Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Donald Sterling, Hate, and the Hypocrisy of Liberals

Donald Sterling
The National Basketball Association issued a lifetime ban against Donald Sterling for the racist comments the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers made to his girlfriend. In addition, the National Basketball Association fined Donald Sterling 2.5 million dollars (the maximum possible fine), and is encouraging other NBA owners to vote to remove Donald Sterling as the owner of the Clippers. The punishment is appropriate. The moral outrage expressed by the NBA front office, the NBA players, and others across the nation is admirable.

I have a question. How would Americans feel if the remarks of Donald Sterling to his girlfriend revolved around his hatred of Christians and her association with Christianity? Brendan Eich, CEO of Mozilla, was recently removed from his corporate position because of his Christian beliefs. The leftists in American culture despise Christians, similar to the way Donald Sterling despises blacks. Brendan Eich of Mozilla believes marriage should be defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, and liberals treated Eich in a similar manner to the way Donald Sterling treated Magic Johnson. They sought to keep Brendan Eich out of the arena of business like Donald Sterling sought to keep blacks out of his basketball arena. Slate Magazine writes that liberalism has become the new Moral Majority. I would say it even stronger: Some liberals have become the new racists.

Don't believe me?  Read the following bone-chilling conversation. I have taken the actual transcript of the conversation between Clipper's owner Donald Sterling and his girlfriend and placed the words "Christian," or "belief in the Bible," or "Christianity" or "faith in Jesus and His Word" in the place of the owner's racist words.

While we applaud the NBA for their strong stand against racial prejudice, we should be ashamed for our silence at the liberal attack on Brendan Eich. Let's stop the hypocrisy and acknowledge that when Christians who believe the Bible are publicly, vocally and hatefully oppressed (as Brendan Eich was), our country ought to express just as much outrage as we do when we hear the words of Donald Sterling.

Donald's Girlfriend:  - Why are you mad at me? I haven’t done anything wrong. If we ever have any issues it’s because people call you and tell you things about me that are not true.
Donald Sterling: -  Why are you broadcasting that you are a Christian? Why do you take pictures with other Christians and put what you believe on Instagram?
Donald's Girlfriend:  - What’s wrong with Christianity?  What’s wrong with people like me who believe the Bible?
Donald Sterling:  -Nothing (sarcasm). Nothing (sarcasm). It’s like talking to an enemy. There’s nothing wrong with Christians, they’re fabulous! (sarcasm) Fabulous! (sarcasm) Because you’re an enemy to me.

Donald's Girlfriend: - Why?
Donald Sterling:  - Because you don’t understand.
Donald's Girlfriend: - I don’t understand what?  That hating Christ and His Word is still alive?

Donald Sterling: - No, you don’t understand that there’s a culture. People I’m around feel certain things about Christianity and those who believe the Bible. Homosexuals feel certain things toward Christians who believe the Bible. Other people I’m around feel negative things toward those who believe the Bible. It’s where our nation has arrived, and it’s not going to change.
Donald's Girlfriend: - But I can’t renounce my faith in Jesus Christ and what the Bible teaches in either my heart or my mind.

Donald Sterling:  - But maybe you should adjust to the world.

Donald's Girlfriend: -  But why? The world doesn’t do anything for me and it’s not the world that makes me happy. It’s my faith in Jesus Christ.
Donald Sterling: You’re right. I don’t want to argue with you. I don’t want to argue.

Donald's Girlfriend:  I can’t renounce Christ or His Word in my heart.
Donald Sterling: Okay. Fine. But I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within that culture. So that’s the way it is. That’s all. I got it. I got the whole message. You must live with your heart. You can’t be flexible. You can’t…

Donald's Girlfriend: - I am flexible. I understand that you were taught to dislike Christianity and that’s the way our culture has gone. And I’m respectful.
Donald Sterling:  - Well why do you have to disrespect the world?

Donald's Girlfriend:  - Whom am I disrespecting?
Donald Sterling:  - The world before you.

Donald's Girlfriend:  - Why am I disrespecting the world?
Donald Sterling: By believing marriage is between a man and a woman and believing that homosexuality, adultery, and other sexual immorality is sin! By being perceived as closed-minded and bigoted by culture and the world. By being a Christian with moral convictions! Is there a benefit to you? Maybe you’re stupid. Maybe you don’t know what people think of you. IT DOES MATTER, YEAH! IT DOES MATTER. STOP IT!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Reason I No Longer Lead People to Intense, Personal Introspection

Every now and then people will ask me "How have you changed over the years?" Usually the question is asked in regard to my ministry or my marriage. People are either curious as to how I've changed or whether I will admit to having changed. I know that I have changed in a variety of ways in both ministry and marriage over the years. What I'd like to focus on in this post is one particular area where I'm radically different in ministry than when I first began in the summer of 1982.

I grew up reading the Puritans. One of my theological mentors, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, believes that any Christian steeped in Puritanism is benefitted. He writes:
"The Puritan is always a crusader. To him Christianity is a fight, a noble crusade, not merely a defensive action against the principalities and powers, but also a challenge to and an assault upon their fortress. … Oh! how far have we wandered from this! ‘Plain living and high thinking’ are no more! The church is no longer distinct from the world, for instead of the church going out into the world we have allowed the world to capture the church from the inside. We nearly all recognize the position. When will we return to Puritanism? Let us be up and clear the brushwood and the thorns that have overgrown the face of our spiritual world"
I used to agree with Lloyd-Jones about the Puritans. I've changed. My esteem of them is lower for a singular reason: I now believe the Puritanical emphasis on personal introspection to discover inward or hidden sin does more damage than good.

The Puritans were constantly examining their lives, particularly their hidden thoughts and intentions, to see evidence of genuine salvation. The Puritans knew that people could "seem" to live good lives, but might be actually lost and in need of salvation. Their promotion of an intense inward analysis to see if they were 'in the faith' ultimately does damage to genuine faith.

Here's why. We are all sinners (Romans 6:23). God loves sinners (Romans 5:8). Christ saves sinners (I Timothy 1:15). Here's the kicker: When we come to faith in Christ, God sees no sin in His people (Numbers 23:21). That doesn't mean He doesn't know we have sin, for we do and He knows it, for God knows all things. Nor does it mean He doesn't disciple us when we are in sin, for He loves us and separates us from sin for our own good (Hebrews 12:11). When we say "God sees no sin in His people," we mean that judicially God sees the righteousness of His Son in us, and He never punishes us for our sin because Christ atoned for them (II Corinthians 5:21).  Therefore, if God sees us as righteous, then it is worthless to constantly introspect ourselves to find 'hidden sin.' It's always there. We know it. He knows it. He's dealt with it. Turn your eyes toward HIM.

Here's how the New Testament puts it: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

You become what you behold.

God encourages you to take your eyes off of yourself and look to Him. Instead of introspection, you are called to Theospection. Look to God, and not yourself. Take for granted that your motives, your agenda, your thoughts, and your inner life will never be completely free from selfishness and sin. Behold the glory and grace of God in Jesus Christ for sinners and be transformed into His image by beholding Him! In other words, the more you behold His love for sinners, the more you begin to love people who've wronged you; the more you behold His grace and mercy toward sinners, the more you begin to give grace and mercy to those who fail you; the more you behold His incredible, sustaining affection for you, the more you find your heart warmed for people.

The good news is about Him, not you. Growing in grace and the knowledge thereof (true spiritual growth) is only accomplished by taking for granted that you are a sinner and will never be completely free from sin until heaven, and accept it. Then you allow yourself to be ravished by the unconditional love and immeasurable grace of God for you in Jesus Christ!

That's how I've changed in ministry. I no longer have any desire to lead anyone into intense introspection because there is no ultimate good in beholding an image of sinful self, but there is an immeasurable good in beholding the glory and grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Bloomberg Effect and Christ's Resurrection

The New York Times interviewed former New York City mayor and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg this week about his increasing efforts to spread gun control laws throughout the United States. The interview was remarkable on several fronts, but what struck me most was how it ended. Bloomberg, 72 years old and facing his own mortality, became quite candid regarding heaven and the after life. Here's how reporter Jeremy Peters recounts the interview with Bloomberg and the billionaire's thoughts on meeting God at the time of his death:
"Mr. Bloomberg was introspective as he spoke, and seemed both restless and wistful. When he sat down for the interview, it was a few days before his 50th college reunion. His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. And he admitted he was a bit taken aback by how many of his former classmates had been appearing in the “in memoriam” pages of his school newsletter.
But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: 'I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.'"
 Bloomberg may be in the top 1/10 of 1% when it comes to income, but he's definitely within a larger percentage of people who believe heaven is earned by one's good deeds in this life. We evangelicals who focus so much on the death of Jesus Christ as 'payment for sins' aren't giving any answers to the questions people like Mr. Bloomberg are asking.

The Bloomberg Effect' happens when a great deal of good is done by people in this life, causing them to think, "For heaven's sake, I've done so much good in this life, there's no way God would keep me out of heaven." As Bloomberg says, "It's not even close!" I am reminded of Shakespeare's "Thou protest too much."

It would seem to me if God represents perfect goodness (and His name God is short for 'GOOD'), then perfect goodness becomes the standard.  I only know one Man who was perfectly good. It is the life of this Man, His death and particularly His resurrection that gives us the answer to the question: "How much is good enough for God?"

A fellow named Paul from Tarsus was a pretty good guy. He was at the top of his class, a Pharisee of the Pharisees (that's like saying, 'the elite of the elite'), a person 'zealous for good works' (i.e. "the Law'), and considered by the people in his day a very, very good man according to the cultural standards of the Jews. Yet, Paul came to discover that what makes a person acceptable to God is the righteousness of another. Paul came to the place in his life where He trusted the life of Jesus Christ.

Jesus alone was the Perfect Man. Jesus lived the life all of us should have lived, He died the death all of us deserve to die, and He rose from the grave with this promise: Trust me and I'll freely give you the blessings of my righteousness (God's favor) and I'll freely take from you the consequences of your sins (God's judgment).

Here's how Paul puts it:
"My faith is in Jesus Christ and I no longer trust any good works of my own derived from my obedience to the Law, for I have a righteousness which is found through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I have this through knowing Him and the power of His resurrection..."  (Philippians 3:9,10).
As we focus on the resurrection this season, it would do us all well to remember that the death of Jesus Christ is not what makes Easter remarkable. It's His resurrection. Everyone dies. Jesus is the first-fruits of all who will be raised to life. If death is the 'wages of sin' (and it is), then life is the effect of resurrection (and it is). To trust in the resurrected Jesus means that God grants you the full effects of Jesus' perfect obedience throughout His life. Only perfect and complete obedience to God brings perfect and complete favor from God. Jesus fulfilled it; we faith it.

I've done some good things in this life. There is, however, no need to recount them near my death. I have a peace which passes all understanding because I know that God's unconditional grace to me, His everlasting favor for me, and His immeasurable mercy toward me are all based on the perfect goodness and righteousness of His Son, whom He gave for me. The perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, and all the favor of God because of it, becomes mine through my faith in Jesus life, death and particularly, His resurrection!

That's the meaning of Easter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Radical Mending of a Relationship Ending

The root word for relationship is 'relate' which means "to narrate."  Pause and think about that for a moment.

I can almost guarantee you that you have never considered the basis for any relationship to be narration or "story." Yet every relationship you have is built on narrative; your story and another person's story. I'll go even further down this road. The measure of your love for another person is seen by your interest in their story. Disconnected people are self-absorbed people. Connected people are more interested in another person's story than they are their own.

Rob Bell says, "It’s easy to take off your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone (i.e. narrating your story), letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes, dreams… that is being naked.” Rob Bell is right, but I propose that in our culture of selfies, self absorption, and self-adulation there is a greater shortage of people who accept another person's narrative without demanding acceptance of their own.

The number one reason relationships fall apart is due to disagreement over narratives. There arises a refusal to accept another person's story. To put it simply: Relationships fracture because the 'relate' in relationship is rejected.

When you learn the importance of narrative in relationship, you can then implement certain practices that communicate love to those relating to you. Let me explain.

Recently, a woman in our church narrated to me her offense. Ten years ago her son was being released from federal prison. Near the time of his release,  she handed to me a letter from her son requesting that I help him by recommending to him a church similar to Emmanuel in the metropolitan city where he would be living. She told me, "You never responded to my son. He never heard back from you." I asked if she brought the letter to my office, and she said, "No, I handed it to you as you greeted people before the service, and I saw you slip it into your Bible." I could tell she was deeply hurt.

I had no recollection of ever receiving the letter. As any pastor knows, things handed to you prior to a worship service have a way of being misplaced or accidentally thrown away. It's my usual custom to respond immediately to specific requests for information, knowing that a delay in response risks me forgetting to respond. However, that's my narrative, not hers. Her story was one of hurt. How do you mend hurts that arise in relationship?

(1). Listen with compassion to the narrator.

When someone is narrating a story (i.e. putting the  'relate' in relationship), the worst thing you can do is interrupt, correct, defend, or shut down. Why is that the 'worst' thing you can do? Because you are saying to the person, "I don't care about your story!" Or, to be more blunt, "I don't want  relate-ion-ship with you."

(2). Affirm and accept the feelings of the narrator.

Phrases like, "I hear you," or "If I were in your shoes, I would feel the same way," or "Thank you for telling me how much you are hurting. I know that wasn't easy" are ways you communicate love. When we affirm and accept the feelings of the narrator, we are loving a person the way Jesus loves us. God doesn't love us when we 'feel' right. He loves us because we feel.

(3). Own your part in the narrative and seek forgiveness.

Take ownership of what the narrator says you have done. In  my case, I said, "I have wronged both you and your son. I ask you to forgive me." When someone is telling their story, there is no need to defend yourself or articulate your story.  What another person thinks becomes their reality. In this woman's mind, I did not function well as a pastor. That's her reality. That's truth as she sees it. I own her story because my life is never defined by another person's truth or reality. This is important. I find that those who are insecure in who God has made them in Christ find it difficult to apologize and seek forgiveness. Performance oriented people can never acknowledge failure. People who know their true identity and that all the blessings, approval and favor of God are independent of personal performance can freely acknowledge personal failure.

(4). Feel free to express what you feel within and gently resist the crossing  of internal boundaries.

There is a very subtle difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones. In healthy relationships nobody presumes to know what the other person thinks or feels. In dysfunctional or unhealthy relationships, people assume they know the feelings within others, frequently assign motives for the actions of others, and intentionally cross the internal boundaries of others.

It is appropriate in healthy relationships to communicate what you are actually thinking and feeling, and gently resist allowing another person to cross internal boundaries by speaking for you because they don't know what is going inside you. I said to the woman offended, "I normally am diligent in responding to requests, and my non-response to you and your son was not intentional. However, the pain I've caused you both by my actions is very real."

The woman expressed her forgiveness of me, and the next Sunday she came with her husband and greeted me with a big smile. Relationship had been restored because her 'relating' (narrative) was accepted.  I think this story illustrates how the word 'relate' in relationship is so powerful.

Though I've given you an illustration from a relationship that is not as close as a marital, familial or intimate friendship relationship, the same principles would apply to those forms of relationship as well. In fact, implementing these principles might very well save a very important relationship teetering on the verge of collapse.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Frozen and Let It Go: The Gospel for Little Feet

"Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps."
Hans Christian Andersen's request for the music to be played at his funeral.  
(Source: Bryant, Mark: Private Lives, 2001, p.12).
Frozen is a world wide sensation. Disney released the 102 minute computer animated musical last Thanksgiving (2013). The movie is now the top-grossing animated film of all time, exceeding one billion dollars at the box office. The film's mega-popular theme song Let It Go is an instant classic. The film's version of the song, sung by Idina Menzel, won an Academy Award.  Disney's official single release of Let It Go, sung by Demi Lovato, has been played nearly 150 million times on YouTube, and is America's ubiquitous song for 2014. The song's popularity has led to sparring between fans of the two artists who sing it and to the creation of some hilarious on-line parodies from people who've had enough of Let It Go. There are nine other songs from the movie's award winning official sound track, making a total of ten original songs from Frozen now being sung by kids all over the world. A quarter of a century from now,  our grandkids will be singing songs from Frozen, just like we still sing songs from Disney's renaissance period twenty-five years ago. No way around it; Frozen is here to stay. To me, that's a good thing.
In this day of Christian themed movies, I propose that Disney's Frozen is the most gospel oriented movie of them all. Few Americans realize that the  movie is based on Hans Christian Andersen's short story The Snow Queen. In fact, the movie Frozen was originally titled The Snow Queen, and even retains the original title in foreign countries. Hans Christian Andersen's purpose in writing The Snow Queen, published during the week of Christmas in the year 1844, is seen in the poetry at the beginning of his story, where Andersen describes the reason for warmth in this world:  

'Where roses deck the flowery vale,
There, Infant Jesus, we thee hail!'

The Snow Queen is a story that represents the truth of Jesus Christ and His transformative power to change lives, giving warmth to cold hearts. There is a darkness to Andersen's Snow Queen, yet the theme is one of redemptive hope. The heroine of the story is a girl who must rescue a neighbor boy from the Snow Queen's curse. He's been caught by the Queen's spell, held captive in her palace, and cursed with a cold heart. As the heroine approaches the Snow Queen's palace to rescue her friend, she cites the Lord's Prayer, allowing her entrance into the place of evil. Ultimately, the heroine's love for her friend, a love seen through her selfless sacrifice, breaks the spell of his cold heart. Warmth floods into him. The love of another awakens love within.
In Andersen's story, there remains the possibility that the Snow Queen will reappear with all her powers in tact, so the boy and girl must return home, but they leave the palace grounds knowing that if the curse of winter ever surrounds them, the effect of winter will never be in them. They have experienced love. Author Hans Christian Andersen knew the true meaning of Christmas is seen in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ in coming to die for others, a message when properly apprehended drives selfishness from the coldest heart. Andersen wrote The Snow Queen to present the gospel in a creative fashion, similar to the manner C.S. Lewis would later use when writing his colorful fantasies.  The second (and last) poem in Andersen's The Snow Queen refers to the power of overcoming a cold, dark world through apprehending the good news of Christ's first advent. Even when the world around us is captured by the Snow Queen, the light of God's love within us remains bright. Anderson writes:

Roses bloom and cease to be,
But we shall the Christ-child see.”

Hans Christian Andersen closes The Snow Queen with the heroine and her neighbor friend returning home under the realization that they have changed. They are filled with love, having themselves been transformed by love. Though they delight to see it is now summertime when they return home, they are no longer afraid of the coming winter and the curse of coldness. They "Let Go" of their fears, having experienced the power and warmth of  sacrificial love, and they are now ready to love others in the same manner they have been loved. Andersen's The Snow Queen closes with the grandmother reading the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:
"Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3).
The meaning of Andersen's Snow Queen is clear. There is power in sacrificial love. No greater love exists than Christ's love in laying His life down for the world. The evidence that we belong to Him is our selfless love of others, loving people as He loves us. Jesus Christ came to earth to set us free from the curse of a cold heart. The Snow Queen hopes to curse our hearts with perpetual coldness, but sacrificial love breaks that curse. C.S. Lewis would later base his White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on Anderson's Snow Queen.

When you see the movie Frozen, it will be evident that the movie's script writers have taken a few liberties with Andersen's original fairy tale. Here are just a few examples:
  1. The movie Frozen shows the Queen's heart melting rather than the boy's heart melting as in Andersen's The Snow Queen.
  2. The movie Frozen makes the heroine and the Queen sisters, but the two have no relation in Andersen's The Snow Queen.
  3. The movie Frozen turns the heroine into a princess in love with a prince, but she is just a poor girl with a heart of love for a neighbor boy in Andersen's The Snow Queen.
  4. The movie Frozen redeems the Snow Queen while Andersen's fairy tale ends with the Snow Queen remaining in a perpetual state of cold (i.e. 'the epitome of evil'). 

Even with these differences, Frozen succeeds in presenting the good news of Jesus Christ, maybe even better than Andersen's original story. Frozen is true to its source and remains a story of redemption. Pastor Samuel Shuldheisz points out that just as Anna (the heroine in Frozen) places her frozen body between her sister (the Snow Queen, with a cold heart) and the one who would harm her (the Prince), so too:
"Christ placed his dying body - full of the curse of our sin - between us and the grave. An act of true love for he is Love incarnate. Self-giving, self-sacrificing love. He placed all others before himself. And then He was placed into our tomb, dead and buried. But He (like Anna) didn't stay there. He arose. He is risen. Summer is near. The curse is gone. Sin's frozen gloom over us is melted. Death's cold, icy grip on us is shattered by the warmth of resurrected light. The love we lack is given to us by another, by Christ's perfect act of true love on the cross. Love and Sacrifice."
Anna's sacrificial love melted the heart of her sister. That's the Christian message. A few Christians have alleged the movie makes a veiled attempt at promoting gay-rights.  Others argue that Disney's portrayal is too far removed from Andersen's Snow Queen to find any gospel in it. I'm in neither of those camps. I believe Frozen may be the best Christian themed film since The Chronicles of Narnia. Frozen presents the power of love to transform cold, lifeless hearts.

Of course I understand that the script writers, song composers, and directors of Disney's Frozen were not fully aware of the gospel theme in Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Yet, the very fact the movie stays true to Anderson's theme of redemption means the film represents the message of the gospel. For Jesus said to His disciples:

"A new command I give you; that you love one another, even as I have loved you" (John 13:34), and
"By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love on for another" (John 13:35).

Hans Christian Andersen wanted the music at his funeral "to keep time with little steps" because most of the people who would "walk after" him would be little children. Parents, next time you hear your kids sing the music from the film Frozen, take the opportunity to explain to them who Jesus Christ is and what He has done. The only way to  'Let Go' of fear, greed, and what others think of you is to be so filled with the love of God in Christ that you can't help but live your life loving others in the same manner God loves you!

It's that kind of love that melts the Frozen heart.