Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kindle

Shortly before I went to Japan on our church's mission trip I bought a Kindle. I knew I'd be sitting in a plane for 13 hours each way but didn't want to take a lot of books in my backpack. Kindle has changed my life! I am reading now more than ever - especially books that I wouldn't otherwise read. Here are a few of the books I'm reading...
  • The Girl on the Stairs: My Search for a Missing Witness to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, by Barry Ernest - I'm hopelessly addicted to documentaries and writings about the death of JFK
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath - a good read for leaders
  • Let the Nations Be Glad!, by John Piper - a motivating book about missions and why we can be confident in the church's Spirit-given ability to finish the Great Commission
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins - Right, I jumped on the bandwagon.
  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas - very detailed but inspiring biography
  • Why I Am Not an Arminian, by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams - an excellent summary and recommended for anyone wanting to understand what the Bible says about predestination

I originally bought the Kindle Keyboard model, but found it laborious to use the keyboard for typing notes and searching for books. So I traded up for a Kindle Touch. I like it much better. The touch screen makes it a lot easier to type. And even though the screen is the standard size it's overall smaller than the older version. I also bought a Kindle Touch cover with light that is really cool.

So thanks Kindle!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Favorite Christmas memories

As a child, I lived in Mayberry. Ozzie and Harriet were my next door neighbors. Father knew best, and my best friends were Mike, Robbie, and Chip.

Well, not really. None of those things were true. But growing up in the small rural town of Union, SC, in the 1950s and '60s was like living in those insulated, idealized TV towns - at least until you peeled off the veneer of racism, class envy, poverty, illiteracy, sexism, crime, discrimination, etc.

One upside to my upbringing in a small southern town is that I have some very warm memories of Christmas. And I'm genuinely thankful for them.

Such as...
  • Going with my Dad to the "country" to cut down a Christmas tree
  • Popcorn balls and pecan pie
  • Waffles cooked with pecans on Christmas morning - Dad's specialty
  • Totally believing in Santa Claus, for an embarrassingly long time of my life
  • Leaving cookies in the den for Santa Claus
  • Thinking I really heard Santa Claus on the rooftop
  • Staring with wonder at the Santa and reindeer set that my parents put out on the living room coffee table
  • (OK, you get the idea; Santa was a big deal)
  • Keeping a fire going in the fireplace
  • Impatiently waiting for the grandmothers to arrive so we could begin opening presents
  • A new bike almost every year (complete with banana seat, raised handlebars, etc.)
  • Wishing for a white Christmas that never came (it seemed to rain every year)
  • Watching tons of corny Christmas TV specials with my parents (Andy Williams, Mitch Miller, Sonny and Cher... sheesh!)
  • The annual Christmas service at our First Presbyterian Church (here's a shout-out to Mr. Nabors, our faithful organist)
  • Walking the neighborhood and looking at everyone's Christmas decorations (our neighborhood gave prizes for the best exhibits, and Dad entered something creative every year)
  • Seeing Main Street decked out in lights
  • The annual Christmas parade, which featured my Cub Scout troop, Miss Union High, the Shriners, the marching band from the "black" high school - oh, and Santa always brought up the rear

My parents are both gone now, but I'll say a belated thank-you anyway for all they did to create special Christmas memories.

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

That's a movie title, by the way... I didn't spend a week with anyone named Marilyn, I promise.

My Week with Marilyn is a really good but sad movie. You'll enjoy it if you like true (or mostly true) stories about people who changed our world. Marilyn Monroe did that. Yet as this movie shows, she was a desperately lonely, unhappy person looking for love and being used by people for whom love was a means to power.

Michelle Williams plays Marilyn at the peak of her film star career (at age 30 or 31). The setting is the production of The Prince and the Showgirl in London in 1957. That movie also starred Sir Laurence Olivier, played here by Kenneth Branagh, one of my favorite actors. Eddie Redmayne plays Colin Clark, a 23-year old film student who got a job working for Olivier and became the inspiration for Marilyn to finish her role as Elsie the showgirl. Clark's diary and books about his week-long experience with Monroe (The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, followed by My Week with Marilyn) were the source for this movie.

I was eight years old when Marilyn Monroe died at the age of 36. So I remember all the photos and gossip about her in the late '50s and '60s. I saw a couple of her movies, including Some Like It Hot (1958), and had the typical boyhood crush on her. What I didn't know at the time, and what I suppose was watered down for the public, was how difficult she was to work with, how she struggled with depression and alcohol/drug abuse, and how unhappy was her childhood. This movie brings all those things up to the surface. In the hands of Michelle Williams, Marilyn becomes the grown-up who never grew up, the victim of abandonment.

I've read that Colin Clark's memoirs about his week with Marilyn are not to be trusted. That may be so. But this movie tells an important story nonetheless. It says that you never really know people. The most successful person out there may be the most insecure and unhappiest. Appearances deceive. A confident, beautiful Marilyn Monroe on the outside may be a frightened, abused waif on the inside. One of Christianity's main beliefs is that God sees the heart. This means more than simply "it's what's on the inside that counts." It means that God knows us at the very deepest level. There is no hiding from him. This is a truth both scary and comforting at the same time. Scary if you've never repented and trusted in Jesus. Comforting if you have - because all your sins and failures are gone. Christians are people who can be their most true selves, because they've been freed from the need to establish a record of their own based on being "good enough." Jesus is good enough for us. Christians also ought to be the people who free others up to be their truest selves. Unfortunately, we often fail in that department. Church is sometimes the place where it's most dangerous to be real.

My Week with Marilyn also illustrates the importance of family. At one point Marilyn says to Colin, "Little girls shouldn't be told how pretty they are. They should grow up knowing how much their mother loves them." Good parenting certainly cannot prevent all problems from occurring, but it sure makes a big difference. We don't have to be perfect parents. That will never happen. But what we can be is PRESENT in the lives of our kids. Marilyn Monroe didn't receive that gift, and she struggled her entire life.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Here, There and Everywhere

I just read the book Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, by Geoff Emerick. Geoff was the recording engineer behind most of the Beatles' music from Revolver through Abbey Road. After the Beatle break-up he went on to work with Paul McCartney and Wings. He also helped John, George, and Ringo with some of their solo projects. I wasn't as interested in that phase of Geoff's career. But the book is a fascinating expose of the wizardry and drama behind the Beatle albums that I love as much as ever.

When Geoff was just 15 years old, he was an assistant on some of the Beatles' early hits like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You." The book starts there and moves on through the Beatles' career, sharing inside stories behind the best-known Beatle songs.

Much of the book focuses on the technical aspects of audio engineering. What I liked best was Geoff's recounting how, take after take, Beatle songs evolved into the finished products we listen to today. He also shares a lot about the relationships among the Beatles. It is clear that Paul McCartney was (and is) his favorite. Emerick did not care for George Harrison at all, and is often critical of George's guitar playing and voice. John and Ringo also get their share of jabs, especially when Geoff writes about the Beatles' late career. But you can tell Geoff Emerick loved the Beatles' music, loved playing a key role in their recordings, and grieves still over the world's loss of John and George.

The book illustrates common grace. God gives gifts to all, even to those who are his enemies. Some of the world's greatest musicians are people who deny that there is a God. Such seems to be the case with the Beatles (notwithstanding another book I read recently titled The Gospel According to the Beatles, by Steve Turner). Geoff Emerick is an incredible artist. His ear is precise, his hands careful, his mind quick and alert. Yet he apparently has yet to bow the knee to Jesus. This proves the truth of Acts 17:25, "[God] himself gives all men life and breath and everything else," including artistic gifts. Why is God so generous and patient? "...so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being'" (Acts 17:27-28).

In other words, God is here, there, and everywhere.

Happy, Resolution-less New Year

It's customary to start a new year out with resolutions. We resolve to eat less, exercise better, pray more, read our Bibles with greater regularity, drink less Diet Coke, and all sorts of other things. The standard joke is that such resolutions stay with us a few weeks, maybe a couple months if we're lucky, and then fall by the wayside. Why is that? It's because most resolutions to change behavior just don't go deeply enough into the motives behind our behavior. Another way of putting it is that resolutions typically address the sin but not the sin beneath the sin. Human beings live from the inside out. Behavior change starts with heart change, and most New Year resolutions simply don't touch the heart.

So here's a thought: Let's start 2012 not with resolution but with repentance.

Repentance is different from resolution. Repentance is not so much a change of behavior as it is a change of direction. Repentance is not so much a decision to "do better" as it is a deep, shocking realization of why we don't want to do better.

C. S. Lewis put it well in Mere Christianity: "Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor - that is the only way out of a 'hole.' This process of surrender - this movement full speed astern - is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death."

Lewis is saying that it's relatively easy to change behavior, especially for people who are pretty self-disciplined anyway. We can teach ourselves a few new tricks. We can develop new habits if we try hard enough. But the funny thing is, we may develop new habits and find out that we're farther away from God than we were before. God is not really calling us to pray more, as though the mere outward act of prayer is what he's after. He's calling us to be less self-reliant and more dependent on him - and that's potentially very different from simply chalking up more hours in prayer. It's the heart that God is pursuing. He doesn't so much want my time as he wants ME. He doesn't so much want my money as he wants ME. And so on.

I'm not knocking all New Year Resolutions. But I'm saying that far more potent, far more transformational, and far more dangerous, is repentance. Lay down your arms. Identify the ways you avoid God and his people. Ask a trusted friend to tell you what he or she sees in you that is less than godly. Name people in your life for whom you have contempt. Name your idols. Identify ways you hide your true self from others. These are the kind of steps we should take throughout 2012 to practice repentance. It's "a kind of death," as Lewis says. But it leads to life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hugo

I saw Hugo, the new Martin Scorsese film, in 3D today. What a feast for the eyes and heart! I highly recommend it. Not only is Hugo an engaging story, but the acting is incredible (particularly by the two main child actors) and it's just a whole lot of fun to watch. For movie lovers like me, it's a must see for its exploration of the work of film pioneer Georges Melies.

I read online beforehand that compared to other 3D movies, the effects in Hugo are extremely well done, and I would agree. Most of the time, I can do without 3D. But this one is definitely worth seeing in 3D.

I went expecting a kids' movie. It's not so much. I imagine most kids would get pretty bored 30 minutes in. It's an adult picture that awakens the child in you.

The story goes like this (without giving anything away): Hugo Cabret is a young orphan who lives in a train station in 1930s Paris. Unbeknownst to everyone in the station, Hugo is the one who keeps all the clocks in the station wound up and set correctly. He's mechanically inclined and knows how to fix just about anything with gears and wheels, including an old automaton (a wind-up robot) that his late father found while scrounging around in an attic. With the help of the automaton and a young girl named Isabelle, Hugo solves a mystery that leads to redemption for himself and others.

At one point, Hugo Cabret gives voice to what we all instinctively know: we are broken. Like a machine in need of repair, we have been damaged by the fall of Adam. Sin has distorted the image of God we bear and we don't "work" quite right. Nevertheless, we each have a purpose - to glorify and enjoy God. In order to fulfill our purpose we must be fixed by the One who made us, has the key, and knows what to do. Jesus Christ came as our "Hugo" to rescue us from the junk pile. No one is beyond hope.

Friday Night Lights

My wife and I have become immersed in the TV series, Friday Night Lights. The five seasons are on Netflix. I read the book by H. G. Bissinger years ago and saw the 2004 movie that was based on it. I had no interest in following the NBC series that started in 2006 until my daughter Jennifer said she thought I'd like it. She was right - it's really good. We're about halfway done with Season 2. So if it veers off track later, as so many good TV series do, I'll retract what I'm about to say. In terms of the acting, story line, and characterizations, it's one of my favorite shows ever.

High school football is the thread that weaves together the lives of a dozen or so key characters in a small west Texas town. Coach Eric Taylor, his wife Tami, and teenage daughter Julie are the main characters. Numerous football players, their families, hangups, and conflicts come and go, with each episode focusing on two or three. The portrayals are realistic, often very sad looks into the hearts of people who have been damaged by betrayal, poverty, abuse, or disappointment.

Coach Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler (who finally won an Emmy for his role this year), is mentor and father figure for the many troubled people in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. He has his own weaknesses, but he's an inspiring role model for the football players he loves and protects. The way the Taylors relate to each other is a refreshing change from the way most TV shows portray families. Eric and Tami's love for each other is genuine. They work through conflicts with their daughter with honesty and grace.

With FNL, I almost feel like I know these people and am back in my hometown of Union, SC. Buddy Garrity could have easily been one of my neighbors.

In Season 2, Buddy's daughter Lyla becomes a Christian and gets involved in an evangelical church. It's encouraging to see Christianity presented positively for a change (so far, at least). Through faith in Christ, Lyla's life is turned around and she becomes a compassionate and gracious friend to people who have used her in the past. Smash Williams, Dillon High's standout football player, attends a solid church and hears authentic presentations of the gospel. How often do you see that on prime-time television?

Friday Night Lights explores our broken human condition, shows the value of community, and at key moments points to the ultimate source of healing: the gospel of Christ.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven is another excellent piece of non-fiction from Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. The book is subtitled "A Story of Violent Faith." Woven throughout this expose of the troubling history of Mormonism is the story of the murder of a mother and her infant child by Ron and Dan Lafferty, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.

Warning: it's sickening at times to read this book. Krakauer does not sensationalize; he merely reports. But what he reports is gruesome. It's also terribly, terribly sad that human beings can be so deceived by false religion that they do the kind of things to other people that are detailed in this book (rape, incest, polygamy, deceit, abuse, brainwashing, revenge, etc.).

Besides telling us about the Lafferty crimes of 1984, Krakauer's larger aims are twofold: first, to peel away the mystique around the roots and growth of the Mormon faith and its offshoot versions; and second, to throw religion as a whole under the bus. As to the first aim, I learned a lot about Mormonism - especially Joseph Smith and Brigham Young - that I did not know. Krakauer's research appears thorough, although Mormon spokesmen have attacked it as biased and incomplete.

As to throwing religion as a whole under the bus, it's apparent that Jon Krakauer has heard bits and pieces of the gospel but hasn't heard or understood the full or balanced picture. He's obviously learned about enough junk done in the name of God ("under the banner of heaven") that it's no wonder he's skeptical of all religions. Have Christians (like Mormons) messed up in the past? Absolutely. Do we need to own up to our failures just as Mormons need to own up to theirs? Absolutely. But sooner or later every human being comes back to the age-old questions: Why are we here rather than not here? What's the meaning of our lives? What will be the basis of hope when we're looking death in the face? If God does not exist, why do we bother to wake up tomorrow morning?

May these questions lead Jon to Christ, who will one day wipe every tear from our eyes and recreate this messed-up world in justice and peace.

Contagion

As if we needed something else to worry about, now there's the movie Contagion.

Suzy and I saw this movie last night. It's a well-made flick about germs, infectious disease, death, mayhem, compassion for the suffering, commitment to family and friends, and greed. The cast is a roll call of great actors: Paltrow, Damon, Fishburne, Law, Winslet, Gould, and (my favorite actress) Marion Cotillard. Even the stand-up comic Demetri Martin makes a serious appearance as a lab technician. The famed neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta shows up as well. So lots of familiar faces in this one. Kinda like those disaster movies of the 1970s (Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure, etc.).

The action gets going right away. From your first bite of popcorn, you're watching scenes of people throughout the world as they touch door knobs, elevator buttons, drink glasses, and each other, transferring whatever germs they happen to be carrying to everyone else on the planet. Soon people are dying right and left. Some of the death scenes are disturbing. It's a contagion. It seems no country is spared. The body count grows quickly. Scientists and government experts are befuddled. They've never seen anything like it. A cure, if it exists at all, is elusive and expensive.

The movie does a great job of creating several sub-plots that catch you up and make you curious, but they prove to be minor distractions from the main questions: Who is to blame? What did Beth do, or not do? Is the fictitious homeopathic medicine Forsythia a cure, or a sham? There was just enough pathos, intrigue, and suspense that I was totally engaged in the film the whole 106 minutes. I also got an education from watching this movie. I didn't know the average person touches his or her face 2,000 times a day!

(If there's any doubt about the educational benefit of this movie, I can tell you that afterwards I immediately went to the men's room and washed my hands thoroughly!)

As a Christian watching Contagion, I found two things noteworthy. One was the contrast between those who helped others and those who helped only themselves. I had to ask myself the question, "If people around me were dying from an infectious disease, would I reach out and help them? Or would I retreat into the safety of my own home and ignore the need of my fellow man?" Marion Cotillard's character is an honorable example of people like Mother Teresa who choose to move toward the sick rather than away from them. God, grant me the grace to do likewise.

The other thing that's hard for someone with a Biblical worldview to miss, is the way this movie illustrates the transmission of original sin throughout the human race. In the paragraph above I posed the question, "If people around me were dying from an infectious disease...." The truth is, they are dying from an infectious disease. It's called sin. We've all been touched by Adam and are sinners by nature. Isaiah 64:5b-6a says, "...we are not godly. We are constant sinners; how can people like us be saved? We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags" (NLT).

The Bible says we were conceived in sin. That doesn't mean sexual intercourse is bad. It means that the moment egg and sperm unite in the womb, another sinner is born. Through natural generation we inherit Adam's fallen sin nature. You don't have to teach a kid to sin; he sins because he's a sinner.

The good news is that Jesus Christ came sinlessly into our world, exposed himself to our disease, and provided the one and only cure for sin: his death and resurrection. He "became our sin" on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21) and rose again to newness of life. Through faith in Jesus, you can be forgiven, cleansed, made new, considered righteous (i.e., acceptable) by God, and empowered to live with hope and holiness. You'll still mess up, but you won't be condemned, because you are "in Christ," no longer "in Adam."

That's the vaccine that will both heal you and empower you to be an agent of healing for others.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Ten things I am tired of

I could do without one more instance of the following:
  • The word "awwwwww" in responses to my Facebook status updates
  • Advertising slogans that string together three words divided by periods (examples: live.work.play, blah.blah.blah)
  • TV commercials for Progressive car insurance
  • Songs by Bread
  • TV commercials for Free Credit Report
  • Anything Kardashian
  • "I Can Only Imagine"
  • The word "app"
  • The word "woot"
  • Dog throw-up
There are more, but those are the big ones.

Friday, August 05, 2011

On reading the Bible well

One of the things that ought to bother us (and does bother me) is the widespread ignorance of the Bible in the church today. You may have heard about the Pew Forum's 2010 “US Religious Knowledge Survey.” The average Christian respondent to the survey answered only half the questions correctly, including 6 out of 12 questions related to Christianity. A Gallup poll once found that only three out of five Christians could list the names of the four gospels, and only half knew Jesus was the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount.

So that's a problem. But I'm just as concerned about those who "know" their Bibles inside and out but fail to read it correctly.

For example, I'm preaching through the Old Testament book of Nehemiah right now. Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah's governorship in the 5th century B.C. I've read several commentaries and sermons about Nehemiah. They all point out many valuable lessons to be gleaned from Nehemiah's story - his fervent prayer for the people of God in Chapter One, his visionary leadership, his courage in the face of opposition, and so on. That's fine as far as it goes. But did God put Nehemiah in the Bible so that we could simply learn what a great man Nehemiah was and imitate his leadership style? If leadership principles are the main take-away from this book of the Old Testament, we could probably do better by picking out a few titles from the business section of the local Barnes & Noble.

No, God gave us the sixty-six books of the Bible to point us to Christ. The Bible is the unfolding story of God's plan to make all things new and redeem his wayward people. Every book in the Bible is one more piece in that story. This means that a book like Nehemiah - while it gives us much wonderful and applicable information about faith, leadership, prayer, spiritual warfare, repentance, body life, etc. - is ultimately showing us our need of a Savior and revealing that God has provided a Redeemer to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Bold Nehemiah is a type of the Christ. His efforts to revitalize Jerusalem and make it a city of holiness, safety, and justice reflect the work of Jesus who left his place in heaven, came to our ruined planet, and is serving us still as our Prophet, Priest, and King. The restoration of Jerusalem - short-lived as it was - draws our hearts to a higher and much greater and eternal restoration to come - the new heavens and new earth.

To read the Bible well means to remember that it tells one story and points to one Hero, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said that the Bible (or the Old Testament, at least) was about him. In John 5:39 he told the Pharisees, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testfy about me." So you see, it's possible to know the Bible well (like the Pharisees) and miss the point completely. I think of all those Christians who slavishly follow a Bible-reading plan, memorize gobs of Bible verses, and crush the competition at Bible sword drills but fail to see Christ on every page. I'm not knocking Bible reading and memorization plans. Would that more of us were diligent in such disciplines! What I'm urging us to do, to borrow Gordon Fee's book title, is to read the Bible for all its worth.

As many others have said, the Bible is a love story in four parts, or a symphony in four movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. As you read the Bible, think of those four great themes and see how one or more of them is reflected in the passage you're reading. Also, ask questions of the text like these:

  • What does this passage reveal about God's gracious provision of the work of Christ?
  • What does this passage reveal about human nature that requires the work of Christ?
  • What aspect of my brokenness do I see in this passage and what is God doing about it?

Unfortunately, the only question many Christians ask of the text is something like, "How does this passage apply to my life?" It's a well-intentioned question, and one that should be asked at some point in the study process. But if that's the only question you ask of a Bible passage, you're probably just going to make new resolutions to try harder to "be like" Nehemiah or David or Paul or Abraham or Mary or Jesus or whoever you happen to be reading about.

Charles Spurgeon once told one of his students, "Don't you know, young man, that from every town and every village and every hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London? So from every text in Scripture there is a road towards the great metropolis, Christ. And my dear brother, your business is, when you get to a text, to say, now what is the road to Christ?"

That's a good rule to follow as you read the Bible. Ask of the passage, "Now what is the road to Christ?" It takes time and effort to read the Bible this way, but it's the way that leads to gospel hope.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Snobbish dog walkers

I walk our dog Dabo several times a week around the neighborhoods of our community. Each time, we meet up with several other dogs being walked by their owners. Dabo is sociable. When he sees another dog up close he goes crazy, stands up on his hind legs, and wants to stop for a while and visit. I do too. I figure it's a good way to get to know my neighbors.

But no. Invariably, these owners pull their dogs close, keep their distance, and walk on past Dabo and me. In fact they hardly make eye contact with me or even say hello. Their priority seems to be to protect their precious dog from Dabo's germs and shenanigans.

Why is that? C'mon people. Relax already. Let your dog talk to Dabo.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A plea for plain speaking

We Christians (including me!) are some of the worst offenders when it comes to using worn-out cliches and expressions the average person doesn't understand. I've always felt this way, but an article tweeted by my friend Randy Greenwald nudged me to go on the record and say, Let's speak plainly!Link

In the Christian community we've developed a vocabulary all our own. We know what we're talking about...I think. But people outside or new to the church must scratch their heads and wonder why we talk like we do.

For example, we pray "God, bless so-and-so," instead of simply asking God to give so-and-so some money or whatever it is. We say to our worship leader, "That was an awesome worship song," instead of "Thanks, I enjoyed that." We tell a friend, "I'd covet your prayers," instead of just saying "I need help." We baptize with near-canonical authority catchy phrases said by our favorite preachers, like "Let's drill down into this passage" or "God really showed up last Sunday." In a former church I often called the congregation "beloved" - three syllables, of course. Where did I get that?

And for some reason a lot of Christians say "God" again and again throughout their prayers. I don't know about you, but when I'm having a conversation with, say, my friend John, I don't start off every sentence with "John." Repetition of God's name in any context comes pretty close to being the babbling and "vain repetition" Jesus warns us about in Matthew 6:7-8. We would all do well to regularly review the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), a model of brevity and simplicity.

And why did Christians suddenly become "Christ-followers"? There's nothing wrong with the expression, of course, and I understand that "Christian" is a bad word in some places. But I get the feeling that the regular use of "Christ-follower" now entitles the speaker to a place at the table with all the hip, emerging church leaders of the day. A few years from now, what will we call Christians?

Recently I listened to a panel of Christian leaders speaking on the subject of the emerging church. (By the way, there's another one: is there anything more obscure than the word "emerging"?!) I wish I had a dollar for every time one of those guys used the word "conversation." That's such a nice, touchy-feely word, probably intended to soften the very real disagreements that the various speakers had with each other. My recommendation: Stop talking about having a conversation and tell it like it is! Let it be a real debate, not a "conversation."

In the article referred to above, author Karen Prior lists other "Christianese" words that need to be tossed. Here are a few examples, followed by my comments:

  • "love on" - Why can't we just say "love"?
  • "love well" - I hear this all the time. But again, why can't we just say "love"? You either love someone or you don't. How does one "love [someone] well"? Is it even possible to love someone "un-well"?!
  • "community" - Now here I'm at a loss to know how not to say "community." I agree that it's overused. But it's an important, Biblical word and I don't know what to put in its place. I certainly don't want to go back to the old word "fellowship"!
  • "just" - Many Christians use this word all the time in prayer. "Lord, I just want to thank you... I just love you, Lord... We just praise you for your grace... Just give us a heart to know you." Why do we say "just" so often? What does it add to the request? Prior is right when she surmises that it's used to express humility. OK. But again, do you talk to your spouse that way? "Hey honey, would you just make me a sandwich? Let's just go to a movie. I just love you." Nope.
  • "anointed" - Here's a word the average non-Christian has no category for. We say, "That was an anointed sermon." Why not simply tell the preacher you liked it, and give a reason or two?

William Penn said, "Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood." What suggestions can you offer to help us be people who speak plainly and are therefore understood?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer reading list

It's been a good season of turning pages for me. A week's vacation at the beach is a great help. Here are some of the books I've read or am reading this summer...
  • The Language of God, by Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Collins is a Christian but also a believer in theistic evolution. He rejects intelligent design and creationism, but manages to hold on to the idea that God created all things out of nothing. I struggle mightily to reconcile Collins' arguments with the Bible's teaching about, for example, Adam and Eve (see next book on my list). But I'm glad he's on our side.
  • Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, by C. John Collins. This Collins, professor of Old Testament at my alma mater, Covenant Theological Seminary, responds to the previous Collins and to others who are abandoning belief in a historical Adam and Eve. I agree with the author that "the traditional understanding of of Adam and Eve as our first parents...is the view articulated or presupposed in Genesis, in Paul, and above all, in the Gospel presentation of Jesus. The alternatives are less satisfactory, and possibly even disastrous...." (pg. 133).
  • Decision Points, by George W. Bush. This book reveals many personal as well as executive aspects of the Bush presidency of which I was unaware.
  • A Patriot's History of the United States, by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. I love reading US history, and this book written by two conservative professors of history covers the whole story all the way into the post-9/11 years. The authors' intent is to give a fair and honest review of American history with particular focus on the ideas of character, liberty, and property.
  • Shadow Divers, by Robert Kurson. This is a fascinating, true chronicle about the 1991 discovery of a German WWII U-boat sunk sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey. The book focuses on the contributions of two divers in particular: John Chatterton and Richie Kohler. The author takes you into these guys' personal stories and underwater to find answers to questions about the U-boat's origin, crew, and tragic demise. I got so wrapped up in the tale that I bought a DVD called "Hitler's Lost Sub" and watched the 1981 film Das Boot. I had no idea German U-boats sank so many of our ships during WWII and patrolled right off the US coastline!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Two criminals, both guilty,

Hanging on crosses a few feet away from the Savior of the world.

One hopeless, filled with hate,
The other... broken, self-aware, penitent, hanging on to hope.

The question is, Would Jesus care for either one?

They both deserved to die.
The blood of innocents was on their nail-pierced hands.
They had been tried, condemned, and crucified as Roman law demanded.

So what was the difference between the two thieves?
Was one less sinful than the other?
Less guilty? More enlightened?

No.
It had nothing to do with their goodness
And everything to do with God's grace.

The one thief scorned grace,
Refused grace.
"Save yourself and us," he said to Jesus.
It wasn't that he wanted to reform his life, to start over again.
He just wanted to avoid death.

The second thief? He knew he deserved to die.
"We are punished justly," he said as he hung on his cross.
With empty hands outstretched, he asked for grace:
"Remember me when you come into your kingdom."
He was dying for grace,
And he found grace.
He found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

"Today," said Jesus,
"You will be with me in Paradise."

A hymn by William Cowper speaks of this man, this penitent criminal:

There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.

In these two thieves are the faces of every person who has ever lived.
We are all as vile as they.
All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
All are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve,
Have broken God's law, deserve to die,
Should die at the hands of a just God.

But the God of justice is also the God of grace.

Like the thief, we look over to the cross where a guiltless man hangs,
The only guiltless man who ever lived,
The Son of God, Immanuel,
And we cry out, "Jesus, have mercy. Remember me when you come into your kingdom."

And his words echo down through time to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord:
"I tell you the truth, you too will be with me in Paradise."

Two criminals, both guilty.

The one died, but lived again.
The other was within feet of the Author of life, but chose death.

Which thief are you?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Get Low

Get Low is an example of my favorite kind of movie - an intelligent, compelling story about relationships and redemption with fine acting and interesting cinematography. It doesn't have to be a big-budget blockbuster for me. In fact, that kind of movie seems to always disappoint and I want my money back. But I love these independent films that connect with the heart and illustrate eternal themes.

Get Low is set in the rural South in the 1930s. Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who has kept a painful secret for over 40 years. Based on a legend about a real-life guy who lived in Tennessee, the movie starts off with a flashback to a burning house and a man leaping out of an upstairs window and running away. Not until the last few minutes does the viewer find out what that was all about. Along the way is subtle humor, hints of Bush's secret past and lost love, and excellent performances by Duvall and Lucas Black, who plays the assistant undertaker to Bill Murray's Frank Quinn, owner of the town's funeral parlor.

Early on, Bush visits a local preacher and tells him he (Bush) needs to "get low." The rest of the movie makes clear what that expression means. To "get low" means to repent, to come clean, to admit one's failings. It's what the apostle James exhorts us to do:
"Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up" (James 4:8-10, NIV).
For four decades Bush has tried to suppress the awareness of his sin and its consequences. His guilty conscience has driven him away from people to a place of isolation, bitterness, and paranoia. That's what sin does to us when ignored. It won't just go away. Instead, like a cancer sin eats away at us, destroying not only our own peace of mind but our intimacy with others. Proverbs 28:13 says, "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy" (NIV).

In other words, the way up is down. The way to experience healing and restoration is to "get low," to be honest about our offenses and rest in the righteousness of Christ instead of a facade of self-righteousness.

Job knew this. His final words to his three friends were, "If I have concealed my sin as men do, by hiding my guilt in my heart because I so feared the crowd and so dreaded the contempt of the clans that I kept silent and would not go outside...then let briers come up instead of wheat and weeds instead of barley" (Job 31:33-40, NIV).

To get low, however, requires a death - a death to the idols of reputation, approval, success and security. (That's why in this movie, Felix Bush arranges to make his confession at his own funeral party.) And to die to one's idols appears so costly that few of us live with complete honesty. About leaders Dan Allender writes,
"Most leaders avoid naming their failures due to fear.... If a leader were to openly acknowledge that he is frequently mistaken, that he is deeply flawed, and that he will continue to miss the mark on occasion, the ramifications could be disastrous. A leader with that much candor could lose the confidence of his staff, his clients could take their business elsewhere, and his board could fire him. At least those are the fears that keep us silent. But what actually does happen when we overcome this fear and come clean about our personal flaws?...Paradoxically, when we muster the courage to name our fears, we gain greater confidence and far greater trust from others." (Leading with a Limp, Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2006, pg. 5)
Sure enough, when Felix Bush finally "gets low," there is redemption, restoration of relationships, and resurrection.

Because of the cross and God's unconditional love, we have no reason not to get low. We are safe because of Jesus. Even if people reject us for our confession, the one Person in the universe who really matters has said he will never leave us or forsake us. God accepts us - not because we have a perfect record, but because Jesus kept a perfect record for us and died for our offenses. We think we will save ourselves heartache by keeping our secrets to ourselves. In reality, the truth will set us free.

Very good movie. Thanks, Hollywood.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Leading with a Limp

I'm reading Dan Allender's book, Leading with a Limp. It's unlike most other books on leadership. Allender's thesis right there on page 2 is "to the degree you face and name and deal with your failures as a leader, to that same extent you will create an environment conducive to growing and retaining productive and committed colleagues."

Wait a minute... I thought leadership was about know-how, competence, expertise, control!

No, says Dan Allender. In this book he calls us as leaders to be willing to expose and dismantle our sins and shortcomings out in the open, where our colleagues and employees can see us for who we really are. Put another way, we leaders are supposed to be the chief repenters.

Allender spells out five challenges every leader faces: crisis, complexity, betrayal, loneliness, and weariness. He explains that there are both ineffective and effective responses to each of those challenges. Drawing from both personal experiences and Biblical stories, Allender calls on leaders to move into the chaos of each challenge with courage. But the kind of courage we must exercise is paradoxically the kind that admits weakness. "You are the strongest when you are weak, and you are the most courageous when you are broken."

If you're looking for a book that will tell you the five secrets to success or the seven steps to taking your organization to the next level, Leading with a Limp is not it. But if you're a discouraged leader who wonders whether God can use you, a mother or father who thinks you're the only parent in the world who doesn't know what to do next, or a church leader who wants to see your church grow as a gospel community, this would be a great read. It certainly encouraged me.