My Blog List

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Are we following the REAL Jesus?

image from Red Letter Christians
As I was looking through my notes from Q Nashville a few days ago, I found myself being drawn back to a question that's been burning a hole in my brain over the past few months...

Are we following the REAL Jesus?

A couple of years ago my friend Patricia made a comment about how, as she had been re-reading the Gospels, she found herself wondering if the way she had been presenting Christianity to her friends was a false advertisement of sorts.  She had begun to recognize Christ's call to "die to self," and that wasn't something she had ever brought up when inviting someone to follow him.  Patricia's realization stuck with me as a critical reminder that sometimes we need to re-examine our preconceived notions about our faith.

That memory re-surfaced as I was reflecting on Russell Moore's Q talk, "A Prophetic Minority."  He spoke of how it's hard to argue that the Christianity of the New Testament was ever a majority in America; how one of the most dangerous things we could do as the church is try to normalize Christianity and the Gospel; and how Christianity has never proposed to be the "best way to live" but has instead always come with a scandal and a cross.  Moore reminded us that Jesus freaked out even his own disciples.

These were sobering thoughts.

See, I'm afraid too many of us in the American church have either forgotten these things, never realized them to begin with, or chosen to ignore them.  A friend of mine has said we like to talk about Jesus without talking about Jesus, and I've come to believe he's right.  I hear too many people talk about Jesus as though he came preaching a morality designed to keep us safe and separate from the rest of the world, and always "right," when in reality he stepped on the scene and proceeded to tear down the walls the self-righteous leaders had erected while building bridges to connect with those who had been locked out of their religious system.  He brought a message not of mere pristine morality but of radical love that treated those shunned by the religious as beloved insiders.  He shocked and offended his own people.

image from The Master's Table
And this is where I think we make the exact same mistake as the Pharisees. We trust our own limited, broken, human understanding of Scripture - of the written Word of God - more than we trust the example of Jesus - the living Word of God.  And so we erect our own walls designed to keep us safe, separate, and "right," ignoring the fact that Jesus' life broke down the paradigms that existed in the minds of the studied, scholarly religious leaders of his day.  We overlook the fact that Jesus showed the Pharisees in his words and actions that they were completely missing the point of the written Word, which was love.

Just like the Pharisees, we, too, are shocked and offended by anyone who dares to point out such things to us today.

I wholeheartedly believe every single one of us - but particularly those of us who live in America and treasure our culture of independence and consumerism - have our own faulty paradigms that Jesus wants to rattle apart, but many of us are so confident in our current understanding of Scripture we close our ears and eyes and hearts to the prophetic voices in our modern world.  We ignore echoes of the likes of Jeremiah crying out to Israel or Jesus rebuking the Pharisees telling us that we, God's people, have missed the point and lost the plot.

Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was.  He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."  (Matthew 22:37-40, emphasis added)  Paul echoes this when he says "the one who loves another has fulfilled the law...Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."  (Romans 13:8b, 10)

image from Free HD Wallpaper
Some people like to fixate on the fact that we are warned in the New Testament, even by Jesus himself, against false teachers.  It's as though this gives us license not to love certain people (at least not in our actions).  I think, though, there is a distinct possibility we have hopelessly over-complicated this whole "false teaching" thing.  If even Jesus himself boiled down good theology to loving God and loving people, is not the simple, logical connection to false teachers that they will discourage loving God and/or loving people?  It seems foolish to me to water down what Jesus made so plain, to act as though he left out some things when he said the law was fulfilled in love.  I certainly don't want to make any such claim, whether explicit or implied!  To do so would convey a sense of human pride which seems much more likely to fuel false teaching than humbly trusting in the simplicity of what Jesus said.

In fact, it's interesting to note that one instance in which Jesus warned people about such things is sandwiched between two statements about a loss of love among people...
And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.  (Matthew 24:10-12, emphasis added)
The absence of love and the presence of hate would seem to be closely linked to people being led astray by "false prophets."  Interesting.

Thankfully, Jesus offers hope in his next sentences...
But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.  (Matthew 24:13-14)
Some Christians seem eager to give up on the world, as though our belief that things are falling apart beyond repair will speed our reunion with Christ.  But here we're told the Gospel of God's Kingdom will spread throughout the world before the end comes.  That sounds like a hopeful movement to me, even if it's in the face of trials and tribulations...something to aspire to.  However, such a movement won't be fueled by our pride or fear or self-righteousness.

But it will be fueled by LOVE.

Maybe that's why Jesus boiled everything down to that one simple four-letter word.  And maybe the fact that Scripture clearly tells us he did that ought to motivate us to examine what sort of Jesus we've been following.  Because if we're following some version of him that's leading us to indoctrinate people with a thousand specific beliefs, and if that's causing us to condemn certain people or write them off or make any other number of prideful or fear-based moves, I think we're following the wrong guy.

But if we're following the Jesus who calls us to love, and if that's inspiring us to invite others to join us in walking with him as we receive and give away his radical love, then I think we're on the right track.
We speak with convictions and kindness because we don't believe transformation comes through a set of ideas but a Galilean voice.
-Russell Moore

Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah: A Story of Mercy

image from
My Sunday school teachers had turned Bible narrative into children's fables.  They talked about Noah and the ark because the story had animals in it.  They failed to mention that this was when God massacred all of humanity... 
How did we come to think the story of Noah's ark is appropriate for children?  Can you imagine a children's book about Noah's ark complete with paintings of people gasping in gallons of water, mothers grasping their children while their bodies go flying down white-rapid rivers, the children's tiny heads being bashed against rocks or hung up on fallen trees?  I don't think a children's book like that would sell many copies. 
-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

I find it quite ironic that I read these words only a few days before seeing "Noah" in the theater.  I'll be honest, though I encouraged my fellow Christians to give the movie a chance, asking them to see the film and look for some merit before writing it off, I went in with fairly low expectations myself, simply because the only other film I've seen by director Darren Aronofsky was not one that I enjoyed.  I didn't find it offensive, just a little creepy.  I was afraid I might come away from "Noah" with a similar response.  However, my hesitation proved to be unnecessary, as I actually found much to appreciate in this new film.  Did they take liberties with the story?  UH, YEA.  But that, for me, did not hinder the central message of the story.

**Spoilers ahead!**

I'll start with a few things this movie brought to life for me that I'd never previously considered, things that did NOT depart from the Biblical account.

1.  It was DARK inside the ark.  Like really, really dark.  I guess I'd always subconsciously imagined it with windows?

2.  Along the lines of what Donald Miller was saying in the excerpt above, it must have been truly horrifying to hear the screams of all those whose lives were being taken by the flood while YOU sat in safety.  I deeply appreciated how this was poignantly portrayed in the movie.  As a fairly extreme feeler, it doesn't matter HOW firmly I believe someone is getting something he or she justly deserves, I still am deeply troubled when I witness another person's pain.  Being in THIS particular situation...well, I just can't imagine.  I heard one comment about how the filmmakers had an agenda to portray God as mean.  Well, to be honest, I would humbly suggest that impression has little, if anything, to do with the way the filmmakers told the story and pretty much everything to do with the story itself, even as one would read it straight out of Genesis.  Sometimes it hurts to be confronted with the uglier realities of certain aspects of our faith story.  AND YET, while I completely understand how one could read the story or see the film and think God is mean and hateful, the crucial element here is to remember the whole reason God sent the flood was because men had become so evil & violent they were destroying each other.  This act of judgment was actually an act of mercy, and contrary to how sending a flood of this magnitude appears on the surface, through it God actually showed his LOVE for humanity by preserving mankind through Noah's family.  And I actually believe this was conveyed through the film.

3.  There was a time when the creation story was globally recognized and accepted, even by the most wicked of men.  I LOVED hearing one character after another speak of "The Creator" and getting a glimpse of a culture in which this story would have been passed down through oral tradition and accepted by all as a central component of life.  I also LOVED the creation montages used throughout the movie as the story was being retold.  Beautiful artwork.

4.  Although I knew Noah got drunk at some point after the flood, it had somehow never occurred to me to wonder WHY.  Though many liberties were taken throughout the film, including with what happened during Noah's family's time on the ark, the fact is God had not told Noah (or at least it was not recorded) how long his family would be confined to that space or when it might be over or, really, what would happen afterward.  I think we can all relate to being in the midst of a waiting period, not knowing when or how God is going to change our circumstances, and feeling something along the lines of situational cabin fever.  Not knowing if or when a difficult circumstance is going to change can make a person lose it a little.  Add to that uncertainty whatever myriad of emotion Noah may have felt in light of the fact that THE ENTIRE HUMAN POPULATION HAD JUST BEEN DESTROYED outside his door, and suddenly it's not at all mysterious to me that Noah may have sought a bit of escape in the form of alcohol.

Now, as I said, the filmmakers did take liberties with the story, perhaps most notably with Movie Noah's coming to the conclusion that God wanted to destroy ALL of humanity, INCLUDING him and his own family.  He came to believe their purpose was simply to preserve the animals.  When his only daughter-in-law, presumed to be barren, turned out to be pregnant, he determined he would take the baby's life if it was a girl, thus preventing any future births.  While nothing like this happens in the Biblical account, I don't have a problem looking past that to see what the filmmakers may have been trying to say through their own version of the story, and to be honest there were a few elements of this plot line that I actually really appreciated.

1.  Movie Noah recognized the brokenness that existed within himself and his own family.  He didn't assume they were incapable of great violence even though God had chosen them for an important mission.  I appreciate that the filmmakers painted Noah as a self-aware man when it would have been easy to have him come off as self-righteous.

2.  Movie Noah's wife desired mercy when all Noah could see was the need for judgment.  Though she, too, acknowledged her family's brokenness, she still desired life and love for them even when Noah had given up and resigned himself to this idea that God wanted them to die, too.

3.  After Movie Noah's twin granddaughters were born, and he arrived on the scene ready to take their lives, fulfilling what he believed God had called him to do, he caved, saying he couldn't do it.  From the time Noah's downward spiral began to this moment in the movie, I was wondering more with each passing minute if I was going to end up hating the film.  My response was hinging on whether Noah came to his senses or not.  When he lowered his knife past the babies, tears rolled down my face and all I could think was, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  YES.  Thank you, God.

4.  After Movie Noah's family was living on land again, Noah had a conversation with Ila in which he said he failed God by not completing the task of ending the line of humanity.  Ila SO WONDERFULLY challenged his statement...I wish I had the exact wording, but she essentially said, "DID you [fail]?  God chose YOU to go on the ark.  You had a choice -- he knew you would have a choice -- and you chose mercy, and love."  YES, YES, YES!!!  This whole plot line may have been entirely man-made, but the message it conveyed is SO TRUE to the heart of God!  

That pivotal scene between Noah and Ila was my favorite moment of the movie, and it was what enabled me to embrace this film.  The details may have been skewed, but the message was still that God loves humanity.  He loves us enough to put an end to our selfishness and violence when we're killing each other.  And he loves us enough to preserve us in spite of our brokenness when we're willing to walk with him.

There is plenty more I could say, but I'll close with just one more thought.  I feel like we as Christians sometimes make the same mistake Movie Noah made in thinking God has put us here to execute judgment on his behalf.  But we who live in this day and age have the advantage of knowing how he revealed himself and his heart in the life of Jesus, and Jesus' life clearly showed us that God desires to show mercy.  May we come to our senses as Movie Noah did in the man-made part of this story that's being told on film and recognize that mercy and love are indeed the things The Creator longs for us to choose.