This is my message on Romans 8 from Pulse at First Baptist Church Woodstock, GA. It was a great night with a great ministry!
Brian Williams sounded the alarm about a new U.N. climate report on NBC’s Nightly News this week, stating that “Unless the world changes course quickly and dramatically, the fundamental systems that support human civilization are at risk.” He was flanked on each side by images of forest fires, floods, and mudslides. The story moved to NBC’s chief environmental correspondent, Anne Thompson, who was standing in New Jersey where super-storm Sandy had blown through. She warned that coastal communities could soon disappear, beginning a montage of scary images with warnings of deadlier storm surges, hotter fires, and shrinking glaciers. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton Geosciences and International Affairs explained that everyone who lives in cities, along coasts, or who eats wheat or corn is in trouble. To make matters worse, the ocean is becoming more acidic, killing coral reefs and the shellfish industry. There will be more droughts, hotter summers, and no one will escape the consequences.
It gave me a bit of a flashback. Not to my last trip to the recycling bin, but to Sunday school when I first learned about the end of the world. There I learned God’s judgment would fall on all who did not change course quickly and dramatically. Wars and natural disasters would sweep through the world, everyone would receive the mark of the beast, and no one would escape the consequences.
Everybody needs an apocalypse. Humanity seems to be hardwired for judgment. We know our conduct has been less than admirable and should earn some epic consequences. As Revelation 11:18 says:
The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.
Look at the popularity of recent dystopian series and movies like Divergent, The Hunger Games, Oblivion, Elysium, the Walking Dead, etc. We seem to know our actions will create a less than satisfying future.
But what happens when you have a secular worldview? When religion with its supernatural prophecies is pushed out or to the periphery? You still need an apocalypse. And that is why our culture needs climate change. As President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address, “The debate is settled, climate change is a fact.”
Yet as Charles Krauthammer points out in his column “The Myth of Settled Science,” the facts of climate change are not so simple. There has been no change in global temperature in 15 years according to Britain’s national weather service. The climate change models predicted a wet California, not a dry one like we have today. Superstorm Sandy, the poster child for climate-driven storms, is largely unimpressive compared to past hurricanes to hit New York; three caused damage to the state in 1954 alone. 2013 saw the fewest Atlantic hurricanes in 30 years. Arctic ice was supposed to disappear by 2013 but experienced a 60% increase that same year.
I’m not affirming or denying man-made climate change. As Christians, we are called to take care of the planet regardless of the temperature. The point is that despite complex and often contradictory evidence, proponents of climate change will accept no debate; like a religious believer who refuses to entertain the prospect that Jesus isn’t returning or their loved ones aren’t reincarnating.
Climate change is a story that gives meaning to the lives of secular people. The story goes something like this – we were created by blind nature, have sinned by polluting that nature, and if we fail to repent we will bring about the end of the world in a judgment of super storms, droughts, fires, heat, and floods leading to starvation, wars, and death. This story gives meaning to otherwise purposeless lives. One can save the planet and the future by turning off lights, conserving water, recycling, driving a Prius, eating organic, reducing carbon footprints, composting trash, and voting for environmentally-minded politicians. Just as each minor action in a religious believer’s life has meaning because of God’s judgment, so each minor action to fight climate change has meaning because of nature’s judgment.
If we didn’t have climate change we’d probably have to invent it. That’s why, after the failure of past climate change models, scientists simply create new ones with slightly adjusted horrors. It’s eerily similar to the failure of various Christian dates and scenarios of the apocalypse from the 16th century Anabaptists to Harold Camping’s 2011 prediction of Jesus’ return. Judgment is hardwired into us all as Paul writes in Romans 2:15
[Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.
The law written on our hearts accuses us but the slow fade of religious influence in the West has left us without recourse. We need judgment and we need a way to appease it. The NBC Nightly News report was not about degrees Celsius, inches of ice, or levels of acidity as much as it was about a story – a story of humanity’s environmental sin against a judgmental planet that will result in terrible consequences if we do not repent and live differently. In a secular age, this is might be the best religion our culture can preach.
The freezing forecast for Super Bowl 2014 is less than favorable for players, ticket holders and media. No doubt there will be abundant commentary throughout, noting the devotion of fans, bundled and camped in their seats for hours. It’s the perfect opportunity for pastors to highlight the commitment of sports fans in contrast with the lesser commitment of congregants to worship God in warm, dry sanctuaries for only an hour. Some might even draw comparisons between the amount of cheering and clapping, hinting that God deserves more enthusiasm than the Broncos.
Christians are certainly guilty of worshipping lesser gods. Sporting events are one of the easiest to pick on because of the similarities shared with worship services (a few leading many to celebrate a mutual love). It’s possible, however, that this comparison has run its course.
The enthusiasm at sporting events is easy to understand. You are gathered with thousands of people who share an affinity for a team and game to enjoy a singular event. There’s music, cheers and the possibility of victory. Win or lose, everyone goes home and life goes on. We do not live our lives under the umbrella of sports. We don’t spend time contemplating how our decisions impact our devotion to them. We do not study the lives of players and coaches, searching for direction and wisdom. We do not truly love them with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. We don’t look to sports for meaning and purpose; we look to them for enjoyment.
I’ve heard several pastors, worship leaders and speakers rebuke Christians for loving sports more than Jesus because their reserved worship countenance was no match for their mayhem at Friday’s game. I sometimes sense the temptation in my own heart to turn and glare at the hollow, bored faces during worship and scold them for their apathy. Are they listening to the lyrics? Do they realize how blessed they are to gather freely and worship the risen Christ? In spite of this, I fear that soliciting amens, claps and smiles yields confusion and fakeness. Here are six reasons why worship doesn’t look like a sporting event:
Not everyone understands. I sat behind a woman at a football game once who spent the entire time looking at her phone. I heard her husband say things like, “Now that is the end zone.” She never cheered once. Why? She didn’t understand football. Worship services are filled with non-Christians and some Christians who have forgotten the gospel. They are present and singing (have been for years), but they don’t really get the cross. They don’t truly understand their sinfulness, God’s character and His gift of salvation. They aren’t going to be outwardly excited because they have no reason to be.
Some people are sad. A woman shared with me that two weeks after her husband of 40 years died, she walked into worship and the pastor asked, “Where’s that smile? Aren’t you glad to be here?”It stung. Sanctuaries are filled with the sick, abused, divorced, addicted, abandoned, mourning, infertile and many other hurts. However, sadness isn’t always personal. Tim Keller once said Christianity makes you a sadder person; as we mature in Christ, everything that makes God sad (worldwide tragedy, sin and consequences) will sadden us. These realities do not stop on Sunday. The saddest people can have joy in Christ and worship God without excitement. Sometimes, a joyful noise is a tear hitting a lapel.
There’s more than one worship expression. It’s difficult to claim worship must always include visible enthusiasm because the Bible never commands it. Scripture is full of different worship expressions. Sometimes people are silent and turned away from God’s face; other times they are kneeling before Him and crying. Others are dancing, singing and shouting. Elevating one visible response over another is irresponsible. Worship is expressed many ways.
The Bible describes corporate worship. Paul took great care explaining rightful worship to the Corinthians. When his instructions are boiled down, he had one basic message: there is right, orderly way to worship God corporately. Must a worship service match the energy of a sporting event? Paul didn’t say one way or another. His instructions do not forbid exuberant worship, but they do not demand it. The Psalms describe both jovial and reverent worship, but do not command either.
God is holy. God has zero sin, I have lots of it and I sometimes fail to confess it prior to Sunday. If God reveals my sin alongside His holiness, I will not be excited about it. I will be broken. My worship activity will reflect this. I will not throw Him the casual cheers I gave my team a day earlier. I will most likely worship silently with reverent fear. The Israelites feared God’s presence would kill someone if they entered it wrongfully. Even though we have the benefit of a torn veil, we must think on how we march through it.
God is complex. The story of God and His redemption isn’t one dimensional like sports (“We win and Satan loses!”). Christians do not worship God only because Jesus died and rose again. The previous week’s happenings may cause us to focus on God’s power and provision. Other times, our Bible study may force us to wrestle with difficult truths about God’s sovereignty. Hymns and sermons inspire worship, reminding us of temptation, eternity, a forgotten aspect of God’s character, etc. The Christian will worship God for different reasons in different ways, depending on what God is doing in their circumstances, hearts and minds.
Our actions in a worship service are different than those at a football game because our objectives are different. We attend sporting events to enjoy them; it is okay to jump, yell and cheer. We attend worship services to know and worship God. Sometimes, there will be cheering. Other times, there will be silence. My point is not that Christians should never be visibly excited in worship. My point is Christians can rightly worship God without visible excitement as our culture measures it.
If you’re sanctuary doesn’t look like a stadium, no need to worry. There’s probably more worship taking place than meets the eye. Truth over time planted in the hearts of Christians will yield authentic worship, expressed authentically. There will be tears, stillness, raised hands, bowed heads, giant grins, soft voices and loud shouts. Instead of wishing your church was more excited, exalt the One who inspires eternal excitement (and it’s not Peyton Manning).
Black Friday will be longer than ever this year with many retailers opening on Thanksgiving to draw the crowds. It will probably work. In a survey by the National Retail Federation, 23% of consumers said they planned to shop on Thanksgiving. Nearly 70% of shoppers – an estimated 97 million people – plan to venture into the traditional Black Friday frenzy. They will be lured by increases in both the quantity and quality of deals. According to Savings.com, the number of deals offered by 31 major department store and apparel retailers has increased 63% and the average discount has risen from 25% to 36% just in the last three years.
Yet despite more deals and better deals, the margin between what retailers paid for goods and the price they sold them for has remained about the same at 27.9% according to FactSet. What does that mean? It means that despite discounting more items and discounting them by larger amounts, stores are making the same level of profits on those same items. How could this be? Let Suzanne Kapner of the Wall Street Journal describe it for you:
Here’s how it works, according to one industry consultant describing an actual sweater sold at a major retailer. A supplier sells the sweater to a retailer for roughly $14.50. The suggested retail price is $50, which gives the retailer a roughly 70% markup. A few sweaters sell at that price, but more sell at the first markdown of $44.99, and the bulk sell at the final discount price of $21.99. That produces an average unit retail price of $28 and gives the store about a 45% gross margin on the product.
That incredible deal may not be so incredible after all. In fact, the shopper may just be paying what the item is actually worth, plus or minus a few dollars. So why not do away with all of the discounts and deals and just sell things cheaper? That’s exactly what former J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson tried until the disastrous results got him fired. Then the company returned to the discounts and deals by giving consumers an average of 60% in savings per item. Yet the average price paid by shoppers stayed the same despite the new discounts! What changed was the initial price of the item which rose by 33%.
There is something about human nature that cannot resist a deal, cannot ignore the prospect of getting more for less. It is so powerful that it has created a new holiday – Black Friday – that is slowly eating away at a traditional holiday – Thanksgiving. It is so powerful it drives shoppers to stores in immeasurable numbers and causes them to wait in lines they would flee from at any other time of the year. It is so powerful that retailers craft their pricing models to create the illusion of savings; to price items at what they’re actually worth would be a disaster.
Most of us can identify. We’ve walked into a store intending to buy nothing but walked out with an item on a sale we couldn’t pass up. We’ve spent more than we meant to because the deals were too good. We’ve bought things we didn’t need and even things we didn’t know we wanted on a discount-driven whim. Jesus understood this aspect of our nature. This is probably why he says in Luke 12:15, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Even though Jesus says life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, we think that to some degree it does. Thus, we are never satisfied with what we have and always want more. This is why the bargains, discounts, and deals draw us like a moth to the flame. They promise us that – no matter our economic means – we can have more. If we take advantage of these deals we can have more possessions, more money, more happiness than we would if we passed them by. When we see the normal, inflated price and compare it to the flashy discount price the item becomes almost irresistible; if I buy this now, I can have more than I otherwise would.
This is not a complaint against holiday consumerism; nor is it a plea to stay home on Black Friday. It is an exhortation to all of us to examine what is going on in our hearts as we shop. To do as Jesus says and be on guard against all covetousness that may spring to life with every passing sale. To remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11-13:
…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
As we venture into the holiday shopping season, let us go content with what we already have before the first penny is spent. Let us see through the illusions of the retailers enticing us to buy what we don’t need and want what we don’t have. Let us beware of subtly believing that life consists in having more.
If we stand guard over our hearts, our shopping bags may be a little less full, but they’ll contain better things and most importantly, so will our hearts.
Author Suzanne Collins describes a dystopian future where the remains of the United States have fallen under the oppressive control of The Capitol which rules the twelve districts of Panem from which it obtains resources to finance its lavish lifestyle. To maintain control, the Capitol hosts annual Hunger Games where they select two tributes from the children of each district to fight to the death in an arena for the entertainment of the nation. The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen from District 12. She volunteers as a tribute in the place of her sister and fights in the games, eventually emerging victorious alongside her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark. Their victory becomes a powerful symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and has the potential to unite the districts in revolution.
The villain of The Hunger Games is the Capitol and its blood-scented ruler President Snow. Before entering the games Peeta says, “Only I keep wishing I could think of a way…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” And later, after the death of a tribute Katniss contemplates, “I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.” The Hunger Games series seems poised to tread familiar territory – a group of unlikely, semi-reluctant freedom fighters are out to overthrow oppression; see Star Wars, Harry Potter, Braveheart, etc.
Yet Collins is a different kind of author and The Hunger Games is a different kind of story. Collins’ grew up with war. Her grandfather was gassed in World War I and her uncle received wounds in World War II. When she was 6, her father left to fight in Vietnam and she struggled with his absence. Upon returning, he endured nightmares that lasted his whole life. Her family moved around with the military, spending time at West Point and Brussels. Her father took every opportunity to educate her about the realities of war. A family trip to a castle which she imagined would be “fairy-tale magical” became a lesson on fortresses. She says, “My dad’s holding me back from the tour to show me where they poured the boiling oil, where the arrow slits are. And then you’re just like, wait a minute! This isn’t what I had in mind.”
Collins’ inspiration for the Hunger Games came one night while flipping television channels between reality television and Iraq war coverage. Concerned about the desensitizing effect of television on younger viewers, she decided to write a series that would educate teens about the realities of war – like her father did for her. She says, “If we wait too long, what kind of expectation can we have? We think we’re sheltering them but what we’re doing is putting them at a disadvantage.” She rejects any attempt to morph her books into an allegory for the struggles of adolescence, saying, “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war for adolescents.”
Enter The Hunger Games. The world created by Collins is devoid of anything transcendent. There are no churches, no mosques, no temples, and no religious beliefs of any kind. Religious names have disappeared; Michael, Mohammed, and Mary are replaced with Primrose, Peeta, and Plutarch. There is no expectation of life after death or any purpose beyond the daily struggles of existence. Katniss’ initial exchange of herself for her sister is noble but she fights in the arena simply to survive. She helps others along the way so she can live with herself should she escape. Neither she nor anyone else is fighting for love, truth, justice, liberty, goodness, or any other transcendent quality. Even the desire for freedom is grounded in dislike of the Capitol’s oppression, not any belief about the right of humanity to be free. The general motivation of those who oppose the Capitol seems simply to be: Capitol bad, anything else better. When Katniss asks what people want to replace the Capitol with, she is told a republic with elected representatives because it worked in the history books. A far cry from Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” or the bold declaration of inalienable rights each human is endowed with by their Creator that inspired the first American republic.
For all its cruelty and vanity, The Capitol is an inadequate enemy for Collins. The real enemy of The Hunger Games is war. That is why Panem lacks anything transcendent. Love, justice, liberty, religion, etc. are not worth fighting for because the ultimate problem is the fight itself. As the series continues this is why each character in the story becomes morally compromised; war dirties us all. This is why the body count rises exponentially; war spares no one. This may be why many readers left the final book of the series “Mockingjay” feeling disheartened. As the top reviewer on Amazon states, “When I first closed the book last night, I felt shattered, empty, and drained.”
This is not Harry Potter’s fight for love which, though it claims many lives, ends with love victorious and the world a better place. Readers and viewers alike will wrestle with the question: Is the world of The Hunger Games a better place after Katniss’ efforts or has the enemy of war ultimately won?
There is much to commend about The Hunger Games. Collins creates a fascinating world with compelling characters and a narrative that sucks the reader in and refuses to let go. It also pushes back against the glorification of violence and the emptiness of the media in our culture. Katniss herself has good qualities; she sacrifices herself for her sister, serves others (if occasionally for selfish motives), takes responsibility for her family, faces adversity with courage, and possesses unique talents and abilities.
Yet Katniss is a hero without conviction. She is largely motivated by survival, anger, and pragmatism and is not guided by any purpose, truth or standard beyond herself. She exists in a world that lacks any meaning or higher cause worthy of sacrifice. Should war and conflict be vanquished in Panem, will the people have anything to live for besides a higher standard of living?
The gospel story is different. It features a hero who believed so strongly in love and justice that he died a violent death so both could triumph. He gave us a world full of meaning, lives with incredible purpose, and a cause that makes every sacrifice worthwhile. Yes, there will be war, conflict, and struggle. But when the author of the gospel is finished writing the story of this world, we will not be disheartened but will have inexpressible joy that goes on forever.
“Your child is, in my opinion, moderately obese and should not be consuming sugar and treats to the extent of some children this Halloween season. My hope is that you will step up as a parent and ration candy this Halloween and not allow your child to continue these unhealthy eating habits.”
Childhood obesity has become a national problem. Parents are increasingly seen as irresponsible and derelict for allowing their children to over-consume sweet and fatty foods. Yet there is another form of over-consumption going on among children that won’t earn them a letter instead of a Snickers – the over-consumption of media. It is not as easy to spot, but it may be causing far more harm than trans-fats.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement last month asking parents to change their child’s media habits out of concern for their well-being. According to the recommendations, parents should make a media use plan for their family, keep screen time to less than 2 hours a day, and keep screens out of children’s bedrooms.
Why the concern? A new survey from Common Sense Media shows that 72% of kids age 8 and younger have used a mobile device for some type of media activity – nearly double the 38% who had done so just two years ago. 17% use a device daily. The average 8 to 10 year old spends nearly 8 hours a day with a variety of media; older children spend more than 11 hours a day. 84% of children are online, 75% of 12 to 17 year olds have a cell phone, and 71% have a television in their bedroom.
We may be blind to any concern because of the rapid increase of media use in our own lives. The average American consumes 63 gigabytes of media a day; double what we consumed in 2008. This translates to about 15.5 hours of media consumption per day, per American – with our ability to multitask (consume multiple media sources at one time) factored in. Like a parent who loves fatty foods, our love for media may cause us to overlook the negative consequences for our children. A Northwestern University study from earlier this year found only 30% of parents are concerned about their child’s media use and a 55% majority are not concerned at all.
Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and co-author of the AAP report says children are, “spending more time with media than they are in school. They are spending more time with media than in any activity other than sleeping. You could make the argument that media have taken over the primary role of teaching kids from schools and parents in many cases.”
This statement should shock us out of our indifferent slumber. This is more significant than the problem that prompted the Fargo woman to hand out obesity letters. Media has taken over as the primary teacher of our children! The beliefs, values, habits, desires, dreams, and knowledge of our children is being shaped by the screen. Looking at the sheer number – and ever increasing – hours invested in media, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Turn on the television, browse through the internet; is this what you want to be the main influence in the life of your children? The AAP statement also noted that, “Excessive media use has been associated with obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression and other behavior issues.”
To Christians, this should be of even greater concern. Deuteronomy 6:7 instructs parents to teach the obedience of God to their children in all of life, “You shall teach [God’s commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Ephesians 6:4 instructs us to, “bring [children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This simply cannot happen if the media habits of our children conform to the averages. It is the smartphone that will be with them when they sit in the house, walk by the way, lie down and rise; not the Lord.
Make a media a media use plan for your family. Limit the time they spend with phones, tablets, computers, and television. Monitor what they do with special software and keep media consumption out in the open. Increase the power of other influences by spending meaningful time together as a family, investing more time in the church, and focusing more on academic, artistic, or athletic activities. Bring discipline to your own media habits to set a positive example in the home.
It is time for parents, especially Christians, to take action. If a doctor sits us down and informs us our child’s obesity will cause serious health problems if we do not act, we would be irresponsible and derelict not to change. Thus, we our irresponsible and derelict if we continue to put no limits on our children’s media consumption and allow that media to be the primary influence in our home. God has called us to so much more.
A Married Mom and Dad Really Do Matter: New Evidence from Canada – Mark Regnerus
Regnerus reports on a new academic study based on the Canadian census that suggests having a married mom and dad leads to the best educational outcomes for children. Children of same-sex households – with controls for other factors – do not fare as well.
5 Things You Don’t Have the Guts to Tell Your Students – Louis Betty
Betty takes aim at the realities of our present-day college system and how its rewards are not the same as they used to be. She shares 5 things the current generation must come to terms with as they prepare to face the realities of the world they now live in.
The War on Christians – John L. Allen, Jr.
Allen issues a wake up call that the global persecution of Christians is the unreported catastrophe of our time. 80% of all acts of religious persecution are directed at Christians and they are by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet.
The Art & Science of Humblebrag – Tim Challies
Tim exposes one of the more annoying and prevalent ills of social media – that humble posts/tweets/shares can be carefully crafted to boast.
8 Reasons Why Most Churches Don’t Break the 200 Attendance Mark – Carey Neiuwhof
The average Protestant church size in America is 89 people. 60% have less than 100 people. While many smaller churches desire and pray to reach more people they are unable to do so. Neiuwhof explores 8 reasons why this might be the case.