Category Archives: Current Events

A Simple Outline for Engaging Culture

love_wins

photo credit www.whitehouse.gov

Culture is often defined as the attitudes, beliefs and customs of a group of people. While attitudes and beliefs shape the culture, it is primarily the customs that help to identify it. It is these “customs” (actions) that ultimately fuel the culture wars that exist in our world today. In light of the recent “flag” issue and especially, the recent Obergefell same-sex marriage case in the Supreme Court, I’ve been thinking on how people of faith can do a better job of engaging culture in a time where, in many cases, we seem to have lost our relevance.

Since the mentioned ruling, my social media feeds have looked like the Confederacy went to war with a Skittles factory (I’m sure you’ve seen the memes as well). We all have strong feelings on these issues and I don’t assume that all of us even share the same views. However, regardless of our view, if we want to help shape the behaviors of people that believe and act differently than our particular “tribe”, then we may want to think about how we engage and influence the culture around us (especially if you find your “side” in the minority, something that many Evangelicals today are having a hard time getting used to).

In the story of Daniel in the Bible (Daniel chapter 1), we observe a young man who suddenly found himself in the minority of a hostile government. Daniel willingly subjected himself to much of the culture of his new authority, but for some reason (not explicitly stated in the text), he felt that partaking of the meat and wine allotted to him would “defile” him. He had a strong faith in God and a strong personal conviction that went contrary to the culture he suddenly found himself in. So what did he do? He set out a challenge with the king’s chief of staff of whom he had already found favor (might I add, probably not by demanding his “rights”). He chose a different diet of vegetables and water and suggested that the king’s assistant observe Daniel and his friends for 10 days and see if they were not at least as strong and healthy as those who were served the king’s diet. As the story goes, at the end of 10 days, Daniel and his friends indeed appeared stronger and healthier than their peers. Because of this, they were permitted to continue on their selected diet while the others continued with the king’s demands. I think there are a few simple lessons here that could help people of faith better engage a culture that may seem increasingly hostile to it.

1. Work for the Common Good

Daniel’s objection was personal, not political. What Daniel did not do, may say more about his “excellent spirit” than even what he did. Daniel did not start out by protesting how “defiled” the king’s food was or how wicked the people were that ate it. Daniel did not demand that everyone else also believe or behave (eat) as he did (even after his diet proved more advantageous). He did not say “I told you so” when he was right. He did not rally a protest campaign among his buddies against the “king’s meat”.  He simply lived and illustrated Micah 6:8 as he “acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with his God.”

Daniel appealed to the common good of his captors. When we appeal to the common good of all people, it checks our motives and gives us a platform for influence. The king gave a decree for a reason and Daniel was submissive to that (political/common good) reason until it caused him to bring (personal) defilement upon himself. I’m sure he must have grown nostalgic for the “better days” of Zion and must have been uncomfortable living within the culture and confines of his new found pagan kingdom, yet, he submitted himself willingly to it’s authority for the common good with one personal exception. He also appealed to his captor’s desire to please the king and alleviated his fears by allowing for a measurable evaluation of the suggested alternative. 

2. Find Common Ground

Daniel searched diligently for common ground with his captors. He was wise enough to allow for a plan that benefited both sides. Common ground is not necessarily compromise. Through Daniel’s wisdom, not only did he keep himself personally pure, but he also helped his captors, or otherwise enemies, to benefit from his plan as well. In finding common ground, Daniel helped to spare both his life and made his adversary look good in the eyes of the king. Throughout the rest of the book we find Daniel was not only a willing participant but a leader in many aspects of the Babylonian culture, though he never strayed from his faith or compromised in his personal worship (Daniel 5:11). 

If people of faith want to gain influence within a culture that is increasingly hostile or at the least is no longer actively friendly to much of the Christian message, it may be time that we actually learn from Daniel’s example or even heed Jesus words and “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” At the end of the day, every human has the basic need to feel safe, be loved unconditionally, be respected and to feel like their life has significance. We all want the same things out of life, we just may disagree on where they come from. We lose common ground when we forget this and appear angry, whiny and selfish and we lose our ability to influence, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the church and people of faith were known more for what we are for than what we are against, we may find that we regain our voice in the public square. When our lives are filled with hope, joy and a genuine concern for others we attract the right attention as people ask us “…to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15). If we’re looking for common ground, below are a few things gay, straight, black, white and most civilized people can agree on. How can we join together to help with these:

  • At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor.
  • About 2 million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade.
  • Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • 6.9 million children under five years of age died in 2011, nearly 800 every hour.
  • 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
  • 1.6 billion people — a quarter of humanity — live without electricity.
  • The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percentaccounts for three-quarters of world income.¹

Maybe we can start here. I think we can agree on that.

3. Tell a Better Story

It only makes sense that (along with God’s help), Daniel carried himself in such a way that his captor, though a cultural and religious polar opposite, deep down inside was for Daniel. While it’s obvious from the text that God worked in his captor’s heart, Daniel was wise enough not to get in the way.

Dale Carnegie said “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” If you have ever been in sales at all you also know that internal pressure produces action but external pressure produces resentment. Leon Festinger formulated the cognitive dissonance theory in 1957 at Stanford University. He stated that “when attitudes conflict with actions, attitudes or beliefs, we are uncomfortable and motivated to try to change.” This means that people will naturally act in a way that is consistent with their beliefs, attitudes and values. When these all connect, we live harmoniously, but when they don’t, we feel dissonance to some degree or another. We may feel awkward, uncomfortable, upset, or even confused (take Peter and his vision of the great sheet in Acts 10, for example). To reduce this tension, we will often go to extraordinary lengths to change our attitudes, beliefs or behavior, even if it means doing something we normally wouldn’t want to do.

Simon Sinek, in his groundbreaking book Start with Whyshares how corporations and movements have created lasting influence and change as a result of their “Why”. Motive Matters. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. I can tell you one thing people definitely don’t buy is self(ish) preservationism. That’s a horrible “why”. If people sense motives of self preservation from those trying to influence them, they can sniff that out a mile away. If you are going to influence anyone, as the old saying goes, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Christians, of all people, should know that the only thing that can provide lasting hope and joy is a relationship and identity rooted in Christ Jesus. It’s time we started behaving like we actually have it. While I believe healthy marriages to be the foundational institution of society, I also know that marriage alone does not make one happy. In time, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will find that out as well, and I, for one, want to be there for them when they figure that out.

We are where we are today NOT because of a Constitutional anomaly or even judicial activism but simply because, over time, one perspective on an issue managed to tell a better story. While one side was making arguments based upon an unshared religious viewpoint and self preservationism, the other was telling the story of real people and appealing to the basic human needs of love, respect and justice. Jesus himself even said “…for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8 KJV). I wish not to make light of the potential cultural fallout of the magnitude of the Obergefell decision, however, after nearly 2 millennia, I still think that Paul, in his context of the Roman empire, was up against a steeper cultural climb than we could ever possibly know in America today. Even in the midst of all of that he leaves us these words in his epistle to the Romans (Romans chapter 1 seems to be the point of greatest conflict in the same-sex marriage issue, oddly enough):

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! 17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. 19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the LORD. 20 Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” 21 Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” [Rom 12:9-21 NLT]

Let’s start there. Because after all, Love really does win.

¹http://www.compassion.com/multimedia/poverty-fact-sheet.pdf

A Question of Citizenship

“…That there should be no schism in the body; but [that] the members should have the same care one for another. 26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” 1 Corinthians 12:25-27

By now we are all fully aware of the horrific act of terrorism that occurred this last week at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. There is no one that I know that has even made any kind of attempt to justify the actions of the accused (and rightfully so, as there is none). However, my heart is heavy with the constant debate I see all over the news and social media regarding the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag of which the accused used to help communicate and symbolize his hatred. I debated as to whether to put my voice into the arena on this one as it seems to have been already over done, but I just feel that I must. I want to acknowledge a couple things first:

  1. I have friends on both sides of the “flag” issue. I hope you will all continue to be my friends when I am finished here.
  2. I acknowledge that most people who display the Confederate battle flag are not consciously racist.
  3. I live in the South (and have now for most of my adult life) and appreciate so much of its culture and heritage. I tell people all the time, “I wasn’t born here, but got here as fast as I could.”
  4. I am no fan of political correctness or revisionist history.

Ok, now with all that out of the way. Let me just ask a simple question. “Why?

Just pause and ask yourself “Why do I feel so strongly about my position on this?”.  The sad truth is that no matter our position, or even the outcome of the flag’s continued or discontinued publicly sponsored display, there is nothing I can write here and nothing we can do to bring back the 9 precious souls whose lives were stolen in this tragedy. How we respond to each other moving forward, however, could have an enormous impact on future generations.

I am personally not easily offended. But in reality, what would I have to really be offended about? I have grown up in a white majority with a faith that (in the broadest sense) is also shared with a majority of my fellow countrymen. The amount of resistance I have felt for my faith or my ethnic heritage (I wouldn’t even dare call it “persecution”) is minimal. I think I missed an invite to a party for a co-worker once and I’m still not sure if that was due to my faith or a bad contact list. I neither feel guilt nor am I necessarily proud of this. It simply is what it is. It is the lot I have been dealt and it has come with some forms of privilege of which I am thankful. That is not the story for all of my friends, however.  The fact that I am even writing this piece proves that. The heritage for many of my other American friends comes from quiet submission to unjust labor, beatings, lynchings and death simply because of the color of their skin. Was that the experience of all? Of course not. Were there “benevolent” slave owners that treated their “property” with respect that were also simply products of the system and culture they were born into as well? Absolutely. We can always find exceptions on an individual basis, but when it comes to the institution of slavery itself, there were some prevailing theologies and philosophies that helped to keep it intact.

Before you set forth the argument of “states rights” and “Constitutional integrity”, take a moment and read this excerpt from the Texas Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union: 

“…By consolidating their strength, they have placed the slave-holding States in a hopeless minority in the federal congress, and rendered representation of no avail in protecting Southern rights against their exactions and encroachments. They have proclaimed, and at the ballot box sustained, the revolutionary doctrine that there is a ‘higher law’ than the constitution and laws of our Federal Union…

…We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable…

When I think that just a few generations ago, this was the prevailing thought in much of the territory that fought under the Confederate battle flag, and just one week ago we witnessed a heinous act motivated by, yes, an extremist view of this philosophy, I have to ask myself, why would I want to defend this? The answer is: I don’t. The fact of the matter is there is a ‘higher law’ than the Constitution and while I cannot defend lawlessness nor the abuses of power that also ensued from the Northern powers, I am thankful that there were people in that time that viewed their heavenly and Kingdom citizenship with higher regard than that of their own country for the sake of their fellow brothers and sisters.

I love my country, but it’s not perfect. I also find great solace in the protection I receive from our Constitution and am now glad that my brothers and sisters of African heritage, in theory, have that same protection too. However, I’m most thankful for the ‘higher law’ that gives ultimate freedom and it was that law that these 9 brothers and sisters were studying the night they met their Creator. While I’m sure many good men and women who fought for the Confederacy gave their lives for their own noble causes, I cannot in good conscience defend the continued display of a symbol on public property that stood against the ‘higher law’ of my faith and fought to preserve the bondage of men, woman and children who were born to have abundant life and freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

What Can Make Christian Films Better

lego_camera_moviesI recently came across this post  by Nicholas McDonald and it challenged my thinking. As someone who has worked with artists and as someone who may have some creative tendencies myself, it can be often too easy to take the “what’s wrong with Christian films” approach, especially after a recent unpleasant experience with a film that claims to be “Chrisitian”. Sometimes the artist within me wants to spew my unadulterated thoughts all over the internet like an explosion of space junk that might make me feel better for a moment, but does little to help the problem. So, thank you, Nicholas for reminding me that there may be a better way.

Having watched a recent “Christian” film, I left with many thoughts I wanted to express, most of which were not provoked by the content of the film but it’s use of the medium. Most of the thoughts were negative, but I also recognized some excellent art within the film as well. But rather than make this post my own review of one particular film, I want to add some more general thoughts to what I hope to be a continuing conversation throughout the Christian community on how we all have a responsibility in helping to make better (Christian) films.

1. We need more filmmakers who are Christians

“Christian” art has been around for a long time. One could make an argument that, in general, at least in Western Civilization, Christian art has done more to influence culture than any other artistic influence (think Handell’s “Messiah”, or Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, etc.).  And while a lot of so called Christian music gets a bad rap, I would argue that the Church has also done more to propel singers and artists into careers in the music industry and art music than any other institution would ever dream (even many modern pop stars got their start singing in church or even in making “Christian” music).  But this isn’t so in the film industry.

Dreams are often born in childhood. Yet if you were a child in church anywhere from the early 1900’s even through today, you most likely heard your share of sermons from the pulpit of the evils of Hollywood and the gutter other wise known as the film industry. It comes as no surprise then, that until recently, we have not had a major influx of Christian filmmakers.  This has been born out of a philosophy that began to take root in evangelical churches in the 80’s of the more “neutral” nature of a particular artistic medium (mainly music at that time) and that the words were what made something explicitly “Christian”. This philosophy has now carried over into the young, fledgling Christian film industry as well and is partly what rubs many (film critics and movie goers) the wrong way.

You see, while we are beginning to tout the roll of martyr in our culture when it’s convenient politically, we are still a pretty sizable bunch. Actually, one could argue that we are the largest “special interest” there is when it comes to film marketing and relatively speaking, we’re a pretty supportive group by those standards. Here’s the problem:

  1. We (Evangelicals) now want to see Christian films (20 years ago, many weren’t even “allowed” by their church’s teaching to darken a movie theater)
  2. We are a relatively “new”, yet sizable market.
  3. We have relatively few sources to provide these films for us.
  4. We are often left with 2 options:
    • Trust non-Christian filmmakers with experience and large budgets to make these for us and put up with their “artistic license” (especially when it comes to explicitly biblical themes–think Noah, Exodus, etc…).
    • Support lesser-experienced film makers with smaller budgets and fall short in competing with the Hollywood elite.

Christians aren’t the only ones to make bad films. There are TONS of bad films (by anyone’s standard) made each year by non-Christians, but the worst among those don’t get seen by the masses because the film industry has a well-established filtering process and most people won’t go and support poorly made films. Yet, Christians often do. The Christian film maker has a unique advantage over his peers in that his interest group WILL support his film if it has the “right” propositional agenda and can get marketed by the “right” ministry conduits, even if it doesn’t qualify as good art. Like any special interest, however, the artist is forced to pander to the desires of his audience, which in this case desires mostly propositional truth devoid of much of what is considered good art (tension, conflict, contrast, passion, indeterminate, etc.), because even if he’s capable of creating good art, his audience (the one paying the bills) often can’t handle it. BUT by having more Christian filmmakers, we will increase the odds that even the propositional films will be better made and that an increasing number of filmmakers will take the risk to make more artful films with redemptive themes.

2. We need to more carefully consider the audience

Nobody likes a bait and switch, but that is largely what has given Christian films a bad name in the eyes of the general public and even among a friendly audience. There have been too many propositional films that have marketed themselves or wrapped themselves in different clothing leaving a poor taste in the mouths of those who had a different expectation.

Recently I remember purchasing tickets to another local mega-church’s Christmas production. It was marketed fairly heavily (and well) and I had great expectations going in hoping I could also learn something (as I was also at that time producing large scale Christmas events). I paid $20 for the ticket and another $20 for a friend to attend with me. There were some cool elements to the program, but it attempted to do too much (story wise) and had me looking for the exit door about 30 minutes in from sheer boredom. To make it worse, after over 90 minutes of yawn worthy production time the pastor of the church got up and spoke (preached) for another 30 minutes. I just remember thinking if I felt this way (as one who was all for what they were trying to do), what did the person who was simply expecting a Christmas Extravaganza think? I felt at the end like I had paid $40 to attend a church service. Now, most people get it–it’s a Christmas program and it’s likely to carry the story of Christmas (hopefully anyway). But there is a big difference between selling tickets to a show (with the idea of “outreach”) and having people feel like they paid good money to hear a preacher (for 30 minutes) when that’s not what they were expecting.

I can’t imagine the financial pressure of having to squeeze every last dime out of potential revenue just to make a film happen in the first place, but too often the Christian film industry trades short term gains for long term losses in this case. I personally do not have a problem with propositional films, but if you’re going to make a propositional film (one that’s main goal is to prove a largely religious viewpoint) don’t wrap it in the form of art or secuar entertainment. Here’s a list of the top 10 “Christian” movies of the last 3 decades. Their box office success seems to further prove the point.

Rank Title Studio Lifetime Gross /Theaters Opening / Theaters Date
1 The Passion of the Christ NM $370,782,930 3,408 $83,848,082 3,043 2/25/04
2 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe BV $291,710,957 3,853 $65,556,312 3,616 12/9/05
3 The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian BV $141,621,490 3,929 $55,034,805 3,929 5/16/08
4 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Fox $104,386,950 3,555 $24,005,069 3,555 12/10/10
5 Heaven is for Real TriS $91,443,253 3,048 $22,522,221 2,417 4/16/14
6 God’s Not Dead Free $60,755,732 1,860 $9,217,013 780 3/21/14
7 Son of God Fox $59,700,064 3,271 $25,601,865 3,260 2/28/14
8 Soul Surfer TriS $43,853,424 2,240 $10,601,862 2,214 4/8/11
9 The Nativity Story NL $37,629,831 3,083 $7,849,304 3,083 12/1/06
10 Courageous TriS $34,522,221 1,214 $9,112,839 1,161 9/30/11

The top 4 movies are beautiful stories, well made, with redemptive themes that appealed to a much broader audience. The rest are either propositional movies where it’s clear from the title (i.e., Heaven is for Real, God’s not Dead) or it’s religious content is made clear in the title. The only exception at #10 is Courageous, but having been associated with Fireproof, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. I don’t think most people have a problem with Christian movies in general even if they don’t agree with their premise, but I think we do ourselves a disservice if we’re not at least honest about it.

We need to write better stories

Admittedly, my perspective on this is more as a consumer than as one who has lived in the industry. Having been a part of producing a few short films, I do understand the enormous amount of work and planning involved just to create something on a smaller scale. So, I applaud anyone with the vision, guts and fortitude to put themselves out there and create. Keep creating. Keep growing. Keep going. My experience has been more on the music side of the Christian entertainment industry and one thing I’ve learned regardless of budget, process or production–it’s all about the song. Great production can’t hide a lousy song. In a similar fashion, a great movie is all about the story.  You can wow people with cool special effects for a few minutes, but it’s a great story that captures the heart. A heart that’s been captured in art is a heart that’s been influenced. We can’t forget that. So whatever the motivation for filmmaking, it will be accomplished best when told with a great story.

I think the Bible is full of great stories that haven’t even been tapped yet. Many of them would have to be sanitized so much to make them “Christian” (oddly enough) that they may never make it to the big screen. You could make a whole series out of the life of David (there have been some attempts), but you probably couldn’t bring your kids to see it. Or what about the story of Ehud and Eglon? That sounds like something more from Game of Thrones or Star Wars (a la Jabba the Hutt). Needless to say there are so many stories and themes that haven’t even been tapped by modern filmmakers yet. Let’s unearth those or learn from them and create stories that capture the imagination and the heart. We’ll all be better off for it.

We need to be more comfortable with artistic tension.

As consumers of “Christian” films, the more comfortable we get with actually seeing good art in a redemptive context, the more Christian filmmakers will be inclined to take the risk of making great art. Unfortunately, the larger evangelical audience is more content with screen versions of 1970’s flannel graph and feeling good about receiving validation of their beliefs from a space that they believed for so long was “of the devil”.  But if we want to truly influence a different audience, it’s not going to be done by sub-par art marketed with bait and switch tactics. We need to tell great stories (redemptive, yes) created in the form of good art. For most people outside the Evangelical bubble, the medium is the message. We can’t ignore that. The Bible itself is full of tension. Ideas like the sovereignty of God and the free will of man have spawned more denominations than we can count, but there’s no question of the Bible’s influence despite the tension or because of the tension (perhaps?). We may be content with pandering propositional films to a friendly audience, but if we want our art to change the world, we need to be comfortable with the tension that involves. A film shouldn’t have to make the choice between being “Christian” or being great art.  However, if the audience would allow, perhaps it could be both.

 What would you add to this list? What do you think is missing or should be added to films that express faith? 

Lenten Worship: Why?

Ash_Wednesday_std_t_ntI grew up in a church tradition that did not recognize much of the Christian calendar with the exception of Christmas and Easter. However, I did spend my childhood in the Northeast where Catholicism dominated the religious landscape. Coming from the “free church” tradition, most of the church calendar seasons were explained away as “empty rituals”, void of any real spiritual vitality, and for many, they were. I have discovered in recent years, however, that this does not necessarily have to be the case. Incredible spiritual vitality can be found in many aspects of the liturgical church calendar. 

I grew up Baptist, went to Baptist theological schools, did my graduate education at a Pentecostal school, and now serve in a Methodist church (and I continue to have many friends in all of those “camps”). You may look at this and think that I have no real theological convictions, or you may conclude that I will just be very happy in Heaven! Either way, having broadened my theological understanding and my denominational exposure, I have come to appreciate much of what has traditionally been referred to as the “Christian Calendar”.  Here’s why:

It helps me realize that my generation is not the only one to name the name of Christ. In an age of 24-hour news cycles, instant information and the realization that just about everything I use in my life begins with “i” and is nearly disposable (iPhone, iPad, iMac, etc.), it is healthy to realize that I am not the only one who has attempted to live this Christian life but that I am connected to a much greater “we” that has lived, died and often been martyred for Christ—those whom I will spend eternity with! The Church Calendar is a great reminder that there have been generations of faithful Christians who have gone before me.

It helps me identify and bring myself in unity with others who name Christ. Unity is vitally important both in our local congregations but also even throughout Christendom. Often we speak of unity, but yet dismiss any notion that we could or should join with other Christ followers in celebrating or honoring a holiday or period of time together that would actually both unify us and help us set our attention on Christ. Observing the Church Calendar is one way for us to have a shared experience with others who also identify with the Gospel and is a fulfillment (even if only partially) of Christ’s prayer that we would be “one” (John 17:21-22).

It helps reinforce the story of Christ into my daily life. Throughout much of Christian history we must remember that most believers did not have ready access to the printed Scriptures and illiteracy was the norm for much of the world up until relatively recent times when compared to over 2,000 years of Christian history.  The Church Calendar was developed over time to help reinforce the story of Christ into the rhythms of everyday living. When looked at fully, we realize that the calendar outlines the Gospel into specified times throughout the year. It begins with anticipating His arrival in Advent, celebrating His birth at Christmas, His revealing during Epiphany, humbling ourselves in repentance as we join His fasting in the wilderness during Lent, reflecting on His love and sacrifice during Holy Week, remembering our sin and the atonement that He provided on the cross on Good Friday, celebrating the resurrection of life at Easter, marveling at His giving of the Spirit during Pentecost, and trusting that the presence and power of that same Spirit is with us still during the rest of the year as well (Ordinary Time). While none of these aspects become more or less true during other times of the year, each season provides us an opportunity to revel in and be reminded of the vast privilege and responsibility we have in also being invited into God’s story of redemption.

So this brings us to Lent. What are the opportunities for worship during this season? First of all, in the church that I serve, we have crafted a guided time of prayer and service that will help us prepare our hearts and minds for the ultimate celebration of Christ’s triumph at Easter (you can find this by “liking” our Facebook page www.facebook.com/mountpisgahumc). Many will also join in a time of fasting. This may range from a complete fast of food to simply giving up a comfort, convenience, or repenting and seeking forgiveness of even what might have become a “weight” or besetting sin (Heb. 12:1).  There is also something very powerful in substituting something that may be harmless, harmful or destructive for something that is hopeful, heart-felt or constructive and developing new habits that will help us to more faithfully live out Christ’s story in our daily lives. This does not negate being yielded to the constant work of the Spirit in our lives, but allows us to form better habits that help shape us while being more conscious of His working within us at increasingly greater and deeper ways as we grow in Him.

As is the case at any time, worship is ALWAYS a matter of the heart.  Just as anything else, any ritual can become trite or be done out of selfish motivation. However, there are seasons of the year that lend themselves well to denying ourselves and forming new habits that can help form us more into the image of Christ. I have found that Lent can be such a season and I look forward to seeing Christ formed in me and others as we make a more concerted effort to focus ourselves on Him.

Do you plan to observe Lent this year?  Is it something you will do on your own or will you be joining a local community of faith in a shared experience?  What ways could churches from both the “free church” and liturgical traditions better enable their people to have more meaningful shared experiences outside of gathered worship? Click “Read More” to leave your comments below.

For more information about the church calendar or the Lenten season:

http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/ash-wednesday

http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-lent-and-why-does-it-last-forty-days

The United Methodist Book of Worship (link to Abingdon Press)

Discover the Mystery of Faith by Glenn Packiam (link to Amazon.com)

Worship: Old and New by Robert Webber (link to Amazon.com)

Worshipping Through Grief

grief_small_bwWhen we first moved here to the Alpharetta area, one of our members described living here a little like “living in Disney World” and in many senses this is so true. We live in a great community surrounded by beautiful landscapes and the benefits of affluence, hard work and the American Dream. All of us know, however, that no matter where we live on planet earth, there are none of us that are immune to grief. We all suffer loss, whether that be the loss of a business due to a bad economy or the loss of our deepest relationships from disagreements, misunderstandings, or even death. Someone much wiser than I has said, “When times are good, they are rarely as good as we think they are, and when times are bad they are rarely as bad as we think they are.” I really believe that the Scripture would bear this out as well. Our worst of times and best of times will fade quickly compared to the glory that will one day be revealed in us (Rom 8:18). So, with this hope, we rejoice even though we live in a fallen world and even though we see suffering all around us.

Over the last couple of weeks, my heart has shared in the pain of two significant events. A couple of weeks ago, hearing of Rick Warren and family in the loss of their son Matthew to suicide (he suffered from mental illness his entire life)–my heart literally hurt. Rick has been a “pastor to pastors” and has been a pioneer and champion for reaching the unreached and adding value to millions through his books. For any family this would be painful and especially to such a public figure, I knew this would be a tragic loss and one that would meet it’s deal of “haters” from some in the media and mainstream culture. Yet, we have seen the hope of Christ and His Church shine through as many have lifted this family up in prayer and as we have witnessed the testimony of Rick, Kay and the family through social media and personal testimony.

Of course, we all have heard of the bombings in Boston over the last couple of days and our hearts go out to the many families and friends of those that were lost and injured during the blasts. It is so easy to become immune to this as it seems we hear of a bombing somewhere nearly every day. When these tragedies strike so close to home, it is a difficult reminder, however, of the evil that does exist in our world. How can anyone hate that much?

Yet, through the scriptures we also are given several examples of those who also worshipped in the midst of pain.

Job worshipped through grief. Job lived a righteous, God-fearing life. He was blessed by God with a dear family and much material wealth, yet he was allowed to be tested by Satan, who took nearly everything from him, yet Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Hannah worshipped through grief. Hannah was barren and wanted a child with every ounce of her being, yet this blessing was delayed and she was found weeping in the temple yet “They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:19).

Jeremiah worshipped through grief. So much so, in fact, he is often known as the “weeping prophet” probably due to a book in the Bible that he penned called “Lamentations”.  The theme of this book is developed as Jeremiah grieves over a wasted and desolate Jerusalem as a result of Israel’s exile. Yet in the midst of all of this he says, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:24).

Jesus, of course, knew grief. On the night before His crucifixion, we see Him praying in the garden of Gethsemane and weeping as it were “great drops of blood.”  Yet in the midst of this, he prays, “Not my will, but yours, be done,” and “Father, glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (Luke 22:42, John 17:1). We also read in Hebrews where it give us insight into the “big picture” that Jesus was able to keep before Him even despite His great suffering and grief–”Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).

Like Jesus, may we see the “big picture” and worship through our grief. It doesn’t mean that grief won’t still hurt or that suffering won’t still sting, but it does mean that we know the One who somehow through it all will one day “make all things new”.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:1-5

 

How have you worshipped through grief? What advice do you have for those who have suffered a great loss? Let us know by leaving your comments below.

Prayers for Boston

Boston-Marathon--image-of-explosion-jpgLike you, I was horrified to hear of the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Having lived in Boston as well as just completing a trip there just a few days ago, the city is fresh on my mind. Patriot’s Day and the Boston Marathon are great cultural events that have shaped this city for decades. My heart goes out to all of the people who have suffered injury and loss on this tragic day. Today serves as a sobering reminder that we live in a fallen world and as believers, we have full citizenship in a kingdom that has not fully come but in our hearts only and in the hearts of all those that embrace Jesus as Lord.

I am pleased to hear that no one that I know was injured in the blasts, however, there are many today that can’t say that. It is times like these when we join with them and “weep with those who weep”. With all of the distraction and continuous onslaught of social media, there is no doubt that it has made our world much smaller. When we see the devastation and see the comments from many on the ground in real time, it is hard to continue in “business as usual”. Though this is a Christmas song, I’m often comforted by these words. Henry Wadsworth  Longfellow (a native of my hometown of Portland, Maine) penned these words during the Civil War in 1863. May these words help shape our hearts to look forward to a kingdom that is yet to come, yet work and pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

 For a more modern setting of the song, check out Casting Crowns version here.

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