Friday, April 11, 2014

My Creed

Some time ago a friend on Facebook asked me to explain what I believe as a Christian.

This is what I wrote:

I believe in God. I believe there is a Divine Being greater than the natural world who contains within himself all the properties of love and power.

All that exists was created by him and for him.

Human beings were created by God. We were created with the freedom to follow or reject him.

Following God means believing what he has revealed about himself, and then acting on that data.

Rejecting God means using our own lives and thoughts as the datum by which we live.

I believe that the “evidence” of God comes to us in three ways.

Creation itself leads me to believe in a Creator. When I look at the complexity, the intricacy and the sheer vastness of the created order – I simply cannot accept the idea that time+chance+matter somehow simply spat  out everything from spinning planets to carpenter bees.

It’s too unbelievable to believe that it all … just happened.

It is more probable to believe there was a Creator behind it all.

Secondly, the Bible as a book is a source of revelation of the reality of God. I do believe it was inspired by God, like no other literary document has been. Reading and studying the Bible, I see a progression of revelation:

The Bible gives me a clear description of the state of humanity and the nature of God – and how the 2 can be reconciled.

Finally, the person of Jesus Christ. When I was in high-school – this is what finally brought me back to my faith, after I went through a period of trying to figure out what I was going to believe about life.

No other worldview has Jesus. Jesus to me is the pinnacle of what a fully evolved human being should be (Read Matthew 5-7 in the Bible – and see the life that is described there).

I also believe in the historicity of Jesus, his crucifixion and his resurrection. I don’t really have time to give you all the arguments for it, but can suggest some good resources if you are interested.

I guess there would be one final proof – that is my own life. I have seen the reality of the power and presence of God in my own life. God has changed me from being a selfish, angry person to someone who is becoming more and more concerned for the well being of others. I know I still have a long way to go – but I my character has been changed radically over the last few years – and I can only attribute that to the activity of the Spirit of God in my life.

I believe that as humans we have rejected God. That rejection has a price – our sin carries with it a punishment.
But, God instead of inflicting that punishment on us, he sent his son Jesus Christ to die in our place. On the cross Jesus absorbed all the punishment we deserved.
When we come to terms with that – when we accept that reality, when we ask God to forgive us of our sins – he forgives us, and he empowers us to live the type of life, we know in our hearts we are to live.

Christianity is a life where we move out of our own self centerdness and out into serving and loving others. Any expression of Christianity that is not marked by humility, love and service has moved away from what Jesus intended. (And sadly, much of the modern expressions of Christianity have become more interested in power and coercion than in love and service – but don’t let those facades turn you off of the real thing).

I have found that the reality that God is with me, guiding me, saving me, picking me up when I fall and forgiving me, to be the only way to live life with any kind of hope for the future.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Noah - Movie Review and Comment on "Christian" art

We are currently under a deluge of faith based films.
I wouldn't call it a religious revival.
More like Hollywood coming to the obvious realization that there are a lot of religious people in America who will pay money to go watch religious based films.
Let me see if I can list all the religious films released or about to be released:

Son of God
God's Not Dead
Heaven is For Real
Exodus: Gods and Kings

I'm sure there are more, but these are the ones that came to mind right away.
Out of these I have already seen Son of God and Noah.
The only other one I will probably see is Exodus.

Son of god was a fairly well done film on the life of Jesus. It was marketed heavily to churches and churches responded by buying out entire theaters and doing follow up bible studies and sermon series based on the film. (Our church did this).

I think attempts were made to do the same thing with Noah. But there was not that strong of a response.
And after seeing the film its easy to see why.

I think Darren Aronofsky is a very skilled film maker. I liked his last 2 films: The Wrestler and Black Swan. Both dealt with individuals pushing their bodies to the limits of their capabilities. Motivated by inner identity insecurities.

So, Aronofsky, a professed non-believer goes out and makes this epic big budget film.
And the result - mixed.

There is no question this movie is based on the biblical account. It opens with creation and the genealogical line towards Noah.
But, there are so many odd additions that it is difficult to recommend this film as being solely Christian.

Yeah, Noah believes God.
God speaks to him.
He builds an ark.
The flood comes.
Noah and family survive.

So - the central plot line is there.
It's the additions that might trip some people up.

I saw the movie with Felicia. Our initial thought was that it was depressing and stupid,
But …. on further reflection I have come to conclude that this is an excellent movie.
Probably - the best film based on a Bible story I've ever seen.
And the reason is because there is a complexity and inner turmoil given to Noah that eludes most religious characters in films - often they are very wooden and 2 dimensional.
Without giving too much away, Noah struggles with his call - he's not sure if he is hearing God correctly.
And even when he is given his job - he is a bit confused on why he is doing this.
There is a very moving scene where he feels like a failure. Someone explains to him why he was chosen and why he made the right choice. That conversation in that scene will stay with me for a long long time.
Noah did something for me that no other Bible movie has ever done. As soon as we got home, I cracked open the Bible and read the Noah narrative. The film also caused me to reflect on how hard this must have been for Noah to do.
And that Noah was  a human, with the same insecurities and self doubts that we all struggle with.

I think the criticism coming from certain Christians is coming from people who demand that "Christian" art adhere to very strict parameters. It was interesting to notice the number of people who got upset when the Son of God film moved "off script" and inserted dialogue that is not recorded in scripture.

We have to remember these are not documentaries, these are works of art made by creative people who are ….. CREATING. 
Give them some freedom. (Although - to be honest - Son of God came across more as evangelistic tool than work of art - indeed it was used as such.)

I find most "Christian" art and literature dull and surprisingly uninspiring.
Are we making art or tracts?

So …. Noah was good. Go see it. You might be troubled by the darkness that Aronofsky portrays, or by the incredibly fantastical elements he has inserted.
But, please remember this is art, not a Hebrew commentary on Genesis 6-8.

And maybe it will do to you what it did for me. It reminded me that

God will NEVER AGAIN curse the ground because of man,
even though every inclination of our hearts is evil.
NEVER AGAIN will he destroy all living creatures.

One Year Down

3 New Ithacans

On March 25 2013, Felicia, Adam, Sophia, James and I got into our beloved Honda Odyssey and started off on our own odyssey towards Ithaca New York.
Funnily Homer also headed off to Ithaca on his own Odyssey!
Ours had far less perils and dangers.

We arrived on April 2 2013.
So one year has passed.
Our first year as displaced West Coast Canadians now living in a well known college town in upstate New York.

How's it been?
Well, I'm glad I asked.

Spring was a nice time arrive as the town is thawing out of winter.
We were able to take advantage of many of the scenic state parks and hiking trails. Although not as beautiful as the land we left behind, it was still quite nice to be able to escape into nature when we felt like it.

The summer was a nice slow ease into understanding the culture of Ithaca as well as observing the ministry patterns of the new church I was called to serve.
Bethel Grove Bible Church is a small-medium sized church - around 350 on a Sunday AM.
It has an extremely strong connection with both Cornell University and Ithaca College.
This is one of the primary reasons I pursued this position.

The summer was fairly easy as ministry slows down with not many students around.

We managed to go camping and also visit my brother, his wife and newborn daughter in Boston.

And then we hit fall with our feet on the ground running. Ministry picked up quite quickly as we welcomed all the students back.
One of the major things I tackled was organizing and leading our small group ministry.
We took up a model from Randy Frazee's book "The Connecting Church" which is a geographically based model.
Up until this point there were a number of groups that were primarily built around stage of life (married, women's, singles, etc).
So, as was expected, its quite slow when making any kind of organizational change.
Some embraced it wholeheartedly.
Others resisted strongly.
Most were politely ambivalent, not too bothered one way or the other.
But we went for it and slowly the church is starting to embrace this model as a way of both creating community and reaching our community for Christ.

Along with leading this ministry, I co-taught a marriage class with a couple with whom we have become very close friends.
Felicia and I joined a small group.
I preached a couple of times.
I started to offer pastoral counsel to a few men in the church.

We went to NYC for a week - that was a blast!
We took a few day trips up to Syracuse and Rochester (not bad - but not too terribly exciting).

We went through our first American thanksgiving and Christmas which was fun.

In the new year I undertook a fairly large scale project of renting out a movie theater for a special pre-release screening of the "Son of God" movie.
We followed up the movie with small groups and a sermon series.
It was a pretty good success - we sold out the theater of 200 seats with about 40% of the people being guests of church members.
We also launched 12 groups that focused on the life of Jesus for 4 weeks.
I also preached at both services for 4 weeks.

This just wrapped up last week, so I am recovering from an extra busy season of ministry.

All in all, I would have to say this has been a good move for me and the family. Ithaca is a very charming town to live in.
The access to Cornell is very nice.
We are a half days drive from every major city on the East Coast, so when we need a big city fix we can usually get away for a weekend.

The church is very very good - very healthy and made up of very mature and godly elders.

Now let's see what the next year brings.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Politics of Hate - The Death of Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps has died.
Phelps was a former lawyer turned pastor.
For some reason he managed to transform the Christian God from a benevolent Deity to some gross hateful monster.
His weird church "Westboro Baptist" managed to garner global fame, despite only having a handful of members, all related to each other and living on a joyless campus in Kansas.
Their fame came largely through the garish posters they would hoist outside funerals of celebrities or army veterans.
These signs contained some of the most vulgar language I have ever read.
They all followed the line that basically God hates everybody, especially homosexuals.

I never really studied why or how Phelps went down such a strange route in his life.

What I do know is his idiocy made it very difficult for true followers of Jesus to present the truth of the gospel.
God doesn't hate homosexuals.
God doesn't hate America.

If there is anything we can know about God it is that his primal characteristic is one of holy love.
God is holy, meaning he is made up of moral perfection, untainted by sin.
God is love meaning that all his actions and motives are contextualized by love.

But, does God hate?
Yes, in fact he does. "I hate robbery and iniquity" - Isaiah 68:1
God hates sin.
God hates sin because sin dehumanizes and destroys his creation.
Sin disfigures humanity, whom God loves.
Just as we hate illness or disease when it affects those we love - God hates it when sin and brokeness mars his created sons and daughters.

For some reason Fred Phelps did not understand that.
Instead, he served an antithetical God which we cannot find in the Bible no matter how we try.

Fred Phelps is dead.
My only hope and prayer is that his twisted theology will soon meet the same fate.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Empire and Ministry: An Analysis of Privilege and Disparity

Every once in awhile a blog post pops up, inciting a lot of tweeting and Facebook posting with a lot of follow up comments.

Here's the latest:

Writer and speaker Christen Cleveland has done the church in America a great service - she has pointed out a major blind spot among well resourced suburban churches.

In her post she points out that in cities experiencing or attempting to resuscitate urban renewal, suburban pastors come rushing in to plant their franchise of ministry. In doing so they run roughshod over existing ministries and urban saints that have been laboring for years.

This exact same thing happens in the world of global missions. When well meaning, but completely ignorant mission agencies comes to "evangelize" a nation with complete and total disregard of national ministries.

Cleveland gives an example of a white pastor who has planted an inner city church and makes the statement: "This is not your grand momma's church". In that one statement he has done two things: proven his complete ignorance of the surrounding neighborhood culture and insulted a culture that hold "grand momma's " in great esteem. I have seen this EXACT same thing happen when I was ministering in India. An american mission team from a wealthy church in California came in and one of the pastors ridiculed how anyone could worship a rock God or an elephant God. I left the meeting in disgust at the blatant ignorance and insensitivity of this man.

What Cleveland has done is portray what happens when privilege collides with urban reality. There is no communication, no recognition of the existing ministries. There is s stunning lack of Kingdom mentality among many Christian leaders in America. The drive to "succeed" in creating MY ministry, MY church leads to kingdom blindness to everyone and anyone else who is also ministering.

My plea is that my friends and colleagues who are leading large suburban churches would begin to listen and learn from the saints laboring among the urban poor, disenfranchised and rejected. When we pastor a large, growing church it is possible to develop ministry blinders that keep us isolated from being to even comprehend that there are other metrics for measuring effective ministry.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Pastors and Money - John Piper

I disagree with him on some stuff but this is pretty good.

John Piper's advice to pastor's concerning money:

Get a car that works; that gets you where you need to go. 
I'm talking about a modest entertainment budget that doesn't eat out every night. 
I'm talking about a refreshing vacation, not an exorbitant one. 
I'm talking about clothes that are unremarkable and undistracting, both for not being shabby and not being brand driven. 
I'm talking about a home that accomplishes your family and ministry purposes leaning towards ordinary folks in your congregation, not the wealthiest.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Snap-Shot of Ministry

I just wrapped up the busiest 5 days of ministry in my life.

Here's a snap-shot:

Thursday - Son of God Special Screening

Our church participated in a theater "take-over" of the film Son of God. I organized the whole thing, along with the upcoming campaign of small group discussions and sermon series. It was a rather exhausting endeavor - but was well worth doing.
We sold out 200 tickets with 30-40% of the attendees being guests (not regular attendees of our church).
I introduced the film and prayed before it started and then wrapped it up at the end.
Very positive response from all those who attended.

Friday-Saturday - I travelled to a Bible Camp somewhere near Cortland NY. I spoke to a group of International graduate students from Cornell. There was 10 nations represented from Singapore to Eritrea, Wales and South Korea. I love this group - I've spoken at their Friday meetings in the past.
I spoke Friday night and then twice Saturday AM.

I headed home early afternoon.

Saturday evening - Spoke at city wide prayer gathering. Several pastors and local leaders took part in a well attended gathering to pray for a variety of causes.

Sunday AM - participated in our regular AM services (but did not preach).

Monday Evening - Leadership Meeting / Elders Meeting

Tuesday - REST

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why I Go to Church Very Often - A Response to Donald Miller

Avalon Alliance Church in Saskatoon Saskatchewan.
The church I attended from 1976-1993.

I like Donald Miller. I've read three of his books and they were very good.
He seemed to have hit a nerve with dis-affected evangelical young adults.
And he's done some good things with his influence.

But, I disagree with him in his recent blog post.
So, here is my point by point response as to why I disagree.

It seems that for Miller if you do not connect with God through the medium of the local church, you should jettison it and discover the way you do connect with God. For him, this is teaching and building his company.

I wonder why he has reduced the function of church to simply an individual's connecting with God.
I believe the church consists of much more than that: worship, teaching, service, community, fellowship, evangelism.

Is Miller finding all of these things as he teaches and builds his company? I hope so.

Miller thinks its great people love their church.
But, he also shares that he feels that traditional church is like a University that he has graduated from.
So, though he has no need anymore for the traditional church (which he fails to define), he is happy that others love their church.

There is an extended discussion on whether one should attend church out of obligation or out of pleasure. It seems that Miller has reduced the local church down to simply the "worship experience", and since he does not connect to God through singing, God is cool with him going for nature walks or working on his laptop. The methods don't matter, simply as long as the connection and experience is meaningful to the individual. Not sure why church is reduced simply to worship.

There is a rather strange paragraph where Miller states that he knows many people who love Jesus, serve in ministries that feed the poor, but who do not attend a local church. He says "they have no opinion of church", which I find to be a rather staggering statement - both in its breadth and in its content. Every single one of these people he knows have no opinion of church?
Also - what propels them out to serve and speak in "churches" that they have no opinion of - why do they do that?

In Miller's talk about community he says he has rich meaningful community outside of the church. He makes no clear description of what this community consists of or what is required to join his community.
I suspect his community is made up primarily of people similar to himself. That is a community - but that is not a community that will stretch his boundaries or move him to meet people different from himself.

The blessing of church (especially a small church) is it forces you to be in community with people unlike yourself. If you just hang out with people like yourself, you are basically loving yourself. Sure, they might tick you off sometimes, but you do not get to do the hard work of learning to get along with those who are fundamentally different from you. You cut yourself off from the education they can give you about differing paradigms and personalities.

The best part of the Miller post is what he says at the end. He challenges the current lecture/worship model. I think there is some truth here - we do need to create new paradigms and models that will appeal to different types of people.

And my question thus is this - Why doesn't Miller himself work towards that end? Why doesn't he join a faith community and start to work towards innovation that would attract others like himself?

Jesus Christ birthed the church universal. Local churches are small chapters of this universal movement. Local churches should keep us tied in with what God is doing around the world. Building your company or having beers with fellow Christians likely will not be able to do that.

When we cut ourselves off from the local expression of the church universal, we cut ourselves from one of the primary ways that his life and teaching can be poured into our lives. Yes, yes, I agree, hiking in the mountains or kayaking can also connect you to God …. but surely we can agree that learning from God's Word is much more primary than the teaching or experience that comes to us through the general revelation of creation?

I'm glad Miller connects to God in the ways he has discovered. I wish local churches would take some of his concerns and adapt. But, as in all relationships, work needs to take place on both ends.