AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

THE BILOXI BLESSING

THE BILOXI BLESSING

The woman was working hard, digging in her front yard, planting azaleas and poinsettias, obviously enjoying herself. She called to my wife and me as her little dog skittered and barked his way toward us, “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly!” And sure enough, he was.

We were taking our daily walk in a neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, while our then teen-aged daughter took a voice lesson.

“He is friendly!” I said as she dropped another plant in the dirt and filled in around it.

“He’s a survivor too,” she said. “We both swam under the door frame and out of our house or we would have drowned in Katrina.”

“You’re from the Gulf then?”

“Yes. Biloxi. They said my house would never flood so I never bought flood insurance. You can bet I have it for this house!” She filled us in on how they escaped the hurricane and what it took to rebuild and finally be able to sell out and move to Durham.

“Wow, what a coincidence to meet you. A bunch of guys from our church went down in 2006 to help a Biloxi family rebuild.” I said as we headed off down the street in the quiet neighborhood. “We’ll see you later!”

We returned just in time to be called in to consult with the voice teacher, so we didn’t have time to resume our chat with the neighbor. But as we were backing the car out of the driveway, she dusted off her hands and hurried out to the street. I could tell she felt urgent about something, so I rolled down my window.

“You said your church helped people rebuild in Biloxi?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please tell them how grateful all of us are? I have friends whose insurance took four years to settle. Some still have no home. Had it not been for the Churches and all the Christians that came down to help us we never would have made it. Please tell them how much we appreciate it. And tell them this: A lot of people who had not gone to church in a long time started going again when they experienced the love of the Churches. And a lot of people got saved. Would you tell them that for us? And tell them thank you?”

“I sure will! And thanks for sharing your story!”

We had that conversation in 2009. Many hurricanes have come and gone since then, and the people of God are still helping rebuild. So, to everyone who helped, in whatever way, the people devastated by Katrina, Florence, Harvey, Michael, and others, know for certain that God used your efforts. You blessed others with his love, and you are blessed by the survivors in return.

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

“I can’t be part of something I’m not sure I believe,” said Sam, “but thanks for inviting us.” Sam, his wife Shelley, and his daughter Chelsey were our new neighbors. Our kids were friends and they seemed open, so I had invited them to church.

I appreciated Sam’s honesty and integrity, so we just prayed, built a great relationship, and looked for opportunities to introduce them to Jesus. But then Sam’s career path took them to Memphis. We were sad when they moved, but we kept in touch via email.

A few years went by until one day Sam pulled into my driveway. He was in town for a few hours to check on his house and tenants. We talked for an hour. The sun was setting and the mosquitoes biting when Sam said, “I just thought you’d want to know that we’ve been attending a church in Memphis.”

I said, “That’s great! But I’m curious. You said when we were neighbors that you couldn’t be part of something you weren’t sure you believed. What happened?”

Sam’s reply was instructive. “The first month we were in South Boston we were invited to four different churches. Before people even got to know anything about us, they were inviting us to church. I wasn’t sure about any of it at the time. It felt like a lot of pressure.”

“What was different about the church in Memphis?” I asked.

“It had a lot of things we needed. It’s speaks to people who haven’t been to church in a long time or at all and aren’t certain about anything spiritual. We needed to be anonymous for a while, to have time to process what we were hearing. They let you do that. We needed relevant messages. Their basic theology is conservative, but they speak to issues we face every day. We needed contemporary music and informal style. They are committed to that too.”

“Wow, that’s great!” I said. “Sounds a lot like what we try to do albeit on a smaller scale.” (Sam’s church hosts three thousand on Sundays).

“We still haven’t joined the church,” he continued. “But we understand now the need to take a serious moral inventory of our lives, order our priorities and when it is time, make a 100% commitment. We’re going to do that soon.”

I couldn’t have been happier to hear what the Lord was doing in Sam’s life. I’m convinced He can do that for our neighbors today. After all, it isn’t the first time He has led his church to adapt itself to the needs of people far from God. As the Apostle Paul wrote: Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:19-23 NIV).

Sam’s church ‘became like Sam in order to win Sam.’

Maybe you know someone like Sam. Let me ask you to do three things. First, pray for him and his family all summer. Ask God to heighten his curiosity about spiritual things. Second, love him. Spend the time to get to know him. Third, invite—but don’t pressure him—to attend the Alpha Course with you (www.alphausa.org). The course is designed for people who are seeking but just not sure yet what they believe. It gives people time to process what they’re learning within a supportive, no-pressure, community.

You never can tell what God might do if you’ll be a no-pressure friend to your neighbor.

DEALING WITH ANTAGONISTS

One day a farmer, who was a Quaker, was having trouble with his mule. He was trying to plow his field, and the mule was being unusually stubborn. He wouldn’t move. So, the Quaker decided to talk to him ‘reasonably’. “Thou knowest that I am a Quaker. Thou knowest that I canst not curse thee. Thou knowest that I canst not whip thee. What thou dost not know is that I can sell thee to my neighbor down the road. He is no Quaker, and he can beat the living daylights out of thee.”[1]

All of us can identify with that Quaker. We face opposition. There are things we would like to say or do. Then there are things that we can do and still call ourselves Christians.

Nehemiah chapters four thru six are a study in how to deal with opposition. The first six verses of chapter four teach us three things about handling that antagonism.

Antagonism often manifests as ridicule. All of us are vulnerable to it because all of us have glaring weaknesses. Shine the light on them and we get discouraged. Nehemiah’s enemies pointed to five: their competence, their faith, their hope, their resources, and their potential.

All of us feel incompetent at some time or other. Never more than when we’re about to try something new. And we fear the name “fanatic” because it isolates us from our peers. Every task feels bigger when our hope is undermined. We’re easily intimidated when our resources are thin. And our confidence is shaky when we the risks of failure are high.

What to do when we face that kind of antagonism?

Let me give you an encouraging thought here. When someone is ridiculing your work it probably means that they are afraid you might succeed. The best thing that you can do then is…succeed!

Notice Nehemiah’s threefold reaction.

He Does Not Respond in Kind

We can waste a lot of energy trying to right every wrong that is spoken of us. Or we can take the same energy and invest it in doing good work and let the work speak for itself. Keep reminding yourself that people ridicule you because they are afraid of your success.

He Prays

And what a prayer! “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.”[2] But what a problem for Christians! Aren’t we supposed to pray for our enemies, offer blessings instead of curses? Yes. But we live with two realities that Nehemiah did not have: The death of Christ and the life to come.[3] We know that we too are sinners, capable of injustice and slander. And we know for certain, because Jesus promise was validated by his resurrection, that all injustices will be made right by God in the end. So it is not wrong to pray for justice as long as we leave its execution to God.

The final thing Nehemiah did is the most powerful thing anyone can do in the face of ridicule.

He Got on With It

On September 18,1939 the British radio public began hearing a steady stream of ridicule from Lord Haw Haw. He was actually William Joyce, an American born Irishman who as a senior member of the British Union of Fascists, had escaped to Germany before he could be jailed. Every evening Joyce, broadcasting from Hamburg with the voice of an upper-class Englishman, ridiculed Great Britain’s losses to Germany, her lack of preparation, her hopeless situation before Germany’s superior military might. Many British subjects fell under his spell. But most did not. Most believed and followed Churchill.

Lord Haw Haw kept right on broadcasting until April 30, 1945, when British soldiers overran Hamburg.

The British did what Nehemiah and the Israelites did. They ignored the ridicule, went to work, and finished the job.

You know what happened to the Nazis. And William Joyce? They hanged him for treason on January 3, 1946.[4]

What to do in the face of ridicule?

  1. Do not return evil for evil
  2. Pray, allowing God to sort through your emotions and guide your convictions.
  3. Ignore their words and do your work – perseverance pays dividends in the end.

[1] Boice, James Montgomery; Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 50

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ne 4:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] Brown, Raymond; The Message of Nehemiah; The Bible Speaks Today Commentary pg. 74.

[4] Wikipedia.org

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.

THE GREAT HOPE

THE GREAT HOPE

“If you lose consciousness do you want me to stop at the nearest ER or do you want me to keep going to Duke?” We had already made a rapid stop on the side of 501 South near Roxboro to switch oxygen bottles when the first one ran out. My friend Paul was near unconsciousness as I fumbled the valve swap from one to the other.

“Keep going. Take me to Duke,” he said as he sucked down all the O2 from the fresh bottle that his ravaged lungs could absorb. The cancer he had been fighting for seven years was winning.

I hit the gas and tore down the highway, trusting that any police officer who might pull me over would agree with my sense of urgency.

That was April 14, 2013. My friend Paul never came home from Duke University Hospital. We buried him one month later.

Because it feels so permanent, the loss of friends and loved ones can have a devastating effect, creating a lifelong chain of grief and depression, unless we have a source of joy that is beyond the reach of death.

That source is what we celebrate this week. It is the great hope of the resurrection.

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. [1]

The resurrection changes how we experience all of life, not just the end of it. Let me give you three ways that it has changed life for me.

First, I have no fear of death. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t look forward to saying goodbye to family and friends. I don’t look forward to pain and suffering. But as the Apostle Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

Did you see that? “To die is gain…to be with Christ, is better by far.” The fact of the resurrection tells us that what Christ promised can be counted on. “In my father’s house are many rooms. I go there to prepare a place for you.” I don’t fear that place. I look forward to it.

Second, I live in hopeful expectation, of seeing loved ones yes, and friends who have believed, but the hope is far greater than that. I look forward to seeing Jesus face to face, the living Jesus I have known in his word, the presence I have known in prayer, through the veil, and in worship as “through a glass darkly.” “Now we know in part, then we shall know as we have been known.” No more shadows, no more veil but standing (or kneeling) in the presence of my King, rejoicing with him in the beauty, righteousness and glory of his kingdom, celebrating with him at the great feast of the Lamb and drinking anew with him the Cup of the Covenant.

Finally, every day is Easter to me. Every day is resurrection day. I live in the joy and freedom of the sons of God, for I too have “died to this life and been raised with him to walk in newness of life.” When I take up my own death in Christ (Romans 6) I am free to enjoy all of God’s good gifts on planet earth, good food, good fun, good friends and good love, without the fear that losing any of them to death is a permanent loss of real life. The true source of joy is beyond the reach of death.

My friend Paul knew that hope before he died. Now what about you? Where is your hope? If it is in this world alone, then count on it, you will lose it. But if you have the greatest hope, if it is in the resurrection of Christ, then you will have strength to face the loss of anyone or anything, and no one can steal your joy.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (1 Co 15:19–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.