Tag Archives: Truth

What are we known for?

MV5BMTYyMTcxNzc5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTg2ODE2MTI@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_We saw Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales this past weekend and without giving away too much in spoilers let me just say it was the emotional, fun-filled adventure we’ve come to expect from these movies. There’s this one scene in particular that got me right in the gut. If you remember from the end of the third Pirates movie, Jack Sparrow lost the Black Pearl (again). And if you remember from the fourth one, Blackbeard shrank the Pearl and stuck it in a bottle. Well, there’s a scene early on in this one where Jack is on the beach with no ship and no crew and he stares out towards his beloved horizon and holds up the Pearl, still in the bottle, to make it look as though she’s sailing through the waves once more. It’s heartbreaking to watch. I mean, here is what he wants more than anything else in the world, the very thing that makes him who he is, and it’s the one thing he just can’t have. And in the very next scene he gets fall-down drunk and barters away the last real piece of his identity as a pirate for one more drink.

Haven’t we all been there? There’s something that we want, or need even, to make life work and for whatever reason it’s the one thing we just can’t get. And so we lock the desire away somewhere down deep and try to get on with life as it is. We get so busy we tell ourselves we haven’t got time for whatever it is, or we don’t really need it after all, thank you very much. Anything to avoid the pain inside. And who could blame us, really? There are times when I feel this way more often than I care to admit and in all honesty I simply don’t know what to do with the way I feel. It’s far easier to just try to get on with life than to face up to something I don’t even know how to begin to deal with. What exactly is at the root of all this may differ for everyone, but it’s a reality I’m convinced we all face. Black, white, gay, lesbian, trans, straight, it makes no difference. We all want more.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11 we’re told that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” We all feel like there should be something more because there actually should be something more. We’re all missing something. The crazy hope of the Bible is that there is actually something out there, some object or person of desire, which makes this whole damn thing actually make sense.

When I first had the idea for this post I was going to leave it at that. If you feel Jesus tugging on your heart through your desires then I would definitely encourage you to be open to it and respond. That being said, it hit me that this hope is supposed to be largely what defines us as Christians. In 1 Peter 3:15, the Apostle Peter tells us to “always [be] prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” The implication is that Christians are by nature such a hopeful people that those around them can’t help but notice and be intrigued by it.

Is this still true today, I wonder? I remember preaching on this text a couple of years ago and asking those in the audience when the last time was that someone had come up to them and asked why they were so hopeful. For many of those present, myself included, we couldn’t remember when this had happened, if ever. There are, of course, many reasons for that. Hope can be the last thing on your mind when your head hits the pillow after a long day at work and you know when the alarm goes off you have to get up to do it all over again. My point here is not to shame us for this but rather to point out that if we’re not known for being hopeful than we’re probably known for being something else.

If you’re reading this and you’re not a Christian you can probably think of many things Christians are known for, especially here in the U.S. (and not all of them positive). All I have to do is peruse my Facebook or my Twitter feed to know that perhaps more than anything else right now Christians in this country are known for trying to take away the rights of those we disagree with. We’re connected to the Republican party and by God we’re going to use that connection to see this country remade the way God wants it to be. It would be laughable if only it didn’t cause so much pain.

That’s what we’re known for and that’s sad. If you’ve been around a church much at all you may have heard it said of someone that they’re “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” This is usually not a compliment of the person in question. They may, for example, be so focused on being “spiritual” that they don’t have  the time or the inclination to help out their fellow man. Having observed the church in this country over the last few years, and having experienced first hand the pain we inflict on those we marginalise, I have to wonder if maybe the reverse is true of Christianity as a whole in the U.S. today. Are we so focused on this world that we’ve forgotten it isn’t our home? Once we make this world the point, anything’s justified as long as it keeps us in power. We’re the ones who have God’s authority (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves), so why shouldn’t we be in power? And have we become so wedded to our own worldview that we’ve forgotten we’re not the only voice in this culture? Are we so convinced of our hold on the truth that we’ve forgotten the need to treat others with basic dignity and respect?

I would answer yes to all of those questions. We have forgotten so much and gotten so far off track that we think the most loving thing we can do for someone is share our own worldview with them without showing even an ounce of respect for theirs.

People need hope. We all do. If the Bible is to be believed, Christians are the ones who know where to find hope, for this world as well as for the next. If we want to start bringing hope again then it’s time for us to remember just who we are and just what we’re supposed to be about as Christians.

 

 

More Thoughts on the Bible and Gender

31118_000_005_05What are we missing in the Creation story as found in Genesis? What isn’t there that we might not realize isn’t there because we take it for granted that it is? The short answer is a lot. We fight tooth and nail over creation and evolution, for example, yet do we stop to consider whether or not what we’re advocating is supported by the text? We can make the same mistake with regards to gender in Genesis 1 and 2. Granted, the Bible contains many other passages dealing with gender in one form or another, but this is where it starts. There is a lot to go on here in the text, but as I realized the other day we’re actually missing a big piece of the puzzle.

What we like to advocate based on these passages is that God makes us as men or as women. Nothing else. Not transgender, not lesbian, not gay. Man or woman. But here’s the thing. Like I mentioned in a previous post, in Genesis 1:27 we get “male” and “female.” The Hebrew word from which we get “male” translates roughly as “remarkable,” which makes sense when you consider the male sex organs. Without being too graphic, they’re prominent. They stick up. You “remark” on them because you notice them. The Hebrew word for “female” here translates roughly as “pierced,” which when you consider the physical act of sex makes perfect sense.

That’s the only description of male and female that we get in Genesis 1. It’s a physical description, written as if one was standing there observing these two people. That being said, notice what it doesn’t include. It says nothing, for example, about what’s going on inside their heads. I also mentioned in a previous post that sex or gender (however you want to term it) is deeper than mere biology. There’s not a hint of that in these descriptions. What we get is the most basic physical description and little else.

The big piece of the puzzle I referred to earlier is something along the lines of what we’ve been discussing but which you might not even notice unless you were looking for it. Last week an article I stumbled across on Facebook pointed out that definitions of gender change from culture to culture. What constitutes a man in one culture is not necessarily the same as what constitutes a man in another culture. We learn to be men or women, at least initially, based largely on culturally established norms. These norms can and do change over time but we as children exist within them and learn from them even as we may question them. Our parents did the same before us, as did their parents before them and so on.

What I noticed when I looked in Genesis 1 is that there are no parents for Adam and Eve to learn cultural norms from. If you accept the biblical passage (and if you don’t that’s fine), Adam and Eve are the first. There is no established culture for them to learn from. It just doesn’t exist. They are, put simply, making it up as they go along. To be sure, they’re learning directly from God himself, but that doesn’t change the reality that culture as we understand it simply doesn’t exist.

Now why is that a problem? Simple. We like to read our own cultural understandings back into the text as if that is what the text was talking about and it’s not. We can’t read our own cultural concepts of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman back into Genesis 1 because culture as we understand it doesn’t exist. It’s not there.

How then can we justify using Genesis 1 to attack people who don’t fit in to our cultural norms? Maybe it’s time that we stopped twisting the text and instead tried to fit ourselves into its norms. If we don’t, we’re missing out on more than we realize.

 

Mobile Strike, Childhood Dreams, and the Grind of My Life

maxresdefaultI guess it shouldn’t surprise me, what with my being a member of several gaming related groups on Facebook (mainly related to Star Trek Online, my all-time favourite MMORPG), but most of the ads on my Facebook feed right now are for different games.  The one that keeps popping up more than most is Mobile Strike, which if the hype is to be believed is the #1 downloadable game right now (or something to that effect; it must be a big deal if Arnold Schwarzenegger is associated with it). What gets me most about the different ads for this game is how blatantly they try to sell the experience. The ads take you from playing a game on your phone to actually being a hero in combat, leading your forces and fighting for domination. What gets me about that approach, in particular, is that it’s just not true.

I will readily admit I love computer games. Whether I’m trying to outsmart the computer players in Civilization V, or boldly going where no man has gone before on the bridge of my ship in Star Trek Online, playing through computer games is a very diverting hobby for me. Part of the appeal, to be sure, is simple stress relief (blowing shit up is a hell of a lot of fun), but part of it is also the chance to vicariously live out a story that is dramatically different from my own. Take Star Trek Online, for example. The way the game works, you can create multiple characters (if you so choose), but each one progresses through what is more or less the same storyline. In my case, having created 5 different characters, this means that I’ve played through most episodes of the story at least 5 times. There’s actually one particular episode I’ve played through a grand total of 15 different times (playing multiple times with each character means that you get better gear for each character). By that point, however, there really isn’t much of a story left anymore, meaning that I’ve spent countless hours creating a story to go along with the story that’s already present in the game. I can tell you who each of my characters are, what their personalities are like, what their life stories are, and even why they chose the name for their ships that they did.

As diverting and entertaining as all this may be, I have to remind myself that these characters are not actually real. I’m not actually exploring the galaxy on the bridge of my ship. What I am doing is playing a game, which at its most basic level means I am sitting in front of a computer and manipulating pixels on the screen. Mobile Strike is the same thing; the only difference is the screen tends to be smaller. So why, then, do we want to believe so badly, even just for a second, that we’re actually doing what our alter-egos in these games are doing? We must want to, otherwise they wouldn’t use that desire to get us to download these games. Do we hate our lives that much that we’re looking for an escape from them? Or is it something else, something deeper? I mean, what is it about these games that draws us to an opportunity to be someone stronger, someone greater, than who we are at present?

Most of us, I think, would admit that our lives aren’t what they could be. I don’t mean that in the “go out and get a real job” sense, or in the “win the lottery and have everything perfect” sense. When you were a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up? I work with kids for a living. We did this exercise this past week where I asked them to draw a picture of who they want to be when they grow up, and every single one of them, without fail, drew themselves as a super-hero. I don’t know about you, but I remember having similar dreams. I’d grow up to be someone great, having noble adventures doing something that mattered, and I’d save the day when no one else could. That is the kind of disconnect I’m pointing to when I say our lives aren’t what they could be. I work long hours with kids who more often than not fight me every step of the way, come home at night to eat dinner and watch a little TV, and then go to sleep to get up and do it all over again. In between I work a little on our house, make sure the dishes get done, and try to find a little time to relax with my wife. Doesn’t exactly compare with my boyhood dreams, does it? Think for a minute about your own dreams growing up, and then compare them with your current situation. Most of us are longing for more and we don’t know why, which is exactly why games like Mobile Strike are so popular. Here is a way to be that person you’ve always longed to be, and even better, it doesn’t cost you anything. There’s no chance of getting hurt while you’re out saving the day. It’s all of the glory with none of the risk.

Gaming isn’t the only way we try to fill the void created by this disconnect. We think that if we work longer hours, find something we’re really satisfied in doing, then it will go away. Or maybe, if we have the perfect house with the manicured lawn, then we’ll be past it. Some of us are a little more direct in our approach, and try to drown the disconnect in alcohol or other substances. The more spiritual of us will try to make it go away through church involvement, or something else respectable. Thing is, we can never kill it without killing ourselves, and I don’t know about you but that’s too high a price to pay.

Go back to your childhood dreams for a moment. I don’t know you, so I don’t know what they were, but you do. Is it possible that we have those dreams, and those aspirations, for a reason? What if they’re giving us a glimpse into the reality we actually live in? I know it may sound crazy, but what if, just what if, the reason that we can’t kill the disconnect they help to create is because they serve a very real purpose? Think about that.

Most of us think of Christianity as moral obligations and rules, outdated beliefs about how we’re supposed to live our lives. If you repent of all the right things before you die, you get to go heaven, and in the meantime you get to look down on all those poor souls who don’t believe as you do. It may surprise you to know that, while the Bible does contain rules for living, most of it is story. There’s a beginning, middle, and end, a plot, and a hero and a villain (along with a whole host of other characters). The short version is that God created angels first, only Lucifer rebelled and with a third of all the angels tried to take the throne of heaven by force. They lost and were thrown out of heaven, but they cast doubt on the goodness of God and so he created us, gave us a paradise in Eden and romanced us. Only we rejected him, trusting Lucifer (now called Satan) instead, and so God has done everything he can to win our hearts once more. Jesus is the fullest expression of that love and determination, and the cross is where he actually made it possible. We now live in the middle of the great struggle as God works to win back us and our world from the control of Satan. That is the story of the Bible in a nutshell, and I don’t know about you, but it bears a hell of a lot of resemblance to my boyhood dreams. Could it be that this is the reality which those dreams pointed to?

Maybe we feel like we’re meant to be more because we are meant to be more. We long to matter because we actually do matter. We long for purpose and adventure and romance because that’s what this story is all about, and we’re meant to take our place in that story. I have to also say that I’m not telling you this to enlist support for some cause or another. The idea of “spiritual warfare” has been used by Christians to justify some really dumb things over the years, but that’s not what I’m getting at here. If you’ve identified with any of what I’ve said here, if you feel that disconnect, too, then don’t ignore it or try to kill it. It’s pointing you to something more, to the story that God is telling and to your place in it. Don’t ignore that.

Life is Messy. Enjoy it!

55482167-angry-father-scolding-finger-pointing-silhouette-vector-stock-vector I’ll be the first to admit that I loathe the idea of standards for how we should live. Anytime someone says to me here’s something I ought to be doing as a good Christian man, I immediately tune them right out. Give me something I ought to be doing, and a week or so, and the odds are good I’ll have a healthy list of times when I didn’t measure up. Now the concept of measuring up is in reality totally alien to what it means to follow Jesus (we can’t ever measure up; that’s kinda the point of the Gospel), but that doesn’t keep us from trying, nor does it keep us from telling others that, as good Christian men and women, here’s what we ought to be doing in life. The saddest part is that most of us will spend a lifetime killing ourselves inside in a desperate effort to measure up to that ought, as we are all aware, on some level anyways, that we are not who we want to be.

This whole struggle hits me hardest in light of passages like Philippians 1:6, where the Apostle Paul tells his readers, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” If you’ve been around the church much you’ll probably know that we Christians take this passage to explain that we’re not perfect, but God’s working on us, and he’s not finished with us yet! (Insert overly cheerful Christian here.) What hits me with this passage is that I tend to see this whole “good work” thing as a sort of building project with specific steps. If you’ve ever put together one of those shelving units from Walmart you’ll know what I’m getting at. Do it right and at each step the project looks noticeably different than it did at the last step. If it doesn’t look different, something’s wrong. Translated to my life, this means that I assume that at this point next year I’ll be farther along in my struggles, so to speak, than I am right now. And right now I should be farther along than I was last year. If I’m not, I’ve obviously got work to do. For example, I’ll be the first to admit that I get way too defensive sometimes. There are moments when I feel like being defensive is the only thing I have left that I have control over, and so I’ll lash out instead of taking criticism. I’d like to be able to say I do this less than this time last year but that’s not really the case.

Part of what I’m trying to get at here in this post is that a relationship with Jesus is so much more than simply believing the right things and then behaving accordingly. Christianity is about more than just getting with the program, or behaviour management, or even sin management. That being said, the reality is that none of us is perfect and the struggle remains.

I guess that’s why living in a brand new single wide, on a newly cleared lot, has been so eye-opening for me. As I’ve said in other posts, we’re right in the middle of a building process ourselves, and it hasn’t gone anything like I thought it would. Get the trailer installed on the property and your set, right? Turns out that drywall has a tendency to separate a little when taken on the highway. We’ve been in here over a month now and I think (maybe) we’ve finally found the last little defect that needs repaired. And that’s not due to neglect, either. That’s just the nature of this process.

Take our yard as another example. Back in the summer, before the trailer was set up, we spent every Saturday for months out here working on the yard. We built our rock garden. We dug up roots. We leveled it out. We even had my in-laws up here with their tractor and 6-foot rake, going back and forth over the lot to make sure we didn’t miss anything. And you know what? I thought we got it all. When all was said and done, we had a very smooth, very beautiful, acre and a half of dust. It hadn’t rained in months at that point, but not long after we moved in we got all of the rain that we missed and then some. And our yard is a disaster. The runoff has cut these nice little gullies throughout which means that just pulling in the driveway feels like going off-road. And we’ve lost just enough soil to show every single root and stump that we had no idea was there but now shows plain as day. Most of what we did in the summer will probably have to be redone.

Here’s the thing. It’s not our fault. I mean sure we could have put sod down (maybe), but that wasn’t in the budget so it wasn’t an option. What we have in our yard now is the natural result of dirt on a slope mixed with too much water. It’s messy, sure, but it’s ultimately just another step in the process.

Life is messy, too, and I think we can allow ourselves to forget that sometimes. The road to being able to deal with whatever issue you struggle with isn’t always necessarily a straight one, and that’s OK. Sure sometimes we make dumb choices that screw the whole thing up for a while, but more often than not it may not be the result of anything we did or didn’t do. Things may just take longer than we thought they would, or be a hell of lot messier than we were expecting.

The reality of our yard is that it won’t always look like this. Come spring, we’ll get the tractor and 6-foot rake back out and level it out again so we can get grass seed down. That same reality is true for your life, too. If you know Jesus, then the person you are right now and the struggles you currently face won’t always be your reality. (And if you don’t know him, then getting into that relationship can give you that hope, and so much more.) I used to think that even though God has promised to be faithful in this process of living, I’d always get in the way and screw it up. What I’m learning, slowly, is that I can’t screw it up. He’s way too big for that. So go easy on yourself, and enjoy the mess.

Is He real?

7387-cross_dark_sky_evil.630w.tnOne of the things I’ve noticed throughout all of the crap that my wife and I have gone through in the last few years (and there’s been a lot of it) is that how I view God tends to determine how I handle the crap. If I see Him as loving and close to me, for example, it makes the crap easier to deal with (although it doesn’t make it go away, that’s for sure), whereas if, for whatever reason, He seems distant or I think He’s pissed at me for one thing or another, it makes the crap that much harder to deal with.

The question is not a trivial one, either. If you’re the praying sort, how do you know who’s on the other end of your prayers? Better yet, how do you know anybody is on the other end at all? And if you’re not the type to pray, why start if there really is nobody on the other end to hear you? When I was asked a few years back to teach a Sunday School class at the church we were at at the time, I was told that when it came to prayer I was to teach these kids how to pray. To be honest, that request pissed me off. There are uses for prayer that is more scripted (praying through the Psalms can provide a voice to things we don’t know how to express, for example), but at its heart prayer is just a conversation with God, and if you can talk and listen then you can do that. What is of greater importance is how we view the person we’re talking to. Is He even there? Does He care? Is He even listening? (My apologies if this seems like covering old ground. This one’s kind of important.)

Whether or not there’s someone on the other end when we pray is a matter for faith more than anything else. There are reasons to believe, sure, but unless you find them convincing they may not be enough by themselves. So, is He real? The Bible itself can help us find an answer to that one. In the letter of 1 John, the Apostle John is writing to a group of Christians who’ve been caught up in believing that salvation comes not through trusting Christ but rather through “secret knowledge”. It’s the way he begins his letter that’s important for our purpose here. He says in 1 John 1:1-4, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Take a close look at these verses and notice how many times the senses come into play. Twice the writer refers to what they have heard, four times to what they have seen, and once to what they were able to touch. Let that sink in for a minute. (When biblical writers emphasise something that often in such a short space, it functions as a sort of divine highlighter. This is something you don’t want to miss.)

What John is up to here is laying the foundation for when he later responds directly to those who are trying to mess around with the Christians he’s writing to. Basically he’s saying, “This is why I can talk to you about this,” or better, “Here’s my authority.” And where does that authority come from? It comes from the fact that John was there, and the fact that he constantly talks about “we” means he wasn’t the only one. These people were there when Jesus performed His miracles, and they were there to hear His teaching. In short, they saw that He was real, and for that reason John could call out those tried to change the minds of the Christians he wrote to.

So is He real? Those who heard Him speak and saw what He did when He walked this earth certainly thought so. I realise this doesn’t answer the second question, that of what He’s like, but this is one question that is worth answering well. An off the cuff answer just won’t do, so we’ll take that issue up in the next post.

A World at War

passchendaele3I have a confession to make. I don’t like living like I’m in the middle of a war, a clash of kingdoms, or an epic struggle between good and evil. Most mornings my most pressing prayer is that I make it to work on time and in one piece. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (I think), I work with kids now, and as the week draws to an end my highest priority is typically that we all make it through the day without a major blow up. On average we have 25 or so children that I work with directly, which means on top of that we have whole posse of parents, every single one of which has an idea about how you should raise kids and, as you find when you get to meet them all and compare notes, very few of which actually agree with each other. Most are understanding and respectful, but there are a few that are a little more, well, forceful than others. I learned very quickly which were which and, although I am always respectful, I am a little more wary around certain individuals than others.

Two weeks ago, a parent made a complaint to a state licensing agency regarding activities in my class room. There was nothing to the complaint, and we had no idea who had filed it. There were parents we suspected, of course, but over the days following the complaint and subsequent investigation, it became apparent that it had probably not been filed by who we thought it had been. It came totally out of left field, and what totally rocked my world was the realization, as voiced by a co-worker, that someone was simply trying to get me fired. (I mean, parents definitely do have concerns, but more often than not those concerns are simply shared with my supervisor and resolved quickly. This went way beyond that.) This job is my livelihood, not to mention the source of our healthcare benefits, and someone deliberately tried to destroy that.

In John 10:10 Jesus tells us, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” In that verse we have the context of our days. We live with the conflict of of these truths; we live, so to speak, in the in-between. I don’t know about you, but I tend to live in light of the second part of that verse and ignore the first as much as possible. I want that abundant life. I work hard to provide for my family. At the same time, it rarely crosses my mind to think that the life that Jesus brings is opposed somehow.

In the days since this whole thing started, my focus has understandably shifted. My prayer first thing in the morning, rather than simply that I make it to work on time, is now that I see any threatening situations (which might give parents more ammunition to shoot at me) before they happen so that I can respond differently and avoid the potential difficulties altogether. I’ve started praying directly against whatever it may be that’s opposing this life He has for me. And so far I’ve survived, with a lot of His grace and a lot of prayer.

Does it sound crazy to ascribe a spiritual side to a work issue such as this? Maybe. And yet that is the only answer I can think of for what’s behind all this. In truth, I almost didn’t write this post. For one thing, the events are still relatively recent and being at the center of all this probably means my perspective isn’t what it could be. For another, I don’t want to come across as one of those “chicken-little” Christians, the kind who see spiritual warfare behind everything, no matter how trivial. And yet…why else would someone deliberately attack my livelihood in a manner that hurts far more than it resolves any issue that may or may not exist?

My question for you, then, is what’s your perspective? Are you living in the in-between? As 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls aroundlike a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” That’s a reality we all have to come to terms with. As I found out the hard way, acting like it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.

 

 

Thoughts after Easter

This year’s Easter season left me feeling…disappointed, I guess. I mean, the Sunday morning service was wonderful and the lunch with family was as interesting and hilarious as it always is, but now that the Easter season is behind us I can’t help but feel that something was missing. Easter just seemed…empty.

If you were on social media at all in the week or so leading up to Easter Sunday, you probably noticed at least one meme making the rounds regarding church parking lots on Easter Sunday morning. (The one below is my personal favourite.) As Christians, we tend to either poke fun at people who only show up at church for Easter and Christmas or wonder why they’re not more committed. That being said, I wonder if memes such as this aren’t hinting at something deeper. 16163201

Last Saturday afternoon I was in Kohl’s, shopping for a pair of sandals (as a Canadian living in the South I tend to forget just how important such things are for surviving the summer months), when I overheard a conversation between a woman and her teenage daughter. They were shopping for church/school shoes, and the daughter had picked out what appeared to be a nice pair of tennis shoes. The mother’s reaction was that they were too “sporty,” and that “sporty was OK for playing sports but not for church or school.”

Coming just before Easter weekend, these two incidents got me thinking. Do these incidents hint at something deeper?

How much of what we like to poke fun at with people only showing up for church on Easter and Christmas is due to the people themselves, and how much is due to the image we as Christians are portraying to the world? If people pack church parking lots come Easter Sunday, to the point that we can have a good laugh at it on Facebook, are they doing so because of a lack of commitment (or other personal issue), or are they doing it because the Jesus we’ve presented to the world is one who checks on a list of obligations, and by showing up on Easter Sunday you’ve checked off the box that keeps you in His good graces til Christmas? We can be too quick to find fault in the people who only seldom darken the doors of a church, and not quick enough to see the errors in the Jesus that we present to the world. If we’ve come to the point where tennis shoes are considered too “sporty” for church, then maybe we don’t know Jesus as well as we think we do.

If you’ve ever felt the way that I’m describing, or maybe the Jesus you think of is the Jesus of obligations and lists, then let me be the first to apologize to you. It’s not that He can’t be satisfied by keeping obligations like going to church (which really isn’t an obligation to begin with, but that’s for another post), it’s that He doesn’t ask us to do relate to Him in this way. He is so much more with us than just some cosmic accountant. In Matthew 11:28 (KJV) we read, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The sense of the original language with “labor” and “heavy laden” is of someone who is completely over-burdened, carrying an impossible load, burnt out, and done in. And what does Jesus promise? Rest. The sense here is not just eternal rest through salvation but of rest from the weariness and toil of life. That‘s how Jesus really is with us.

I can give you other examples as well. In Galatians 5:1 (ESV), the Apostle Paul tells us, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” A literal translation of that verse in the original Greek would read something like, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free into freedom.” That’s not a typo, either. The word “freedom” really does show up there three separate times (in case we missed the point). In Christ, you’re free. Free to be you. Free to relate to Him honestly and in open vulnerability. Free to trust. As we discussed here, you’re free to have the appearance you chose. And you’re free to wear tennis shoes to church. It is that freedom and life that is at the core of Christianity, and it is that, rather than list of obligations and duties, which Jesus offers to us. Have you taken Him up on His offer?

That’s what was missing from this Easter season, at least for me. That wild and crazy, free and unassuming, life that He offers us through the Gospel. It scared me how easy it was to put on my Sunday best, doing what was expected of me, and not wearing the sandals and t-shirt I would have been far more comfortable in. I don’t know what Easter was like for you, but if you were missing something, just as I was, that life is there. It’s His offer to us, and it’s an offer that never expires.

The Gospel on Mars?

martian-9

My wife got me the movie The Martian recently (which if you haven’t seen it yet is an awesome movie!), and without going into too many spoilers, there was a gritty realness to the storyline that caught my attention right from the start. I mean, you have this guy marooned on this planet, and by the end of the film he’s done pretty much everything except get off the planet. He’s learned how to survive, he’s kept himself alive, and he’s even physically gotten himself to where he needs to be to be rescued. There’s only one thing he hasn’t done, which is also the one thing he can’t do, and that is escape the prison he’s in. His knowledge and ingenuity can keep him alive in the short-term, but those abilities are powerless to ultimately save his life and get him home. His only way home is to entrust himself to those who have come back for him, and who have a crazy, risky rescue plan that will either save him or kill him. He has to choose to throw away the supposed safety he’s built for himself so far, and risk it all on a throw of the dice.

If we see the Gospel as the Great Story, the one which continues to play out in all of our smaller stories, then it shouldn’t surprise us to find echoes of that story in places like Hollywood blockbusters. In Mark 8:34-36, we are told that Jesus, “when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'”

If you’ve been around the church much at all, the odds are good that you’ve encountered this passage before. (If you haven’t been around church much at all, bear with me; this will make sense in a moment.) When I read “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it,” I used to take it to refer to martyrdom. Basically, if I’m ever persecuted to the point that I give my life for Christ, then I will either chose to physically give my life or not and the results will be as Jesus describes here.

The problem, however, is that words can have a lot of different meanings. Take “life,” for instance, which can as easily refer to your physical life as it can to your hopes, dreams, desires, and whatever else it is that makes up your existence on this planet. To which of these meanings is Jesus referring to? “Life,” in this context, refers to “that which makes you a person.” A better English word to get this sense across might be “soul”. In short, Jesus is talking here about the very things which make you who you are. (Given the focus of many of my other posts here, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.)

So what exactly is the context in which we get this sense of life as soul? Earlier in this chapter, in v. 14-21, Jesus talks to His disciples about the Pharisees, the Jewish religious elite of the day who had reduced religion to a soul-killing list of rules and obligations. In doing so, however, they had earned themselves a great deal of respect, albeit at the cost of totally missing the point of who Jesus is. In seeking to save themselves through building a life that brought respect and stability, they had in fact given up the very things that made them who they were as persons. Jesus’ point, then, is that in looking to respect, money, societal position, etc., to provide a life for yourself, it is possible to gain those things (that’s the “whole world” He refers to later on in the passage) and yet lose the things that make you who you are.

Most of us, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t argue with that logic. At the very least, we know (or have heard about) those who put so much time and energy into pursuing things that gave them that sense of respect or whatnot that they lost everything else. Sure, they may have reached their goal in the end, but something in them died a little along the way. In this, we’re not much different from Matt Damon’s character in The Martian. We can build a life of sorts for ourselves, in much the same way that Damon’s character can keep himself alive in the short-term, but just as Damon’s character is powerless to get himself off Mars, so are we just as powerless to save our own lives. What, then, is the solution? Just as Damon’s colleagues in the film offer him a dangerous, risky way out, so too does Jesus.

At the end of Mark 8:35, He says, “Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” Again, this isn’t referring to martyrdom, but rather to the very things which make us who we are. We think we’ll save ourselves through respect at our workplaces, or in our relationships, or in financial stability, and while these are not bad things in and of themselves, if we make them the priority they’ll kill us on a soul level. What Jesus asks us to do with those things seems just as crazy at first as does the plan to get Damon’s character off of Mars. We give them up. We forfeit them to Him and trust Him to give us the things we think we need so desperately. Such a decision may not be as physically dangerous as the one Damon’s character has to make, but it can certainly feel like it. What if we lose the things we care about the most? Can we trust Jesus enough to take Him at His word in this? Does He really have our best interests at heart? This is a decision we each have to make on our own, meaning those are questions I can’t answer for you. What I can say, without giving away whether or not Matt Damon’s character survives, is that if he doesn’t trust the plan his rescuers have to save him, then he’s dead. Maybe that’s not quite a bad description of our own situations.

What kind of foundation do we have?

This post is a bit of a confession on my part.

As a bit of background, I started a new job a few weeks ago, and it has slowly come out that I am a pastor. As one might expect, this has lead to a lot of interesting conversations, and more than a few surprises. Chief among these is that, as a Canadian living in the South, I grew up hearing about the Bible belt and how there is a church on every corner and pretty much everybody down here goes to church. While I have found there to be a great deal of truth to these stereotypes (there’s not a church on every corner, but there are a lot of them, and a lot of folks do go to church, although not always for healthy reasons), the biggest surprise has been to discover through my job that not everyone has a healthy view of who Jesus is and why the Bible might be considered a trustworthy source of information on our situations in life. Even those who identify as “Christian” have views that make me stop and think. There are a lot of very different ideas and perceptions of Christianity at play in the world today, and some of them will show up where you least expect to find them.

Now let me stress that I am not trying to encourage or force anyone into a box when it comes to who Jesus is and how He cares for you. I have my beliefs, and I’m pretty sure you have yours, and I want to be respectful of that. That being said, as a writer I cannot in good conscience talk about how Jesus is the hope and love that we need when we’re longing to be comforted in our darkest hours, and how He is the only one who ever really satisfies, without exploring how we can know that to be true. I can tell you that from my own experience, but if this is really true then there should be more to it than that.

As one of my job trainers said the other day, “I love to ask how come? How come Jesus? How come Jesus and not Mohammed? How come the Bible and not the Koran?” It’s easy to take those questions further, too. Why not New Age beliefs? Why not Buddhism? Or best yet, why not just whatever works for you?

Those are the kinds of questions I want to look at here in addition to the questions I’ve already been working through over the last month. I firmly believe that Jesus is the hope that we long for, and that He is the only one who can love as fully, in the midst of all our hurt. I will continue to explore those topics, but I also want to build an honest foundation for those beliefs. Like I said, if all of this is really true, and I believe it is, then there is so much more to explore.