Friday

Will God Forgive?

My husband and I watched two different movies this weekend: "Man on Fire" with Denzel Washington and "Blood Diamond" with Leonardo DiCaprio. Both movies were about men who held unusual occupations. In "Man on Fire" Denzel Washington was a trained killer, broken down by memories from his life choices, and in "Blood Diamond" Leonardo DiCaprio was a diamond smuggler in Africa.

Two characters, two different movies, two different production companies; however, in both movies the main character asked the same question:

"Do you think that God will forgive us for what we have done?"

While watching each movie I observed that the main characters desperately wanted that forgiveness—especially Denzel Washington’s character. And even though his counterpart told him "No" (God will not forgive us), I noticed that the writers wove in a path back to life for each character. The paths were unusual, winding through the love of a child for Washington and in a female journalist for DiCaprio. But both plots showed evidence that the writers envision God as someone who forgives and as someone who gives second chances. Each character was also realistically presented with choices about accepting the path presented to them.

(As a side note, one thing I liked about "Blood Diamond" was that although the relationship between DiCaprio and the female journalist (played by Jennifer Connelly) alluded to a future the couple never slept together. The writers were more concerned about DiCaprio’s character doing what was right than in trying to lure in their audience with a bedroom scene.)

I consider what we see in most of the media a barometer. This barometer tells about public opinion, but also tests society’s feelings on matters and can eventually sway public opinion over time. Observing this question in both movies made me wonder if many in our society are desperately seeking forgiveness but feel like God will not forgive them for what they have done. It made me wonder if God is trying to reach out to us through these writers and actors (whether they know it or not). Perhaps God is using media to call us to him. Perhaps he is showing us to look for him in the good things that happen in our lives.

So, let's go back to the question. Does God does forgive?

Yes, I believe he does. But I am not just pulling this belief out of an obscure orifice. There are many verses in Scripture to back up my point. My favorite is I John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." In other words, if we tell God about our sins he will forgive us and make us clean inside. Acts 3: 19 says: Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…" To repent means to go the other way. In order to do that you have to be sorry for what you have done. By confessing and repenting we tell God that we want him to come into our lives. It is then that the "times of refreshing" will come.

Okay, so what are "times of refreshing"? Have you ever been working outside when it is really hot and you are sweating like a pig? After that a cool shower and maybe a glass of iced tea make you feel human again. You are refreshed. When God forgives you that is what it can feel like. You feel good again, relaxed. You don’t have to work for God’s approval because God forgives us whether we deserve it or not. That is called grace.

In "Man on Fire," Washington’s "time of refreshing" came as he opened up to the little girl and helped her meet a personal goal. He quit drinking and fell back on his faith in God. His personal torment seemed to have dissipated. He was a man at peace with himself and the world around him. And then, when the difficult times came his decisions were based on his love for the girl rather than himself. DiCaprio’s time was short lived, but through the plot he learned to have concern for others rather than himself. And isn’t that one of the keys toward a good life?

I don’t want to give away any more of the movie for those who haven’t seen it. But both are flicks worth seeing. Yes, there is violence and language, and I wouldn’t recommend them for children, but the theological implications are too great to ignore.

Will God forgive? Yes.

Can you experience this? Yes. Just ask God for forgiveness, be truly sorry for your sins, and believe that God hears and that times of refreshing will come.

Tuesday

Ms. Spelling's New Vocation

Someone forwarded a story to me about the actress Tori Spelling, who recently performed a wedding ceremony at her Bed & Breakfast. "Is she a minister?" I asked. Through further investigation, I found that Ms. Spelling had received her official ordination online through the Universal Life Church Monastery (ULC). I had never heard of this denomination so I googled and found 635,000 hits. The first few pages I googled through did not contain any negative press so I went into the monastery's website. I also visited their sermon website. Here are a few quotes that stood out:
"We make no religious hurdles, no hoops to jump through, no tests of loyalty, no rings to kiss and no fees to pay. Why? The ULC Monastery represents freedom, and to have freedom you cannot make demands upon individuals."
"We strongly believe in the rights of all people to practice their beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others and are within the law."
"Over the years, the Universal Life Church has gotten a bad reputation among members of some religious organizations because of the fact that we will, as a matter of preventing the trend of eroding religious civil rights, ordain persons who are totally non-religious or even anti-religious. We are looking to change negative perceptions while still encouraging people to never be afraid to truly state their religious beliefs, even if the only thing that a person can say is that he or she does not have any beliefs."
"Every religion requires its adherents to believe something, anything, but something that is against the rational mind. In Christianity there are several examples, but it is true with every religion. Christianity's tenets that defy reality are (to name a few) walking on water, parting the waters, raising the dead. All beliefs require one to declare belief in something unreal. To believe it does not make it real, but it commands the mind to sway anything to the contrary out of the mind's view. That is dangerous. Only by commanding the mind to disavow reality is the "belief system" able to work its way. One unreality makes room for another. Another is required to be believed to support the first and so on it goes. This is what becomes dangerous in all belief systems."
"You cannot get what you want, until the things you need are taken care of. That is the key, that is the solution that is the explanation of the ULC Freedom, Food and Sex position of life's Trinity. Unless you fulfill those NEEDS, you cannot possibly get what you want. Everything your mind dwells upon will be one of more of those three aspects. Those three come first, not in any special order, but those three must be met first. Then you are free to seek all your other wants. The reality is that whatever those extra wants will be, will be those three again."
The church also offers absolution from sin, if that is within your belief system.
Whew!
Let's look at each of these selected comments.
"To have freedom you cannot make demands upon individuals." My question is, freedom for what? Everything that I enjoy here in this country is the result of men and women who gave their lives so that I might be free. You could say that these individuals did this willingly so no demands were placed upon them, but I disagree. Many of our GI's were drafted, but went with the program anyway. They did not take off to Canada because they were afraid. Also, spiritual freedom is not without cost. Jesus died for our sins and many Christians and Jews also gave their lives for what they believed. Why can we not make demands upon individuals? What is wrong with asking people to live by a higher standard for the good of others?
"We strongly believe in the rights of all people to practice their beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others and are within the law." This is a high ideal and one that will not be accomplished by human effort. Look at the news. We just don't get along that well! In the meanwhile, what do we do? We may believe in the rights of all people, etc etc, but what do we hang onto until that State of Perfection has been achieved?
"Christianity's tenets that defy reality are (to name a few) walking on water, parting the waters, raising the dead. All beliefs require one to declare belief in something unreal. To believe it does not make it real, but it commands the mind to sway anything to the contrary out of the mind's view. That is dangerous." After reading this I was surprised to find that the ULC Seminary offers courses in demonic exorcism and in miracles. Are they stating that demons exist? That they are real? Are they stating that miracles occur? That they are real? If not why do they offer courses in these things? This also reminds me of folks who say that Jesus was a good moral teacher but nothing else. In the Gospels, however, we find several instances where Jesus himself claims that he is God. How can a great moral teacher say this without being either the world's biggest liar or absolutely correct? By offering these courses and also stating that Christianity (as well as other religions) asks its followers to believe irrational thoughts, the Monastery is contradicting itself. There is also the issue of payment. These courses cost money and the Bible makes it clear that God's gifts cannot be bought. Check out Acts 8: 1-25.
"You cannot get what you want, until the things you need are taken care of. That is the key, that is the solution that is the explanation of the ULC Freedom, Food and Sex position of life's Trinity. Unless you fulfill those NEEDS, you cannot possibly get what you want. Everything your mind dwells upon will be one of more of those three aspects. Those three come first, not in any special order, but those three must be met first. Then you are free to seek all your other wants. The reality is that whatever those extra wants will be, will be those three again." This position explains the Monastery's goal in a nutshell: Take care of yourself. You are the center of your universe. You are the only one who matters. The Monastery calls its followers to be completely self-centered. Sure they say not to infringe on the rights of others but how will anyone think about others if he or she is so busy pursuing and constantly thinking about Freedom, Food and Sex? I'm sorry, but I know many people who think and are motivated by many issues besides this "trinity".
"The church also offers absolution from sin, if that is within your belief system." So this allows me to rationalize my behavior and decide what deeds should just be ignored and which deeds really need God's absolution. If I am calling the shots, why do I need God to forgive me? Why would I ever need to apologize to someone else?
All in all, this church does not give humanity the benefit of the doubt. Many, many people are capable of denying their wants so that others may have what they need (think of any good mom or dad!). Jesus is the ultimate example of this.
I also find that by ordaining men and women before they receive education, the monastery does not take the ministry seriously. Would you go to a counselor for help with a deep issue before that person had gone through the required education? It's the same with ministers. Why would you go to someone with spiritual questions who has not studied? It's like going to a cancer doctor who has not gone through medical school and an internship and asking him or her to remove a tumor. I like to use the tumor analogy when talking about sin. Sin is a malignancy of the spirit and soul. It is a malignancy that causes a deep malaise of the spirit and soul. Does the Monastery offer a treatment for this malignancy? I do not believe that it even acknowledges such a malignancy (unless of course it is within your belief system), much less offers treatment or a cure like Christianity does.
Just some food for thought. I invite your comments.

Sunday

The Matrix

In the Nazarene church, anyone seeking ordination --as I am--is placed under an advisor who is usually a local pastor. In our educational program we are also under another mentor. This setup gives us plenty of encouragement, practice and also a way to bounce off any questions or mental meanderings.

My pastor takes his role in this rather seriously. So on top of my graduate work he gave me another assignment: “Watch The Matrix trilogy and give me your reflections on its view of humanity, and religion—Christianity in particular.”

Well, this ought to be interesting, I thought. First of all, I grew up in a very legalistic era in the Nazarene church. Until the last decade or so (and the advent of VCR’s), we were not supposed to go to movies. Now my own pastor was assigning not one but three movies as part of my education.

So anyway, my husband and I sat down to watch the first movie and I was immediately transfixed by the plight of Neo as he struggled with dissatisfaction in the matrix and then as he was led to the real world outside the matrix. He eventually accepted his calling as “The One” who would deliver the people of Zion from the threatening machine world.

Though peppered with references to other religions and philosophies, one of the strongest messages given in the movies, is that humanity is trapped in a system that is counter to its original intention. Humanity has the choice to leave the system—or the Matrix—but a battle, both physical and mental, is fought over each one who tries to leave. People who leave the Matrix, must first overcome unbelief with little physical evidence to prove that what they are going into is real. Once they believe, however, those leaving enter into a painful rebirthing process as they are sucked into the real world, which is a parallel dimension.

This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ book “Out of the Silent Planet”, in which the main character, Ransom, is kidnapped by so-called friends and taken to the planet Malacandra. As he views earth from space, the Ransom observes that there is a huge cloud enveloping the planet. One of the aliens explains that nothing is heard from that planet because it gave into an evil force, but the people on that planet are greatly loved by their Creator.

In the Matrix, nothing is said about love from a higher power for humanity. Humans are pawns in a game created and programmed by The Source. Humanity is determined by what is real and what is not real. Those who have not left the Matrix are machines and, though capable of taste and receiving other stimuli, are not real. Nothing around them is real. Those who leave the Matrix become real by fulfilling their purpose. They are also shown that pleasure is secondary. One character agrees to go back into the Matrix in order to have food that tastes good. Those outside the Matrix survive on nutritious concoctions that look similar to watery Cream of Wheat.

The Oracle, another programmer, or perhaps a hacker, says that she adds unbalance to the game. After watching “Matrix: Revolutions,” it appears that the Oracle represents God and The Source represents God’s opposite. Since Christianity does not regard Satan as God’s opposite, we can only call The Source the opposite of the Oracle. In any event, The Source maintains the status quo and gives Neo the opportunity to do so as well. The Oracle is seeking to unbalance the game by encouraging Neo to save humanity through sacrifice, rather than simply upholding the status quo through cooperating with The Source. This is accomplished because of the love that Neo feels for his partner, Trinity, which causes him to save her life, thus changing the parameters of the game.

Another theme throughout the movie is the prophecies given by the Oracle that One is coming who will deliver the last human city, Zion, from the machines in the Matrix. Neo is identified as the One by Morpheus when he is rescued from the Matrix. Morpheus holds on to his belief in Neo regardless of Neo’s lack of faith in himself and in others lack of faith in the prophecies. As Christians, we are called to follow God’s will for our lives regardless of the opinions of others. Those whom God sends will affirm and help define that calling so that our purpose will be fulfilled. Neo’s calling is constantly strengthened and developed by the Oracle, Trinity and Morpheus. And Christians should do that for one another.

True change happens when Neo is willing to sacrifice and die. Conversely, in the world today, cooperation with God’s purposes may delay judgment for a time. Perhaps one of the reasons the language of Scriptural prophecy is so oblique is that ultimate judgment is suitable in many time periods. Perhaps judgment comes when the world, Christians included, is so lukewarm that God can no longer stand it. Judgment could then be averted when believers create change by fulfilling their purpose. One day there will be a final judgment, hence the prophecies, but only God determines when that is. However, as always, he works with and through humanity. When humanity has reached the point where it is past working with God, then judgment will be inevitable.

Another interesting dimension is the existence of real humans within Zion. These humans did not leave the Matrix and do not have the connecting plugs sported by Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. These humans were born into Zion and have the choice to leave though many choose to stay. This reminded me of a girl I knew in college. In class one day we were describing our conversion experiences and she claimed to never have had one in the traditional sense. She said, “I’ve grown up in the church, I’ve always believed.” At first her statement blew my modern mind. God has no grandchildren, I thought. However, as I listened to her I saw nothing wrong with her statement. This girl believed everything I did; she had surrendered to the truth of the gospel early in life and her acceptance of the truth came naturally rather than by first having to suffer the effects of willful disobedience.

So what can the Matrix say to us? Christians need first to remember that we’re in a war and that our mission is to save lives. I noticed that very little was said in the movies about an afterlife, it was assumed. The Matrix characters concentrated on saving others. As Christians, our main concentration needs to be on rescuing people so that they can live an abundant life both here on earth and in the afterlife. However, while the afterlife is important and the thought is a great motivator for change, constant focus on the eternal can give way to legalism, denial, hypocrisy and judgmentalism. We must remember that saving lives should be our main focus.
We must give Jesus to others, and live like Jesus before others.

In our local churches, we need to remember that while overseas work is important, God has also called us to the communities in which we live. We cannot forget that fact. We need to face our challenges with audacious bravery and tenacity like the characters in the Matrix. We need to depend on God so much that we will face any challenge, trusting that he will provide the needed strength and abilities. We also need to be open to the way he wants to do things, rather than trusting in ourselves and maintaining the status quo. If we are living to make a change in our community, we as Christians should expect attacks from our spiritual Enemy and face them head on with God as our strength. We must remember that the Enemy will be conquered frequently through love, obedience and sacrifice as we bring the Lord Jesus to others.

Help for the Journey

All of us are on a spiritual journey. Because we are created by God, he has placed a desire in each one of us to get close to him. And God wants a relationship with us. Unfortunately, however, after humanity was created, the created decided that s/he wanted to become just like the Creator. Ever since then there has been a huge chasm between God and people
(Check out Genesis 1 – 3 for details on the creation and the Fall of humanity--and if you don't take it literally that's okay. Go for the concept.).

Throughout the centuries, God tried to get close to his creation by using animal sacrifice to atone for sin. However, this was only a Band-Aid until the time when he would come to earth as a man and become the perfect sacrifice for his creation.

God loved us so much that he sent his only son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3: 17). Through Jesus we can have union with the Creator of the entire universe (John 3: 16). We can live a rich and full life right here on earth (John 10:10) and can live throughout eternity in heaven with him (John 3: 16).

Deciding to become a Christian and the promise of a rich and full life does not mean that we will be spared trouble, but it does mean that we have a relationship with God. The Bible is full of promises stating that God will walk with us through life and that he is ultimately in control. He has promised to give us peace in a world full of turmoil (John 16: 33).

You can have this today by believing that Jesus is God and that his sacrifice on the cross saves you from sin. Simply believe that on the third day Jesus rose again and that through this action he conquered death and the grave. Ask God to forgive you for your sin and then receive his forgiveness. It’s that simple.

The hard part is living like Jesus. We have all seen poor examples of those who profess to follow Christ, but God has promised to fill us with his spirit so that he can live this life through us (John 14: 26). As believers, we become God’s hands and feet to a hurting and broken world. The best thing that we, as believers, can do is find a church where the Bible is talked about and its truths are practiced. It is helpful to be around other believers (Hebrews 10: 25). In addition to this, we also need to study the Bible and pray on our own. There are plenty of helpful resources to do this and I will mention some from time to time on this blog.

If you have decided to follow Christ, please let me know. I would be glad to help you get started on this journey.

Wednesday

How Yahbut came to be

Yahbut…

I got the name of this blog from my kids. There are so many times when my husband and I tell them to do something that their first response is “Yeah, but…” that I’ve taken to jumping around like a frog croaking “yahbut, yahbut, yahbut…”

We live in a society of “Yah buts.” A lot of people today—especially in the church—are unhappy with the status quo. They are not inclined to accept the answers that have been fed to them all of their lives. They want a real and deeper experience. They want to think and to not be persecuted for doing so. They want all there is of God.

America was once called a Christian nation. Now it is a spiritual nation. According to Newsweek magazine 79 percent of Americans consider themselves spiritual, but many are not seeking the answer to their spiritual need inside the church. Many say that they like Jesus, but do not really like Christians.

There is an attitude within the church of “accept this or else,” or “accept this because the Bible says so…” and Americans have never liked anyone telling them what to do or think. Americans want to think and believe because what they believe and think is reasonable. People also want to see believers who will really live what they believe.

We, as a church, need to get a handle on that.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of our American cultural mindset is not right, but it is a cultural mindset. Without changing our message, we need to present and live the gospel in such a way that our people will understand and accept.

So, I offer you “Yahbut.” A blog that I hope will challenge Christians and non-Christians alike to consider Jesus and to live out for others what he has to offer.

Being All

1 Corinthians 9:19-23
"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings..."



This section of Scripture has impressed me as I have searched for a philosophy to ministry: "To the weak I became weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."

We are now living in an age where people are seeking spirituality and an encounter with God, but who often search for that experience outside the Christian context.

Why?

There are many reasons why, but in my Sunday school class I am finding that the seekers generally do not have church background. In other words, they are unlike me because I grew up in the church. I find this challenging, because I frequently have to rethink the way I answer questions. I also have to think through truths that I have heard all of my life and have taken for granted.

The apostle Paul faced this issue when he spoke to the people at Athens. These were a people used to comfort. They had a smorgasbord of religion from which to choose and also did not grow up hearing about the God of the Jews. In order to speak to them, Paul had to change his approach without changing the message. Even though there were few converts in Athens the people did listen to him. I have heard preachers say that the reason for this is because Paul was not relying on the Holy Spirit. I find that hard to believe; he just had a difficult audience.

The people of Athens sound a lot like people in America and in Northern Europe. We are used to the creature comforts, we have plenty of food and we have many religions from which to choose. We also have enough entertainment to fill every waking moment. I am also finding in my Sunday school class that people do not want the canned answers that the church has accepted for so long. Like the Athenians, they are bright people. They want convincing discussion. They want to see us live the truth that we profess. So how will we reach these people?

The answer, I believe, lies in prayer and in willingness. James 1: 5 says: "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." I know that I need to pray for wisdom because I do not know how to minister to the unchurched. It is easy to remain comfortable in familiar surroundings with familiar people, but that does not change the fact that the world needs Jesus. I then need to be willing to obey once I pray. To minister to people outside the church, God may ask me to approach ministry in uncomfortable or different ways. He is the one who knows how to minister though. I can trust him for the results.