Saturday, December 29, 2007

Grief and Semantics

Over the past two months, two things have grieved my heart, assaulted my emotions, and made me want to throw up - the seemingly eminent death of my grandmother and the implosion of my church.

In an odd twist of events, my grandmother is still with us, against all odds, fighting to recover in a rehab facility. Tomorrow will be my last day at the church I have loved and lived among for eight years.

As a result, I have been pondering the wrongness of two common statements.

1.) We lost my grandmother.
Death is not a loss for Christians, especially for the person who died. My grandmother is looking forward to heaven, longing to go Home. When she does go to be with Jesus, we have not lost her. We will not see her again in this life, but she knows Life as it was meant to be.
2.) We are leaving the church.
In a sense, we are leaving the church - the particular local body we have known and participated in for years. But (without arguing Perservation of the Saints and all that fun jazz) we will never leave The Church - the body of Jesus Christ, the Global Church, spread across all centuries and geographical boundaries.

This past week, I was comparing doctrines and theology with my uncle, a Presbyterian pastor, and my dad, an ordained Methodist minister. It was great to compare different viewpoints in a family setting. As we discussed certain things, my uncle said, "Ultimately it comes down to semantics, playing with words. But when you really look at it, these semantics are very important to correct theology."

True theology requires proper perspective. Death is not the end of life. A door closed does not mean death, but rather that God has provided new opportunities yet unseen.

We do not grieve as those without hope, but we still grieve. In grief, however, we cling to our hope, Jesus, and our hearts learn to trust Him when our emotional compass fails.

Jesus, may my heart learn to trust You.
I read this in a book today; it was quoting William Cowper's hymn "God Moves In A Mysterious Way." I wasn't previously familiar with the hymn, but I love these lines:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower.

I have been dreading the storms in my life, and in doing so, have not turned to the One obeyed by the winds and the waves. I know that God is good, and that He ultimately works all things for good. He does everything to bring glory to Himself, and that is always for our benefit. If only my heart would absorb this from my head!

Jesus, I believe, but help my unbelief!

Sunday, December 16, 2007


I wrote this about two months ago for my English class. Communion has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but these two have impacted my heart more than any other times. Today’s service will join that league of memories.

Today, I took communion with the community called Axis, my youth group, for the last time. Our pastor gave us a chance to share what communion meant to us and what it meant for us today, December 16, 2007. I was the last of the students to share. For me, communion has always been a reminder of the Global Church, the body of Christ not only all around the world today, but the Church across all the centuries, the men and women of God who have remembered the sacrifice of Jesus at communion for 2000 years. Really, it started with the Exodus, at Passover, a physical action that commemorates God’s faithfulness for all eternity. And though this group is being separated, with some staying here and some called to different churches and new ministries, we are still a part of the Church. It’s not about Hillcrest Church or Axis Student Ministries, but it is about Jesus and His Kingdom. We are a part of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and though I may not physically take from the same cup with this group again, I am in communion with the body of Christ, and that will never change.


The land of Israel is a place like none other on earth. The desire to experience it has captivated empires, conquerors, and pilgrims for centuries. This desire is not easily explained to those who have not been to the Holy Land. Some describe the feeling as similar to the comfort of coming home. For others, it is a chance to live and experience history. To me, Israel offers a deep sense of reality, a confirmation of faith and truth. This is where the battles of the Old Testament were fought. This is where the apostles preached. This is where Jesus grew and lived and walked. This is reality. However, at the Garden Tomb, this mindset is embodied like nowhere else.

It is early June 2001 in the Middle East. My family and I are nearing the end of our two-week trip, having toured the countryside of Judea and Galilee before our final days in Jerusalem. The sun blazes down, reminding us of how we have spent more time walking about today than traveling on the air-conditioned tour bus. I sit on a wooden bench under a pavilion tent with the rest of the group. My mom and brother are behind me; my dad is near the railing of the visitor’s lookout, video camera ever-present and filming. The only other American kid sits with his dad nearby to my right. Native Bible translators and pastors from Africa and Asia fill the area around us. Pastor Syvelle Phillips, who founded Evangel Bible Translators nearly 30 years earlier, has brought all of the pastors of EBT together to tour the land of Israel, knowing that Bible translation is done with more efficiency and accuracy if the translator has studied the land and culture of the Bible. Our family of four is the lone remnant of nearly 100 Americans who once planned to come with EBT to tour Israel before fear of terrorism caused them to reconsider. We have come to serve and learn from these men and women of God.

The scene set before us is one imagined and captured in media many thousands of times in the past 2000 years. It is not how I pictured it. There are no frightening storm clouds; the sky is not black with terror and death. The city sounds of the street behind us – cars roaring past while honking horns, people going about their daily lives, the commotion of the bus stop that sits between us and the hill – conflicts with my mental image of a dark heaviness smothering the scene. Of course, the plastic grocery sacks and other trash on the hill, framed by a chaotic bus station, rotating electric fans, and colorful tourist hats, add to the surreal qualities of modern day Golgotha.

We stand and walk a few yards further, entering the grounds of the Garden Tomb. As if we had entered another world, the noise of the city drops out. The atmosphere is saturated with peace and serenity. The confusing collision of ancient and modern cultures is left behind. We are surrounded by tropical plants, full of vibrant green life and colorful flowers. Paths are clearly marked by ancient pavement or white gravel. The site is mostly empty, save our group and a few people praying on benches set back amongst the foliage.

Before we come to the tomb itself, we approach a large winepress, the most compelling evidence that this is a garden tomb in the Biblical Greek sense of the phrase. My attention wanders, and my brother and I begin to quietly argue about something of great importance. I am sure moments like this made my parents occasionally wonder why they took the effort to bring a ten-year-old and a six-year-old halfway around the world. After a few threatening looks and a fireside chat from Mom, I distance myself from Robert for a few minutes. I study a sign posted along one of the trails, with the resurrection account written in English and Hebrew, and shame fills me. I am at the place where Jesus died for my sins and conquered death once for all, and I cannot find it within me to love Robert and obey my parents? Something is wrong with this picture.

I rejoin my family, no longer desiring to argue. We are near the tomb now, a cave carved out of white rock. Two large ancient crosses are etched in the stone. Off to the side, there is a stone lip and track which probably once held a large stone to seal the entrance. I go inside with Mom and Robert. There is room for a few people to stand inside without being pressed against the wrought iron fence surrounding the actual burial spot. This is the unfinished tomb of a rich man, as Scripture indicates, even if this is not the exact location. For a few minutes we stand, look, and take pictures, soaking in the significance of this place, before turning to exit. Above the door, a plaque contains a single simple sentence. The impact of the words cannot be overestimated, as they have forever changed history. “He is not here; He is risen!”

We sit down on benches near the tomb, designed for tour groups like ours. Pastor Phillips stands before the group, his red shirt hanging loose over his bent, thin frame. His voice and hand shake as he holds high the communion cup and addresses us, more from pure emotion than age or exertion. “We come to a place like this to remember. We take communion because we were commanded by Jesus to remember. It is a good thing to set aside time to stop and remember what God has done. The Romans did a similar thing to what we’re about to do. Roman soldiers, like those who ruled here 2000 years ago, swore allegiance to Caesar. He was their god. They would be dispatched all over the empire in his service, but they were required to come back every seven years to Rome. They would stand before Caesar, participate in a pagan ritual, reiterate their loyalty, and pledge and recommit their lives to him. We do not in any way want to emulate pagans or non-godly practices. We worship one God. But it is good to come to a place like this to remember, to recommit our lives and our focus to God, to pledge ourselves to His service.”

This comes from a man who has devoted his whole life to the Gospel, having been ordained as a teenager. I am surrounded by heroes of the faith, men and women on the front lines who sacrifice everything, even to the point of death. We sit and we think about the significance of this moment, at the place that defined all of history 2000 years ago. We eat the matzah cracker, virtually no different than the bread Jesus offered His disciples when he first offered it as remembrance for His body, soon to be broken. We drink the juice, a sign of the new covenant created by His shed blood. We pray. We remember. And we commit our lives, again, to the Resurrected One, to follow Him even unto death.

Mere hours later, we gather as a body for one last time. It is Sunday morning, and the smoke of the first car bomb of the new intifada hangs thick in the air, just blocks from our hotel. Pastor Phillips again speaks, emotion choking his voice. “When I was a boy, we would sing a hymn called ‘I’ll Meet You At The Eastern Gate,’ referring not to the physical wall surrounding us, but heaven.” He gestures towards the door, where outside smoke fills the sky. “We do not know what life holds. It is unlikely that we will be able to gather all together like this again in this life. But we trust God, and we will all meet again at the Eastern Gate.” We sing and we pray and we weep and we leave that place, knowing that God had spoken to each of us in a life-altering manner that will never be forgotten.

Fast forward six years. It is early July, and I sit in a church in Calcutta, India, at the end of two weeks with many of the same precious people. We prepare to take communion again, and I remember. I remember what Jesus has done for me, and what the daily action of applied remembrance looks like. It is the second time I have been privileged to be in community with heroes and saints of whom the world is not worthy. I remember how they worship in the midst of grieving a martyred co-worker. I remember how everything they do, with all of their being, is done for the glory of God and the sake of His Name. I remember the call Pastor Phillips gave at the Garden Tomb to take time every several years to re-evaluate and recommit. Today’s call to worship, to daily take up my cross and follow Jesus, still rings in my ears. As I participate in the ancient, holy ritual of a physical sign of remembrance, communion, I make a decision in my heart, of which the consequence is yet to be discovered. I will worship God alone. I will pledge my life in service to my God, regardless of where it takes me. I will live my life as if I remember.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Thoughts on The Golden Compass

“Dude, this movie is cool,” was the unorthodox thought that kept coming through my brain as I watched The Golden Compass. I think ice bear fights and a different old world with futuristic gadgets and aerocraft is cool, even if it comes in a not-so-great context. Yes, I know the movie is subtlety (or not so subtlety) encouraging atheism, and I know that Phillip Pullman, the creator, is an avid atheist and is anti-Christian, and I know I’m supposed to think its bad, but I think it’s so much more than all of that.

Please understand that I am not negating the previous statements. There are elements in the story that are quite contrary to my Christian worldview. There were parts I don't agree with or like; there are scenes that don't hide the allusion of bashing Christianity. However, I think The Golden Compass should inspire the Church to action, rather than causing the Church to stay home doing nothing but complaining about Hollywood.

So here are my thoughts on The Golden Compass.

1) It is an example of a movie that has an compelling plot, great graphics and cinematography, and good actors.
2) It is a good example of a humanistic worldview and the problems presented by this worldview.
3) Therefore, it provides a great opportunity for Christians to present an alternative, better worldview to those impacted by the movie or books.
4) It’s a reminder to the American Church that ‘atheists’ are telling great stories and making great movies, and the Church really isn’t doing much to impact the arts. And that must change – now.

I’ve read the first book and I’ve seen the movie. I’ve also read interviews with the author and director, plus many reviews of both book and movie. I’ve also read many reviews based on hearsay and secondhand knowledge rather than a personal opinion of the material.

The story itself, sans religious themes, has many exciting elements. It is set in a universe parallel to our own, which has different mystical creatures. One of the best things about the movie was the setting; the parallel universe is both old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time, and they blended it all together well. Ultimately, it is a story of redemption, an epic struggle in which the bad guys fight the good guys, friendships are tested and found loyal, and heroes are developed from unlikely sources. Seriously, what kid (child, preteen, teen, or adult) wouldn’t want to set off on an amazing adventure, protect and avenge his friends, and be rescued by a fearsome ice bear who destroys the bad guys?

Yet, the story comes from a very humanistic worldview. The governing authority seeks to redeem the world not for freedom, but so that it can achieve greater power and control. The cost of this redemption is the separation of human children from their souls in animal form, causing death for both child and animal in experimental stages. The story’s conflict comes into being because mankind rejects God and tries to redeem himself, leading only to death.

So what is the Christian response? I think Christians need to take the opportunity presented by this movie to offer a greater worldview in which God took our death that we may know life. God redeemed the world by becoming the sacrifice Himself! This is a great opportunity for parents to discuss worldviews with their preteens and teens, though I wouldn’t recommend it for young children (PG-13 rating). Families should discuss the differences in beliefs between atheism and Christianity, why those differences exist, and why they are important. No one will become strong and confident in their beliefs if they aren't exposed to contrary ideas and forced to defend their own. Then take advantage of a cultural event (aka, a new movie with a lot of cool elements) to reach out to kids who don’t have such a learning environment. Introduce Christian themes while contrasting the beliefs of the bad guys in the movie.

Christians seem motivated to reach out to culture only when the controversy is a positive spin toward the Church, such as that surrounding The Passion of the Christ. Scripture urges us to “make the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.” The days we live in are evil. The entertainment of our culture is typically not supportive of the Christian worldview. But this does not mean we shouldn’t engage our culture! We seem caught off-guard when an alternate worldview garners attention in media. We want to send a mass email about how bad a movie is and then run to hide behind the walls of the church. The Church has no reason to respond with fear, for we have the message of victory and of life. Often we seem afraid of any other view being presented, but if the Church does its job of showing who Jesus is in a world that needs Him, there isn't much contest. Reality trumps counterfeit every time. The world needs LIFE, but it will not receive it until they understand the gospel, as lived out in the lives of believers: living in the world but belonging to Christ.

The Church needs to impact people on a personal level, in daily relationships, but Christians also have an obligation to affect the culture as a whole. Christians have not taken a forward role in the arts, in producing music and movies and books and plays that appeal to mainstream America. Therefore, we have no right to be surprised or frustrated when people of other worldviews create media that represents their beliefs and thoughts. Pullman is a good and influential author who is also an atheist. I should be able to list a dozen authors who are also good and influential in their craft, but who are Christian and write out of their Christian beliefs. The Church cannot limit Hollywood involvement to remakes of the Easter and Christmas stories, with a few stories of implausible plots and weak budgets and casts thrown in for fun every now and then. We have to impact people where they are, and for many, that means taking our message out of Sunday School classrooms and into the cinemas, into the best seller charts, and into mainstream culture.

In an oft used quote, St. Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." This is the challenge the Church faces today. First of all, we must be willing to preach the gospel in church, not a watered down self-help course. The gospel must be known before it can be spread. Then, we must know the truth and power of the gospel personally in our lives, so that it naturally flows out of us as we interact with the world. Handing out a tract and telling someone they're going to hell isn't the best way to reach people - reach people around you through relationships. By the same token, however, don't be ashamed of telling the Truth in those relationships; the emphasis is on living and 'preaching' together. The third thing is a natural step-up: as the gospel flows out of us in relationships, it must also be seen in our workplace - for some, this may be business ethics or in a classroom. But we also need to encourage strong Christian youth to influence the arts: movies, books, and music, but also video games, journalism, and Internet. Christian influence doesn't mean all the characters have to be Christian or become Christians. It doesn't mean Jesus has to be mentioned or an altar call given. But the themes and values should reflect the gospel - the greatest story of all time.

We have the greatest story of all time. What are we going to do with it?