Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Liam Neeson's "Rebel-Yell" vs. Robet Duvall's "Servant-Yell"

Yesterday I blogged about the move The Grey and mentioned a saddening, but powerful, as well as biblically accurate scene depicting Liam Neeson shouting expletives at God demanding him to reveal Himself and do something at that moment.

Several sermons ago in my "I See Tree People" on Mark 8, I gave an example from one of my favorite movies The Apostle. Robert Duvall is also shouting to and at God. Contrary to the shouting scene in The Grey, I used it positively. In fact it is actually quite a refreshing scene.

I'm going to compare these two scenes/activities because I think there is a right and wrong way to yell at and pray to God. 

1.) Before you yell at God for whatever reason, it is always good to believe that He exists and is a rewarder of those who seek him.  I just ripped that off from whoever wrote Hebrews 11:6  

 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Robert Duvall's shouting match already assumed God is there and is a rewarder of those who seek Him. His problem is that he just couldn't see why God let his wife run off with the previously declared "puny" minister of youth and then kick him out of the church they both started. He believes but doesn't see. He believes but is also having trouble believing. Whenever there is doubt mixed in with faith, we need to bring that doubt to Jesus. I personally think that mixed faith can be offered to our Heavenly Father in the form of yelling and shouting. 

But there is a difference between this prayer-yell and Liam Neeson's yelling at God. Liam's character doesn't come from a posture of struggling belief. Instead it arises from a skeptics stance demanding God to prove Himself. Quite a different thing altogether.

Does God ever hear the prayer of skeptics? Well yes, because many people pray for faith to believe and are granted that faith to believe. But if you are not convinced, even with mixed-up faith, that God is there and is a rewarder of those who seek Him, I don't see how you have any ground from which to stand up and yell. Better to be on the knees asking God to grant faith, even if you're not sure you even believe He exists, then to stand and yell in judgment.

This isn't from Mt Sinai but from the Valley of Geoff's Personal Conviction.

If you believe, or even believe/doubt, God can take your tears, questions, and even shouts. Probably not a good idea to throw in cuss words, but I think he can even take those words and do something with them. If he can turn wailing into rejoicing he can turn cursing into blessing.

2.) Just because we raise our volume don't assume that means God will respond quickly. Might work with our kids, but doesn't "work" with God. Neither prayer scene concludes with an "answer" or even a conclusion from the Lord, but what each does with the non-response speaks volumes.
In The Grey, Liam Neeson's character gives God about 25 seconds to act. In The Apostle, Robert Duvall is up all night praying/yelling at God. Loudly and "longly." When we yell or pour out our hearts to God, we may not see an immediate response. That's OK. That was David's experience. And because our Heavenly Father denied Jesus' cries of being forsaken on the cross, we don't need to fear silence forever. But silence doesn't mean He isn't there or doesn't care, as interpreted incorrectly in The Grey.

3.) Yelling at God needs to be grounded on His promises. If you don't make a cheer-leading squad or get the raise you want, you could yell and pour out your heart. If you are a child of God, you can yell at God like any stupid kid. But we see a bit more sofisticated and sanctified yelling from Duvall. He yells in accordance with God's promises. Jesus promised peace to his troubled disciples in John 14 and then reminds them of this when he revisits them after his resurrection. At times peace can be as elusive as former WVU receiver Tavon Austin in the open-field. Our peace comes and goes. And when it goes we can bring to our Heavenly Father's attention: "You promised Father....." Duvall is yelling for something God has already promised where as Neeson is demanding God do something He's not promised to do. It's better to yell, "God give me peace because I don't have it now and you promised!" then to yell, "God give me a better job because I know that is a true need of mine and you promised to meet all needs!" If you're yelling at God, I think we should probably yell over things He has specifically promised to give us-but for some reason has for a season withheld the current existential blessing of such promises. And by the way, one thing I've learned is that God has nowhere in His Word promised perfect peace in this life this side of heaven. 

Billy Idol sings about a "rebel-yell" and Liam Neeson shows what one looks like. But Robert Duvall, gives us a great picture of a "servant-yell." I hope this has encouraged you in your own prayer-yelling.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Insights from the movie The Grey

The Miami heat are on a 26 game winning streak. That's somewhat impressive but lost in all the media hype is the fact that this Sunday marked the longest preaching streak of my young "career" at 4 weeks in a row. Now Lord willing this will pale in comparison when our new church plant gets going, but some people have begun to compare these two amazing streaks (at least one person has....). 

Yesterday I alluded to a movie where a band of Alaskan plane crash survivors are picked off one by one by a pack of wolves. The movie is called The Grey. It is a quite disturbing film, but one also jam packed with deep existential questions and competing philosophies.

One of the closing-though not final so this is not a spoiler alert-scenes depicts a hardened and formally agnostic Liam Neeson yelling at God, if He's there, to do something, deliver him, and reveal Himself. He releases a number of expletives directed at God, not referring to Him as a father, but as Mother ________ (and we're not talking about the mother hen gathering her chicks imagery-Matt 23:37) demanding that he prove Himself.

The scene is moving. It really is. He has just uttered his first prayer in the movie crying out to Jesus to help him with a task and Jesus says, "no." You want to hear an answer. At least I did. It seems, "Ok God, here's your chance!" But there is no response from the heavens. Perhaps God doesn't respond to expletives? After all, everyday there are crazy winged creatures flying around His throne declaring Him, "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Isaiah 6). 

Perhaps, but the answer is much more complex than that. And much more simple. Now I don't know the director's intent, but this non-reponse from God is actually quite biblically consistent. I don't think this director leaves us with a movie devoid of God. There is much more than the plethora of "f-worded terms of endearment" behind God's non-response. Here are a number of them.

1.) Jesus never responded to "prove yourself" demands. He didn't do it with Satan. He didn't do it with folks who demanded signs. That is just not how He rolls in the bible, so we should not think it should be any different in the real world, or in the cinema for that matter.

2.) Miracles in and of themselves, never, by necessity, lead or have led to a person believing in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Never. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, the Pharisees saw that miracle and wanted Jesus dead. Immediately. They wanted Lazarus dead too! But it is not just a Pharisaic response, but also a Gentile response. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas heal a crippled lad. The country folks don't turn to immediate faith in Jesus, but consider Paul and Barnabas to be Hermes and Zeus respectively. They can barely stop the locals from offering sacrifices! Likewise, God speaking audibly or doing a crazy miracle today will not make anyone by necessity, become a Christian. Data has to be interpreted through the grid of a worldview. A "proof" of God's existence doesn't make someone repent, rest upon on Jesus' finished work on the cross. Miracles were/are never sufficient in and of themselves to produce saving faith.

3.) God has already revealed himself in Creation and Conscience. According to the bible, the existence of this physical world tells some of the story. Psalm 19 reminds us that the heavens declare God's glory and something about Him.  Romans 1 reminds us that the existence of the invisible God can be discerned from the visible world. Ecclesiastes 3:11 explains that God has put the idea of "eternity" in the hearts of men.

4.) God has already revealed himself through the person of Jesus, who is the "image of the invisible God." Now of course only one generation in a small part of the world actually laid eyes upon this Jesus. But those eyewitnesses of his resurrection didn't just risk life and limb to spread this news, all of them lost life and limb with only one exception. Regardless if you believe Jesus is who he says He is, God's answer to the demand he prove Himself will always be the same: I already have. Don't miss it.

 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high....Hebrews 1:1-3

So when you're tempted to demand God prove Himself, and then base your faith upon whether He does or doesn't prove Himself to you satisfactorily, remember He already has proved Himself in Jesus.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Obama's take on the pope, gospel, and children of God

Well the moment that we've all been waiting for: we have a new Pope. Of course I should say "we" because I believe the head of the church is Jesus. However, I'm much aware of the need for accountability structure and thankful for the biblical standard of Presbyterianism which places the final human authority at a General Assembly level (a la Acts 15). That way there isn't one dude who can stop the buck, or a panel of several dudes like some denominations nowadays have. But I mean no disrespect to other church polity, nor do I desire to debate it now. Simply an ADD moment!

And when I say "we," I should admit that I'm glad that if there must be a Pope, that he is a Jesuit. I'm the product, for better or worse, of Jesuit High School education. Yet Jesuits in my experience in my Tampa high school seemed more concerned about education than Jesus, so maybe this is not such a good thing?

And when we say "we," we should also realize that many American Catholics consider the pope to have the same authority as the King or Queen of England. So who knows what this even means for Catholics?

But Obama chimed in with his take on the selection of a new Pope. His concern was not so much the country of origin but the origin of his actions. Sounds good so far. In an interview, he offers his take:

My hope is based on what I know about the Catholic Church–and the terrific work that they've done around the world and certainly around this country helping those who are less fortunate–is that you have a pope who sustains and maintains what I consider the central message of the Gospel. We treat everybody as children of God. We love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them.

Forget whether or not the Catholic church in general (I've come across Catholics who can articulate justification through faith in Christ better than Protestants) has strayed from the central message of the gospel. Just consider what Obama posits as the central message of the gospel: "We treat everybody as children of God. We love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them." 

Hmmm......I guess I can understand why Obama's faith has led him to approve what he does. If everyone is a child of God, and Jesus taught everyone to love each other as though they are children of God, then I can see how his hermeneutic lands him where he ends up. But I see at least two problems with such a hermeneutic (principle of interpretation).

1.) Not everyone is a child of God. Entrance into the family of God depends upon faith in Jesus. 

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-John 1:11-12

You have to be adopted into God's family. This is not something you are born into. Jews ("his own") rejected Jesus and are therefore not God's children. Jews and Gentiles who receive Jesus, have been granted the right to become God's children.

....the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Ephesians 2:2-3

Notice that we are naturally children of wrath. Such is what the Ephesians were. Such is what all Christians at one time were. Getting together and singing "we are the world, we are the children" brings out the warm fuzzies in all of us. But it just doesn't really change our status. But the good news is there is a supernatural work of God wherein he doesn't leave Christians as children of wrath.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved-Ephesians 4-5

You see that to treat everyone as a child of God is not Jesus wants us to, primarily because not everyone is a child of God.  

2.) How does Jesus tell us to love children of God? How does Jesus tell us to love those who aren't?

Well to quote one poet, "let me count the ways." Or you could probably go as simple as Jesus' words in reciting the 2nd greatest commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. We don't love everyone as children of God. We can't. I tell my wife who is a Christian that everything will work out for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28). You've probably heard that a zillion times. But it would not be very loving to tell my neighbor who isn't a Christian, who hasn't yet been called (he/may certainly be at one point, and to that end I pray!), that everything is working out for his good. That's tantamount to offering a deceptively acidic band-aid that will hurt the wound and not heal it. And if my friend who is a Christian is willfully ignoring Jesus' commands, the loving thing to do is to rebuke him. But I will never rebuke my friends who aren't Christians. Again, what good does that do? So we can't love everyone as children of God, for if we try to do that, we really won't be loving them very well.

But Jesus reminds us in this commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Now that applies to everyone, Christian and non-Christian. I owe them love. The same kind of love I naturally give to myself. So the specific way I demonstrate love for my neighbor will be determined by his/her relationship to God, and of course numbers of other factors like how well we know each other, his/her needs, his/her maturity, etc....

God showed mercy on me when I wasn't a child of God, so am I not compelled to show mercy on those who aren't children of God? Of course! Just because I don't see them as children of God doesn't mean that I withhold love. On the contrary, I'm motivated to give more!

I think the Catholic church, which Obama seems to be referencing here, does some good things when it comes to loving neighbors and assisting the poor. Yet it is important to distinguish between children of God and children of wrath. Not because you don't love the latter, but because you do. You can't love the same way or you will do harm. Instead, love unbelievers like you would want to be loved. Not agreeing with every issue, but respecting them as people along with their right to disagree.

In summary, the central message of the gospel is that God is reconciling a sinful alienated people and world to Himself through the Savior Jesus Christ. But if you want to get on that train, you must repent from sin and self-trust and place your hope in Jesus. Jesus is calling out, in the words of the 1990's rap song, "Come on ride that train. And ride it."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Downton Doubting Thomas? That would have been a good idea this time

Downton Abbey season 3 has ended some time ago and I'm now beginning to wonder whether or not Duck Dynasty will end up taking its place. I almost feel anachronistic blogging about it, as though I'm writing about "that movie" that just came out called Star Wars. Will it rebound and once again charm the nation across the pond or will it go the way of the Titanic? Regardless of whether or not season 4 will be worth watching, one thing the bloody season finale cannot take away are the number of fantastic illustrations Downton which preceded it. One of my personal favorites came from my least favorite person on the show: Thomas.

Always the schemer (reminds me a bit of Genesis' account of Jacob I guess in that regard), Thomas hatches a plan to that will get him really rich, really quickly. He soon realizes after the War, that if he buys up all kinds of cooking supplies, Downton will, ironically, then be dependent upon this servant. Apparently a black market deal, with a man who only met in some shady place, is exactly what he's been waiting for. 

After stockpiling his goods, he offers the head cook a chance to give them a test run. The cake or sufflet or truffles or corn-dogs (I can't remember which one) doesn't turn out the way its supposed to. We now know from Papa Johns that better ingredients means better tasting pizza, or better tasting anything for that matter. And the reverse is also true. Bad tasting ingredients make for bad tasting cake or corn-dogs. 

Figuring that the flour or sugar might have been spoiled, Thomas goes to his warehouse only to find his worst nightmare has come true. When opens the sack of flour, or sugar, or sack of whatever, he finds that it is instead a sack of just white plain stuff. It is not what he spent every last dime of his money on. He's been tricked. This mystery con-man didn't deliver the goods he promised.

Thomas' desperate moment of truth was worth the price of admission. Well at least for me.

This is simply a wonderful portrayal of Satan's deceptive work. Thomas, like his name-sake in the gospels, actually should have doubted this time. But like Adam and Eve, he got duped.

Sin is so often disguised as something profitable, that is worth the payout, worth the risk. And for a season it can deceive. But it never delivers. In the end, all we are left with is worthless ingredients that can't even make a tasty corn-dog (and that's saying something.) 

Sin promises the world, but in the end has nothing to offer. It dupes. It cheats us. It leaves us empty and disappointed and yet we come running back to the same place and say, "What else do you have that I can waste my money, time, life, and hurt my relationships with?" Pretty nuts.

But a more vivid picture of sin must lead to a more vivid picture of a Savior. Sin is this irrational, this stupid, this terrible, this wasteful. And yet we are told by another, "Come all who are weary and heavy laden, for my yoke is gentle and my burden is light." That's Jesus talking if you hadn't heard that before.

Unfortunately for Thomas, he wasn't broken and just went to back to "business" and schemed his way back into servant-hood. Let's not waste our sin but come back to the one died for people who regularly get taken to the cleaners on bad "business" deals.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Gifted folks and doubters come to the same place

Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching on probably my favorite passage in the bible. If you want to listen to "Take these broken wings" (named after the Mister Mister song, not the Beattles song), here is the link. Mark 9:14-29 depicts a man deeply struggling to believe Jesus can and will heal his child. The kicker is that the man already gave the disciples a shot and it didn't work. So cue the unbelief, plus the unbelief that may have already been present. The hope of the passage is that Jesus isn't offended. He doesn't run, shun, or gun him down. Instead he says to the father, "Bring the child to me." And when the situation only gets worse with the demon making the kid squirm like a fish out of water, the doubt hits an all time high. Yet Jesus stays around, he doesn't run, gun, or shun. The man prays to Jesus, "I believe, help m unbelief!" And immediately Jesus answers. How cool. I'll never get tired of this passage. Ever. Because I feel like I always need it. 

One thing I couldn't get into with the sermon based upon time was the curious answer as to why the disciples couldn't cast out the demon. It's the simplicity of the answer that is so confusing: "this kind can be driven out only by prayer." So the big dog demons take prayer, while the other ones simply require the invocation of Jesus name? Did the disciples not pray? 

We're not privy to all the information, and I read two different commentaries which in essence provided two different explanations. Here's my take and its application today.

The disciples regularly cast out demons. Regularly. They were gifted at tossing out demons. They could have put that on a resume (I'm sure it would have been helpful for some job back then.....). But I think Jesus is telling them that giftedness is no substitute for completely dependent prayer. For complete dependence. Now He is not trying to get them to deny their giftedness-provided that they realize where the gifts come from-for that is false humility. Instead he is reminding them that giftedness alone will only get you so far. Your ultimate strength will never be found in your own gifts or abilities but in complete dependence upon the power of the Spirit. Zecheriah reminded Zerubbabel, "Not by might or power but my Spirit. (Zech 4:6) I think Jesus is doing the same thing here when he privately teaches the disciples. 

What I've come to really appreciate about this passage is the juxtaposition of unbelief and perhaps over-confidence. We take both our unbelief and our skills/gifts to Jesus in dependent prayer. Can you do something with our gifts? Jesus says yes. Can you do something with our lack of faith, doubt, and even lack of gifts? Jesus says yes.

Gifting gets you somewhere but there is always a cap. Even faith gets you only so far, as there is a cap on that too. Whether you feel like you have lots of faith or numbers of gifts, remember the source of both is Jesus. Don't forget to come to him in dependent prayer. And even when you think its too late, remember, it is not. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Death by accomodation

One evening when I lived in Bradenton I had a rather memorable conversation with a New College student. Although by "memorable" I really only mean I remembered one thing. He came from a P.C.U.S.A. background (if I remember correctly his father was a pastor) and learned I was a P.C.A. pastor. Upon hearing those three letters "P.C.A.," he offered his condolences to me and any hopeful ministry one with such a background could have with colleges students at New College. "I don't think the P.C.A could have much to say to such students as these."  Ironically we would soon have several New College students regularly attend our church.

What he meant was that a denomination as "conservative" (Jesus as only way of salvation, bible as final authority, male pastorate) as mine couldn't have the same influence as one which was far less rigid on issues such as the aforementioned. 

Or in other words, in order to reach a skeptical generation one must give a little before it can take any ground. One must accommodate in order to see any success or headway. 

Well on the surface level, that would make sense. If you want to reach people who don't believe in God, an institutional church, need for grace, regular corporate worship, tithing, bible study, then you should probably find some middle ground. On a purely pragmatic level I'll admit this actually makes sense. 

If the unique exclusive claims of Christ offend modern sensibilities, then let's broaden them a bit. We don't want to be a church that offends those who don't believe in Jesus, so long as they are good people, we're on the same page as Muslims, Jews, all really nice Americans. This way we will seem so much more loving than those mean conservative folks. 

If Jesus' sexual ethic seems a bit outdated, then let's loosen that up a bit too. We think Jesus is okay with pre/extra-marital sex, all divorces when people feel unfulfilled, homosexual behavior when folks really love each other. 

One would think by ridding one's church from such "deal stoppers"that it would open the flood gates for all kinds of growth. 

The problem, aside from the obvious abandonment of Jesus' claims, is that actually doesn't work. At all. In fact it does the exact opposite.

In his book Bad Religion, Russ Douthat writes:

The Episcopal Church (60's-70's), in particular, was fast becoming the Catholicism that reformers so earnestly desired-democratic, egalitarian, politicized, and sexually liberated....Liberal Protestants were selling exactly what the accommodationists claimed the public desperately wanted from religion, and nobody was buying it...."He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower," the Anglican Ralph Inge remarked, and so it was with the accommodationists. 

Douthat says we've done that. It didn't and doesn't work, and is why mainline liberal denominations are falling fast and will keep falling.

He further gives us a clear sociological reason for why this doesn't work.

The more firmly accomodationist Christianity defined itself by taking sides in this give-and-take, the more it came to be seen as just another faction, just another interest group, with nothing particularly transcendent to offer anyone.

If there is no longer anything distinct about Christianity, just stick with the rotary, Boy Scouts, social clubs and go fishing on Sunday morning. What's the difference when you take away Jesus?

Or as Jesus so pertinently purports in his Sermon on the Mount:  

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.  Matt 5:13
 For the sake of gaining ground (friendships, clout, church attendance), it may be tempting to accommodate, but remember Jesus' words and how they have wrung true throughout church history.

Only in a grace-centered, gospel-saturated, truth-telling community will folks see Jesus for who He really is. The funny thing is that in a denomination far more "conservative" than mine, we see that even they had plenty of "stuff to say" to a professor of gay and lesbian studies. They didn't accommodate, but took seriously the command to be "conservative" on truth but "liberal" in love.