Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Our Biggest Problem

A week and a half ago, I took some of my youth group to ConventionX in Richmond, VA.  The conference was good, there were great bands, and the kids had fun, but I really enjoyed the speaker, Jim Johnson.  That guy was all about telling the truth.  He wasn't concerned with just making everyone feel good.  He knew that the kids needed the truth, so that is what he gave them.

He spoke a few times, but the thing that really stood out to me was his discussion on our biggest problem.  He asked if our biggest problem was sin, and then told us that it wasn't.  If our biggest problem is sin, then we will spend out lives trying to be good.  Our faith turns into nothing more than striving to be better people. Too many of us think our redemption is, "I'm going to stop being a liar," or, "I'm going to stop being a thief," or, "I'm going to stop lusting," or, "I'm going to stop being bitter and hateful," or fill in blank.  It's this belief system that leaves people feeling like they need to clean themselves up before they can attend church or give their lives to Christ.  This isn't Christianity.  This is moralism.  This is legalism.  It is not freedom.  It is not salvation.

Our biggest problem, is that we cannot fix our problem.  We all have sin, and there's nothing we can do to fix that.  Our salvation is based entirely on what Christ has done for us.  His death and resurrection are the Gospel.  We don't earn that.  We can't earn that.  We can only receive it and thank God for his love and grace.  When we give our lives to God and submit to Him, the Holy Spirit takes residence inside of  us and God transforms us.  We don't transform us.  No amount of willpower will rid us of sin.  If it would, we wouldn't need rescued.

Isaiah 64:6 says that all of our righteousness is like filthy rags.  (Dive into that passage sometime.  Filthy rags...ew.)  Our best attempts at righteousness are still totally disgusting.  Only Christ makes us righteous.  Only God brings good out of us.

This is something I have to learn over and over again.  I'm always tempted to think I can make myself better for God, instead of submitting to Him and trusting in Christ's sacrifice.  I was glad to be reminded yet again (and glad for my kids to hear) that our salvation was entirely accomplished by Christ.  If we rely on ourselves to save us, we're out of luck.  Thank God, He didn't leave us alone in our sin.  Thank God for His Son.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween!

I love Halloween.

There, I said it.  As a youth minister, sometimes I get the vibe that Halloween is technically not allowed to be my favorite holiday.  Many, if not most, Christians are opposed to getting involved in any festivities on this day.  They say it is wicked, that it glorifies evil.  Many go so far as to call it the devil's holiday.

Well, I disagree.  I love candy and costumes and scaring trick-or-treaters!  I carve a Jack-O-Lantern every year and leave it burning all night long!  My intake of scary movies increases dramatically all month long!  I think this day is awesome!

And here are the reasons why...


1:  We give holidays their meaning.

What I celebrate on a given day may be entirely different than what you celebrate.  There are many who celebrate Christmas without paying a bit of mind to Christ.  For them, Christmas is about family or presents.  Their celebration of Christmas is about as holy as my celebration of Halloween is evil.  The reasons I love this day are not evil at all, even if Halloween has evil origins...which, it likely doesn't.  This brings us to reason number two...


2:  The origins of Halloween are a bit fuzzy, and likely rooted just as much in Church tradition as they are in pagan custom.

Yes.  All of the virgin-sacrificing, evil-spirit-inviting stories you've heard are wrong.  Here is a recent blog post on Who Stole Halloween.  Give that a read.  The holiday doesn't seem so wicked now, does it?  Halloween is only as evil as you make it.  What I celebrate on Halloween is detailed in the last five reasons I love this day.


3:  Candy and fun!

It's no secret that I love sweets.  Candy corn may be my favorite.  This holiday makes candy very plentiful, which makes my mouth very happy.  Kids like dressing up and having fun.  I like seeing people have fun.  I like making people happy.  Pretty simple, right?


4:  Community

Sadly, in our culture, we don't put forth much effort to interact with our neighbors.  This one day of the year, the entire community shows up at your door and you have the opportunity to give them something that will make them happy.  I love how happy kids are when I toss them a big handful of candy.

I'm not a fan of how the Church typically handles this day.  Many of us leave our houses and offer an alternative if people will show up at our church building instead of walking around the neighborhood.  This reaction is primarily due to the confusion that abounds in regards to the origins of this holiday.  However, I think there are two important things we need to consider about this reaction.  First, I think we should stop calling it an "alternative to Halloween."  It's not an alternative.  You're still celebrating Halloween, you're just doing it slightly differently, and I can't overemphasize how slight the difference is.  Second, I think it's a waste of resources to band together at the church.  Yeah, hundreds of kids may show up to the Trunk or Treat, but imagine if every member of your congregation counted every kid that showed up at their door and then compared numbers.  Sure, there would be some overlap in kids, but I bet we reach a wider group when we are spread out and meeting them on familiar ground.  Also, if you want to hand out a tract, or act as a Bible character, or present the Gospel, you'll still have that opportunity, you'll simply be reaching more people who haven't already heard the message.

(Note:  I'm not opposed to Trunk or Treat events.  I just don't like having them ON Halloween night or pretending that they are not a form of celebrating Halloween.  Having them on a different night is actually an opportunity for MORE candy and MORE fun!)


5:  Memento Mori

During this time of year, images of death can be found everywhere.  Our culture doesn't really discuss death that much, so this time of year can force us to think about and confront it.  I think Christians especially should be aware of death and contemplate regularly the fact that our time in these bodies will end as we consider what we will leave behind and what we have done of eternal consequence.  The Art of Manliness had a really good post on this topic recently.


6:  Overcoming Fear

Fear is a huge part of Halloween.  I don't celebrate being afraid, I celebrate overcoming fear.  This season alone, I witnessed trick-or-treaters brave my scary dummy act for some candy, a middle schooler overcome his fear of a scary trail, and even faced down a frightening moment of my own when some VERY late trick-or-treaters creeped me out by not realizing my doorbell is broken.  I think it is important for us to learn to face and overcome our fears instead of hiding from them or letting them immobilize us.  This season is also a great opportunity to teach kids that we don't have to be afraid of spirits or death, because Christ has overcome evil and the grave.


7:  Overcoming Evil

Some people think of this as a day that glorifies evil.  For some, that may be true.  As I said, I love watching scary movies.  Some of those glorify evil, but those aren't the ones I like.  The movies I like are the ones where fears are faced and evil is defeated.  The fog covers the fishing village and people start disappearing, but the priest helps the people break an old curse and the fog blows back out to sea.  Jamie Lee Curtis gets chased for thirty years, but she finally crashes that ambulance and ends the horror.  Some college kids foolishly read a book that begins a terrifying encounter with the demonic, but a hero rises up, replaces his hand with a chainsaw, and conquers the Deadites!  Hail to the king, baby!

I love seeing evil defeated.  We deal with evil everyday in the world and even in ourselves, though it is not always as extreme as it is portrayed in the movies.  It is important that we know that evil can be overcome and how it is overcome.  It is important that we strive to eradicate evil.  During this holiday, we can be reminded of these things.


So, my celebration of Halloween is not evil.  I find Christ in every aspect I just mentioned, even if the rest of the world doesn't.  I love Halloween.

Friday, July 13, 2012

My Somewhat Scathing Critique of American Audiences or The Stories That Matter

Note:  I removed this post for a while, I can't remember why.  Now, I'm putting it back up.

This is the darkest timeline.

As some of you know, I love the show Community.  It is definitely my favorite show on the air right now and it is in a three way tie for my favorite show of all time.  I have truly never seen anything quite like it.  It's original.  It's hilarious.  It's touching.  It makes me think.  It makes me evaluate my relationships with the people around me.  And, unfortunately, it has been dancing on the verge of cancellation since midseason this past year.  This dark time period has culminated in the firing of Dan Harmon, the very heart of the show.

Many have complained and said their piece, and I know I'm a little late to the discussion.  Mostly, I've been sitting back in shock and disappointment.  However, I wanted to say something and I want to focus on a part of this problem besides the businessmen who decided to fire Harmon.  I want to focus on the people responsible for their decision:  I want to focus on American television audiences.

I hate the sheer level of cookie cutter shows that constantly soak up the most views.  You know what I'm talking about.  Here is a list of the most popular shows of 2011.  How many of the same format of crime-solving show do we really need?  There are two versions of NCIS in the top ten alone.  By number 36 I've counted three versions of CSI.  When will we run out of impossible crime scenes to shock people with?  When will we tire of being able to predict exactly who committed the murder?  We have the boring sitcoms, including, but not limited to, Two and a Half Men.  I've had the misfortune of watching several episodes of that with people who really love it.  It's the same sitcom that has been airing for the last thirty or forty years with a slight change of characters.  It made me smile a couple of times, but it didn't make me laugh and it didn't make me think.  Weak characters did unbelievable and stupid things and learned their lessons, but did not teach me anything in the process.  I could not see myself in their stories.  How was that show number 10?  It seriously moved up from the previous year!  Also, for some reason, people are still watching The Bachelor.  I'm baffled.

Then, we have Community.  For those of you who don't know, it's a show about a lawyer who has to return to college after his employers discover that his law degree is fake.  He goes to this absurd community college, run by a dean who is trying so hard to make the school like a "real" college.  His attempts to impress a girl land him in a study group where he (unwillingly, at first) starts building relationships with a strange, and somewhat random, group of people.  I first heard about the show through this article.  I was fascinated by the writer and by the sheer love fans had for the show, so I checked it out.  I was immediately hooked.

Sure, this show was different, but that's not all it had going for it.The characters were real.  They had depth.  It was one of those rare shows where you never really realize the actors and actresses are acting.  They're real people with real personalities and real struggles.  As they struggled with their own issues, their relationships with one another, and with life, I could relate to them.*  The situations on the show can get quite absurd, but the characters are always more real than the characters on the sanest of sitcoms. 

Every show tells a story.  The greatest stories, though, are the ones in which people can see themselves.  I saw myself in those stories.  Friends struggling with the unfair expectations of an insane teacher.  Growing to love a person in spite of his extreme closed-mindedness and blatant racism.  Learning to love the people around me who hold beliefs that I disagree with.  Realizing that I'm never going to be the best at everything and realizing that this knowledge makes life a lot more bearable.  Trying to do something that matters.  Not having the resources to get by.  Learning to accept help from others.  Trying to navigate the minefield of human interaction and relationships.  Being forced to interact with people I don't particularly like.  The threat of losing interaction with the people I love.  Realizing that I'm not perfect, and sometimes I'm responsible for my disagreements with my friends.  Loving others in spite of their faults.

In every episode, the characters deal with something that everyone has to deal with at some point.  As the show goes on, the characters don't remain at the same shallow and/or ignorant level.  Through life's challenges, they learn.  They grow.  Sometimes, I learn and grow with them.  Sometimes, I remember lessons I've learned and evaluate how well I still apply those lessons.  Sometimes, I get to see different perspectives and I become more sympathetic to the people around me.  

We may not experience these stories in the same crazy situations.  Our paintball wars aren't quite as epic.  Our schools don't erupt into pillow civil wars.  We don't build rooms where our imaginations become reality. We don't get harassed by high schoolers whose parent have taught them to crush everyone they meet.  Evil versions of ourselves from the darkest timeline don't try to enter our timeline wearing black goatees and attempt to destroy it.

But we do have to learn about loyalty, inclusion, and working together.  We do have to learn to consider our friends' wants and needs instead of just our own.  We do struggle to understand this crazy world.  We do have to learn how to deal with bullies of all ages.  And we do have to struggle against the darkness, doubt, and evil within ourselves.

Those are the stories that matter.  The stories that help us grow.  I wish they mattered to more people.

But, they don't.  For some reason, people don't want to be challenged.  They just want cheap laughs.  They want familiarity.

This is the darkest timeline, indeed.




*For a great read on how much these stories can impact others, read this blog.  (Some of you may be offended by the language.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Most Difficult Prayer

And we're back.  I had a hard drive failure.  Made it difficult to post new blogs.

Anyway.

Have you ever tried to make demands of God?  Sometimes, I pray as though I can just order Him around like He is a genie put in place to grant my wishes.  For the last couple of weeks I made such demands of God.  Nearly every day, I made the same selfish requests and got more and more frustrated when God didn't respond the way I ordered Him to respond.  How arrogant is that?

Then, I finally gave in a little.  I demanded a sign from God if His answer to my request was "no."  The sign showed up as soon as I got home from praying.  I figured it must have been a coincidence if I wasn't getting my way, so I repeated the whole process again.  Like Gideon, I got the same answer.

I wrestled with God over this for a while.  I reasoned with him about how it would be better for everyone if I got my way.  Suddenly, these crazy thoughts started to pop into my head.  Thoughts of how things would be if God gave in to my demands.  It wasn't pretty.

Then, I had a disturbing realization.  It's not like I didn't realize the repercussions of my requests from the beginning.  I just wanted to pretend I didn't realize so that I wouldn't feel bad about demanding that I get my way despite the consequences.  It turns out, I can be pretty selfish, but I don't want to admit it.

While still reeling from the realization that I am selfish and imperfect, it came to my attention that I had spent more time in prayer over this selfish request than I had spent in prayer over the course of the last year.

Stunned silence.

Apologies.  I'm sorry God.

Humility.  I was so wrong.  I'm so sorry God.

Then, I prayed the most difficult prayer.  Not my will, but Yours be done.  And I meant it.  Because God didn't answer my prayer in the way I wanted.  God answered my prayer in the way I needed.  This time, I needed a no.

God can definitely give me what I want, but He doesn't always do so.  Sometimes he does, but not always.  As long as we are flawed human beings, we are going to sometimes make selfish requests that can either hurt others or drive us further from God.  I don't think God grants such requests.  I find it quite aggravating to deal with spoiled children.  I can't imagine God allowing us to be tainted by evil (no matter how "small" the amount of evil) through answering prayers that will draw us away from Him.

God can definitely give me what I need, and He always does so.  This even happens if the thing I need is the complete opposite of the thing I want.  So long as I am willing to humble myself and put His will above my own, I always wind up realizing why He responded the way He did.  Sometimes it takes a while, but I am eventually reminded that God really does know best.

In this situation, I quickly realized that God really does know best.  From the beginning, this wasn't about what I asked God for.  Maybe that's why I haven't told you what I asked for; because it really doesn't matter and would only distract from the story.  This situation was about something much bigger.

This was about my reaction to the realization that I am not who I should be.  God forced me to deal with this head on instead of taking an easy way out.  His way worked out much better than my way would have.  It put me exactly where I needed to be.  I realized how broken I am.  I remembered how desperately I need God.  I remembered what it means to become a Christian.  To follow God.  To give my life to Him.

This realization rearranged my skewed priorities.  I have been spending time with God every day since then.  I don't know how I drifted away from making this a priority, but God did put my priorities back in check for me.

And every day, I try to pray that most difficult prayer.  Not my will, but Yours be done.  Show me where to step, and I'll set my foot down right there.  Because I realize something.  God sees way more than I do.  He has a better idea of what needs to happen than I do.

I should never stop bringing my requests to Him.  However, like any good parents, He is sometimes going to tell me no.  Because He knows better.  And I'm okay with that.  Because He doesn't always give me what I want.  But, He always gives me exactly what I need.

Not our will, but Yours be done, Father.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

About a week ago, I started reading The Hunger Games.  Last night, I finished the final book in the series.  This was one of those stories that you simply cannot stop reading once you start.  The story moves quickly and constantly keeps you wondering what will happen next.

The story takes place in a distant future where humanity has warred until our population is dangerously low.  America is now known as Panem and consists of twelve districts and the capitol.  About 74 years prior to the beginning of the story, the districts rebelled against the capitol and lost the war.  Every year, as punishment for their rebellion, each district must offer a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in the Hunger Games.  24 contestants enter an arena where they struggle to survive the wilderness and each other.  One contestant gets to leave.

I was surprised to find these books in the young adult section.  They lack profanity and sexual activity, but they are quite violent.  The story gets very dark and stays that way right up to the end.  It shows the devastation of war and how our fighting hurts all of us, while simultaneously showing that something must be done to stop a tyrannical and oppressive government.

This was the best trilogy I had read in a long time.  If you have not read it yet, I strongly recommend you get started.  The movie comes out in two months.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

WBS 1: Crash Course in Hermeneutics

Introduction
Quite a while ago, my brother asked for some help in understanding the Bible a little better.  I certainly don't know everything, but I figure this bible college education is worth something.  So, I agreed to try my best to help out by sending him some Bible study stuff.

More recently, I talked to him about posting these Bible studies on my blog.  He is okay with the idea, so here is the beginning of what will hopefully be many Bible studies.  In each post, I'm just going to examine a section of Scripture and break it down.  Many of the people who read this blog are Christians and many of them have an understanding of the Scriptures that I respect.  So, I hope most of you will take the time to read these studies and post your thoughts on the passages and topics being discussed.  Also, if you're not a Christian, feel free to join in the discussion.

These Bible studies will be under the label, "WBS," so they can be easily located.

Hermeneutics
Before we launch into studying the Scriptures, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss how we interpret the Bible.  The fancy word for "how we interpret the Bible" is "hermeneutics."  An appropriate approach to interpretation is absolutely necessary if we want to understand what the Bible says and how it affects our lives.

Why do we study the Bible?  We study the Bible to see what God has to say to us.  If we do not have a solid hermeneutical approach, we can easily slip into the habit of interpreting scriptures according to what we want them to say.  To put it simply, we must strive to read God's intended meaning out of the text and avoid forcing our meaning into the text.  There are two words commonly used when people discuss this sort of thing.  You should probably be aware of them.  Getting the intended meaning from the text is "exegesis."  Forcing our meaning into the text is "eisegesis."

When we read the text, understand its meaning, and apply it to our lives, we are performing exegesis.  Though there are a number of situations in which people perform eisegesis, it most commonly occurs when they try to find a scripture to use as proof of something they already believe.  An example of this is the usage of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 to oppose tattoos and piercings.  The passage says, "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?  For you were bought at a price.  Therefore glorify God with your body."

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard Christians use that verse to condemn people around them for tattoos, piercings, and a number of other things related to our outward appearance.  This is often the go-to proof text for that debate.  However, if we look at the verse in context, we find that it has nothing to do with that argument.  

Verses 14-20 say, "Now God indeed raised the Lord and he will raise us by his power.  Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?  Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?  Never!  Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her?  For it is said, 'The two will become one flesh.'  But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with him.  Flee sexual immorality!  Every sin a person commits is outside of the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.  Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?  For you were bought at a price.  Therefore, glorify God with your body."

So, all the way up to the verses in question, Paul writes about the importance of sexual purity.  If you look at the passage following the verses in question, Paul starts the next chapter with a continuation of his discussion of sexual purity.  I find it highly unlikely that Paul took a break from his discussion of sexual purity to write a couple of sentences regarding tattoos and body piercings.  The debate of whether those things are right or wrong can be had, but this passage obviously has nothing to do with it.  This passage is focusing on the importance of sexual purity.

Seeing that our bodies are temples can help us see the importance of living holy lives and this can encourage us to avoid immoral behavior.  However, this passage does not describe any behavior not connected to sexual immorality.  Although lying and killing are wrong, this verse can not be used to say those things are wrong; there are other passages that make those points.  Likewise, we cannot use this passage to confront people who are doing something we don't like.  We must consult other scriptures.  If there are no other scriptures, we must acknowledge that the Bible is silent on the issue.

Exegesis
Hopefully, that lengthy chunk of blog demonstrated the importance of proper interpretation and the difference between exegesis and eisegesis rather than muddying the waters even further.  Now that we see the importance of proper interpretation, how do we go about interpreting the scriptures properly?  This task basically consists of two steps.  First, we must determine what the text meant to its original author and recipients.  Second, we must figure out how that original meaning should be applied to us today.

Determining the original meaning of a text is all about context.  In order to understand the original meaning of a text, we must understand the historical and literary contexts of the passage.  The historical context includes all of the data relating to the time and place of the document's writing and its intended audience.  This can consist of time of writing, culture, geographical setting, and the author's reason for writing the document.  Every piece of historical information relating to the text can make the historical context clearer to us.  We must also consider the literary context.  One aspect of the literary context is the genre of the writing.  Is the passage narrative, prophecy, parable, law, letter, or poetry?  Another aspect of the literary context is the context of the passage within the larger writing.  Our 1 Corinthians 6 example from above demonstrates this clearly.  Only by looking at the verses surrounding the misinterpreted verse were we able to arrive at the passage's original intended meaning.  Many times, it is also helpful to understand the original language  of a passage.  Even if you do not know Greek or Hebrew, there are a number of helpful tools to assist you.

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth1, does an excellent job of describing the most important part of context:
"The most important contextual question you will ever ask-and it must be asked over and over of every sentence and every paragraph-is, "What's the point?"  We must try to trace the author's train of thought.  What is the author saying, and why does he or she say it right here?  Having made that point, what is he or she saying next, and why?"
Always approach the text with that question in the front of your mind.

Once we understand the original meaning of the text, we must bring that meaning to our context.  How does the author's point apply to us now?  We must determine the original meaning before deciding what the text means to us now in order to avoid eisegesis.  Without relying on the original meaning to determine our interpretation, anyone can make the text mean anything.  Remember:  A text can never mean what it never meant.

As I start posting Bible study material on this blog, I will strive to adhere to these hermeneutical principles.  Correct interpretation of the Bible is of eternal significance.  If we loosely decide what a text means to us and ignore the intended meaning, we risk not only misunderstanding God's Word, but also misleading others who strive to understand the Scriptures.  In matters involving our souls and salvation, that is a risk we simply cannot afford to take.  In order to understand God's word more clearly and to follow God more closely, we must make proper interpretation of his Word a priority.