Friday, July 25, 2008

XXXChurch

What an odd name for an evangelical ministry, but it fits. In the tradition of great visionary ministries that have reached out to neglected people groups, XXXChurch is targeting those have become, or might become enslaved to the horrific task-master called pornography. The life-giving power of Jesus Christ is the only solution to the damaging and secret lifestyle of the porn addict. It's hitting the bulls-eye of the Great Commission.

They have felt resistance though, and not just from the porno industry. Many "conservative" Christians have objected to their ministry, suggesting that it boldy wanders into territory that Christians should avoid. What those who object fail to remember is that Jesus, in his healing of lepers, often touch them. What could be more scandalous than to physically touch a leper? Jesus, however, unafraid of being made ceremonially unclean by touching the leper, extends his hand and heals them.

Such ministry, though considered "edgy," is following the pattern of Christ. They have resources as well for recovering from a porn addiction, becoming educated about its effects and helping others being hurt by it as well. Pureonline.com is also a good resource, but the issue isn't whether one finds just the right resource. The issue is whether one is truly motivated to have the liberation of the transparent life. These resources help me, but the key is to remain transparent to those around whom I love and whose trust I always want to deserve.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

They're leav'in...on a jet plane...

The kids are stoked about their trip this Saturday. I'm not sure I am. Oh I joke about looking forward to a quiet house for nearly a month when they're visiting my parents in California, but the truth is I get to missing them pretty quick. These poor guys have only recently started enjoying their summer: playing at the pool, spending the night with friends or seeing their favorite movies. I'm glad that they have such an opportunity to enjoy an extended visit with my folks, but I'll dread suspending my "fathering" for such a length of time too.

We'll put them on the plane early Saturday morning, and hopefully the whole trip proceeds without incident. Three kids can find such a long flight challenging. The first time they took this trip, the flight attendant eventually told them not to push the "call button" again. I am impressed with Jessica, Joshua and Elijah though. They're good travelers. Jessica will turn 14 while she's in California, and by this age she's already traveled as much as I did by her age. All of them are so great. I'll not really looking forward to watching them walk out in the concourse at DFW.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Riding Withdrawals

Here it is, July 22nd, and my bike is still not finished being repaired. All this time I have been longing to ride again, enjoy the open road and the relaxation it can bring. In addition, down to one car again leaves me feeling like a caged animal who can't roam as it should. My passion for Texas State Parks, getting outdoors, and riding the country roads grows by the day. I longingly into catalogs advertising outdoors recreation gear. This morning I came across an REI Adventures magazine in our library listing possible trips. Naomi and I sat debating over what our "ideal" vacation looked liked; her gravitating toward gentle cruises, and me attracted to kayaking the fjords of Norway. I need to get out of this house before "cabin fever" sets in. They're taking an awfully long time repairing my bike.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Scary hero movie: The Dark Knight

I've said it before: if a filmmaker ever made a "Batman" movie that was true to the genre, it would more closely resemble a horror film than a hero movie. Batman may be a hero, but the world in which he must operate certainly does not lend itself over to a "heroic" tone. "Heroic" settings are more like those of Superman in Metropolis, or Spiderman in Manhattan. These settings have enough "light" that the exploits of the heroes are seen as bright shiny beacons of good and virtue. Not so in Gotham City. The city itself is a festering explosion of horror scenarios. It's villains lack the scruples that we find latent within the baddies fought by Spidey or the Man of Steel. We like the "cleaner" heroes because we like heroic tales that inspire us. However, we like Batman because we intuitively know that the world is a much darker place than the screen versions of New York and Metropolis, and we want a hero that is willing to go there.

Interestingly, we are strangely comforted by a hero that is willing to operate in the dark places that we find frightening. The creaky stairs, the haunted house, the back alley or shadowy sidewalk all have a possible "hero" too. Because of the plague of universal depravity, the world is a darker place than we like to believe. Oh yes, God's grace creates pockets of goodness to be sure, but by and large the world is broken, requiring a complete overall when Christ returns. One could disproportionately focus on the evil and brokenness in the world, and thus forget about God's goodness, thereby losing faith. On the other hand, it is quite possible, and we humans do it all the time, to so focus on the good that we lose sight of how desperately in need of a Savior we are. If we lose sight of that, we start to think ourselves to be essentially good, and less in need of a Savior. To the extent you diminish the depravity of man, you diminish the need for Christ. Therefore, the darkness of the soul, the depravity of man and the corruption of the world are unfortunately, yet necessary doctrines. I do not "like" these truths at all, but they are reality and they serve in illuminating contrast to the beauty of Jesus Christ.

In light of this, we are encouraged by a "hero" that is willing to enter the dark, horrific world that represents our depravity. He's not grossed out, repulsed, shocked or sickened. He enters in with full knowledge of what is running wild, and then makes his difference by taking upon himself the horrors of the city. Only a man adorning himself with the horrors of a night creature (a bat) could make a difference in Gotham City. We know that our world is a scary, horrific place; and we like a hero who will dive into it to save us.

"God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God." - 2 Cor. 5:21

We are comforted by heroes that, though not corrupted by our broken world, will fully enter it to rescue us. Don't overplay an analogy between Batman and Jesus Christ. It will break down if you press it too hard. But on the surface, we like Batman because we intuitively love a Savior that enters into our scary, gross world and turns out to be exactly what we needed. Becoming quite scary himself, he "puts on" the necessary outfit to achieve his ends. I like Batman because, like Jesus, he's right at home rescuing me in those dark places that scare the wad out of me. When I stray off the path, and endanger myself in the hidden shadows of horrific sin, Christ is there to rescue. When I am surrounded by grotesque villains that make police shriek and flee in terror, Christ is there to rescue. When I'm afraid of the unidentified noise from behind a street corner, Christ is there watching. God is a hero that knows how terrifying a place my world is, but he's already lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce on whatever threatens me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thirty Nine

Monday was my birthday. I spent that day, Tuesday and the first half of Wednesday horizontal, agonizing with flu symptoms. That was not kind. I didn't appreciate turning 39 (which my wife referred to as "almost old") laid up in a recovering state. What a way to launch into the year wherein I get to anticipate turning 40. If ever I was thinking of having a "mid-life crisis," the timing's just right.

My birthday has been surrounded by a lot of fun though. Last Friday my family all went to see the Texas Rangers beat the Chicago White Sox 7-2. That was a fun outing. It was one of the final chances to really do something special as a family before the kids head off to my parents house in California for nearly a month.

Then, this Friday we're all going to see the movie "The Dark Knight." Having been a fan of the comics for years, I knew that the previous "Batman" movies made had not been really true to the genre (either too stylized or campy). Then, in 2005, Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" finally hit the mark. Comic lovers everywhere rejoiced that the "Batman" literature (comics and graphic novels) has finally been considered a guiding measurement for bringing this tale to screen. If the "Batman" of the comics were ever really shown on screen for what it truly is, it would resemble a horror movie more than a superhero film. According to early reviews, "The Dark Knight" is striving for exactly that. It may turn out to be a mistake to take the kids on opening day.

All in all, my birthday, though spent in bed sick, has a lot of fun times before and after it. It therefore evens out to be a pretty good birthday. I can spend this year looking forward to 40, rather than dreading it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bagheera, you were cool

Today I had the unfortunate and sad task of having our cat euthanized. We adopted "Bagheera" into our home in 2006 from a animal rescue within the Rockwall PetSmart. At the time, he was named "Mickey." However, such a name for an obvious predator simply would not do. We therefore renamed him "Bagheera" from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. The name was appropriate for the air of mystery that he constantly put out, seldomly allowing too much handling from pesky humans.

As Bagheera wandered the house (like he owned the place), we all gave him a wide berth. We was known to swipe at your foot as you passed by. He liked to be among people, following Naomi and me around the house to lie down near where we were. However, he still liked his personal space. He had a habit of striking a pose that we called "the sea otter." He would lie down on his back, legs in the air, seeming very comfortable, looking like sea otters when they float on their back cracking shells open with rocks. This made Bagheera look so cute, and you could not resist the temptation to walk over and rub his tummy. If you succumbed to that temptation though, and actually reached to pet his tummy, you likely would find his all his claws and teeth converge together on your hand like a sort of bear trap. Over time, we learned when to pet him and when NOT to pet him. He was no one's "house cat." He was too "cool" for that.

In addition, he was a predator. Initially he was an "inside kitty." Later on, after a year or so, we became comfortable allowing him to explore the front and back yards. It was fascinating watching him stalk animals and people through the bushes in our flower garden. He must also have been a hunter, for signs of mice dropped sharply not only in our back yard, but in the garages and yards of neighboring homes as well. The neighbors all thought he was "cool."

He would sit in our grass and watch the neighborhood, scan down the streets. He was territorial, remaining alert of all that entered his turf. I once watch as he observed a small dog wander down the sidewalk in front of our house. He stalked the intruder, crouching between bushes. At just the right moment, he darted out after the unsuspecting pooch, swiping it on the rear. I could not tell if he had drawn blood, but the poor errant beagle ran for his life, yelping in either fear or agony all the way down the street and around the corner.

It felt neat to be graced with the presence of such a predator. Kind of like have a tiger in one's home. Though Bagheera was not a large cat, he was authoritative. This seemed to give us all a sense of privilege for having him nearby. Bagheera has an uncanny way of making you feel graced by being allowed to remain in the same room when he entered. If he actually allowed you to pet him, it was the height of your day. Heaven had smiled on you. He wasn't cuddly. He was cool. That sense of "coolness" was nice to have around.

Alas, this last week he contracted something that resulted in dire symptoms. While at the Animal Hospital of Fate, it became clear that should even the expensive treatments proposed be pursued, a positive outcome was improbable. I made the decision to have him euthanized. Such a decision was not difficult, but it definitely sucked. I liked Bagheera. He was a blessing to our family in the full manner that God created such animals to bless humankind.

Some animals serve the human experience with how they provide food (cattle, fish, etc.). Some animals serve with how they provide clothes (sheep). Still some serve with how they provide work (horses and sled dogs). The broadest category is that group of animals that fit no other category than to simply keep the ecosystem in balance. Nevertheless, a category of animals most certainly exists wherein they apparently were created to serve the human experience by providing a ministry to the soul. Domestic animals such as cats, dogs and arguably a few others that show affection to their owners, all minister to the human soul with a sense of friendship and familial loyalty. Such is what people mean when they refer to an animal as a "family member." Such was Bagheera. Cool as he was, he was also ours...and we are sad to lose him.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Finally, some controversy

Tonight I performed my usual duties at the City Council meeting for the City of Fate. I offer the invocation (opening prayer) for the city council meeting proceedings. The newly elected mayor, Bill Broderick, asked me back in May to regularly assume that duty. I was happy to perform that task. However, with civic governments going the way they have been in the U.S., I fully expect this responsibility to be short lived for two reasons:

1. Someone is bound to eventually get offended that I pray to the Christian God who has revealed himself as three distinct, yet equal persons (The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit). I'm a Christian, and therefore cannot confess that any other god exists. Moreover, since I truly desire to pray for the city council's proceedings, I must address the One I believe exists and is able to receive and answer prayer. To pray generically, or to an unnamed "god" is to not only compromise my faith confession, but it is also to fail in my responsibilities because it would constitute not praying for the council at all. It would simply be offering religious sounding words, patronizing the hearers with insultingly placating speech. Since I will not do this, but instead insist on praying to the trinitarian God for the sake of the city council, some Muslim, Hindu or Wiccan is bound to get bent out of shape sooner of later.

2. Someone is bound to get offended that prayer happens at a city council meeting at all. The separation of church and state has become the frenzied de-religion-izing of America. It has contributed greatly to the U.S. rightly being considered as entering a "post-Christian" era. It seems inevitable that someone will eventually challenge the city council's right to have prayer to God (and the God defined by Christianity at that) offered at a city event.

Though I thought one of the two objections mentioned above would arise sooner or later, I didn't predict that the first one to object at a city council meeting would be one claiming to be a Christian "minister." The objection was that supposedly by appointing a single individual to pray for the council meetings, the Mayor had shunned other ministers in the community that should perform this as well. The argument went that in order to ensure that other ministers and faith sects are not disenfranchised, the council members should either rotate performing the invocation themselves, or create a roster of all ministers in the community to ensure no one is left out. These, supposedly, were better alternatives to having one man continually perform this community task.

What caught me off guard about it was that it was a Christian "minister" who objected to this. I was already trying to "push the envelope" in terms of how much Christ could be honored in the public square; and then this dude is bent because other ministers aren't represented? Unbelievable! The goal is not that everyone prays. The goal is that the One who should be prayed too, hears from a city government asking Him for blessing, wisdom and accountability.

After the council meeting had adjourned I asked for clarification from the Mayor and other council members still present. It was further explained that, though the responsibility fell to me to network with area ministers to ensure that the invocation would indeed be delivered by a local pastor if I needed a substitute, the duty was mine to perform for the city council of Fate when they meet the 1st and 3rd Mondays of each month. The Mayor's desire (and that of the council members speaking with me too at the time) was that by assuming this duty, continuity and stability can be enjoyed in this simple task for the city. It's not large contribution, but it blesses the city government to have some consistency in this area.

Therefore, I will keep performing this task for the glory of Christ. We'll see how far this goes. I'll keep doing what I've been doing, knowing that my window of opportunity to see Christ honored in the public square, in this manner, may very well be quite short.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Vision for Ministry (Part 1)

One of the key needs for ministries today is vision for what God might do with them in the future. However, vision can be an elusive concept, given over to overuse and dismissable as trite and fluffy. What is vision, really? Do leaders really have to have a knack for envisioning the future of their organizations?

The answer to the last question is, "yes. They do." However, those appointed to leadership often feel the strain of performing a superhuman function of seeing the future, knowing that the future cannot truly be known (apart from expecting Christ to return someday). Is leadership vision a superhuman task that must stress out those charged with leading? No. It's as simple as giving a picture of the destination for those on the journey.

Take, for example, a father fielding the question, "Daddy, what will Disney World be like when we get there?" Whether the father has been to Disney World in Orlando, FL before or if he did all his research online, his answer to the child in the back seat is offering a "vision" of the future.

Take another example: Alaska. I love Alaska. I been there multiple times, visiting Anchorage, Homer, Seward, Katmai National Forest, Prince William Sound and Good News Bay. I've been there in the summer when it didn't get darker than dusk, and the winter when it didn't get brighter than that either. If someone's thinking of visiting Alaska, have them talk to me. I'll convince them with word pictures of towering mountains, milky blue glaciers, brown bears and red salmon. I'll tell them of the wilderness just beyond the Anchorage city limits, the rushing rivers racing through deep valleys and moose that wander through the front yard. That's helping them have a "vision" for going.

Christian ministries need the same thing. "What will it be like when we get there?" Or "when we faithfully pursue our mission?" Vision is a picture of what the future likely could hold if the organization is faithful to the mission, and God's (in his sovereign rule) chooses to bless the work.

The mission for Woodcreek Bible Church is "To reach, train and send out the most loving and contagious followers of Christ in the world."

What could the future hold if we faithfully execute this mission, and God blesses the work? "Vision" will seek to answer this question. And that requires a whole other time...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Bully Problem (Part 1)

If there is one doctrine of Christianity that enjoys empirical provability it's the doctrine of total and universal depravity. People are just evil at heart; or as Derek Web puts it, "We're all crooked deep down." This plays out from the earliest ages. By God's grace, not all develop as badly as we could. Nevertheless, it is when goodness happens that God is to be thanked. When evil naturally springs out of the human condition, nothing should be surprising. We're all so crooked deep down.

Unfortunately, one of the ways this plays out is through the predatory instincts of bullies. There is no age limit on them. Bullies reveal themselves in both preschool and the boardroom. However, we tend to use the term "bully" more with children in high school or younger. Regardless, adults too exude the same behavior all the time. It's predatory. It's primal, and it's far beneath the level of humanity intended by Christ.

I say that it is predatory because bullies' behavior so parallels any given nature documentary one might watch regarding "lions of the Serengeti," or Timber Wolf packs' hunting caribou. The predator seeks to feed off the week, slow or sickly of the herd. They watch to see which of the herd may be a "good mark:" that specimen that requires the least effort to capture and feed on. Criminals of the street, rapists, muggers, etc. all operate on this principle. They have little to no regard for the well being of others. They have one concern - to satisfy their own craving. In the wild, that craving may be the legitimate survival instinct to avoid starvation, and provid food for their young as well.

In people, this is not legitimate. Christ is the only accurate expression of humanity there is to follow. If someone wonders what was intended by the garden, they have but to look to Christ for that answer. Therefore, bullies are giving themselves over to depraved predatory instincts that considerably diminishes their humanity. In like manner, they seek to de-humanize the victim as well by transforming them into prey (instead of a fellow human made in God's image). Therefore, the dilemma regarding bullies is: how to respond to them in a manner that preserves one's humanity?

This is such a difficult task. On one side of the response is that body of advisers that prescribe only peaceful solutions. "Avoid the bully." "Use the buddy system." "Tell a teacher." "Don't fight back." These are good goals to pursue. Certainly one feels much more human when they have solved a bully problem without seeming to descend into the realm of Darwinian naturalism that the bully is seeking to be dominant in. I think it can be universally agreed that peaceful solutions are preferred above others, and are rightly first to be prescribed to the young bully victim.

However, what solutions are to be explored when the bully does not respond to the preferred ones? When avoiding the bully doesn't work because they have discerned your others routes to class or home? When buddies nearby also feel powerless to deter the bully, thereby becoming reluctant witnesses to continued abuse? When teachers are so taxed with diverse demands that the bully has learned to strike when they are distracted? Or when the bully has learned that the victim also feels powerless to defend themselves because of adult advice not to escalate the incidents? Is there ever a time when the peaceful solutions are rightly considered exhausted?

The dilemma is heightened by the perception that Christ modeled and taught pacifism. He, himself did not fight back when wrongly condemned to the Cross. In addition, it is thought by many that Jesus teaches pacifism in Matthew 5:38-39. While application of these truths will certainly find expression in the life of a believer, it is a stretch to suggest that victims must succumb to the de-humanizing effects of bully attention. Stronger biblical support is necessary to argue for people (young and old) being reduced to the existence of the "slow gazelle." Far from being the weak, slow and sickly of the pack, Christ modeled the controlled strength that is summarized by the term "meekness." In John 10, Jesus asserts that he had power to lay down his life and take it back up again any time. How does this model victimhood? It doesn't.

Nor, however, does it model exact techniques necessary for dealing with bullies either. I would submit that no biblical passage exactly prescribes a course of action for the victim. It this we must rely on the wisdom for living supplied by God that covers those areas not addressed in Scripture. Yes, such areas exist, and dependence on the Spirit for wisdom in such categories is vital. I submit that dealing with bullies requires wisdom. Wisdom is prescribed repeatedly in Holy Scripture; wisdom that is laced with temperance, respect and self-control. If anyone lacks wisdom, they should ask God for it (James 1:5). Sure one risks having a response to which you can't attach a proof-text, but it may very well equally please God to rely on the Spirit in this way.

Regarding the bullies that my children find at school or that we find at work or in church, may God grant the wisdom to break them out of their predatory behavior while retaining our humanity in the process.

Independence Day

July 4th, Independence Day, is without a doubt an American holiday. Unlike Christmas, Easter or Reformation Day, Independence Day exists because of national history, not necessarily because of a special event in Christian history. On the contrary, while the other holidays mentioned above could be celebrated by Christians worldwide, the 4th of July is distinct only to American citizens. Therefore, even the Christians in the U.S. that do celebrate the 4th of July represent a minority of the global Church of Jesus Christ. Preferred are those holidays that one could have in common with brothers and sisters in Christ who today live just outside the Olympic village in Beijing, are gathering in small apartments in Albania or loving each other in the impoverished cities of South America. A national holiday celebrating freedom from the former political ruler (England; now close NATO ally) may make sense from a view point of nationalism, but does it make Christian sense? What is particularly "Christian" about Independence Day? How do fireworks and BBQs recall the work of Christ, renew trust in him for the present and develop greater hope for the future?

A search through the New Testament reveals 36 times that derivations of the Greek term eleutheros is used. It conveys the basic idea of "free" in the sense of being delivered from something which restricts or oppresses. The noun form comes out simply as "freedom": that state in which one is unrestricted from a specific impediment. The adjective form describes one as being "free" as opposed to being enslaved or oppressed. The verb has a few different directions it can take, including: "to set free" someone by action or decree, and "to be set free" by similar means. Regardless of the multiple uses, "freedom" (noun), "free" (adjective" and "to set free" (verb) all trace a significant theme in the Bible. Although freedom from political oppression is not prescribed in the New Testament anywhere, freedom from the soul-oppressive forces to which we succumb through sin is a frequent message. Freedom given in Christ from those formerly enslaving forces which we could not resist is given plenty of "airtime."

Nevertheless, the founders of the United States could not have credibly asserted that they followed a biblical mandate by violently throwing off British rule during the revolution. On the contrary, conscientious Christians wrestled with both sides of the issue. After reading Romans 13:1 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God."), Christians understandably wondered which government they should be subject to: The existing one? Or the emerging one?

Now, however, debates about whether Christians at the time should have submitted to the British government or the emerging revolutionary government are moot. The revolution occurred, and it is not reversible. While political freedom is not prescribed in the Scriptures, it was in fact the result of the American Revolution. Total freedom is a theoretical abstraction that no human enjoys...anywhere...ever. However, the emerging United States of American did indeed gain "freedom" from the specific abuses of British rule outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Freedom was won from very specific oppressive forces that formerly impeded citizens' ability to live and function as they do now. A very real and tangible difference can be seen between the civil experience under King George and that which emerged in America following the revolution. It is this difference that we call "freedom."

In this way the American Revolution, though not a distinctly Christian holiday, serves as a historic analogy to Christian reality. It is because of this analogous nature of Independence Day that Christians should celebrate it. It would be unfortunate for Christians to celebrate the 4th of July without this in mind, for one's faith must always trump nationalism. Nevertheless, let Christians celebrate Independence Day with joyful zeal, knowing that the real freedom won for them is that which no musket could ever achieve, only a Cross.