Just trust. . .

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of “God’s will for my life,” and what makes me a bit sad is when I see people around me (and often, I confess, myself) agonizing over what God’s will is in one circumstance or another, particularly with regards to decisions that we make in life.

Should I pursue a relationship with this girl or that one? Should I take this job offer or the other one? Should I stay in this town or relocate somewhere else?

I suppose one could take comfort in believing that God has it all mapped out and planned anyway, so we can just trust that whatever decision we make will be the one God decided for us ahead of time. Frankly, that belief leads me down the path towards determinism and eventually fatalism (If I make a destructive decision, was that God’s will for me? How can God be loving, or even good, if he determined that I would make a self-destructive choice?), but if that brings you comfort, hold tightly to that.

But if you’re like me, and you don’t believe that about God, how can you feel safe making decisions? How will you know what God’s will is for you? There’s an old adage I heard often when I was in school: “If you follow God’s daily will for your life, he’ll reveal to you his long-term will.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it always true? What if I’m doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly with my God everyday, but when I face that life-altering decision, I still don’t know the answer?

Here’s where I find comfort. God asks us to trust him. He loves us, and he has our best interests at heart. The more we get to know him, the more we’ll discover what he desires for us. It may never be specific, but here’s the cool thing. No matter what we choose, God is there.

Maybe that’s what it means to believe. Maybe it’s knowing that God has given us the freedom to use our minds and hearts to make good decisions, and that in whatever decision we make, God is there. So trust him.

Pull the trigger and trust him.

Because we could easily think ourselves into paralysis, killing our effectiveness.

So when you come to that fork in the road (I know, I’m tossing in unexpected metaphors that weren’t alluded to at the beginning of this post, but I’m just thinking on the fly here), go left or go right. Don’t just stand there and wonder which one is God’s will.

Because God’s will is that you trust him whether you go left or right. He’ll be there if you turn left, and he’ll be there if you turn right.

Trust the Lord and do good;
live in the land, and farm faithfulness.
Enjoy the Lord,
and he will give what your heart asks.
Commit your way to the Lord!
Trust him! He will act
and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
your justice like high noon.

Some thoughts on Noah. . .

PHqmdhBN3MUetx_1_mIt’s one of the season’s (if not the year’s) biggest blockbusters, and I took a few hours out of my busy schedule to sit down with this film. (I have to admit that as my friend Ken and I were walking into the theater, I came pretty close to changing my mind and standing in line for the midnight opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but for the sake of conversation, I stuck with Noah.)

This blog post was originally going to be a review of the film, but given the controversy surrounding the movie, I decided to do some research and instead write more of a commentary on the film. I may write a full review at some point, but for now here’s my quickie review: Russell Crowe did a good job being Russell Crowe. He’s his usual emotionless self in this movie, but thankfully the cast around him was incredible. Of particular interest are Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah’s wife, and Emma Watson as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law. Theirs were some of the most disarming and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever seen. We’ve all known Connelly is a talented actress, but she stood out in a big way this time. The surprise to me was Watson’s performance. I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I found it a bit difficult at first to divorce her from Hermione Granger, but it didn’t take long for her to show off just how good an actress she is. Even without the mind-blowing special effects, this film would be worth it simply for those two performances.

Okay, now that my review is over, let’s dive into the meat of this post.

There are several streams of thought regarding this movie. One is the traditional evangelical approach which falls just short of boycotting this film for no reason other than that they “heard” the movie is very “unbiblical.” My problem with this approach is multifaceted. First, I’m never a fan of boycotting. It sends a terrible message, and in many cases it gives off an air of ignorance. Second, I think it would be wise to gain firsthand knowledge of the material you’re attacking before making your assault. You may find yourself laying down friendly fire if you don’t. Third, I think we should ask ourselves, “How well do I actually know the biblical account of ‘Noah and the Flood’?” After watching the movie, I found myself returning to the Scriptures to do some fact-checking, and I was quite surprised at what I found (and didn’t find) in the text.

Another stream of thought coming from some of the “liberal” camps essentially views this movie as a kind of midrash aggada—a form of rabbinical storytelling that involves interpreting Scripture passages by “filling in the blanks,” as it were—from the director Darren Aronofsky (who, by the way, is not an atheist as many believed that he claimed to be) given his Jewish heritage. Aronofsky is a master storyteller who is just as much a preacher as he is a filmmaker. Just look at some of his previous films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

The third stream of thought that I see emerging is that Aronofsky’s Noah is not based on the story found in the Judaic Torah or the Christian Pentateuch. Rather, this stream of thought sees the Gnostic Noah account being displayed in this film. Theologian Brian Mattson wrote, “This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources.” There are a number of Christians who read his posts and found his interpretation compelling, especially given his knowledge of the subject matter. He claims that because Aronofsky’s Noah is a Gnostic retelling, the movie flips the roles of God and Satan, and, using the snakeskin shed by the Serpent in Eden as a vehicle for this characterization, claims that the “Creator” is really the evil deity in Gnosticism and that the Serpent is really God in disguise (that was a paraphrase of Mattson’s conclusion on the matter, but it’s essentially what he’s getting at). The problem with his argumentation is that while Kabbalah and Gnostics agree in a number of ways, there are some crucial inconsistencies that render his interpretation invalid.

The argument makes sense on some level when you think about it. Aronofsky’s first full-length feature, Pi, betrayed a fascination with Kabbalah. But while he may have drawn from Kabbalah’s understanding of the story of Noah, it’s pretty clear that his primary source material was the ancient Judaic retelling of the story (the one accepted by most Christians). Also, Aronofsky doesn’t appear to exhibit much interest in Gnosticism or even the Gnostics.

To be sure, there are likely many key elements of Kabbalist tradition found throughout the film (references to Zohar, Adam and Eve’s luminescence, humanity’s division into the evil descendants of Cain and the righteous descendants of Seth, fallen angels who can be redeemed, etc.), but these elements aren’t exclusively Kabbalistic. In fact, (with the exception of the Zohar reference) these supposedly “exclusively Kabbalist” elements are found in Judeo-Christian history as well.

But let me try to address some of the more basic concerns Christians might have with the movie, apart from any Gnostic or Kabbalist references.

First, the character of Noah. In this movie, Noah is depicted as a deeply conflicted man. As the story progresses, he becomes even more extreme and zealous to the point of betraying his own family. I was at first uncomfortable with this, but when I went back to the story as found in the Bible, I found no descriptions of Noah’s personality at all. The Bible describes him as a righteous man, but “righteous” in this context doesn’t mean “good.” It simply means that he practiced justice and mercy. This description leaves much to the imagination, and seems to have been placed there simply to set Noah apart from the morally corrupt around him. The Noah character found in this movie is completely human—flawed, broken, and stubborn. He clings to what he believes God’s message is, even when confronted with evidence that he might have misinterpreted God’s will. Sound familiar? Russell Crowe’s Noah reminded me a little bit of myself in some very disturbing ways (minus the notable lack of emotional expression).

Second, the Watchers. Some have said they’re loosely based on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:1-4. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go very far in explaining these bizarre creatures. What’s more likely is that Aronofsky took from the Book of Enoch (an ancient Jewish text that was considered part of the canon of Scripture by some early church fathers like Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian), which goes into greater detail about the Watchers. According to the Book of Enoch, the Watchers were angels that had been sent to earth to look after humanity after Adam’s fall, but after being around humans for a while, they began to have sexual relations with human women. The result of these unions were the Nephilim.

Aronofsky mercifully leaves out the details about fallen angels having sex with humans, but he portrays these angels as having the ability to return to righteousness and glory. Some Christians would take issue with that, as nowhere in Scripture does it say that fallen angels can be redeemed. But even within Christianity, a debate raged on regarding the permanence of these angels’ fall from God’s mercy. St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the earliest promoters of the doctrine of a triune God) expressed a belief that even Satan himself would repent and be reconciled to God!

I think it’s worth noting here that Aronofsky appears to be less interested in mainline and evangelical interpretations of Genesis than he is in ancient-Hebrew and first-through-third-century Christian interpretations. There are a lot of things about this movie that seem strange, but upon further investigation, actually make sense in that historical context. More recent historical discoveries and theological musings refute many of these ideas, but in the rich, diverse histories of Judaism and Christianity, the ideas Aronofsky purports may be odd (and in some cases, just plain wrong), but they aren’t foreign to these religions’ histories.

(I don’t know where Aronofsky got the idea to depict the Watchers as rock giants, but I couldn’t help but think of the Gorignak from Galaxy Quest whenever the Watchers were on screen.)

Third, Adam and Eve’s luminescence. I hesitate to even mention this one because it seems trite that Christians would be bothered by it, but someone in another blog used it as fodder for for his argument that this movie is “unbiblical,” so I decided to bring it up. It’s an argument easily refuted by reminding ourselves that luminescence is a theme that’s seen throughout Scripture, from Moses’ encounters with God (he’s described as radiating in Exodus 34) to Christ’s transfiguration in Matthew 17. Jesus even says in Matthew 13 that “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” Given that information, it’s not such a stretch to think that Adam and Eve radiated light prior to eating the fruit.

Fourth, environmentalism as the primary theme of the movie. Much has been said about how this movie depicts the Creator as wanting to destroy mankind because of how they mistreat creation. While that’s an element of why the Creator sends the flood, it’s pretty clear in the film that mankind’s wickedness overall, not just their poor stewardship of the earth, is the reason the flood is on its way. In a scene where Noah is walking among the descendants of Cain, people are trading girls for food, killing for fun, and exhibit nothing but an overt willingness to satiate their own basest desires.

Additionally, Noah’s own error involves environmentalism. He misinterprets God’s message thinking that humanity has no place in the world. In fact, when he recounts the story of creation to his family, he leaves out (or minimizes, I can’t remember which) the fact that humanity was created in God’s image. [SPOILERS AHEAD. Highlight the text to reveal.] Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, when he tells Ham the story of creation, makes a point to emphasize the fact that humanity was made in God’s image. He concludes that that means humans should dominate the earth and possess the right to exploit all of its resources with no regard to good stewardship. But at the end of the movie, when Noah comes to terms with his mistakes, he retells the creation story. This time he doesn’t leave out the point about being made in God’s image, but unlike Tubal-Cain’s rendition of the story, Noah concludes that as image-bearers we don’t have a right so much as a responsibility to properly care for the earth. Admittedly, environmentalism is a fairly heavy-handed theme throughout the movie, particularly at the end, but it doesn’t go so far as to run contrary to what Scripture teaches us about stewardship. My primary concern here is that the film fails to acknowledge humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. It appears that the best notion isn’t Noah’s idea that the earth is better off without humanity, nor is it Tubal-Cain’s belief that creation exists to serve man. Instead, the film presents a sort of peaceful coexistence between humans and the earth as being the best option. It’s almost as if the film were trying to portray God as a Master Gardener with humans as his gardening tools rather than God as a Father with the earth as a gift to his children. Both ideas are better options than the movie’s two “bad” options, but only the latter works as a theme seen in Scripture.

Fifth, the snakeskin. I’ll admit, I was pretty confused by the snakeskin metaphor in the film. Movie blogger Ryan Holt shed some light (pun not intended) on the snakeskin motif in his post about the movie:

When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

Similarly, in his review of the movie in the National Catholic Register (a review that I highly recommend, by the way), Steven D. Greydanus wrote the following:

The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.

* * * * * *

If you’re looking for “biblical accuracy,” you don’t have to look very far. Aronofsky claimed that Noah is the “least biblical biblical film ever made,” but I think that really depends on your understanding of the term biblical. Aronofsky made that statement in response to scores the film received after different versions of the film were presented to test audiences. I’m not sure where the following story came from, but I heard a rumor that a predominantly Christian test audience had asked for the removal of the scene wherein Noah was depicted as a drunkard because they believed the Bible didn’t portray Noah in such a way. I hope that’s not a true story, but if it is, it only goes to show how biblically illiterate many Christians are.

I understand people’s hesitance in seeing this movie. It’s puzzling in a number of ways. It forces you to think and question your preconceived notions about the beginning of Genesis. But it’s probably the most “biblically accurate biblical movie” I’ve ever seen. Yes, it takes some liberties, but all movies do. You may not believe this, but I’ll say it anyway, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah contains fewer extra-biblical artistic liberties than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (did you know that Gibson’s primary source material wasn’t the writings of the four Evangelists, but those of Anne Catherine Emmerich?).

A few weeks ago I overheard a conservative talk radio show wherein the host exhibited anger over the fact that Noah would replace the Bible (referencing the adage, “[A movie] is the only Bible some people will ever read”). I heartily disagree with him. Does anyone recall the sudden boost in readership of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when those movies hit theaters? While I don’t think we’re going to see massive sales of the movie edition of the book of Genesis, this movie will likely prompt its viewers to read the account of the flood in Scripture (which is a mere four chapters in the Bible), and that’s not such a bad thing.

The movie is full of incredible special effects and great action sequences, has some of the best acting from Connelly and Watson that I’ve ever seen, is well written and directed, and is incredibly exciting to watch. I think Noah is the perfect film to introduce people to the Bible.

* * * * * *

Please be aware that while I would recommend that people check this movie out, it’s not for kids. The tone is very dark, the sin that causes the Creator to send the flood is presented pretty graphically, and there are themes throughout that could be difficult for children to grasp. It pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating.

The Seven Pillars of Family Ministry. . .

I’ve been reading the book Dreaming of More for the Next Generation by Michelle Anthony, and in the book she describes what she refers to as the “seven pillars of family ministry.” I wanted to share them with you here because they serve as “Aha” moments in my ministry journey.

1. Family is Primary. The purpose of the church ministry is to walk alongside and equip families to disciple their children. If I’m taking seriously the charge that Paul gave in Ephesians 4:11-13, and I believe that the message to parents in Deuteronomy 6 is a call for them to be the primary disciplers of their children, this ministry should be equipping and training our parents with the same intentionality that we train and equip our teachers, mentors, and leaders.

2. Spiritual Formation is our Goal. Paul’s desire for the church in Galatia was that Christ be “formed in” them. What did he mean by this? His desire for this church wasn’t that they learn the facts of their faith—however important those facts may be. Rather, his goal was that they look more and more like Jesus. He wrote that “all the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s tempting to substitute spiritual formation with communicating information. We can very easily fall into the trap of making our ministry about facts, head knowledge, and measurables. I’m guilty of this all the time. “If children and families learn information, we may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But maybe we shouldn’t. Children may memorize Bible verses. They may know how many stones David used to kill Goliath. It’s good, but it’s not enough.”

It’s also tempting to make ministry about moral training. We can fall into the trap of trying to teach kids what it looks like to be a good Christian. Good behavior looks so much like faith in action. What if instead, we focused on training families on allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their lives?

Jesus doesn’t want people who are well behaved. He wants people of faith (see Luke 17). That’s much more difficult, but it’s more lasting, and it’s what will end up storming the gates of hell.

3. The Holy Spirit is the Teacher. Francis Chan wrote in his book Forgotten God that “the Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be.” There’s nothing wrong with the term “Sunday School Teacher,” but something can be taken away with that title. I wonder if instead, we gave God the role of “teacher,” and took on the roles of leaders, mentors, and storytellers? After all, in John’s account of the Gospel, he wrote that the Spirit of God is our Counselor, our Comforter, and our Teacher.

Imagine with me for a moment: what if we had students and children who worshiped God “from the inside out” (I love that song, by the way; it’s one of my favorites) “compelled by the Spirit—not through behaving in expected or mandated ways, but through seeing worship as a lifestyle instead of as a moment or event”? What if they fully realized their Spirit-given abilities to herald and exhibit the Kingdom attributes of love, grace, justice, forgiveness? What if they were able to discern God’s voice speaking to them and learn to obey that voice, relying on the Spirit’s power alone for their strength?

4. Scripture is our Authority. Our culture denies the idea that there can be concrete truths. My lead pastor often points out that truth is necessarily exclusive. If something is true, it automatically denounces anything that contradicts it as false. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a natural and obvious thing. If the truth is that I’m traveling north, then by saying I’m traveling south when I’m doing the exact opposite means that my statement is false.

Without truth, people are lost. Truth acts as a compass—morally, experientially, emotionally. As Christians, our compass is Scripture, and it needs to permeate our being otherwise we’re lost. Our task isn’t simply to teach kids about God’s Word, but rather show them how to investigate it for themselves.

Michelle Anthony shares this story in her book:

“Several years ago I was leading a group of elementary students through the book of James. At the conclusion of our eight-week study together, I was compelled by this idea of wanting them to flex their faith muscles. I didn’t plan a new study right away. I wanted to take our next time together to explore what could be next. The kids arrived and sat down as usual to hear the next Bible study, but this time there was none.

“Instead I asked them, ‘Children, how can you put your faith into action? You’ve heard these things from God’s Word for the past eight weeks. You’ve learned that God wants us to not just be ‘hearers’ of His Word, but ‘doers’ also. So what are you going to do about what you’ve heard?’. . . .”

Dr. Anthony then describes the awkward silence and her desire to validate her teaching by offering suggestions that the kids could just say “yes” to. She continues her story.

I didn’t give in. At this point, my faith was hanging in the balance as much as theirs was. ‘What are you going to do now that you have heard the words of God and how He wants us to live?’ It felt like an eternity in waiting. I was uncomfortable. My leaders were uncomfortable. The kids were. . . well, bored.

“But then one courageous hand rose in the back. The young girl said, ‘We could help the homeless people.’ My heat leapt! ‘Yes, we could do that! What else could we do to put our faith into action?’ I asked. Soon more children began to chime in with ideas that ranged from eliminating global hunger to knitting sweaters for cold dogs.”

Where do you think this faith that manifested in action ideas and steps came from? It was rooted in the truth of God’s Word.

John Wesley posited that there are four ways that God reveals Himself to us. Experience: “One thing I know; I was blind, but now I see.” Reason: Wesley often stated that without Spirit-given reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Tradition: While he recognized the weaknesses inherent in tradition, he stated “Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour.” Scripture: “Wesley insisted that scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by authors who were divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition.”

Scripture is of utmost importance to us and its truth is that which guides, yea distills all other evidences of God’s revelation to us. Our goal is to train children to see all of life through the lens of Scripture, knowing that while our interpretation may inform our approach, God always speaks first and foremost to us through His Word.

5. The Big God Story. This pillar is connected to the previous pillar in that to know the Big God Story we need to know Scripture.

Anthony writes:

“Because we’ve heard the story so many times, we might be tempted to gloss over the amazement that it’s all really true. God really did promise to send the Redeemer, He really kept the promise alive throughout history, He really sent His Son to die for us, and He really redeemed us from our sin because He really loves us that much! The Big God Story is amazing—and true! and sometimes it takes a new believer—a child—to remind us how shocking it truly is.”

It’s tempting to teach the Bible in isolated “stories” with little or no context to the whole. It goes back to the second pillar. Randy Frazee calls this “the Lower Story”—the biblical information found in the smaller stories, and we often teach “the Lower Story” at the expense of “the Upper Story”—the story of redemption, restoration, and relationship. This story is the one that transforms, rather than simply informing.

While the Bible isn’t all about Jesus, all of the Bible points to Jesus, and the narrative—much like a serialized TV show—beckons us to its climax—the arrival of the Messiah. When approached episodically, the Bible loses its fervor. But when we tell the Big God Story serially (the “to-be-continued” approach), children want to know what happens next and wait with baited breath to discover the all-important climax—Messiah has come!

The Big God Story, while all about God and His desire to be in a relationship with His image-bearing creation, draws us into its narrative. We are characters in this story, and it’s important to share that truth with children. They need to know that they are born because God wants them and made them to look like Him, and that life is all about knowing Him and loving Him because He loves them.

Sadly, culture (and the Church, to many degrees) teaches children that life is “all about me.” God exists to meet my needs and save me because the story centers on me. We need to help children understand that their part in the story is to know and love the Main Character.

Which leads me to Pillar Six.

6. God is Central. Worship is about growing closer to Him, experiencing His presence, getting to know Him. When we spend time remembering and celebrating what God has done through responding, worshiping, even just living, we are reminded that He is at the center of everything. Austin Fischer wrote that we are all “little black holes” trying to use our gravity to suck life into ourselves. Instead, we should revolve around the gravity of God; therein lies our sole satisfaction. As children discover this truth, their lives can be centered and they have a more compelling story to tell—and to be a part of.

7. Ministry Support. If you know me at all, you know that I love ice hockey. It’s an incredible sport that moves at frightening speeds, requiring an insane amount of coordination, not just on the part of the individual player, but on the part of the whole team. All five skaters need to be in sync and on the same page at every moment. The wingers need to instinctively know where the centerman is and vice-versa. The defensemen need to “feel” each other on the ice. The forwards and defensemen need to see each other, even without seeing each other.

Ministry should be the same. Parents and leaders should support each other. After all, they’re on the same team. They have the same goal: to train children to become aggressive followers of Jesus who are heralding His love for the world. Why shouldn’t we all work together?

Admittedly, I don’t know what that looks like practically, but I’ve got some ideas.

One of the beautiful things about ice hockey is that, unlike any other sport, after someone scores a goal, all five skaters huddle up and celebrate the goal together, acknowledging that every skater on the ice played an integral part in that goal.

Falling. . .

Ice-Skating-StopFor those of you who don’t know me, I love ice skating. It’s one of those things that helps me clear my mind, gets my blood pumping, and provides an escape from the tumult of life.

I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t skate fairly proficiently; I learned to skate when I was really young, and continued skating all through middle school and high school. When I go skating, I like to watch people of varying proficiencies, and I notice something: not everyone has what it takes to become a competent ice skater. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to grasp the necessary skills for skating, it’s that there’s one thing good ice skaters know almost instinctively that others don’t: everyone falls.

Two things manifest when someone learning to skate stumbles on this truth. The first is that they overcome their fear of falling. Fear of falling stems from a fear of being embarrassed and from a fear of the pain, but when you realize that everyone falls, you realize that no one’s laughing at you for falling and that most people aren’t severely injured when they fall.

The second is that they begin to give themselves grace for each fall. Each fall is an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. Whenever I’m teaching someone how to skate, I almost always tell them to not be afraid to fall. It will happen, and the sooner a skater learns that it’s okay to fall, the faster they’ll progress. And as they get better, they fall less and less.

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to meet Megan Fate Marshman and hear her speak at a conference. During one of her talks she had everyone in the room turn to their neighbor and say, “I’m so glad. . . you’re as messed up as I am.” We all fall. Some fall less than others, but seem unable to progress in life. I think that’s because they haven’t learned that falling is okay; everyone falls. Some seem to fall pretty often, but they’re learning, and eventually they’ll fall less often.

Some have seemingly stopped falling altogether and they’re helping pick others up when they fall. We’ll all get there someday, but I really believe that in order to get there, we have to get over our fear of falling and understand that everyone falls. That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to fall; falling is indeed painful, and if we don’t get to the point where we stop falling every time we try to move, we’ll end up a bruise-covered mess. But falling is a necessary part of learning.

I’ve found myself falling on the ice again. I’m working towards learning to play hockey, and in order to do that I need to pick up a few more skills on my skates. As I try to learn these new skills I’m again on my butt pretty often. But that’s part of learning.

I pray that we can all give ourselves some grace as we walk through life making mistakes and by extension give each other grace as well. That’s what community in Jesus should be about.

Born to die?. . .

C. J. Mahaney wrote the following statement a few years ago:

“During this time of year, it may be easy to forget that the bigger purpose behind Bethlehem was Calvary. But the purpose of the manger was realized in the horrors of the cross. The purpose of his birth was his death.”

While I understand his sentiment (as it’s often all too easy to forget that we celebrate the birth of a child whose fate was sealed from the moment he took his first breath—Jesus was certainly going to die a horrible, bloody death), I find it difficult now to accept that the Advent must needs be inexorably linked to the Atonement.

It’s absolutely true that all four Evangelists crafted their stories in such a way as to aim at Golgotha, but it’s equally as true that they didn’t write exclusively about the crucifixion. In other words, the Evangelists (well, Matthew and Luke, at least) wrote about Christ’s birth and his death as two unrelated events offset by several years of ministry (though I won’t be using the ministry and teaching years as support for my argumentation). Yes, Christ’s death was certainly foreshadowed at his birth, but it was not the bigger purpose behind it, as Pastor Mahaney avers.

Some might say that the manger was a stepping stone to the cross. I’m not comfortable with that statement. I’m much more comfortable saying that the manger paints a particular picture while the cross paints a distinct (yet deeply related) picture.

For support, I turn to Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi. In that letter, he writes these words:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul starts this entreatment with the phrase, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He certainly ends his description of Christ’s condescension with a statement about his death, but that’s not the point of this passage. He’s likely not saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who died.”

In this passage we find Paul’s mention of Christ’s humility in regards to his entering human form having just as much emphasis as Christ’s humility in his death. Paul continues by saying that “God also highly exalted him.” But why did God exalt Christ? Was it because he died on the cross? I’d venture to say that’s not entirely true.

Someone once said something to the effect of, “The Father’s exaltation of Christ isn’t a ‘Purple Heart,’ that is, he’s not exalting him because he died. Rather, this is more of a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ for a mindset characterized by ‘other-centric’ humility.”

Think of it this way. The mindset that’s all too common in humanity is one that looks like this: imagine a Stanford graduate who’s looking for a job, and there’s an opening as a member of the Geek Squad at Best Buy. He doesn’t apply for the position because it’s beneath him.

I think at some level we all have this mindset. There is always something that we’re too good for. But that wasn’t the case with Christ. He “emptied himself,” and he became a slave. That’s the important thing to note here.

Leading up to this description of Christ’s mindset, Paul wrote, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul wants his followers to look at Christ’s example of humility as our model.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Which mind is that exactly?

It’s the mind that says, Though I am Creator, I am willing to become created for the sake of my creation. It’s the mind that says, I am the Son of God, but for the sake of mankind I will become a son of man. It’s the mind that says, I am immortal, but for the sake of mortals I will submit to mortality—even death itself.

When all is said and done, it’s the Atonement, not the Advent, that secures our salvation. But let us not forget that the love that moved the Son of God to enter our lives and spend his first night of life in an animal feeding trough is the same love that moved the Son of God to allow those he loved to brutally murder him.

The death of Jesus is not the greater purpose behind his birth. His love is the greater purpose behind his death, and his love is the greater purpose behind his birth.

That is what I hope we can remember as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.

An odd story. . .

During my junior year of college (if memory serves) I was leading an evening song time with some friends from my “literary society” (though it bore little resemblance to the fraternities of ordinary colleges, but that’s a story best left for another time) along with friends from our society’s “sister society” (again, bearing little—if any—resemblance to sororities found at other universities).

I believe I need to set the stage a bit here since most—if not all—of you have almost no understanding of the culture found in my alma mater. For starters, there are extremely strict rules governing music styles. I won’t go into detail on that because this story will shed some light on that.

Another thing to note is that there was a demerit system at the university. A student was given one semester to abstain from getting 150 demerits. If he/she received 150 demerits before the end of the semester, he/she would be expelled. There were also certain milestones a student could reach with different rewards along the way. For example, when a student reached 75 demerits he/she received the distinct privilege of no longer being permitted to speak with members of the opposite sex. Upon reaching 100 demerits, the student was honored with confinement to campus (in addition to no talking to the other sex). No off-campus trips after 100 demerits.

The final thing you need to know is that in order for guys and girls to hang out together, they had to be chaperoned. All the time. So, in order for our group to get together and have this worship song time, we needed to have a chaperone. Yes, college students need a chaperone.

I was given the responsibility of selecting the music and Bible selections for the evening, and since it was getting close to Valentine’s Day I chose Scripture passages and hymns that had something to do with love. One song that I chose was Michael W. Smith’s “Above All.” (Please refrain from the Michael W. Smith questions. I was a very different person back then.)

A few days after the event I was called into the dean’s office. Now, every meeting with the dean starts off with something to the effect of, “Do you know why you were called in here?” I learned through experience to always answer with a “no.” It’s better than accidentally giving away more information than they actually know.

He told me that he had received information that I had led a group of fellow students in singing a song that was “unacceptable for Christians because the author of the song also writes songs that contain a ‘rock-and-roll rhythm’.” He continued with a lot of information I don’t remember, and then asked, “Were you aware of this fact about the song’s author?” Before I could answer, he gave me an out. “If you were aware, I’m afraid that offense carries 100 demerits because you knowingly led other students in sin. If you were not aware, the offense carries only 50 demerits because you didn’t willfully help other students sin.”

So what did I do? I lied. Right to the dean’s face. I told him I had no idea that the song’s author was a “rock-and-roll” musician. I already had over 50 demerits; another 100 and I would be expelled.

Did I have a choice? Yeah. I certainly could have told him the truth. Part of me wishes I had. I would have been freed from that place with my conscience intact. Instead, I didn’t want to experience the embarrassment and shame of being kicked out of college, so I lied, and I continued to subject myself to an environment where I would continue to compromise my conscience.

My story is insignificant. It pales in comparison to the stories of sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse that have recently come to light at my alma mater. I don’t want to pretend that the things that happened to me at that university (which eventually grew to be far worse than this story) were anywhere near as heinous as the acts that were committed against others. But I wanted to share that the fear-mongering existed at even the smallest scale.

Why bother with me? My offense was inconsequential at most. I would offer that the administration needed to maintain control. As soon as they lose control of the minutest detail, they will have lost control of the entire university. Little did they realize just how much the students were getting away with right under their noses. But they were too busy fighting pointless battles like mine to notice the bigger problems plaguing the university.

“Welcome to Fundy U. Where we force you to conform to our image and compromise your morals in doing so.”

The historical Jesus, justification, and resurrection as the beginning (and the end). . .

I had the privilege this week to meet N. T. Wright, one of the most prolific contemporary authors with regards to Jesus (both theological and historical) and the New Testament.

Wright gave a talk at Princeton University on the historical person of Jesus, and during the interview, Prof. Eric Gregory inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) alluded to a dichotomy that I had long been unconsciously aware of but had never consciously thought about, let alone heard articulated: the difference between Christ as a religious/theological figure and Jesus as a person in the history of the world.

The ensuing conversation led my mind to wonder about the relevance of the Jesus of history when considering my own faith in Christ as the second person of the Trinity. Does it matter whether I know of Jesus’ life and teachings? I suppose the easy answer is yes, but to take things even further, I wonder if it should matter what was behind his teachings? What kinds of cultural prejudices existed that could determine what Jesus taught, how he lived, and with whom he interacted? The even scarier question would be this: how have my own cultural distinctions (specifically from that of Jesus’ day) tainted my understanding of what he was trying to get across to his audience?

I suppose there is a sense in which his teachings and ideologies were transcendent, but some questions continue to plague my mind. In recent years, some have attempted to convince me that Jesus was some sort of political revolutionary or insurrectionist. But if that were true, why was Governor Pilate so hesitant to execute him? How could he rightfully say, “I find no fault in this man,” if Jesus were not some kind of seditionist?

Another related thought: some have similarly said that Jesus was subverting the established Jewish religious tradition. I doubt this idea less than the previous one, but some questions still remain. If he were so blatantly subversive, why did so many call him Rabbi? Why was he welcome to speak in synagogues?

But back to my original concern: Does any of this matter?

Perhaps of even deeper controversy are these considerations with regard to Paul’s writings. Recently (thanks to Wright) I’ve become aware of a criticism of Pauline interpretation that has me asking even more questions. Paul’s argument with Judaism (and by extension, Judaizing Christians) was not with regards to legalism. That is to say, he wasn’t concerned with the Judaizers’ presentation of a barrier to salvation.

The Judaism of Paul’s day has often been paralleled to the Romanism of Luther’s day. But is that a correct analogy? Is Paul’s argument with Judaism the same as Luther’s argument with Romanism? Much—if not all—popular Protestant and Evangelical interpretation of Paul’s writings approach his teachings with this attitude.

But what if instead his greater concern was with communal identity? What if justification and salvation are concepts that are not as intertwined as we’ve believed since the mainland Reformation? Reading Paul’s writings again have me concluding that his battleground wasn’t legalism (though I’m willing to bet that if he lived under the auspices of the Roman church, legalism might have been his battleground). Rather, I’m inclined to believe that his concern was the inclusion of all people in the identity of the family of God.

Justification seems to take on a different meaning than I’ve believed for much of my life. But recently I’ve become unconvinced that God’s righteousness is imputed to the individual. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the more I think about it.

Wright uses the idea of a courtroom to analogize justification. God is the judge, and humanity is the defendant. A judge possesses two kinds of righteousness: one wherein he is considered righteous in his courtroom if he judges rightly based on the evidence presented to him, the testimonies of the plaintiff and defendant, etc.; the other being that which the judge gives to the defendant should he be found not guilty. One type of righteousness is faithfulness to the truth and to justice, and the other type of righteousness is right standing with the judge and with society. But a judge cannot imbue the defendant with faithfulness to the truth. A judge can, however, declare the defendant to be in right standing.

I wonder if that’s more of what we see in justification rather than what we in evangelical circles call “imputed righteousness.” Because of Christ’s death on the cross—for us and in our place, God declares us righteous—in right standing with him.

As Wright expounded upon the historical figure of Jesus, the event of his resurrection came up in discussion (naturally). It seems as though Wright is less concerned with proving the event of Christ’s resurrection than he is with discovering what it actually means. (After all, as Wright explains, the rise of Christianity as a world religion necessitates the veracity of Christ’s resurrection; otherwise, the fledgling movement would have died almost immediately after his crucifixion.)

It’s pretty easy to fall into a slight form of Docetism by saying that Christ’s bodily resurrection simply proves that he is God. But what does that say for the rest of the story?

I wonder if Christ’s resurrection marked the culmination of the story of Israel, that through Jesus God was fulfilling the promises long thought neglected. Through the eyes of the Hebrew people, God had forgotten about them when he allowed them to be taken into exile. Prophet after prophet claimed that God would return to the Temple, but God never appeared. God had become silent, and he had removed his presence.

Then in shocking and shameful display, God did return to the Temple, but instead of coming in power, he came covered in his own blood. Throughout Israeli history, the Temple is the dwelling place of God. This is why it is so bizarre to the Jewish ear that Jesus would say, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it up in three days.”

Christ’s resurrection not only serves as the final climax of Israel’s story, it serves as the birth moment of the Church.

The resurrection of Jesus is where our story begins.

When I have no control. . .

I was raised to look at life very concretely. It was always black and white.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. And now I’m sitting smack dab in the middle of a gray area, unsure of whether to go to the left or to the right. To close my heart or to hold it open. To hope that this chapter of my life isn’t over yet or to turn the page and see if God is beginning to write a new chapter.

I have no discernible reason to close the door on this opportunity, and I have every reason to believe that God is not yet finished writing this chapter. Save the one reason that is forcing me to relinquish control. Everything was black and white until now.

I close my eyes and wish that it were all a dream. I wish that I’d never walked through that door. I wish that I’d never sent that invitation. I wish that I’d never made that phone call. I wish that I’d never driven to that coffee shop.

Or do I?

If I hadn’t, I’d never have smiled with that smile, or breathed in that aroma, or tasted that flavor, or watched that movie, or cooked that meal.

The beauty is that none of it was for naught. For all of this has taught me that I have absolutely no control over my life. Every trial I face teaches me that when I have no control over my life, I am better off. For herein rests sole authorship of my life—Jesus, my King. And every pain I endure drives me closer to his heart.

So that I may look more and more like him.

I pray that I will no longer have control.

Pornography, abilities, rights, and dental floss. . .

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
~ Dr. Ian Malcolm

I came across an article today on the havoc that pornography wreaks on a relationship. One of the commenters said this: “What I ask you is what is so bad about porn, I really do not see porn as a sin, in itself is releasing sexual tensions. (sic) Only the benighted would think that it’s a sin against ones (sic) wife. The subject is weak, and saying that it’s lust is callow.”

Disregarding the irony of the commenter referring to the desuetude of pornography as childish, I want to focus on what struck me about his attitude. A fixation on one’s capabilities reveals a self-centeredness characteristic of toddlers and young children. It’s hardly becoming of a grown man; the child exclaims, “Look what I can do!” while the adult asks, “Given what I can do, what then should I do?”

The role of the man in his relationship with his significant other (whether wife, fiancée, or girlfriend) is to pursue and sacrifice, not to satisfy his own needs. In Ephesians 5, Paul writes that the husband is to love his wife in the same way that Christ loved the church, sacrificing himself for her. That’s our role model, guys. That’s how we’re to relate to the most important woman in our lives.

I don’t really want to turn this into a post about maintaining control over one’s libido, though that’s certainly an aspect of this. What I want to consider is the general idea of self control. Being able to do/say/eat/own something doesn’t necessitate doing/saying/eating/owning that thing. In America, we live in a culture where we like to assert our rights. It’s my right to drink whatever size of beverage I want. It’s my right to own whatever kind of gun I want. I realize this is taking a turn towards politics, so I’ll stop citing examples now. I’m not going to comment on whether those rights should exist in the first place or not, but there are consequences for asserting our rights. Drinking as large a soda as you can get your hands on will lead to health complications down the road. Owning as powerful a gun as possible will lead to increased suspicion from local authorities.

In the film Jurassic Park, the scientists that John Hammond hired discovered a way to bring extinct animals back to life. As is common in a Michael Crichton story, the characters didn’t think through the consequences of their actions, and the island descends into chaos.

Every action has a consequence. Everything I do affects some area of my life and, by simple association, also affects the lives of those closest to me. The Bible speaks often of maintaining a certain standard of living, not so that we can earn favor with God because through Christ we already have that, but so that we can live at peace with those around us. Paul wrote to the church in Rome some basic instructions for an ethical lifestyle for Christians. In that section of his letter, the message is that we are to give up our needs and desires for the sake of those around us.

During a recent staff meeting, my pastor gave a lesson on the value of discipline. In every other aspect of life, the benefit of growth is additive. For example, the more I read about something, the more knowledge I gain on the subject matter. But when we learn discipline, growth’s benefit is exponential. So, if I discipline myself to floss daily, not only do I no longer have food stuck between my teeth, but my gums grow stronger and healthier, my breath is much more attractive, and I extend my longevity.

I’m seeing this happen in my own life as well. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably discovered that I’m a romantic. But I have a friend with whom I have to keep this character trait in check. You see, I’m the guy that would write letters on parchment paper with a fountain pen and seal them shut with an old-fashioned wax seal, or show up on her doorstep with flowers and a poem. But that isn’t helpful to her at all. Yes, it’s terribly difficult for me to hold that guy back. She’s astoundingly beautiful to me. But I learn to discipline myself—to refrain from singing of her beauty from the rooftops, from whisking her away on a horse-drawn carriage, from writing sonnets about her lilting gracefulness—not just for her well-being, but also in order to learn discipline.

What are the benefits of this discipline? For starters, I begin to understand her need for trust-building. I begin to discover what it means to be patient, not only in this one area of my life, but in many other areas as well.

But it also means that I lay my own wants and desires down and care primarily for what she needs. I give up my natural urges for the sake of meeting her where she’s at and looking after what she requires.

Even though I’m perfectly capable of being the type of guy who writes eloquent love letters and creatively devises romantic evenings, I may not have license to be that type of guy. Because ultimately, every action I take has some kind of effect on another person, likely the one I care for the most. Whatever action I take, I take because I should seek to benefit another, not simply because I can.

Paul put it this way: “In humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
~ John Donne

Failing at grace. . .

    legalism |ˈlēgəˌlizəm|
    noun

  • excessive adherence to law or formula.
  • dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.

I hate rules.

Unfortunately, I’ve lived my entire life under a strict system of rules and regulations designed to govern every little part of my life. So, I’m used to rules. And there’s a part of me that refuses to live without them. Here’s a perfect example: my rules about dating. It should come as no surprise then that I’ve had my rules challenged time and time again.

And I’ve found myself forced to either break my own rules or eliminate them entirely.

Why?

Because I’ve often found that by creating rules for myself, I’m developing a system to counteract the very thing that I claim to believe in: grace. Grace is something I never give myself. I’m my own harshest critic, and I set for myself an unattainable standard.

I may never discover why I do this to myself, especially knowing what I know about God and how he relates to me. But I can fairly easily trace its roots.

I spent seventeen years of my life in a sect of Christianity that valued rules and regulations above the grace that God makes so readily available to us. Sure, they spoke and taught of grace, but every action revealed a legalistic and pharasaical heart.

I may claim to have broken free from those chains, but the evidence of my life says otherwise. I may be able to extend grace to others, but how long will that last if I’m so unwilling to offer it to myself?