Your Worship Service is Not the Super Bowl

Chargers Seahawks FootballThe 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).

-Emily

(image credit)

Advertisements

Black Friday’s Illusions and the Human Heart

black fridayBlack 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.

-Brian

(image credit)

Miley Cyrus and Our Corruption

mileyvmasMiley Cyrus stole the headlines from Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards for her shocking performance of “We Can’t Stop.” She emerged on stage with tongue out from a giant robotic teddy bear and danced in a graphic and sexually suggestive manner. At the end of her routine she stripped down to a flesh colored bikini and began an even racier duet with Robin Thicke that left many in the audience visibly uncomfortable.

It was the most talked about performance after the VMAs, even outpacing N’SYNC’s brief reunion with 4.5 million Twitter mentions.

But was it really “shocking”? This is the MTV Video Music Awards after all. At the inaugural show in 1984 Madonna writhed around in a wedding dress singing “Like a Virgin” and in 2003 at the same event had a three way kiss with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Nothing in Cyrus’ routine from the twerking to the sexual-positions-as-dance-moves, to the shameless song lyrics departed from our new cultural norms.

Miley’s performance grabbed headlines and tweets not because she grabbed certain body parts but because of the narrative behind it. That narrative is one of corruption. Miley Cyrus was once Hannah Montana, a popular Disney character who lived as a normal teen by day and a pop star by night. Her image was wholesome, family-friendly. Millions of fans bought her merchandise and copied her example. In a USA Today article from 2008 she was asked if she planned on being a good role model for her fans and said:

Yeah. That was the plan from the beginning. That’s kind of the point of everything that I do. I always try to bring in just being a good role model and setting high standards for yourself.

On Sunday, this same Miley emerged on stage from a giant teddy bear, surrounded by dancing teddy bears, and wearing a teddy bear outfit. One of the most compelling images of innocence is a child clutching a teddy bear. This symbol of childhood innocence was injected with hyper-sexualized dancing and Miley’s popular song, “We Can’t Stop,” which describes the singer at a party where everyone is taking ecstasy, getting drunk, dancing like strippers and looking for a casual hookup. Next came Robin Thicke singing his song “Blurred Lines” about his desire for a good girl he can treat like a sexual animal while Miley provided backup vocals and complimentary body gyrations.

This theme of corruption – of Hannah Montana and of our daughters in general – may be why the crowd looked ill at ease with the performance. It may also be why much of the huge Twitter response was negative and why fellow artist Josh Gracin tweeted:

Thanks Miley Cyrus… Now I have to explain to my 11 yr old daughter why she can no longer follow your career.

Rather than hide from the corruption it was embraced with imagery and songs to provoke a reaction – a different kind of shock than we have gotten from Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Lil’ Kim.

In the corruption of Miley Cyrus we see the corruption of our children. The cute princess clutching her teddy bear as she is tucked into bed at night becomes a casual hookup at a college party, an indecent picture texted to the junior class, an object tailored to please others. The adorable little hero who wants to fight the bad guys becomes a frat boy who can’t recall every sexual conquest, a porn addict immersed in fantasy, a freshmen compromising his values to win acceptance. The sexual revolution reduced individual persons made in the image of God into bodies frantically chasing objects that will satisfy their appetites.  It’s what happened to Hannah Montana and it is what’s happening not just to our children but to us as a whole.

By the grace of God, many still see this corruption as a bad thing, as revealed in the reactions to the VMA performance. Yet, there may come a time when nearly all of our culture openly embraces the corruption caused by sin. In Romans 1:28-31, Paul describes the progress of humankind from the innocence of Eden to the full corruption of sin:

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

The gospel tells us we are all corrupted because of sin. Psalm 53:3 says, “…together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Yet Jesus took our corruption upon himself so we could be innocent and pure again. In Jesus Christ, God “…has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4).

 

There may come a time when we no longer see the corruption caused by our sin. When the culture is so blind that God has no choice but to give it up to what ought not to be done. The fact that we can still see our corruption and mourn is a sign that God’s grace is at work. We are all, like Hannah Montana, corrupted, but we don’t have to stay that way. The only answer for all of us sons and daughters of this world is the good news that what was corrupted by our sin can be made pure and whole again by Jesus.

-Brian

(image credit)

Is Disney World Heaven?

Castle4This question spurs a brief and comical battle in my heart. If you’ve never been, it might seem ignorant and senseless to ask. As a lover of Jesus, student of the Bible and one who has cashed in her hopes for eternity, I say, no, Disney World is not heaven. But. That’s where I honeymooned. That’s where we vacation. That’s where I ran my first half marathon. That’s where my dreams come true. Let me assure you, in an age where pleasure is paramount and pain is abundant, the question is appropriate.

Walt Disney World is pure, concentrated magic. Peerless ambience, entertainment and customer service consecrate this 25,000 acre paradise as the third most visited tourist attraction in the world. Guests can choose from 20 resort properties, ranging from economy to luxury, each boasting exceptional thematic detail. Manicured lawns, artisan menus, ornate pools, regal architecture and costumed employees work in tandem to transport you to the time, place and activity of each resort’s theme.

The four theme parks are more impressive still. Each is a contained world of impossible glory: fountains dance to music, characters confined to a page or screen are walking and waving, castles shadow your steps and every attraction is whimsical yet sophisticated and more incredible than the last. There are plant sculptures, streams of parades, exotic animals, brilliant sounds, countless shows, vibrant colors and a polished staff of thousands ready to perfect your day. Every girl a princess, every boy a pirate and every parent amazed.

Days are governed by play. Smiles are effortless. Your room becomes home. As you pack your mouse ears to leave, a sobering cloud settles over your soul: Disney World is not home. Bills, homework, repairs, conflicts, deadlines and the mundane grind of daily life await you.

To sidestep this Disney depression, some have abandoned their careers and cities to relocate their families to Orlando for immediate, unfettered access to the most magical place on earth. Herb Leibacher, founder and chief executive of World of Walt (an independent Walt Disney World information website) recently called for such testimonies; they came in droves.

“Many of the people in the story talked about the ‘Disney bubble,’ which is a term that talks about how things are magically perfect while on Disney property. That contrasts with the real world, where things are dirty, disorganized, messy, and sometimes dangerous.

“In a sense, some people long so much for the ‘Disney bubble’ experience that they want to have it all the time.”

One woman viewed her husband’s job loss as the perfect opportunity to move:

“The kids fell in love with Disney (what kid doesn’t!) and Ron saw how happy people seemed to be who worked there. When we got home to GA, I began talking to him in earnest about making the move, and finally he agreed. I have wanted to work at Disney since I first saw Walt Disney World in February of 1972. Ron began working at Dixie Landings as a third shift custodian in 1996. I began my career in Adventureland Merchandise…”

Leibacher revealed how some manage permanent residence on Disney’s property:

These folks stay at the [Disney] campgrounds for months at a time. Some stay all year long. In effect, they become permanent residents of the campgrounds by renting a parking spot day after day. They are often known as the folks who create extravagant Christmas and Halloween displays around their RVs.”

Moving isn’t odd. People relocate to new cities and states for different reasons every day; employment, education, family and cost of living are popular ones. There is a different dynamic at work in the flight to Orlando (50,000 people per year). Time in the Disney bubble reminds people real life is not as it should be. To Leibacher’s description of the real world, I would add disappointing, wearisome and downright sad. Many believe Tinker Bell’s wand contains sufficient pixie dust to wave away every ache. They are wrong.

Planet Earth provides no air tight escape from sin and its effects. There is no debate: Disney delivers an unparalleled vacation from life’s mediocrity. However, we must never convince ourselves that running to Walt’s arms is the permanent fix for a broken existence. Our fix is found only in Jesus, who has made a way for all to live with Him in the real heaven.

These three things distinguish Disney from heaven. First, heaven is a real place; Jesus called it paradise (Luke 23:43)! Disney is real insomuch as it exists, but visitors are called “Guests,” because there are no true citizens; the employees are called “Cast Members,” because it’s all a show. They turn out the lights and go home to the same challenging realities we do.

Second, heaven is eternal. Paul wrote in second Corinthians 5:1 “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Like the Summer Bay Resort, nine miles west of Disney World, swallowed by a sinkhole two weeks ago (a day before Leibacher published his article), every magnificent Disney structure will be swallowed, if not by a sinkhole, by time.

Lastly, heaven has Jesus. Mickey is great, but he can’t save. Walt had a genius for making magic, but he is dead. Our Savior lives and only by Him and with Him can we receive salvation and paradise.

Leibacher’s article reveals humanity is hungry for heaven. Christians have the privilege and responsibility to reveal with our words and lives the existence of the true heaven. I am guilty of Disney infatuation; my earnest prayer is that my song for Immanuel dwarfs my song for Epcot. Nevertheless, I am forever assured of the truth in these lyrics– “On Christ the solid rock I stand/all other ground is sinking sand.”

-Emily

Fox News & Awkward Jesus Debates

fox-newsLast week, Fox News anchor Lauren Green interviewed Reza Aslan, a scholar with multiple degrees in religion who is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. The subject of the interview was Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and the attitude of the interview was tense. Green couldn’t get past the fact that Reza was a Muslim writing a book about Jesus. She opens the interview with this question:

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan responds with a list of his academic qualifications and Green says again,

“It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”

Later, Green again brings up Aslan’s Muslim faith by equating his book about Jesus with a committed Democrat writing a book about Ronald Reagan; it appears that in Green’s mind he is simply too biased to write an objective book. Therefore, the book and its conclusions should be dismissed. Aslan defends himself by repeatedly citing his degrees, knowledge, and academic positions which give him credibility to write such a book.

Needless to say, this makes the interview painful for any casual observer to watch. The site buzzfeed.com posted the video of the interview which promptly went viral with the title, “Is This the Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” It attracted over 5 million views and was shared and liked by nearly 800,000 Facebook users. Zealot shot to number one on Amazon’s U.S. bestseller list and The Westbourne Press who publishes the book is now rushing to print more. If Lauren Green set out to marginalize Aslan’s perspective on Jesus (which she may or may not have intended to do) she has actually energized it for a few days.

Aslan’s assessment of Jesus in the interview (and by extension the book) is that he was:

“a real political revolutionary who took on the religious and political powers of his time on behalf of the poor and the meek, the dispossessed, the marginalized; who sacrificed himself in his cause for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves and whose death ultimately launched the greatest religion in the world.”

Those familiar with the Historical Jesus project probably hear echoes of John Dominic Crossan in Aslan’s response. In the end, Jesus turns out to be another left-leaning political revolutionary, organizing the down-trodden masses against the powers oppressing them. Amazon.com’s users are divided over the book; the vast majority gave it either 5 stars or 1 star.

Jesus is a real, historical figure. In fact, he is probably THE real, historical figure of human history. Therefore, he is accessible not only to Christians, but to Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, and eccentric rap artists. People are going to interpret Jesus according to their own worldview and preferences. Then they are going to take great delight in telling us that Christians have Jesus all wrong. This includes the professor who tries to shock his evangelical undergrads by trotting out tired and dubious “facts” showing Jesus to be a nice social activist who never thought of himself as God. It includes an author like Deepak Chopra who promotes Jesus as an inspirational spiritual guide and mystical teacher of peace and love. It includes news media that gleefully report on a new lost gospel or ancient shard of pottery that will reverse everything. It includes the Muslim who calls Jesus simply a prophet, the agnostic who calls him an ethical teacher, and the television prosperity preacher who calls on him for a blessing.

All misguided interpretations have two fatal flaws. First, they fail to produce a Jesus who fits the facts. Aslan’s social revolutionary Jesus may have had a winning personality and great influence, on par with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Abraham Lincoln. But there is no way he could have led devout Jews to worship him as God,  inspired Christians to embrace death claiming his resurrection, and won followers from the nations for 2,000 years. Second, they ignore or marginalize the most ancient and accurate source we have on Jesus: the New Testament. They make much of spotty secondary sources, Gnostic writings dated centuries later, arbitrary scholarly opinions, out of context passages, and modern cultural preferences in creating Jesus. So it should come as no surprise that he looks different than the Jesus the church has preached for millennia.

As Christians, we should stop being shocked and upset when others interpret Jesus differently. It is going to happen. Because our faith is based on a real person, it is subject to investigation – even flawed investigation. We don’t need to marginalize or flee from those with differing views, but rest confidently in the Jesus found in the Scriptures. There have been thousands of interpretations of Jesus since he walked the earth, but only one has endured and will continue to endure – the Jesus of the Bible.

If you want to know who Jesus is, read your Bible. Even the most stubborn of scholars is forced to admit that the New Testament is the most ancient and comprehensive source we have on him; some books being written within 25 years of Jesus’ death. Zealot will fade from memory but the New Testament will remain because it is far older, far more accurate, and far more compelling than anything else we have. Our conversations with others who disagree with us about Jesus don’t have to be as embarrassing or as tense as the Fox News interview. If someone comes to you with a different Jesus, graciously listen to them and point them to the only Jesus that endures the ages, fits the truth, and changes lives.

-Brian

(image credit)

Christianity Isn’t Cool: No Matter How Much You Want it To Be

napoleon-dynamiteWe all want to be cool whether it’s dressing up as a Jedi for the premiere a new Star Wars, debating the latest Indie film while wearing skinny jeans, or starting at point guard for the school basketball team because with coolness comes acceptance and belonging. As human beings we crave to be accepted and to belong to a group. That group may be as small as a third grade lunch table or as large as the American culture. Either way, we want to be “in” and not “out”.

The teenage years are the crucible of cool. Teens adjust their mannerisms, accentuate their appearance, acquire possessions, and arrange their lives in an attempt to be accepted. The stakes are high and winners get happiness and losers get misery.

Sometimes I wonder if we ever truly graduate from this.

A lot of Christians are concerned with making the faith “cool”. Not cool as in a church with a band that sounds like Coldplay and pastor who preaches from his iPad. Rather, the kind of cool that brings acceptance and belonging; that gets Christians a seat at the political table and earns the praises of communities, cultures, and cable network commentators. Many are warning that if we don’t shape up, we will be left behind – and it will be worse than anything Tim LaHaye wrote about. We will become irrelevant and unwanted; a dead faith surviving on the life-support of our traditions.

American Christianity is afraid of becoming like the kid who sits alone at school and receives the taunts of his classmates. We are told we must change or die the slow death of rejection. After all, there is nothing worse than holding a faith most of America considers foolish and harmful. Many Christians – some quiet well known – are filling up sermons, books, blogs, twitter feeds, and Facebook posts calling us to turn on our past, kick the dust off our shoes, and progress into a better faith that can survive the twenty-first century.

The problem with this desire to make Christianity fashionable is, well, Jesus. He said in John 15:18-19, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Jesus is warning us about a harsh reality: no matter how many people we liberate from slavery, malnourished children we feed, free block parties we throw, pairs of Toms we wear, or art galleries we support, as long as we follow the Jesus of the Bible the world will never accept us.

Why? Because Jesus claims to be Lord of all. He says in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” All of humanity will be judged by him in Matthew 25:31-32, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” When Jesus makes these claims it immediately puts him into conflict with all the lords of the world from presidents and kings to sex and money.

How do you make Christianity cool? How can Christians who worship a counter-cultural Jesus be accepted and belong to the wider culture? Follow some of the advice out there and water him down.

Create a god who is more loving and affirming; that never judges or condemns. Tell a story where humanity is the hero, progressing to a more peaceful and enlightened future. Compile Scriptures that offend less and inspire more. Define sin as anything that doesn’t make us happy and whole. Recast the cross as the compelling end of a social revolutionary and the resurrection as the product of our collective hopes and dreams. Build marriage, gender, and sexuality on the shifting cultural consensus. Construct a faith where only actions matter, not beliefs. Craft a Jesus who is only one option among many.

This will create a Christianity that is cool and acceptable, but that is no more compelling than the United Nations or the Peace Corps. Just one more option for doing good in the world.

But if you’ve embraced the fact that being cool doesn’t mean being right, if you’ve realized that acceptance by the world is nothing compared to acceptance by the One who made the world then worship the God who is both loving and just; who has wrath and grace. Tell the story where Jesus is the hero rescuing sinners for the glory of God. Meditate on the Scriptures that both inspire and offend. Stand in awe of the cross where the Son took the punishment for our sins and the resurrection where he conquered death. Wage war on sin that is an offense against the character of God. Celebrate marriage, gender, and sexuality in the way God has given them for our good. Live out a faith strong in belief and action. Follow a Jesus who is not simply another Ghandi but the author of life and necessary for every person.

You may not be cool or accepted. They probably won’t give you your own talk show or invite you on theirs to talk about how much they love what you’re doing. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:13, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” You can’t make Christianity cool without tearing it down and rebuilding it in your own image. So let us not labor to make the world love us and instead let us love the world, shrugging off any hatred it throws our way. We follow a rebel King. And in his mighty company there is singing, joy, and pleasures forevermore.

-Brian

(image credit)

Does USA’s “Characters Unite” Really Divide?

charactersunite01aCharacters Unite is the USA Network’s

“award-winning public service program, [and] was created to address the social injustices and cultural divides still prevalent in our society. Inspired by USA Network’s iconic “Characters Welcome” brand and with the support of leading national nonprofit organizations, the ongoing campaign is dedicated to supporting activities and messaging that combat prejudice and intolerance while promoting understanding and acceptance…”

This annual campaign features actors, athletes, and activists pleading passionately to viewers to stand up against bullying, racism, homophobia, ableism (discrimination against the disabled), violence, workplace discrimination, religious intolerance, sexism, hate, and bigotry. The campaign is driven by the Characters Unite Awards show, the storytelling tour, and a steady flow of public service announcements. Its partners include the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Anti-Defamation League, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, La Raza, the National Education Association, the General Board of the United Methodist Church, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and more.

While watching the documentaries and impassioned speeches, it is almost impossible not to be swept up into the promise. Just imagine – a world where everyone accepts everyone. No one is mistreated. No one is discriminated against. No one lives in fear or shame. We are all free to pursue our dreams to the fullest. It is a compelling picture.

Characters Unite accomplishes some good ends. Any child helped through bullying, any minority spared the sting of racism, and any homosexual delivered from abuse is good. Yet when the PSAs come to an end, the awards have been handed out, and the tour packs up and heads home, will there be any lasting change? Call me cynical, a pessimist, or a hater, but I’m not so sure. Let me point out some potential problems.

First, this sort of initiative is just the kind of thing our culture loves – lofty goals with little commitment. We love texting donations into celebrity telethons from our armchair and hauling off clothes we never wear to thrift stores. In Characters Unite, almost nothing is asked of the viewer aside from looking down on those who fit into the undefined categories of intolerant, bigot, sexist, bully, etc. We don’t have to change anything about our lives or ourselves, we simply have to demand others change. Because I don’t have to reckon with my own apathy, sins and character, any change will be superficial.

Second, Characters Unite has no foundational truth. How do you determine if someone is being sexist, homophobic, bigoted, or discriminatory? Because these concepts are not defined the viewer is free to label as he or she pleases. Discrimination occurs when elementary schools refuse to hire sex offenders; should we stand against that? If I take a stand against homophobia does that mean I become intolerant of religions that support traditional marriage? Is a 16 year old girl prejudiced if using the bathroom with a transgendered boy makes her uncomfortable? If –as one PSA declares – we should all be free to love whoever we want, does that include a 40 year old man and a 14 year old boy? Or if – as another PSA declares – everyone should be free to believe what they want, does that include sacrificing one’s child to the gods? Because Characters Unite lacks any transcendent truth, it cannot define its own terms or judge conflicting claims.

standupThird, Characters Unite promotes self-righteousness. Each PSA makes it clear that everyone on the screen and watching the screen are righteous – tolerant, fair, loving, accepting, and peaceful. Attractive young people complain about the hate and bigotry of others declaring, “How do people hate so much they can hurt someone, or insult someone’s beliefs, or tell someone what they can do, or who they should love?” The problem is out there, with other people, not with us. The world is divided into the moral – the tolerant, non-judgmental, and accepting – and the immoral – the intolerant, judgmental, and discriminating. Thus, the “righteous” are free to stand against, look down on, dislike, hate, and discriminate against the “unrighteous.” All a good Pharisee needs now is a stone to throw at those who violate society’s new morals.

Could there be a less divisive way to unite us and deal with the hurt and suffering we cause? It begins not with indignation on our couches but a willingness to get off the couch and love other people. Jesus said in Matthew 22:39, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That means paying the bills of the disabled, mentoring the victim of a bully, or extending friendship to the hated. But Jesus also said in Matthew 5:44, “… I say to you, love your enemies…”  That means befriending the intolerant, serving the bigot, and understanding the potentially painful past that created a bully.

It begins not with everyone deciding for themselves what is tolerant and intolerant, accepting and judgmental, right and wrong, but with transcendent truth. Isaiah 59:14 says, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares.” With no fixed source of truth we cannot agree on what is good or bad. So we seek justice based on our own fickle feelings and changing culture. One group grabs justice for itself at the expense of another.  We need truth greater than feelings to give us direction and justice.

It begins not by putting ourselves on a moral pedestal and demanding everyone else shape up, but by realizing the depths of our own sin. Jesus said in Matthew 7:5, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Only when we confront our own hatred, prejudice, pride, envy, jealousy, intolerance, and bigotry will there be change. We will be able to extend mercy and grace to others instead of extending our own accusatory judgments.

I hope Characters Unite makes a positive difference in our increasingly divided and hostile world. But true change will only come when we work to love both the offended and the offender, are guided by truth, and confront the sin in our own hearts. Only then will we be able to join hands and create a better world.

-Brian

Disclaimer: My favorite part of Characters Unite is the push for adoption and foster child care. This does demand more of the viewer and is a very important, but unfortunately, somewhat small part of Characters Unite. Also, this article is based on the Public Service Announcements on the USA Network and the corresponding website, not on the awards show or storytelling tour – in other words, based on the part that will effect the most people.

(image credit) (image credit)