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.

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

Pivotal moments often arrive when we least expect them. An email in the inbox, a phone call in the evening and life reaches a cross-road. A new path emerges. Will we take it? Nothing will ever be the same if we do. And nothing will ever be the same if we don’t. We want to know, need to know, is it the right one? Is God in this? How can we tell? How do we know it’s him?

A man named Nathanael had a day like that. His story is in John 1:43 – 51, a text that always intrigues. Why did Nathanael react so profoundly to Jesus’ simple statement in verse 47-48? Why, when Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree …” did Nathanael make a pivotal declaration that would change his life forever?

“You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).

Most commentators focus on verse 51, linking it to Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, and of course they are right. But that still doesn’t answer the question. Verse 51 came after verse 49. So, what happened? How did Nathanael know it was Him?

The first clue is in verse 48.

“How do you know me?” he asked. This, in response to Jesus’ comment, “Behold! An Israelite in whom is no guile!” tells us that when Jesus made that observation, he pinged something deep in the man. He revealed that he knew something about Nathanael that only God could know because Nathanael had only discussed it with God.

The fig tree is the clincher. Up until that point Nathanael could speculate that Jesus was a perceptive observer of human nature. But the fig tree in Jewish life is a literal place with a figurative meaning. A man sitting quietly under his fig tree is a man sitting in a peaceful place meditating and sharing his innermost thoughts with his creator. We might compare it to our favorite chair or place of prayer when we think quiet thoughts with God.

Imagine the topic of Nathanael’s meditation that day. What could it have been to draw such a powerful response? Something along these lines perhaps: “God I will not hide my thoughts. Nothing is hidden from you anyway. You know my going out and my coming in. I will tell you what I think and ask you my questions. Teach me your way.”

Imagine then that Nathanael goes on to speak to God about his struggles. It could be some sin or temptation. It could be unbelief or concerns about his people. It could be issues with his wife or his family or his work. We don’t need to know the specifics to identify with his struggle. We only need to know that he was being transparent with God in that moment under his fig tree. He was telling God what he really thought, even though it might not have been something he would want to say out loud at church. “God, I’m telling you the real deal here. I’m not holding anything back, not pretending to be holy. I’m just telling you the truth about what’s happening in my soul.”

I bet you’ve had discussions like that with God. I know I have. Then you open the Bible and it speaks to you in a way it never has before, or a song comes on the Christian radio station, or a man or woman of God delivers a word that pings your soul and you know without doubt that God saw you under your own fig tree. You know without doubt that your pivotal moment has come. You will confess that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” or you will not. Either way, you know it was Him and you know life will never be the same.

When that moment comes, don’t be afraid. Take the turn. Follow him. He knows you better than you know yourself and he will take you to places you never dreamed you could go.

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

IN SEARCH OF HEALTHY HUMILITY

The crowd was frenetic, chaotic, out of control. Hundreds, then thousands of people, rushed from every corner, out of every gate, jumping fences, hurdling ditches, and throwing clothing on the ground in adulation.

No, it wasn’t an Elvis concert.

The two men in the center of it were overwhelmed, not knowing how to react to the adulation, until they saw the local priests leading a couple of bullocks toward them with garlands for gods and the tools of sacrifice in hand. That’s when they tore their shirts wide open yelling: “HOLD IT! STOP! We’re just people like you! We’re here to tell you about the real God who made everything!”

Even with that, Paul and Barnabas, apostles of Jesus Christ, were barely able to keep the Lystrans from sacrificing to them.

God had just healed a cripple through Paul. The Lystrans mistook them for a repeat of a Greek myth where Zeus and Hermes disguised themselves as servants for a while to get a read on human devotion. In the myth the two deities finally remove their disguises to receive the worship that was their due and offer blessings to their worshipers. When Paul and Barnabas ripped their garments open to reveal puny humans inside it popped the Lystran’s bubble. A few hours later they were stoning Paul. (See Acts 14:8-18).

Living in the selfie generation makes it hard to keep our shirts buttoned, so to speak. We need help avoiding self-deification. The best way to do that is by serving others in three practical ways.

Serve simply. Just show up and do what needs to be done. A great example happened on a tragic occasion. In the days when most shoes had to be shined, a young father of four lost his life in an accident. Instead of saying, “If there’s anything I can do,” one of the neighbors knocked on the door and said, “I’m here to shine the children’s shoes.” That simple service spoke reams of love into the young widow’s soul.

Serve today. With “his face set” on his way to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last time, Jesus had a lot on his mind. Yet he stopped to heal a blind man. Setting aside our agenda for the day, even if it isn’t an emergency, is a huge expression of humility.

Serve silently. I borrow this one from the late Stephen Covey who taught: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” We serve best when we listen close, empathizing with others without expressing our own thoughts.

Of all the ways to serve, this is one of the most personally beneficial to the servant. It is also the most difficult and humbling because we think so much of our own experiences and like the sound of our own voices.

Covey explained that silent service also enhances our effectiveness as leaders. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates. Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.[1]

When we practice silent service, we give people what they need most. That’s why this is so helpful in the pursuit healthy humility. We learn to value others above ourselves and in the process give them life.

[1] The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pg. 241

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

“If it hadn’t been for the Christians—all the churches that showed up—we’d still be mucking out,” said the man, a Casino worker in Biloxi, Mississippi. This was October 2006, a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of Biloxi. A crew of about ten men from our church, partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, were in Mississippi to help a family rebuild. I had taken a break to do some man-on-the street interviews with my new video camera.

“My house didn’t get destroyed like some of my neighbors,” he said, “but it was full of mud and water up to waist high. I’m not a churchgoer, but as soon as the storm stopped this group of kids from a church showed up and asked if they could help me clean it out. I was ready to start the rebuild within a week. No way it would have happened without their help.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we’re taking a team of 13 people to Pearland, Texas, next week, to partner again with Samaritan’s Purse and help another family rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. And the thing is, no one is surprised that a small church group from Virginia is traveling on its own dime to help people in Texas. Americans just assume that is what people do, but it wasn’t always this way. That ethos came from Christianity.

Followers of Christ have, since the beginning of the church, shown up to serve when the rest of the world was headed for the hills. When a pandemic broke out in ancient Rome, Christians, including key leaders, stayed to help the sick and dying. When the plague took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe in the middle ages, Christians stayed to serve while others fled. When the tsunami destroyed Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004, Christian missionaries already in country rushed to help the Muslim population there. When the Ebola epidemic hit Africa, Christian missionary doctors and nurses stayed to fight it. That service ethic, based on the individual’s value as an image-bearer of the living God and Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, changed the world. Now, American’s just expect it.

Some people are wondering out loud these days what it would be like if we could just get rid of Christianity, or somehow limit its cultural impact. Nikolas Kristof, of the New York Times, reported in 2015 that, “In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”[1]

This is especially true when Christians, who are called by God to love their neighbor as themselves and to stand for truth in all things, speak and act on their convictions regarding human sexuality, gender, marriage, abortion, and religious freedom.

But, historian and theologian Jeremiah Johnston, who along with his wife and five kids had to evacuate his home near Houston during Harvey, says, “It was the Christians, the people of faith, who immediately mobilized and invaded this city to help saying, ‘I love Jesus. I believe people are made in the image of God. We’re not going to sit here and let you suffer alone.’ I live in the most diverse county in America … but I never saw an Atheist tent anywhere, or an agnostic society tent, I never saw the ‘Free Thinkers’ helping people whose lives were destroyed. There’s a real world-view reason that is behind that.”[2]

Kristof concurs, it’s “true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work for Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.”[3]

The faith that causes Christians to serve disaster-stricken people is the same faith that causes us to provide free marriage counseling, speak up for the unborn, encourage adoption, help women with unplanned pregnancies, advocate for traditional marriage, fight porn and sex-trafficking, provide free meals, tell the truth about transgenderism, advocate for prison reform, and stand up for freedom of conscience and religion in the market place. The same Lord that calls us to serve tells us to speak truth in love to all who will hear. It’s why we do what we do

[1] nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster

[2] Warren Cole Smith interview of Johnston on the Listening In podcast, December 21, 2018. See also Johnston’s book, UNIMAGINABLE: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.

[3] ibid

PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

It was a muggy fall evening in 2000 and our youth leader Marty, and I were almost finished. We’d been at the county fair all afternoon conducting surveys to learn the spiritual needs of our community. Among the questions we polled: Do you attend a church? Why or why not? What attracts you to a church or turns you off?

The replies varied on all but the last question: What do you think the county needs most?

Ninety percent responded with, “Something for the youth.”

I was already leading a small outreach to Christian kids on Wednesdays at the middle school, but, frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. Marty was doing a great job with the kids from our church, but they were already “churched” kids and besides, he had a full-time job at the power plant. He was doing as much as he could. A local pastor’s group, of which I was a member, considered opening a youth center downtown, but funding and leadership were insurmountable hurdles, mostly leadership. We knew that anything effective would need a dedicated leader, called to minister to kids, with plenty of time on his or her hands.

Nine years went by and though I prayed about it from time to time, nothing happened. Then one day I got a cold-call, “Hi, I’m Dave Snyder and I’d like to talk to you about a ministry called Young Life.” I had known a Young Life guy in seminary and was impressed so I listened. “My kids are grown, but I feel a burden from God to get something going for the youth. I think Young Life is the way to go. Would you be willing to visit one of their camps and think about serving on a startup committee?”

I visited two camps that season and was so impressed I’ve been involved ever since. Here’s what I learned.

Young Life was founded in 1941 by Presbyterian minister Jim Rayburn. It is known for its high-quality youth camps—they study Disney World for ideas—and enormously fun club nights. They call it a party with a purpose. But it isn’t about the camps, or the clubs, or the party. It’s about the kids.

Teens have tense, pressure-filled, lives. Well over half live in broken homes. Smartphones and social media make escape from peer pressure impossible. Drugs and alcohol are everywhere. The sexual revolution is steam-rolling them into porn addictions, unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, abortion and emotional emptiness. Dave Snyder got involved after attending a law enforcement seminar on growing gang activity in our community.

Young Life starts with concerned adults who are willing to go life-on-life with teens on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship. That takes time, patience, trust, and authenticity. Its leaders go to their games, and hang-out with them at Bojangles to build real relationships. And not just with churched kids, Young Life specializes in developing innovative approaches to reach uncommitted, disinterested teens. It is the most sociologically intelligent outreach organization I’ve ever seen.

Young Life’s mission is simple: Introduce teens—all teens, black, white, Hispanic, everyone—to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. They don’t wait for the kids to come to church, they go where the kids are and earn the right to share the gospel with them.

Most pastors are generalists by default. We do not have the training or the time to invest in teens effectively. Most church youth pastors also play multiple roles for their congregations and can’t spend the necessary time with unchurched kids.

Our county launched Young Life when local teacher, Sarah Reaves, after responding to Dave Snyder’s invitation to attend a camp, volunteered to lead it part-time without pay for its first year. Many kids began relationships with Christ under her leadership. Last year we took a financial risk and invited Matt Rich to lead full-time. He’s been doing great work. Last weekend, twenty-five teens from our community attended fall weekend at a Young Life camp. Eight began relationships with Jesus Christ. I’ve been in ministry over twenty-five years and never seen that kind of effectiveness. That’s why our church has Young Life in its monthly budget.

I hope you will put it in yours.

For more information, or to give online, visit http://www.younglife.org.

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

The tiny taxi’s wheels crunched gravel and sand as we dodged yet another car-sized hole in the washed-out road through the Himalayan foothills. Rounding a bend our host said something in Nepalese to the driver and he whipped the little car sideways, backed up into a gravel patch and stopped. We were on this road to view Mount Everest, but it remained lost to us all day, shrouded in clouds.

We found instead evidence of the movement of God that is also shrouded to most western eyes.

“Here,” said our host in clipped English, pointing to a narrow, red, three-story house built into the side of the hill, “this is a Church, and this is the pastor.”

The proud pastor, whom I’ll call Sundar, led us down into the second-floor. “This is the worship center,” he said. “My family lives upstairs and we work downstairs.” We removed our shoes and followed him inside a 30’ X 15’ room with no chairs. “Fifty people at a time worship. The Church has 250,” he explained. “Fifty-eight are baptized believers.”

Two pictorial Bibles graced the yellow walls, the whole narrative of Scripture on three-by-four-foot banners filled with 5” X 7” images from the Garden of Eden to Revelation. The Lord’s Prayer, in Nepalese, was on the far wall, The Apostle’s Creed stood opposite. So, this is how they do it, I thought. This is like the early Church, before anybody had Bibles. They tell the stories and recite the Creed to cement the meaning of the stories in place, then follow the Lord in prayer. Remarkable!

More remarkable still was the faith of Pastor Sundar.

Sundar started the church about ten years ago in a rented house near the district’s Buddhist temple and police station. “The first year was OK,” he said, “no problem.” But by the end of the second year, with more and more people attending, the Buddhist monk got angry.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” said Sundar. “The Buddhist monk attacked me. He slapped me three times saying, ‘Why did you come here? What do you think you are doing?’ and he mocked me, and the Church, and Jesus.”

“I was angry,” said Sundar, “so I prayed: God, what am I to do? If I grab him and throw him down the mountain he will die. Then the authorities will arrest me. So, what do I do?”

Immediately, God spoke to his heart, “Sundar, this chance to suffer for me many people do not get. But you get this chance. There is no need for you to take revenge. I’ll take care of him.”

“I am an easily angered man, but all this happened inside my heart in an instant. So, I threw my hands up and said, ‘Lord, I give thanks!’ And the Buddhist monk walked away, still mocking and joking about Jesus, and opened his clothing and urinated in public.” (This is an intense form of mockery for them, like saying: “I relieve myself on your god!”)

The quarrel had attracted three policemen from the nearby station. One said nothing to the monk. The second said to Sundar, “Why are you arguing with the monk? He does good things for the community!” The third said to the monk, “This man Sundar brings new things, good things to our town. You should not quarrel with him.”

“Within three months,” said Sundar, “The man who said nothing was transferred out of the area. The man who opposed me was paralyzed in half his body. And the man who supported me was left here. God confirmed his word to me that day.”

Nepal is an officially secular, but predominantly Hindu nation with stiff laws against evangelism. It is also the birthplace of Buddha. I was amazed by the strength of Sundar’s faith and the vitality of his Church. Professor Phillip Jenkins, in his landmark work, The Next Christendom, explains what I was seeing: “By most accounts, membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs in to the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far larger segment of global Christianity and just conceivably a majority. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority.”[1]

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of men like Sundar leading new churches all over the global south. They are expecting to meet persecution of all kinds every day and trusting God in the middle of it. Are we?

[1] Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, third edition, 2011, p. 9, Kindle version.