Thursday, September 25, 2008

On Theology, Politics and Morals

As we get closer to the election- it is not only 40 days away- I am getting more and more tuned in to current events. I think that this is a natural phenomenon and I hope that I am not the only American who is paying more than the normal amount of attention to the race, the issues and all their implications.

One thing that has come up is a little troubling though. This is not a new situation, but I have become especially aware of it recently. There are two things that are very related. In the first place there is a general negative feeling toward the church in general and Christians in particular. People of faith, at least the Christian faith, are often marginalized, ignored or dismissed in the public square.

This has happened because so many Christians, particularly those who are adept at getting the attention of the media, are seen as narrow-minded, bigoted and judgmental. There is little tolerance in our "tolerant" society for negativity or hate. Christians are lumped together and the assumption is that we all think that we are right, and everyone else is wrong. And since God is on our side, everyone else must be condemned to hell. It is no wonder that Christianity has an image problem.

The second, and related problem is that the term "evangelical" has come to have a political meaning. Historically and traditionally evangelical has served as a designation for a school of theology that maintained a high view of Scripture, the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus and a lifestyle that reflects Christ-like value. However, in today's climate evangelical has taken on new meanings.
  • Evangelical is now a political term, a voting constituency. Those who are a part of the most conservative part of the Republican party and are also Christian, are considered evangelicals. The reverse of this assumption is that if you are an evangelical Christian, you must be a Republican.
  • Evangelical is now a moral term. Evangelicals are those who follow a particular code of morals. In recent years those morals include an opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Although there are other issues that these "evangelicals" are concerned with, these two are the most important and significant to them.
  • Evangelical is now a social term. Where once we knew that evangelicals were united by their theological beliefs, now they are united by their political activism. Evangelicals are a group, a voting block.

There is nothing wrong with evangelicals becoming politically aware and active. In fact, it is a good sign when Christians are culturally involved. However, we must be careful to never let a political ideology hijack what is essentially a theological word and world.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

10 Top 10

AMC played the AFI 10 Top 10 special last night. It was a ranking of the 10 best movies in 10 different categories (see Lists always stimulate discussion and calling something one of the best inevitably leads to an argument. So, it is time that I weighed in with some observations.
  1. They had to stretch to come up with 10 categories. They easily could have combined science fiction and fantasy, or fantasy and animation. The epic could have been eliminated or combined with western, gangster and court room drama to form one category. But I understand the symmetry of 10 Top 10.
  2. Is sports movies a category? Really. There are some great sports films, but are there so many that they need their own genre?
  3. There was some serious stretching going on to get to 10 films in some of the categories. Sports is a good example. Caddyshack came in at #7, but without this artificial genre demarcation it would not have made the top 200.
  4. There are some film categories that could have been included that were not. There could be a top 10 musicals list; a top 10 Christmas films list; a top 10 silent films list; or a top 10 horror movies list.
  5. Some filmmakers and studios are so well represented that they could have had their own categories. Top 10 Disney films (after all, 9 of the 10 animated films are from Walt Disney). Top 10 Alfred Hitchcock films (the mystery category lists four of Hitchcock's classics). Top 10 James Stewart films (There are six Stewart films in four of the categories).

There are a lot of movies that do not appear on these lists, but should. There are a lot of movies that have no business being on any "best of" lists, but here they are. There will always be an argument about which is best, funniest, scariest. And that is why the list is so much fun.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What I Believe About the Future

I have written in the past all the reasons that I am excited about the future. Even in light of the current economic, social and moral climate of our nation, I am still eagerly anticipating what is yet to come. I believe in hope. I try to have a positive approach to what will happen. Things today are better than they were for my grandparents- economically, socially, technologically and even medically- and I have no reason to believe that those improvements will not continue throughout my lifetime. (Just think how great things will be for my great-grandchildren.)

But there are some specific things that I believe about the future. I believe these things because of what is taught in the Bible. I believe these things because they are in line with the tradition of the orthodox Christian faith. I believe these things because they make sense. And I believe these because I have hope that things will always get better.

  • No matter what happens God is in charge. The Almighty God, Creator of the universe and Savior of the world is in control of everything. If he is good, the future is safe. And we know from the Scriptures that God is always good.
  • Governments and policy-makers become less important if we believe that God’s will will be done. If God is in charge, then it matters less who is in charge. Remember that in the Bible the Lord often used pagan kings to accomplish his plans.
  • God will win the ultimate conflict of the ages. If you read the end of the story, you will see very clearly that God sets up his kingdom. He rules in heaven and on earth.
  • God will not leave us to our own devices. He has promised that he will return to rescue us. We are not unattended or uncared for.
  • God’s will is that we continue to work for and toward his kingdom. Our tendency could easily be to give up. If God is in charge and the future is secure, why should we worry about it or work for it? But we are responsible to do God’s work and will always.
  • Every circumstance in my life- good or bad- will be used by God for my good and my growth. Although I often worry, although I am frequently discouraged, I know that God is taking care of me and my future.

Several years ago there was a very popular song called The Future’s so Bright I Gotta Wear Shades. That song is truer now than ever. Things are looking up and I am excited about it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."
Matthew 9.35-38

Think about what Jesus did in this passage. He taught the people in their community synagogues. He preached to them. He healed all their illnesses and diseases. He had compassion on them. Jesus was not afraid to "mix it up" with the people. He was involved in the lives of those that he cared about. Note especially that he had compassion on them. He cared for their needs. He was not simply ministering because it was his responsibility. He loved people. This is a great lesson that each of us needs to learn and practice.

Think about what Jesus said in this passage. He said that there were many people who need to hear the gospel, too many for the available workers. We need to pray that God will send more workers so that the harvest can be brought in. Although Jesus gave this word to his disciples over 2000 years ago, it still applies to us.

We need to pray:
  • That God will raise up and send out people to work in the ministry so that the harvest will not be lost.
  • That God will prepare the lives and the hearts of those who need to hear the message of the gospel.
  • That God will work in our hearts, so that we can be more effective in sharing our faith with others.

PRAYER: Jesus, you have placed a great responsibility on us. Remind us of our duty to share with those around us, and to encourage others to share as well. Call your people to do your work of evangelism and make them effective as they share their faith. Work in the lives of those who need to hear your word. Work in our lives and be exalted in our world. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Spirituality, Christianity, Seeking and the Arts

Over the past few years I have noticed a true hunger for spiritual things in the arts. I first noticed this several years ago when I read my first novel by John Grisham. Everyone was reading him, and although I had a general aversion to popular novels, I gave The Testament a try. I was not disappointed. It was a true page-turner. I have learned in the ensuing years that many of Grisham's books fall into that category.

The Testament is not one of Grisham's most popular works, but it is good. And one of the reasons that I liked it so much is that it is a blatantly spiritual novel. In fact, right in the middle of the thing there is a very clear presentation of the Christian faith and how to become a Christian.

Soon thereafter, I joined a reading group that read The Green Mile, by Stephen King. This was my first Stephen King book, and it was not at all what I expected. The main character in the book is a Messiah-figure with miraculous healing powers. One cannot read this book without getting a sense of longing for "otherness," a spiritual yearning. Then I read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. In this small book the main character, a little girl lost in the woods, prays. She prays to God.

But it is not just books that have these great spiritual themes. Movies are filled with searching, with thoughts and questions about God. The Matrix trilogy, the Star Wars movies, and many others are about Christian faith. Some of my recent favorites, including Walk the Line, are filled from front to back with Christian themes.

Popular music has followed that lead. Several years ago Christian artists like Kirk Franklin (Stomp) and Bob Carlisle (Butterfly Kisses) had huge popular hits with unashamedly Christian songs. Other Christian artists like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith worked to achieve some popular crossover success. But more recently it has been the "secular" artists who have made it acceptable to sing about God. Consider Joan Osborne (One of Us) and Kanye West (Jesus Walks).

So why is all this happening? There are probably a million reasons, but I want to focus on only one. People are interested in spiritual things, and especially Christianity, because they have a spiritual hunger inside them. Every person, including you and I, were made to be spiritual. Most humans have a tendency to ignore that natural state. However, sometimes we need to think about God. We need to ask questions, to consider, to seek. That seeking is often displayed in our art.

Seek on!

Adult Films

No, not that kind of adult films.

There are films that are made for children. These include traditional, Disney-style animation, computer animation and talking animal films.

There are films that are made for pre-adolescents and adolescents. These movies seem to have Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Hannah Montana or some other Nickelodeon star of the moment in them. There are lots of people passing gas and someone inevitably falls in mud, manure or slime. (A popular variation is the Port-a-potty that falls over on someone.)

There are films that are made for teens. These are almost exclusively rated PG-13 and R. They contain one of the following: foul language, gas passing, puking, car chases, drug use, naked girls, bad jokes, lots of computer generated effects, slashers, monsters or Will Farrell.

There are films that are made for "adults." These films do not even get an MPAA rating. They are filmed depictions of made up sex scenes of unreal people.

Then there are the films that I prefer: Adult Films. Adult films feature complicated stories about life. There is meaningful dialogue, careful storytelling and sensitive treatments of complicated situations and characters.

The bad thing about Adult Films is that they never come to my small town theatre. I always have to wait to see them on video. There are worse fates in life, but I would like to see Woody Allen on the big screen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Message

Sometimes God gives messages to humans. These have been called prophecies, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, or are simply referred to as "words." There are some people who are called by God to have a special ministry of prophecy. These prophets seem to have a direct line to God where special messages are concerned.

Prophecy has an exalted place in the church. The latter part of the Old Testament is devoted to prophecy. There are prophets that appear in other portions of Scripture. In the New Testament prophecy is listed a gift from the Holy Spirit, and position of prophet is designated an office in the church. It is apparent that biblically speaking, God sends words to his people.

In the current church we get a little skeptical of such messages and words. We tend to stay away from those who offer too many messages from God. But we do so at our own peril. We must be discerning, yes, but we must never dismiss or reject what God may be saying to us.

In that line of thinking, let me offer a word that came to me. 2008 has been declared a year of prayer for our church. We have focused on praying together and learning to pray more effectively. We spent all of August focused only on prayer. Now we are moving to the next step of praying together.

At the same time, 2008 has been a very difficult year- for me and my family and for our church. In our congregation there have been nine cancer diagnoses. That is way too many for a small, country church like ours. We are in financial difficulty and our attendance is down. Things are looking very bleak. It is in this context that I believe the word came from the Lord to me to encourage our people.

"God called us to a year of prayer, to prepare us for the year we were going to have."

The Lord knows the ending before the beginning. He knew of all our hardships and he has been preparing us for them. We have a great God who is looking out for us, even before we need to be watched.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3.14-19

Wow! A whole lot of things are covered in these few verses. There is the claim that all who follow Christ are of one family. What great news! You and I are not alone in our faith. There are Methodists and Baptists and Catholics and Mennonites and Nazarenes and Presbyterians and Pentecostals all around the world who are a part of this family. We need to get over our tendency to think that we are right, and everyone else is wrong.

There is also the fact that this passage easily becomes a prayer that we can use to pray for others. It is simple to insert the name and need of a loved one and pray with Paul. Try it sometime. Use Paul's words, but make it your prayer.

Finally, let's notice some of the areas for prayer that are included here.
  • Prayer for spiritual strength.
  • Prayer that Christ would dwell in you.
  • Prayer for faith.
  • Prayer for a strong foundation and firm and deep commitments.
  • Prayer that love would abound.
  • Prayer for a complete and full knowledge of the love of God.
  • Prayer for the fullness of God's Spirit.

Let's pray that together.

PRAYER: Lord, I pray that You would grant your people, according to the riches of Your glory, to be strengthened with might through Your Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith; that they, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that they may be filled with all the fullness of God. Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Who's a Patriot and Who Decides?

I am fascinated by the current presidential campaign. Politics has always been interesting to me, but this one has my senses working at high speed and in high gear. I am reading about the race. I am watching speeches. I am listening to analysis. I am a little frustrated at those who try to exaggerate the significance of this election, however. After all, we have had 232 years of being a country with dozens of presidents. In the grand scheme of our history this election will more than likely dim in importance and be remembered like the race between Van Buren and Harrison in 1840.

Let's be sure that we lay one thing to rest. Those who commit to serve the United States in political office are patriots. They have no ulterior motives. They love their country. No one serves the US Government for the money that is involved. In fact, for most political figures, serving in government requires a pay cut. They have a much greater earning potential in the private sector. Closely related to this thought is the truth that often those who contend for national office are independently wealthy. They have no need of the income involved.

A case could be made that candidates are searching for power and influence. In some cases this may be true. There is no more powerful and influential position in the world than that of President of the United States. However, this is a very cynical view. To think that these candidates think in this way is to leave them only a few short steps from Lex Luthor or Darth Vader.

I choose to believe that those who seek high elected office in the United States are patriots. They are men and women who love this country and all it stands for. Their philosophies differ. Their policies are in opposition. Their plans are sometimes vastly different. But these people love America.

So let us have a moratorium on the silly accusation of cowardice or treason. They do not look, act or believe the same, but they are patriots.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Prayer of the Week

Hear my cry, O God;
Attend to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I will cry to You,
When my heart is overwhelmed;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For You have been a shelter for me,
A strong tower from the enemy.
Psalm 61.1-3

There are very few things in life that are worse than a feeling of hopelessness. Fortunately, most of us do not have experiences that cause us to know what hopelessness feels like. We get discouraged. We get disappointed. We can be filled with fear or guilt or remorse or regret. But generally speaking, hopelessness is beyond us, most of the time.

There is an answer for hopelessness, though. Turning to the Lord is the perfect antidote for all times of hopelessness and despair. The Psalmist turned to the Lord when he was overwhelmed. In fact, he found God to be a "rock," a "shelter" and a "strong tower." You see, hopelessness sets in when we are powerless. When we can do nothing about our circumstances or our future. We get discouraged when we are not in control of our lives.

But God not only has an answer, He is the answer. And although this may seem like a trite solution or a simplistic and unrealistic response to difficulty, God is a rock, a stabilizing force. The Lord can be for you a source of encouragement and security no matter how difficult life may be.

PRAYER: Sometimes I can do nothing about my situation, Lord. It seems that things only happen to me. Help! Be the source of stability and security for me. Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I. Give me hope. Amen.