Monday, 7 April 2014

A Bit More on "Noah," and On Christian Outrage

I’ll admit, I’m still surprised at the outrage being expressed by many evangelical Christians over a Hollywood movie made by unbelievers. 
One commentator noted how “dirty” the movie made him feel.  Another railed against the deteriorating respect that people have for the Bible.  Many have called it evil, and an abomination.  More than one person has challenged me on how I, a pastor, could encourage Christians to see this movie.
To all of this, my response is: you guys know that it’s just a movie, right?
And as a fascinating side note, consider that the director, Darren Aronofsky, was raised Jewish, and was raised on this story.  Although not an adherent to Judaism or Christianity today, he has great respect for the message of the story, and chose to tell it in the tradition of the Jewish “midrash” – a story-telling technique that rabbis have used for generations, where great embellishment is added to explore all aspects of the story, creating elements that read between the lines of the text, and allowing the message to be proclaimed in more memorable way. 
(And by the way, fun fact, the idea of giant fallen angels watching over and interacting with mankind is a well-established theme of ancient Jewish religious literature – see 1st Enoch.  Still not sure why they are portrayed in the movie as huge talking rock monsters, but hey...)
For all of the Christians up in arms about the movie, saying things like, “That’s not what MY bible says!”, they are forgetting that Noah was a Jewish story first, and the director has chosen to tell it in a particularly Jewish style.  The story does not belong to evangelical Christians.    
This, of course, doesn’t mean that we need to fully accept or be happy with the interpretation.  But whenever something like this happens, and Christian outrage blows up, I always just feel like, if anyone outside the Christian camp were to look at us, they would think: “Man, those people are just angry ALL THE TIME.  And over a movie?!”  With all of the pain, suffering, and legitimate evil in the world, why are the loudest cries of indignation always over things like this?  It’s a movie.  A very public one, but still, just a movie.
When such things happen, we respond in very predictable ways:

-          A boycott (“They’re not getting MY money!”)
-          Angry self-protection (“We have to defend the Bible!”)
-          Accusations (“This is EVIL!”)
-          Exaggerations (“With this disrespect for God’s Word, pretty soon Christians will be in jail!”
-          Generally unkind and unloving statements (“This is paganism at its worst, what horrible people made this, how can any idiot pastor encourage people to see it, etc.”)

Could there be a different way to approach this?
When Paul entered the city of Athens in Acts chapter 17, he saw many idols there, and was genuinely distressed.  However, he didn’t scream about how wrong the culture was.  He didn’t boycott the city.  He didn’t tell everyone they were going to hell. He didn’t get together with other Christians and rail about how evil the city was.  And he didn’t angrily complain that their spiritual expression didn’t agree with the truth.
 What he did instead was pick one of their beloved idols, and use it as a jumping-off point to start a conversation about Jesus (v.22-31). 
Now this was an idol – the epitome of evil for Jewish people – and yet Paul saw an opportunity to use it, evil as it was, in order to communicate truth. 
Instead of getting angry or self-righteous as to where the culture was at, he met them where they were at, on their level, and then used their own sinful cultural expression to point them towards Christ. 
And people got saved through the process. (v.34)
We can imagine how Paul might react as a modern-day evangelical:

-          Boycott the city (“I will NOT spend my time and money in this idol-worshiping place!”)
-          Angry self-protection (“I’m an APOSTLE, it’s MY JOB to defend the Gospel!”)
-          Accusations (“You guys are just evil.  Really, really evil.”)
-          Exaggerations (“If I spend any time with these people, I’ll probably abandon Jesus and the entire Gospel will fall apart!”)
-          Generally unkind and unloving statements (“You fools, are you REALLY praying to a hunk of stone, you ungodly pagans?”)

There are, however, people going to heaven from Athens, because Paul chose a different approach.
Does this need some wisdom and caution?  Certainly.  But there will always be parts of our culture that challenge us, that are unbiblical, and that are evil and sinful.  Paul shows us that, with wisdom, and being led by the Spirit, we can find ways to connect with culture where they are at, and use the culture itself to start a conversation about Jesus. 
The whole point of the Incarnation is that Jesus came down to our level, engaged with us where we were at, and loved us as the sinners that we are (Rom 5:8; Phil 2:5-8; 1Jn 4:19). 
We still have some things to learn! 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Some Thoughts After Seeing "Noah"

There’s been a lot of tweeting, a lot of Facebooking, a lot of blogging in the last few days about the new “Noah” movie.  A lot of annoyance and outrage from Christians (we are pretty good at that!), and a lot of eye-rolling and snark about the movie quality itself.  Having read many posts and comments before going in, my expectations had been lowered dramatically.  Because of that, I think, I ended up liking the movie more than I thought I would. 

(P.S…I don’t get to movies much anymore, but there seems to have been a massive increase in the number of people who can’t get through a movie without texting several times.  Lit-up faces everywhere.  Seriously…I think that’s the definition of addiction, and seriously, you actually have a problem.)
The Noah story is a tricky one for even the most mature believer.  Those who are at home on the subjects of judgment and righteous anger may accept it easily enough, but for those of us who try to reconcile the idea of a good and loving Father, with a holy God who wiped out virtually all earthly life via drowning, the story is much more challenging.

Much of the annoyance from the Christian camp has been due to the fact that much of the movie’s plot is not found in Scripture, with a few things that are even anti-biblical.  However, beyond the few things with which I genuinely took issue theologically, what is more at play in the movie is the fiction that has been added to embellish the story. 

Potential viewers should know that a good 75% or more of the movie is extra-biblical and completely fantastical.  The actual Noah account in the Bible is quite brief (it is found in Genesis chapters 6-9). In order to fill two-and-a-half hours of cinematic experience, the filmmakers decided to invent elaborate subplots involving a local warlord and his army, various love interests, an increasingly mentally unbalanced Noah, miracle twin sisters, magic seeds left over from the Garden of Eden, and yes, it’s true, fallen angels that inexplicably manifest as massive six-armed rock creatures. 

Some of these storylines caused awkward giggling throughout the theatre – it gets pretty silly at times, to be sure.  The filmmakers have approached the story from the standpoint of an epic myth, rather than trying to create a biblically accurate story.  No doubt many Christians will take issue with this, but really, what did we expect?  It is a secular approach to an Old Testament story, and so it comes across as a secular approach to an Old Testament story.  If it were Christians writing, producing, and directing the movie, that would be different.   But Hollywood has done what Hollywood does, and chosen to tell what it feels is the most entertaining story, that will make the most money.  Its main concern is not biblical faithfulness, nor should we be surprised that this was the case.

Yet, beyond the silliness and all the extra stuff, there were also some great themes and great lines, dealing with subjects such as commitment and trust, uncertainty and doubt, the arrogance and depravity of man, the great struggle of obedience, faith, and the mysterious will of God, the overcoming nature of love, and the messy and sometimes conflicting nature of trying to do what is right.  Noah is flawed, and struggles to obey, even getting it wrong as he tries to figure out what God wants him to do.  There is some good stuff in there – if you can get past the talking rock monsters and Miracle-Gro Eden-seeds.    

The whole time I was watching, I actually thought, “I want to get home and read the actual story in my Bible.”  When I got home, I did, and then I read it again and again.  This is good.  I have also had some real conversations about faith, obedience, and God’s will, all which stemmed from the movie.  This is also good.  If we come into this movie expecting it to be what it is – a fanciful Hollywood take that makes no claims of biblical fidelity – then we can look past the silly, and the extra, and pull some great truths and great conversation-starters out that can enrich us all. 

So yes, by all means, see this movie.  Let it cause believers and unbelievers alike to turn to Scripture to read the actual story.  Let it spur on debates about how a good and loving God could also judge the earth.  Let it launch conversations about obedience, weakness, faith, and how we all struggle to find (and miss) God’s will.

It’s just a movie.  It’s not the Bible.  It’s not a sermon.  It’s just a movie.  Let’s take it for what it is, and let’s pull all the good stuff out of it that we can. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

The War on Christmas

A couple of years ago at Christmastime, I was in line at a large, well-known retailer, waiting to make my purchases.  The store was packed, it being a week or so before Christmas.  

I noticed something that sounded out of place, and it took me a moment to place it: the cashier was wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.  

It struck me as odd, as virtually every restaurant and store out there typically opts for "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" at this time of year, instead of "Merry Christmas," – a nearly universal practice, I should add, that affects my life and my walk with Jesus in absolutely no way whatsoever. 

Sure enough, a manager of some type came over and very gently corrected the cashier: "I'm sorry, hon, but we need to say 'Happy Holidays.'  It's corporate policy, and we don't have a choice."

The cashier was annoyed.  "But I celebrate Christmas.  And it IS Christmas.  We celebrate Jesus at this time of year."

The manager was patient - her hands were tied.  "I know, but not everyone does, and we have a corporate policy that we have to follow."

The cashier was fuming, and the manager finally moved along.  "MERRY CHRISTMAS," she continued to growl to every customer.  She was obviously making a point.  "MERRY CHRISTMAS," she snarled at me as I arrived for my turn.  "This is ridiculous.  Stupid politically correct nonsense.  It's CHRISTMAS.  I will NOT let ANYONE tell me to stop celebrating Jesus."

And with that, another round of the great “War on Christmas” was over.  I'm not exactly sure who won - but it was over.

We hear a lot about the War on Christmas at this time of year.  Apparently, Jesus is being pushed out of the conversation, and Christians are being persecuted, all because we want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

Interesting, though….the last time I checked, the vast majority of Canadians still do celebrate Christmas.  The government has put no limitations on the celebration of Christmas for citizens, and the entire nation still takes December 25th as a federal holiday, even those who don't celebrate Jesus personally.

Yes, many businesses do ask their employees to take a more multicultural approach to the holidays, understanding that some citizens are Jewish, Muslim, etc. - "Happy Holidays" is a true enough statement - there are many different holidays being celebrated at this time of year.

"Well, if I were in Israel, I would expect them to celebrate Hanukkah.  If I were in India, I wouldn't get all uptight if people wished me a Happy Diwali.  I wouldn't get mad if Muslims celebrated Ramadan while I was in Saudi Arabia."  We've heard this before.

And it is certainly true.  I agree 100%.  And yet - at the same time - if I was living as an evangelical Christian in India, I would nonetheless consider it a wonderful courtesy if the citizens there didn't angrily try to force me to acknowledge their holiday.  Were they to be considerate that I was different from them, I would consider it a beautiful show of hospitality and kindness.
What is more - and this really is the more important part - most businesses are not Christian businesses.  They are secular.  Thus, it is not their job to proclaim Christ at Christmastime.  That job lies solely in the hands of the believer.  It is our job to keep the "Christ" in "Christmas."  And if the Church is really depending upon secular corporations to acknowledge and proclaim Jesus for us – even if they don’t believe in Him - then I think we have missed out on a major part of our mission.  

I have a theory: Jesus told us that we would be persecuted (Mt 5:12; Jn 15:20).  And yet, in Canada, we really aren't persecuted at all.  So, some have grabbed onto any affront that they can find, and held it up as true persecution.  But it's really not the same.  This year, Christians in Pakistan were murdered by the dozens when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a church just as services were emptying on a Sunday morning.  That is not the same as a store clerk wishing me "Happy Holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas."  First-world problems, right? 

And as a side note - I'm not sure that growling and snarling about Christmas is the most effective way to impress those outside the faith.  Were I them, I don't think I would want to join that club. There are many people out there who do not believe or acknowledge Jesus as Lord.  Trying to force them to acknowledge Him has proven to be a very poor method of evangelism in Church history, and in its extreme, has occasionally led to horrific things (e.g. the Crusades). Arm-twisting, anger, and frustration are poor ways to share the Gospel of love, indeed!   

So, God bless Canada!  We are a multicultural, incredibly free nation, where many different perspectives are given permission to be explored.  I believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and I truly hope and pray that everyone will find the joy in following Him that I have, and the salvation that He offers.  It is a wonderful time of year to celebrate Jesus, and everything that His birth means for a hurting and broken world.    


I say that, because it is my job to do so!

Monday, 4 November 2013

When Christians Disagree

The issue of disagreement amongst Christians has come up a couple of times in the last couple of weeks in fairly high-profile ways, causing me to re-examine some things and of course go to the Word to try and wrestle through it. 

One event was Halloween, where I watched with sadness as Christians hurled accusations against each other, with those who are at peace with the holiday calling others legalistic and controlling, while those who oppose it accused the other side of being worldly and celebrating demons.  As I personally took my kids out to a few houses, I was less-than-gently rebuked by a few who felt that I was failing in my role as pastor, setting a poor example, and confusing my church (I should add that these voices were very few). 

The second, more important event was a conference, where a well-known and brilliant Bible teacher with decades of wonderful instruction to the Body of Christ held a conference to promote his new book, in which he claims Pentecostals/Charismatics are demon-inspired, blasphemous non-Christians who worship a false Christ and believe a false gospel.  He says this because he believes that spiritual gifts no longer function in the Church (go and Google "cessationism"), and because of that conviction, he condemns those who disagree with him to hell.
Romans chapter 14 is an absolutely fascinating read in times like this.  The early church had a real struggle on its hands - what to do with the Old Testament Law?  The OT was the only Bible that they had, and it commanded them to follow the Law, abstain from certain foods (keeping "kosher"), celebrate certain festivals and holy days before the LORD, etc.  Yet, Jesus was also ushering in a new age and a new covenant - a time of freedom - and the early church struggled with what exactly this meant.  Now that they were free in Christ, did they need to keep kosher?  Did they have to follow the festivals?  Paul deals with these questions in Romans 14.
What's fascinating in this passage is Paul's message: Loving and helping each other is more important than even the truth when it comes to "disputable matters." (v.1).  It really says that!  Now just to be clear, there are subjects in Scripture that are very plain: statements about God, Christ, salvation, sin, holiness, Scripture, etc.  There are truths that are worth standing up for and defending fiercely. 
But apparently, there are other areas – even truths – which are not.  There are matters which are in dispute - such as "Should a Christian participate in Halloween?", or "What is the proper understanding of the gifts of the Spirit?"  On these “disputable matters,” Paul has something very different to say.
When it comes to such issues, Paul says, "Don't quarrel." (v.1)  So....we're not allowed to do that!  What's amazing is that Paul knows on some of these matters that there is a definite right answer and a definite wrong answer.  He makes very clear that, on the issue of food, we no longer need to keep kosher (v.14).  That is the truth, and Paul does not deny it.  However, he also says that if someone's personal conviction is that they must remain kosher, and does so out of faith in their walk with God, then they are not to be judged in any way (v.5, 6, 14).
Do you see it?  On disputable matters, love and acceptance of our brothers and sisters is more important than being "right!"  Paul doesn't teach a wishy-washy commitment to truth - he teaches a freedom in Christ that allows us to act in freedom, according to our own conscience and conviction of faith, when it comes to issues that are not clearly laid out in the Word. 
"Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another," he says (v.13).  The one who feels at peace about Halloween is not allowed to call the one who stands against it "legalistic."  The one who opposes the holiday can't accuse the other side of "wordliness."  The one whose understanding states that the spiritual gifts have passed away shouldn't call the Charismatics "blasphemous."  And the Pentecostal shouldn't accuse the cessassionist of close-mindedness.
"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." (v.19)  Are we making "every effort" to accomplish this?  Or are we just getting mad at those who don't agree with what we believe, spending our time arguing and bickering? 
If a preacher today were to preach the way Paul does here, he/she would likely be accused of being weak on truth.  And yet, here we find it, right there in the Word of God for all eternity.

On essential matters, we are called to stand for the truth, defending it without compromise.  On non-essential matters, we are called to hold to our convictions without passing judgment on those who disagree with us.  And in all matters, we are called to be loving, patient, gentle, and kind to all, regardless of whether they agree with us or not (Gal 5:23-24). 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Being "Nice"

"I'm just telling you the truth.  And sometimes, the truth hurts."

So said someone who was criticizing me fairly harshly, several years ago.  When I had suggested that their angry tone was less than loving, they responded with the words above.  Perhaps you’ve heard those words spoken to you before, most likely by a person who was saying something that you don’t like.    

The concept is true enough.  My beautiful two-year-old daughter poked my belly the other day, giggled, and said, “Big and soft!”


The truth certainly can hurt, and it will be inevitable that there will be times where we are obliged to share a truth with someone that they don’t like, and in those cases, our words can indeed be hurtful to others.

But it’s funny, I've noticed that the people in my life who are by nature tender-hearted never say things like, “Hey, sorry, but the truth hurts.”  This is because, while the truth does sometimes hurt, they still make every effort to soften their words, choosing their phrasing carefully, and do all that they can to couch the painful side of truth in love, respect, hope, and grace.  When they do cause hurt, they never blame it on “the truth,” and they make gentleness a high priority in their conversations. 

“But Jesus wasn’t ‘nice’ all the time,” I’ve heard people say in response.  “Sometimes, you’ve just got to let people know where it’s at.”

While this is true, Jesus is also Lord, with perfect motivation, perfect intentions, perfect understanding, perfect wisdom, and perfect love covering over it all.  Are you there?

There are many books, blogs and articles right now that attack the idea of "niceness" in Christians.  We have a reputation for being "nice" people - and it has become a dirty word.  Niceness implies a person who shies away from honesty and truth in the name of peace, or someone who prioritizes being liked over being sincere.  It implies a certain shallowness, to be sure.

In that sense, niceness doesn't sound great.  There is weakness depicted here, a softness of character, a spinelessness at times - all in the name of likeability.

However, consider this:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)

We rightly point out that “niceness” isn’t on the list.  Love is, however.  Kindness is.  Gentleness is.

Yes, the truth sometimes does hurt.  And we are not called to be “nice,” per se.  But we are also not permitted to share anything, including truth, that is not surrounded by kindness, gentleness, and love. 

When we do this, even the hard truths become easier to swallow, and the hard words are softened by these qualities of God.

We can please God AND be a greater encouragement to other people.....who’d have thunk it? 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Honouring When It's Tough

“Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” ~ Rom 13:7

            How easy it is to honour those who deserve it!  Wonderful parents, amazing leaders, politicians we agree with, peers that we admire.  It is simple enough to be respectful towards those that we, well, respect. 

            But it is dangerous to put conditions on our honour.  Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Mt 5:46-47)  He calls us to the radical posture of loving even our enemies – because when we were enemies of God, He loved us nonetheless (Rom 5:8)

            “But you don’t know what my parents were like!” some say.  “You don’t know what my boss did to me!”  “You have no idea how that person burned me!”

            This is certainly true.  But consider two things:

            First, honour doesn’t necessarily mean full obedience or agreement, if the other person is far from God’s ways.  The early apostles were ordered by those in authority to stop preaching the Gospel; this command was not followed (Ac 5:37-42).  The Hebrew midwives were ordered to kill all male Hebrew babies; this order was ignored (Ex 1:15-19).  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He was ordered to quiet down the worshiping crowd; He refused to do so (Lk 19:37-40).  We can still honour someone, even as we disagree with them, or even as we choose to go a different way.

            Second, honour really should be unconditional.  Consider David, before He become king.  Saul was trying to murder him, pursuing him relentlessly, and in the process, tried to murder his own son, slaughtered many innocent priests, and consulted a witch for spiritual direction (1Sam 19-28).  Clearly, this is not a leader to be obeyed!  And yet, when given the opportunity to avenge himself, David refuses each time (1Sam 24; 26).  When Saul is eventually killed in battle, David was furious that someone rose their spear to God’s chosen leader (2Sam 1:14).  Although David did not follow Saul, and even called Saul out on his many sins, he nonetheless still honoured the role of King, treating Saul respectfully, even as he distanced himself from him. 

            We don’t have to agree with others – we can, in fact, disagree entirely.  But this does not mean that we get to throw out the principles of respect and honour.  We aren’t responsible for what others do; we are only responsible for ourselves and our reactions.

            To disagree without dishonour is very difficult to manage....not many can do this well.  Yet, it is a powerful thing to be able to hold on to our convictions, while also knowing that we have treated the other party well, while also knowing that we are being obedient to God’s ways.  Win-win-win. 

Monday, 30 September 2013

Paid in Full

I won’t write out the whole “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” here, but I’d encourage you to pause, and go have a read:

That, my friends, is one of the good ones.  Both tremendously encouraging, and tremendously challenging, as the best passages of Scripture are.  It exposes the radical love and grace of God, while simultaneously exposing our own radical hypocrisy at the same time.  It’s a “Wow!”-moment, and an “Ouch!”-moment, all at once. 

The heart of God’s message of grace, personified in the master character, is this: Your debt to Me is paid in full.  You owe Me nothing.  We’re good.  Not because you’ve earned it, not because you deserve it, but simply because I love you, and I am merciful.  You owe me nothing.

However, when the servant in the story is given this miraculous gift, he goes to his fellow servant, who owes him a few dollars, and demands repayment.  When he doesn’t get it, he has the man thrown into prison as punishment until he is able to repay the debt. 

“Hypocrite!” we cry.....except we can’t.  Because of course, we are that hypocritical servant.

We have been forgiven everything – yet are slow to forgive others ourselves.  Our debt has been paid in full – yet we continually demand “payment” from others.  God has chosen to let the past go, and release us – yet we choose to hold on, and release nothing.

God’s response to these choices is stern: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (v.33) 

Col 3:13 says “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  How did He forgive us?  Well, freely, demanding nothing, but not just that – He forgave while reaching out to us, embracing us, drawing us back to Him, working to reconcile the broken relationship.  It wasn’t just an attitude of forgiveness that He held in His heart; it was a forgiveness that came after us, actively and intentionally, until the relationship was restored. For God, forgiveness is an action word, not just an attitude.

Jesus did the same, while on earth.  When Peter abandoned Him to His suffering and death, and then denied even knowing Him, Jesus does not see Peter again until after the resurrection, visiting them briefly on Easter Sunday.  Later, while out fishing one day, Peter sees Jesus on the beach.  There must have been an unspoken tension in the air; nothing has been said about Peter’s actions in the last hours of Jesus’ life.

What is Jesus’ response to Peter?  How does He address the one who wounded Him so?

“Come and have breakfast.” (Jn 21:12)

Come and share a meal with me.  Come and sit at my table.  Jesus then graciously restores Peter, making clear that his calling is still sure, his mission hasn’t changed, and that Jesus still believes in him.

God’s forgiveness is given freely; we are to give it freely as well.  Through Christ, God has gone to excruciating, self-denying, self-sacrificing depths in order to reconcile us to Himself; we are to work towards reconciling with others in the same self-denying manner.  God has taken wounds that He didn’t deserve without complaint; we are called to do the same.  God has actively shown us how much He loves us, even when we were His enemies; we are to love our enemies in a like manner. 

And honestly, in light of what He has done for us...lest we be called hypocrites....what else can we do?