Wednesday, March 22, 2017

George Bailey Christians

It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie. You've probably seen this popular holiday classic and know George Bailey is its hero. The trouble is, he doesn't know it for most of the movie.

You see, George spends most of his life hoping to get out of his small hometown of Bedford Falls and as he tells his father, "do something big and something important." Unfortunately, life keeps throwing George curve balls. His father dies and he doesn't go to college so he can run his father's Building and Loan, a business needed in Bedford Falls so people don't have to live in the slums of rich Mr. Potter. He gives his college money to his brother Harry, waiting for Harry to come back and take over the Building and Loan. Instead, Harry gets married and his wife's father offers him a job, a good one George knows his brother should take. Then George gets married, misses out on his honeymoon to save the Building and Loan, and ends up even more tied to "this crummy little town." Finally, after all this, and a world war he can't fight in because he has a health issue, his world comes crashing down when he is accused of embezzling from the Building and Loan by a devious Mr. Potter.

George has experienced some good times, but from his point of view, life's been mostly bad. He's failed at everything he wanted to do. He hasn't done anything big or important. His life is one disappointment after another. At his wit's end, he decides to kill himself.

If you've seen the movie, you know our hero is in for a surprise. Clarence shows up, an angel who wants to help George see the value of his life. When George says it would have been better if he hadn't been born, Clarence gives him the gift of seeing what life would have been like without him.

It isn't pretty. Turns out George had more influence in the lives of people around him than he knew. His younger brother died at the age of 9 because George wasn't there to save him from drowning. This means the men Harry saved as a pilot in World War II died as well. Mr. Gower the pharmacist ended up a prisoner and broken man when George didn't stop him from putting poison in a medicine bottle. His mother is old and bitter, her son and husband long dead. Mr. Martini, Ernie, and countless others live in slums because the building and loan closed up when George's father died. Mr. Potter has turned the town into a cesspool.

It's here that Clarence utters one of my favorite lines: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" George has left a hole. He never understood how every person he met was affected by him, how a life in a little town actually did matter.

Clarence's conclusion is "You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?"

In America, in much of the Western World, there is a focus on doing something "big and important." We have the mind of George Bailey. We laud those who seem to do the big things, who get famous and noticed. Then we compare ourselves and well, we don't measure up. Our life is so...small.

Christians fall into this trap. They imagine something big they will do for God--be a missionary, start a humanitarian organization, build orphanages in a needy place, bring hundreds of people to Christ, lead a church. They feel guilty when someone tells them if they really lived a Christian life, they'd do something big for God, they'd follow the dreams "God has given them."

Here's the problem--most Christians are George Bailey. Life has played out for them in unexpected ways. They're stuck by circumstances. What they thought would happen didn't. They aren't a hero; they're just an "ordinary yokel."

If you believe this, you believe a lie. You are a George Bailey, Christian, but you aren't an "ordinary yokel." You are George because "your life touches so many others." Your life has done something "big and important" even if it doesn't look that way to the world. Every day you live, every day you cling to Christ, every moment you do an act of kindness, you have done something important.

In the end of It's a Wonderful Life, George is saved by his friends who recognize all he has done for them. His brother Harry gives a toast "to my big brother George: The richest man in town." It's no coincidence Harry calls George his "big" brother. It means more than age; it means George is actually as big as he wanted to be. In fact, he's rich, because he has used his life to touch the people around him. He's given of himself, his time, and his heart. He did it in a "crummy little town" and his friends couldn't be more grateful.

Christian, you may think your life is nothing. You may see what others do and think because of how your life has worked out, you've done nothing. This is not true. Your life has touched so many. If you were to leave, a gaping hole would remain behind. Never believe the lie your life is a throwaway. Your purpose from God is wherever you are. Forget the shouts of big and let God use you now.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Entertainment: How Much Poop Is Too Much?

When I was a teenager, I heard a speaker use an illustration that has stuck with me. He asked, "If I offered you a cookie, would you eat it? What if I told you I put some poop in it?" His analogy alluded to our entertainment choices. The point was poop is still poop even if it's disguised to look delicious.

Later in my twenties, I once discussed entertainment with my father. He wisely questioned why Christians ask how close to the line we can get. If we love our God, wouldn't we want to get as far from the line as possible?

You see, here's what I believe is the hardest thing about entertainment in the life of a follower of Christ--we love it. We are really good at justifying why entertainment that has poop in it is okay. I've often wondered, what if we met Jesus in his physical body and asked, "What must I do to be saved?" And he said, "You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’" And we said, "Yes, I've done those." And Jesus replied, "One thing you lack, stop spending your time on movies and TV and video games and follow me." Ouch. How many of us would honestly be able to leave behind our favorite entertainment for Jesus? The rich young ruler, whom the preceding is based on, was challenged by Jesus to give up what was closest to his heart--his riches. From my observation, entertainment is the dear love of many Christians.
 
So how much poop is too much poop? Well, as we all know, people have different convictions in entertainment. The trouble is, this fact itself is often used as an excuse for eating poop. So, instead of telling you how much is too much, I'll present a good way to evaluate entertainment choices.

I find asking, "Does this entertainment glorify God?" isn't that helpful because we're also really good at justifying how non-poop parts of a pretty poopie entertainment can glorify God. We try to wrestle some redeeming aspect so we can justify our enjoyment.

Here is a more direct question: "What does this entertainment claim is good and right?" What is this entertainment trying to tell me? What does it want me to believe? Sometimes we have to dig to discover the answers to these questions, but most of the time, I find the answers obvious. Entertainment champions ideas. What are those ideas? Once I know what the entertainment is championing, I ask myself if I can champion that as well. If I am a Christian, I ask, "Is this something God champions?" And if it isn't, then why am I trying to get close to the line? Why am I not trying to get as far away as possible?

Some will still defend their entertainment, claiming they are just learning about the world through this particular entertainment. I find this argument fairly weak. People who tend to use this defense usually have no valid explanation of how this entertainment is making them a better witness. They just want an excuse to delve into poop. There may be a select few people out there who need to see various entertainment to interact with unbelievers, but most of us aren't going to have that problem. Your lack of seeing poop isn't going to keep you from sharing the gospel. It's never kept me from witness at all. If I haven't seen something, I say I haven't and the topic of conversation moves on. Not seeing poop is rarely a deterrent to a relationship.

Years ago, I decided that no entertainment was better than Jesus. At the time, I let go a book series I had become obsessed with. I asked God to remove my desire for it, and he did. I have never felt such freedom. Even now, I find the grip of having to see, watch, or play something doesn't hold me. I don't have this obsession to date my TV at the same time every week or get that game the minute it is out. I am not controlled by entertainment. I control my entertainment.

How much poop is too much? I think you already know. I think as you ask yourself the question, the Spirit brings poop to mind. The more vital question then is, "Do you love poop more than Jesus?" And if you don't, then what are you going to do about it?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A New Year

"O Lord,
Length of days does not profit me
   except the days that are passed in thy presence,
   in thy service, to thy glory.
Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides,
   sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour,
that I may not be one moment apart from thee,
but may rely on thy Spirit
   to supply every thought,
   speak in every word,
   direct every step,
   prosper every work,
   build up every mote of faith,
   and give me a desire
      to show forth thy praise;
      testify thy love;
      advance thy kingdom.
I launch my bark upon the unknown waters of this year,
   with thee, O Father, as my harbour,
   thee, O Son, as my helm,
   thee, O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.
Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
   my lamp burning,
   my ear open to thy calls,
   my heart full of love,
   my soul free.
Give me thy grace to sanctify me,
   thy comforts to cheer,
   thy wisdom to teach,
   thy right hand to guide,
   thy counsel to instruct,
   thy law to judge.
   thy presence to stabilise.
May thy fear be my awe,
   thy triumphs my joy."


--"New Year" from The Valley of Vision


Saturday, December 31, 2016

Contemplation at the End of the Year

I plan to take some time to get quiet and contemplate at the end of this year and the beginning of the new one. To that end, here is a puritan prayer to direct hearts and minds to what really matters.

"Year's End" from The Valley of Vision

O Love Beyond Compare,
Thou art good when thou givest,
when thou takest away,
when the sun shines upon me,
when night gathers over me.

Thou hast loved me before the foundation of the world,
and in love didst redeem my soul;
Thou dost love me still,
in spite of my hard heart, ingratitude, distrust.

Thy goodness has been with me another year,
leading me through a twisting wilderness,
in retreat helping me to advance,
when beaten back making sure headway.

Thy goodness will be with me in the year ahead;
I hoist sail and draw up anchor,
With thee as the blessed pilot of my future as of my past.
I bless thee that thou hast veiled my eyes to the waters ahead.

If thou hast appointed storms of tribulation,
thou wilt be with me in them;
If I have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation,
I shall not drown;
If I am to die,
I shall see thy face the sooner;
If a painful end is to be my lot,
grant me grace that my faith fail not;
If I am to be cast aside from the service I love,
I can make no stipulation;
Only glorify thyself in me whether in comfort or trial,
as a chosen vessel meet always for thy use.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Praise and Thanksgiving: Increase My Love


"O MY GOD,
Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,
      my heart admires, adores, loves thee,
  for my little vessel is as full as it can be,
  and I would pour out all that fullness before thee
    in ceaseless flow.
When I think upon and converse with thee
  ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up,
  ten thousand sources of pleasure are unsealed,
  ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart,
  crowding into every moment of happiness.
I bless thee for the soul thou hast created,
  for adorning it, sanctifying it,
    though it is fixed in barren soil;
  for the body thou hast given me,
  for preserving its strength and vigour,
  for providing senses to enjoy delights,
  for the ease and freedom of my limbs,
  for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding;
  for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,
  for a full table and overflowing cup,
  for appetite, taste, sweetness,
  for social joys of relatives and friends,
  for ability to serve others,
  for a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,
  for a mind to care for my fellow-men,
  for opportunities of spreading happiness around,
  for loved ones in the joys of heaven,
  for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly.
I love thee above the powers of language
    to express,
  for what thou art to thy creatures.

Increase my love, O my God, through time
    and eternity."

--From The Valley of Vision

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Christians ARE Pro-Life

I wish secular bloggers and posters, not to mention some Christian ones, would stop listening solely to the mainstream media's version of reality. Mainstream media reports on a small slice of reality pie and it tends to like its slice juicy and messy. Juicy and messy sells. Juicy and messy racks up likes and shares. Juicy and messy riles up and keeps people returning for more. But juicy and messy isn't the whole pie.

It's not uncommon for me to read a comment or post or blog that chastises Christians for "only being pro-life when babies are in the womb." We don't care about people when they aren't in the womb, I'm told. We don't care about unwed mothers. We don't care about the poor. We don't care about the marginalized. Is this true?

Here's the thing. People who claim the Christian faith (some of them probably really are of the faith, some of them probably aren't) and who do or say awful things, they are the juicy and messy slice the media loves. They are encouraged to spout and rage to bring in the masses to a journalist's news source. We humans tend to love bad news. We love gossip. We love hate. We love grumbling. We love pain. And we especially love pointing fingers at others so we can forget about our own failings.

I have never been interviewed by the media. No one puts a mic to my lips when I donate boxes of baby clothes to a crisis pregnancy center. No one walks beside me to ask why I am on a Hike for Life raising money for women with unplanned pregnancies. No one stands outside the food bank I stepped into to deliver toothbrushes, shampoo, canned goods, ready meals, and asks for an interview when I emerge. And no one gives me a pat on the back and a "let me report this" when I give my life to the two little souls in my personal care who need me pretty much every hour of the day. The media doesn't get juicy from little, insignificant me.

Most Christians are like me. Everyone I know serves others in some capacity. Some work at crisis pregnancy centers. Some adopt orphans. Some raise money for organizations and resources to help unwed moms. Some have put their heart and souls into ministries who help the marginalized, refugees, sex trafficked women and girls. Some go overseas, short term or long term, aiding the poor and needy around the world. Some serve in the local community, taking meals to the elderly, helping children who need school supplies and after school care. Some use their skills as doctors or carpenters or electricians to care and build and aid. Some look for those that need help around them and lend their hearts and hands. And some like me who have their hands and lives full to the brim with the children in their care find ways to help the wider world as best they can and long for a time they'll have more margin to do even more.

What's the truth? The truth is most Christians are pro-life. We're not going to be lauded. We're not going to be interviewed by the media. We're the part of the pie they don't have much interest in. Once in a blue moon, they might care. But most of the time, this just won't be the case. So bloggers and posters and commenters, please stop saying Christians aren't pro-life unless you are in a womb. It just isn't true. And Christian, you keep doing what you are doing. Be God's hands in a needy world. Fix your eyes on your Savior. Remember that even though your part of the pie isn't lauded, you are seen and known by the one who truly matters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

It's Either All About Grace or It Isn't

Much of the church these days proclaims that God is a God of grace, that the church should be about grace, that grace is a message needed in a dying world. I've heard a lot of sermons and read a lot of articles about accepting the downtrodden, opening our church buildings to anyone, being the hands of Jesus to the sinner, showing people a God who hasn't written them off. Trouble is, I don't think we really believe this. At least, we often don't act like it.

We are human and our sinful humanity unfortunately means that the concept of mercy and grace run right up against our sin. We easily expect mercy and grace for ourselves, but we have a hard time giving it to people who have hurt us, people who are against us, people we don't like. We often operate under a double standard where I get grace, but you don't.

I think the reason grace is hard for us is because we think giving people grace is excusing sin. But that's not true. Grace doesn't excuse sin. Let me say that again: Grace doesn't excuse sin. Grace takes care of sin. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Christ died to get rid of sin. His grace wipes sin away. To give grace is not to say that someone's sin didn't matter. It mattered a whole lot--our Savior died to take care of it.

God's grace does not excuse sin, but a lot of people we meet haven't been saved. They aren't under God's grace as far as Jesus' sacrifice. Does grace apply to them? "[God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). All throughout the Bible there is a focus on God's desire for people to be saved and God draws his people into this desire by commissioning us to speak his truth about grace. Verse after verse speaks of Christians denying themselves for the good of the unsaved. Jesus modeled his love for the unsaved, eating with those despised. Think of the worst person you can, then think of Jesus sitting and eating with this person. Through this image we get a sense of what it truly means to be the hands of Jesus in a fallen world.

The truth is, there are a bunch of people we personally know and even those we have never met that we despise and we don't want love or grace extended to them ever. And we certainly don't want to be the conduit of love and the mouth that speaks grace. There's an entire book written about a man just like this. His name was Jonah and he was called to go to a people he hated and had no desire for their salvation. He tried to flee and got swallowed by a fish, then spit out. He agreed to go. He proclaimed the need for repentance and the people he despised repented. And Jonah got mad. He grumbled and complained. He was more concerned about a plant to shade him than a people's destruction: "Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:2-3). But God responded: "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?" (Jonah 4:10).

People on this earth face consequences for sin. Sometimes they are spared those consequences, sometimes not. Regardless, Christians are called to be people of love and grace and truth. We speak truth about sin, but we also extend grace. We show people that God hasn't written them off. We aren't called to go around making sure people repay their debts to us and God (Matthew 18:21-35). We are called to extend the same forgiveness that has been given us to others (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).

Grace is hard. Mercy is hard. Ultimate mercy and grace took the death of a sinless God-man. They don't excuse sin; they acknowledge it and take care of it. They reach a hand down to sinful man and whisper, "God is still here. God sees you in all your ugliness and he still opens his arms. Come, let him enter in." If people are to hear this message from us, then we must guard our hearts and minds and mouths. We must remember what God was willing to give those we consider the most despicable, indeed, even us in our most despicable. If it's all about grace, we have no other option.