Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What Color Is Jesus?

"For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only son
that whoever believes in him should not perish
but have eternal life."
John 3:16

One of my favorite Christmas songs is rarely heard these days, but I have always been touched by its meaning, and I'm afraid it isn't PC. Today's culture in America is hyper aware of the differences between races and colors of people. There are some valid reasons for this. At the same time, it seems we are so focused on differences that we often forget vital similarities.

In the Christian realm, especially at Christmas and Easter, we hear complaints that Jesus shouldn't ever be portrayed as white. To be more specific, as a Western European looking Jesus. Culturally and racially, Jesus was a middle eastern Jew. He probably had dark hair and brown eyes and skin tanned and roughened from work and exposure to the elements. But you know what? It doesn't bother me if artists depict Jesus as Western European.

That last statement will come as a shock to some people. Our culture has trained us to be upset about saying things like that. I'd like to explain why it doesn't bother me, and I'd like to do it by using that favorite song I mentioned in the first paragraph.

The song is an old one called "Some Children See Him," and its lyrics are as follows:

Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus' face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
'Tis love that's born tonight!

The point of this beautiful song is that children all over the world see Jesus as they are. He is like them, but even more. He reaches out to them with his heavenly grace. Jesus, the song asserts, is love for us all.

That's why I don't mind art that presents Jesus in different hues. My favorite Christian artist is Indian. In all his paintings the people look Indian, and this is no surprise considering he himself is Indian and draws upon his culture in his paintings. And yet, his imagery and symbolism is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he depicts the figures as Indian does not take away the truths inherent. To me, it adds to them. Jesus is for Indians as much as he is for anyone.

I have several Chinese paper cuts from when I lived in China that represent various Bible stories. In all of them, Jesus looks Chinese. Does this bother me? No, because once again it is an expression of Jesus as born for all, saving all.

I adore expressions of Jesus from various cultures, including Western Europe, because Jesus is not owned by one culture. Jesus came for everyone. "Some Children See Him" expresses this truth beautifully. It's love that's born tonight, love for every race and every culture, and no matter how we see Jesus in our minds, he is born for us.

Jesus looked like a middle eastern Jew, and we can guess at specifics, but in truth, the Bible doesn't reveal anything about Jesus' physical attributes while he dwelt among us in the first century AD. On the other hand, we are given a description of Jesus when he appeared to the disciple John in a vision:

"[I]n the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength." Revelation 1:13-16

It is interesting to me that some get upset about the depiction of Jesus when Jesus clearly is going to return his own unique brand of color. He will be the perfection of man and the power of the divine in one. We will bow before him, awed by our Savior in all his might and glory. He will not be defined by one culture or race. He will be salvation and love for every man.

And for this reason, when it comes to Christmas, when it comes to Jesus, I appreciate Jesus in all colors and races. It reminds me of the truth: Jesus is not reserved for one nation or people, but is available to the entire world if they would hear his voice and follow him. And that brings me the greatest joy this time of year and always!

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