"And they lived happily ever after!" Escapism or reality?

Since I was just a little boy, one of my favorite lines in the world is..."and they lived happily ever after."  I've always loved movies and books that have happy endings.  I've read so many books and seen so many movies that didn't have happy endings and at the end I always feel let down.  I began to wonder why that happy ending was so important to me; why it struck such a chord in me.

Is it just escapist?  A desire to escape from the turmoil and suffering I see and experience?  Is it a desire for a type of fantasy comfort food?  Possibly.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn't the real reason.  I'm a Star Trek fan and when a young Captain Kirk was in the Star Fleet Academy he had to take a certain test that determined your fitness for leadership.  It was a required test...and unwinnable.  It was a simulation of a real battle scenario.  Captain Kirk took the test and failed it--twice.  But the third time he passed it, which by the way was impossible without cheating...which he had done.  He had simply reprogrammed the computer program so the potential to win was there.  He got in a lot of trouble for it, but I remember the reason he gave under questioning.  "I don't believe in the no-win scenario."

He had a problem with the game itself, with the idea behind it, the reason they were being made to take it and this was his response to it.  In the same way I believe in happy endings, not just for amusement or inspiration, but because God is the Author of our story--and He is the author of happy endings.  We have to experience great struggle and much disappointment in life--but for each of us who believe, God does have a happy ending planned.

One of my favorite authors, J.R. Tolkien, a Christian who wrote, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, and other books insists that all of us really sense that happy endings aren't just escapist, but somehow true to reality.  He said that stories like his that had happy endings actually point to an underlying reality.  When we read these kind of stories we are being told that yes, the world is full of danger, sorrow, and tragedy, but nonetheless there is a meaning to things.  There is a difference between good and evil and one day evil will be defeated and truth and good will win.

Like Captain Kirk, I don't believe in the no-win scenario either.  That's why I believe in happy endings.


What if it's too late to ask forgiveness?

When I was a young boy, I had a babysitter in the little town of Santa Rosa, California.  I stayed there most of the day after school till my mom arrived to take me home.  There were other children there as well.  One day one of the boys took me out to the front yard to show me something.  He pointed to a boy on a bicycle across the street.  He whispered to me, "that kid's blind!"  I didn't believe him, because he was riding (or at least sitting on) a bike.  Then my friend said, "I'll prove it!"

Then he took a rock and threw it near the boy, and the boy's head jerked towards the noise.  But it was clear he could not see us from across the street.  While probably not completely blind, he was definitely legally blind.  Then my friend egged me on, "throw a rock, and see for yourself!"   I hesitated because it didn't seem right or kind, but finally I did it.  Who would know?  I threw the rock and saw the boy's head jerk around.  It looked funny.  He couldn't see me, so it seemed "safe."  Then my friend and I proceeded to throw more rocks near the boy, his head jerking back and forth, fear welling up in his eyes.

When the little boy realized what was happening, probably because we were laughing across the street, he called out plaintively, "Stop it!  You aren't being very nice to a blind boy!"  But we didn't stop.  We were young and thoughtless and being incredibly cruel.  Then, suddenly, I felt a vice grip on my shoulder and the husband of my babysitter twisted me around and said sternly, "What do you think you're doing?  That's just mean!"

And all of a sudden, I knew it.  I had never felt good about doing this cruel thing, but the desire to have fun and get away with something wrong was stronger than my young conscience.  He lectured us both sternly and made us apologize, but the worst punishment was the conviction of my conscience.  I probably did a lot of bad things as a kid, but I remember this 50 years later.

It was a cruel, heartless, mean thing to do.  I was one of those people who had scarred him for life, ruined his trust in people.  I wish  now that I could go back and really apologize for what I did, but it's too late.  I never saw the boy again, we moved away.  I never even knew his name.  But as a Christian I realize that every sin I commit is first of all a sin against God.  God told me I was to love my neighbor as myself, and I had broken His law by doing what I did.  My youth was no excuse, I knew full well what I was doing was wrong.

There are some sins it is too late to apologize and receive forgiveness for from people, but since all sins are sins against God, it is never too late to find forgiveness from the One we have truly sinned against.  And Jesus is the friend of sinners.  Even sinners like me.

Is Visionary Leadership all its cracked up to be?

It is almost like a knee reflex for pastors, we must have and be able to constantly articulate a "vision" for our church and our ministry.  If we don't, something is wrong with us (or we're just ignorant, uneducated, or backwards).  I've always identified a bit with George Bush Sr. when he was campaigning for a second term as President and was questioned about what his vision for America was.  He said he wasn't sure he really understood "this vision thing."  He came off looking bad and without any plan for the future, but I, for one, empathized.  I can't help wondering if this "vision" thing is often more of a curse than a blessing, more like handcuffs than a road map.

The idea is that the pastor (or leader) is supposed to have this divine compass that knows precisely what direction the church should go in to fulfill its calling.  How we're supposed to have come by this ability is beyond me.  I echo the feeling of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who warned in Life Together that "God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.  The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.  He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly...He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.  When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.  When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash.  So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."

I speak from experience as the church I am now pastoring had languished for a number of years with no pastor before I showed up.  I teamed up with a guy with 20+ years of successful pastoral experience, and I had the same.  We had a vision of what the church should be.  We communicated that vision many different ways in different settings.  The church bought our vision and dove in.  Then it all tanked.  Nothing worked.  No one was being brought to Christ, disunity was ripe, confusion was rampant and despair was palpable.  I was tempted to put the blame on the stubborn people who were in the church, or the leaders I had inherited, or that God Himself was just through with this church, and finally, that I was just an unmitigated failure, thus fulfilling Bonhoeffer's words, "first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."

I guess I'm not really against visionary leadership, only finding that vision within ourselves.  After all our failures, our little church went back to the basics: what is a church, and what are we here for?  About 5 years later we are averaging over 10% conversion rates in all ages, children, youth, and adult.  We are beginning cutting edge ministries in our little hamlet that reach out to our urban barrio.  The church has grown, unity has replaced disunity, and we are really enjoying ministry and fellowship.

We found our vision: Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.  It wasn't original with us, but we decided that piggy-backing on that vision was a pretty safe way to go.  When we did that, doors opened up that have never closed.  We dared to assume that as Jesus said, "the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few."  So we began seeking ways to reach the people we believed God was already leading to Himself.  Those cutting edge things we tried came about not from me being a "visionary" but from all of us adopting the heart and mission of Jesus.  Our mission statement is predictably simple: to help people find their way back to God.  It is also responsible for dozens of new lives in Christ, and a new passion for a once old dying church.

My advice to those struggling with finding their "vision?"  Chuck it.  Chuck the whole idea of it.  When you start doing what Jesus is doing, He will show you myriads of ways to reach people.  When you sit and try to pontificate a "vision" you will only get a bad case of balloonius headius.


Jesus and Aragorn!

            Most people who know me are aware that I am a J. R. Tolkien fan.  I absolutely love the Hobbit, and the trilogy, the Lord of the Rings.  One of the main characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a man named Strider.  He is a Ranger from the north, tall, lanky, quiet but with a definite authority about him.  He is fearless, but not a bully.  The Hobbits call him Strider because of his long legs.  When he enters the story, no one is really impressed with him.  He seems a bit suspicious, a bit strange, but he knows a lot about what is going on in the world, and he seems much older than he is. 
            Many people treat him with disrespect and disdain, but the longer this Strider is around the more you become impressed with him.  Slowly throughout the books you learn that this weather beaten Ranger, is actually Aragorn, the rightful heir to the Kingdom of Gondor.  At the end of the book, He comes to Gondor to claim his rightful kingdom, but the Steward of Gondor, the man who was reigning until the rightful king should return did not want to believe that Aragorn was that man.  He wanted to hold on to his power, he didn’t think Aragorn was worthy of the position.  So there is a conflict of Kingdoms, the Kingdom of the Stewards who had been entrusted with leading the kingdom in the absence of the King, and the rightful King who returns to receive His Kingdom.  It’s a great picture of Jesus coming into our world, and I’m not sure that Tolkien, a Christian, didn’t have that in mind. 
            When Jesus returned to the world He had made, He had the same kind of problem.  He came off as poor, unlearned, without any social standing and yet He was the rightful King come to inaugurate a new Kingdom.  But the people in power, the religious leaders who considered themselves the stewards of the Kingdom didn’t welcome Him.  His authority challenged theirs, His claims angered them.  And we see that the story of Jesus is the story of Kingdoms in Conflict.  A new Kingdom is being inaugurated by Jesus, but this new Kingdom challenges the old one, resulting in constant conflict.  
             But that's not the end of the story--because we experience the same things in our lives.  Each one of us are our own kingdoms, and we reign over them, we’re the Kings and Queens of our little fiefdoms.  And then along comes Jesus claiming that He is King over us, and we balk, we hesitate, or we strike back in anger.  Our kingdoms are also in conflict.  
             Aragorn wins his kingdom back, and so will our Lord.  For us, the question we need to ask is: does Jesus have to win His kingdom back from me, or will I gladly hand it over?  Am I being a good steward of the "Kingdom of Dan?"  Will I give Him the keys to my kingdom?  Will I truly allow Him to rule over my kingdom, or try to keep part of it back?  We enter His peace when we surrender, we enter His joy when we give up what we cannot rule effectively anyway.  

When God Just Isn't Good Enough

           CS Lewis, in his book, God in the Dock, answers a question about Jesus this way:  “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?    This is a question, which has, in a sense a frantically comic side.  For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us.  The picture of a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant has comic elements about it.” 
            The reason Lewis brings this up is that most of us do believe that what we think of Jesus is the most important thing.  For all the irony this thought entails, we do judge God.  We decide whether or not He is worth believing in, whether or not He lives up to our expectations of what our God should be, whether or not He is moral enough, powerful enough, relevant enough.  It’s really a rather tragic farce.  For many people, the honest truth is that, to them, God just isn’t good enough.
            When you begin to talk to people about God, listen to them talking about God with others, you get the clear impression that God just isn’t good enough—at least the God of the Bible.  It’s an interesting statement isn’t it:  God isn’t good enough.  The Bible tells us that God visited our planet to help us to understand Him better, and to rescue us from our sin and the judgment it entailed.  So God came to visit us in the person of Jesus—and when He did, we deemed him not good enough.  Perfect God walked the planet as perfect Man and we deemed Him not good enough for us to believe in, and worship.  Hell will be filled with people for whom God wasn’t good enough.  They will have heard of Him, learned about Him, perhaps even called themselves religious—but Jesus was still just not good enough for them.
            They wanted something different.  They wanted something more.  They wanted someone tamer.  They wanted someone more PC.  They wanted something and someone…else.  Fredericka Mathewes Greene, a writer, and Christian intellectual wrote a book called At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy.  In it, she recalls how she came to faith, more importantly, how she at first resisted and dismissed Jesus and Christianity. 
“Back in my college days I was pretty dismissive of Christianity.  To be more accurate, I was contemptuous and hostile.  Though raised in a minimally Christian home, I had rejected the faith by my early teens.  I remained spiritually curious, however, and spent the following years browsing the world’s spiritual food court, gathering tasty delights.  The core of my home-made belief system was “the life force;” the raw energy of life, I’d concluded, was the essence of God, and the various world religions were poetic attempts to express that truth.  I selected among those scraps of poetry as they pleased me.  “My senior college year I gained a startling insight: I realized that my selections were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices and blind spots.  I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than 5’1. "
Greene finally realized that she was making a god of her own.  Eventually she met Jesus and gave her life to Him.  He was so much more than she had thought He was.  Initially for her, and for so many others, God just wasn’t good enough.  When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, the placed He grew up, everyone was impressed and excited He was back.  They heard Him speak, make some amazing claims, and were still impressed.  Then, quickly, the script changes and He is chased out of town.  Within a few moments the friendly welcome is gone and the wheels fall off their relationship with Jesus.  It happens so abruptly it’s disconcerting.  What in the world happened? 
          What happened is precisely the same thing that has been happening ever since.  We can see here: The Anatomy of Rejection.  Few people start off hating Jesus and what He says.  Something makes it happen.  
           In Luke 4:14-30 we can see the Anatomy of a rejection through the actions of his home town.  It starts off good, and everyone is excited, until Jesus starts talking about things that aren't complimentary to them.  Here is the downward progression.  

Good Vibes:  The reputation of Jesus attracts me (v.14-15)
Enticing Ideas: The words of Jesus fascinate me (v.16-22a)
Troubling thoughts: The claims of Jesus bother me (v.22b)
Unwelcome Realities: The truths of Jesus insult me (v.23-28)
Ultimate Rejection: The Jesus of the New Testament repels me (v.29-30)

          Jesus told them the truth, even when He knew how they would respond to it.  That's why today, most people are both impressed and skeptical of Jesus.  They can't help being impressed with what He did, but can't help being offended by what He says about them.  This helps us to understand why Jesus is both admired and reviled in our world.  

           God is good enough.  It just seems strange to have to affirm that kind of a truth.  

Jesus--the Rosetta stone of our faith

Scholar Richard Niebuhr once compared Jesus to the Rosetta Stone.  For years Egyptologists could only guess at the meanings of the hieroglyphics. Then one day they found the Rosetta Stone, and on this stone they saw the same text reproduced in Greek, ordinary Egyptian script, and hieroglyphics.  By comparing what they knew of the other languages they could finally decipher the hieroglyphics.  Now they could know what they could only guess at before.  Niebuhr said that Jesus is like that for us.  When God is confusing, when we’re not sure what He’s really like, or what He really wants, we can gaze steadily at Jesus, because He’s the image of the Invisible God, the Rosetta Stone of our faith.  

Who is Ernest Digweed, and why did he leave so much money to Jesus?

One of the greatest questions of our time is: who is Jesus, anyway?  So many people have so many different ideas about who Jesus was.  In 1976 a man named Ernest Digweed, a retired teacher from Portsmouth, England, left a rather strange will.  He left $44,000 for Jesus Christ “on the occasion of His return to this earth.”  But, in order to claim it, Christ had to return in the next 80 years.  He must return specifically to “reign on earth” and He must prove His identity to the British Government.  Mr. Digweed’s probate attorney said, “I certainly anticipate we are going to have a lot of trouble, particularly with cranks.”  And he asked anyone who might be listening, “Who can tell who is the real Jesus Christ?  Different people think different things.”    
            Noted American author Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of the prophets.  He saw with an open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there.  Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man.”  So, to Emerson, he was a prophet.  Gandhi described Jesus this way, “A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom for the world.  It was the perfect act.”  Gandhi saw no divinity in Jesus, but a great and willing martyr.  Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet political leader claimed that Jesus was “the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.”  So Gorbachev saw Jesus as a social activist!
A historian named Philip Schaf tried to describe the enormous influence Jesus had on history and culture.  “This Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; without science…he shed more light on things human and divine than all philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of schools, he spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since, and produced effect which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, he set more pens in motion and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, works of art, and songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.” 
Today, everyone seems to have a different idea of who Jesus was or is.  Ironically, the ONLY way anyone can know about Jesus is through the New Testament documents.  Yet, the vast majority of people with strong opinions about who Jesus is have not even read the New Testament account.  Their ideas about Jesus come from sources which cannot really shed light on His true identity.  Some people’s opinions are strictly based on what they’ve heard someone else say, which was precisely why Luke wrote his gospel.  Who is Jesus, anyway?  A great way to find out is to begin reading the New Testament accounts, and I highly suggest the gospel of Luke. 

A Disneyland Christmas?

Last Sunday my wife and I visited Disneyland.  We had been told that Disneyland had a Candlelight celebration of Christmas that was truly Christian.  Wanting to see for ourselves we got there and stood in line a loooong time.  It wasn't a line to get in, it was a line to get close enough to the Candlelight service to see and hear.  We were in time for the 5:30 "show."  It began with the lights dimming all over Main Street, and a choir consisting of about 500 choir members from High School and church choirs.  Singing traditional Christmas carols, carrying their electric candles, they walked towards the train station steps.  It was an incredible scene.

Then they filled the stairs of the train station, with colored lights beaming on them, and began the Candlelight service. Lou Diamond Phillips read the Nativity story from Luke 2 between carols, while the conductor led the choir and orchestra in the most beautiful Christmas music and service it has ever been my privilege to attend. At several points, soloists gave performances that still move me.  At one point a young man sang Silent Night in Spanish, then, moving over to another part of the stage, invited everyone (in flawless English) within earshot to sing Silent Night with him.

Then, in the public square (Disneyland), praise to God rose from the throats of total strangers gathered together, some aware of the program, some caught totally unawares.  Yet, they sang, together.  No words were put up to read, everyone knew the words.  Everyone.  And God was blessed, and we were blessed.  It was indeed, a holy night.  A surprisingly holy night in a surprising place.

At the second program two hours later (which I stayed to watch) I noticed something I hadn't the first time.  Many people at that time were leaving the park, while many were jamming Main Street to see the Christmas Candlelight service.  Two crowds reacting to the same thing.  One crowd just intent on getting back to their cars after a day in "the happiest place on earth," totally oblivious and uninterested in the celebration of Jesus birth.  The other crowd caught up in praise and thanksgiving to God for His glorious gift to us, His entrance into our world, His taking on humanity, His humility.

The dissonance between the two crowds was pronounced.  The reactions typical of any Christmas celebration at any place.  I was reminded that no matter how many ways people try to shut down the Christmas story, it will always find an audience, and God will provide it in the most amazing ways.  I was also reminded that no matter how glorious the message and celebration, many will be totally disinterested. Their Christmas will be filled with Santa, candy canes, and iPad 2's.

 I highly recommend the Disneyland Candlelight service for you and your friends and family.  It was nothing short of inspiring.  It was, perhaps, all the more inspiring because it wasn't being held in the "safe" confines of a local church, but in the grand public square where everyone could see and hear, even if they chose not to.

Merry Christmas.
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