Monday, April 25, 2016

When Things Don't Go as Planned

I have been a Steph Curry fan since his days at Davidson College.  During their NBA title run last year, I magically became somewhat of a Golden State Warriors fan.  I loved watching Steph lead their team.  And I checked each morning this past year to see if they would eclipse the Bulls record of 72-10.  A championship run this year was a lock.  That is, until round one of the playoffs. 

After torching Houston for 24 points and 6 rebounds less than 20 minutes of game time, he rolled his ankle.  He sat out games 2 and 3.  Disaster struck again in game 4, with Steph returning only to slip on a wet spot.  As he landed, his knee jerked awkwardly, and he left the game in the second half.  Pending an MRI today, he could miss the rest of the season. 

A week a go the Warriors were favored to win the NBA Title.  Now?  They might become an easy out in the second round. 

Of course, hind sight is 20/20.  People ask questions like, "Should Steph of played at all in this round of the playoffs," or "The Warriors shouldn't have gone after the NBA record for most wins in a season."  But no one knew that a Houston player would fall, causing the specific wet spot that Curry would slip on.  It could have happened to anyone.  It just so happened that the victim was the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.  And just like that, he is no longer able to play.  It's a modern parable for us.

"Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit' - yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."  (James 4:13-14)

James says our lives are like a mist.  We're here for a little time.  And then we're gone.  But this doesn't just apply to death. 

I had been planning on buying a mini-van this past January, in preparation for our growing family.  Heather's civic appeared to have plenty of life to make til then.  But a part broke, and it didn't make financial sense to repair or remove it.  So we bought the van six months before we wanted too.

This was difficult for me.  I had planned on the extra time to save enough money for a new car.  I said, "this is the plan."  God showed me that I hadn't considered that He was in control.  It was gracious of Him to remind me to trust His timetable, not mine. 

So, are we willing to look to Jesus as the one who directs our plans?  Or do we hold on too tight?  Does our anxiety expose our mistrust?  Or will we let it move us towards a humble reliance on the God who gives life and purpose?

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you."  (I Peter 5:6-7)

When plans are interrupted, it's an opportunity to thank God for the opportunity to trust Him.  And we can gladly trust in faith, because He cares for us.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Food Labels and the Glory of God

All I wanted was a mid-day snack.  I meandered into our kitchen to find leftover pecan pie.  This was really exciting...until I looked at the food label.  "Serving Size: 1/8th pie.  Calories per serving: 470."  In front of me was this delicious looking pie, I was hungry, and what seemed like a really small piece of pie was going to sink my calorie budget for the day.

I had multiple options at this point.  One was to say, "heck with my calorie counter!"  The other?  "Let's just have something else...something I don't want to eat, but should because it's 'healthier.'"

For anyone who struggles with food and body image, you know that this can be a common struggle.  Maybe you don't count calories, but it's hard to feel any freedom in whatever you eat, especially if you have someone, or something, holding you accountable.  It's when calorie counters and food labels become the unwelcome party guest.

Comedian Brian Regan even jokes about it in one of his routines.  In talking about Fig Newtons, he said this:

"I read the label, do you know what the serving size is for Fig Newtons?  Two cookies!  Who the heck eats two cookies?  I eat Fig Newtons by the sleeve!  Two sleeves is a serving size!"

Brian's one-liner offers insight.  The boundary of a food label didn't stop me from wanting to justify what I wanted...which was as much pecan pie as I could muster!  

Now, nothing is wrong with big pieces of pecan pie.  Nor is anything wrong with no pie at all.  But if you do a deeper study of my heart, you'll see what's really wrong.  

On one hand, I believe freedom and joy will be in eating whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want.  Forget the food label!  On the other hand, I believe freedom and joy will be found in staying at a healthy weight!  And, especially as I get older, these two things are becoming more and more mutually exclusive!

But what does God say about freedom and joy?  
"For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."  (Romans 14:17)

God's Kingdom is about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  So while pie can give momentary satisfaction, I have eternal joy in the Spirit.  While losing or maintaining my weight is good, I have nothing to prove to other people, because I have eternal joy in the Spirit!  So while we have boundaries like food labels, they become avenues to greater freedom and joy.  Freedom from feeling the need to eat to feel happy, and freedom from the need to look good to impress!

I did end up eating the pie.  But only half of the serving size.  It was just enough to get a delicious taste, and I didn't need more.  I praised God for what I had, and for what He made.  Boundaries like food labels can enhance joy, because it points us to the God of all joy.  He's found in Jesus Christ, and He is far more joy-giving than even the sweetest slice of pie.    


Monday, April 11, 2016

The Joy of Biblical Grace

"God loves you."  It's one of the most common phrases we hear in our culture, both in and outside of the church.  It's an amazing concept.

Yet, while many people talk about God's love and grace (unmerited favor), many disconnect that truth from the bible.  Results of a recent survey showed that nearly 40% of evangelicals don't believe that the Bible is God's inerrant, authoritative Word.  They, and many others who would identify as Christian, would make the conclusion that you can have God's grace without believing the Bible.  But how can you know that you need grace if you don't believe the Bible?

I think all of us would say, to some extent, that if God exists, we would want Him to love us.  But how can you know what that love is like if you don't know who He is?  How can you know what He's like?  How can you know why we need grace?   On one hand, we can assume those things.  But then my interpretation of who God is can vary radically from yours, and it's all based on what you and I think is right.  Not only is there severe disunity, it's based on the fact that we know God because "I know."  It actually exposes the belief that we are our own gods, because we make up the rules.

The Bible, however, not only answers all those questions, but actually can give us a far better insight into what the grace of God is.  And if we believe it, the Bible becomes a steadfast anchor for a superior grace.   Here are a few ways it does that:

1. The Bible is God's Word"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)  

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16)

There are two things about this that are important.  One, all of God's Word is breathed by God, and two, Jesus is His Word made flesh.  In other words, the Bible and Jesus are one in the same.  You can't believe one without believing the other.

2.  The Bible exposes us:  Hebrews 4 states that the Word exposes us, Jeremiah 17 says our hearts are wicked, Proverbs 20 says our hearts are complex, and Jesus says (in Mark 7) that our hearts are the cause of any evil we commit. 

3.  The Bible points to Jesus' death and resurrection"And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." (Luke 24:27) 

The whole story of the Bible points us to God's plan of rescue: the Son of God dying for His people.

4.  The Bible assures us of God's Grace:  "...since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus...  let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Hebrews 10:19, 22)

The blood of Jesus pardons all of our sin (which we saw earlier, is extensive), and is stronger than any sin we could commit.  The grace God gives us not only forgives even the worst sins, it also allows us to draw near to God without fear!

5.  The Bible compels grace-driven change"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5:1-2)

We don't just receive grace.  Once received, it compels us to imitate God, because He becomes our good, loving, heavenly Father!  This brings joy!

The Bible doesn't kill joy, it expands it.  If we are to understand what true grace is, we must find it in God's Word.  Otherwise, we will only have a vague understanding of what the love of God is, and it will not save.  It will not ultimately comfort us.  It will not give us assurance.  

So have you considered running to the scriptures?  Run to them to know God.  To know His love.  To know and believe in His Glorious Grace.  Escape to the bible, and find joy.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Conflicted Over "Christian" Media

(Author's Note: I started thinking of this before an article was published about the very same topic.  Go here to read that)

I'm conflicted.  I love Jesus, I love His Word, and I desire to honor Him with every thought, word, and deed.  There is a ton of content out there that does not honor God.

However, the internal conflict isn't due to the "bad" content.  It's due to the content that we would call "Christian."  "Family-Friendly."  "Encouraging and Uplifting."

I'm conflicted, because I agree with the idea, but am appalled by the execution.  And the execution has the potential to influence the "faith" demographic in a way that is unhelpful.    

When I was younger, I watched the TV show 7th Heaven.  It's a great example of how "family-friendly" and "Christian" can be bad.  It had morals.  It was relatively clean.  But it had no biblical foundation, and therefore, bad theology.  This isn't a problem if it's secular entertainment, since you all ready know that it's coming from a differing worldview.   However, it's really unhelpful if it's marketed to church-goers as a "Christian" program.  For some, Reverend Eric Camden (one of the main characters) became a more influential preacher than the preachers in the viewer's churches.

I wish I could stop there.  But it gets worse.  There are a lot of these "faith-based" films that have their theology wrong.  And even the ones that get it somewhat right suffer from poor acting, poorer plots, and awful stereotypes.  The hope is that it will encourage Christians and evangelize to non-believers.

What we don't realize is that some of these movies cater to an over-persecuted, 'sky is falling' mindset in the church, while the non-believers rightfully mock them and us for believing it. 

I'll use Fireproof as an example.  I appreciated the message that Christ has to be in the center of our marriage to transform it.  But there are a lot of things that left me wanting more:

1. The "Christian" way solves the problem:  It's true that without Jesus, marriage will never be as satisfying as God meant it to be.  However, both Christians AND non-Christians can struggle in marriage, and both can struggle for a long time.  It sets up an unhelpful paradigm that could lead to self-righteousness.

2. The laughable acting:  It's terrible.  It's distracting.  As believers, we should desire art that increasingly declares the glory and majesty of God not just in it's message, but in its portrayal.  Yet, Fireproof's best actor, Kirk Cameron, is better suited for TV sitcoms and not deep method acting.  He doesn't do a great job delivering lines.  Pair him with the his on-screen wife, and the pair are unwatchable.   The cast overall isn't believable, nor do they inspire.

3. It's too simple:  What fixes their marriage?  Jesus.  Repentance of sin.  Confession.  Community.  These are all good things.  But what happens the next time they hit a roadblock?  We forget that the Christian life has simple solutions that work in the context of complex lives and hearts (Proverbs 20:5).  Yet, we repeatedly see in the film that once you have Jesus, each character immediately puts in the hard work to make things work.  This isn't to say that they don't try to make it more complex.  Kirk Cameron's character does go through a "growing" process.  But it makes me leave desiring more depth to him and the struggle of sanctification.

Now, if you are a fan of these movies, I'm not saying you're wrong for liking them.  There are admirable things about them.  I cried during the movies Courageous and To Save a Life.  (And not because they were torture to watch!).  I own Fireproof.  There are good lessons to be learned by them.

But, I find that we could maximize impact by doing a couple of things:

1. Tell good stories:  Don't make a film just to give a moral.  There's a reason why many movies and stories reflect the cross of Christ: it's because it is the best story!  And it's true!  (As an aside, I find it valuable to reflect on what about each film I view reflects the Gospel story, and what doesn't)

2. Make, or advocate for, worthy art:  We should desire films (and other art for that matter!) that are well made, and that can point to a true hope.  This should remove the need to "preach," and instead, we can rely on the character of our characters to leave people thinking.  (A good example is Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings films)

3. Don't give the film our job:  Many of us try to bring our non-Christians to these films with the hope of sharing Jesus with them.  While films can influence our thinking, we need to remember that God came as a person to communicate with us.  It's our glorious calling to share Jesus with people.  It's our glorious calling to bring people to God's Word.  Don't depend on a movie to do the job God has called you to do.

My hope is that we would see the glory of God in the art of film so breath-taking, so moving, so awe-inducing, that we would merely have to ask what people thought of it so they could share the themes they enjoyed.  That's when we can do our job, to share that those themes are a picture of a better story.