Monday, April 7, 2014

Good Biblical Films Are Often in Disguise

In recent weeks the world of entertainment has released a bevy of films built around religious and biblical themes. The effort is a noble one, but the big question is whether such films will reach a larger audience and act as a source of light to the culture at large.

Personally, I have my doubts. Even though some of these movies had an excellent box office, I suspect that the audience was by and large those who already have an active, healthy interest in religion. Put differently, the films were preaching to the choir. That’s not a bad thing, but it has only a limited ability to affect a positive change on the culture as a whole.

Jesus once told a parable about a man who went out to sow some seed. The seed (in this parable that seed represents the Word of God) falls on different types of soil.  Because most of the seed falls on soil that was not adequately prepared, it failed to take root. Sowing seed in a society that is becoming increasingly secular is sowing it on rocky soil or worse. Without properly prepared soil films such as “God Is Not Dead” will have limited impact in its reach.

The world right now is in need of a C.S. Lewis who can tell stories with solid values that appeal to all without hitting them over the head with a big, black King James Bible.  The key is to tell the story and let the story speak for itself. Jesus’ teachings were wrapped in storytelling and the lessons have lasted for 2,000 years and counting.

Overtly religious content has a market and a good one, but at the same time films with a veiled Christian worldview also need both our box office support and our endorsement. How about movies like “Blind Side” or “42”? How about the life lessons in “Remember the Titans”, or a movie about the true meaning of love as modeled beautifully in “Frozen”?  Or movies that address moral dilemmas such as the 2013 Superman movie “Man of Steel”? Or that semi-dark though ultimately triumphant masterpiece “Les Miserables”? And then there is the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Many movies of this type have graced our screens the past few years, and they should be appreciated for what they are. No more than that, but definitely no less. These have the power to prepare the soil to receive the seed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Some Endorsements We Don’t Want

“These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you the way to be saved!” (Acts 16:17 NIV)

One might expect that Paul and his companions would accept this ringing endorsement of the message they were bringing. Don’t we accept help from wherever we can get it?

Not in this circumstance! “She continued doing this many days, but Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!’ And it came out at that very moment.”

Paul says this because there are certain endorsements we simply do not want. This woman had a “spirit of divination” (verse 16), which is not a spirit that is compatible with the Spirit of God. God neither wants nor needs the endorsement of demons. Nor does Christianity need the endorsement of Nazis and Klanners. Understand that, and you’ll understand what Paul is doing here.

Let’s take this a bit further. Throughout the New Testament we see the deriding of false teachers. Such teachers can say right-sounding and soothing words, using all the right rhetoric and language. But their intent is to defraud you of your money or lead you into spiritual dead ends. They even know how to quote scripture, but their intent is not to free you. It is to put you back into bondage.

Be careful. Not everyone who proclaims the name of Jesus is an endorsement that Jesus would want. Many in the religion business are in it to control you so that they can prop up their egos and bank accounts. Avoid these.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When God Says, “Let Go”

If God tells you to do something, would you snap to it? Jesus tells an interesting parable that might make you think differently. It’s found in Luke 11:5-8:

 “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” 

The words “don’t bother me” sound straightforward and unequivocal, but as the parable continues, we see the man ignoring his neighbor’s demand to go away. Instead of giving up, he keeps right on asking, eventually getting the help he needs. Jesus attributes this satisfaction to the man’s shameless audacity, and a few words later points out that if flawed human beings respond to such persistence, how much more would a loving, merciful God?

On its face this sounds like Jesus is giving us permission to refuse God’s no for an answer. While that might contradict our natural training and instincts, the Old Testament especially teems with examples of godly men and women who didn’t accept such initial pronouncements.

Abraham bargained with God over the fate of Sodom, getting him to agree that if ten righteous men were found, he wouldn’t destroy the city.

Two times Moses convinced God to stay his hand of destruction on Israel, once in spite of their rank idolatry with the golden calf, and the second time when they refuse to possess the Promised Land.

King Hezekiah, after receiving word of his terminal illness, begged God to extend his life. God changed his mind and granted the king’s request.

Then there is a curious wrestling match between a man named Jacob and someone who is at first an unknown being. (Genesis 32:22 – 32)

Jacob is alone in the wilderness, afraid to meet his brother Esau whom he had betrayed many years before and, as he learns, is closing in with a large armed troop. Out of nowhere Jacob is wrestled to the ground, and as the story unfolds it becomes evident that he’s struggling, not with his brother Esau, but with God himself.

That an all-powerful God voluntarily chooses to limit himself is a profound theological concept in its own right, one that is in fact central to understanding the plan of God. In this case he purposely encounters Jacob in this way to test the man’s tenacity and mettle in an all night athletic contest. Then, in another test of Jacob, the Being commands, “Let me go!”

But Jacob does not let him go. In effect he says, “No way. I’m not letting you go until you bless me.”

Traditional theology might lead us to believe that this act of disobedience would call forth sever divine retribution. But it does not. God so respects Jacob’s tenacity that he rewards Jacob with a blessing and a new name. No longer would he be called Jacob, which means “supplanter” or “deceiver”, but Israel (one who prevails with God).

The lesson is to keep on keeping on with God. Reason with him, ask him questions, refuse to let go even when all logic indicates you should give up. Do not give up. He will reward you for your persistence.

And do understand you can change God’s mind.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Strong Women

No man worth his salt is intimidated by strong women. 

Let me also say this. Common misconceptions to the contrary, strong women are honored in the Biblical narrative, and though it is not my intent to address Paul’s statement that wives should “submit” to their husbands, it should be pointed out that Paul did not in any way say that every woman should “submit” to every man. 

Paul also says in that very same context something that gets roundly ignored in many circles: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV).  The wisdom of that little instruction becomes apparent quickly if a marriage is to succeed. So from the outset let’s abandon the narrative that women are somehow in second place in some supposed biblical hierarchy.

Instead let’s look to Proverbs 31 and recognize a woman who is capable of running both a household and a business venture. She buys and sells real estate, and the land she retains becomes productive and profitable. Her husband and kids trust her judgment implicitly with the family’s resources. She is generous to those in need, and she is wise in speech and action. She is not afraid of the future, whatever it happens to bring. She can manage a labor force and earn the love and respect of her children.

This is a strong woman, and her husband is not intimidated. “Her husband praises her,” says the text. “Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all.” (Verses 28 – 29) Her husband is truly a man worth his salt.

We see this in such characters as Deborah, the judge of Israel, who inspired the men to fight for their freedom. We see it in Priscilla, who instructed Apollos more perfectly in the way of God (Acts 18:26). And Lydia, a successful businesswoman who led her entire household to the faith (Acts 16:13 – 15).

And who can deny the bravery and commitment of the women who stood by Jesus as he died, refusing to deny him even though all the men had fled for their lives?

Let me say it again: no man worth his salt is intimidated by strong women.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pray for Boldness

“So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord.” (Acts 4:24)

This prayer given early in the history of the church reveals something about their commitment and their expectations. Peter and John had just been released from prison for healing someone from a life-long disability and afterwards claiming that Jesus had something to do with it. That did not go well with the leadership of the day, men who had been complicit in his crucifixion.

The boldness of such a proclamation was enough to land them in the dungeon for a night.

That arrest and their subsequent release was probably enough to both rattle and discourage the church, motivating them to “raise their voice to God”, as it would any believer.

Yet, their prayer is remarkable in a number of ways. A group under persecution and threat would surely and understandably pray for deliverance, and there is everything understandable if they had made such a request.

But this crowd was different.

They begin their prayer quoting a Psalm and relating it to how everyone from Herod to Pilate to the Gentiles and to Israel itself seems to be arrayed against them and their Messiah. They ask God to look on these threats, but instead of removing these threats they do something that seems to be completely foreign to our nature and expectations:
“Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word” (verse 29)
 In the face of legal action, persecution, and even potential martyrdom, they pray not for the persecution to cease, but for boldness to see the persecution through.

Ringing in their ears were the words of Jesus just a few weeks before who told them, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Instead of an expectation of a gospel of ease, they were promised a world of tribulation. They had been primed for a challenge and expected both great success and powerful opposition. Jesus by his example and words left them no other option.

Many followers of Jesus today understand well this principle of danger, a danger that escapes many of us in First Amendment America.

Iraq in 2003 was home to 1.5 million Christians. Due to persecution, war, and exile that number is now 450,000. Militants target Christian churches in Egypt. Pakistani Christians face the death penalty on merely an accusation of blasphemy against the majority religion, blasphemy effectively defined as a simple disagreement that we would consider a normal discourse.

In many parts of China Christians run a grave risk if they meet as brethren apart from government sanctioned churches. In North Korea those engaged in non-sanctioned religious activity are subject to imprisonment, torture, and execution. Possessing a Bible or saying “Jesus” or “God” can be a capital offense.

Jesus knew what he was talking about, and so did the early Christians. In the world his followers will have tribulation, and we must pray for boldness in the face of that tribulation. But, may I add, there is everything right about praying for deliverance too, and our voices in one accord with theirs for a deliverance from evil is indeed in order today.

If you want to be humbled, visit the Voice of the Martyrs website (www. and see how people around the globe suffer for their faith.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Who Said That?

Do you know the people of the Bible as well as you think you do?  Try these questions. Answer key is at the bottom of the blog.

1.  Who became incensed at the extravagant use of a costly item, saying that it should have been sold and the proceeds distributed to the poor?
a. Jesus
b. John the Baptist
c. Solomon
d. Judas Iscariot

2. Who, in public, called a powerful and vindictive political leader of the day "that fox".
a. Jeremiah
b. Elijah
c. Paul
d. Jesus
3.  Who pointedly asked, "Is it lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?"
a. Satan the Devil
b. The rich young ruler
c. Pontius Pilate
d. Jesus 
4. Who said, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword"?
a. Michael the Archangel
b. Nebuchednezzar
c. Jesus
d. Caesar
5. Who said, "He who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one"?
a. King David
b. Peter
c. Abraham
d. None of the above
6. Who said, "Let the dead bury their own dead"?
a. Enoch
b. Ezekiel
c. Amos
d. None of the above
7. Early in Jesus ministry, who correctly identified him by saying, "I know who you are -- the Holy One of God"?
a. John
b. An unclean spirit
c. James
d. Mary Magdelene
8. In the city of Philippi, someone loudly proclaimed that Paul and his companions were servants of God and were proclaiming the way to salvation. Who was it?
a. Apollos
b. Priscilla and Aquila
c. A sorceress
d. The leader of the synagogue

Sometimes the Bible holds surprises. Answer key:

1. Judas Iscariot (John 12:5)
2. Jesus (Luke 13:32)
3. Jesus (Matthew 20:15) 
4. Jesus (Matthew 10:34)
5. None of the above. Jesus made this statement (Luke 22:36)
6. None of the above. Jesus made this statement (Luke 9:60)
7. An unclean spirit (Mark 3:24)
8. A sorceress (Acts 16:17)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

God in Your Kitchen

James tells us that Abraham was a friend of God (James 2:23). Is it possible how God and Abraham interacted is a template for how God longs to interact with us?

It’s hot in the desert. Abraham sits in the shade, and he notices at a distance three men walking toward him. You’ll find the account in Genesis 18.

Abraham immediately recognizes one of these men as not a man at all, but as Yahweh, whom we know as “the LORD” of the Old Testament. Abraham invites them in for a bite to eat and for something to drink.

This, he learns, is more than just a friendly visit. God and two of his messengers (“angels”) have come to conduct some very serious business: to investigate what they are hearing regarding Sodom and Gomorrah. “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down to see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20-21).

An interesting theological issue springs from this comment. If God is all-knowing, then why did he have to go down there to see for himself? I bring this up to illustrate that the nature of the God of the Bible doesn’t exactly track with our cultural and theological baggage about him, and that baggage gets in the way of our relationship with him.

This is the same God who, in a moment of transparency, wonders, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Verse 17) Many sermons correctly encourage us to be transparent before God in order to draw closer to him. This is good advice, but it is also true that God wants to be transparent with us. In the case at hand God has a very good reason, for Abraham’s sake, to be transparent. Abraham’s beloved nephew Lot lived in Sodom, and God decided that Abraham needed to know what was about to happen.

When confronted with God’s will we might think that it is always right to resign ourselves to it regardless of how unpleasant it might be. Certainly there is a time to say, “God’s will be done,” but Abraham, the friend of God, didn’t think that this was such a time. Abraham starts to argue or, better said, reason with God.

“Far be it from you to destroy the righteous with the evil! Surely you wouldn’t destroy it if you find fifty righteous people there!” And God agrees. He promises not to destroy it if fifty righteous people are there. In fact, Abraham reasons God down to a mere ten righteous men. For the sake of the ten, God would spare the city.

If God were sitting across the kitchen table from you, would you question God in the same way that his friend Abraham did? If you say no, understand that this type of exchange between God and his friends is common in scripture.

Moses argued and reasoned with God many times and even succeeded in changing his Lord’s mind. (Exodus 32 and Numbers 14)

Jacob wrestled with God and wouldn’t loosen his grip until he received a blessing (Genesis 32:24 – 30).

The Psalms are full of pleadings and reasons and arguments brought before God (Psalms 22, 28, 31:9-18, 83, to name just a few).

Jesus gives us permission in two parables to keep striving with God (the persistent friend in Luke 11:5-10 and the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-5). If an unjust judge or a rude neighbor can be persuaded with the rightness of your case, how much more God!

Think of it this way. God wants us to be his partners, not his yes-men.  He wants sons and daughters, not pets. He wants us to inherit the family business. Does not scripture say that we are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17)? As such we are expected to be active participants in God’s work today, and sometimes that means working to change God’s mind.

Even more to the point, we need to be active partners with God in bringing a bit of his Kingdom to this earth every day we draw breath. If you are wondering how to do that, read the fifth through seventh chapters of Matthew. Trust me: reading is the easy part.