The Gospel Streamed

The Gospel Streamed

I sat down expecting to be disappointed. Religious television and movies have dissatisfied my artistic, historical, and theological sensibilities so often over the years that my wife, who had already seen the episode, had to nudge a bit to get me to watch.

I came away profoundly moved and ready to buy the first season of The Chosen, a new streaming television series on the life of Jesus as experienced by his followers. It is billed as the largest crowd-funded production in television history and it doesn’t disappoint.

Artistically, The Chosen is very satisfying. The scenery, the videography, the acting, plot lines and story structure draw you in and keep you engaged. Often, in Bible-based films, one or more of those elements is so bad it’s like hearing a soloist mangle the Star-Spangled Banner. You just wish they’d left it alone. Not here. Only a few of the actors were recognizable. Eric Avari (The Mummy, Independence Day, The Brink) plays a nuanced Nicodemus. Jonathon Roumie (The Good Wife, Fallout 4) plays a kind and believable Jesus. But none hit a flat note.

Historically, The Chosen hits its marks with credibility. The interplay between Matthew the tax collector and his Roman body guard and between Nicodemus and a Roman Centurion rings true to what we know of the relationships between oppressed and oppressor. Andrew and Peter’s fishing boat and business and their interaction with tax collector Matthew are also believable.

I’ve only seen the first episode, available here for free, but so far, The Chosen doesn’t disappoint in the spiritual or theological arena either. In fact, just the opposite. Director Dallas Jenkins, son of well-known evangelical author Jerry Jenkins, is a Bible-believing evangelical who has “zero desire to mess with Scripture or make some sort of new theological point. This is about telling these stories in a way that makes the moments in Scripture even more impactful.”[1] Justin Tolley, a producer on the project, agrees. “We don’t want to roll one frame that’s contrary to the Word of God. We want to do it with excellence, to give God our best.”[2] Show consultants include a New Testament scholar and a Messianic Jewish rabbi.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of the culture. This is the greatest story ever and in The Chosen it is being well told. So far so good, but there is one fly in the ointment. VidAngel, the streaming service they’ve partnered with just lost a big legal battle with the Hollywood movie industry that has the potential to kill the service. That would force the producers to go with another platform that may not be as friendly to The Chosen’s production values. That would be a shame.

If you’re looking for something edifying to watch with excellent production values, I encourage you to try The Chosen, or look up their Facebook page for trailers and background videos. You won’t be disappointed.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/interview-dallas-jenkins-first-multi-season-drama-life-christ/

[2] From The Chosen Facebook page.

CLOSE CALLS AND THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD

CLOSE CALLS AND THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD

My friend and fellow pilot, Lee Hilty, had a close call Saturday night. The main rotor blade of his Robinson R22 helicopter hit about fifty feet up a sixty-foot tree, chopping the top off the tree and destroying the helicopter. One of the gas tanks separated from the craft and the other caught fire. The chopper fell about fifty feet with Lee in it, hit the ground, and burned.

Lee walked away, albeit with significant injuries. His report on the accident is quoted below, then I’ll make a few observations about providence.

“Hey Everyone! Thank the good Lord that I am alive! A slight mistake on takeoff was all it was.

I was at a friend’s house for supper at his private airstrip. The last thing I remember is playing rook. The friend said that I told him that I was going to hover, turn 180 degrees, then depart down his runway to the south, which would have cleared all trees in the area. This was in the dark of course. Instead, I hovered, turned 160 degrees and departed and hit a tree.

I remember seeing a flash of a pine tree. At this point, I was 50-60’ in the air. Somehow, the helicopter came down. Somehow, the helicopter stayed level. Somehow, I unbuckled my seat-belt. And somehow, I walked away from the helicopter myself.

If any one of these “somehow” things had not happened, I would not be here. I feel so blessed to have so many friends that are more than willing to say a nice word, to offer a prayer, to pay a visit or offer a helping hand. Thank you all very much!”

Providence is the practical outworking of the will of God in the lives of men that appears from our perspective as tragedy, chance, or circumstance.

As Winston Churchill wrote: “The longer one lives, the more one realizes that everything depends upon chance, and the harder it is to believe that this omnipotent factor in human affairs arises simply from the blind interplay of events. Chance, Fortune, Luck, Destiny, Fate, Providence, seem to me only different ways of expressing the same thing, to wit, that a man’s own contribution to his life story is continually dominated by an external superior power.”[1]

I have been a pastor for twenty-seven years and had many encounters with God’s providence. In each case the issue of life or death usually comes down to a unique set of circumstances, often micro-second timing. A few inches, a slight turn, one way or the other, and someone lives, or someone dies.

From our point of view these events are completely random, but not from God’s. As Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”[2]

But that often leads to another question: If God is completely sovereign, why should we take precautions?

Commenting on Deuteronomy 22:8, the command to provide parapets on roof tops lest someone fall off, John Calvin wrote, “For he who has set the limits to our life has at the same time entrusted to us its care; He has provided means and helps to preserve it, he has also made us able to foresee dangers; that they may not overwhelm us unaware, he has offered precautions and remedies. Now it is very clear what our debt is: Thus if the Lord had committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them…Thus folly and prudence are instruments of the divine dispensation.”[3]

Lee made a simple mistake, but the prudence that led our civilization to develop seat belts, energy absorbing cockpit seat frames and landing skids,  volunteer fire departments, hospitals, emergency rooms, burn units, and life flight helicopter services probably saved his life.

In a fallen world there is no such thing as life without risk, but with the right rules and procedures, risk can be mitigated. So, as the old saying goes: “Trust God and keep your powder dry.” Or, trust God, buckle-up, and put the phone down!

[1] Winston Churchill in Winston S. Churchill: Thoughts and Adventures. Christianity Today, Vol. 41, no. 12.

[2] Matthew 10:29-30

[3] Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

It’s February 13th and romance is in the air, or at least around the corner. Which leads me to ask this question: Do you know what the Bible teaches about romance and sex? Do your kids?

Most Evangelicals don’t and we’re suffering from it. We found out the hard way when our grown children, all three godly, intelligent young women, told us what a lousy job we did teaching them. Their verdict went something like this: “You did exactly what most Evangelical parents do with their children on this issue: freaked us out, scared us to death, and generally made us feel like sex is the last thing on earth we would ever want to have anything to do with, even in marriage. Other than that, you were great parents!”

When it came to sex, romance, and the Bible, we thought our daughters were fine. But like Mark Wahlberg said in The Italian Job, “you know what fine means? Freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

OK, they weren’t that bad, but it wasn’t acceptable either. That drove me to a Bible study on The Song of Songs. I benefited from Douglas Sean O’Donnell’s THE SONG OF SOLOMON: An Invitation to Intimacy, among others.  Here are my top five lessons from Solomon on love, sex, and romance.

The Bible Celebrates Our Bodies

The Bible does not separate body from soul, matter from spirit, or godly purity from physical passion. It does not devalue the human body. It exalts it. Think of the incarnation! Think of the bodily resurrection! There is no belittling of sensual delights. Jesus turned the water into vintage wine! And he did it at a wedding! There is no contradiction between spirituality and sexuality, between loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your spouse with your body. Enjoy it. It’s a gift from God.

Words Have Erotic Power

The Song is some of the most evocative and erotic poetry ever written, but none of it is coarse or crude. The lovers teach us to praise two things: physical beauty and character, and to be specific. Fill in the blanks about your lover’s body: Your eyes are … Your lips are … Your neck is … Your voice is …. Your skin is … Your fragrance is … Fill in the blanks about your lover’s character: Your mind is … Your personality is … Your heart is … Your skills are …  The right words spark the fires of romance. The wrong ones snuff them out.

Timing is Everything

Lovers must make time for love, especially after children arrive. A man’s body works like a smoke detector: one whiff of the right perfume and he is on fire, all his bells and whistles blaring. Women’s bodies are like flowers at dawn, they wake up slowly in the sunlight of affectionate attention. Either way, wise lovers make time for love and don’t rush things.

Risk Heightens Eros

Risk plays a big role in romance. We love the risk-taking lovers: The young man who risks big bucks to follow his love to France, just to demonstrate his love; the teenager who put 500 sticky-note invitations to the prom on his girlfriend’s car; the guy who pays the skywriter big bucks to write “Will you marry me?” in the air above the football game as he kneels and holds out a ring. The extravagance and risk of failure or rejection communicates something powerful to the beloved: I WANT YOU MORE THAN MONEY, PRIDE OR SAFETY. I WOULD THROW MY LIFE AWAY TO HAVE YOU. Risk heightens Eros.

All the Roses Come with Thorns

East of Eden the “rhythm of married life is that of frustration and delight.”[1] There is a natural ebb and flow to romantic love, and the differences in our personalities and stress levels make it difficult to communicate. Be patient and forgiving with each other. The flower is no less sweet for the thorns.

As the book of Proverbs is good for all but addressed primarily to young men, so the Song of Songs is wisdom for all but addressed primarily to young women with their mothers as the primary teacher (8:2). Sing the Song for your daughters as they reach the right age and they will be far more than fine when they’re grown.

[1] David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1991), p.313.

BETTER THAN MEDICINE Health Benefits of a Grateful Heart

BETTER THAN MEDICINE Health Benefits of a Grateful Heart

I have a file labeled: When Science Catches Up with Scripture. Stories from all over find their way into that file; from law, medicine, the natural sciences, child rearing, business, archaeology, and psychology. To qualify, the story must record observations or research on a topic—that’s the science part—that “discover” something already revealed in the Bible. I get a chuckle out of these stories because most of them sound so, “Aha! We’ve found something totally new!” But to those of us familiar with Scripture, they sound like children celebrating when the square block fits the square hole.

I hope to write a book about it one day and if I do the power of gratitude will be one of the chapters.

U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT reported on it in 2001 with HAPPINESS EXPLAINED. Harvard Medical School ran a story titled, IN PRAISE OF GRATITUDE in 2011. And BE THANKFUL: Science says gratitude is good for your health, appeared on the Today Show in 2015.

Much of the research on the topic has been performed by Dr. Michael C. McCollough, of the University of Miami, and Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis. A few of their findings on the practice of gratitude include better sleep, lowered blood pressure, and better immune systems. Other researchers found the habit of gratitude associated with less fatigue, lower inflammation, and healthier heart rhythms.[1]

Or, as Scripture has it: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength. [2] That’s the Scripture part, written some 3,000 years ago 😉

But key words in the reports are “habit” and “practice.” Like physical workouts, the benefits of gratefulness come only to those who exercise their gratitude muscles often. Want to bench-press some of those benefits into your life? Try these routines:

Journal your gratitude. Write down five things per week for which you are grateful. The process forces us to pause and think about the good things in our lives and writing makes a permanent record to help us remember. That’s a good thing!

Write thank-you notes. It cheers up others as it increases our gratitude quotient. Win-Win!

Thank your mate daily. Husbands and wives who thank their spouses for the little things have less trouble working through problems in their marriages. Find specific things to thank them for and do it daily.

Compare down, not up, and give something away. It’s easy to find people more privileged and envy them. Most advertisements are designed to make us unhappy with what we have so that we’ll buy something else. But those are gratitude killers. Contentment comes to those who realize how good they have it and share their abundance with others less fortunate.

When Christ’s disciples returned from their first mission trip, they celebrated saying, “Even the demons were subject to us in your name!” But Jesus reminded them: “Do not rejoice in that, but that rather your names are written in the book of life.”  If you have not yet received Jesus Christ as your savior and Lord I urge you to do it today. For He is the greatest of all reasons to give thanks. Thank God for providing you with eternal life through faith in his Son and no matter what troubles come your way, you will always have something to celebrate.

Happy thanks-giving! It’s better than medicine!

[1] Adapted from Lauren Dunn, “Be thankful: Science says gratitude is good for your health,” TODAY (5-12-17)

[2] Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Pr 17:22). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

Eugene Peterson, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, has died at age 85. One of Peterson’s lesser known works, Eat This Book, includes this challenging word: “The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses … gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken up at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit.”[1]

Peterson was right, but his challenge raises a serious question: How can we know we are interpreting Scripture correctly? Perhaps more important, since most pastors—including this one—often preach topical sermons with collections of verses from different books of the Bible, how can we be sure they are getting it right?

Accurate Bible interpretation is a big subject so I’m boiling it down to five steps anyone can take toward accuracy. The steps are a summary of the study method Haddon Robinson teaches in his book, Biblical Preaching. They are so simple anyone with a high school education can use them.

First, read a paragraph or better yet a chapter at a time. Note any questions you have about it. Are there cultural, historical, grammatical, geographical references or vocabulary you don’t understand? Is it poetry, history, story, wisdom literature, or prophecy? Each literary type has associated interpretive guidelines. We do not interpret poetry for instance with the same level of specificity as law. Jot down your questions to look up later.

Why whole paragraphs? Paragraphs as opposed to individual verses, are complete units of thought. Later translations like the NIV and ESV identify them in the typeset. But most important, read complete thought units, not just verses.

Second, ask: What’s the subject? What’s the author talking about? Example: In Ephesians 6:10-20, the Apostle Paul is talking about spiritual warfare, our struggle “against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world…” That’s his subject, the main thing he’s addressing in the paragraph.

Third, ask: What’s the compliment? In other words, what is he saying about the subject? In our passage he’s saying, “Be strong in the Lord … put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand…” He could have said, “Run away!” But he didn’t. He said to take a stand. That’s the compliment.

Fourth, ask: What’s the context? What is said about the subject in the sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and rest of the book that precede and follow that paragraph? What about the rest of the Bible? Do we see Jesus, Peter, or any of the other writers addressing spiritual warfare? Can we—keeping the contexts of their comments in mind as well—legitimately apply their insights and knowledge to Paul’s? This is where many Bible interpreters get in trouble. Context is king. “A text without a context is a pretext,” someone said. Context is even more important than vocabulary because it gives shading and a frame of reference for individual words.

Fifth, ask: What principles do I see emerging from my analysis? One of the most prominent in Ephesians 6:10-20 is that God expect us to stand strong in the battles, not to run away. Courage, faith, fortitude, and above all preparation, “putting on the full armor,” are supporting principles but taking a stand seems to be the main one.

You may need to answer some of your questions from step one before you can take that fifth step. Most good study Bibles, like the NIV Study Bible or The ESV Study Bible etc. will help as will a good online resource like BlueLetterBible.org.

We should never read a text of scripture and ask: What do you think it means? That invites us to use the Bible simply as a mirror to reflect what we feel in the moment. We don’t find its meaning in ourselves, we find it in the text as the authors wrote it. Ask, “what did Paul mean? What did Luke or John or Matthew or Moses mean?” That’s the way to interpret the Bible or any other text. Then we take that meaning and build bridges for how it might apply in our time and culture. The NIV Application Commentary is structured like that. It’s easy to read and a good addition to any Bible study library.

These five steps will take anyone who uses them to a deeper level of understanding than most people ever develop about the Bible.

And what about your preacher? It all boils down to trust. Has he demonstrated over time that he knows and respects the Scriptures well enough that he will not turn a text into a pretext and make it say something the Bible never said? No one gets it right one hundred percent of the time, but if he’s following these principles he’ll be close.

[1] Pg. 101. Quoted from John Stonestreet’s Breakpoint Facebook post of October 22, 2018.

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

I was approaching agoraphobia—the inability to be in a crowd—and didn’t know it, but then, I didn’t know much of anything about anxiety disorders in 1980. All I knew was that I had trouble sleeping, I was constantly worried, I felt terribly alone, incessantly churning down inside. I had been a confident, risk-taking teen, but by age twenty all that was gone. I was so uncertain of myself that I stayed in my car between classes at the junior college and drove straight home after lunch to spend the rest of the day alone and miserable. The only way I could describe it was that it felt like I was free-falling, with no bottom in sight and no rope to stop me.

If any of that sounds familiar, then you may be among the thirty-odd percent of Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, have an anxiety disorder. It’s even worse among college students, 62% of whom reported “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016 according to The New York Times.[1]

The search for peace is driving unprecedented sales of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, over 15.2 billion dollars and rising in 2015.[2] The medications have helped many people. And the more we learn about the brain the better. But finding peace is about more than balanced brain chemistry. It’s about inner harmony. Bottom-line: if our souls are out of balance the medications will only mask problems, problems that, if resolved, might preclude the need for medications.

It behooves us to ask then, what exactly is peace?

Peace means wholeness. Shalom—fullness of life—is the old Hebrew word. Harmony, which comes from the Greek Ireinei (pronounced I-Ray-nye), “at one again,” is another. When I have inner peace I am at one, I am whole. My mind and heart are in harmony and every part of me is in agreement. Inner peace has little to do with external circumstances and everything to do with how my mind and heart respond to those circumstances. One thing is certain: I cannot have peace with others if I do not have peace within.

We chase peace in many ways.

Fame is one, the search for which is exacerbated by social media. Teens especially are vulnerable. When we are well-known (translation: many “friends” and “followers”) and well liked, the center of attention, we have peace. But the peace of fame is fleeting. It leaves us empty and anxious when the spotlight turns, as it inevitably will, to someone else.

Perfection is another. Pursuing perfection makes us feel an inch taller than everyone else. Ben Franklin had thirteen rules of virtue but found he could never keep them all at once. Eventually we hit the wall, the end of our ability to achieve whatever goal we set be it athletic, musical, moral or financial. When that happens, peace is replaced by frustration, another word for anxiety.

Finally, some pursue peace through conformity to a sub-culture: We’re Goths or Gays, Progressives or MAGA’s, Baptists or Brethren. Conformity is sturdy, reliable. The boundaries are clear and so are the “ins” and the “outs.” But conformity offers peace only to insiders. It erects barriers to outsiders. In the end, conformity is the peace of prison. Life stops at the gates.

The Bible explains where our anxiety comes from. We are fragmented, incomplete creatures, created whole in the image of God but broken at the fall. We are jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, un-synchronized and incomplete without relationship with Him who made us.

The Bible also offers the path to peace: Jesus. “For he himself is our peace,” wrote Paul, “who made the two one.” Jesus is our peace because of two things: His personal wholeness, he is shalom personified, and his work of redemption. He restored our broken relationship with God.

Jesus is the only unfragmented person who ever lived. He is complete, lacking nothing. “In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.”[3]

Jesus restored, synchronized and harmonized, our relationship with God. “We have peace with God through” him.[4] He filled up what was lacking in us by “making us complete” in himself.[5] He unifies our minds in peace, overcoming our mental fragmentation by the control of his Spirit.[6]

In March of 1980 I gave my life to Christ, asking him to take control, and experienced the “peace that passes understanding.” The falling stopped, and my feet were finally on solid ground. I have had many ups and downs since then, but the rock beneath my feet has never moved. Aren’t you ready to do the same?

[1] https://www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/10/18/why-extreme-anxiety-is-at-an-all-time-high-among-american-students

[2] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/anxiety-disorders-and-depression-treatment-market

[3] Colossians 2:9

[4] Romans 5:1

[5] Colossians 2:10

[6] Romans 8:6 & 9.

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

Maybe you remember one of my favorite scenes from the first Indiana Jones movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The villain, French archaeologist Beloche’, leans in to the drunk, grieving hero who believes he’s just lost his girlfriend, “Jones!” he insists, “the Ark is a radio for speaking to God!”

“You wanna talk to God?” the angry Jones slurs as he reaches for his pistol and begins to stand, “Let’s go see him together. I got nothing better to do!”

But before Beloche’s thugs can gun him down, friend Sala’s children rush in shouting, “Uncle Indy, come quick!” and haul him away to safety.

Everybody wants to communicate with God, but fewer and fewer seem to know how. That’s become apparent in many pastoral conversations I’ve had recently.

“How can I tell if this is what God wants us to do?”

“How can I have a more fulfilling spiritual life?”

“Why are there so many different kinds of churches and what distinguishes one from the other?”

These questions and others like them come up more and more often and, even though the questions are quite different, I find my answers keep circling back to the same theme: what the Bible is and what it does in our lives.

The Bible is the Word of God and therefore speaks with absolute authority on every theme it addresses. But don’t take my word for it.

Jesus, whom the Apostle John called “the Word,”–another way of saying God incarnate—also called the Old Testament, “the word of God.”[1] The Apostle Peter explained that the prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit.” He also designated Paul’s writings as equal in authority to “the rest of the Scriptures.”[2] And, most notably, Paul explained that all Scripture is “God breathed,” in other words, inspired by God and therefore completely authoritative.

Without the Bible we cannot know how to become a Christian, how to live as a Christian, or how to grow up into full spiritual maturity. Our response to the Bible is first to seek to understand it, then trust it, then obey it. When we do these things we are understanding, trusting, and obeying God.[3]

More than anything else, what distinguishes one church from another is how they think about Scripture. Is it the only authority for all matters? Or is it one among many? It doesn’t matter very much which label a church wears, what matters is its commitment to Scripture as the Word of God.

Those are the basics about the Bible, but something much more powerful, much more transformative and fulfilling awaits when we commit ourselves to reading, understanding, trusting and obeying it. It’s best captured in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [4]

This book is alive. The Spirit of God breathed it into the lives of its authors and breathes through its pages still, as they are read, studied, and preached, accomplishing several things in our souls that only it can do.

It awakens within us the knowledge of God’s holiness, our sin and separation from him, his love for us in Christ, and the salvation available only through him.[5] It reveals to us our true selves before the one true God who is full of holy love, speaking tender words of illumination, conviction, encouragement, and power for his children.[6] It gives us God’s wisdom for living healthy, joyful, meaningful lives.[7]

The list goes on and on, but I’m running out of space.

Want your questions answered? A spiritually fulfilling life? A radio for speaking to God? Read the Bible, trust it, learn how to properly interpret and apply it, and above all obey it. You will be speaking to God, and more importantly, he will be speaking to you.

[1] John 10:35

[2] 2 Peter 1:21 & 2 Peter 3:16.

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, p. 17

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 4:12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] Acts 2:22-41; Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-15

[6] Hebrews 4:12; 2nd Peter 1:3-4;

[7] 1Cor. 2:6-13; James 3:1; Proverbs 2:1-15.