X-Men and Eschatology

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(By the way, Eschatology is the study of the last days.)

Spoiler Alert! Read no further if you were planning to watch Days of Future Past and haven’t gotten around to it yet!

In the most recent X-men movie, Days of Future Past, things are not going well for our mutant heroes.  The movie begins some 15 years in the future where the X-men are being hunted down and eliminated by mutant killing robots.  In order to survive, and save the rest of humanity from the unintended consequences of a campaign to control the mutant population,  they hatch a plan to send the consciousness of Logan, AKA Wolverine (pictured above), back in time to warn his friends of the hopeless future that awaits them and give them a way of preventing this future from ever happening.  So, in short, Logan is incarnated in a 1970s body to bring the bad news of the fate that awaits his friends, and then gives them advice in how they might prevent it from happening.  Hmmm, that got me to thinking

Metaphors are always limited – if you push them too far in any direction they will eventually break down.  Never-the-less, this story, through contrast, may shed some light on a healthy way to see the resurrection of Jesus.

Just like Wolverine comes from the future to occupy a body here in our present, Jesus comes out of the grave as the firstborn from the dead.  He is the first one from God’s future to arrive in the present; He is the first fruit of the resurrection (Col 1:18) but it is a mistake to think of Jesus’ resurrection as an interruption in progression of history. This isn’t just Jesus returning to life after a two day power nap. Jesus isn’t just an exception to the rule: “You die, you get buried, you disappear.”

In the resurrection of Jesus, God is “doing a whole new thing!” (Is 43:19).  Paul says the same thing in 2 Cor 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Your baptism is a preview of an arrival that will occur in the future.  Just like your body comes out of the water, your new resurrection body will come out of the grave (For more on this idea see Rom 6: 3-5).  The Apostle John closes the book of Revelation with a quote from Jesus, “Look, I am making all things new!” (Rev 21:5). That is what is happening in the resurrection.  It is the first part of God’s new creation showing up in the present.

The death of Jesus is not just a transaction to appease an angry God.  God is doing some new creating here! First Jesus, and then the rest of us.  If you read about the resurrection appearances of Jesus in Matt 28, Luke 24,and John 21,  something curious is going on: they don’t seem to recognize Jesus, at least not at first.  Jesus’ body is somehow both the same (holes in Jesus hands and his side), but it is also different at the same time.

In some ways, however, what is happening in Days of Future Past is the opposite of what is happening when Jesus rises from dead.  Logan comes to the present with bad news about a hopeless future.  Jesus comes to the present with good news (Gospel) of a hopeful future!  Logan arrives with advice on what needs to be done in order to secure victory over their enemies. Jesus arrives with news of what has already been done!  The victory has already been won.

The only enemy left to be defeated is death (1 Cor 15:26), and paradoxically, it is finally defeated when you die.  When you pass from this life into the next, death’s hold on you is finally lost.  That is what Paul is talking about in 2 Cor 15:55-57 when he says.

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a lot more I would like to say about God and time travel but that is probably a blog entry for another day. :)

ncw

Attending a Church With 50 Members is Good For You (You Just Don’t Realize It)

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If you talk to church leaders – it won’t matter what tribe you ask – they will likely tell you that attendance is down in their local congregation. Very few churches these days report numerical growth and many are in steady decline. That’s bad news right? The problem with this issue is that there is an untested assumption that comes in through the back door uninvited, and if you’re not careful you won’t think about it at all.

Is your church better off with more Sunday morning attenders?

Of course it is right? That’s the point isn’t it? The point of doing church is to get more people to come to church? Isn’t it?

Now before I get too far I need to qualify my “click-bait” title. I am not saying that attending a big church is bad for you.  There are lots of blessings there.  If that is what God is doing in your immediate context, great!  I am also not saying you should make your church smaller.  I’m just saying that there are unexpected blessings in smallness and in order to think about this issue more clearly you probably need to reflect on what the purpose is for gathering together in the first place: Does the church exists to satisfy its own needs or does it exist to give its life for the world?

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Your church may be misled into thinking that it exists for the benefit of its members. There is no doubt that more people attending on Sunday means more donations (more cash) and more volunteers (more slave labour). It’s fun to sing with a big group, and the extroverts in the crowd get a charge with a larger gathering of people. So if your church exists to serve its own members then yes, more Sunday morning attenders is better. But I would like to suggest that this comes from an impoverished imagination. The church doesn’t just exist to serve the needs of its members. That is a lie that distracts us from what our purpose really is. If you want to know the purpose for gathering together then we need to think about the nature of the God we worship.

God is love (1 John 4:8), a self-giving love that lives for the benefit of the other. God came in human form and spent his life serving (Mark 10:45). God not only served humanity but also poured his life out in complete submission. God was buried and has now risen from the dead. He lives today, and serves the world today, embodied by those who call him Master.

So when groups of followers of Jesus gather together today, they find new ways to give their lives to each other and to the community, just like Jesus did; Serving without an agenda or without concern about whether people deserve it or not. We serve because God served. We love because God loves and a gathering of followers of Jesus, big or small, is an opportunity for us to share a witness of what God is doing in our midst. God has forgiven sin and restored the capacity for us to have a relationship with God. If you are a follower of Jesus then you are called to be a witness, someone who has observed first hand what Jesus has done and what Jesus is capable of doing.

Whether the community is gathered or scattered, the mandate to be Christ’s witnesses defines every dimension of our life together. No matter how many attend the gathering, we demonstrate the reality of God’s love in the ways that the community functions. When we gather together we practice “saying our faith” – with and without words – so that we will be able say it when we aren’t together. We gather in order to practice speaking of God’s mercy in our lives and practice listening to what God is doing in other people’s lives. We gather together to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11-12). That is why we gather together and it doesn’t matter how many people there are.

As a result, ministry in the missional age (the time which we find ourselves in now) is not about attracting a crowd, but instead it is all about cultivating a holding space in the midst of the community where we can watch for evidence of God’s work in our midst. The question the 21st century church leader needs to be asking in the midst of his or her community is, “What is God up to in our midst? Where have you seen evidence of God seeking, of God saving, or God restoring? Is there some way that we can participate with God in this new act of redemption?” Through sermons, songs, readings, adult classes, coffee time conversations, we need to be asking these questions and encouraging the people in our midst to get better and better at answering these questions.

I appreciate that you could read this and say to me, “easy for you to say. You work for a church with 180 people attending on Sunday morning.” I would respond that while that is true, a church of 100, 200, or 1 000 has some very difficult challenges that small churches do not have to worry about in the same way. Larger churches are increasingly tempted toward self-sufficiency. When you have 200 people you can be tempted to rely on your own collective strength, which is a sin. You will be sorely tempted to trust your ample donation revenue, your ample supply of volunteers rather than relying on the risen Christ. If you had more people attending your church you could be increasingly tempted by the draw of performance excellence rather than the excellence of our Saviour. If you had more people attending your church you might be tempted to chase the illusion of empire: beautiful buildings, multiple staff, exciting programs. Jesus was never impressed with programs, you shouldn’t be either (Matt 24:1-2).

If Christ is risen, he is in the midst of your group, whatever size it is. Christ is also in the midst of your community. I would encourage you to witness to the greatness of God when your group gathers. Practice trusting him for everything, and then cultivate an attitude of expectant watching. Where is God showing up in your midst these days?

You Don’t Actually Learn From Experience

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Lots of people say that the best way to learn is from experience but the truth is, strictly speaking, nobody actually learns from experience.  If you want proof of that, consider what a group like Alcoholics Anonymous would say about real learning.  Learning is observed through a change in behaviour. A person dealing with alcoholism, or any destructive pattern, has likely been through a number of destructive cycles – lots of experience – without “learning” anything.  Most alcoholics will tell you that there are powerful forms of adaptive denial at work that keep people from getting the help they need.  They will often coach themselves saying, “I can get on top of this,” or “It’s not that bad,” “I can stop any time.” In the face of a destructive behaviour, new information doesn’t change anything; people just take this new information and absorb it within their existing structures.

New information, by itself, will only very rarely change someone’s long term behaviour.  If you actually want to help someone learn something you need to do more than just provide them with new information.

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Real learning comes from experience (information) that you then have an opportunity to reflect on, and then a chance to talk about with a group of people, and churches don’t typically do this very well.  Usually it happens by accident, if it happens at all. In a church context, what this means is that the sermon is actually not a very effective tool for changing behaviour. I’m not saying sermons aren’t useful, they just aren’t very effective by themselves.  You are “learning” more when you talk about a sermon than when you are listening to one.  That’s why it is so important for your church to have an opportunity to discuss the sermon.  It gives people a chance to learn!

You are not learning much through the absorption of information, no matter how well it is presented. But when you have a chance to reflect on it and then talk about what you’ve learned, well now we’re getting somewhere! You can add this cycle of reflection in all kinds of contexts in your life: at the end of the day ask your kids, “What happened today?”  When they answer they are not just informing you of what they did, they are learning about it along with you. If you are taking a class, or reading a book, take some time to summarize what you are learning and share it with somebody.  Not only do they have a chance to learn, you will understand it better too.

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A Distracted Mind

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This week I’ve been learning about Spiritual Reflection at a one week intensive course at Lipscomb University. We talked about a study done by two Harvard researchers who wanted to track the connection between where your attention was focused, and how happy you were. So they developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals during a day to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.
Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television.

On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 47 percent of the time. Even when actively engaged in a task their minds were on other things no less than 30 percent of the time. We are a very distracted people, that’s not a surprise, but what I find interesting is that the researchers report that people are happiest when they are fully present in what they are doing, regardless of what that happens to be. The researchers found that when people are making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation they were most happy, and also, most mentally present. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

Most of us wouldn’t expect resting or using a computer to be an unhappy experience, but that’s what the researchers found.  One wrote, “mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness, in fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

People who are well practiced in Christian contemplation have been telling us this for years (hundreds of years actually), that one of the best things you can do to improve your mental state is to be fully present in what you are currently doing. In Luke 6 and 7 and 8 Jesus left the crowds in order to spend some time in reflection and prayer.  Maybe there is something to this quiet reflection stuff.

I am by no means an expert in this practice but out of this week I would share two pieces of free advice:

  1. Being present takes practice. People are not naturally good at remaining present.  It takes intentional effort and years of practice to get good at it.  I would suggest that you start with the practice of centering prayer: Find a relatively quiet place and spend some time centered on a short phrase or even a word that can ground you in your present reality.  When you first start there will be lots of thoughts bouncing around in your head – my professor calls them “the monkeys in your head.” The key response is not to address them with your mind.  You are centered on your prayer phrase or word.  The monkeys will come – let them go.  Addressing them will only continue the distraction. Spend a little time every day “ignoring the monkeys” in your head and focusing on a word or phrase and you will find yourself a little bit more present.
  2. Actively resist distraction. Ironically you are likely reading this from a “distraction device” like a cell phone or IPad.  These devices are a great blessing to us at time but they can also be a tyrant for our attention.  Being present means ignoring or resisting the distractions in your life. It could be you need boundaries in your life to make being mindful more likely.  Maybe you need to put your phone in a drawer when you get home and not even look at it for the rest of the day.  Maybe you need to schedule some “screen free” time in your life.  If this research is to be believed, if you are feeling down or frazzled log out of facebook and take a walk.  You might even need to take a break from facebook.  If the last five facebook posts have been about how overwhelmed you are, you need a fresh perspective. Mindfulness will make your experiences better, good or bad.  Take some time to meet God in the quiet.  God is waiting to bless you through the silence you can find in your life.

ncw

Beyond Betrayal

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“Hosea and Gomer” by Cody Miller.

Hosea 3:1-5

1 The Lord said to me, “Go, love your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”

2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a half of barley. 3 Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”

4 For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods. 5 Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.

In the book of Hosea we see a heartbreaking story: the prophet Hosea is invited –instructed no less – to love a woman who would break his heart.  “Go marry a promiscuous woman,” (Hos 1:2) God says. If the phrase is proleptic, it implies that Gomer became a prostitute after they were married.  Perhaps she began in faithful union, but later wandered.  If not, she was already involved with other men, loved by others, and now Hosea too.  Either way, this heartbreaking story is told in parallel with another love story between God and his people Israel.  God’s love, and Israel’s response is described in various places in the Scriptures, and each with different effect.

Jeremiah laments that Israel has been like an unfaithful spouse. (Jer 3) Despite being loved by a faithful love, a perfect love, Israel has descended to unimaginable depths.  Worse than being paid for sex, Israel has sought its own lovers, and paid them for their time. Ezekiel describes Israel as an abandoned infant who is adopted, embraced, loved, and nurtured back to health, only to betray and reject her loving parent. (Ez 16) Isaiah says that Israel is like a flock of sheep who have gone astray. (Is 53:6)  Impossibly, despite being the object of an eternal love, a perfect love, with a deviant will and with malice of forethought, we have been loved with a perfect love and yet we’ve walked away.

God grieves for his beloved, but is received, not with hostile rejection, or contempt, but with apathetic indifference. In Malachi God says, “I have loved you, but you say, ‘How have you loved me?’ ” (Mal 1:2)

After repeated betrayals Hosea’s marriage is ruined.  In chapter two we read the formulaic charge of a rabbinical divorce ceremony, “She is not my wife.  I am not her husband.” (Hos 2:2)  Human relationships are fragile and delicate.  Easily broken, and not easily repaired.  There is only so far a man can forgive a woman.  There is only so much that a woman can forgive a man.  Hosea’s marriage is ruined, his home is shattered.  Perhaps it was he who raised their three prophetically named children.  God-Sows, Unloved, and Not-Mine, raised in a single parent home.

But God surprises us –shocks us– in chapter 3.  It’s over and done–too far gone– but God says “Hosea, go love your wife, though she is loved by another… Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites.” (Hos 3:1) It doesn’t seem possible!  How could God do that?!  After the embarrassing betrayal, being openly rejected in favour of another lover, How could God ask this?

The situation may be even worse than we realize.

Hosea writes that he took her back, he bought her back!  15 shekels and a homer and an half of barley, the going rate of a slave. In the ancient world buying your own wife is a purchase that is as absurd as you can imagine.  To 21st century sensibilities it is offensive to talk like this but in their culture, a wife was thought of as a husband’s property anyway.  To reconcile with an unfaithful wife was foolhardy, but to redeem your wife was absurd!

The shock and gruesome spectacle of this story might distract us from one fact that might otherwise escape our notice.  What God is commanding here is illegal!  Deut 24:1-4 commands that a man cannot remarry his wife, once he has divorced her.  How can God ask Hosea to do something that is prohibited in the law?  Once he has divorced his wife, he cannot go back and remarry her.

But if we’re not careful we might be guilty of asking the wrong question here, for although law shapes and forms love, love precedes law.  God loved Israel before he gave her the law.  “While we were powerless,–God loved–Christ died for the unlovable.”

Love comes before the law. If the law took pre-eminence – if the law came first – there would be no gospel in the Old or the New Testament. It’s important to understand that Hosea is not being asked to break the law here. He is being asked to go beyond the law in the pursuit of love, rather than uphold the law. Hosea demonstrates God’s purpose in love which transcends (rather than violates) the law.

If the law were the only criterion, God could not have sent his Son to redeem the world, any more than Hosea could have gone out to remarry Gomer.  But divine love is a force that knows no bounds.  Law may follow love to give it shape and direction, but it can never have pre-eminence.

A Messiah dying on a cross was impossible to imagine. It was even more absurd than a man buying his own wife, but it testifies to the depth of God’s love for his people.  “I am not just your King, I am not just a shepherd, I am more than a Father, I am your husband.  I love you.”

Here in Hosea 3 we see a love recovered but we also see a love discovered.  God says “I love you; I have always loved you. Not because you are more beautiful than the others, not because of what you can do for me, not because of what you bring to the relationship.  I love you, just because I love you.”

God’s love is illogical.  It isn’t logical for a man to buy his own wife.  God’s love is not just illogical, it’s extra-logical; it is hyper-logical.  It doesn’t contradict human logic, God’s love transcends human logic, it precedes logic.

In human figuring, betrayal marks the boundaries of love.  I love you “if.”  I love you “when.”  I love you “until.”  For human love, there are boundaries to what we are able to put up with.  There are limits to what we are willing to endure.  But God loves with a love that goes beyond betrayal.  God’s love doesn’t not stand limited by the beloved’s compliance, or faithfulness.  God’s love transcends the limitation of human categories.  God loves not because we are lovable, or faithful, or compliant or true.

“I love you because I love you.”  God loves with a perfect love, an eternal love.  And God calls us to love each other the same way.  How could God do that?  How can God ask this of us?  God asks us to love the way that he loves Israel.

God asks us to love the churches that don’t appreciate our talents or gifts.  God asks us to love the people who don’t trust us.  God calls us to love beyond rejection.

God calls us to love churches that are apathetic toward our leadership, and unmoved by our preaching.  God calls us to love beyond the lack of a reciprocal response.

God calls us to love the person who has been receiving support from the benevolence committee for two years running and just sold the grocery store gift cards you gave them last week so they could buy smokes.  God calls us to love past being taken advantage of.

God calls us to love churches who have hurt us, and wounded us and our families.   God calls us to love stingy people, bitter brothers, and unrepentant sisters.  God calls us to love beyond betrayal.

So love is not the boundary condition for discipleship: “Love like I do or else.”  Love is not the minimum standard for continued blessing.  God invites us to love like he does because his love is like a broad place, an open space. There is freedom when we love like God does. We are freed from calculated proportional responses: loving others in the manner we have been loved.

We are freed from an endless attempt to secure a reciprocal response.  We are delivered from bitterness and strife when we love like he loves. He invites us to exceed a bondage to balanced equations: tit for tat, and wrong for wrong. Now, in these “last days” we love because we are loved by the one who is love.

NCW

A New Year’s Resolution for Social Media

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If you are considering a New Year’s resolution, might I suggest that you resolve to improve the way you participate in social media. With every new communication technology there is a period of time between its arrival and when our culture catches up with appropriate social boundaries for its use and we are right smack in the middle of that gap with social media. Over 800 million people check Facebook every day but I think that, even despite all the practice we’re getting, people still haven’t figured out how to use social media well.

For example, I think that a day will come when we will look back on the cell phone etiquette of the early twenty-first century and cringe. Our grandchildren are probably going to think that using a cell phone in the bathroom as a bad thing. Even today, we know we shouldn’t interrupt a face-to-face conversation to read and respond to a text but we still do it. Social media has only been around for ten years and it is becoming clear that not all of it is bad but not all of it is good either. I believe it is important to understand there are Four Levels of Social Media Communication .  It’s not that one is better than another, it’s just that we need to guard against getting stuck in one mode of communication.  We need a variety of communication levels.   If you look at your twitter feed or your Facebook news feed you will find almost every post will fit into one of these categories.

Level 1: Sharing Other People’s Moral Outrage
level 1This is where someone shares a link to some website or commentary where someone else shares what they’re against. These are outrageous, offensive, sometimes hilarious posts that usually feature a “click-bait” titles like: “You won’t believe what this girl did!” “The government doesn’t want you to see this.” It is the cheapest form of social media use because it doesn’t provide any insight into how you, the media user thinks. You are sharing a provocative comment or story without sharing what you think about it. It is easy to be outraged – and sometimes we need to be outraged – but it doesn’t give your readers/friends any insight into how you think. The problem is that if you’re not careful, you get stuck at level one and never move on to level two.

Level 2: Sharing What I Am Against
level 2Like level one, this is a post or blog entry where I share what I am personally opposed to or upset about. “When are they going to fire that coach?” “Of course my car won’t start on the day I have a job interview!” Grouch, simmer, complain. Now don’t get me wrong! There is nothing wrong with sharing something that has your knickers in a knot. This post you’re reading is at least partly operating at level two. Again, the problem comes when you get stuck here. Too many social media users live in level one and two and never get past it. They are always posting what ticks them off, or what makes them mad, or the latest junk media source of outrage. You know you’re stuck when you can’t find anything to write otherwise. You point out problems and can’t give any suggested solutions. You can’t find anything to be positive about. Eventually two things happen. Your friends quit reading your stuff (ain’t nobody got time for that!) and it starts to change the way you see the world. When all that lights you up is what is wrong then guess what you are going to start to notice? We all need to get past this level and move to richer, more meaningful communication. Don’t just tell me what you’re against. Tell me what you’re for. What do you agree with? You’ve told me about the problem, what do you suggest we do for a solution?

Level 3 is Sharing What Other People Are For.

level 3bIt differs from level one because it engages not just the problem, but also a possible solution. Level three social media communication involves sharing things that other people support. It might be a blog article that someone writes that captures what you affirm about a particular issue. Maybe it’s a video with some inspirational thought, or video of people helping complete strangers. It’s a richer than level one because it doesn’t just troll the depths of what is wrong with the world. It starts to look at what is right. Sometimes level three posts suggest a brave new step forward for you. You might gain a new perspective on poverty, or marriage, or God by reading what someone else affirms. The only thing that is missing in level three discourse is that it still doesn’t share what you are all about. The personal response is what’s missing and that is what level four is all about.

Level 4: Sharing What You Affirm.

level 4Level four is the richest kind of social media communication. It is where you share not just what you have heard other people support (Level 3), not just what you are outraged about (Level 2), not just what others have complained about (Level 1). Level four is where you share what you personally appreciate or support. Last month a bunch of my American friends shared something they were thankful for every day of November leading up to Thanksgiving day. I say, “keep it going!” I loved hearing my friends from down south share how they are thankful for their spouses, their kids, their jobs or just everyday little stuff. Now, it did start to get a bit shallow, but it was a welcome diversion from griping about Obama, bringing guns into Starbucks, Gay marriage, etc. One of my favourites is a woman who shares, not every day, but once or twice a week something about her husband that she appreciates. It is encouraging, sometimes funny, and I get to know my friend a little better by reading it, and that is what Level four is all about.

Level four is special because it is a genuine sharing of yourself. It is something that you believe or love or appreciate and as a result it reflects a little bit about what you are all about. This is where social media has real value. Before Facebook and the Internet, this is the kind of insight I would never have into the lives of my friends who live at a distance. I wouldn’t get to read about them and their lives. I would miss all the moments, good (Level 4), and bad (Level 2).

So what I am suggesting is this: take a look at your use of social media and aim for a balance of positive (Level 4) and negative (Level 2). You don’t have to live in denial and pretend that everything is perfect. But mix it up a little bit would ya? I think we all get stuck in a rut from time to time and need to be reminded that it’s not all good and it’s not all bad either.

Posting stuff other people have written both negative (Level 1) and positive (Level 3) is fine but it would really help if you included what you think. If you are going to post someone’s outrage about Duck Dynasty, include a suggestion about what you think A&E should do. Tell me, your reader, how you would have responded to the GQ interview question. That way we don’t all get stuck throwing other people’s words at each other.

As one of my professor’s is fond of saying, “let’s raise the level of discourse.” In 2014, let’s resolve to be a little more vulnerable in what you share online and tell others what you think, and in response, let’s be kinder and more gracious to each other.

NCW

Why Christmas is a Good Time to Grieve

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I won’t be trite or fancy with this topic because there are many people I know and love that have a tough road to walk at Christmas time. What I mean by the title is this: the Christmas story, properly understood, is a great comfort to those who are grieving.

Blogger Jon Bloom puts it wonderfully last year when he writes, “Christmas is actually a very good time for grief. Because sorrow has a way of disbursing fantasy nonsense and pointing us to what the birth of Jesus was all about: death’s destruction”

That’s why Jesus was born. Jesus was not born to give us a good example of how to live. Jesus entered the human experience so that he could die and ultimately be raised from the dead in triumph over death. In Heb 2:14-15 it says that Jesus was born…

so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

If we can assume there is a God, then at Christmas time (actually all the time) there are two ways of viewing life. One is that God sent his son Jesus as an ambassador to show you how to live; You live a good life and when you die God takes you to heaven.

The other way of looking at life is that sin has entered the world and things are not the way they should be. Jesus enters the world in weakness and experiences life in all its weakness so that through death and resurrection he can set us free from sin and death. You are saved not by what you do but by what God has done through Jesus.

Notice that in the first way God stays strong. He’s up in heaven. He told you what to do: Live right, say your prayers, go to church, do good, obey the law and you get to go to heaven. A strong God calling strong people to be strong and join him.

In the gospel however God becomes weak. He comes in the form of a baby, the best example of vulnerable there is. He empties himself and creates a way to live that gives life and freedom from slavery. It is not a way of life that is taken or earned; it is a way of life that is received. The only way to receive this new life is to accept it in weakness: “I am a sinner, I am not able to do this on my own, I receive this life from you Jesus.” You allow yourself to be baptized (you can’t even do that part by yourself) and are born again!

“Born to raise the sons of earth.
Born to give them second birth…”

The Christmas story reminds us that God comes in weakness to destroy death. He knows what loss is like and in the same way that there is hope at dawn – the sun is rising – there is comfort for those who grieve at Christmas time.

NCW

What is a Christian Song?

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“This is a Christian song?”

We were having a father – son conversation in the car on our way somewhere when I had some words of praise for my son’s – right at this particular moment – favourite band. The song is called “Demons” by Imagine Dragons but don’t let the title fool you. The song is a kind of lament.

It is spoken from a young man’s perspective, speaking of his beloved. He cannot truly love her because of hidden secrets in his past. He confesses that his pet sins may be concealed where they cannot easily be seen but when your loved ones are close, they are in danger; demons lurk right behind your eyes, hidden in plain sight.

I wanna hide the truth, I wanna shelter you;
But with the beast inside, There’s nowhere we can hide.

No matter what we breed, We still are made of greed;
This is my kingdom come, This is my kingdom come.

When you feel my heat look into my eyes;
It’s where my demons hide, it’s where my demons hide.
Don’t get too close, it’s dark inside;
It’s where my demons hide, it’s where my demons hide.

Casual hook-ups with no strings attached are indeed our “kingdom come.” It’s the bed we’ve made and it would seem we are bound to lay in it. By the third verse the artist is calling out for way to be free of the demons.

They say it’s what you make, I say it’s up to fate;
It’s woven in my soul, I need to let you go.

Your eyes, they shine so bright, I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now, Unless you show me how

“Is this a Christian song?”

St. Augustine 2St. Augustine, in his own day, rejected the notion that the Scriptures were the exclusive domain of truth, and secular wisdom was useless. He wrote that “we ought not to give up music because of the superstition of the heathen, if we can derive anything from it that is of use for the understanding of Holy Scripture … let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master;” (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine II.18.28)

All wisdom is God’s wisdom but not everything is wise. Secular music, literature or art is not necessarily prescriptive of life and godliness, but it is often descriptive of what happens when we choose to go our own way.  Our culture balks at words like “sin,” and “moral failure” but YouTube sings better than it knows. Popular music is full of honest confession and angst that teens will willingly identify with. The question isn’t “what is the moral orientation of the song?” The question is “what would Jesus say in the fourth verse?”

Pet sins are indeed like demons, they are tender traps that wound us and the ones we love. But the one “in whom all treasures of wisdom and knowledge abides” (Col 3:2) is the master of demons. He is the one who can set us free. We are trapped by our own sin when we cannot receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers.  Jesus willingly offers to take the blame and the consequences of our selfish deeds but we can’t be free until we submit to his rule.

So we talked about how our sins can seem like demons, but Jesus can set us free from our sins.  He is master of everything, including demons. It was a fruitful conversation about the consequences of sin and how Jesus sets us free now and in the life to come.

Every song has insight into the human condition, though admittedly, some more have more than others.   Where else have you seen God’s truth in popular media?  What does Jesus have to say in response?

Glory that Fades

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One thing that sports helps us see is our inborn hunger for glory. We are constantly trying to lay a hold of something transcendent, even in our hobbies and pastimes. In every sport, nearly every season, something or someone will claim to having achieved something of eternal significance.  This year in baseball, one of the stories that baseball fans have followed all year long is Mariano Rivera’s final season as a relief pitcher for the New York Yankees.  Rivera has been one of the best, if not the best relief pitcher in baseball.  At 43 years old, he still demands respect and he remains (uncharacteristically for a New York Yankee) humble about his accomplishments.

Rivera is a believer in Jesus Christ and has used his career in baseball to the glory of God, in his own way.  In every city he has played in this year he has taken the time to gather (with the help of the home team staff) a group of ball field maintenance workers and stadium employees and thank them for what they contribute to the game. rivera9 He has been fetted in every ball diamond in the American League this season. Last week, in his final appearance at the Rogers Centre, his opponents, the Toronto Blue Jays presented him with an Inuit statue celebrating his remarkable career.

As good as Rivera has been, the truth is that his remarkable achievements won’t last. The Yankees are out of playoff contention and in about a month someone will get the last out of the final game of the 2013 World Series (please not a Red Sox player) and Rivera’s career milestone will slip a bit in the collective memory of baseball. In five years, maybe ten, there will be someone else challenging his accomplishments. Anyone suggesting today that Rivera’s 602 saves will never be equaled is saying more about possible demise of baseball as a spectator sport than about the transcendence of Rivera’s accomplishments.

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.” (Ecc 3:11)

God made a countless number of stars in the sky to show us that we are never going to get to the end of counting them.  God has put a yearning in our hearts for the truly magnificent and glorious that we will never totally satisfy to show us that no matter how glorious our man-made spectacles, there is one sight that will surpass them all: the moment we enter glory, in the presence of God, the author of wonder.  It will be true glory when we see the one whom legends imitate, the one who is the true closer, the one who truly saves.  That will be glorious.

This Pope is the Best!

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Have I mentioned how impressed I am by Pope Francis? When he was first named pope last March he made it clear that, with him as Pope, things were going to be different. Once the conclave had decided, the Master of Ceremonies came forward with the traditional papal red cape trimmed with ermine. Pope Francis declined to wear it (a first) saying, “No thank you, Monsignore, you put it on instead. Carnival time is over!”

pope on the busHe is the first member of the Jesuit order to be named pope in their 500 year history.  (What’s a Jesuit?) The Jesuits are known for embracing a life of poverty and standing in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized and Pope Francis has continued this practice.  When he was installed as Pope he told his fellow bishops from Argentina not to bother attending the ceremony.  “Save the air fare and give it to the poor.” He  has since declined the use of the Vatican Papal apartments, using servants quarters instead.  When visiting Buenos Aires this summer he left the pope-mobile behind and rode the bus.

funny-Pope-Francis-selfie2A couple of weeks ago I saw a picture taken at a teen conference.  A group of teens took a selfie with the pope (see above). Then last week I read about a woman who received a call from the Pope.  A few months ago she was is a desperate situation.  She was pregnant with a married man’s baby and this man was pressuring her to have an abortion.  She didn’t know what else to do so she wrote the pope explaining that she was going to keep the baby but didn’t know if she could stand up under the pressure.  A few weeks later he called her at home and encouraged her, thanking her for not aborting her baby.

Now this week, in an interview with a Catholic Magazine, the Pope said that Catholics “must shake off its obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and become more merciful.”  A spokesperson for the Catholic church says this statement represents a change of tone and not a change of position for the church which is a remarkable statement.  There is no change in the teaching of the Catholic church but there is a desire to place the focus somewhere new. Whether it’s a change in tone or position, one thing is for sure, it sure sounds a lot like Jesus.

Protestants need to perk up there ears here too.  We also need to work harder at being defined by what we support, instead of being caricatured by what we oppose. I hope someday, when I am gone, my kids and my grandkids can reflect affectionately on what I supported, and what I contributed to, rather than what I opposed and what I argued against. How about you?  Are you known for what you support or what you oppose?   What did Jesus tell his followers to be known for?

  • “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” Matt 10:42
  • “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matt 25: 40
  • “…give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mark 10:21
  • “…when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14

Pope Francis also sounds like the apostle James who said, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27 When the leader of a church with 1.2 billion members speaks like this, that is a game changer!

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