Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

The Shack: A Story On Suffering and Hope

Last Friday evening I watched the film The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldine. This film is based on the 2007 novel of the same title by William P. Young. Having read the book, I wanted to see the film too. Like most film adaptations of a book, the movie loses some of the dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s still a good movie to watch.

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In fact, here is the little response I posted on Facebook after watching the movie:

“I just returned from watching #TheShack at the theater. Though the movie, and the novel of the same title it’s based on, is fictional, it tells a wonderful story and powerful truth about God and life, love and forgiveness, faith and hope. Having buried my oldest son, Kenny, nearly fifteen years ago, there is so much I resonate with. From the question of suffering to the hurt and anger that ultimately inflicts more harm on one’s soul to the conflict and encounter with God, I resonate. The thought I had when the movie was over was a reminder that though I have sinned in life, made many mistakes, and often judged both God and people when that is not my business, God still loves me, is at work for the good in my life, and how much I just want to love others and be a part of that Good which God is bringing about in Jesus Christ.”

As you can tell, I resonate with so much of the drama because of the tragic loss of my own son. However, that doesn’t mean I abandoned my theology hat when I watch the film. So from a pastoral-theological standpoint, I also liked the movie.

Of course, some are quite critical of the movie. Some of those critics are Christians who are concerned about the doctrine and theology of the film, like this review by Al Mohler (or for a much more balanced critique, see the review by Focus on the Family). But this really misses the point of the film in my opinion.

First, sometimes it seems like some Christians almost go looking for something to disagree with. In that’s our objective, we’ll find that something in almost everything we do. It’s even more frustrating when a minor issue is made into a bigger issue than it really is. Are their some elements of the dialogue in this film that I question from a theological standpoint? Of course, there is but I didn’t watch the film to get bogged down in little particular details and miss the major point of the film.

The beauty of this film is its journey into the world of suffering where there is brokenness and deep pain along with doubt and uncertainty that evokes a crisis of faith for anyone unfortunate enough to be on this journey. I have and still an on this journey, though I have learned how to walk along this way. This film is about the healing that everyone suffering needs. This is a healing that comes knowing that God still loves them, that the grace of God is still for them, and that they can trust in God again even though they don’t always understand.

And I’m telling you, as one who has suffered, there are people you meet every day who are dying from the inside out. Maybe they’ve buried a child, been through a divorce, been sexually abused, are drowning in drugs and alcohol… they’re the broken and what they need is not a lesson in the fine particulars of Trinitarian theology but a reminder that God the Father, Son, and Spirit love them and long to redeem them. That’s what The Shack reminds us of. So don’t get lost in the details and miss the big story, for if you can hear the big story then you just might be better equipped at helping someone who is dying on the inside find life again.

Lastly, I don’t normally recommend books I haven’t read but since I know this author and trust his judgment, I’ll recommend his book as a companion read. John Mark Hicks, Meeting God at The Shack: A Journey Into Spiritual Recovery, 2017. Besides being an apt theologian, Hicks has traveled on the road of suffering and so I believe you’ll bennefit from his perspective.

On Violence and Sacrifice: The Cross of Jesus and the Eucharist

René Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred, which was published in 1972 and then translated into English in 1977, explores how violence is endemic among all people of every society. When blood is shed, there must be an avenging of that blood in order to bring about justice. Of course, attempting to bring about justice by means of blood for blood… blow for blow, establishes a perpetual and escalating cycle of violence to the peril of everyone. One only needs to read about wars to understand, as nobody really wins in a war since everyone pays a massive toll in the loss of human life.

If a society has a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim who will suffer the cost of avenging the violence committed by others, the cycle of violence is disrupted. Throughout history societies have turned to religious rituals as the means of sacrifice. However, as Girard observes, the loss of such rituals so that they lose their meaning as they become increasingly banal leads “…to the outbreak of a new sacrificial crisis” (p. 125). This crisis is one of violence, as society turns inwardly and casts its need for retribution on each other.

As a human society, we need not seek to destroy one another for the evil we have done. For we do have a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim (if you will), who atones for our evil. His name is Jesus, the Messiah. On the cross in which Jesus is crucified, he absorbs our sin… all the hatred, envy, selfish and lustful desires that often lead to violence, as well as our violence too. When we peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we see the evil of our sin. However, as we peer into the mystery of the cross, we also see the grace of God, his love and mercy by which we find forgiveness of our sins. By peering into the mystery of the cross, we learn how to let go of our sin and extend such grace to other sinners rather than lashing out with violence upon them. But what happens if we lose sight of this sacrifice in which God offers up his begotten Son as the surrogate victim who absorbs our sin?

“For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, ‘This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…'”

For some time, the Christian faith has been in decline among North America. This decline is not something that has happened to us. It is something we, many of whom professed to be Christian, allowed to happen. Somewhere along the way, the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross became banal. Our ritual of peering into this mystery where we gather together in local congregations as the body of Christ to share in the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) gradually became more and more meaningless. It became a rote tradition we did at Christmas and Easter or, if you grew up in my Christian tribe, something done weekly merely to obey the command “Do this in remembrance of me!” which was inscribed on the communion table.

All the while, violence is escalating among us. Our society has become tolerant of violence and sometimes even seems to have an appetite for violence when it is taken out on an enemy. We Christians will acknowledge that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44) but… we’ll find someway to dismiss what Jesus has said because our need for avenging evil is greater than our desire to extend the grace of God by showing love and mercy. Now the violence is turning inward, seen in the outbreaking of more violent protests and violent rhetoric aimed at cutting each other down. How does it all end?

As a committed Christian, one who believes in Jesus and seeks to follow him, I crisis begins to dissipate as we again learn to peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross. This is why I love that my church shares in the body and blood of Jesus every Sunday as we gather together by partaking of the bread and wine. This is not just some empty ritual we do to check off a box that says we’ve now obey Jesus. No! This ritual, this act of worship, has much meaning. For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, “This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…” And so when we share together in the body and blood of Jesus, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

What are we doing when we gather together to peer into the mystery of the cross by sharing in the Eucharist? We see our sin and realize how terrible and horrific it is. We recognize how much we have hurt ourselves and others, and in doing so, hurt God who is the Creator of us all. But we are not burden with this weight of sin that we cannot bear. For as we share in the body and blood of Jesus, we also see our forgiveness. We see that “God has shed his grace on thee” and we see that God loves us more than we can even begin to fathom. As we see the grace of God for us in the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we learn to extend that grace to others. It’s not always easy to do but just as God has loved us and forgiven us, so we understand and desire to love others and forgive them of their wrongs too. No longer do we wish them ill, do we seek to avenge their wrong with violence of any kind, for the love of God compels us to love one another… to love our neighbors and even our enemies.

And that, my friends, is how the crisis of perpetual violence is broken and the future of God’s kingdom breaks into our present day!

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

Politics and The Way of Jesus

If there’s one takeaway from this past political season for me, it’s that most Christians are still trying to conserve a Christendom culture in America. Not a Christian culture or gospel culture but a Christendom culture. That’s a society where Christians are the dominating force in shaping laws, practices, and cultural values. With Donald Trump* as President Elect, some Christians may even think they have won the latest battle in effort of saving Christendom. But really, it’s just one more anxious response that will fail.

Regardless of what Christian-friendly policies the succeeding government may enact, morality can’t be legislated and neither can religious beliefs and values. More importantly, neither Christians nor any supposed Christian nation is made by legislation. Christians are formed as people see Christ among local churches in the lives of the Christians who make up those churches, as people see the church embodying the way of Christ in word and deed. So while the election may prolong some semblance of Christendom in America, it is only avoiding the inevitable death of a Christendom society. This election will certainly not change the souls of the growing number of non-Christians, who have a growing distaste for their perception of Christianity and particularly evangelicalism. Yet the more Christians leverage political power for the conservation of Christendom, trading the power of the gospel for state political power, the more  alienating Christianity becomes and unnecessarily so.

In general, it is the church in America that needs to hear Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). Christians, of which I am unapologetically one, must learn again how to embody this good news of the kingdom of God as their way of life in every local church. Put another way, we Christians must learn to follow Jesus again. We must learn to believe what Jesus believes about the kingdom of God and share the same values as Jesus so that our way of life becomes an imitation of his life. We can’t treat this gospel simply as a propositional truth we proclaim while serving for an end of some political agenda. Either the truth of the gospel becomes embodied as our way of life, lived together as local churches within local neighborhoods and community, or else the truth is lost.

As far as politics go, we must remember that the gospel itself is a politic. As Eugene Peterson once said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Thus, our way of life as followers of Jesus should be a politic itself, a gospel-politic that is neither Democrat nor Republican. Let’s occupy ourselves with the gospel-politic rather than trying to control the political outcome of the state. Though there may be particular political issues that are of interest to us because of their impact on our local community, we must realize that the means of American political power − both the right and left − is incompatible with the kingdom of God. The power of the gospel is expressed in a life of humility and love that’s dying to self in service to others, where as American political power (like all worldly politics) involves various expressions of a coercive “might makes right” force. The power of the gospel invites people to participate in the Kingdom of God by faith, rather than legislating a way of life by political mandate.

The question that we Christians must ask is what do we want? Do we want to participate in the mission of God and see the kingdom of God extended into our local communities? Or do we want laws on the books that may reflect some Christian values but only create barriers between Christians and non-Christians? If the time has not already come, it is very near when we will reach the proverbial fork in the road. Which way will we go? I submit that only one way is the way of Jesus, lived out as local churches serving on mission with God.

* Regardless of who you or I believe should have been elected as the next President of the United States, Donald Trump is now the President Elect. Just as we should do for all governing officials, we must also pray for Donald Trump as he prepares to lead America as the nation’s next President (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2).

 

 

Now That The 2016 Election Is Over…

The 2016 American Presidential Election is over. Donald Trump will most likely be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. Some people are elated, while others are angry. Other people might feel a sense of relief, though others will become even more anxious. I will be none of the above because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom was crucified but then raised from death, is now and forevermore the exalted King of Kings, Lord of Lords.

If you are a Christian then you share this profound conviction that Jesus is Lord with me. Our shared confession of Jesus changes how we respond to the results of what has been a very vitriolic and polarizing political season for Americans. Now we have an opportunity, because of what God has accomplished in Jesus, to display what living hope looks like in real time.

The apostle Peter reminds us that as God’s chosen people, his royal priesthood and holy nation and as such, we are also foreigners and exiles among society (1 Pet 2:9, 11). This is also a call for living good lives reflective our identity as God’s chosen people, as his royal priesthood and holy nation. If we read the letter of 1 Peter, we’ll quickly see that this call includes how we relate to the governing authorities. We may criticize their policies and decisions at times but we dare not mock them or insult them, as we are to show respect for everyone and that includes those who are elected to political offices (1 Pet 2:17).

Doing good matters because it is an essential part of our Christian witness. It matters little for us to confess that Jesus is Lord, if we turn around and live like everyone else and subject our doing good to certain qualifications like doing good only when it’s convenient and cost us little. As Christians, doing good is not determined by undertaking a cost-benefit analysis or risk assessment first. That may be acceptable in the world of which we are foreigners of, but not in the kingdom of God which we live in. This is why the apostle Peter exhorts Christians to keep doing good.

With 2017 around the corner, we live among a society that is very fragmented. All around we see seed of anger and hostility sown, where hatred and violence only seems on the rise. What an opportunity for us Christians! What an opportunity by simply doing good to one another, a neighbor or co-worker, even a stranger!

The Triumph of Good

Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote is often cited and paraphrased by people to justify their engagement in and response to the affairs of life such as politics, crime, and other social-cultural issues. So whether it is stopping something as terrifying as a possible terrorist entering a café with a bomb or confronting an issue like systematic racism, something must be done or else evil wins.

Over the years I have heard plenty of Christians express the wisdom of Burke too, though I always wonder what they must think of Jesus hanging on the cross then. After all, in the moment of the Jesus’ crucifixion it appears that Jesus has done nothing and that the triumph of evil is at hand. Of course, given the message preached by the apostle Peter on Pentecost that the God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord and Messiah, we believe that God has ultimately − in an eschatological sense − triumphed over evil. So we know that while Jesus may have appeared to be doing nothing to stop evil, God was actually doing much.

That begs of us to think more critically about how we respond to evil. While it may be true in a temporal sense that evil may triumph when good men do nothing, evil may also triumph when good men do the wrong something. So for the church, as followers of Jesus, we must become more discerning about our engagement as a public faith in a world still awaiting the fullness of redemption from evil.

What does it mean to be a good person? What sort of actions does a good person undertake? These questions have to do with virtuous living which is itself a big issue taken up in numerous books, some good and some not so good. At the risk of sounding reductionistic and too simplistic, these questions are answered by the way of life Jesus, whom we follow as believers, lived as described to us in scripture. Thus fighting fire with fire, evil with evil is out of the question. We must instead learn how to practice self-sacrificial love and faith showing mercy and extending grace, offering hospitality and rendering service without discrimination. Our responsibility is not to ask how well self-sacrificial love and faith works but to trust that it does, even if for a time it might seem foolishly inept in the fight against evil.

“While it may be true in a temporal sense that evil may triumph when good men do nothing, evil may also triumph when good men do the wrong something.”

Last week America was shaken by the news of two more fatal police shootings of black men. In one case, the shooting death of an unarmed Terence Crutcher, officer Betty Shelby has been charged with first-degree manslaughter. Not wanting to create a distraction at her church’s worship gathering, Officer Shelby offered to stay home but her church insisted that she join them. After all, whatever the outcome of the charges Officer Shelby is facing and whatever responsibility she bears in the death of Terence Crutcher, she needs as much grace as the rest of us. The response of her church is but one example of what it means to practice self-sacrificial love and faith. Another example is the response of black and white Tulsa residents, many of whom I presume identify as Christians since they live within the Bible-belt, who gathered to pray. Prayer is not an empty act devoid in the pursuit of justice, as it allows us to pause long enough that we may continue trusting in God and hear from God as to how we should respond to the issues of violence, racism, and injustice in our day.

The only response to any form of evil is good and for Christians, what is “good” is known to us in the way of life Jesus teaches us to live and exemplified himself. As we near another major election in America and as our society wrestles with so many challenging issues, we may choose to vote and even protest. However, let us never allow such politics to become a replacement for embodying the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The redemptive mission of God, which has and will triumph over evil, is extended by living in word and deed as faithful witnesses of Jesus. That has always been the case whether Christians have had state political freedom to vote and protest or not.

The way to lose any single battle over evil is not just by doing nothing but also by doing the wrong something. So even if it appears in the temporal sense that evil is winning, do good by practicing the self-sacrificing love and faith of Jesus for the triumph of good! 

A Deafening Silence

October is around the corner and the fall season is almost here. That mean people will be buying Pumpkin Spice Lattes, apple cider from the local market, and planning for Halloween parties, all while children anticipate going out Trick-or-treating with their friends. October also means Baseball playoffs and with the Chicago Cubs having the best record in baseball, I really look forward to the playoffs this year. But with each playoff game, the fans in attendance will be asked to stand during the seventh-inning stretch for the singing of God Bless America. But maybe instead of having a nice patriotic song to declare the blessing of God on the nation, maybe the Lord has another word he wants us to hear.

The land was full of evil and idolatry, violence and corruption was everywhere. There didn’t seem to be any end to the injustice and wrongdoing taking place. All that was left was lament, to cry out to the Lord in complaint as to why he tolerates such wickedness and does not come to save his people.

So that is just what the prophet Habakkuk did. He lamented, pouring out his complaint to the Lord and so the Lord answered. The Lord said that the most dreaded Babylonians, with their strong and violent military, were coming and it would not be pleasant. Not the response Habakkuk was hoping for, so he cried out to the Lord again and again the Lord spoke. This time expressed his anger with a series of rebukes, saying “Woe…” regarding all the ways that people have acted unjustly and engaged in idolatry. But it’s the statement the Lord makes at the end of his response that should pierce the heart.

“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”

– Habakkuk 2:20

And then it as if the Lord has just dropped the mic and walked off the stage. The silence is deafening, as it should be. With all of the injustice, idolatry, and corruption, along with the utter hubris that always seems to lurk behind such evil as people complain and accuse others with a pointed finger, it is as if the Lord has had enough. Now the Lord is imploring the people to look at him, to bow before him with humility and recognize that he alone is the Holy God.

That seems to be a message we need to hear in America, whether we are Christians or not. Right now there is evil and corruption all around us. There is a problem with racial injustice as, by way of example, “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers,” even when they are unarmed and appear to have their hands in the air as in the case of Terrence Crutcher or as in the case of Charles Kinsey, a therapist who was unarmed but still shot by police as he was trying to help an autistic patient. Violence abounds in places like Chicago where as of September 1st of this year there have been 471 deaths and 2,300 shootings, as well as places like Dallas and Baton Rouge where police officers were murdered simply because they serve the public in law enforcement. And with a scandal like that of the Wells Fargo scam, we are reminded that wealth and power allows for corruption to take place seemingly with impunity.

Maybe it’s time for Americans to stop singing God Bless America and instead just be silent before the Lord!

So just for a little clarification, I am not suggesting that America should do away with God Bless America for good but that given all the hatred and violence, maybe it’s time for America to be silent before the Lord for a season.