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Weekend Java 03.27.15

Apologetics Award: “4 Reasons Pastors Must Practice Evangelism” –In his final letter, Paul charges Timothy, his son in the faith, to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). By these words, the aged Apostle establishes the timeless standard for pastoral ministry, not only for young Timothy but for all pastors in every generation and in every place.

Non-Fiction Award: “Find Your Own Voice” – Christopher Hitchens on the relationship between writing and speech.

Fiction Award: “5 Simple Ways to Transform Quiet Scenes into Exciting Scenes” – Some great ideas from Darcy Pattison.

Preaching Award: “A Simple Guide to Reading and Applying the Bible with Jesus as the Hero – Esther” – This post is a GREAT example of the correct way to apply a Christ-centered hermeneutic. It’s both exegetically faithful and makes perfect textual application to everyday life.

Christianity and Culture Award: “DC Talk and the Influence of Faith-Fortifying Songs” – CCM gets a bad rap nowadays…but T. Wax shows reminds us of the redemptive side of the redemptive music era.

Reading and Literature Award: “Art that Only Appears When it Rains” – Literature takes all kinds of forms…even the kinds that only appear on rainy days.

Spiritual Life Award: “We Complain Because We Forget” – So true. I’ve thought about this one all week. 

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “3 Secret Weapons I Used to Launch my Online Platform” – Jeff Goins on what it took to go from zero to hero in the blogging world.

Theology Award:Jesus Ensures the Great Commission Will Not Fail” – A helpful excerpt on the theological implications of the resurrection.

Motivational Award: “The Secret Part of Bravery People Struggle with Most” – Jon Acuff totally nails it with this one.

Fun Award: “The Best Owls in Children’s Books” – Owls are hot in children’s books: find out why, here.

The Glimpse of Truth Award: “Why Face to Face Contact Matters in a Digital Age” – Susan Pinker shows how community equals longer lifespans in a little, coastal mountain town. As Christians, we have another reason to be like these people: the impetus of the gospel.

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9 Things You Need to Know About Solving World Poverty.

Over the last couple of decades, evangelicals have woken up, as a whole, to the dreary reality of poverty. We’ve had the light of scripture shine on this dark corner of our faith, and, as a result, we’ve been hard at work sweeping out the cobwebs. We’ve engaged on issues like sex trafficking, racism, clean water, and natural disasters.

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This is a good thing.

But like Lennie Small in “The Grapes of Wrath”, in trying to show our affection, we’ve often squeezed the puppy to death. Our heart for the issue, at times, doesn’t match the head knowledge required to solve it.

That’s the subject of Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself.” This book is essential reading for every Christians, but here are nine introductory principles of the issue:

1. Our Solutions to Poverty Typically Break Things.  

Imagine that Donald Trump walks into your church, sits in on the elder’s meeting, and just before the meeting concludes says: “Hey guys – great plans, but I say this church needs a POOL.” Guess what’s going to happen? That’s right – suddenly, the Spirit will lead the church to build a pool.

Why? Because we all assume Mr. Trump is going to pay for the pool.No, you don’t need a pool, and don’t want one, and can’t afford to maintain one. But if we follow that plan, he’ll probably be willing to foot the bill for some of our REAL needs. But then Mr. Trump leaves – he’s done his good deed for the year.

Here’s the kicker, from Corbett and Fikkert: We are Donald Trump. The average North American’s solution to poverty looks exactly like that. We come in with our plans and ideas, we execute, we leave, we feel good…and we wreak havoc on the world around us.

2. Poverty isn’t all about money.

Ironically, we evangelicals have bought into the secular idea that poverty is all about lack of materials. Our solution, likewise, is to give people material goods. Sounds good, right?

Wrong. Because poverty isn’t just about lack of materials. It’s about a lack of dignity. “While poor people mention having a lack of material things,” say Corbett and Fikkert, “they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.”

3. Solving problems for people increases poverty.

Now, think about point #2. If poverty is as much about human dignity as material needs, are we really solving people’s poverty issues when we step in and solve things for them? No – in fact, we further the cycle of poverty, because that’s humiliating.

“Material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things;” say Corbett and Fikkert, “rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be.”

4. Both institutions and people are flawed.

When it comes to solving poverty, most of us are republicans or democrats.

We either: blame everything on corrupt institutions, or: blame everything on corrupt people. But the truth is, as Corbett and Fikkert say: “People affect systems, and systems affect people.” Solutions to poverty include solutions on both planes.

5. “You Believe the Health and Wealth Gospel.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from “When Helping Hurts”, it’s this: deep down, I believe the health-and-wealth gospel.

Let’s be honest: the reason we charge into impoverished communities with all the answers and solutions is simple: we think we did something right to be rich, and the poor did something wrong to be poor.

Of course, people in poverty aren’t angels. But neither are we: “…until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good. Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.”

6. True Solutions to Poverty Happen Slowly.

We in North America are typically pretty “results oriented”. We like to see things happen – and we like to FUND where we see things happening. But when it comes to solving world poverty…we just need to GET OVER that.

Or even better, we need to redefine our results: “Deep and lasting change takes time. In fact, fully engaging the poor in a participatory process takes lots of time…It might help donors if they remembered that creating decision-making capacity on the part of the poor is a return—arguably the chief return—on their investment.”

7. Solving Poverty is About Building Long-Term Relationships. 

Short Term Mission trips are nice, because we can put them in a pretty 2-week box, drop them off at the door of Summer, and check off our good deed for the year.

But poverty, ultimately, is about broken relationships: broken relationships with God, with one another, and with creation. Because of that, “fixing” the problem CAN’T mean throwing money at it – it has to mean helping people rebuild broken relationships with God and others: “…These things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.”

8. True Solutions Require Listening Before Responding.

Rather than charging into a situation with answers at the ready, holistic solutions to impoverished community begin by assuming the dignity of those to whom we’re ministering. One of Fikkert and Corbett’s mantras is: “Avoid Paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”

Rather, they encourage the church to begin by asking dignity-increasing questions. These enable those in poverty to see how they can be part of the solution:

  • What are your goals and dreams for your life?
  • What strengths, abilities, and resources can you use to achieve those goals?
  • What is the first action you will take to use your gifts to achieve your goals?
  • By what date will you take this action?
  • How could we support you in achieving your goals?
  • Would you be willing to have a support person encourage you in meeting your goals?
  • When can we meet with you again to check on how things are going?

These questions take us from the role of reprimanding wealthy step-father to cheerleader, coach, and partner.

9. True Solutions Require the Gospel.

“Poverty is rooted in broken relationships,” say Corbett and Fikkert, “so the solution to poverty is rooted in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again.”

Solutions to poverty that don’t ultimately point to Christ as the redeemer of the world won’t ever get to the root of the problem: the human heart. We need to present the gospel alongside our practical helps, not only because it’s good for people’s souls, but because Christ is the ultimate redemption of broken relationships, broken institutions, broken systems, broken Christians, and a broken world. He is the broken Savior, who unbreaks all systems – physical and spiritual – that he might reign over every facet of life.

Even Lennie Small.

 

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Weekend Java 03.20.15

Apologetics Award: “Why Christianity is Not a Metanarrative” – Michael Horton on why Christianity is more of a “meganarrative” than a “Metanarrative”.

Non-Fiction Award: “Top 5 Tips for Writing to Change the World” – These are really great, and I’ve found them true over the course of the past couple of years…not that I’ve accomplished it.

Fiction Award: “Top 10 Elements of a Book People Want to Read” – This woman knows what she’s talking about.

Preaching Award: “A TED speaker coach gives 11 tips for what to do before going on stage” – Pretty self-explanatory. These are surprisingly relevant for preachers.

Christianity and Culture Award: “Finally, a Movie that Represents what Christian Cinema Could Be” – This is encouraging. The Indie movement has significantly shifted the momentum of Christian art. Without the politicized evangelical budgets pouring into self-interested films, you’ve got to expect more of this.

Reading and Literature Award: “Revisiting Pratchett’s Discworld Taught Me Why I Love Reading” – A great tribute to the passing of Pratchett.

Spiritual Life Award: “What if Singleness is My Fairy Tale?” – A good word for singles, a great word for anybody.

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “Where to Find Free Images Online” – This is really helpful, since posts are much more shareable with images…but most bloggers are on a budget.

Theology Award: “Why PhDs in Theology Commit Adultery” – Admittedly, the title is misleading. Basically: any knowledge we have of God is worthless, unless it results in worship.

Motivational Award: “Does Hitting Publish Make You Want to Puke?” Or: why blogging is great preparation for real publishing.

Fun Award:Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Was a Victim of a Police Conspiracy” – You heard it here, folks.

The Glimpse of Truth Award: “My Post Apocalyptic Hell is Better Than Yours” – Huxley writes to Orwell, arguing that his dystopian vision of the future is more accurate. I think they both address the complexity of human sin and deceit.

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Timothy Tennant on Why Christians Need to Stop Contextualizing the Gospel.

A few months ago, I wrote a series of posts on why it’s so important to contextualize the gospel.

Contextualization

The feedback was good, and interesting. But a question that kept coming up, again and again, was: “When is contextualization too much? Can’t we OVERcontextualize the gospel?” I had to admit, the answer was, “Yes.” We can over-contextualize the gospel. In ministering to Hindus, we can make Jesus one among the gods. In ministering to materialistic westerners, we can make Jesus a product. In ministering to Postmoderns, we can make Jesus an experience.

In response to this, some advocate “balance” in contextualization. But “balance”, for one, is an illusion in any sphere of life. We don’t “balance” Jesus’ humanity with His divinity, we embrace both whole-heartedly. We don’t “balance” our joy with Jesus’ glory. We don’t “balance” free will with God’s election. We embrace them all 100%, because the need to balance usually points to a dilemma, either false or true.

So if using the word “contextualization” means our sole guidance to gospel ministers is, “Be balanced”, then maybe we’re just not using the right word.

Tim Tennant’s Case Against Contextualization.

In his book, “Invitation to World Missions”, missiologist Tim Tennant takes up this issue by pointing out three major flaws of using the word “contextualization” when we talk about missions.

First, he says, contextualization is often used to justify fragmented theological discourse. In other words, “contextualization” has come to mean, in many circles, that every culture group has a right to completely rewrite theology from scratch:

Today, some have used contextualization to promote the idea that just as Latinos have liberation theology, Koreans should have a ming jung theology, women a feminist theology, blacks a black theology, Indians a dalit theology, and so forth. However, every authentic theology must not only celebrate the insights of its own particularity but also reflect the catholicity shared by all Christians everywhere. As Andrew Walls has said, “The Lord of hosts is not a territorial Baal.” If Jesus is truly Lord, then He is Lord of us all; we are all members of the same body.

Contextualization not only CAN be taken too far, it is REGULARLY being taken too far.

Secondly, the term “contextualization” is too easily confused with cultural particularity. In other words, the concept of “contextualizing” the gospel isn’t necessarily meant to be synonymous with being “like” one culture or another:

If, for example, some particular strategy places too much emphasis on cultural particularity at the expense of some universal core element of the gospel, then it is appropriate to call it syncretistic, but not “overly contextualized.” If a missionary is unduly tied to his or her own cultural embodiment of Christianity and unwilling to enter into the framework of the target culture, it would be appropriate to identify him or her as ethnocentric, but not as “undercontextualized”.

The fact that we use the terms “over” and “under” contextualized means that we’ve already lost the intended meaning of the term, which should always refer to a positive goal.

Third, the term contextualization can be a sweeping justification of all forms of cultural accommodation, without consideration for the Biblical witness. “Contextualization”, as a term, is one-handed – it encompasses the act of cultural accommodation, but it doesn’t also encompass the need for cultural confrontation:

Some, for example, have advocated that contextualization in the Islamic context means downplaying the deity of Christ or, among postmoderns, downplaying the doctrine of sin or the call to repentance. However, this demonstrates a denial of Christ, contempt for the gospel, and an insult to the multitude of Christians over the centuries who have given their lives for the faithful proclamation of the gospel.

He goes on:

Contextualization is never about producing a domesticated version of the gospel. Contextualization is not about making the gospel acceptable in the ears of the target culture. It is not enough to simply be committed to “where people are” and knowing “where the culture is.” We also must have a concomitant conviction about where the culture should be under the influence of the inbreaking New Creation.

In other words: contextualization gives a free pass to any form of “likeness” to the culture, without setting proper gospel boundaries. So, what’s a missional minister to do?

Not Contextualization: Translation.

Tennant argues that while the word “contextualization” has served us well in the past, the baggage is just too heavy. Rather, he advocates we exchange the word “contextualization” for “translation”, for three reasons:

First, translation encompasses faithfulness both to the source of truth (the Bible) and the target group:

Indeed, it is difficult to even conceptualize the word translation without thinking of both the source and the target. This is one of the ongoing problems with the word contextualization, which focuses only on the target context. In contrast, the word translatability reminds us that we must always remain faithful to both the apostolic message and the particularities of the target culture.

Secondly, translation is an extension of the idea of “Bible translation”, which is really what contextualization is all about:

In Bible translation it would be unthinkable to change the translation to a new meaning, which was not in the original text, simply because the resulting verse might offend members of the culture. Yet, on the other hand, as with any Bible translation, only members of the target culture can finally render the verdict on whether a particular translation effectively communicates, or re-presents, the gospel in an effective way or not.

Finally, says Tennant, the word “translation” necessarily reminds us that we are all subject to “mistranslating” scripture into the popular tongue. For example:

There is an overwhelming pressure today to sacrifice the gospel at the altar of the “market,” which treats the recipients of the gospel as consumers who must be satisfied by giving them what they want to hear rather than the unpopular message of repentance and a crucified Savior. However, if missionary practice and strategy become “market-driven,” then the objective reference point of the triune God and His self-revelation will be lost to a democratizing spirit with no normative standards beyond majority opinion.

So, then – the goal of translation is to stay 100% faithful to the Biblical text, WHILE staying 100% faithful to the culture to whom the text is being translated. In “contextualization” there’s need for balance. But we can hardly “over-translate” the gospel.

Why? Because it’s the right word.

 

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How Love Works.

Something you may not know about me: I’m obsessed with the Beatles.

Beatles

Yes, that’s right – the band that, statistically speaking, increasingly less high-school/college students are aware ever existed. I’ve been a fan since I was 10 years old (which tells you something about the kind of kid I was. HINT: I WORE A BEATLES BUTTON). I owned all of the cassettes – yes, cassettes – and watched the music videos, which now that I think about it, is probably why I continue to have nightmares about magical buses rolling me up into some sort of tube-shaped smoke machine….OH. Oh, I get it now. Right.

Two weeks ago, I spotted an article that claimed to have dug up a “lost” George Harrison solo, which is industry speak for: it-stunk-but-we-can-make-money-on-it-now-because-he’s-dead. Well, it sent me down a rabbit trail of Beatles Youtube Mania, and along the way, I stumbled across a few videos detailing the Beatles’ breakup.

As I scrolled through, a funny thought occurred to me: “These guys spent all their time talking about love, and peace, and justice. But…they broke up. THEY. BROKE. UP.” In other words: for all of the talk about love, and peace, and justice, they had yet to figure in one simple calculation: they didn’t know how love worked. Yes, they wanted it. We all do. But they just couldn’t get there.

It’s kind of like that old Peanuts cartoon: “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.”

How Love Doesn’t Work.

Typically, when we talk about love, or “fixing” world problems, we talk about ways in which WE can make love work. In other words, we think the way to love others is to MAKE people love others. It’s to MANDATE love toward others. This was Karl Marx’s idea sprung in the mid 19th century: we don’t need God to love other people. We need government.

Most Americans today, knowingly or not, embrace this materialistic ideology. David Wells in his book “Turning to God” writes:

“Materialists are of two kinds. Some, like the Marxists, are philosophical; others, like most Westerners, are unthinking. Marxists are theoretical atheists whereas secular Westerners are practical atheists.”

(I know, I know. That’s a pretty blanket statement. But think about it: deep down, most of us believe our best possible good is wrapped up in some experience of the material world. Think about the way you choose a church, for example. Be honest, now: do you choose a church based on content, or experience? That will tell you a lot about how you perceive your highest good.)

Now, what’s the problem with this? The problem is: love doesn’t work that way. Think about it: if the connection line between me and my neighbor is broken, then the solution can hardly be an intermediary neighbor. Why? Because the connection line between me and intermediary neighbor, as well as neighbor and intermediary neighbor, are also broken! So when intermediary neighbor (let’s say the government) tries to repair the connection line, he ends up with three broken connections, instead of one.

How does that work? This is how, and put on your seatbelt and read twice, because it’s pretty heady, but profound:

“When God is ignored, and change is predicated on human authority alone, moral relativism is inevitable because the power of moral determination is given to individuals or select groups who easily confuse moral standards with their interests. Even in the loftiest of cases, dishonesty for the sake of the cause can become dishonesty for the sake of some personal goal. And then no redress is possible. Moral relativism also means the end of moral discourse between all concerned.”

So, let’s take what he’s saying down to a micro-scale. If I’m in a traditional family, and I’m the “head of my household”, but I don’t believe in God, then my authority is ultimate authority. Now, technically, my job as “Dad” is to create a structure that supports an ideal mini-society, AKA: a family. The problem is, one night while I’m watching the Detroit Red Wings pummel the Boston Bruins (sorry, had to do), my kids are being too loud. So, with all of the self-righteous authoritarian dignity I can muster, I pronounce a new rule: “KIDS, NO PLAYING WHILE DADDY IS WATCHING THE HOCKEY GAME!”

Now, you see what happened there?

I’ve just confused “an ideal family” with “MY ideal family”. Which means: I just confused a “just” mini-society for a “self-serving” mini-society. Now imagine that times ten, and you can see what Wells is saying: in a society (or mini-society, as it were) where I am the highest authority, and there is no God, no one can do ANYTHING about my self-serving rules. In other words, if God isn’t the TRUE head of my household, then my wife can’t come up to me and say, “Sweety, you’re not actually creating rules that help us have an ideal family. Look here.” There’s no course of redress. My morals, as the “mediator”, become absolute. 

So, the idea of US MANDATING love for neighbor isn’t going to fix the problem. If the way we love others doesn’t begin and end with God, then in trying to repair the broken connection line between the rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, we just perpetuate the cycle, and, actually, make it worse, because human intermediaries will always confuse self-interest with world-interest.

The Solution.

So, the human solution doesn’t work. But how does love work? In the book of 1 John (As in, “The first letter of John”, not as in “1 John the android prototype”), tells us: it works like a Rube Goldberg Machine (See footage below)

Love, says John, is a spring loaded mechanism, which has two major cogs, and several triggers within said cogs. Here they go, in order, first to last:

Cog #1: Assurance of God’s love.

If I’m not sure God loves me, then I’m not sure God loves you, which means, I’m not sure I love you, either. So, how can I be sure God loves me? This is how:

Spring #1: The Holy Spirit (1 John 3:13). If I’m going to be sure of God’s love, I need God’s help. Why? Because knowing God’s love isn’t something we “figure out”. If I live my life colorblind, I can’t “figure out” color. And if we spend our lives color-blind to God’s love, we don’t need a lecture in theology, we need new DNA: Aka, God’s DNA. AKA: The Holy Spirit.

Spring #2: The Spirit’s Message about Jesus (1 John 3:14-15). The Holy Spirit gets a lot of flack, because he’s kind of like the Hippie Guru of the Trinity. He shows up at the party, does some freaky stuff like plant fire flowerpots on people’s heads and gives them a free Rosetta Stone course in “everyone’s own tongue”.

Weird, right? Actually, not so much. Here’s a crash course in pneumatology, ready? The Holy Spirit’s job is to tell us about Jesus (John 15:26). That’s it. Think of it this way: when Taylor Swift is getting a photo shoot, everyone in the room has a job: get out of the way. The camera-man, the lighting crew, the grip, the editor: everyone. If you see them, or think about them, that’s because somebody screwed up. It’s the same with the Holy Spirit: His job is to communicate Jesus. He’s the lighting crew, the camera crew, everything. That’s why John says the sign that you have the Holy Spirit isn’t the ability to speak gibberish in church, or pass out when Benny Hinn slaps you on the forehead. The proof of the Holy Spirit is that you believe in Jesus.

Spring #3: Knowing God’s nature (1 John 4:15-16). So the Holy Spirit shows us Jesus. And Jesus’ life, death and resurrection communicate something to us: The nature of God. What is the nature of God? It’s this: “God is love”. Love is God’s DNA. It’s His thing.

Which means God loves us, not because:

  • We go to church, tithe, and do our devotions.
  • We have perfect theology, a good family, or a high GPA.
  • Because we’re in ministry, we broke a bad habit, we sing in the choir.
  • Because of our race, our gender, or our sexuality.
  • Because of our successful career, our healthy family, our rapport with others.
  • Because we have a great marriage, and orderly life, and live by principles.
  • Because of our intellect, or morality, or even because of our faith.

Fill in this blank: God loves me because ________. Come on, be honest. Why does God love you? The answer is this: God loves you because God is love. If you think God loves you for any other reason, it’s because you’re trying to make God’s love like your love. It’s not. Too often, I’m like the munchkins at the end of the Wizard of Oz – I’m trying to pull down the balloon of God’s love to my level. But God’s love is higher, wider, deeper, different than mine. God doesn’t love me because I DO something for Him. He loves me because He. Is. Love.

Cog #2: God’s Love Casts Out Fear.

When we understand the nature of God – that He is love – this produces an internal and an external result:

Spring #4: The Internal change – our fear of God is replaced with love for God (1 John 4:17-18). What’s the opposite of love? Go ahead. Hate, right? Wrong – the opposite of love is FEAR. Fear that God will punish me. Fear of messing up. Fear that I’m not good enough.

In the words of an old, shriveled, green, pistachio-like saint: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate…leads to the dark side” (Again, see clip below):

The reason we can’t love God is this: we’re afraid of Him. If you’re at school, or you work, then you know what it’s like to have a FEARFUL relationship. Probably the first thing you think every day isn’t, “BOY, I can’t WAIT to see my BOSS/TEACHER/SUPERVISOR today!” Why? Because that’s a relationship of fear: it’s based on your performance. Good things happen if you do good. Bad things happen if you don’t.

But the gospel isn’t like that. The gospel isn’t based on YOUR performance. It’s based on Jesus’ performance for you. So you can’t mess up. You can’t do better than anyone, either. The gospel says: God loves you because He loves you because He loves you because He loves you. So there’s nothing to fear.

And when you understand that, you start to see God for who He is. It’s not about you, anymore, and what you will and won’t get from God. It’s about God – you just get to enjoy Him. Charles Spurgeon once wrote about Christian growth this way:

Ask a young Christian why he loves Christ, and he will tell you, I love Christ because he has bought me with his blood! Why do you love God the Father? I love God the Father because he gave his Son for me. And why do you love God the Spirit? I love him because he has renewed my heart. That is to say we love God for what he has given to us. Our first love feeds just on the simple food of a grateful recollection of mercies received. And mark, however much we grow in grace this will always constitute a great part of the food of our love.

Then he goes on to detail how a Christian’s love changes, as he/she grows:

But when the Christian grows older and has more grace, he loves Christ for another reason. He loves Christ because he feels Christ deserves to be loved. (Great saints) did not merely love Christ because of what he had done for them; but you will find in their sonnets and in their letters—that their motive of love was, that he had communed with them, he had showed them his hands and his side; they had walked with him in the villages; they had lain with him on the beds of spices; they had entered into the mystic circle of communion; and they felt that they loved Christ, because he was all over glorious, and was so divinely fair, that if all nations could behold him, sure they must be constrained to love him too.

In other words, when we GET OVER fearing God, we start to SEE HIM for who He is: He’s beautiful, because He is love. And then we start to love Him, not because of what He’s done for us, but just because He’s lovely.

Spring #5: Our fear of others is replaced with love for others (1 John 4:19-21). Finally: when we understand God’s unconditional love for us, we can unconditionally love the people around us. The truth is, most of us walk around trying to be assured of God’s love…through other people. So, you’re not a person who I care about: you’re my Bible. I need you to tell me what God thinks about me, because I don’t know.

I love the way C.S. Lewis depicts this in “The Great Divorce”. A woman named Pam is looking for her dead son, Michael, and one of the spirits in heaven tells her she’s not ready. She doesn’t love him, yet. When Pam objects, the spirit says:

“Pam, Pam-no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”

In other words: you can’t love Michael as long as you need him. You can’t love him as long as he’s your Bible. You can’t love him, until you love God.

Most of us go through life “loving” other people, but what we really mean by “love” is “need.” And if I NEED you, it’s because I FEAR you. And if I FEAR you, I don’t LOVE you. But when we learn that God is love, and He loves us because He loves us because He loves us, we learn what true love is: it’s not needing others. It’s giving to them, not because of anything they’ve done to earn it, but simply because: God. Is. Love.

Connecting the dots.

A few weeks ago, Dr. David Murray posted “10 Ways we can hate our neighbor”. Here’s what he wrote: “We hate our neighbors when we:

  1. Grudge their success.
  2. Blacken their name.
  3. Desire their failure.
  4. Ignore their graces and gifts.
  5. Suspect their motives.
  6. Rejoice when they fall or fail.
  7. Refuse their confession.
  8. Highlight only their defects.
  9. Despise their callings and roles.
  10. Take vengeance upon them.

Do you feel any of those things?

I know I do. What John is telling us is this: the reason I still fear my neighbors (or, hate them) is this: I don’t fully believe the gospel. I don’t fully understand that God is love.

Famous Preacher Martin Lloyd Jones once said he had a simple test for knowing whether someone was a Christian. He’d ask, “Are you a Christian?”, and if they said ‘yes’, that was a good sign (or delusional). If they said, “No”, that was a bad sign. If they said, “I’m trying”, that was a bad sign, too. Why? Because the people who said “I’m trying” were still in a FEARFUL relationship with God – their faith was based on their performance, not God’s nature. Which meant: they didn’t understand the gospel.

But when we do understand the gospel – when we understand the beautiful truth that God loves us because He loves us because He loves us – we stop trying to earn God’s love. And we stop trying to earn love from others. We love them God’s loveliness compels us to do so.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Zach offered to watch my kids for me. It occurred to me that, even though Zach doesn’t know my kids, or hang out with them regularly, I knew that I could trust my kids with Zach. Why? Because I know that my friend Zach loves ME. And that’s how love works. When we understand that we’re children of God, not employees, we start to love God for who He is. And as we come to love God for who He is, we start to love His children as well. Not because they do anything for us. Not because they earn us a reputation. Not because they’re the same color as us, or they’re smart like us, or because they dress nicely, or because they have the same moral standards as us, or even because they’re nice to us.

We love them because of a simple fact the Apostle John pronounced (so it’s said) in his last, and shortest sermon ever, as his frail body settled into the pulpit for the last time: “Brothers and sisters, let us love one another. For God. is. love.” You want to know how love works? Look at the cross. Jesus pours out His love toward us, so we can pour it out toward others.

That, my friends, is how love works.

 

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Weekend Java 03.13.15

Apologetics Award: “Calvin Contra Rome on Scripture” – On how John Calvin dealt with Rome’s views of tradition…with a taste of their own medicine, of course.

Non-Fiction Award: “Top 10 Punctuation Mistakes” – Such, as beginning a sentence by following introductory words with commas.

Fiction Award: “For Writers on the Verge of Creating Spectacularly Complex Characters” – K.M. Weiland with another homerun, mainly because it comes straight from Robert Mckee.

Preaching Award: “4 Sermon Types to Avoid” – Derek Thomas with some ouchie critiques (that’s Berkhof’s term, anyway. Also, note to self, I should stop telling jokes that only make sense after you read the article…since you won’t read the description until afterward. Noted. Not heeded, just noted).

Christianity and Culture Award: “3 Ways Christians Will Engage Culture in the Future” – Ed Stetzer’s cultural analysis is always golden.

Reading and Literature Award: “Straight to Audiobook: A New Trend” – A fascinating new trend, thanks to modern media, being caught by big-name authors.

Spiritual Life Award: “Let’s Bring Conversation Back” – A great, great post on the missing link between our lives and evangelism of the lost.

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “5 Advanced Techniques I Use to Make Money on My Blog” – “These particular strategies I’m sharing are not the typical steps most newbies read about, such as monetizing with AdSense, or the Amazon affiliate program. You really need a lot of traffic to make a decent income from AdSense. I’m talking about making a full-time income without needing hundreds of thousands of visitors each month.”

Theology Award: “Every Story Casts His Shadow” – A ridiculously well-done video about Christ in the OT, thanks to the Gospel Project. 

Motivational Award: “The Middle of Things: Advice to Young Writers” – “Your mature work is the outcome of your early work: that there can be no meaningful middle without a meaningful beginning. But the middle is as joyous as enduring love.”

Fun Award: “Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche Explained in 8-Bit Video Games” – So, maybe our opinions of fun are a little bit different.  

The Glimpse of Truth Award: “Iron man presents Bionic arm to 5-year-old” – Awesome:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEx5lmbCKtY

 

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Weekend Java 03.06.15

Apologetics Award: “Three Christian Misconceptions About Islam” – J.D. Greear highlights some ways we can better speak to and about Muslims.

Non-Fiction Award: “Word Hoarder” – This absolutely beautiful and breathtaking article is all about finding new and diverse language to describe the unique wonders we see in each part of our world. Stunning.

Fiction Award:Neil Gaiman on how Douglas Adams Made Him a Writer” – Hearing one great writer talk about another gives us a little glimpse into what it takes. This is a video of a long lecture, but there’s a great, full summary surrounding it.

Preaching Award: “Bad Models of Expository Preaching” – Ligonier encourages NOT to try and do what the great preachers did…it was their greatness that made them capable of doing it.

Christianity and Culture Award: “Your Job is God’s Assignment” – John Piper on how work is worship. His approach is refreshing.

Reading and Literature Award: “The Rise of the Nameless Narrator” – Sam Sacks on the difference between the Biblical conception of having “no name” and our modern conception. Interesting read.

Spiritual Life Award: “The Great Achievers are the Great Believers” – What do you think will make you great? The Biblical answer isn’t what we typically think.

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “17 Insanely Achievable Ways to Build Your List” – This post sent me on a rabbit trail that eventually led to my taking off my daily popup on my blog and replacing it with a “Magic Box” – it’s the best of both worlds.

Theology Award: “Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two?” A great outline of two different viewpoints on whether God’s covenant is with the nation of Israel today, or not.

Motivational Award:How Steinbeck Struggled Through His Novel” – This lengthy article quotes Steinbeck writing his Pulitzer Prize winning novel…he struggles every. single. step of the way.

Fun Award: “Children’s Authors Get Grilled By Their Own Creations” – To celebrate World Book Day, children from book groups at Heartlands High School in Wood Green, north London, and Monkton Prep school in Bath dress up as book characters Mr Gum and Polly, Ruby Redfort, Horrid Henry and Goth Girl to interview their favourite authors Andy Stanton, Francesca Simon, Lauren Child and Chris Riddell about the ideas behind their stories.

The Glimpse of Truth Award“Writing is a way of getting rid of shame. When you write the whole idea is to be free. And what are you free from? From people looking at you. I think shame is an essential mechanism in social life. It regulates everything and makes people behave in a decent and appropriate way to each other. But I have kind of too much, an overdose. I’m so restricted I can’t do anything.” – Karl Ove Knausgaard from this interview.

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Why Everyone Deserves to Tell a Story.

I sat in the bookstore, trying desperately to mind my own business. Two young people had taken a seat, and one was giving an impassioned speech.

Book

“I have a story idea,” he said to the girl sitting across from him. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Looks like I don’t have a choice,” I thought. What happened next was the last thing on planet earth I’d expected: I was riveted.

The young man launched into an elaborate plot about a group of people who lived on an Island, each of whom possessed magical abilities. “But,” he explained, “All of the magic is controlled by sensory experiences.” Well, that’s odd, I thought. But as I listened on, the genius began to unfold: “See, everyone can do magic in this world. But they all control it with their senses. There are a few people – the people the story is about – they have what people call disabilities. They are blind, or deaf, or have Aspergers.” Something about the way he said that felt personal, like he was drawing it from the deep wells of his heart and offering it out to her.

“But the thing is,” he continued, “This nation of people from across the ocean come to take over the Island, and they have this advanced magical power, and no one can stop them. But then they all learn that the people who are different – the people who don’t do magic the normal way – are the only ones who can stop them. And the people that experience things differently know they have to protect the Island.'”

“To be honest,” he said, quieting ever so slightly. “I got the idea from our lives. The people who are different don’t need to see magic like other people, or hear it. They can feel it in the air – they can taste it. Magic is everywhere.”

Meeting Marc and Heather

After gathering about 10 minutes worth of gumption, I walked up to the couple sitting at the table.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “I’m sorry if this bothers you, but I overheard your story idea, and I really liked it. Can I ask you a couple of questions?”

“Sure,” said the guy, who told me his name was Marc. “But I need to make a phone-call first.” Marc spoke on the phone with what seemed to be his ride home. Meanwhile, Heather told me her own idea for a book called “The Nose Children”. The premise was a little complex, so I didn’t have time to wrap my mind around it before we parted ways (Heather – if you’re reading, could you e-mail it to me?)

“I don’t care if you put that on your blog,” she said. “People can take that idea, and use it.” That struck me. Most writers are terrified that someone would steal their idea, but not Heather. When Marc hung up the phone, he explained why:

“What I want people to know is that my story isn’t really about magic. It’s about getting the perspective of someone who’s different, who isn’t treated the same way as everyone else. It’s about how you can learn from those people.”

“What you fear,” said Heather, looking me straight in the eyes, “Will be your salvation.” Marc’s phone rang, and his ride, apparently, announced that it was waiting.

“It’s always encouraging when someone takes an interest,” said Marc. “Thanks.” We exchanged e-mails, and I told Marc I thought his idea was really good, then gave him a couple of resources on self-publishing.

“You should write that book,” I said. “It’s a really great idea.”

Reeling From the Experience

To be honest, I’m a book snob. I cringe at the idea of self-publishing. But Marc and Heather had no credibility. I hadn’t read their stuff before. No big-name publishers took any interest in them. And yet, I desperately wanted to hear their story. Everything in me cried: “They deserve to be heard. They deserve to be on paper. They deserve to be published.” I have no idea if their writing would contain incredible style, or three dimensional characters, or interesting plot twists.

But I do know one thing: whatever they wrote would communicate them. The story, as Marc put it so well, wasn’t about the story. It was about Marc and Heather – two lone adventurers, walking through life, trying to communicate to us that they feel life’s magic, too. They might not experience it the same way, but they feel it in the air – they taste it.

After Marc and Heather left, I sat in the bookstore, listening. The kid on my right was telling his mentor about how he was a superhero, who was going to take his anger and punch it and kick it, over and over, until it was gone. The man a couple of seats away from me – perhaps inspired by our boisterous conversation in the center of the cafe – was typing a story…out loud. And while I might have normally rolled my eyes at something like that, a little voice in my head said: “You know what, Nick? Marc is right. They might not see it the same way you do. They might not express it the same way. But everyone is trying to communicate something: they see magic in life.”

Marc’s point was simple, but profound: life’s magic isn’t restricted to people with fine sensory abilities. But the implication is also true: life’s magic isn’t restricted to writers with perfect style, or best-selling authors, or big-name bloggers. Marc and Heather, as far as I know, have only one, loyal, raving fan: me. But that’s enough. It’s enough, if at the end of the day I can say, “Marc, Heather – I see life from your perspective, now.” And if they asked me, “What’s that?” I’d have a simple answer for them:

“Look around you. Magic is everywhere.'”

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Weekend Java 02.27.15

Apologetics Award: “A Crash Course on Skeptics” – Justin Taylor with a helpful summary of the key anti-faith proponents of the last century, including so far Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Kant, Freud, and others.

Non-Fiction Award: “The Ear Demands Variety” – Short and sweet, courtesy of Gary Provost.

Fiction Award: “The 6 Must-Have Elements of a ‘Wow’ Premise” – An extraordinary condensation of the basics in writing fiction.

Preaching Award: “The Necessity of Christ-Centered Preaching” – Some advice from the man Spurgeon called “the greatest theologian of this century” (um…meaning, HIS century, not ours, unless you know something I don’t).

Christianity and Culture Award: “Christianity and Culture” – Trevin Wax gives a helpful summary and critique of this Christian classic.

Reading and Literature Award:You Think Writing is a Dream Job?” – According to one study, 60% of folks want to be a full-time writer. But it’s not what you’re looking for, most likely.

Spiritual Life Award: “Recovering Joy in Seminary” – David Murray’s post is very helpful, and you don’t need to be in seminary to take away some great principles, from his book.

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “How an E-mail Publisher Built and Audience of 223,991 Readers” – This is a helpful discussion on the validity of newsletter-style platforms versus blogs.

Theology Award: “Do We Deserve Heaven?” Ligon Duncan talks about the crisis this simple question brings for some.

Motivational Award: “Virgina Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt” – This is surely the first time a suicidal author won the “motivational” award for anything, so I thought I’d do it for the novelty.

Fun Award: “The Oskarz Nomination Special” – This is Relevant Magazine’s roundup of the greatest youtube moments this year. The award for “Most Inappropriate Drum Solo” had me rolling. Also – Fox bats? They exist, so there’s that.

The Glimpse of Truth Award: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.” – Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

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Four Things to Consider Before You Criticize Christian Films.

Recently, folks have been musing about a question which has plagued us since the inception of film: “Why are Christian movies so bad?”

Film Reel

I’ve appreciated these conversations, mainly because I always like Christians putting their minds to cultural creation and artistic excellence.

That being said, I’d like to offer four gentle rejoinders to the dialogue taking place. We’d do well to mind them before offering up yet another critique of Christian films:

1. First, don’t offer simple correctives. When we punch out articles which easily explain the faults of Christian film, we’re subjecting ourselves to the same mindset that plagues Christian art in the first place: the idea that art is should be easy. Film, and other art forms, are extraordinarily difficult to master, and encapsulating the faults of all Christian films under a single rubric oversimplifies the problems it seeks to solve.

For example, a popular sentiment in the going articles about Christian film goes something like this: “Christians are trying to get messages across, and Hollywood is just trying to create art.” There you have it. The solution.

But the situation is more complicated. In fact, Hollywood screenwriting masters like Robert McKee say the opposite: the problem with most Hollywood scripts, says McKee, is that they have nothing valuable to say. Survey the award winning films of the last century, and you’ll see a theme that sets them apart: they have an agenda – something which is considered a curse-word in the Christian filmmaker conversation.

In reality, having an agenda has nothing to do with why Christian films aren’t on par with others. To chalk up all our problems in the film world to a pithy conclusion like that is like saying the problem in Ferguson is racism. Sure, we can all cheer – but it’s hardly insightful, substantial, or helpful.

2. Second, don’t critique unless you create. There is a world of difference between the view from the arena and that from the stands. We can all be Monday morning quarterbacks, but our value as critics would prove insubstantial were we to step into the field. We would discover, there, that the situation wasn’t nearly so simple as it appeared on television. There are a zillion different decisions to be made, each of which contributed in its own incalculable way to that “obvious” mistake seen from the living room couch.

The truth is, to be frank, unless you create films yourself, you have no idea what you’re talking about. We can all recognize a terrible dish, but we can’t all create one – that is, very few can diagnose how it arrived at what it is, and how to correct it. We can all critique, but only those in the field can diagnose, and prescribe.

3. Third, consider your definitions. One of the articles I read recently defined Christian film as those with an explicitly Christian message, then went on to critique Christian films for that very reason! If I define Christian film as “a film with no aesthetic value”, the game is rigged: Christian films, by definition, will never be good.

But did you know, for example, that the screenwriter for the Christmas movie “Elf” is a Christian? To me, this movie embraces all the principles critics pine for in “Christian” films, yet, it never seems to make the list. Why? Because “Christian films” are, by definition, weak. They’re the skinny-kid on the playground – anyone can beat on him, but it gratifies our ego to do it anyway. There’s no pride in winning a rigged game: we need to either broaden our definition, or abandon the term altogether.

4. Fourth, reject a martyr’s mindset. Almost every article critiquing Christian film winds up saying something like, “What makes Christian films bad is that they’re too Christian.”  But this approach subtly equates anything which distinguishes Christian art from Hollywood as inherently negative. In fact, the opposite is true: being a Christian is an artistic advantage. For example:

  • Christians are free to be honest about our deepest flaws. The gospel frees us from self-protective art, and allows us to create vulnerable work without fear of judgment from the public.
  • The Christian is free from self-justifying art. In other words, we’re free from art that points to our capacities as an artist, rather than the work itself.
  • Christians have clear values that create powerful messages about personal transformation. An “exchange of values” is the core of any protagonist in a well-done story.
  • Christians have the humility to create in community. In his book “Creativity INC” Ed Catmull hammers the point that the key to artistic greatness at Pixar is summarized in a single word: candidness. Mark Hamill once noted that the flaw of Star Wars Episodes I-III was Lucas’s divorce and withdrawal from community. Christians, of all people, ought to know that they are not an artistic Island, but are designed for community.

These four advantages are by no means exhaustive: Christians also have zeal for their work, a desire to honor true beauty, lifelong study of the greatest piece of literature ever created, the Spirit of creativity Himself, etc. There are plenty more. The point is, we need to stop talking about the distinctly Christian aspects of art as a liability – in many cases, being a Christian is an artistic asset.

Where Do We Start, Then?

All of this being said, I do believe something is severely lacking in the Christian film community: conversation. Those of us in pastoral ministry need lead conversations in which we both affirm Christian artists as God’s means of providing beauty to the world, as well as spurring them to think out how their work as an artist is distinctly Christian (see points above).

It takes incredible courage to create, and true artists know all too well that “a work of art is never perfected, only abandoned.” Artists hardly need more critics. They hardly need more vague truth-bombs in the form of, “Your Christian films need to be more ARTSY, DUDE!”

What they need is a place where they can meet with others in the field, and discuss what they do under the umbrella of redemption. In other words, what Christian filmmakers need can be summarized in three words: the local church. This is the hospital in which diagnostics and prognostics are truly discovered, where conversation happens, where Christ’s kingdom is brought to bear on the film medium.

So, rather than “Why Christian Films Stink”, I’d like to see more articles along the lines of, “Five things I’ve learned as a Christian in the Film Industry“, or “6 Unique Challenges For Filmmakers in my Congregation“, or “12 Things my Artistic Mentor Taught me About Christianity in Film”. Articles which flow, in other words, from the bunkers of the local church, and the trenches of the field itself.

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