Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah - a shocking truth amidst the lies

Like many I went off to see the movie Noah fully expecting to witness a rich and much loved biblical narrative get massacred by Hollywood... And I got what I expected! Artistic license was taken in many places in an attempt to stretch a story that can be read in 5 minutes into a 2 hour blockbuster. The familiar Genesis account was padded out with fallen angels destined to roam the earth as rock monsters, jealous and aggressive descendant of Cain neighbours launching an attack to take the Ark, the absence of wives for Noah ' sons and a hermit-like miracle working Methuselah.

But possibly the most worrying abuse of the story was the portrayal of God as a generic "Creator" who was seemingly cold, absent and indifferent to his creation, the people of the earth, the fallen rock angels and even the tormented Noah himself. While the biblical flood narrative vividly presents the judgment of God, the personal relationship the God of the Bible has with Noah balances His just anger at the sin of the world with the love, grace and mercy by which He saves Noah and His family... Something the generic creator in the movie just didn't have.

However, while much damage was done to the biblical narrative there was one shocking truth that jumped up and slapped the audience in the face - a truth that is rarely depicted on the big screen. I think the thing that will surprise the average movie goer the most about the movie is Noah's psychological, emotional and spiritual deterioration throughout the film. Far from the smiling bearded old dude with rosy cheeks on the pages of your children's bible story book, Noah is a tormented soul who spends much of the second half of the movie wrestling with the implications of the task God had called him to complete. It is in this wrestle that the shocking truth is revealed.

Noah cannot reconcile how he can truly cleanse the world of sin. He has a disturbing vision of the sinfulness of humanity in which he comes face to face with himself being just as much a part of the problem as the evil descendants of Cain. This leaves him convinced that the world cannot be cleansed completely if he and his family were to be a part of it. And so Noah battles internally with what it means to be the savior of the world. In his human mind he sees no way to cleanse the earth unless he lets his family die without descendants so that the cause of sin would be stamped out forever. Shockingly for Noah this means contemplating murdering his own grandchildren - a far cry from Sunday School stories indeed.

I think it is fair to say that this runs in direct contradiction to the overwhelming majority of stories told in our culture. The stories we are used to have a problem which is external to the hero and a solution that is within. We love to hear stories about heroes thrust into a seemingly insurmountable situations until they search within themselves to find the courage, skill or teamwork needed to overcome. We love these stories because they tap into our ego and encourage us to think optimistically about our capacity as women and men to free ourselves from whatever comes against us. But in the Noah movie we see that the problem isn't external to humanity but is actually deep within humanity. So ingrained within humanity is this problem that even the one portrayed as the best of humanity, Noah, acknowledged that he was part of the problem rather that the solution.

I don't think our optimistic humanistic western civilisation needed the Noah movie's portray of a cold and distant God... But I think perhaps we do need its portrayal of a weak, broken and ultimately evil humanity. Even writing these words seems shocking to me, but we cannot escape the truth. As Noah tells his family of the sinfulness of humanity we see silhouette after silhouette of civilisation after civilisation full of murderous intent with increasing ferocity. As the story of human failure unfolded you could almost sense the discomfort of the audience as we were confronted with a reality we are rarely faced with - we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The dilemma that virtually drove Noah insane was trying reconcile how he could cleanse the earth of sin and save his family at the same time. He was placed in the unenviable position of knowing that if he saved his family their sinfulness would again spread across the earth, but if he acted to cleanse the earth he would lose his family. Noah resolves to forsake his family in order to cleanse the world of sin. A decision that tears his heart out as Mrs Noah declares the cost would be Noah "dying alone hated by everyone he ever loved" (not exact quote but close enough).

I guess the question that the movie should leave audiences asking is: how can this world be cleansed without cleansing it of its biggest problem... Us?

The answer to this culturally inconvenient question lies not with a man like Noah but in One who came long after him. One who when faced with the dilemma of justice versus mercy embraced the cost of being the true Saviour of the world as He died alone and hated by everyone He ever loved. Unlike the God portrayed in the movie, Jesus Christ came as the loving and merciful answer to the hopeless cry of humanity. He absorbed the sin of humanity onto Himself and suffered under its full weight so that he mercy of God could be given to all who would believe. Jesus perfectly resolved Noah's dilemma... He took the just punishment for humanity's sin and yet poured out God's mercy in abundance to save humanity.

The movie Noah will teach you very little about the true God but it will teach something about yourself. It teaches us the shocking truth that we are far more a part of this world's problems than we like to admit. Hopefully this will drive you towards the God of the Bible who is the only One who provides a satisfying answer to this problem - an answer that is not found within us but in the justice and mercy of the cross.

Friday, March 28, 2014

ConSexualisation (Day 2 of City to City Pastors & Planters Conference)

Today Tim Keller dived into what is possibly the most important issue for any Christian ministry; Contextualisation. But he also shared openly with his wife Kathy around the concept of marriage and sexuality in ministry. So in an attempt to merge the two concepts together and give you a
broader picture of what today was all about I am going to apply the contextualisation principles we learned today to marriage or more specifically,  sex,  in order to show how the gospel has the most ultimately fulfilling contribution to make to 21st century sexual ethics.

Contextualisation is basically answering the Christ and culture question: how can the unchanging gospel of Christ be communicated through media that speaks to different cultures without doing damage to the message?

Keller helpfully pointed out that while the gospel is certainly a truth that transcends all cultures, as soon as you choose language and metaphors with which to explain it you have bound it to the culture of your chosen language and images. At the end of the day we can't preach without targeting someone's felt needs or addressing someone's culture; so all gospel ministry involves contextualisation.... The question is really: are we doing it well?

Keller challenged us on our knowledge of the culture in which we are ministering asking if we knew enough about it to discern the questions they were asking and the narrative they were telling. The truth is we are more culturally blind than we know. See at the end of the day contextualisation is not about pandering to a culture or just saying what they want to hear... It is saying what they might not want to hear but using questions they want to hear the answer to... It is discerning the idols of our culture and then showing how the gospel both confronts them and provides greater satisfaction than they ever could.

So let's apply this to sex...

In many ways it is not hard to see the idols of our culture connected to sex. Sex sells... It is an all pervasive driving force in our society and is more readily available than ever before. Everything tells us that sex is a commodity.... and a commodity we must have! It has become one of our greatest hopes for acceptance, significance and happiness. Basically sex has become a consumer good for self fulfillment and our desire for self-fulfillment has driven us to tear down the boundaries and restrictions that were previously placed on sex. There is less taboo surrounding it and more opportunities to consume it leading to a greater perceived freedom concerning it. But I wonder how that is going for us? Has our sacrifice to the sex idol been rewarded with the satisfaction that we were craving?

When you take a step back from things you see that we have more sex but less intimacy and less restrictions but more anxiety. Porn culture has turned sex into a performance where expectations are too lofty to attain. In its wake women are left objectified with unrealistic demands while men are measured and often found wanting. Contrary to our hopes increased sexual liberation has not resulted in increased happiness.

But what if there was a vision for sex that gave true freedom, deep intimacy and unmatched joy? Surely we would long for it to be true. The Bible tells us that sex is designed by God to be an image of the gospel. In the gospel Jesus sacrificed His life to enable us to have a deep and joyous intimacy with God for all eternity. The gospel tells us that sex is not a consumer good for self-satisfaction but a symbol of self-sacrifice... A giving of yourself to created intimacy and joy for the other person. And it tells me that I am so deeply loved and accepted that I do not need sexual gratification to be satisfied, freeing me to love and accept my wife regardless of how sexually active we are.

The gospel also tells us that Jesus did not give us this joy for a temporary time but gave it to us under the protection of a covenant of love; He has promised to never leave or forsake us. Therefore the gospel also informs our understanding of sex by telling us that for our ultimate joy and satisfaction, for the protection of our emotions, that sex is designed to be enjoyed inside a covenant of love where the promise of commitment has been given unto death.

Ultimately the gospel gives us a sexual ethic that is not an oppressive regime of cruel restrictions but a context in which true sexual freedom can flourish without the expectation of performance, the fear of failure or the anxiety of separation. The gospel tells us that knowing the self-giving, covenant-keeping love of Christ is the only way to have a vision of sex that transcends the perils of our culture's sex obsession.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Working hard for the ...? (All things in Jesus' name part 3)

As providence would have it this next post will serve as both the 3rd in a series about honoring Jesus in all things and a wrap of the first day of the City to City Pastors and Planters Conference with Tim Keller.

The overarching theme of Keller ' talks today was for gospel belief to be integrated into all areas of life.  He very eloquently described a problem that exists in almost all sections of the church in the west; the reality that most discipleship prepares Christians for weekends and week nights rather than the other 80% of their existence.  Which I guess is similar in many ways to my previous assertion that while we know we should do everything in the name of Jesus we have rarely been shown how to do this practically.  Last time I shared how we might bring Jesus to bear on our spending... This time I want to do it with our work life.

Amongst other implications Keller shared with us today how gospel renewal will impact how a Christian should view work and since I am sure he has more to offer than me I will use some of his headings to frame my thoughts.

People have varying attitudes to their work.  These views can range from those who simply see work as a means to an ends (where it becomes something that must be endured in order to bring home the bacon) to those who view it as their very identity (it is the thing that gets them out of bed in the morning, the thing that they rest all their hope on, the thing that gives them ultimate satisfaction). The former can lead to boredom, laziness and taking immoral or even dangerous shortcuts as we seek to make the meaningless monotony of our day bearable.  The latter can lead to deception, risk taking and selling others out as we seek to improve our position and therefore enhance our self-worth. Ultimately this leads to anxiety and stress because so much is riding on our performance.

Keller described ways in which the gospel gives us a new vision of our work which can rescue us from both extremes. Bringing Jesus to bear on our work means embracing this gospel-shaped vision of work:
1. The gospel gives our work meaning
Feelings of meaningless abound in the daily grind; as you roll out of bed, drag yourself onto public transport and grit your teeth for another day at the grindstone it is easy to feel as though all your effort is amounting to nothing. But the gospel tells us that God is passionately concerned with our work!  The gospel can give us a vision of our work being used to aid human flourishing that transcends white collar and blue collar divides.  God values all work whether it is viewed as important by our society or not. Practically this means that the work of a gardener is equally valid as a surgeon and the most monotonous task in your day deserves as much of your energy and effort as the most exciting. When the gospel shows us that our work is part of God's great plan to bring completion and justice in this broken world surely we are freed from insignificance and boredom.
2. The gospel gives us a new identity apart from our work
It is so easy for us to define en our lives based on what we do.  After all we spend a significant portion of our lives working and when we meet someone one of the first questions on our lips is "what do you do with yourself". The pressure to succeed and draw significance from our wins in the workplace are ever present. Our parents hassle us to get a good job and our bosses (driven by their own desire to succeed) demand more and more out of us. But serving the idol of work is a futile endeavour indeed, because even though we sacrifice more and more for our jobs we rarely find the satisfaction that we crave. The gospel however, shows us that our identity is not to be found in our work but in the reality of Christ's redeeming sacrifice on our behalf.  When our identity and satisfaction are found in Christ's work we are freed to embrace our work without fear, stress or anxiety.
3. The gospel gives us a moral compass that is objective to our work
Workplace bullying, gossip, questionable business practices and immoral artistic demonstrations are realities in so many of our professions. The temptation to embrace these practices in order to fit it, gain favour, win promotions and succeed financially are huge. But the gospel fills us with God's Spirit which is working to bring truth, neighbour love and godliness into our lives. Paul says that once we are saved the power of sin has been torn down for us, so rebuilding what God destroyed is unthinkable. Knowing the gospel gives us a moral compass outside of our profession that frees us to act I the best interest of love rather than the bottom line.

Ultimately bringing Christ to bear on our work will mean that Jesus will be evident in the way we view our work, our motivation to work and our work ethic. Keller said that it will mean graciously absorbing more pain on the behalf of others than we inflict because that is what Christ did for us at the cross. Surely this will attract those we work with to find this radical gospel vision of work as well.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Put your money where your hope is (All things in Jesus' name - part 2)

In my previous post I raised the reality that while we know we should be honouring Jesus with our whole lives we often struggle to know what this practically means for our lives more than shallow lip-service recognition of Jesus. So my goal in the next few post is to practically examine how to bring Christ to bear on the various contexts in which we live. First up it is how we spend our money:

To be honest Jesus rarely crosses my mind when I tap my credit card across the paywave thingy at the shop… but I don’t think I am the only one! The checkout could be the most spiritually barren place in our society. Deep down inside I reckon we don’t think Jesus belongs in our thoughts while we are spending our money. It might be easy to see Jesus having a place when we are giving at church or donating money to the poor, but when I am doing my groceries or purchasing a new computer or signing up for my next smart phone plan… Jesus all too easily slips off my radar.

How we spend our money is one of those areas we like to keep private. It is impolite to ask people what large (or sometimes even smaller) purchases cost them because we don’t want people passing judgement on our spending habits… depending on who is asking we don’t want people thinking that we are frivolous or tight… because money is what our society values most, when we spend it we are making a value statement. What you spend on your car, wedding, haircut and clothing is viewed as a status symbol, an indication of which level of society you belong to. Furthermore, we view spending what we have earned as a fundamental right… like kids with pocket money we think that if it is ours we are the masters of how it is spent.  In the church we hear a lot of messages on how to give our money but rarely to we hear anything on how to spend our money.  And yet the reality is that all of us will make more purchases than donations, this is the nature of life, so surely we should understand spending as much as we do giving.

Now before you think I am going to suggest that Christians should only buy the essentials or that we should pray and seek God about every purchase, I want to get something clear. I believe that God gives us money to spend; in fact I am not concerned all that much with how much money Christians spend; but what we spend it on. The gospel has given us radical freedom and it extends to how we spend our money. As Christians we need to realise that we don’t have to be slaves to our money like so many people in this world… always having to earn that bit more, save that bit more so you can spend that bit more and be that bit more… comfortable! As a Christian you are completely free to spend your money anyway you want! But the same gospel that frees you from slavery to money binds you to Christ and renews your heart by His Spirit so that what you want should be that which promotes Christ!

So for Jesus to be brought to bear on our spending we must spend in a way that demonstrates our freedom from slavery to our money but at the same time proclaims our allegiance to Christ.  I said at the outset I wanted these posts to be of practical help so I hope the following ideas provide a balance that perhaps is rarely discussed and help us to both spend with gospel freedom and submission to Christ:
  • Spending to share joy with the people around us - Jesus spent His life so that we might experience full and everlasting joy. I believe that we are called to spend the money that God gives us in order to bring joy to the lives of people that we meet. No one likes a scrooge who makes the lives of people around him miserable because he is too tight to enjoy life. Buy flowers for your wife, treat your kids an ice-cream, shout a good friend lunch and take your Dad to the football. Don’t be so bound to scrimping and saving that you rob those around you of joy!
  • Spending our money to help those in desperate need - Jesus' main traction in ministry was among the poor because they were ones who recognised their need for Him.  Helping those in need establishes the kind of just and fair society that God calls us to love and work towards.  It imitates Christ by giving like He gave, to people who are unable to repay us.  And it testifies to the satisfaction that we find in Christ over and above money. When we give to the needy we proclaim the gospel because we are proclaiming the wonder of having Christ as our Lord rather than money.
  • Spending to provide for the people in our families - The Apostle Paul tells us that to forsake the members of our family is to act worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim 5:8). The reason being that God has given us the responsibility of taking care of those in our care, to unnecessarily burden others with our family’s needs is despicable because it crushes our families and burdens those who pick up our slack. Remember even Jesus on the cross cared enough for His mother to entrust her to John as a means of providing for her. 
  • Spending to steward your life well - While the Christ-shaped life will always trend towards self-sacrifice it should never trend towards self-loathing. Spending appropriately on your health, your fitness, your relaxation and enjoyment of life are not frivolous luxuries; they are part of stewarding your life well for God. In Col 2 Paul reminds us that self-loathing and severity to our bodies are not pious acts of worship but enemies of the gospel. Now obviously this can be taken too far and used as justification for selfish spending but the fact remains we have a responsibility to spend what we have been given to steward our bodies well.  
I could go on and mention other ways to spend in the name of Jesus, like spending on gospel ministry, spending to preserve and prolong life or spending on education, but ultimately the key is to let Christ so dominate your thinking that your spending resembles His heart. Don’t spend on harmful and addictive habits, to make a name for yourself or to keep up with the other people in your life. Money is given the highest value in our society. So if we are able to spend our money in such a way that Christ is proclaimed as infinitely more valuable than money and following Him is seen as a way to be liberated from slavery to money, just maybe society will see the value in investigating Him.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I'd like to thank Jesus...

We have all heard preachers, worship leaders and study leaders emphasise that worship is not just a singing thing or a Sunday thing but a whole life thing. In fact from the time I came to faith in Christ 17 years ago I have been constantly warned about becoming a “Sunday Christian”. But as consistent as this teaching has been I don’t recall too many people actually helping me to reconcile what it actually means to worship Jesus with the whole of my life.

I have often been pointed to Colossians 3:17 “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” It is kind of the gold standard of ‘worship with your whole life’ verses… but I wonder if any of us actually know what it means to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus”?

I mean practically what does doing something in the name of Jesus actually look like? I think we all know that it means more than giving lip-service to Jesus. We have all smirked cynically at famous actors, musicians and sports stars who honour Jesus in their acceptance speeches… because deep down we know that simply proclaiming that you are doing something in the name of the Lord Jesus doesn't necessarily mean that Jesus is honoured by your actions.

And yet so often this is the extent of our attempts to worship Jesus in everything... we just tack Jesus' name onto the end of our lifestyle in the hope that it rubber stamps our actions and attitudes.  We say "grace" before meals but rarely give a thought as to whether or not what we are eating... how we are eating... or who we are eating with is actually worshipful.  It is so easy to give Jesus' name lip-service!

We desperately need a practical, real-life understanding of what it means to do everything in the name of Jesus.

Truly honouring Jesus’ name is not simply a matter of treating His name like a fashion accessory to our lives... as if its presence provides some kind of superstitious blessing… a way of guaranteeing God’s favour. Rather, doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus means doing everything in such a way that the person of Jesus is actually brought to bear on your life… doing everything in such a way that Jesus is in some way revealed by our actions and attitudes… when people encounter us they are actually reminded of Jesus..

A sporting star’s sporting achievements are not done in the name of Jesus simply when he or she writes Jesus into their post-match interview… but more so when Jesus is written all over the way they play their sport. In their sacrificial actions, compassionate sportsmanship, humble view of themselves, honesty and integrity with officials and gracious and dignified interaction with their opposition.

So in our quest to worship Jesus with all of our lives the question we need to be asking of ourselves is: how can I bring Jesus to bear on each and every situation I find myself in? Over the next few posts I hope to start a discussion that will practically examine our attitudes towards the different contexts in which we live in the hope that we might be able to exercise, work, manage our finances, get married, study and do everything in the name of Jesus Christ.

Ultimately this is not just about our own worship of God… it is also pivotal to the mission God has called us to. We need to acknowledge that the way we live our lives as Christians must be radically different from others who do not have their hope in Him. The Apostle Peter tells us to always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have… but if our hope looks the same as the rest of the world's... why would anyone ever ask us any questions?