20 December 2017

Star Wars: State of the Union, Pt. 2

In case there was any mystery about it (but probably not), I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits.  I grew up with the Original Trilogy, and then the first round of Special Edition releases on VHS -- the ones with those 30+ minute George Lucas documentaries that were, for some self-egrandizing reason, placed BEFORE the feature film.  I've faithfully followed EU content since I found Michael Stackpole's The Bacta War (the fourth X-Wing novel) in 1997 while walking through a random book store with my dad, and my mind was completely blown that there were MORE STAR WARS STORIES than just what was on film.  I suffered through the prequels when they were released with some enormous internal love/hate conflict, because a) MORE STAR WARS STORIES, but because b) bad acting and poor retconning.  And the same could be said of my current predicament with Episodes VII and VIII: a) MORE STAR WARS STORIES, but b) not at all what I'd dared to hope for.

Those of us who come from decades of EU fandom are probably at a huge disadvantage compared to those who are new fans, or those who never delved into that treasury.  Viewing these new movies with a more or less blank slate for post-ROTJ material is definitely a leg-up toward appreciating the new direction of the franchise.  And even with my scruples, there's lots of stuff to like about these new movies.  Granted, I had a lot less to complain about with The Force Awakens than I have with The Last Jedi, but for the most part, I've ridden the wave of excitement surrounding all of the new and upcoming Star Wars films.

Why?  Because I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits.

That said, what I forgot is that -- in this day and age -- you're not allowed to hold a critical opinion or you're automatically intolerant and shortsighted (even if you love the very thing you criticize).  And you're especially not allowed to be critical of anything touting itself as progressive, and TLJ makes no bones about its attempt to radically challenge the established "rules" and tropes of a 40-year-old franchise.  I'm exceptionally critical of TLJ because I think it was radical simply for the sake of being radical (my thoughts on the movie itself here).  But I'm also exceptionally critical because I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits, and when you love something, you truly want it to be the best it can possibly be.  Unfortunately, the modern mindset can't comprehend how you can possibly say anything negative about anything deemed to be progress.

In that regard, this followup post really isn't about Star Wars movies.  It's about Star Wars fandom.  And I wouldn't feel the need to bring up the issue, except that media everywhere and even voices from within the franchise itself have backlashed against the backlash against TLJ (did you follow that sentence?).  Fandom itself has been on trial in the weeks following the release of TLJ, because people no longer know how to disagree about things without drawing battle lines -- not even when it pertains to space operas about space wizards and laser swords.  Joanna Robinson put it best in this great Vanity Fair article about the same topic: "We are, these days, a culture of extremes."  Therefore, it's become virtually impossible for any kind of disagreement to be cordial.  That's why articles upon articles are being published, and even the Alt-Right has been brought into the conversation about maliciously impacting reviews.  A strong variety of passive aggressive memes are right now being rampantly shared by official pages and fans alike, criticizing the fanbase for claiming The Force Awakens was too much like the original trilogy, and then claiming The Last Jedi wasn't like them enough.  In other words, casting the filmmakers and writers as victims: "They've done what you wanted, what more do you want?"

There will never be a perfect conclusion to this trilogy.  I don't say that because I'm a crotchety EU fanboy, but because there is realistically no way any filmmaker can touch any kind of original material by addding onto it or changing it in some way, and not expect somebody somewhere to have contrary opinions.  Not with the amount of time that has passed between the release of ROTJ and today, a time period in which so many stories and theories and ideas have become entrenched, and not everyone is capable of letting their imagination go so easily.

And to retreat to my intial point, that SHOULD be okay.  We should all be allowed to have our own opinions and disagree on which movie is the best in the Star Wars universe without being cast as ungrateful children.  I'm not sure why the fanbase (or subsets of the fanbase) should be labeled fickle for disliking the direction a particular franchise film went, especially when -- by virtue of writing more stories -- you are narrowing the scope of the myth and the mystery surrounding a story by locking it into a defined narrative with defined events and defined results.  If you write the followup story, you inveitably take away theories and possibilities and cast the older material in new light.  That is inevitably going to irritate some people who feel as though well enough should have been left alone, while simultaneously catapulting other people with fewer preconceived notions into new heights of imagination.  The novels did the same thing back in 1978 when Alan Dean Foster's Splinter in the Mind's Eye first hit the shelves; Lucas' prequel trilogy did it again with The Phantom Menace in 1999; the Disney franchise is treading the same lonely paths of mixed reviews with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

When you love something, you want it to be the best it can be.  As someone who's loved everything Star Wars since before his age reached double digits, and as someone who enjoyed TFA but particularly disliked TLJ (maybe -- maybe -- almost as much as Attack of the Clones), I've also REALLY enjoyed discussing the particulars of this movie with both my friends who share my opinion and also those who completely disagreed with me.  It's helped me to see things in a different light, to better articulate my qualms with the new brand of storytelling, and to talk about space wizards and laser swords with people who care as much about them as I do, albeit from different perspectives.

In sum, I'm not sure why the filmmakers and critics and media reps are so offended and disheartened that some fans strongly dislike their movie and not everyone is head-over-heels for it.  I mean, there is that one idiot who started a petition to have The Last Jedi removed from the canon, so maybe it's all his fault?  Furthermore, I really wish people who all love Star Wars could stop drawing lines in the sand of what constitutes "true fandom" and together embrace the pros and cons of the imperfect art that is storytelling.  No franchise is flawless, and that's the beauty and integrity of what makes even space operas about wizards and laser swords ultimately about humanity.

Maybe The Last Jedi isn't the story I wanted, but it is the story I got.  Perhaps Episode IX will collectively bring TFA and TLJ into a much stronger, much more cohesive focus.  We won't know until we get there.  And since I've loved everything Star Wars since before my age reached double digits, and because I want Star Wars to be the very best it can be...  I'll wait with eager expectation.

15 December 2017

Star Wars: State of the Union

I didn't blog about Rogue One when it finally came out (although I did beforehand).  In my opinion, that's probably still the best new Star Wars movie to be released, although I certainly didn't love it.  However, I've come to grips with where the franchise has gone, and while I've still been underwhelmed by the majority of the new content and direction, I just love Star Wars too much to stay away.

It should go without saying that there will be spoilers ahead, although I'll attempt to be as tactfully vague as possible.  But seriously, if you're reading blogs about Star Wars so close to a movie premier without first seening it, I'm not really sure you have the right to be upset with anyone but yourself if anything is given away.

I'll start with things I liked about The Last Jedi, because I don't want to be a crotchety "old-Star-Wars-was-better, long-live-the-EU" patriot just for the sake of hating everything new.


A-Wings.  I like the A-Wings.  Finally, a decent -- if brief -- utilization of one of the coolest ships in the Star Wars universe.  The Rogue Squadron and X-Wing simulators were some of my favorite games growing up, and the A-Wing was always a favorite of mine to fly.  Of course, in its original concept, the A-Wing was primarily a lightly armed reconnaisance snubfighter, fast enough to go head-to-head with the Empire's TIE Interceptor but not really intended for dogfighting, so I suppose the tricky spot the Resistance finds itself in necessitates scrambling every available fighter for action...  I'll take what I can get.

Last Jedi features some pretty cool Force techniques and effects.  And blessedly, there is still no mention of Midichlorians anywhere in the new triliogy.  I also appreciate Last Jedi's near direct citations of the Force according to Ben Kenobi, and the fact that it is described as its own entity, existing in the spaces between everything.

There's also a pretty cool lightsaber sequence with good choreography, believable pace, and symbolic parallelism that I really enjoyed.  I won't say more.  You know what I'm talking about.

This film takes a cue from George R. R. Martin and makes the bold decision to kill characters willy nilly.  I like a story in which heroes and villians aren't untouchable and the audience can get a sense of their mortality.  Unfortunately, I don't care enough about any of these characters to be more than passingly phased when each meets an untimely demise.  Well, except for Admiral Ackbar, but Force Awakens and Last Jedi both so poorly utilized him that the scriptwriters felt it necessary to literally tell the audience that he'd died so they'd actually notice he was gone.

Lastly, I love Mark Hamill.  I've got plenty of stuff I don't like about Luke Skywalker in this film, but Mark Hamill's portrayal of this iteration was great.  He plays the role of reluctant mentor well, and delivers some of the movie's greatest lines.  And frankly, it was just fanstastic to see Mark Hamill again wielding a lighstaber.


All of the bad guys in this trilogy are weak sauce -- maybe cool at a concept level, but flat in delivery.  In particular, Snoke's character is a missed opportunity for a cool, mysterious villian, with a too-soon reveal, a stupid name, and stereotypical bad-guy shortsightedness.  In turn, Kylo Ren is a child with powerful toys, surrounded by laughably ineffecient and unbelivable pawns.  At least the grunts Vader choked out in the OT were militaristic, disciplined, and appropriately professional.  In sum, there is no Vader or Palpatine equivalent to truly make this a saga of good versus evil, or even a conflict to really care about, and portrayal of The First Order is a joke compared to that of The Empire.

Rey's resistance to Kylo Ren's call to the dark side is a foregone conclusion.  I mean, obviously.  The good guys always win.  But at least cause me to suspend my disbelief a little.  At no point during the course of Last Jedi is there any real danger of Rey going to the dark side -- no legitimate temptation, no personal weaknesses.  While she's the only character in this new Star Wars saga that I can really find any interesting qualities in, she's also a huge Mary Sue, because she makes all the right decisions all the time without failing.  While I'm not entirely convinced we've been told her true parentage, I do appreciate the fact that the writers didn't (yet) shoehorn her into some OT genealogy, although their solution still somehow feels like a bit of a cop-out after all the anticipation surrounding the movie.  I imagine the writers standing around literal drawing boards with furious ink splotches all over their faces, holding the following conversation: "Skywalker's out because that's too obvious."  "Solos are out because seriously how is that even possible without them knowing?"  "Kenobi's reaching."  "Fett's just fan service."  "She's got Qui Gon Jinn's hairstyle, is that enough?"  "No, that's all stupid.  Let's just play it safe instead."

Moving on.

Let's face it.  Star Wars without Harrison Ford attempts to do humor and ultimately falls short.  Sure, I chuckled at a handful of slapstick things in this movie, but there is no more purely Star-Wars-brand humor than Han Solo snarkiness juxtaposed with C-3P0's matter-of-factedness (who, by the way, was essentially a non-character in this film).  Goofy Finn moments don't cut it any more than goofy prequel droids.  Even OT Star Wars didn't shine when it tried on the Three Stooges act either (see: R2-D2 swallowed and spit out by a swamp monster; Ewok shenanigans; weird Special Edition edits to the Max Rebo band in Return of the Jedi).

There are only so many times a montage of weird background space aliens works for me.  The prequels are notorious for their meaningless backdrops full of tentacled and strangely-dressed characters who only serve as texture.  We get it.  We're in space.  There are aliens.  You don't have to convince us anymore.  Rogue One actually did this element well with Jedha City, and Maz's cantina in The Force Awakens likewise felt like it belonged because it was intentionally mirroring the Mos Eisley cantina in order to establish new Star Wars lore.  But Last Jedi's take on Jabba's palace meets Casino Royale was forced at best, and ultimately detracted from the rest of the story that was transpiring.

I believe strongly in the "If you show the gun, you must use the gun" rule of writing -- otherwise, it's just lazy writing or lackluster fan-service.  Luke's submerged T-65 X-Wing submerged was the thing in Last Jedi that truly got me excited, but it ultimately wasn't anything more than a symbolic set piece -- merely indicative of his abandonment of the Force and his history, and showing how he got to the island in the first place.  There is nothing I would have loved more than to see Luke Skywalker use the Force to lift that classic X-Wing out of the water -- symbolizing a rebirth of his character, a "character flaw" of always coming to rescue his friends, and a new resolve to right past wrongs.  He should have gotten into that X-Wing cockpit like he does in every single other Star Wars movie featuring Luke Skywalker the pilot.  But because this new franchise is about Rey, and apparently only Poe is allowed to fly X-Wings and live in this saga, that simply couldn't happen.

In that regard, I dislike everything about this interpretation of Luke Skywalker's character (with the noteworthy exception of his incredible display of power at the conclusion).  Hermit in exile?  Sure.  Crotchety and a little crazy like both of his deceased mentors?  Okay.  But fearful?  Callous and uncaring?  No reaction to Han's death or seeing Chewie again for the first time in decades?  This is not the same Luke Skywalker who faced Darth Vader in ROTJ and redeemed him, whose belief in the Force motivated him to again and again face impossible odds and forsake his own training to rescue his friends, and who was so in touch with the Force that he was able to commune with the spirits of his mentors.  It's even harder to accept this weak characterization coming from the EU as I do, where "Master Skywalker" is a title associated with a New Jedi Order and long-term heroism and fidelity.  I get that he's hardened by his failure with Kylo Ren.  And admittedly, this version of Luke could be so much more believable if I was sold on his post-ROTJ activities in the new canon, but so much lackluster backstory doesn't make Luke a tortured, tragic figure brooding on an isolated, Dagobah-esque island.  It just makes him disappointing.

Lastly, my biggest complaint is the contrived plot in this film.  Kasden & Kershner's script for The Empire Strikes Back did a fantastic job of making an extended chase sequence gripping and believable for the course of 124 minutes.  Last Jedi attempts to emulate this, essentially taking the big plot points of Empire and mashing them with loose ideas from heist and action movies, and then regurgitating them into a sequence of events that play loosely with believable time lapse and ultimately drop flat or unrecognizable characters into a current of events, in which their decisions don't matter because the plot marches forward without any connection to their choices.


Bear in mind that I'm rating this movie on a couple of scales.  My overall description of The Last Jedi as a standalone film devoid of context is "fun."  It's entertaining, familiar, well-acted and well-produced.  As the followup to The Force Awakens, this film is good plot development and will hopefully be a solid platform for a great conclusion to the trilogy.  My big critiques come from an overall universe and writing perspective.

We should all be on the same page by now that the new Star Wars universe is a deliberate rehash of the original trilogy, rescripted and retooled for a new generation of fans.  The last few times I've sat down to watch OT films with friends or students who had never seen them before, they've afterward wanted to know what the big deal was.  The long and short of it is that OT Star Wars simply doesn't connect or resonate with sci-fi/fantasy fans raised in an era of J. J. Trek and high-budget blockbusters that rely more on effect than content.  That's why The Force Awakens deliberately retold Episode IV, and Last Jedi borrows from Empire -- to bring the classic Star Wars experience to a new generation.

So while The Last Jedi by itself isn't so bad, this version of the Star Wars universe is just completely underwhelming to me.  There's a way to do complex worldbuilding that tells/shows just enough to keep viewers intrigued about the background, yet supplies enough information to flesh out a believable context without forcing fans to go to extra-film sources unless they really want to.  I'm also confident that some of the spaces have been intentionally left to be filled by further anthology films in the new Disney Canon.  But by themselves, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi lack any real concept of government (Republic, Resistance, and First Order are all just names in their film iterations with no sense of scale), believable command structures (neither as a Captain nor as a Commander would Poe Dameron have any say in any legitimate fleet chain of command), and any true understanding about the core roles each character in this saga should be playing (aside from stereotypical rogue, hero, and comic relief tropes).  Ultimately, these movies are just flashy imitations hinting at the elements that made the original movies so great.

Frankly, I don't know how Last Jedi has been rated as highly as Empire.  It has cool effects, cool ideas, and some exciting plot elements.  But seriously?  All it's done is capitalize on the hype generated by the revitalized franchise.  And yet I've read far too many posts over the last few days stating that this film is moving the franchise in a "great direction," that it is possibly the greatest Star Wars film ever made, and that is simply astounding to me.  What exactly is this "great direction?"  Surprising twists and turns?  Cool new space ships?

I have a sneaky suspicion that the people pushing these reviews for likes are those forward-thinking individuals who have been clamoring for the Star Wars universe to be made "more diverse" by populating it with more female and multi-ethnic characters -- casting choices that would be fantastic on their own, were they not done as such a deliberate social statement.  I'm all for diversity and equal opportunity, and I love seeing different actors and actresses in new and exciting roles.  But Star Wars films shouldn't be propaganda pieces for modern political ideologies -- that's Star Trek territory.  Space opera can and should borrow from real life for its themes and characterizations (i.e. Lucas' Empire obviously paralleled Nazi facism), but until recent years, Star Wars has always bordered on the allegorical, not the social critique.  Bottom-line, if the franchise is moving in a "great direction" according to Twitter champions, then it's likely got less to do with the storytelling and more to do with an agenda.

Forgive the rabbit trail -- I really just wanted to talk about Star Wars here.  Last Jedi certainly didn't live up to the hype I was hearing, but I'm admittedly somewhat predisposed to be critical.  Yet, despite my qualms, I'll still pay to see every Star Wars movie that Disney continues to put out, even if I am moved in my spirit to write disheartened blog posts about them afterward.

Hope springs eternal, of course, and X-Wings and lightsabers are just that fun.

03 November 2017

Evaluating the health of your ministry

Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. (Malachi 1.10)
Post-exile and pre-Messiah, the prophet Malachi addressed these words to a religious but ultimately self-interested group of Israelites: the priests, the nation's spiritual leaders, who diluted the purity of Hebrew worship by offering blemished animals as sacrifices to the LORD rather than the perfect stock He required.  More importantly, however, their hearts had no connection to the ceremonies they performed, which propped open the door for apathy and sinful practice to enter unregarded.

The church, of course, ministers within a different context, but we too would do well to heed the advice given in this text concerning the authenticity and efficacy of our ministries.  If the Levitical Priesthood could grow so spiritually cold in their routine to earn such a harsh rebuke, chances are we can unfortunately do and earn the same. Briefly, here's three quick ideas I take from the text, applicable to pastors, ministry leaders and deacons, or lay staff.

"Shut the doors."  Whether you're the leader of your ministry or a volunteer, participants in the work of the Holy Spirit must know how to critically self-evaluate, both on a personal as well as on a corporate level.  The ministries we lead and/or serve stagnate without careful and regular evaluation of their effectiveness, both in terms of their horizontal reach and also their vertical priority of glorifying God.  To "shut the doors" doesn't mean to kill a struggling ministry, but rather to put it on pause or probation in order to practice repentance and perhaps even take the program back to the drawing board.  Such is better than to allow an ineffective and possibly detrimental facet of your church family or nonprofit organization to further stagnate.  Sometimes we have to pump the brakes a bit before we can accelerate to see growth.

If -- as was the case of the Priesthood in Malachi's Israel -- rampant sin is festering in the ranks, then it's especially time to perhaps literally close the doors and humbly sort out the persisting issues between or within personnel.  Should we fail to do so, we risk not only an impotent ministry with a limited lifespan, but also the inevitable revelation by fire of a foundation loaded up with wood, hay, and straw (1 Cor 3.12-13).

"Kindle acceptable fire."  Early in the nation of Israel's history, Aaron's sons were executed by God Himself for kindling "strange" or "unauthorized" fire (Leviticus 10), which is likely the reference point for Malachi's choice words to the Priesthood centuries later.  While it is difficult to grasp exactly what Nadab and Abihu did to incite the Lord's wrath, their actions arrogantly and probably intentionally violated the standards God had given to Moses for acceptable forms of worship within the tabernacle.

You and I must constantly ask ourselves whether we are humbly seeking to serve the Lord on HIS terms, or arrogantly insisting on our own.  Often, we become far more concerned with being pragmatic, with evaluating the success of our ministries by the numbers they boast, or by how good the feedback is that we receive.  I know how easy it is to pat myself on the back on the days my teens come to me after a lesson with questions or with thanks, and how easily frustrated I can become when the opposite is the case: criticism of the way I phrased something, misapplication of the point I was trying to make, or perhaps just indifferent silence.

"Acceptable fire" is what God commands.  "Acceptable fire" is simply our duty as followers of Christ and ministers of His Kingdom.  What might seem an ambiguous instruction is actually systematically identified across the scope of Scripture.  Micah insisted on the Lord's priorities of mercy, justice, and humility (6.8); Jesus summarized acceptable worship as that which is done in spirit (wholeheartedness) and in truth (Scriptural accuracy) (John 4.23); and James distilled true religion to careful self-control and attentive ministery to those in need (Jas 1.27).  The penultimate breakdown, of course, is the total worship of God and resulting servant-heartedness toward others (Mark 12.30-31).  Threfore, in order to kindle "acceptable fire" to the Lord, my priority as a pastor or ministry leader must first be the worship of God in my personal life, and -- second -- the edification and discipleship of those whom the ministry is intended to serve.  Of course, that will look different for each ministry, which each has its own unique reach and function, but the supreme values of God's glorification and one-anothering must be central.  Anything else is akin to unacceptable fire.

A few good evaluating questions on this point:
  • Do I have a personal agenda, or am I doing the work of God?  Which am I actually accomplishing?
  • Am I driven by the praise and opinions of others, or by the parameters of Scripture?
  • What do I consider to be "success" in this ministry?
  • How am I pursuing long-term goals rather than simple maintenance?
  • Who benefits from this ministry -- me, or the people it is intended to serve?

Take pleasure in Him.  At the core of Malachi's indictment is that the priests have allowed themselves to descend into careless routine, with hearts that take no delight in worship.  In order for God to say, "I have no pleasure in you," we must have first reached the point where we have no invested interest in pleasing Him.  So the question is, what kind of attitude do I bring to my ministerial responsibilities?  What kinds of compromises -- for the sake of ease, time, reputation, or otherwise -- am I willing to make that could damage the ministry's integrity?  How has the freshness of the gospel, with its uniquely renewed mercies, impacted my heart for the Kingdom work that I'm doing?  Regardless of circumstances and difficult people, you and I will never lack for love of doing ministry if we never lack for love and adoration of God Himself.

On one hand, we cannot effectively minister if the work is a drag.  On the other, we cannot effectively minister if we get pumped for programming but fail to engage our hearts in personal relationship with Jesus.  If the former is true, our frustrations and weariness will inevitably and negatively impact what we are trying to accomplish.  If the latter is true, our "ministry" is only going to spin its wheels on the road to spiritual maturity, because the kind of fellowship and growth you espouse will lack the genuine worship component of true relationship with the Savior.  Either frame of mind is a failure to delight in the Lord and the work He has laid out for you to do.

Instead, "shut the doors" -- pause and invest in your own walk with Jesus.  Offer "acceptable fire" by "taking pleasure in Him," and then see what He is able to accomplish through your willing hands.

23 September 2017

The End is Near, 2017

The world was supposed to end today.  Again.

Since it's still before noon Eastern Time, I suppose the apocalypse could always make a mid-afternoon appearance, though I'd imagine there would be more preliminary earthquakes, drastic temperature spikes, and maybe horns blasting in the heavens before that penultimate moment of final judgment.  Or, if you're an atheist, nothingness.

We all have an idea of how the end will go down.  Right now, Hollywood is infatuated with a zombie-related apocalypse.  A few years ago, it was an apocalypse related to climate change and careless mistreatment of Mother Earth (The Day After Tomorrow, anyone?).  Other runners-up remain post-nuclear war and vampires, but Planet X crashing into the earth is as good an option as any.

Jabs aside, pausing to actually consider the end -- realistically, death, as opposed to cataclysm or apocalypse -- should be a sobering practice.  Not morbid, but focusing.  When we consider the end of our lives, we reach for the things that are important to us.  Nothing quite reveals our treasures like the threat of losing them, or the knowledge that we will soon leave them behind.

In that regard, for the Christian, predicting the end is less important than living with the end in mind.  In other words, I don't want to set arbitrary (or hypothetically "informed") dates on the end of the world so much as I want to live like that date could be tomorrow.  There's a difference.  On one hand, I have a deadline, but on the other, I have a priority.

How many of us in younger years were given responsibilities by our parents before they left for the day or the evening, and we spent the hours doing what we wanted, only to scramble to accomplish the chore in the last fifteen minutes before Mom and Dad returned?  Knowing the time of their return fostered laziness and irresponsibility, because we knew exactly how much time we had to get done what they wanted and yet still prioritize what we wanted.  That's not truly living a life of obedience.  

Better yet, remember cramming for a final because you didn't spend any time preparing in the weeks since receiving the syllabus?  That isn't really learning the material -- it's merely memorizing for a deadline, and then regurgitating information that we will promptly forget, leaving no real or lasting impact.  That's not truly being studious.

In the same regard, if we are to pursue the priorities of Christ and live as He did, we can't presume upon time to come any more than we can assume a final date.  Rather, we should take Paul's advice to the Ephesians, which is to "make the best use" of the time we have, or to "redeem" it -- that is, to purchase it back and make it profitable (Eph 5.16).  In other words, in the same way that our lives were spiritually dead, cold, and ultimately fruitless before the Spirit called us out of that darkness and made us alive and fruitful, we should give the time that God has supplied the same treatment: not using it wastefully, spending it on ourselves, but using it productively for His Kingdom.

If, in His earthly ministry, the Son of Man Himself didn't know the hour of the final judgment, then how am I to possibly hang my hat on a calendar date of my own choosing?  Furthermore, Jesus' advice regarding the end of all things isn't to become a mathematician and scientifically wager on the details of when.  To the contrary, He speaks fervently of the priority of readiness, which isn't based on a knowledge of when the end will come, but on a wholehearted commitment to worship.

In other words, be a Christian.  It's who you are.  You can't just mechanically do the stuff a Christian is supposed to do on your own timeframe and assume that you're in the clear because you're making the deadline.

When the Master does finally come, may He find each of His children faithfully laboring on behalf of the orphan and widow, loving Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Living that way, with an eternal perspective, is an expression of a changed heart that truly knows the Savior and delights to live for Him.

21 July 2017

Ordination, 2017

I've had an eventful month of July.

On Sunday, July 2nd, I preached my first Sunday morning sermon at Fellowship Bible Church.

On Saturday, July 8th, I went before an ordination council comprised of mentors, peers, and church elders, and then -- on Sunday, July 9th -- was publicly ordained as a pastor before my church family at FBC, and alongside my friend and fellow pastor/elder, Scott Foreman.

Photo courtesy of Julie Moore @ Julebug Photography.

I've been deeply encouraged by friends and family at FBC throughout this process, and it has been such a blessing to see the Lord at work in my life, preparing me for this journey.  Over the past weeks, I've recounted to a number of people that my mom was the prophet, not me.  She told me at 13 that I should consider one day becoming a pastor instead of a writer, which is what I always envisioned myself being.  Perhaps as few as 5 years ago, the pastorate still wasn't a goal for me.  But that was before I entered into the realm of full-time ministry, by virtue of simply being available, and gradually fell in love with local church ministry.  Since then, the Lord has been preparing me for this noble task, training me in matters of the heart, leadership, and administration, and appointing in His sovereignty the perfect time for me to step into the role of FBC's youth and worship pastor.

I thought I'd use this post to answer some of the questions I've frequently been asked in the days leading up to and following ordination.

"Are you now an elder now?"

Yes.  As a non-denominational, independent church, Fellowship Bible is governed by a plurality of elders rather than by a top-down, Senior Pastor or executive-style power structure.  We believe that this is the biblical model of church government (as per 1 Timothy 4.14; 5.17 and 1 Peter 5.1), and also that it provides our pastors and bi-vocational elders with a great degree of accountability and encouragement.  Because the Scriptures also use the Greek terms for elder, pastor, and overseer interchangeably (1 Timothy 3.1ff1 Peter 5.1-2), we also bestow the title of elder on each pastor of our church family.  This is a role I am deeply humbled to hold, alongside godly men who have demonstrated themselves to be above reproach over years of service to our local body.

My transition from FBC's youth/worship director to youth/worship pastor/elder hasn't brought any immediate changes, simply because my previous role already carried with it a number of pastoral responsibilities.  So my schedule and priorities largely remain the same in my current areas of oversight, though there will inevitably be new responsibilities and considerations for me as we shape our church leadership team and seek to hire a children's' pastor this year.

"What seminary did you go to?"

The answer to this question might be surprising to some, but seminary is a yet-future goal for me.  My background is actually in English (BA from Rowan University, class of 2012), but I have 5+ years of studying and teaching the Word as a paid, full-time employee of Fellowship Bible Church, in addition to 20+ years of sitting under the pastoral insights of our teaching pastor, Phil Moser, as well as 13 years of discipleship and training under/beside our former youth pastor, Jack Klose (Sr. Pastor at Evangelical Free Church of Keokuk, IA).  This, plus a lifetime of personal investment into the Word of God, which I believe I have been Spirit-gifted to understand and teach.

So seminary is a future goal.  Several months ago, I applied to Southern Theological Seminary to pursue an MDiv with a concentration in Biblical Counseling, and could possibly begin online studies as early as spring 2018.

"Did you get grilled for your ordination?"

No.  And as a positively encourageable person, I'm very thankful for that.  Rather than an adversarial, stump-the-pastoral-candidate kind of ordeal, the ordination council was actually an immensely thoughtful, conversational, and warm experience for me, structured more to discuss sticking points of theology and potential ministry challenges (such as hypothetical scenarios and difficult counseling topics).  In fact, I wish it had been a little longer.  We began at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning and were done by noon.  Scott and I both had one hour each for sharing our testimonies to the council and defending our statements of faith, and forty-five minutes each to interview on our ministry papers.  Because the men comprising the council had ample time to consider our character, beliefs, and Spiritual gifting, as well as serving hand-in-hand with us in various FBC-based ministries (and in Scott's case, in ministry partnerships in Word of Life Canada), the vetting process differed greatly from what might transpire at other churches of various denominations.

It has therefore been my unique experience to begin pastoral ministry as a hands-on disciple, to grow and learn via experience alongside a mentor, and to enter the role of an ordained minister with both feet on the ground, with the loving accountability and support from a leadership team that has watched me grow over the years.  Not every pastor gets to have that kind of homegrown experience, and I'm immensely grateful for it.

For anyone interested, I'd like to make available my Statement of Faith and Philosophy of Youth Ministry paper, documents I wrote/compiled for my ordination.  I welcome dialogue or questions on either.

My heart is full as I look forward to what the Lord will do through me at Fellowship Bible Church over the years to come.  To Him be the glory.

"Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen."
Jude 24-25

23 May 2017

Three ways "internet culture" trains us

I stand by the "right tool for the job" adage.  There's nothing worse than stripping a bolt because you're using the wrong wrench.  I've removed plenty of license plates that way and regretted it.

I also believe in progressively replacing old tools with new ones, because new needs require new methods.  Outside of a "green" agenda and nostalgia, no one can earnestly advocate that we go back to pulling carts rather than driving automobiles, because the tool matches the pace and demands of life.

The internet is a modern tool.  It is the access point for information, for communication, for entertainment, and more.  However, unlike a more conventional tool like a car or a hammer, the internet brings with it some detrimental side-effects -- not just because of the morally compromising content it can supply (though that is certainly a factor), but primarily due to the ways in which its accessibility and pervasiveness can negatively influence our thinking and priorities.  Briefly, here are some subtelties of internet culture impacting our lives.

First, internet culture trains us to require instant gratification.  This is the big one, so I'll get it out of the way.  Thanks to the immediacy of the digital age, I demand service and entertainment at every second.  Whether I'm concerned about my megabits-per-second downloads, or I'm annoyed that the e-mail someone sent me seconds ago hasn't yet appeared on my screen, or Netflix is just lagging, I am in some way expressing a desire for instant gratification.  In fact, the digital age is all about removing the need to be patient, as it seeks faster processers, more reliable cell signal, quicker load screens, better transportation, faster checkout lines, instant downloads.  Furthermore, these things should be accessible wherever you are, and the same philosophy should apply to to needs that aren't digital -- anything in life for which you are required to wait should be reconstructed to deliver a more immediate payoff.

I don't know about you, but whether I'm waiting in the checkout line at Shoprite or sitting in standstill traffic, my immediate urge in any moment of pause is to reach for my phone -- even though I just checked to see if I had any messages, even though I know the notification didn't chime.  We don't know how to be still in the digital age, to be alone with our thoughts, or to enjoy human interaction in a public setting, because internet connectivity demands constant stimulation, constant interaction.  We require titillation at all times.  This is an underlying motivation for replacing percolators with K-Cups, for raging when 2-day shipping isn't a free option, and for trading the genuine intimacy of marriage in favor of casual sex.  Because there should be a way to get what you want faster, without the time, the effort, or the commitment.  Because anything worth having later is better had now.  Because waiting sucks.  Because you should never have to be bored.

Internet culture also trains us to prefer fake interaction to real interaction.  I'm not the only one I know who hates talking on the phone -- I'd much rather text or e-mail because I like having the time to think through what I'm saying.  Only part of this is excusable on the basis of wanting to express my thoughts clearly: the rest falls under the prideful desire to leave a good impression.  It's the same reason we crop and edit and filter our profile pictures, and nitpick the details of our bios.  We prefer texting to talking because we don't have to stammer, we can reply at our leisure, and we can disguise whatever emotion our body language might reveal in an in-person conversation.  We want people to perceive us as intelligent and attractive.

Ultimately, we fear what they think.

In fact, the common defense of "I'm socially awkward" or "I'm introverted," given by people who are absorbed in their phones when they are in public places, is often just a coverup for the idol of boredom.  People are boring and awkward and uncomfortable -- unless we're viewing them through Facbeook, Instagram, or Snapchat, where we can select what, when, and how we want to view their content.  Furthermore, those same individuals who struggle to have a simple conversation face-to-face with a person they know will spew volumes of heated speech to any person they don't know in an online comment thread, at the drop of a hat.

Internet culture provides a false intimacy, an artificial flavor, and we've come to prefer its accessibility and anonymity to the real thing.  The root of this tendency is undeniably pride itself, but sin seizes opportunity wherever it might arise, and the internet left that back window wide open.

Lastly, internet culture trains us by groupthink to believe the worst of people.  By "groupthink," I mean modern witch-hunting: casting topics in extremes, as EITHER supremely righteous OR completely egregious, and rallying troops to share in these voracious opinions.

Groupthink is what inflates the most heated political issues to enormous headlines, and is a major source of the increasing polarization of conservative and liberal peoples.  Groupthink is also why words like "awesome," "awful," "love," and "hate" are commonly applied to pizza, because authenticity in internet culture is measured in exuberance.  Ultimately, groupthink relies on biased, unsourced, and negatively skewed information to demonize those who think differently and glorify "the cause" by uniting its disciples under a crusading banner.

Groupthink is particularly rampant via internet news and other media-based communications.  Those of us who use these tools as platforms for written communication recognize them as powerful vehicles for self-expression, and certainly for sharing particular viewpoints.  And therefore, if we aren't careful, we'll discover that we too are falling into this tendency to draw battle lines, to attack, rather than rationally stating our point of view after carefully considering the other side(s) of the issue.  The internet is a megaphone.  Its booming declarations create radical divisions of EVIL vs. GOOD, training us to think the best of those who share our opinions and the absolute worst of those who don't.

As stated, I don't believe the internet is inherently evil.  It's an incredible resource that fuels society's forward momentum.  But like all things man-made, we must be increasingly aware of our own motivations for using it, and the ways in which we allow it to shape our thinking and our self-discipline.  In fact, it is internet culture, not the internet itself, that I'm seeking to challenge -- that is, the priorities and worldview of a demographic that clings to the internet-fueled priorities outlined above.

Paul cautioned believers to be actively filled with the Spirit rather than wine, because drunken living is a form of debauchery (Eph 5.18).  Rather than simply being a critique of alcohol, this passage communicates a much bigger principle: the only thing that should control a believer should be the Holy Spirit Himself, not any sort of sensual desire.  Instant gratification, false intimacy, and hateful speech are all underlined by such.

Therefore, as a Christian, I must be active, taking responsibility for sin and making God-honoring choices; I must not be passive, allowing cultural trends to shape my thinking and behavior.  In fact, the Spirit's influence should press out any worldliness that might threaten to compromise my testimony as a follower of Jesus.

The priorities of internet culture have the dangerous capacity to do just that.

The next time you're in the check-out line at Shoprite, rather than pull out your phone, force yourself to make eye-contact with the cashier as you say hello, and maybe even think of something kind or encouraging to say.  Maybe the window for gospel truth might even open.  Who knows what God might do when we stop browsing Facebook and pay attention!

03 April 2017


Last summer, I taught my teenage students through concepts, postures, attitudes, and elements of worship found in the Psalms.  We spent one week in particular looking at repentance in Psalm 51, the passage containing David's humble words of contrition, penned after Nathan the prophet confronted him with his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah.  Recently, in our church family's read-through-the-Bible plan, we covered the pages of 2 Samuel, which brought the conversation to mind once again.

It's an age-old refrain, but the gospel truth is timeless on this issue: if David, a "man after God's own heart," could still be loved by God and considered an esteemed servant even after such an egregious descent into sin, then there is tremendous hope for the rest of us.

So here are my take-aways from studying 2 Samuel 11-12 and Psalm 51.  Entire books could be written about each of these bullet points, so I'll attempt to be brief with each.

True repentance isn't just an "I'm sorry;" it involves a genuine appeal for mercy (51.1).  In order to properly repent of wrongdoing, I must acknowledge that I am weak (at fault), and that God is strong (in the right).  I have been morally compromised, but He remains holy.  In other words, I recognize that I am a sinner who should never assume I deserve coddling from a holy God when what I really deserve is eternal damnation.  What I am saying through the repentance process is, “Father, I am a wicked sinner, and I am so thankful that, because of the blood of Jesus, you have not given me what I truly deserve.”  Grace upon grace, such as God liberally gives, demands my humble and contrite repentance after I've fallen into sin.

True repentance involves an accurate understanding of my sin (51.3-4) -- that is, acknowledging whom it is against and whom it affects (2 Sam 11 ~ David’s attempts to hide his sin).  All sin is ultimately against God Himself: in doing wrong, I violate my relationship with God either by harming others or by committing some act of idolatry.  This doesn't mean I can deny my culpability toward other people, but it does demand that I recognize all sin as being ultimately against God at the most fundamental level.  Most people probably tend to assume they are on “good terms” with God because they think of their sin being principally against other people, or simply because they just don't think their sin is that big a deal.

Accurately understanding my sin also means I must acknowledge that I can’t fix my problem on my own (51.2) -- whether by penance, practical behavior changes, or self-flagellation.  Attempting to do so is simply a legalistic attempt to atone for my own wrongdoing.  Rather, acknowledging that my sin is a violation of God's moral law and a direct offense to His holy character, I should confess it to Him as such and trust anew in the blood of Jesus that has made me new and permanently righteous in God's eyes.

True repentance involves an understanding that God loves me deeply, and that it is through this compassion that He disciplines (51.1).  "How can this be?" cries a generation that equates love with tolerance -- overlooking another's flaws without changing them, citing a self-deceiving rhetoric that assumes love should refuse to acknowledge all failure and all shortcoming in the name of acceptance.

God's love is so much greater than such shallow concepts.

Truth #1: God loves me unconditionally (51.1, 7, 9-11, 14).  That means He does love me despite my failures, extending grace to me through His Son's own death on the cross, because I could never fix my wrongdoing to live up to the standard of holiness.  However, (Truth #2), God also loves me enough to change me (51.8, 10).  True, biblical love wants the best for others -- it does love despite failures (unconditionally), but it also seeks to build and correct (not to ignore).  Absolutely we should love others for who they are, despite their flaws, but we should also love them enough to respectfully confront them when they are engaged in sinful, destructive patterns of living.

True repentance involves a change in heart attitude.  Not just after things get better, but as I recognize my errors and begin to walk through the process of repentance.  That means I should accept the Lord's discipline with gratitude (51.8), because it is intended to produce a change.  This is not masochistic.  This is a deep and desperate desire to put sin to death and live in the way God intends.  When things around me are crumbling -- relationships, job opportunities, physical possessions -- instead of falling into panic and trying to fix everything, perhaps I should recognize that maybe God is attempting to bring my attention to some unconfessed sin in my heart.  What He is allowing to happen in my life is either a test of my faith or a test of my spiritual sensitivity toward my own sin.  Although I cannot damage my eternal security, to live with unconfessed, unrepentant sin in my heart is to quench and deny the Spirit at work within me.  God is willing to break me so that I don't remain in such a cold, disconnected state.

Therefore, repentance also means that my joy in having a right-standing relationship with God is restored (51.12).

Repentance involves transparently instructing others so they don’t make the same mistakes I did (51.13).  Because repentance results in my return to proper worship (51.16-19), I believe Christians are called to exhort one another out of our own experience of failure -- for the sake of conviction and encouragement.  In other words, God didn't allow me to walk through sin and failure just to hedge my own soul against repeating those mistakes; I now have an enormous opportunity (I'd argue responsibility) to address these issues in the lives of others.  When we see in others the same telltale signs of temptation and failure that we ourselves experienced, we should be bold and transparent for the sake of steering that follower of Christ away from the pitfalls we know are yawning hungrily in his or her path.  This, of course, requires us to be intentionally attuned to the lives of others within our spheres of influence, to develop compassionate attitudes toward them, and to practice humility in the endeavor.

To conclude, repentance doesn’t much feel like a posture of worship, simply because I'm content with my life the way it is.  In other words, it's far easier to live like my sin is not a big deal.  Dragging my errors out into the light and addressing them is uncomfortable, and the old sin nature I still battle doesn't like it.  Furthermore, when I honestly evaluate my heart against the truths of Scripture, I’m never as good as I thought I was.  I don't like to be confronted with how much work I still have to do -- especially if I don't make it a regular habit to reflect on what God is currently doing in my heart.

Repentance IS a posture of worship, however, because God is glorified by my brokenness over sin (51.17) and by my ongoing struggle against it (Lam 3.22-23).

By way of encouragement, it's important to remember that experiencing temptation and giving into sin are two different things: Jesus experienced more temptation than anyone, but He did not sin (Heb 4.15).  In other words, to feel temptation and to say "no" is to glorify God.  Even if we feel guilty because our hearts still desire to sin, we are still walking in righteousness when we consciously deny sinful desires and work to replace them with holy desires.  Not every experience of worship is a mountaintop celebration: confessing the sinful tendencies we still possess and working to conform them to the image of Christ is worship in the trenches, and it exalts the name of our Savior.

You and I still have work to do, so let's be about our Father's business.

14 March 2017

Three lessons from Judges

We've been reading through the Bible as a church family since the beginning of the year, and yesterday we concluded the book of Judges.  This is one of the more challenging sections of the Old Testament, largely due to its gruesome content, spiritually destitute characters, and unabashed warfare.  The central theme is  found in the repeated refrains, "Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD" (Judges 2.11; 3.7; 3.12; 4.1; 6.1; 8.33-35; 10.6; 13.1) and "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (17.6; 21.25), clear indicators of the spiritual temperature of the nation that was supposed to represent God to the world.  The book's horrific conclusion alone, five chapters of utter depravity, paint a stark picture of the darkness and self-deception of which men are capable.

Here are a few observations to be gleaned from such a heavy, poignant text.

Ultimately, God is THE Judge.  Though God raised up men and women alike to lead the nation of Israel and rescue the people from oppression at the hands of their enemies, ultimately God Himself is the judge.  Jephthah's words to the king of the Ammonites in 11.27 make this point clear: "The Lord, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon."  Jephthah's own personal story -- despite the great victory he won as Israel's judge -- is a tragic reminder of this very fact: that the Lord alone rules with equity and flawless judgment.

One of the larger, undergirding themes of the book of Judges is therefore the insufficiency of man's leadership.  You and I wholeheartedly acknowledge this truth at the same time we deny it, because we all have our heroes as much as we have our scapegoats.  The guy I vote for is the only candidate worthy of the job; the guy who gets in instead is inept and unqualified.  The last boss knew what he was doing, but the new guy is a joke.  Moreover, when we find ourselves in leadership roles, we are even more likely to forget the reality that human leadership is flawed, because we envision ourselves to be fair, moral human beings perfectly capable of (and entitled to the right of) meting out justice.

While the Judges of Israel were men and women chosen specifically by God, they were still sinners who exhibited critical lapses of judgment.  Sometimes, it's difficult to find even a shred of godliness in these figures (i.e. Samson).  And we sometimes struggle with understanding why God empowers some and not others.  But all of this points to the reality that God alone is perfectly just, and that He alone rules with perfect holiness.  This fact reminds us that, although we are subject to imperfect human institutions and required by God Himself to honor them, those who hold power in this world are not above error or worthy of our unwavering allegiance.

Israel's repentance was genuine (if short-lived).  And therefore, God's mercy and restoration were genuine as well.  God would not have called the judges to restore the people had their cries of contrition not been in earnest.  Unfortunately, it was only after they'd tried everything else, endured oppression for as long as they could on their own power, and clung to the false gods of the surrounding nations that they would finally remember the Lord and His goodness.  Out of their sorrow, they would cry for help, and God -- impatient to rescue His people from their plight (10.16) -- would respond.

This is a powerful reminder that, though we often fall repeatedly into the same sins, God's mercy remains.  One of my favorite worship lyrics comes from Laura Story's "Indescribable": "You see the depths of my heart, and you love me the same."  I can take confidence in the fact that, though I am weak and still subject to temptation, my status as His child is unchanged, and His grace is never rescinded.

While it's impossible to identify a singular root cause of the pattern of rebellion we see in Judges, it seems to me that the cycles are largely generational.  One generation does what is evil in the sight of the LORD, comes to repentance after a decade or so of oppression, and God raises a judge to defeat the enemy and give the people rest, but then they ultimately fail to impart to their children the importance of sacred devotion to the Lord.  And so, 18-20 years later, this new generation -- poorly taught and still beset by the foreign nations their forefathers failed to eradicate -- is doomed to walk the same path as their parents.

Certainly not every single member of the previous generation had died off by the time of the next rebellion, nor were they  immune to the allure of temptation.  Furthermore, every man and woman is ultimately responsible for his or her own sin (Ezek 18.20; Jas 1.14).  But in a similar situation to the wilderness wanderings of the Mosaic era, the parents ultimately failed to teach their children well, setting them up to repeat their own failures.  This is what prompted Moses to deliver the series of speeches just outside the Promised Land that comprise the book of Deuteronomy, because the children had no "knowledge of good or evil" (Deut 1.39), despite the miraculous experiences of their parents in the wilderness.

We would do well to take this indictment of parenting to heart: we should endeavor to teach our children well about the Lord's goodness as well as our own failures, so that they are prepared for the temptations they themselves will face and will (hopefully) seek the Lord's will rather than their own.

The life lessons we give to our children should be saturated with Scriptural truth, not just practical wisdom.

God does not condone human violence.  This is especially difficult to grasp when reading the Old Testament, the pages of which drip with the blood of slaughtered peoples, families, and nations -- Israeli and Gentile alike.  In the book of Judges alone there is enough brutality to satisfy Game of Thrones audiences.  However, the violence in Judges is always directly connected to the people's sin.  God had promised repeatedly that, were the Israelites to walk in worshipful obedience, they would live in peace and prosperity with His sovereign protection shielding them from their enemies.  Instead, Israel first failed to complete the conquest of the land, and then descended into all kinds of depravity as a direct result.  The judgment for this was the oppression of the foreign nations, which in turn necessitated war to free the people of Israel once they acknowledged their error.

Even within that framework, most of the violent activity we see in Judges is excessive and not God-sanctioned.  For example, cruelty such as the severing of Adoni-bezek's thumbs and big toes (1.6), the killing that resulted from Abimelech's power struggle (Ch. 9), Gibeah's crime and the Levite's grotesque response (19.22-30), which in turn prompted Israel's civil war with the tribe of Benjamin (Ch. 20).  These, amongst other examples, were not done at God's command, though the perpetrators were often the very men He called to lead the people (for more on this, see point #1).

Did God command the conquest of the Promised Land, in which Israel was expected to fully eradicate the peoples living there?  Yes.  Moses and Joshua both make this case very clear (e.g. Deut 7.1-2; Josh 3.10).  And the reason is that the Canaanite tribes were wicked people groups who viciously slaughtered their own neighbors and engaged in abominable practices such as child sacrifice in worship of their false gods.  They were perverse tribes who hated God and His people, and God's decisive judgment of them was as much the reason for their eradication as was fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Gen 15.16; Lev 18.24-25Deut 7.10; 9.5).  As John MacArthur put it, "The question is not why God chose to destroy these sinners, but why He had let them live so long, and why all inners are not destroyed far sooner than they are."

In the pages of Joshua, we see God's hand leading Israel to victory over wicked peoples whose iniquity was a stench upon the earth.  In Judges, it's a different story -- a worst-case scenario that unfolds again and again.  The wars that ensued after the death of Joshua were direct consequences for the people's wickedness and their failure to permanently depose the Lord's enemies.

A fuller discussion of why God commanded literal war for Israel yet requires peaceful coexistence of His church is beyond the scope of this post, but what we must remember is that even in the conquest era God never condoned human violence.  In fact, the Word attests that He hates hands that shed innocent blood (Prov 6.17), claims just vengeance for Himself (Deut 32.35Rom 12.19), and prohibits the taking of human life (Ex 20.13; 1 John 3.15).  Leading the people to seize the land promised to Abraham was an act of sovereign judgment that is in no way to be imitated by Christians in any capacity.  Frankly, no legitimate follower of Christ will commend the Crusades.  Our responsibility as His children today is not to determine for ourselves who is worthy of judgment, but to communicate the gospel message in our best, compassionate effort to -- in Paul's words -- "overcome evil with good."

In a day and age when everyone is again doing what is "right in his/her own eyes," understanding the concepts put forward in the book of Judges is more than just a lesson in ancient history.  These truths are pertinent to understanding the complexities of sin in the world, as well as embracing our own God-given responsibilities for walking in righteousness.

06 February 2017

Leviticus 18 -- A loophole for homosexuality?

When I'm defending the traditional Christian stance on homosexuality, my go-to passage is not Leviticus 18 or 20.  Nor, as a matter of fact, is it Romans 1.

I'll often approach the topic more from a Genesis 1/Ephesians 5 perspective -- God's designs for marriage and sexuality being paramount.  However, what I constantly run into is the popular argument that Leviticus 18.22's language invokes the type of sexual violence common in the time period, which would render the English reading something more akin to, "A male shall not forcibly lie with another male, as such sexual violence is an abomination."

This understanding of the subtext, while maybe not entirely inaccurate, still misses the overall context of the chapter.  It also ignores the fact that the Hebrew word translated "lie" in English to connote sexual relations, does not here carry any violent overtones.  In fact, the word translated "lie" in other Old Testament passages might have the same root, but with a different connotation when elsewhere used to connote violence or ambush (i.e. "lying in wait," as per Deut 19.11; Prov 1.11).

That said, of course rape is not a modern sin and it is not dis-included from the sexual sins addressed in the Pentateuch (see Deut 22.25).  In fact, many of the sexual deviancies listed in this passage and others would likely involve some kind of violence.  Actually, I'd argue that all of them do.  After all, incest is most often the result of one family member taking advantage of another or using him/her against his/her will (see Judah/Tamar [deception] -- Gen 38.12-26; Lot and his daughters [deception, drunkenness] -- Gen 19.30-38; Amnon/Tamar [forcible rape] -- 2 Sam 13).

I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of cases of consensual incest, of course.  Sin is tempting and seemingly justifiable for all sorts of twisted reasons.  I'm also not arguing that violence is a moot point when it comes to these sexual sins.  What I am arguing is that, if the issue at stake in Leviticus 18 were simply violence, and that the practice of homosexuality itself was acceptable on non-violent grounds, then we would be forced to say -- by that same standard -- that incestuous sexuality was also acceptable, in the case that both parties were consenting.  In other words, we can't just pigeonhole one act in this list as being explicitly violent, therefore rendering it acceptable in non-violent circumstances, and not also apply the same logic to the rest of the passage.

Ironically, this is not the perspective our culture holds when it comes to this passage -- obviously, incest is wrong (or at least not preferable) because we find that type of sexual expression unhealthy and distasteful.  Nobody marches for the rights of incestuous couples, even though there are state and national laws prohibiting legal unions between siblings and parents/offspring.  However, because our culture wants to endorse the practice of homosexuality, the caveat of forcible rape is applied to this passage to suggest a loophole that doesn't actually exist.

The larger context of the book of Leviticus is even more compelling.  The entire text resounds with the theme of God's holiness, emphasizing again and again the importance of the Israelite people living with radically different beliefs, customs, laws, and ethics than the nations surrounding them.  Specifically in Leviticus 18, the topic is sexual sins that were violations of God's standard of holiness for Israel.  As with the rest of the book, the laws He is here ordaining will separate His sanctified people from the practices of the foreign nations.  Specifically included in Leviticus 18 are incestuous acts, bestiality, sex during a woman's menstrual period, child sacrifice, and homosexuality.  The child sacrifice thing particularly seems out of place here, but the ritualistic sacrifice of children in the pagan Canaanite nations would definitely involve lewd fertility rites, and would symbolically defile maternity, paternity, and one of the divine purposes of copulation.

Again, sexual coercion or outright sexual violence is implied in nearly all the acts listed here, which is not excusable or unimportant.  But the central thrust of this passage is the bigger theme of violating God's standard of holiness -- regardless of how, when, or why they take place.  In other words, what do all these things have in common?  They all break God's design and defy God's purpose.  There are no specific details or conditions given for any of these practices, which means there are no circumstances that would render the act in question acceptable, and no circumstances that might provide a convincing case for the Almighty's approval.  In fact, the only "favorable" conditions in this text are deliberately removed from consideration -- that is, when it comes to a man taking his stepsister as a sexual partner, regardless of whether or not they grew up together, which is probably the only time we might culturally consider the incest to be a mere technicality and argue for its acceptability (18.9).  In that instance, there most likely wouldn't be any violence taking place, but it is still an act condemned for the standard it violates.

Bottom line, Leviticus 18 removes the issue of motive entirely and makes the blanket statement that any engagement in these types of practices is a violation of holiness.  For Israel to do any of them would be for them to live like the foreign nations, whom God was chastising for the very same sinful acts.  Such a disregard for holiness within the Israelite community would result in excommunication or death.  What is ultimately important, therefore, is that the specific conditions of the act in no way alter the fact that it is still sinful.

I'll leave it at that, because today's standard of what constitutes acceptable sexuality can't be determined by just what the Old Testament says about sexual conduct.  We can only dispel arguments that seek to prove homosexuality's acceptance in history, so that such twisted logic doesn't become a platform for modern acceptability.

Jesus certainly didn't come to eradicate the Law -- He came to fulfill it -- but He also came to inspire within us not a duty-bound obligation to rigorous customs, but a love for the same kind of holiness that God has always required of His people.  There is no way to reconcile any act -- that is still inherently sinful under any circumstances -- with a God whose perfect character demands perfection in His children.

And that's why the message of the cross is so potent.

The cross communicates that God loved us enough to buy us back from our enslavement to sin, at the cost of His own blood.  The cross communicates that there is a much greater consequence in store than any shade of loneliness or despair in this life can possibly foreshadow.  The cross communicates that none of us were able to fix our own problems, but that Jesus came to give us the power to make that possible.

The cross communicates that homosexuality is a sin you can be rescued from.  You are not beyond God's mercy.  Repentance is not out of the question.

The cross communicates that a far greater fulfillment awaits those who come spiritually hungry to the Lord than any human relationship can offer.

31 January 2017

Christian, please stop...

On my way to the office this morning, I noticed a quote on the side of a building near where I live.  A Google search attributed the words to Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer known for that kind of sententiae.  Regardless of its origin, the quote itself -- faded letters on the whitewashed side of a dilapidated building that I drive past nearly every day -- suddenly struck me as so very relevant.

"In quarreling, the truth is always lost."

Of course, the beauty of a slogan is its brevity, but the challenge is interpreting its true meaning.

Here's the way I see it.  We live in the midst of socially and politically turbulent times.  I don't know that there has ever been a time in our nation's recent history, outside of openly declared civil war, that its peoples have stood so internally divided.  And frankly, the issues separating Right and Left are exactly the kinds of things that are truly worth fighting about -- issues of immigration, the lives of unborn children, foreign policy.  In one way or another, these are issues of morality that I believe the Lord bears on His own heart.

But there's a disconnect, because there isn't really debate on this issues so much as there is open warfare between both sides.  And it's not a simple problem of fact-checking when it comes to deciphering who's right and who's wrong.

It's really just the problem of being quarrelsome in and of itself.

The ability to hold different opinions is at the core of American ideology, but both Left and Right seem to have forgotten how to do that with any degree of civility.  Commentary on popular issues from both sides is entirely hateful, vengeful, and destructive.  Protest marches are only peaceful in the sense that no one is openly carrying weapons.  Media coverage from both Right and Left are unabashedly biased, sourcing different information and seeking only to demoralize and vilify the opposition, never allowing for misunderstanding, proper context, or genuine rebuttal.  Statistics are manipulated and rendered useless by both sides.  And even as the masses acknowledge the problems inherent to mainstream media coverage, we swallow it.  And in so doing, we allow the rage to fester.  We seek to dominate the other side rather than defuse the tension by coming to terms.

We lose our way and our identities in the quarrel -- along with what we were even fighting about.

I can't really tell anyone who doesn't hold to Christian ideals how to conduct themselves on these issues.  But for those of us who do confess the name of Jesus, here's a couple things that I beg of those within the church to please, please stop doing.

Christian, please stop needlessly quarreling.

The internet, the news, and the world are all viciously embroiled with conflict.  The noise is sickening: the combatants on both sides are men and women who can't see past their own ideals and preferences, who would rather see the opposition as criminals rather than fellow human beings, who could never swallow the possibility that they themselves might actually be in the wrong.

It is so critical that we as Christians temper our public critique with love and humility -- that is, after first determining if it is even necessary for us to speak at all.

You don't need to prove your point to those who hold the opposite opinion.  They have as much right to hold their perspective as you do, and it's between them and God Himself whether or not they're wrong.  Your job is not to change somebody else's moral standard, their political affiliation, or their stance on Creation.  Your job, when you speak out, is to introduce people to the love and hope of Jesus Christ that you yourself have experienced.  When Jesus instructed His followers to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, I don't think He was talking only about those who are literally shooting at us, but also those who can't see eye-to-eye with us, and those who hurl mixed insults and falsehood.

Truth is lost when we quarrel -- the true facts of whatever we're arguing about, not to mention our real purpose in entering the argument in the first place.  If we must disagree (and on some of these issues, we must), let's do it with poise and a desire to hear out the other side before we even begin to open our mouths (Jas 1.19).  Furthermore, let's also consider the time and the place.  At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, the internet is not really the place to wage war.  YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram comments are not going to influence someone the way one-on-one conversation can.  The greatest impact to be had is on individuals with whom we have personal relationships, so we must start there, not with a keyboard soapbox.

I know we all burn to speak in the face of falsehood and deception, which we see lots of in the modern political climate.  And by no means am I suggesting that we should just hold our tongues and bear up in silence.  However, we should seek to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the holy calling with which the gospel has ensnared our hearts (Eph 4.1-3), and not simply act out of a desire to correct erroneous perceptions and set records straight.  That kind of vindication will truly come from only one place (Rom 12.19).

Christian, please stop making your local church body a political platform. 

First, it should not be the primary agenda of the church to seek to influence politics.  The church's primary agenda should be seeking to influence its congregants and the world with the gospel (2 Cor 5.18-19).  Don't get me wrong, the church should address political issues from the pulpit and spend much time praying for our nation and its leaders... so that the people as individuals may have positive influence within their communities, the local government, and their political affiliates.  But we must be careful not to confuse a shortsighted goal for an eternal one and potentially damage the image and influence of our congregations in the eyes of our larger communities.

Second, don't assume that you speak for everyone in your congregation.  Christians need to stop lumping all so-called "Leftist liberals" into the same category, just the same as they must stop assuming all "good" Christians are hardcore Republicans.  Believe it or not, a good number of true fellow brothers and sisters in Christ identify more strongly with "them" than with "us."  In other words, YES -- allegiance to Christ CAN and DOES surpasses voter registration.  You should never assume that every Christian holds the same political values as you, or that everyone who disagrees with you is "the enemy."

Do many in the opposing camp hold ideals contrary to the morals of Scripture?  Certainly.  But not all of them do.  And furthermore, it's comical to be offended by the fact that an individual who doesn't adhere to the same standard as we do might practice or support things contrary to what we ourselves believe to be right.  In other words, why should people who aren't Christians act like they are?  Does that actually gain them anything in the light of eternity?  Be careful -- if you said, "Yes!" then you might be preaching a gospel of works rather than a gospel of grace.  If those on the "other side" are truly in need of rescue, then let's first address hearts, not behaviors.

Whether you identify as a Democrat or a Republican, assuming the guilt of the other side impairs your ability to understand the complexity of the issues at stake and also keeps you from engaging on an individual basis.  No one side or the other is immune to hypocrisy or human error -- or, for that matter, the tendency to cover up rather than confess such things.

In that regard, no matter who he may be as an individual, and no matter what political party he spearheads, we need to remember that the president is not the Messiah.  The One who truly claims that title died a long time ago to save you from a much bigger need.  And while God might use the current administration to accomplish His purposes, that doesn't mean that the president is acting with that perspective in mind, nor does it mean that he is the answer to all the issues facing our country.

On the other hand, even if you're of the opinion that the man currently behind the Oval Office desk deserves neither honor nor your respect... well, frankly, not a one among us deserves those things from our peers either.  The grace of the Father is only applicable to sinners who admit their own unworthiness, after all.  Personally, I didn't vote for Donald Trump.  Even though I might align with a number of his policies, I could not in good conscience support the man for the role of president.  But all things considered, he is now in the position of Commander-in-Chief, and I should do my best to demonstrate both honor and respect, the same as I did with Barack Obama (for whom I also didn't vote, by the way).  As Christians, we are responsible to respect those in authority over us, even in a place where we are Scripturally obligated to speak out against them.

Christian, please stop elevating American ideals to the place of Scripture.

I've ruffled feathers with this before, but it is one of my deep convictions that Jesus didn't die for my right to vote, own a gun, or say whatever the heck I want in any given forum.  Our Founding Fathers certainly did, and I -- like you -- am deeply thankful for it.  But Jesus gave Himself for something much bigger.  That sacrifice, that of God on behalf of all humankind, should enable us to engage in disagreements with those who hold opposite political viewpoints with a degree of intentional aloofness, because this world -- this nation -- is not our home, and the laws and liberties we hold dear are nowhere promised to us in the pages of Scripture.

As a matter of fact, Jesus and the Apostles both preached that living the life of a truly engaged disciple is to incur hostility, persecution, and even physical altercation -- not rights, freedoms, and liberties (John 15.20; Rom 5.31 Pet 2.19).  While God does give countless blessings to mankind, the New Testament resounds with the theme that when we are truly living lives that demonstrate our faith in and allegiance to our Savior, we will be on the receiving end of animosity.  Let us be cautious, then, to incur the world's hatred not for the hypocrisy of preaching love, peace, and justice on the picket lines with angry signs in the air, but for our faithful commitment to true religion -- the love of orphans, widows, and the afflicted; and the lifelong pursuit of self-control and holiness (Jas 1.27).

So let's not quarrel over the peripheral stuff.  Let's be earnest, and disagree about it with civility, respect, and humility.  Let's not obscure the truth of Christianity with the idolatry of American ideals.  Let's uphold the good of our nation in an open-handed way -- not with a lack of careless regard for the issues at stake, but with a greater sense of what we possess in Christ for all eternity.  Let's fight for the life of the unborn and the protection of the refugee without tearing down the entire institution.  Let's make it a priority to deal one-on-one with individuals, because it is in our real relationships with real people that we can affect real change.

Let's not quarrel at all, because quarreling only obscures truth.  As Christians, listening first and carefully choosing our battles can go much farther toward affecting change in the world around us than can getting needlessly red in the face.