Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Following God Even When It Is Tough

This was part of a sermon I preached recently, but the podcast guy is really behind in getting the mp3 up. I was talking about following God even when He asks us to do something hard, or we don't see an obvious positive outcome, or things just look bad. I used a clip from Joan of Arcadia to illustrate the point. Joan of Arcadia was a television show where "god" appears to a teenage girl named Joan and asks her to do some tough things. Christians sometimes had a hard time with the show because "god" appeared as some weird people some times, and spoke in new-agey terms frequently. But if you got past the Yoda-isms of "god" in the series, they actually had some solid theology. Not always, but better than most shows in Hollywood do.

Anyway, here is the background to the clip I played:

"Joan is asked (by "god") to take a reclusive bully (Ramsey) to the school dance instead of her boyfriend (Adam). While both her mother and the assistant principal object, Joan follows through with God's task. At the dance, it is revealed the bully has a bottle of alcohol with him but Joan convinces him not to open it. Despite this the assistant principal later reaches into his jacket and, finding the alcohol, expels him. He runs away and Joan joins him. The bully goes to a secluded area and begins playing with a gun. Joan’s father, a police officer, is able to find the two and talk the bully away from the gun in a very dangerous and tense situation."

The next day, Joan sees "god" (as a lady handing out cupcakes) in the halls in school and decides to confront her about ruining Joan's life:

Our problem is, we don't get the nice TV wrap-up at the end. If we do the hard stuff that God asks us to, we may never know this side of heaven the impact that those choices had. We might only get to deal with the problems that come with the choice on our end. We may never know that our simple act of befriending the violent bully might have stopped the school shoot out. We might not ever know how taking a different exit on the way to work might stop an accident from happening. We might never know how sticking with church, even when it gets hard, or superficial, or confusing, might make the difference in someone else's life. Or even our own.

Monday, November 19, 2007

So We Visited One of Those Prosperity Mega Churches This Weekend

I've never heard the words 'blessing' and 'hallelujah' used so much in one sermon. To be fair, someone who used to go to this church said that it was just like an Antioch church (were we used to go to church when we lived in Wac0), and Antioch is pretty big, so we were hopeful that it wasn't a typical mega-church. That person was wrong about this church being like an Antioch church. Way off.

I'm no expert on prosperity Gospel stuff. I've always known that I generally disagree with it. And the the whole mega-church mentality.

As we enter into this massive building, we are pretty shocked by the amount of money that went into decorating the main hall. Neon signs, fancy stuff everywhere, tiled Baptismal pit (complete with free robes, towels, hair dryer, and heated water - we were told), and the stereo-typical coffee shop were all there. I took a quick glance at the prices in the coffee shop and decided to save some money and go to Starbucks later.

Anyway, to be honest - they did preach the Gospel, repentance of sins, and the need to die to self. But that seemed to be the sub-points in the main point of God blessing you with finances and happiness if you are faithful. It was the message given right before the offering that made us squirm.

Is there a new type of prosperity Gospel coming out now-a-days? There was a lot of true scripture being presented in there, but it was all sandwiched in with all kinds of "God is going to give you a lot of money and happiness" stuff in there. Like, A LOT of it. Should I really worry about the fact that they were all quoting scriptures correctly, but just over quoting ones about blessing, and kind of missing the whole point of what blessing means in the Bible?

I think many people would say not to judge and not to worry as long as the Gospel was presented. And to be honest, all churches are imperfect. Just having something wrong with your theology does not mean that the spirit of God will not be present and move in your midst. if that was true, He would never visit any churches.

But I gotta say - Katie and I couldn't find the exit door fast enough. Which is durn hard when you've got to fight past a thousand people making a B-line for the coffee shop.

I make light of the coffee shop a lot - but am I the only one that gets uncomfortable about the whole "den of thieves" thing? And when the pastor and his wife are wearing outfits that probably cost more than my entire wardrobe.... weird.

I gotta also ask about this whole "baptized in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by the speaking in tongues as seen in Acts 2:2-4." Acts 2:2-4 describes tongues of fire coming to rest on the believers - visible tongues of fire. Shouldn't it be "baptized in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by a visible tongue of fire and the speaking in tongues as seen in Acts 2:2-4"? Of course, I guess that means that most people wouldn't be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And that corrected statement doesn't roll off the tongue as easily....

Monday, November 12, 2007

Christian Artists: Giving Constructive Criticism

Recently, I have been in many online and in-person discussions about Christians and art, or more specifically - why there is so much bad Christian art out there. I would argue that, ultimately, there is just bad art out there period, and getting saved doesn't automatically sanctify lack of talent or taste. My reasoning for the fact that bad Christian art continues after salvation is that we have so many Christian liars out there. People that say they like something (painting, song, band, poetry, whatever) when they really don't think it's that great. Liar is a strong word, but I can't think of anything else to call it - so please try not to be offended by my use of it. More on that in a minute. First of all, a few things to set-up.

There are basically two types of Christian artists. First of all, there are those that make art for themselves. They don't intend to sell their art, get it displayed in galleries or played on the radio, etc. This is the kind of art that anyone participates in, and, in fact - I encourage everyone to do so. Being creative is something we can all do. If no on ever sees it - no need to be shy. The other type of artist is the one that tries to sell their art, even make a living off of it, or get it published, played, or displayed in public spaces. These are the ones I will refer to here from this point on as Christian Artists.

Once you cross that line from personal artist to Christian Artist, a whole new world has to open up for you. You no longer can just do what feels right to you. You have to be mindful of your audience. The opinion of others is crucial at this stage, because they are the ones that will ultimately support you. The opinions of other artists are helpful, but you still have to know the opinion of the audience. You have to connect with them.

This brings up the fact that there are three aspects of art that artists have to be concerned with. First, there is ability (skill, talent, etc). That is a given aspect, even if the artist doesn't have it. After that is the communication of the idea. Just having a lot of skill doesn't mean that you can communicate what is in your mind. And there are plenty of people out there that have found ways to communicate ideas in their head really well without any talent. The final aspect is the connection with audience. Having talent and the ability to communicate your ideas means nothing to the Christian Artist (or any professional artist) if you don't have the ability to connect with your audience. And, yes, there are those artists that don't have talent, do a bad job at communicating ideas, and yet still create stuff that connects with people.

This is also where many artists tend to take a "meh" attitude towards people that went to fancy, highly rated art/music schools around the world. These schools teach people the skills and the means to communicate ideas, but then students graduate from the school and go work for some catalog publisher. They have to do this because (possibly) they lack the ability to connect with an audience. Most artists would rather connect with an audience than perfect a skill.

Thus the rub of being a Christian artist. You need to know what others think of your work. Yes, you can pray and ask God and do what He wants regardless of what others think, but then there is that pesky deal of how God speaks to us through others.

This is why I encourage people to be honest when a Christian Artist asks for an opinion of their art, and you don't like it. I have been in many situations where people lied and said that they liked something and they really didn't (they admitted this to me later). They felt they were being "kind-hearted," but I argue that a lie is a lie and can cause damage.

You see, Christian Artists do believe that God speaks through others, and you never know if that "kind-hearted" word is the last word they get before they decide to do something radical, like quite jobs, or sell it all, and "go for it." I've know many people that actual do this (without praying - let's face it, we all do this from time to time), and since all of the feedback they got was "kind hearted," they missed God's will and crashed big time.

So, what to do when a Christian Artist asks for your opinion of something that you just don't like? Take a deep breath, and say four things:
  1. Let them know your credentials up front. If you have never studied art, music, poetry, etc, let them know it. They need that context to know how to file your opinion.
  2. Find something positive to say about the work/song/story/etc. For the Christian, this is usually the easiest part. Most Christian Artists mean well. It's not like they are out trying to subvert the word to serve the Anti-Christ. So, you can say something like "I can see that you had a good idea to show a spiritual truth here" or something like that.
  3. Give them an idea about what you didn't like about the art. You probably want to be as general as you can here, but not open yourself up to further questions (let's face it, you wouldn't be going this route if you didn't want to lay out a list of all the problems with the art or didn't care about hurting feelings). Let them know that you don't go for the genre; or, if that is a lie - let them know that you just don't connect with it.
  4. Encourage them to seek out more opinions. It may just be that you don't get the genre that they are working in. You could be the one that is wrong. Or you could be that last straw that lets them know whether to ditch the day job and go full time or not. Let them know that you should not be the last opinion they get.
In fact, I would argue that these four steps could be for giving feedback on art that you do like - just replace step three with giving them specifics on what you did like.

So, the way to give constructive feedback on, say, a painting that you don't like would be like this: "Well, please realize that I don't have any training in art. I like that you are communicating how prayer affects the world through this painting. For some reason, I just don't connect with the way that you are communicating, but I don't know exactly why. I think you should definitely seek the opinion of others on this and not just go by my word alone."

And, yes, I know artists are sensitive. They might still take this hard. Communicate with love and they will not feel rejected by you. Remember that above all - you still love the person, even if you don't go for the art.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Living in the End Times

We had a guest speaker at church this week who taught about the end times. I hadn't really thought about the end times in a while, so it got me thinking again. I used to love reading about end times stuff - I even read the entire Left Behind series. Sure, there was stuff in there that I disagree with, but I was interested in what they had to say.

One thing I have noticed about people that study or write about the end times - they all seem to think that no one else cares that much about their favorite topic. I think the sales numbers of the Left Behind stuff would speak otherwise.

Another thing I have noticed about this issue is how certain people act are totally correct on every aspect of the issue. I like what my pastor said about that this weekend: he said he has been reading about this issue for a few years, but still doesn't know that much. I think that is all that any of us can say. But so many people look in to the end times for a couple of years and then go around like they are the top expert on the subject. Not our guest speaker this weekend (she was pretty cool), but it's just something I have noticed around the Church in general.

You see, I know what I believe on controversial issues - like evolution, or predestination, or the rapture. But I know that I could end up being wrong on some of the details. So I try not to be so dogmatic about it. I strongly believe that some people are going to get to heaven and be disappointed to find the truth about what they were so dogmatic about. And find out how wrong they were.

I don't believe in the rapture, but I won't be shocked if it does happen. I believe in a literal 7 day creation, but won't be shocked to get to heaven and find out that the 7 days of creation were actually 7 epochs. I believe in once saved, always saved - but won't be upset if I get to heaven and find out I was wrong.

So, here's my deal about the end times. It's all based on prophecy. We have to be careful with prophecy. I think that Christians tend to get a little arrogant with interpreting apocalyptic prophecy because we got it right with Messianic prophecy. What some people forget is that even the disciples got it wrong until the book of Acts. Until Jesus ascends to heaven, we don't see a single apostle explaining to anyone how Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecy. Jesus explained it a lot, but no one else really got it. It wasn't until Jesus died, rose again, and then ascended to heaven that the apostles finally had a light bulb go off in their heads. Then they started telling people how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies.

If Jerry Jenkins had lived in, say, 100 B.C., and decided to write a 12 book series that fictionalized the upcoming arrival of the Messiah, it would have ended up being totally different than what the Gospels ended up saying. It would have been about this conquering king that comes in and stomps out the Romans. That was how people interpreted the prophecies in Jesus day. And they were wrong.

They were basing those interpretations on their current mindset. You even see their misconceptions recorded in the Bible. "Nazareth? The Messiah doesn't come from Nazareth! He is to be born in Bethlehem!" is what they all said. In Jesus' time, people didn't move around that much. So, if you were to say "I'm Bob of Nazareth," they would assume you are from Nazareth. They never thought to consider that maybe Jesus was born somewhere else. And due to the slaughter of the infants that happened due to events in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus' birth, I am sure His parents didn't exactly advertise that He was born there.

So, we need to realize that Biblical prophecy will be fulfilled, but the track record shows that it will be fulfilled in a way that is totally off of everyone's radar. If the Bible says 70 years, it will be 70 years. But some of the details may not work out the way we say they will. So, I think some people need to take a less dogmatic approach to the whole thing, or they may miss it.

Another thing I want to speak out about is this whole living in the end times thing. Many people say that we are living in the end times, and that Israel becoming a nation again is a sign of that. I have to slightly disagree with this to a degree. I believe that God is setting the stage for the end times, but we aren't quite there yet.

Here is why: the Bible doesn't say that "Israel shall become a nation, and then the end shall come." Israel does play a part in end times prophecy, so it does have to exist for the end times to happen. So that is why I believe God is setting the stage. Jesus said "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).

The one thing that I am more into than end times stuff is world missions. And the sad fact is that missions are declining. Less people are going, less is being given, and even those agencies that are seeing increases in people going are not sending a large number of people to the unreached. Many people believe, as I do, that God will reverse these trends, bring down the bamboo wall, lift the veil of Islam, etc. But even these people realize that we still have a couple of centuries to go (at best estimates, 150-200 years) before "all nations" (usually understood as 'people groups' by those that know Greek) have heard the Gospel.

I pray that I am wrong. I pray that the great commission will be fulfilled within the next generation. But I can't let the end times be my primary motivation to live rightly here and now. I need to let the present needs of today be my motivation. "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:34).

Monday, November 5, 2007

More Money Equals Less Religion?

I thought this was a funny, but sad article:

A GLOBAL survey recently conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that the wealthier you are, the less likely you are to be religious.

Hmmmm.... food for thought.

Anyway, I am prepping two lengthy posts in my mind. I have some thoughts on the end times that I will put up soon (since that seems to be the current topic at church). I also want to post something on Christian artists.

Also, some day, I may get around to posting stuff on my views on the whole Calvinism vs. Arminism debate. If I ever get brave enough to go there :)