Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I have a new favorite to add to my "Top Ten Movies" list: Inception. I've seen it twice. I loved every minute of it.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento, The Prestige, etc.) Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, an expert at extracting secrets from people by entering their dreams and unlocking the buried information. But we learn that Cobb can also plant ideas in people's minds via their dreams. So in this story, he pulls off an ingenious layering of dreams in the mind of a tycoon named Robert Fischer in order to rescue a Japanese businessman and at the same time free himself from a life behind bars.

The technical wizardry required for such a feat is left largely unexplained - a wise move on Nolan's part. Rather than occupying our time telling us how the dream machine works, Nolan focuses on the internal conflict that drives Cobb and the lifelong burden that has haunted Fischer.

Dreams are great fodder for stories anyway. The Bible treats dreams as a milieu for communication from God and a place we go to express our deepest anxieties and hopes. Inception captures the latter very well. Cobb cannot escape the mistakes of his past. He is doomed to relive them over and over again in his dreams. Because he has never experienced redemption, his guilt is inescapable. Only the great exchange that happened at Calvary can eradicate guilt once for all. Unfortunately, the cross is absent in Inception. It's up to Cobb himself to figure out a way to put the past behind him and move on.

The other great theme in this movie is fatherhood. Cobb longs to be reunited with his children, and Fischer lives with an unfulfilled need of an affirming father. I won't give away how this theme gets developed, lest I spoil the adventure for you.

All the other elements are there in big supply: Matrix-like special effects, great acting and character development, awesome sound and music, and plenty of suspense. But ultimately it's a story about the human heart - its capacity for love, its wounds, and its irrepressible cry for wholeness.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The power of words

I had quite an interesting encounter today. I was at the local library preparing my Sunday sermon. Mine was the only table in the library because they were doing early voting. So this guy comes wandering over with his laptop looking for a place to plug in and work. He's an African American, I'm guessing 40 years old. I tell him to take the other half of my table.

So we sit there quietly doing our work, when I notice he's laughing a little bit. Then he looks up and speaks to me. He says, "You don't have to study so hard. God's going to give you your sermon."

He's not a crazy man - I've talked with plenty of crazy people in my time. This guy's for real. He's kind and sincere.

He goes on. He says God gave him a word for me. "You don't have to study so hard. God's going to tell you what to say this Sunday."

How does he know I'm a preacher? How does he know what I was doing at the library?!

We have a good conversation. I find out he owns a trucking company. We get to know each other a little bit more.

Then he continues the "prophecy." He reaches out, takes my hand, and says, "You're going to have a lot of influence. God is going to give you three groups of people: constituents, comrades, and counselors. You have the anointing. God is preparing you for influence."

Now, I have always been a skeptic when it comes to "words of prophecy" and such. While I love the Pentecostal and charismatic friends I've made over the years, and believe that we Presbyterians have a lot to learn from them, I have serious reservations about their theology. Nevertheless, I cannot just dismiss what this guy said to me today. He told me that he never goes to the library. Something just "told" him to go there today. Is it just a coincidence that on this day, because early voting was going on, there was only one table in the whole library, and that he and I came at the same time and sat at this table?

I had a similar experience back in the 1990s when I was pastor of a church in South Carolina. A member of my church had a strong charismatic leaning. He was a good friend and we often met together for prayer. One time he took me by the shoulders, looked deeply into my eyes, and shared what he called a prophetic word. I can't remember now exactly what he said, but the gist was similar to what this fellow told me today at the library. God had a special call upon my life and would use me to influence many people for Christ.

It would be enough to swell my head were it not for the way these fellows pointed me away from myself and to the cross. I don't know how to interpret these messages, but at the very least they were words of comfort and blessing spoken at critical moments in my life. Whatever gift these guys possess, I like it!

Perhaps it shows the power of encouragement. Maybe we all ought to be a lot more ready to tell our fellow Christians that God loves them, that they are needed in the battle, and that they have the anointing of the Holy Spirit for a special calling. "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver" (Proverbs 25:11, NIV).

Has anything similar happened to you?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Your prayers matter to God

Last Sunday I preached on prayer from Matthew 6:5-15. I made the point that some Christians struggle with prayer because they don't really "get it," at a deep level, that God is their Father. In other words they don't really get the gospel. Because the more you understand and feel God's love for you, the easier it is to talk to God and take your sins, concerns, needs, and desires to him. Makes sense, right?

But there could be something blocking the gospel from getting to the heart. Take me, for example. When I was growing up, the main emotion I felt when in the presence of my dad was fear. He wasn't physically abusive, but he was very critical and sometimes scathing in his verbal attacks. He had a way of sneering at me that cut holes in my heart. I never felt that I pleased him or made the grade.

When I was in college, money was an issue. I had an on-campus job, but it didn't pay much. My father shelled out a lot of bucks for my four years at the college I attended, and I didn't take out any student loans or win any scholarships. So when I needed spending money, I was afraid to ask my dad for help. I felt it would only make him mad and resentful. So instead of asking for cash, I would sell my record albums. I even sold my Giannini 12-string guitar - a beautiful instrument that I miss very much. It had a deeply resonant sound and was easy on the fingers. I sold it for much less than it was worth - all because I didn't dare go to my father with empty pockets and ask for a handout.

Many of us do the same thing with God. We are afraid to ask for a handout, afraid to go (AGAIN!) and ask for forgiveness, afraid to depend on him in helplessness.

But the Bible says that's exactly what God, our Father, WANTS us to do - depend on him! Jesus says in Matthew 7:9-11, "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines prayer essentially as "the offering up of our desires to God...." When you don't tell God what you need, you are denying your legal right as an adopted child of God. Moreover you are denying God the opportunity to do that which glorifies him, namely, to meet the needs of the helpless and empty. If, as John Piper says, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him," then prayerlessness amounts to seeking satisfaction in something besides God and hence denies him glory.

Your prayers matter to God because you do. The gospel makes it possible to pray not with slavish fear but with safety, shamelessness, and joy. Ephesians 3:12 says that because of Jesus "we may approach God with freedom and confidence." Take your desires to God.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Zookeeper's Wife

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman, is subtitled "A War Story." It tells the true story of Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski (pictured below), who lived in Warsaw during the rise and fall of Nazism. They saved over 300 Jews from death in their house and in animal cages.

Using Antonina's diaries and other first-person accounts as a guide, Ackerman tells the historical facts while also taking us into the heart and mind of Antonina. She who was a lover of animals became a lover of victimized human beings. This book reveals both the brutality of German war criminals and the humanity of individuals who would have otherwise been lost to history. At times fearful for her life and that of her husband and son, but always courageous, Antonina Zabinski is an inspiring model of grace and compassion to the suffering.

For those who don't know much about the Warsaw Ghetto or the Jewish Uprising of 1943, this book would serve as an excellent introduction. Ackerman writes in a somewhat detached way of the atrocities suffered by the Jews and Poles, letting the facts speak for themselves. The horrors of those years are utterly inconceivable to me. At one point Ackerman writes this:
Then, one terrible day, a gray rainfall settled on the zoo, a long, slow rain of ash carried on a westerly wind from the burning Jewish Quarter just across the river. Everyone at the villa had friends trapped in that final stage of annihilating Warsaw's 450,000 Jews.
Clearly, the Holocaust is glaring proof of man's total depravity. The brutal, senseless snuffing out of human life, Polish culture and history by the Nazis shows why the even greater atrocity of the cross was required as payment for fallen man's sin.

The Zookeeper's Wife is in many ways a historical recasting of Milton's Paradise Lost. Thankfully, the story is not finished. Jesus is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). As Tolkien put it, everything sad is going to come untrue.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mexico mission trip

I was privileged to be part of my church's mission trip to Mexico this summer. We left Orlando on July 31 and returned August 8. We stayed in a nice hotel in downtown Merida the first and last days. The intervening seven days were spent in a little village in the Yucatan Peninsula called Quintana Roo. There were 27 of us. Since this was a family mission trip, we had people of all ages on our team - kids, students, and adults.

Our two main projects were house construction and Vacation Bible School. We worked under the direction of Yucatan Helping Hands, a ministry of Byron (aka "Bruno") and Inez Ahina. Bruno and Inez are amazing, fantastic people. Bruno left his career as an architect in Seattle some years ago to go to Mexico and build houses for poor people. His and Inez's lives and testimonies were a big inspiration to all of us.

It was one of the most fulfilling weeks of my life as well as one of the most back-breaking! We woke up early each day, had a quick breakfast, went to our work sites, and did house construction until 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. Those four or five hours seemed like an eternity to me. I haven't been that hot, tired, and sweaty since my high school football days when we had two-a-day practices in August!

We finished three houses. Each one was made entirely of concrete. Our team's job was to put a roof and pour a floor for each house. The roof was the hardest part. First we had to get long concrete beams in place, then put concrete blocks between the beams. Then we had to mix cement, gravel, sand, and water with shovels (no mixer or wheelbarrows), carry the mixture in buckets up on the roof, and pour two layers on top of the blocks. The final layer of concrete had to be mixed with calcium, which burned our skin. All of this in the blazing sun! The floor wasn't nearly as hard, but it still took a lot of concrete which again had to be mixed and hauled in buckets - a very long, wearying process.

We estimated that 80 kids came to the afternoon VBS program. It was easier physically than house construction but we still faced many challenges, especially thunderstorms that forced us to change plans at the last minute several times. The VBS leaders from UPC did an outstanding job preparing for each day's activities and then coming up with "plan B" when necessary.

In spite of these difficulties, it was satisfying to welcome several families of Quintana into their brand new homes! And the looks on the faces of kids and parents alike made the VBS program worth all the trouble.

Some other highlights of the trip for me:
  • Staying in the same house as the "young guys" - Caleb, Danny, Victor, Jack, Timothy, and Josue (one of our three Mexican interpreters). It was a great experience for this ol' pastor to share space with them. We slept in handmade hammocks and sweated it out together. The guys often had fun at my expense, but I loved every minute of it.
  • Swimming in an underground cenote (sinkhole). One afternoon we took a bus ride to this place, walked down rocky steps to an immense cavern with stalactites, bats, and a 70-degree spring. After days of unrelenting heat and sweat, this water was delicious.
  • Visiting the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. This was our Saturday afternoon activity before returning to Merida at the end of the week. The Mayan temples were fascinating and we had a good guide who spoke openly of his Christian faith.
  • Getting to preach on Friday night. We had a closing fiesta at La Nueva Jerusalen Presbyterian Church. We had financed the addition of walls and a water system to this church and had partnered with them during the week. It was a rare privilege to preach from Revelation 21 about Jesus making "all things new." I had a Spanish interpreter, of course, because I know maybe 10 words in Spanish.
As I look back on the trip, I think about the great attitude and work ethic of the team from UPC, the warmth and friendliness of the people we met in Quintana, and the chance to participate in God's redemptive program in Mexico. I also think about living more missionally.

This is how I expressed it to the elders of UPC:
The whole of the Christian life ought to be a mission trip. God calls us as his followers to “spend and be spent” in service to Christ and people… to be tired, uncomfortable, loving, and sacrificial all the time – not just one or two weeks out of the year. If UPC is to be a missional church (and we must be), we have to lead our people to be outwardly focused and engaged in blessing others as a way of life. By God’s grace, we must not let UPC go the way of most other American churches: self-absorbed, caught up in material values of comfort and self-centeredness, and immune to the aching needs of the unreached, suffering people around us and throughout the world.