsethe pope doesn't endorse political candidatesbut both of them were nevertheless shared widely on social media as if they were true.

Fake news.

And that wasn't a fluke. Just last week Sean Hannity, who works for an actual news station, had to apologize after he read a fake news article on his live radio show (I understand he got it off of Twitter). That's how wide-spread this problem is.

Stelter again:
But the B.S. stories hurt the people who read and share them over and over again. Many of these fakes reinforce the views of conservative or liberal voters and insulate them from the truth. The stories prey on people who want to believe the worst about the opposition. [emphasis added]
Sure, lying is bad, but this is the heart of the problem: these fake stories only tell us what our "itching ears" want to hear, not the truth. As social media users imbibe more and more of this as if it were true, it reinforces their prejudices and shapes their opinions and even their worldview, and it can then have real-world ramifications that materially affect other people: friends have an argument; someone buys another gun; a business is boycotted; a vote is cast. All influenced by lies.

The solution is pretty simple: verify that a story is true before you pass it along. Stelter's advice is to "triple check before you share." All it takes is a quick Google search to substantiate a story (or not). If you can find it being reported by a legitimate news outlet (NBC, FOX, CNN, The New York Times, etc.), then it's safe to share.
Yet, we don't do that, either because we aren't aware of the lies, or we're too lazyor we just don't care.

But Christians have to care.

Because we're commanded not to bear false witness (Ex 20:16).

Because we're called to put away falsehood and speak the truth to our neighbors (Eph 4:25).

Because we worship a man who said, "I am the truth" (John 14:6).

And because the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). When Christians participate in all of this, when we don't take thirty seconds to check a source or verify a quotation, we're doing the devil's work for him. We not only deceive people, but, as Stelter pointed out, we appeal to a person's urge to believe the worst about others, to denigrate and vilify and pour scorn on her opponents. The devil's been called "the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev 12:9), and, with job title like that, mass communication and social media must come in pretty handy. Also, it probably helps when God's people volunteer to spread falsehoods for you, which is what happens every time we share a fake news article, post a meme with a fabricated quotation, or retweet made-up statistics.

I've seen pastors perpetuate political lies on Facebook and leave them up even after they're proven false. There's no way around it: that's a snare of the devil. And, again, these lies can have real effects on real people in the real world.

I can't speak to the situations in other nations, but for Christians in America the internet is the new frontier of discipleship. We have to learn how to follow Jesus onlinein the obvious ways, like staying away from pornography, and in the less obvious ways, like fighting the temptations to troll, to shoot off emails in the heat of the moment, to indulge in impulsive spending, or to thoughtlessly spread lies in news's clothing.
This is when believers need to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16), because these traps are as abundant as they are novel. Thankfully, the example of Jesus and the teachings of scripture are more than rich enough to equip us to face these new challenges. If we recognize the dangers and seek wisdom from above, looking to Jesus and letting scripture correct and train our speech and conduct, the Spirit can guide us through the ethical minefield.

But right now, we've got work to do. Because, from what I'm seeing, wise and innocent we are not.

If you want to learn more about the epidemic of false and misleading "news" on social media, you can read this article from BuzzFeed.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

GM2016: Saved from sin

George MacDonald
As many of you know, I've been working through a daily devotional this year called Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love, with readings taken from the sermons of a Scottish preacher and author named George MacDonald (1824-1905). My Dad, who is a life-long MacDonald reader, gave me the book last Christmas, and he recently admitted that the main reason he got this for my brother and me was the section we're in now, taken from a classic sermon called "Justice." I'm sure Dad will be thrilled to know I've been really enjoying these readings.

I wanted to share one section that particularly reverberated with me:
The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins is a false, mean, low notion. The salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God's ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure. To such a heart, sin is disgusting. It sees a thing as it isthat is, as God sees it, for God sees everything as it is... Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins. (October 23rd)
In other words: Jesus didn't come to save us from Hell. He came to save us from sin.

That last line, about why he was called "Jesus," is a reference to Matthew 1, when an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary "will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (1:21). As you may know, Hebrew names in scripture often have a special meaning, and the Hebrew form of Jesus means 'the Lord saves'. Saves what? Well, "he will save his people from their sins."

Yet, in George MacDonald's day and still today, Christians often miss this point. We're taught about a salvation that's all about the future, about what happens after death, instead of a salvation that we can experience here and now.We're told that Jesus has saved us from eternal torment, and now we need to go be good Christians, when really the good news is that Jesus has set us free, saved us from sin, so that now we can live new lives in him, lives that lead to eternal life. Because of Jesus, we can live the lives that God made us for and be who God created us to be, free from sin's sway. When MacDonald hears people preaching a message of salvation from Hell, salvation from punishment, he points to that angel of the Lord: No, no, no! Remember - Jesus came to save us from sin itself!

Think about Matthew 7, when Jesus says: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (7:13-14). He's warning us about the wide, easy road, because it leads to destruction, and he's offering us a different path. The threat of destruction is there and it's real, and Jesus' challenge to us is to get on the right path. "Enter through this gate!" he says. He's trying to save us from that sinful road we would happily walk all the way to an unhappy fate. Salvation isn't just about arriving at the right destination. It's about walking the right path.

Or consider Zacchaeus. He was rich (Luke 19:2), which, Jesus had just said, makes it difficult for someone to enter God's kingdom (18:24-26). After all, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (12:34). Yet Zacchaeus is inspired to let go of his wealth in the name of generosity and justice. And what is Jesus' response? "Today salvation has come to this house" (19:9). Zacchaeus decided to leave behind the wide, easy road and head through the narrow gate, and right then and there salvation came. He was set free from that tendency to sin and delivered into the pure air of God's ways of thinking and feeling. He learned to see wealth the way God saw it. Salvation had come.

All of this makes me think of that great line from Romans chapter 6: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (6:23). Surely this means that Jesus came to save us from eternal death by offering us eternal life instead! That's sure what it sounds like.

But if you read the entire chapter, you might notice a refrain: "set free from sin" (6:7), "set free from sin" (6:18), "set free from sin" (6:22). We were all slaves of sin, but Jesus died so that those who are in Christ might no longer be enslaved (6:6). So when we get to verse 23, the point is clear: Sin was working us like a slave-driver, and all we would get in return for our sweat and toil was death; but now we've changed masters, and God offers us the free gift of life. Jesus saved us from sin that leads to death so that we can be "slaves" of God, who gives life.

Folks, if Jesus has saved you, that means now. That means today. Jesus has made it possible for us to overcome the "smallest leaning or tendency to sin," if we embrace the salvation and the new life he offers. Jesus saves us from our "old self," so that we can put on "the new self," created according to God's image: righteous, just, and holy (Eph 4:22-24). The gospel of Jesus Christ isn't just about where you'll spend eternity. It's about who you can be now, in this life, in Christ. Because he has saved you from sin. He has made you new (2 Cor 5:17).

What could we accomplish for God's Kingdom today if we lived like people set free from sin? If the temptation to sin repelled us, and we saw thingssaw our neighbors, saw this worldas God sees them? What kind of light could we shine in the world if we, like Zacchaeus, let go of our money (or whatever it is) and took hold of Jesus instead?

"The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness." (Romans 6:10-13)

Friday, October 07, 2016

Philip Yancey, Donald Trump, and the LDS difference

UPDATE: This post was written before a 2005 video surfaced wherein Donald Trump boasts that his celebrity status lets him get away with sexually assaulting women. The first Republicans to rescind their endorsements of Trump (and even call for him to drop out of the race) following that revelation were LDS politicians from Utah.

The morning after the first 2016 presidential debate, Philip Yancey was trending on Facebook.

This is unusual.

Philip Yancey is an evangelical author and a former editor of Christianity Today. I first encountered his work when I was going through a spiritual wilderness in high school, and someone gave me his book Disappointment with God. He's been communicating the gospel of grace for decades.

And he was trending on Facebook.

Why? It wasn't, as I immediately feared, because he had died. No, it was because he had spoken up about the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

You see, Yancey recently did an interview with Evangelical Focus, where he was asked about how American evangelicals have been approaching the election this year. He responded that he was "staggered" to see evangelicals standing behind "a man who is a bully, who made his money by casinos, who has had several wives and several affairs." He went on:
I can understand why maybe you choose these policies that you support, but to choose a person who stands against everything that Christianity believes as the hero, the representative, one that we get behind enthusiastically is not something that I understand at all.

You can see his full response here:

Yancey's not alone. Max Lucado, Albert Mohler (former president of the Southern Baptist Convention), Russell Moore (head of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission), Lecrae, and others have repudiated Trump over the course of the campaign season. Just this week, a survey from Christianity Today reported that only 38% of evangelical pastors say they are voting for Trump, while 44% remain undecided.

But why?

Well, Yancey mentioned the "several wives and several affairs," which, in years past, would have been enough for a candidate to lose the evangelical vote. (Remember the end of Herman Cain's campaign in 2012?) Yancey also mentioned the casinos, though he failed to point out that Donald Trump introduced strip clubs into Atlantic City casinos in 2013.

Then, of course, there's Trump's praise of Planned Parenthood, which should bother strict pro-life evangelicals, his demeaning remarks toward women (just ask Megyn Kelly), that time he mocked a disabled reporter, his perpetuating made-up, racist statistics about black Americans, his remarks about not asking for forgiveness, and that Playboy softcore porn video he had a cameo in back in 1999 (not his only work with Playboy). Among other things.

I was struck, during the first debate, by Trump's reaction when accused of stiffing countless workers whom he had employed over the decades. He didn't deny it and was unapologetic, instead justifying his acts by simply claiming he wasn't satisfied with their work. This brings to mind James's warning to the rich: "The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (5:4).

Even if evangelicals decide that they no longer care about a candidate's faith and character, Trump's general tone and attitude raise other concerns. When Jon Bloom, from Desiring God, looked to scripture to try and describe a "foolish leader," his discoveries almost felt tailor-made for Mr. Trump:
  • The foolish look with haughty eyes (Proverbs 6:17).
  • The foolish engage in slander (Proverbs 10:18).
  • The foolish joke about their wrongdoing (Proverbs 10:23).
  • The foolish make great boasts (Psalm 12:3).
  • The foolish are stubbornly right in their own eyes (Proverbs 12:15).
  • The foolish are quickly annoyed by insults (Proverbs 12:16).
  • The foolish lash out in rash words like sword thrusts (Proverbs 12:18).

  • That's not even half of his list, and, if you read on, it only sounds more familiar. This should be pretty unsettling to any Bible-believing voter.

    These are the sorts of things that lead many evangelical leaders to renounce the Republican candidate.

    And yet Trump's support among evangelicals is just as strong as Mitt Romney's was four years ago.

    Perhaps evangelical voters are indeed uncomfortable with Donald Trump, but they see Hillary Clinton as a greater threat. That seems to be why evangelical-favorite Ted Cruz recently took the shocking step of endorsing Trumphe did it to combat Hillary. It's a very pragmatic move. Many people feel that the most effective way to fight against abortion, to fight for religious liberty, is to fight the Democratic nominee. James Dobson of Focus on the Family recently penned an endorsement of Trump for Christianity Today to that effect, and Think Christian's 'Christian argument' for supporting Trump by Daniel Howell, a professor of biology at Liberty University, is little more than an argument against Clinton.
    (Of course, some evangelicals would argue that supporting Clinton is precisely what Christians ought to do.)

    The 'well... Trump's better than Hillary' talk brings us to the ever-popular "lesser of two evils" thinking about this year's election. The logic here is quite simple: we've only got two options, and you have to choose one, so choose the one that will do less damage. (Russell Moore wrote a nice article back in the spring asking "Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?")

    Here's the problem with that logic: we don't have only two choices. Voting third party, writing-in a candidate, even abstaininggasp!are all options for evangelicals. "We only have two choices" is a lie. The fact that so many evangelicals are rallying nevertheless behind a man whose character is antithetical to their convictions and who, from a biblical perspective, lacks the wisdom to lead well reveals a stunning lack of imagination.

    This year evangelicals could learn from our Mormon neighbors.

    In Utah, that bastion of the Latter-Day Saints faith, Republicans always do well. They won the state in the last four presidential election with 66.8% in 2000, 71.5% in 2004, 62.2% in 2008, and 72.6% in 2012. Yet, as of the end of August, Donald Trump was polling at a dismal 39% in Utah. It's not because the Beehive State is supporting Clinton. Her numbers are just under Barack Obama's in 2012 and John Kerry's in 2004. The difference is in the third-party support. Those same polls from August show Libertarian Gary Johnson enjoying 12% of the likely vote and Evan McMullin, an upstanding and likeable young Mormon candidate with conservative policy positions, garnering 9%.

    Many conservative Mormons in Utah are refusing to compromise their values to support Donald Trump and resisting the lie that there are only two choices. They're listening to the dictates of their faith and then acting differently than the rest of the world. You would think that is the obvious course of action for deeply-committed religious voters... and yet evangelicals are supporting Trump. If only we had the conviction that LDS believers are demonstrating. They're going to come through this election season with more credibility in the eyes of the watching world. I'm afraid just the opposite will be true for evangelical Christians.

    But doesn't supporting a third-party candidate ultimately support Hillary Clinton? Maybe, although Democrats frequently sound the same warning: 'voting third party is a vote for Trump!' Regardless of how third-party votes affect Clinton and Trump, one thing is certain. Christians are not called to win elections. We're called to be faithful. We're called to take up our crosses and follow Christ, and, the last time I checked, crosses didn't get you any political power in Jesus' world.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2016

    God is actually quite Great: Frances Willard

    What good has religion ever done anybody?

    To a lot of people, that's a very good question.

    Maybe their experience with religion is limited to vicious jihadists on the news or so-called preachers who would call the victims of the June 12th massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando "50 vile, perverted predators." Or, maybe they grew up in a church that looked at the rest of the world with smug superiority, confidently opined on who's going to suffer for eternity in Hell, and mocked the hard-won discoveries of modern science. Then again, maybe they sincerely held a faith that let them down spectacularly when suffering and loss struck, and they're left wondering why they ever believed to begin with. Everyone has a story.

    And I can't help thinking that stories are exactly what folks asking that question need to hear. What good has religion ever done? I say, look at Maria Skobtsova or Annalena Tonelli; look at Father Damien of Molokai or the seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood.

    Or look at Frances Willard.

    Today is the 177th anniversary of the birth of Frances Willard (1839-1898), a Methodist educator, suffragist, and social reformer, and to commemorate her birthday, I want to share a nice video from the United Methodist Church about her life and work.

    The video opens discussing her work as a prohibitionist (cue the eye-rolls) - but it quickly points out how she saw temperance work as a women's issue, and how the temperance movement soon moved on to embrace a number of social concerns of the day. Willard and her allies fought to transform society for the better, and they did it because of their Christian faith.

    Her story, like so many others, is the story of the good religion did somebody.

    Friday, September 09, 2016

    an evangelical goes to university

    Fall's here, football season's begun, and at colleges across the country students are starting to get into the rhythm of school. Some of them are settling back into familiar patterns, but some others are just getting started in this new and different environment. They're making new friends, figuring out the best times to hit the dining hall, and slogging through those intro class like college algebra and English composition.

    And biology.

    Biology, for some students, will be especially jarring, because they're going to be taught the basics of evolution. At a school like LSU (my alma mater), some freshmen will have never learned about evolution before at allmaybe, like me, they had a high school biology teacher who, on principle, refused to teach it. That won't happen in college. Other students will have only learned about evolution from an antagonistic source in their church, and they'll come to class convinced that they know better. They're in for a rude awakening. Meanwhile, there will be professors who remark that there's no reason for the topic to conflict with someone's faith (I heard that from one biology professor), and then there will be professors who make a point to ridicule religious ideas about, say, the age of the planet (and that was my geology professor).

    For college freshmen coming out of more conservative evangelical churches, this semester could make or break their faith.
    If what they've been told in church, if what they've read in the Bible, if it turns out some of that isn't true... well, that could be the Jenga block that brings down the whole structure. If this isn't true, what else isn't true? How do I know what to believe anymore? Can I believe any of it?

    This happens to evangelical students every single year.

    And it doesn't have to.

    I remember wrestling with questions about the Bible and what's true, what's not true, after learning more about our planet and the incredible array of life on it. Thankfully, I had some good teachers helping me throughand I don't mean my science professors. I mean C. S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Kenneth Miller (professor of biology at Brown), and others. I was reading the right books, and they guided me through that quagmire. Unfortunately, a lot of young Christians aren't reading the right books, and they aren't finding any satisfying answers to their questions. And they're throwing in the towel.

    So I'd like to offer a few pieces of hard-earned wisdom to my evangelical brothers and sisters who are struggling through that biology course or that geology course this semester.

    1) Don't believe the false dichotomies. A false dichotomy is when you're presented with two options as if they were the only two options. For example: 'you must vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton'. Well, that's not true: you could vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or Evan McMullin or any number of other options. 'Hillary or Trump' is a false dichotomy. And when someone tells you that you must either believe religion or believe science, that you have to choose either the Bible or your biology professor, those are false dichotomies. There are other options. Me, I choose both: I study and love and believe the Bible, and I also learn about the best scientific ideas about the origins of species on earth from biologiststhough when the biologist tries to tack some theological claims about a god or no god onto her science, I put on my skeptical hat. After all, that part is not her area of expertise. But I don't feel the need to listen to one and reject the other. Why on earth would I do that?

    2) Taking the Bible literally doesn't always do the Bible justice. There are plenty of stories in scripture that some people want to read as allegories or symbols or simple fictions that are meant to describe actual events. The accounts of Jesus' resurrection are a shining example of that: Luke, for instance, goes to great pains to show that these things really happened, in the real world. You can't read it any other way without disregarding Luke's intentions. But that's not always the case. Sometimes we disregard the writers' intentions when we insist on reading a passage as if it described a literal, historical event. (Two examples: if you read the parable of the prodigal son as a factual account of a real family's problems, or Revelation 12 as if it were about an actual dragon, fire-breathing or otherwise, trying to eat a baby, you're reading them wrong.) We have to let the Bible speak for itself. Be careful about expecting it to say things that it's not.
    Along those lines, I agree with what Old Testament scholar Peter Enns said in his fantastic little book, Inspiration and Incarnation, that "It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview... It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to [us] several thousand years later" (55). Don't demand that Genesis answer your questions about science or history. When Genesis was written, modern biology and modern historiography didn't exist; the book isn't trying to address those issues. It was written to speak to its first readers in a way that they'd understand. Honestly, I don't think Christians need to conform how they read the Bible to modern science. I think we just need to do a better job of reading the Bible on it's own termsthen these problems would go away.

    3) Something doesn't have to be a historical fact to be true. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and thought, 'wow, that's so true'? I don't mean biographies and documentaries. I'm talking fiction. Think about Jurassic Park (or, for some of you youngsters, Jurassic World): there's so much truth in the story, about man's reach exceeding his grasp, about the awesome and uncontainable power of Mother Nature, and about the destructive potential in unbridled scientific and technological innovation. It's totally fictitious, but there's still a lot of truth there. Again, that's how Jesus' parables work, toothey're fictional stories that reveal powerful truths about God and ourselves. A truth isn't discredited just because it's not a historical fact. Stories often convey the truth better than facts. That's why Abraham Lincoln supposedly called Uncle Tom's Cabin the book that started the Civil War. If, say, the creation account in Genesis 1 weren't a depiction of a literal, historical sequence of events from however many years ago, it could still be true. Only, instead of teaching us the facts about the development of life on Earth, it would be teaching us about God's pre-existence and choice to create the world and life-giving power, about the goodness of the world God made, about humanity's special role in the world, and about the holiness of resting and savoring creation (among other things). For me personally, each of these lessons is more important day-to-day than the details of the development of life anyways.

    4) These aren't new ideas. A lot of books are written today that aim to mesh Christian teaching with modern, evolutionary biology. It can feel like Christians are giving in, simply bowing to the pressures of modern science and letting it shape our thinking instead of letting the Bible shape us. But the idea that some of these passages shouldn't be taken literally isn't a new idea. In fact, Christians were reading the Bible like that long before Charles Darwin's grandparents were a twinkle in his great-grandparents' eyes.
    For instance, listen to this line from Origen of Alexandria, a great Christian thinker and martyr who died in the mid-200s (yes, 1600 years before Darwin's classic, On the Origin of Species, was published):
    If God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history have taken place in appearance, and not literally. (De principiis IV, I)
    Origen's not watering down the Bible to reconcile it with science. That science didn't exist yet! He just doesn't think that reading Genesis literally there is the right way to read it. Looking for other ways to interpret certain passages of scripture doesn't mean you've given the game away. You'd actually be part of a long, ancient tradition of Christian interpreters.

    These simple points were enormously important to me when I was in school, and I hope they can help guide some other young evangelicals through this bog. College is a time to learn and growand to be challenged. There's no reason the challenges can't make your faith stronger than it was to start, if you aren't taken in by the 'science versus faith' mindset that you're going to find on campus. There's another way, a better way forward for evangelicals.

    Thursday, September 01, 2016

    GM2016: Faith in Him


    That little word is at the heart of Christian teaching.

    "By grace you have been saved through faith" (Eph 2:8).

    "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move" (Matt 17:20).

    "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).

    "For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7).

    "The righteous shall live be faith" (Hab 2:4/Rom 1:17).

    It's everywherein our memory verses and our favorite songs, hanging on our walls at home, and even in a lot of our weddings ("Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three...").
    But what does this important little word really mean?

    In English, "faith" and "belief" are two different words. There's a verb, too: "believe." But in Greek, the language of the New Testament, there's just one word, pistis, which is translated in our Bibles, sometimes as "faith," sometimes as "belief" or (when it's used as a verb) "believe." Jesus talked about pistis like a mustard seed; we walk by pistis, not by sight. And in John 3:16 you also get a form of pistis: whosoever believes in him will not perish. That's the same word. So when we talk about "faith," a lot of times we're talking about belief. And "belief" usually has an intellectual sense: it's something that happens in your head, or maybe in your heart.

    But we use faith in other ways, too. Sometimes when we talk about "faith," we mean something like 'trusting Jesus to save you'. It's not just a teaching that you mentally accept, like believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, but it's an active trust.

    Then there are passages of scripture that make you wonder if faith is more than just belief, if it isn't really an interior thing at all. "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [pistis again]and shudder" (Jas 2:17, 19). "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).

    Well, George MacDonald was convinced that that's right, that faith is about more than just believing something.

    A few weeks back in my daily reader based on MacDonald's writings, Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love, he posed the question: What is faith in Christ?
    I answer, the leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of his and of him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as he tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this necessitythis obedience. It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something other than obedience as faith in Christ. (July 28th)
    He refuses to separate "faith" from following Jesus. He says, a little further on, that there's only one plan of salvation available to us, "to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; that is, to take him for what he isour master; and his words as if he meant them, which assuredly he did" (July 30th). The only way to take his words as if he meant them is to obey them, and the only way to take him as your master is to follow him.

    George MacDonald was concerned that Christians send more time arguing over theology and questions of how someone can be saved than they spend taking up their crosses and following Christ. That can happen when you think faith is about having the right beliefs. And so MacDonald points us back to obedience, to faithfully following Jesus.

    It reminds me of the end of Jesus' sermon on the plain in the gospel of Luke. After calling his followers to turn the other cheek, to give to anyone who begs from you, to love their enemies, and to quit judging and groping for the speck in their brothers' eyes, Jesus simply asks: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)

    Wednesday, August 24, 2016

    Stranger Things and the theology of monsters

    Image credit: Netflix

    UPDATE: The sub-titles on the show reveal that El was not saying "God"she said "gone." So my whole interpretation of the episode goes out the window. (Well, that's embarrassing!) But hopefully there's still some good, biblical theology to take away from it all.

    My wife and I just finished watching Stranger Things, Netflix's latest hit series.
    If you haven't seen this show: watch it. Now. It's a relatively tame (TV-14) sci-fi/fantasy/horror series centered on small town residents trying to unravel a super-natural mystery. It's The X-Files meets The Goonies meets E.T., complete with the delightfully '80s setting of the latter two. It's smart, well-written, suspenseful, and entertaining. I was shocked when I realized that I liked every single character on the show. Nerd culture is front and center, too, making the series even more fun for, well, people like me.

    Also, if you haven't seen this show: stop reading here. Sorry, but SPOILERS ahead. But if you have watched Stranger Things (wasn't it so good!?) then, by all means, read on.

    At the heart of the story is a young girl named Eleven ('El', for short), whose mother was the subject of military experimentation which resulted in her daughter being born with, as one boy repeated puts it, "superpowers." El has the ability (among other, very Stephen King-esque powers) to make out-of-body journeys to "the Upside Down," a nightmare landscape that is the dark shadow of our world. Locations on Earth are mimicked in the Upside Down, only there they're cold and dark, and deadly. The danger lies in the Upside Down's one natural resident, a nightmarish and very hungry monster. When a gateway between that world and our own is opened inadvertently, the monster begins to prey on the unsuspecting towns-people.

    Only once does this shadowy, alternate world and its resident draw any kind of theological reflection from the characters on Stranger Things. Late in the series, when El is searching the Upside Down for a missing person, she finds a dead body. In her terror and horror, El begins to cry out, "God! God!!"

    Where is God in a world of nightmares? Is there a God in a world of monsters?

    El's question receives an immediate answer: a kind voice calls back to her, "It's ok... We're right here... It's ok... We've got you... Don't be afraid." This is not God speaking, but the mother of a missing boy El is searching for, who is waiting with El's body back in our reality as the girl explores the Upside Down. The mother assures this frightened child that she's not alone, that she's safe.

    Stranger Things's answer to our search for God in the midst of darkness and horrors is the presence and comfort of others. Friendship is a major theme in the show, but by the end it's not only friends who are relying on each other: a new, unlikely community has formed, made up of all of those who've encountered the truth and are committed to fighting against the darkness together. They support each other, and because they have one another, there's hope that good will prevail in the end.

    Sometimes, when faced with the true monsters in our right-side-up worldmonsters like depression, suicide bombers, human trafficking, Alzheimer's, or cancer (one which, we eventually learn, casts a long shadow over the story of Stranger Things)we're going to find ourselves wondering where God is. When people are horrified and afraid, when the darkness seems overwhelming and people cry out for God, the Church has to be the voice that says: It's okay. We're right here. We've got you. Don't be afraid.

    After all, we believe in a Savior who destroys monsters.

    Demons routinely retreated before him. In a battle of wits, he outmatched the Devil himself (depicted later on, in Revelation chapter 12, as a man-eating dragon, all heads and horns and teeth). Jesus entered into the jaws of Death, and carved a path out the other sidea path that, one day, will allow all of his followers to elude Death's grasp and cause Death to die. That dread monster that consumes everyone and everything in its path will be swallowed up forever (Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54).

    And not only do we worship a monster-slayer, but we are his deputies in the world today.

    Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to inhabit the Church, we have been called the "Body of Christ," his hands and feet in this world. When El cried out for God, a voice of human compassion answered her. We must be that voice of compassion, not because God is absent, but because God is present in the Church. God is not silent; God has chosen to comfort the afflicted, heal the wounded, and rid the world of monsters through the work of the Church. We're the community of those committed to fighting the darkness together, carrying on what Jesus started.

    The darkness is realmaybe not the kind of horrors you can see on Stranger Things, but horrors no less. Things that break our hearts, scar our souls, and shake our faith. The good news about monsters is that they're things that will pass away one day, things that God will heal and make new (Rev 21:1-4).
    But in the meantime, while we live in this broken world, Christians can't simply offer words of deferred comfort and imperceptible hope. We have to stand in the gap and, empowered by God's Spirit, confront every horror we can spot, so the world can know what God is about and see that God's work isn't done.

    We have to demonstrate with our lives what a good theology of monsters looks like.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2016

    What is mission?

    When I was growing up in the church, "mission" (if we talked about it at all) meant evangelism. It meant sharing a message about sin, faith, and eternity. Mission was about saving souls. And so we'd carry tracts with us to school for classmates and leave them on restaurant tables with our tip; we'd go door to door in neighborhoods asking people questions about Jesus; we'd memorize scriptures that could sum up this gospel; and we'd generously support missionaries serving overseas. Occasionally, those missionaries would do some odd, side-tasks, like teaching English in schools around the world, or leading sports camps for a community's children, but the heart of the mission, the reason we sent them out there, was to share "the gospel," in a very John 3:16/Romans Road sense of the word. That was what "mission" meant.

    But over the years my idea of "mission" has expanded.
    It expanded as I learned to use a chainsaw and helped clear debris at people's homes after Hurricane Gustav. It expanded as I read the gospel of Luke and Jesus' manifesto about bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:16-21). It expanded as I learned that my money is God's money, given to me to help others, not to spoil myself. It expanded as I connected Martin Luther King Jr.'s demand that "justice roll down like water" to the Old Testament prophet Amos (5:24). It expanded as I spent time studying scripture and praying with "the least of these" (Matt 25:31-46) living behind bars, and heard about their dreams, their regrets, and their struggles.

    Over the years, these experiences stretched my understanding of mission, and today I believe that "mission" means bringing good news and blessing to the world in Jesus' name.

    Mission means telling your friend, whose choices are destroying his life, how you found a better way with Jesus.

    Mission means delivering sandbags to people who are watching the water get closer and closer to their front door.

    Mission means taking bags of dog food to the local shelter, so the creatures God called "good" don't go hungry.

    Mission means treating folks who are homeless to a trip to the beach and a pizza dinner in the heat of summer.

    That's what Pope Francis has been doing lately. I read this about a bus from the Vatican that, each afternoon, picks up 10 homeless individuals, and gives them a ride to the beach  (towels and swimsuits included!). After some fun in the sun, the group stops at a local pizzeria on their way back to Rome. (Once back in the city, the archbishop and others deliver free dinners to the hungry. You can read about more of Francis's efforts to serve the poor in the article above.)

    An afternoon at the beach may sound a little superfluous—after all, these men and women don't have anywhere to live! Shouldn't we focus our energies on that? Obviously that's important. But, at the same time, God doesn't just want people to survive. God wants people to thrive, to experience joy, to have life "more abundantly" (John 10:10).

    I don't think I'll ever forget a story Rob Bell shared, in his book Sex God, about the liberation of a concentration camp at the close of World War II. The Allies who liberated the camp were totally unprepared to begin to address the horrors they found there. They didn't have the supplies of food and medicine and clothing that they needed for the prisoners they'd freed. One thing they did have, for whatever reason, was lipstick. Probably not the top of their priority list. People were sick; people were starving; people were suffering the effects of malnourishment - what good was lipstick gonna do? But when women from the camp found the lipstick and started putting it on, there was a transformation. The Nazis had treated these people like they were sub-human, like their lives didn't matter at all. A little human luxury like wearing lipstick? That reminded these women that they were human beings, that they were people of worth. The lipstick wasn't going to help their physical survival, but it was going to help them learn to thrive again.

    Taking a homeless man to the beach and out for pizza reminds them that there's more to life than scraping to get by, and that people love you and want you to flourish. I hope that, there on the beaches in Italy, those men and women feel a little more like someone made in the image of God. As the archbishop who's driving these groups to the beach said, "We are not solving the problems of the homeless in Rome, but at least we are giving them back a little dignity."

    People are being blessed; they're having some good news proclaimed to them, and it's being done by the Church in the name of Jesus Christ.

    And that is mission.

    Tuesday, August 09, 2016

    "My identity is rooted in Christ"

    Last night team USA's David Boudia and Steele Johnson took home the silver medal in the 10-meter men's synchronized platform diving at the Olympics in Rio. (I missed the event, but you can watch their dive, as well as the gold-medal dive by the Chinese men, on the video above.) It's an incredible thing to see.

    But what lit up social media last night was Steele Johnson's faith. In July, after the duo qualified for the Olympic team, Johnson told NBC Sports, "It’s cool because this is exciting, this is fun, but this is not what my identity is going to be in the rest of my life. Yeah, I’m Steele Johnson the Olympian, but at the same time I’m here to love and serve Christ. My identity is rooted in Christ and not in the flips we’re doing." (You can watch the qualifying dive and the interview here.) Boudia also spoke of his faith on the occasion, but it's Johnson's remark that people are talking about: "My identity is rooted in Christ and not in the flips we're doing."

    There are all kinds of thingsgood, important thingsin which we can find meaning and purpose: in our work, in our passions, in our family, in our accomplishments. These things all help form our identity: I am a husband; I am a mother; I am a teacher, a nurse, an uncle, a musician, a pastor, an Olympian.

    Yet, being a Christian means allowing Jesus to give you your identity.

    The apostle Paul realized that after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:
    I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me a gave himself for me...
    May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (2:19-20; 6:14)
    Paul used to find his identity in his faith and his heritage: he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil 3:5). Now he finds his identity in what Jesus has donethe love and faithfulness that we see at the crossand in the new thing that Jesus is making out of Paul's life ("a new creation," Gal 6:15). Christ gives him his identity. Who he was before has been "crucified." That life is over.  Now he lives a new life, a life of love and faithfulness, a life that comes from Jesus.

    His identity is rooted in Christ.

    What is my identity rooted in? Am I trying to keep on living my own life, or am I letting Christ live in me? Am I trying to make my own identityhusband, son, friend, pastoror is my identity found in Jesus: what he's done and what he dreams that I can be?

    Is my identity rooted in Christ, or in the flips I'm doing?

    I'm grateful that Steele Johnson gets to love and serve Jesus as an Olympic diver. He is! He's being a light to the world, and he's reminding those of us whom claim Jesus that Jesus wants to claim us. Christ is not only the Son of God we worship on Sundays, pray to before meals, and ask for help when the going gets tough. He is our foundation, the roots of our identity. The only way to be a faithful pastor, friend, artist, grandparent, chef, CPA, or anything else is to first be the new thing that Jesus's life can create inside of us.

    You can read more about Steele Johnson's faith and his road to the Olympics here.

    Saturday, August 06, 2016

    Review: Suicide Squad

    Task Force X, a.k.a. the Suicide Squad, is the US government's answer to a world of Wonder Women and Supermen: it's a team made up of the baddest villains, who are offered a chance to stretch their legs (and maybe some reduced sentences) if they'll risk their necks to protect the USA from... unconventional threats. And this weekend, this little known comic book team hit the big screen in the latest superhero blockbuster. The movie's tagline: "Worst. Heroes. Ever." 

    If you define 'heroes' as 'the ones who save the day' instead of the 'good guys' (because they are certainly not good guys), then the members of Suicide Squad actually may be the best heroes ever - at least the best heroes we have in the DC film universe so far. This is because writer/director David Ayers (Fury) manages to do something I never expected going into the movie: with a large ensemble cast, he crafts some of the most interesting, layered, and well-developed characters in the whole DC film slate. (Granted, there are only three films out so far, but the others were longer, with much smaller casts, and, one would think, had more opportunity to create strong characters.)

    More on this below.

    First, let me mention some of the movie's problems, because there are absolutely problems:
    • The narrative is rushed. Like I already mentioned, this is the shortest of the modern DCEU films (20 minutes shorter than Man of Steel, a half hour shorter than Batman v. Superman). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think they could have used a few extra minutes. The development of the central conflict in the film and the appearance of the main villain felt artificial to me, and I think that had to do with it being rushed. The character development and backstories roll out at a liesurely pace, spread throughout the film, but this central plot point sort of comes out of nowhere, and it was pretty jarring.
    • There are a few lame moments in the action sequences. In a big, summer blockbuster action flick, that's unfortunate. Most of it's handled very well, really, but there were a few silly bits that disrupted whole sequences for me. Case in point: I don't need any slow motion Harley Quinn dodging and weaving. She's a psychiatrist, not an acrobat.
    • Speaking of Harley, she was both one of the best parts and a weak point in the movie. The filmmakers knew they had an incredibly popular character on their hands and a pitch perfect performance by Margot Robbie, and they decided to milk it for all it was worth. And then some. More on Harley below, but I think she was overused, and the movie could have been stronger if the Harley Quinn lagniappe had been dedicated to other characters or plot threads. The flashbacks added to her story; the elevator scene did not. Oh, and they could have salvaged an extra minute for the story just by trimming the multiple 'everybody watch Harley walk off in her itty-bitty bottoms' shots.
    • However unique Suicide Squad is among the comic book film glut of the last decade, it still comes off as stale a few times simply because, at this point, we've pretty much seen it all. The story throws us some curve balls, but the general arc of the narrative is predictable. Even the worst heroes ever still have to save the day in the end. 
    OK, that's enough of that. Because - unless you're a professional film critic, apparently - no one's going to walk away from the theater talking about the movie's problems. They aren't nearly as impressive as its successes.

    Those successes, by and large, are the characters. As you might expect, Harley Quinn and Deadshot (Will Smith) steal the show. Harley, the Joker's cackling paramour, may be overused, but she's also funny, intriguing, and her insanity (or is it just mad love?) is, well, adorable. I can't imagine another actress in the role - Robbie just knocks the ball out of the park. Deadshot is a smug assassin who never misses his mark, and Will Smith is perfect for the part. This character allows to the filmmakers to revel in over-the-top gunmanship in a way seldom seen since The Matrix, and it's as entertaining as ever.

    Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad
    None of that really came as a surprise. What did was how interesting and sympathetic both characters are. As I've mentioned, the film is generous when it comes to character backstories, and this is nowhere more effective than with Harley and Deadshot. The cold-hearted killer's family drama and devotion to his daughter and the mental health professional who fell desperately in love with a murderous mental case both just work, and you're left actually caring about the characters.

    And the surprises didn't stop there. Perhaps the single most compelling character in the film is Diablo, portrayed by Jay Hernandez (I knew him from Crazy/Beautiful and The Rookie). This is a character I was totally unfamiliar with and totally uninterested in going into the movie, but his humanity made him stand out from the rest of the ensemble. Diablo is the only member of the task force who is disturbed by how dangerous he is. While the others blithely go about their work, joking and carefree, Diablo understands that he's a villain but refuses to own it. Hernandez has the presence to make that a powerful element in the film.

    Viola Davis's Amanda Waller, the government official who assembled the Suicide Squad (and holds their leash), left you wanting more by the film's end. She is a potent reminder that this is not your everyday superhero story - it's full of shades of grey and ugly black marks, things that DC's forcibly inserted into their Superman films in recent years, but that are really at home in Suicide Squad. I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

    Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, and Katana (whose sword, as in the comics, captures the souls of those it slays - way to embrace the material!) don't disappoint either. Really, the only character who did was Rick Flagg (Joe Kinnamon), but hey, you can't win them all, right?
    I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jared Leto's highly anticipated take on the Joker. Leto had the unenviable job of following Heath Ledger's Academy Award winning performance in The Dark Knight back in 2008, but I think he serves with distinction here. His Joker is more colorful and zany, less brooding that Ledger's, but he's no less unnerving and felt more like the Joker of the comic books, or even Batman: The Animated Series. With Harley at his side and a gang of killers in cartoon panda bear costumes, I can only hope we see Leto's Joker at the center of Ben Affleck's upcoming, solo Batman film. Those two could potentially give us the definitive live-action adaptation of the classic comic book rivalry.

    I've spent so much time talking about the characters because they are why Suicide Squad works. Most of the critics seem to be panning the film, but there's another word for that: hatin'. They're just hatin'. Because, while the story may not be the most exciting, the characters are captivating, the performers deliver, and that combined with big action and plenty of unexpected turns makes Suicide Squad a thrill, and as satisfying a summer blockbuster superhero film as you're going to find. If you were hoping for more than that then, well, you're like the people who went into Cowboys and Aliens hoping for more than Harrison Ford riding horses and killing aliens with a six-shooter (spoiler alert: they were disappointed). Adjust your expectations and enjoy the show.

    I've seen people asking online, 'is the movie family friendly?' Nope. It's about super villains... and not like Despicable Me. It's a harder PG-13 than most of the Marvel films: the film is darker (in more ways than one), violent from beginning to end, and more sexual than the competition - just not the sort of thing I'd take my kid to. I couldn't help noticing, though, the gobs of teenage girls at the movie. As near as I could tell, they were all there for Harley Quinn. While not much of a role model, maybe this is a sign that girls are looking for strong, entertaining female characters that these movies simply haven't been offering. Perhaps that bodes well for next year's Wonder Woman film. Of course, Wonder Woman is as different from Harley as they come, but we'll see.

    Tuesday, August 02, 2016

    being a Christian in an election year

    When I was in junior high I had a t-shirt with a picture of Uncle Sam on it, on his knees praying. It said, "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray..." (2 Chronicles 7:14). The verse goes on: "humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land."

    This is a verse that you hear often among Christians in America (especially around election time), and you can see why: people are hoping that the nation will pray, seek God, repent ("turn"), and find forgiveness and the healing our land so obviously needs. It's a powerful verse.

    But there's a problem here. There's some confusion. It was right there on my t-shirt, in vibrant red, white, and blue: Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is a symbol of the United States of America. The message of the shirt, then, with him there on his knees in prayer, was: if my people, the United States of America, will humble themselves and pray...

    But the United States of America are not "my people, who are called by my name." That's Israel. The only nation the Lord ever singled out to be 'God's people' is Israel. It began way back in Genesis with the Lord's covenant with Abraham, and we see it continuing on in God's covenants with Moses and David, the Lord's warnings and promises to Hosea, and over and over in the Old Testament. Israel is God's people. When 2 Chronicles talks about people 'called by God's name', that's Israel (see Deut 28:9-10).

    Of course, Christians believe that things have changed a bit since the days of 2 Chronicles. The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 goes into excruciating and tongue-tying detail to make it clear that the people who have seen God in Jesus Christ, the people who are bound to God and bound to each other by the Holy Spirit, they come from all nations. From then on there would never again be any one nation that was 'God's people'. Wherever the Church is found, there you have God's people, living as "strangers and foreigners on earth" (Heb 11:13).

    So what does 2 Chronicles 7:14 mean for Christians living in the US today? It's not a call for the people of the United States in general (Uncle Sam) to humble themselves and pray. It's a call for God's people in America, the Church in America, to pray and seek God and repent. This is a call for revival among God's people.
    I think the confusion here can sometimes distract Christians from our real business. Instead of waiting for a nation of Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, Scientologists, and so many others to turn to God, the Church needs to get busy committing our own lives to the Lord. Then, once the Church started looking more like Jesusreaching out in love to those in need, sharing about the good news of the kingdom of Godthen we would start to see some healing in this land.

    OK, so if it's the Church in America that needs to turn to God... well, what does that look like? What do we need to do? I have a few suggestions for Christians during this election year:
    • We need to repent of letting fear drive us. Political campaigns almost always stoke people's fears, using a mixture of truths and half-truths and falsehoods to do so. Mr. Trump's acceptance speech from the Republican National Convention two weeks ago makes a classic example, constantly appealing to fear of terrorists, fear of immigrants, fear of crime. On the left, the appeals are a little different. There it's fear of 'assault weapons' or the fear of Mr. Trump himself, among other things. Fear can exercise great power over the voting public, and the campaigns know this well. But Christians cannot let fear drive them, because it is not of God. "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim 1:7). We are people who can "say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" (Heb 13:6/Ps 118:6-7) We see the mess in the world and in this country, but we see it through the eyes of hope: hope in the one who has conquered death. If we're to be faithful, fear cannot guide our decisions and our relationships.
    • We need to repent of the misinformation. My Facebook newsfeed is regularly packed with political posts, many of which are misleading, and some of which are simply lies. Some are about Trump (such as his supposedly telling People magazine in 1998 that Republicans are "the dumbest group of voters"), and others are about Hillary (for instance, her telling the Des Moines Register that she would shut down the NRA and ban handguns)to say nothing of the ones about the President and other sitting politiciansand I've seen them circulated by faithful churchgoers, deacons, and even pastors. Five minutes on Google can verify that many of these are false, but apparently people will not take the time to check. Obviously there's a problem here of people simply believing everything they see on the internet (and of people being so taken in by partisan propaganda that they can't even recognize when a claim or a "quotation" is clearly false). However, my concern is that Christians are blithely participating in this misinformation. We must be committed to the truth (Eph 4:25), and if that means we need to research something for two minutes before we "Like" it or pass it along, well, I don't think that's much to ask. Christians have to do better.
    • We need to repent of grasping at Messiahs. They pop up on the left and the right: in 2008 Barack Obama was clearly the messiah figure in the race (HOPE, anyone?); this year, with the primary defeat of Bernie Sanders, it's clearly Donald Trump ("I alone can fix it"). If we place our hope in political leaders, we've misplaced it. "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God" (Ps 20:7). And yet, here we go trusting in horses and chariots againonly this time they're called things like "law and order." Of course a nation-state needs its military and its police force and so many other practical components which benefit our lives in more ways that we know. That's not where the issue lies. It's the trust, the hope, the expectations, the rhetoric, and the wild ecstasy in the eyes of the supporters when their candidate takes the stage. Christians must remember that any savior who isn't Jesus can't really save us.
    • We need to repent of our divisions. Rev. James Howell, in a recent blog post, challenged the widening rifts within my own United Methodist Church, saying
      Our country is dividing and splitting all over the place. Black are divided against whites. Police are divided against some of our citizens. Republicans are divided against Democrats. Republicans are divided against themselves. If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, "We are just like you. We have no alternative to offer you."
      When we fail to offer the world an alternative, we are failing to be the church of Jesus Christ. We must, like Paul, show the world a "more excellent way" (1 Cor 12:31). And when it comes to divisions and disputes, our calling is clear. Paul numbers "rivalries, dissensions, divisions" among the works of the flesh (in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5:19-23). God's desire is that there be no divisions in the Body. And people can disagree without being divided. It's called marriage. We need to stop speaking (on Facebook, in the fellowship hall, wherever) as Republicans and Democrats and start speaking as Christians who prayerfully decide to support this or that candidate or platform. We are brothers and sisters first, voters...fifth? Eighth? Twenty-second?
    If fear weren't obscuring our vision and our thinking, if we refused to listen to and perpetuate the lies, if we were seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and transform the world around us (rather than relying on secular, political power), if we held on to each other and showed our neighbors a different way to be, then who knows what God could accomplish through the Church?

    But as long as we seek the same things as everyone else, by the same means as everyone else, for the same reasons as everyone else, I can tell you what will happen.

    Absolutely nothing.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2016


    I'm currently enrolled in an online pastoral care course through Asbury seminary, and one of the required texts for the course is Michael P. Nichols's The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationship.

    Now, I consider myself a pretty good listener. I try to give people my full attention and to be responsive in ways that let folks know I'm listening, but without commandeering the conversation; I'm naturally empathetic; I know better than to go in with guns blazing, trying to solve every problem someone shares with me.
    So, when I saw this on the reading list (and saw that it was the longest book on the list), I wasn't exactly thrilled. It's not that I don't think I have more to learn, I'm just a slow reader, and maybe I could better spend my reading time on other things, things that I'm not at all good at. It didn't help when the first page was putting me to sleep.

    As it turns out, the book is fascinating, makes a lot of sense, and is totally enlightening. I feel like I'm starting to understand so many dynamics in my interactions with people that I never even noticed before, or that I just could never quite put my finger on. (Be warned! If you and I talk any time soon, I'll probably be listening and thinking, 'ah, now here is a textbook case of ...' You know, since I'm an expert now and all.)

    Sometimes people just don't seem to ever listen, or can just be really hard to talk to - we all know about that. But then Nichols points out that "it is possible for people to change; all we have to do is change our responses to each other. We are not victims--we are participants, in a real way, and the consequences of our participation are profound" (53). In other words, two people communicating or failing to communicate always involves... two people. If I want things to change, I have to try changing my role in the interaction - maybe assumptions I'm bringing to the conversation, ways that I'm antagonizing them or enabling them in some bad habits, whatever it is.

    Sometimes when you're talking to someone, other relationships of theirs will cloud their ability to hear you clearly. You ask a question about something they're doing, and they hear a criticism, because mom or dad was always criticizing. You complement them, and they hear you trying to get something out of them, because their boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is always trying to manipulate them like that. They transfer the other person's intentions and meaning onto what you are saying, because that's how they've learned to hear people. That's frustrating, because it distorts how they hear you and causes misunderstandings... but maybe, Nichols suggests, if we can get past the frustration, we can learn something from it (46). If someone is always interpreting your words as criticism, maybe that should tell you they need more praise and affirmation in general. Rather than just being frustrated by the misunderstandings, we can use them to help us understand the other person better and relate to them in new, positive ways.

    How many times have I found myself 'graciously' allowing someone to speak their piece, all the while searching for the words I can use to prove that they're wrong (or that I'm still right) as soon as they're done? But is that really listening? "Simply holding your tongue while someone speaks isn't the same thing as listening. To really listen you have to suspend your own agenda, forget about what you want to say, and concentrate on being a receptive vehicle for the other person" (77). Set aside your agenda and forget about what you want to say. That's probably not our first impulse. But if I'm really going to love the person I'm listening to, shouldn't I be able to set myself aside for a while and truly focus on them?

    The book keeps surprising me and challenging me with simple yet powerful insights like these.

    And all of this is starting to change the way I understand and try to practice James 1:19: "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry."

    In the US today, with all of the racial division, political division, the divisions within denominations and congregations and families, the general animosity and strife between disagreeing parties, couldn't we use a little more careful and caring (in other words, Christian) listening?

    Well... what are you waiting for?