Please Send In Your Questions

We’re coming up on the first birthday of this blog thing.  I’m very, very thankful for all who have been reading over the course of the past year.  But I’m wondering if there couldn’t possibly be some worthwhile changes to be made.  One thing I’m interested in is addressing not only how our Christian faith handles cultural issues, but specifically which cultural issues YOU find yourselves facing and what trials to faith YOU find yourself experiencing. In other words, this past year has sort of been my ramblings about Christian faith in society in general.  I’d like it to be more about you.

For that reason I’d like to encourage you to send me any doctrinal or cultural questions you may have and I’ll try to address them in the subsequent weeks.  I promise TOTAL anonymity of course, so you don’t have worry about “saying something wrong.”  Fire away with whatever cultural controversy or confusion you find in your life.  Odds are, others are thinking about it too and we all will benefit from it.  I’ll do my best to put a biblical and pastoral perspective on it.

Thanks again so much for reading!  God Bless!

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A Time for Thankfulness

This photo was taken by a security camera just moments before an employee was trampled to death at Wal-Mart on Black Friday of 2008.

The assignment this week for my Youth Confirmation class is to write a 400-500 word essay, partially due to the season, on thankfulness.  The first part is to list the many things that you have to be thankful for (broken down into categories of physical blessings, talents, relationships, and spiritual blessings).  The second part of the assignment is to say how you intend to express thankfulness for such blessings in your life.  So, for instance, if I”m blessed with financial gifts, I can be generous with others.  If I’m blessed with unique talents, I can serve others with them.  If I have great relationships, I treat these people with love and respect.  And if I have spiritual blessings (and every one of the students, for instance, was born into a Christian home, has salvation promised to them by their Savior, and has a country in which they can worship freely), I can show thankfulness by spending regular time in God’s Word, applying it daily to my life, and spreading it.

Sounds like a pretty worthwhile assignment, right?  I thought so.  Opportunity for reflection and growth?  I thought so.  Unfortunately, the assignment was met with a chorus of groans accompanied by a lovely “I don’t get it” descant.  But before I’m too tough on the students, I have to say that I guess I do remember what it was like to be a 14-year-old, feeling that it was enough to BE thankful or maybe even SAY “thank you,” but not ever thinking much about DOING thankfulness.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think part of their struggle was just a maturity thing (and a “not wanting to write an essay” in general thing).  But the bigger underlying concern that I have is a consumer-minded culture’s inability to demonstrate any kind of true thankfulness.  In the same way that a generation growing up with same-sex marriages is going to naturally be confused about what God intended a marriage unit to be, a generation growing up with consumer insanity is going to naturally be confused about what God intended thankfulness to look like.

Enter Black Friday.  Now let me preface this by saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with doing some shopping the day after Thanksgiving.  If you get pumped by standing in line before sunrise to get 50% off of a George Foreman grill, more power to you.  I might even give you some cash to pick me something up that I’d like.  I also understand that a lot of people do it simply as a fun activity for the family on a day that many people have off from work.  Nothing wrong with that.  Again, it’s the bigger underlying message that’s a little scary to me.

It’s no secret that our society, perhaps more than any other in history struggles with materialism and consumerism (although “struggle” is perhaps a misleading word because we don’t put up much of a fight).  It affects everyone.  I see it in churches even.  When someone comes through the front doors, one of the first things they want to know is what programs your church has to offer them.  If your church doesn’t happen to meet the wants of that American consumer, almost regardless of doctrine, they’re often likely to head down the road to the next church to find a better deal.  Now I have no problem promoting programs that address the ministerial needs of the entire family.  Churches should be aiming for that.  I have no problem with people selecting a church that best suits them.  That only makes sense.  But as a ministry leader, when it feels a little like the motivation to start or expand programs is merely to keep up with the Wal-Marts of American Christendom, you realize you’ve been hit by American consumerism.

The story is two years old, but nonetheless still shocking.  On Black Friday 2 years ago, a Wal-Mart worker in Long Island was trampled to death after an “out-of-control” mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the store’s front doors.  The man who was stepped on and bypassed by over 200 bargain shoppers was 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour, a temporary maintenance worker from Queens.  Even officers who arrived to perform CPR on the trampled worker were stepped on by wild-eyed shoppers fighting to get inside.  And one of the employees said, “When they (the shoppers) were told they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since Friday morning!’ They kept shopping.”  Human life for $20 off of a TV is a worthwhile deal to a culture obsessed with consumption.

This year, stores are opening earlier, as has been the pattern in recent years.  Many stores are opening late Thursday night to extend Black Friday.  I hope everyone sees the irony in all of this.  We’re actually willing to cut hours off of the day on which we supposedly celebrate thankfulness (Thanksgiving Day) so that we can extend the day on which we get more things that we’re not thankful for.  However, if I stand in front of a major department store next Thursday evening and try to point out that irony, I will get the same looks as I did in a classroom full of 14-year-olds who don’t really want to write an essay.  You can’t really tell people to “be thankful” or “do thankfulness.”  But you can tell people that you are indeed thankful and the peace that this brings you and then demonstrate in your life what a thankful heart leads you to do.

The overreaction to holiday shopping madness would be to condemn Black Friday, condemn malls, and condemn shopping in general.  That’s not a solution though, nor is it proper to label such things as sins.  1000 years ago it was fairly common for Christian leaders in Europe to go and seclude themselves in the hills as monks because society was just so evil that they didn’t dare dirty their hands with it and they wanted people to know that.  Very few good things came from this.  Society didn’t benefit from the presence of a supposed moral people and the monks just lived fairly miserable, self-righteous lives.  God’s people are to be “salt of the earth” examples for the world, not high and mighty finger waivers.

So don’t feel bad if you have shopping plans for Black Friday.  You might even run into my wife, who is going out with a friend at midnight just for “something fun to do.”  And if she has something in her cart that looks like it requires a husband’s assembly, tell her to remind herself who she’s married to.

Having stated the overreaction, I think there’s an under reaction to seeing American consumerism at the holidays too, especially when young and impressionable minds are still figuring out how to be thankful, say “thanks,” and demonstrate thankful hearts through their actions.

I would try to avoid the “boys will be boys” attitude about American discontentment and remind myself and my family about what “need” really means, as well as remind everyone of the ridiculous amount of things that we have to be thankful for.  Eternal paradise through Jesus’ complete forgiveness is first on the checklist.  Family and friends, skills and talents, food, clothes, homes, cars, health, rest, peace, freedom, entertainment, the fact that if we were truly “in need” both our church and our government would gladly help so that we never really have any true fear of being without necessities.  You could go on and on and on…….this list doesn’t really end.

One of the hardest things for me to do as someone who is supposed to have a role as a “spiritual leader,” is to take the time to slow down and pray and reflect on all that there is to be thankful about.  Sometimes, if I’m really struggling to make time for this,  I literally schedule time in my Microsoft Outlook calendar for it.  It’s just too important to miss.  And I become miserable if I’m not regularly reflecting on all of the countless things I have to be thankful for.  And if I truly have a thankful heart, I trust that God will present all sorts of opportunities in my life to demonstrate thankfulness.

Although it’s not technically a Christian holiday, Thanksgiving is a great holiday for Christians to celebrate.  May God bless your holiday just as he blesses your every day.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15)

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)

Looking Forward to Your Future

When released in 1985, Back to the Future became the most successful film of the year, grossing more than $380 million worldwide and receiving critical acclaim.

Recently, for its 25th anniversary, my favorite movie trilogy of all time was re-released: Back to the Future.  And you Star Wars purists and Karate Kid sentimentals can spare me the hate mail :), Back to the Future trumps them all.  The original was the top grossing film of 1985.  The second, although many “real critics” found it excessively layered and complicated, I thought was as clever of a movie as I’ve ever seen.  The accuracy of the assumptions that, in 1989, the movie made about the near future were extraordinary (check out 11 Things \”Back to the Future II\” Got Right).  The third film, set in the Old West, was my least favorite of the three, but still incredibly entertaining.

I’ve always found the concept of time travel to be fascinating, so this idea for a movie, paired with a witty script and a brilliant assessment of the implications of time travel was right up my alley.  In the second movie, when Doc Emmett Brown calculates what it will mean for Jennifer, the girlfriend of Marty McFly (main character played by Michael J. Fox), to meet her future self, he says, “I foresee two possibilities.  One: coming face-to-face with herself 30 years older would put her into shock and she’d simply pass out.  Or, two: the encounter could create a time paradox, the result of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!  Granted that’s a worst case scenario.  The destruction might in fact be very localized, limited to merely our own galaxy.” To this, Marty replies, “Well, that’s a relief.”

Moments like this turned me into a pretty passionate movie fan.  I enjoyed the Back to the Future trilogy so much that I could tell you where I was, who I was with, time of day, etc. when I watched these films.  And so, somewhat ironically, yes, I occasionally wish that I could go back and watch these movies for the first time all over again.  In fact, there are many things about the late 1980s (the time these movies were made) that left an indelible mark on me, and this sometimes leaves me longing for that period in my life.

Many people have times in their lives that they’d like to relive.  Many also have times they’d like to forget about.  Neither is possible though, so attempting to live as though it is possible will invariably lead people into emotional complications, because both involve living in regret now – regretting mistakes you’ve made in the past or regretting the fact that right now you’re not in the time period that you miss.  BOTH waste this period of life.

Christians who live in regret of mistakes they’ve made are currently making some fundamental mistakes about their God and his will for their lives.  First, God has let your sins go.  If God no longer holds your guilt against you, you have no right to feel guilty anymore.  Time to start living like you believe that.  “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:112). Second, what makes you think you’re capable of such mistakes that God can’t make up for them, that your negative boo boos are too problematic for God to solve and straighten out, that you can scramble the pieces of a puzzle so greatly that God can’t put it together?  Judas Iscariot had the same problem.  And what did Jesus do?  He took his own betrayal and turned it into salvation for the world.  Now, this certainly does not mean that our sins from the past are “no big deal.”  What it does mean is that a victorious Christ has overcome our mistakes and can even use them to bring good for his kingdom (Romans 8:28).  Time is better spent relishing this fact than wishing things had been different.

Now, for those of you who are caught “living in the past” or “longing for the past,” please see the unscriptural nature of this as well.  A Christian always operates with the optimistic understanding that their future is better than their past.  If, linearly speaking, heaven is in front of me, so are my best days.

So, you desire the carefree days of childhood?  In heaven, a land without sin, tears and sadness are not even an option (Revelation 21:4).  Painful tears in childhood are indeed an option.  Heaven wins hands down.

So, you desire the relational excitement of the teen years (if there really is anyone out there who truly wants to be a teenager again)?  In heaven, every relationship will have perfect harmony.  Every relationship will, by necessity of sinlessness, be better than what it is on earth.

So, you desire the days of having all the kids back in the house?  In heaven, the intimacy of connection to biological family becomes the intimacy of connection to spiritual family.  In Romans 4, the Apostle Paul talks about the concept of spiritual family ahead of biological family.  In heaven, spiritual family will truly be closer than biological family on earth, and in heaven, family will not go off to college or start their own family.

So, you desire the days when your body would actually do what you told it to do, whereas now it seems to continually let you down?  In heaven, you will run again.  No wheelchair.  No walker.  We don’t know exactly what our resurrected bodies will be like come Judgment Day, but the Apostle Paul gives us an awesome image in 1 Corinthians 15.  He says that right now, our bodies are like seeds.  When we die, we are buried (planted) in the earth.  When Christ returns, we rise (bloom) to full glorious potential.  The seed becomes the flower.  You can’t see in a tiny little seed the future romance and beauty of, say, a rose.  You’ve never lived like a rose before.  It’s still coming.

“But it is just as the Scriptures say,’What God has planned for people who love him is more than eyes have seen or ears have heard.  It has never even entered our minds!'” (1 Corinthians 2:9 CEV)  I wish you knew how good your future looks.  Going back to a time in your past now would only take you further away from the incredible things God has prepared for you.

There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly on the various blessings that God has given you in the past.  This is certainly important.  There’s nothing wrong with learning from your past mistakes.  This is important too.  But, while in the present, Christians live for the future.  The Apostle Paul was certainly looking forward to the future.  He knew it was better.  While understanding the importance of working hard at the opportunities that God had put in front of him in the present, he said, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (Philippians 1:23)  That perfect life awaits you too.  And it will indeed be better than your “best times” or your “fondest memories.”

NOTE: This Sunday in worship, as we celebrate what is historically labeled as “Saints Triumphant” Sunday, we will see how the future of God’s people will bring their separation from sorrow.  We hope you can join us!

Not My Jesus

How do images like this one shape the way you view Jesus?

When you picture Jesus in your mind, what does he look like?  Is it possible that many of the presuppositions that you have of what Jesus looked like, and consequently then, what Jesus was like, could be wrong?  If you have in your mind an image of Jesus as this 135 lb, sexually ambiguous, long-haired white guy, it’s probably time to embrace a new image of your Lord.  THAT is not my Jesus.

Someone paid me a nice complement last week saying, “I really enjoyed your post this week, the one about feelings.”  While I definitely appreciated the kind words, there was just a little part of me that momentarily panicked at what I’d perhaps become.  Maybe, over time, I was getting soft.  Maybe I’d become like much of mainstream American Christianity in turning Christian faith into a feelfest led by an
“Oprah Jesus”.  Again, that’s not my Jesus.

While, as I stated last week, I occasionally get concerned about the potential disregarding of human emotion that may go on in churches, I also get equally frustrated by the disgusting emasculation of Jesus that’s gone on in many churches.

Phrases like “don’t judge” and “compassion” and “tolerance” and “meekness” and “love” and “never a harsh word” are so often ripped out of context from Scripture and misrepresented as universal Christian axioms that the Christian world today often fails to understand what we are standing for and fighting against.  Christians are ill-prepared for spiritual warfare because they’re too busy trying to make peace with Satan’s planet.  And Jesus has been turned from one tough hombre into the kid on the playground that just wants everyone to get along and hold hands.  Note Matthew 10:34: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Modern Christianity has constructed this image of Jesus as one who would never go to war, never get angry, never condemn, never argue, never label anything as “sin” or expect his followers to overcome sin.  The final product is that many churches primarily (and almost exclusively) teach Jesus as our beautiful example, because there is no point in talking about him as our Savior or encouraging repentance if we’ve eliminated the concept of sin.

But this can’t be Jesus!  The Bible indicates that.  Common sense indicates that.  If Jesus was that incredibly tolerant of everything and everyone and every belief and practice, do you honestly think that he would have been crucified like a hardened criminal?!  Clearly he stood for something that ticked people off.  Clearly he was “intolerant” of what others were doing or believing.  People who don’t make waves don’t get crucified.  Jesus would not put up with (i.e. “tolerate”) the spiritual garbage that he saw going on in his day and he died for that.

So what was he really like?  Jesus was a construction-working tradesman (carpenter) that grew up in the 1st century AD.  I can’t imagine him not having some muscles and brawn about him.  He knew his way around the workshop and never would have been mistaken for anything but manly.

Likewise, Jesus is typically depicted in paintings as having long flowing locks.  Not likely.  It simply wasn’t that common at the time.  Notice the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthian church: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Cor 11:14-15) Paul is indicating that long hair on men was not the cultural norm.  And if you look at the busts of famous characters from that period in the Roman Empire, you’ll notice Augustus, Pompey, Herod, Julius Caesar, etc. all have short hair.  And it wasn’t particularly common for a Jewish man to wear his hair long either (it was actually forbidden for the priests, who set the example for the people, cf. Ezekiel 44:20).  The Jewish Talmud indicates that most Jewish men had the “Caesar cut” unless they were under a Nazirite vow, which Jesus clearly was not.  Christ drank wine (Matt. 11:19) and, on occasion, touched a dead body (Matt. 9:25), something a man under the Nazirite vow would not have done.  I’m certainly not saying it’d be wrong for a man to have long hair today.  It’s not culturally seen as something exclusive to women today.  But at that time, it was perceived as something associated with women, so it probably wasn’t Jesus’ style.

It wasn’t just his look though, more than anything it was Jesus’ courageous words backed up by his actions that show him as a man’s man.  Don’t forget the account of Christ’s righteous anger and intolerance when he threw the money changers out of the temple courtyard during Holy Week (Matt. 21).  Now we’re not told how many money changers there were, but it was a large area packed with people, so we’d assume numerous booths were there.  A wimp likely wouldn’t have had the physicality or assertiveness necessary for such a task.

Or what about the time that an angry mob brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and wanted to stone her (John 8).  You can sense the bloodthirsty excitement in the people who are more concerned about pitting Jesus’ words against the Jewish Law of Moses and getting him to slip up than they are about this woman’s life and spiritual welfare.  Jesus would not be bullied though.  He’s too brave for that.  He’s too strong.

Or what about the time when Jesus steps on our notions of “political correctness” by referring to the political and religious leaders of his day as “hell-bound serpents” – “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33)

Or, finally, what about his time spent in unjust trial, merciless persecution, and mocked crucifixion.  Can you fathom how much resolve and mental toughness it would take to know that you had plenty of strength to squash these idiotic Jewish leaders and meat-head Roman soldiers…………..and yet NOT do it?!  THAT is my Jesus.

Make no mistake.  Jesus is kind, and loving, and compassionate, and forgiving, and understanding, etc.  But he is also the toughest individual I’ve ever met.  His threshold for pain was greater than any UFC fighter.  He’s endured more than I could think to withstand.  He’s accomplished more than any man who’s lived.  Everything he did was courageous and respectable.  Jesus was the ultimate man’s man.  This is the man whom we join to worship.  This is the man who saved our lives.  This is the man who will come again to judge the world.  And this is the man who militantly guards us until that day.  THIS is my Jesus.